30 September 2011

Savory Crepes Primavera

I borrowed the basic crepes recipe from my friend, Tiffini, who uses chick pea flour, giving a nice protein boost to this meal.  Use whatever vegetables you have, and don't be stingy!

Savory Crepes Primavera
Serves 4
1 cup flour (for a protein kick, use chick pea flour)
2/3 cup water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
¼ cup grated zucchini, drained
1 tablespoon minced red onion
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt 
1 tablespoon crumbled feta
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients into a runny batter; cook over medium heat in a large hot skillet that has been liberally prepared with cooking spray until golden on each side.  Each crepe should fill the skillet, yielding a total of four.  Place in a baking dish and keep warm in the oven at about 250°F.  
Vegetable filling:
1 large onion, sliced into half-rings
4 large yellow, orange, or red bell peppers (or any combination), sliced into 1-inch strips
1 tablespoon Olive oil
½ cup green beans, blanched and Frenched (pull apart at the seams)
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon capers
Sour cream for serving, optional
Wipe out skillet and heat the oil in it over medium heat.  Add onion, peppers, and the salt and cook about 20 minutes, stirring frequently, until onion is very soft and peppers start to wilt.  Add the balsamic vinegar and green beans, cover and reduce heat to low, and cook another 15-20 minutes or until vinegar is mostly reduced.  Stir in capers and remove from heat.  
To assemble: Place one crepe on each of four plates.  Place equal amounts of the vegetable filling in a vertical line in the middle of each crepe; fold over the sides to create a loose burrito.  May be served with sour cream on the side.  

28 September 2011

In praise of unhealthy food

Well, in light of my recent post siding with Anthony Bourdain, perhaps this title seems a bit hypocritical.  Perhaps it would be better to praise "eating food for food's sake" and "not freaking out every time a new item at the grocery store is labeled a super food".  My thoughts today are about whether or not we can rely on our groceries to stave off cancer, keep us looking like we are 20 forever, and make us thin.  Despite ongoing, desperate reports to the contrary, it appears that about all food can do is keep us from going hungry.

This is no longer meat.
Those antioxidants in super-expensive pomegranate juice?  Slate tells us they are probably useless.  In fact, who knows?--they might even be bad for you.  Drinking milk after workouts to get/ keep thin?  Probably a load of crap pushed through by the powerful American Dairy Association.  Remember the food pyramid?  It's gone.  Remember when eggs were bad for you?  Now they're good!  Potatoes?  Also good!  Bacon?  No longer considered a meat source!

What I am trying to illustrate is our utter and complete confusion regarding exactly what the perfect diet is for all Americans.  It's no wonder, of course--different bodies probably need slightly different foods.  But with so much idle time and our dabbling in what the media has convinced us is "science", we have spent far too much time, in my humble opinion, searching for magical ingredients to help us live forever and puzzling over why others seem healthier than we are.  The Asian diet, because some Asians live much longer than some Americans, has been touted as our new savior: very little meat, lots of vegetables, tea, and tofu.  No booze.  It sounds like a good idea, doesn't it?

But then, why do Italians have such low incidences of heart disease when they drink red wine and eat pasta every day?  It's the fish!  If you eat exactly what they eat, you, too, will have a healthy heart!  You see, it's all healthy fat.  That's the difference.  But wait--what about the French?  They don't go to the gym, they eat stinky, fatty cheese, duck liver, and tons of white bread, and they drink champagne like it's going out of style.  That does sound awesome, but is it a diet America can get behind?  Well, they live slightly longer, on average, than we do and they are noticeably thinner as a culture, so yes, yes we can do that.

The Italian diet in action.

Here's the dirty little secret that never gets mentioned in our obsessive, schizophrenic search for the perfect diet: A LOT of countries have longer life expectancies than we do.  35 countries, to be exact, including Japan, Italy, France, but also Malta, Macau, and Israel, where people are constantly killing each other.  We kind of suck at staying alive, apparently.  Same thing for staying thin, which is supposed to help with being alive.  We are fat and die earlier than others despite our constant anxiety and our constant talk about diets and health.  And we will experiment with all kinds of kooky, nonsensical fads, but we never seem to make up our minds.  So here is my inexpert, entirely non-tested advice (but I'm not overweight and I'm not dead yet, so who knows?):

Don't eat this too often.  Unless you're my grandpa.

  • Stop looking for a miracle cure.  It's not pomegranate juice, nor pasta, nor red wine (sorry).  No food or beverage will guarantee that you won't contract some rare form of cancer and die at age 35.  And while many people around the world struggle just to eat enough to stay alive, isn't it a bit crass to pay $26 for an antioxidant tonic promising to be your new fountain of youth?
  • Stop trying to copy others.  My grandfather lived to be 92, and he ate only tan foods whenever possible: fried chicken, potatoes and gravy, and of course Werther's carmels.  He had low blood pressure, low cholesterol, and was relatively active late in life.  I would not attempt his diet for myself (because it's disgusting), but it worked for him.  And tofu and veggies work for a lot of Japanese people, and cheese that smells like feet works in France.  Our bodies are all different, though, so that doesn't mean that any of these approaches will work for you.  
  • Stop acting like a freak and use some common sense.  Three meals of Reese's peanut butter cups every day, while FABULOUS!, is probably not good for you.  Nothing but grapefruit all week, with no other nutrients to round it out, is also probably not a wise choice.  That cheesy omelet you had last week?  Meh, I don't know.  But if you're worried about it, maybe you can have some more broccoli today to even things out.  Moderation, and not constantly worrying, might be the only tricks we need.  

Oh yeah, and
  • Move your fat butt off the couch!  French people aren't thin from loving life, they are thin because they walk everywhere.  I have perfectly mobile colleagues who will wait for an elevator for several minutes to go up one floor, so strong is their disdain for walking up a flight of stairs.  Stop it.  That's stupid.  

This is how you walk.  Try it today!

23 September 2011

Caramelized onion three ways

Did we, as a culture, first learn about those browned, impossibly sweet slithery ropes of onion in French onion soup, that greasy favorite from the '60s?  Well, a trained cook probably knows the answer to that, but I don’t really care.  I love caramelized onions and think they make many things better--nay, totally different--dishes.  And don’t forget, kiddies--onions are a vegetable.  And they go well with red wine…

Caramelized Onions: basic recipe

4 yellow onions
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar or dry red wine
Salt to taste

To prepare each onion: chop off both ends and peel away the paper and tough outer layer of skin (the yellow part).  Cut the onion in half, then pay each, flat side down, on the cutting board.  Thinly slice across the width of each half of onion and break apart the individual half-rings that result.  You should have a big pile of half-rings of onion.

In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  When the oil shimmers, begin adding batches of onion and stir constantly so that they soften and shrink.  Continue adding onions to the pan when there’s room until they’re all in there.  Sprinkle with a dash of salt if you like, stir, cover, and reduceto medium-low heat.

Visit your onions occasionally and give them a stir--you want them to stay soft and oily.  If they are getting crunchy, lower the heat more.  You can cook the onions in this way for about 20 minutes.  In the last 5 minutes of cooking, add the vinegar or red wine and stir until it reduces.

Now, here’s what you can do…

Caramelized Onion, Walnut, and Gorgonzola Pizza

Yields 8 slices

1 freshly rolled pizza crust (here's my recipe)
1 batch caramelized onion (see recipe, above)
2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
½ cup walnut pieces
3 cups fresh spinach
½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese
½ cup crumbled gorgonzola cheese

Prebake crust at 400°F for 10 minutes or until it starts to feel crisp on the bottom.

Remove crust, lower oven temperature to 350°F, and build your pizza: sprinkle the garlic on the crust first, then spread around the caramelized onion.  Follow with spinach, walnuts, mozzarella, and gorgonzola.  Bake for 35-40 minutes or until spinach is dried and cheese gets a little bit golden.

Brie mini-tarts

Makes 12

1 sheet puff pastry
6 ounces brie cheese
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 large onion, cut into thin half-rings
1 tablespoon raisins or dried cranberries
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon brown sugar

Thaw puff pastry at room temperature about 30 minutes.  While you’re at it, leave out the brie so that it’s easier to work with, too.

In a medium skillet or medium heat, pour in the olive oil.  When it shimmers, add the onion, raisins, and brown sugar.  Stir well and sauté until onion and raisins are soft and the brown sugar is dissolved, about 8 minutes.  Add the vinegar and cook on medium high, stirring occasionally, until it reduces, about 5 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400°F.  Lay thawed puff pastry onto a lightly floured surface and cut into 12 (3-inch) squares.  Place in a mini-muffin tin.  Place a 1-inch cube of brie into each pastry cup and them top with about 2 teaspoons of the onion mixture.  Bake about 15 minutes or until pastry is light golden brown.

Pasta with Caramelized Onion and Broccoli

Serves  6

1 box linguine
1 batch caramelized onion
1 large head broccoli, cut into bite-size pieces (use the stem too)
1 tablespoons capers
Salt and crushed red pepper flakes to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.  Add linguine and cook according to package directions, but about 5 minutes before it’s done, add the broccoli.  Drain and return to pan.  Stir in caramelized onions, capers, salt and red pepper and serve with crusty bread and a nice Sangiovese.

16 September 2011

More help for bad corn

Last summer I complained about the state of Rocky Mountain corn and the damage it did to my delicate Midwestern palate.  Sadly, no one expressed offense; one person agreed.  So, we know we're getting screwed in the corn department.  I would venture to guess that, unless you live in Iowa, Illinois, or maybe Indiana, you are, too.

Here's another trick for making that corn you thought was a good idea at the farmer's market less disappointing.

Peppery corn relish

Serves 4

1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
½ jalapeno pepper, minced
4 ears fresh corn, kernels cut off
Fresh-ground black pepper
4 lime wedges for garnish

Toast the cumin seeds in a hot dry pan over medium-high for a minute until fragrant.  Allow to cool, then grind with a pinch of salt with a mortar and pestle.

Return pan to stove, lower to medium heat, and warm oil.  When it shimmers, add jalapeno and garlic, stirring constantly and cooking until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the crushed cumin seeds, salt, and corn, stirring constantly, and cook 2-3 minutes. Season with black pepper to taste and serve with a lime wedge.

11 September 2011

I tasted Sargento cheese and lived to tell...

Actually, it is fine.  Sargento cheese is lovely.  I was recently invited to participate in Foodbuzz's Tastemakers program with Sargento Cheese , which involved my having to go out and purchase said brand of cheese.  Not having ever noticed the brand before in my local store, I scoured the deli area filled with blocks of exotic cheeses and found nothing.  I headed over to the more pedestrian “cheese and beer” aisle and there, in the grated and pre-sliced cheese area, was my target: Sargento, at least in my town, is only available packaged for the American Busy Moms looking for shortcuts in their baking and lunch-packing drudgery.

When I signed on to taste Sargento, I imagined getting some lovely little blocks of different cheeses, pairing them with some crackers, olives, and fruit, and breaking out the wine for an impromptu party on the back patio.  Now I was faced with plastic bags of (albeit real) cheese pieces and a mission to rethink how I would make best use of what I had before me.

The other aspect of the taste challenge was that I had to compare Sargento real cheeses to a processed cheese product, like  American cheese slices or some such garbage.  I couldn’t stomach more than some grilled cheese sandwiches with each kind of cheese, and I can truthfully report that the sandwich made with Sargento was not horrible, and the sandwich made with sliced “cheese product” was, in fact, absolutely horrible.  No flavor or aroma to speak of, except a vaguely waxy taste in the mouth, and a plastic-like texture made for a truly creepy sandwich.  I tried to dress it up (results below), but nothing helped.  The cheese and filling combinations listed here should be used with real cheese; Sargento fit the bill just fine.

Grilled Cheeses Deluxe:

Toast in the oven or fry in a pan; these additions just make that ubiquitous comfort food a little more special.

Bread Cheese Fillings Condiments

Rye    +     Sharp Cheddar     +  thinly sliced red onion and green apple   + grainy mustard
Sourdough   + pepper jack   + sliced dried apricots   + 1 tsp. plain yogurt mixed with 1 tsp. curry powder
Whole wheat + mozarella sliced fresh tomato     + prepared pesto

I know what you're thinking, but
I'm pretty sure that's the Mona Lisa.  

Now, back to the business at hand.  When I saw all those prepackaged cheese in the aisle, I couldn’t help but envision casseroles; you can take the Midwesterner out of the Midwest, but…well.  So I also used some handily pre-sliced provolone to make the simple, light yet rich casserole, below.  It’s a great way to use up all those overgrown zucchini and summer squash, and it can be cut into portions, wrapped in foil, and frozen for later use.   I have to say, the Sargento provolone melted beautifully and provided a rich, buttery taste and texture to the dish.

Late Summer Zucchini Bake

Serves 8-10

6 medium zucchini, summer squash, or combination of both, sliced ¼ inch thick
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced into half-rings
8 fresh tomatoes, cored and sliced
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons herbes de Provence, divided
Coarse ground sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 package (10 slices) Sargento provolone sliced cheese
Olive oil
½ baguette cut into cubes

Place the cubed bread in a medium bowl and add 1 tablespoon olive oil; mix thoroughly and set aside.

Coat the bottom of a large casserole dish with olive oil.  Lay down one layer of zucchini slices, followed by 1/3 of the onion slices.  Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and 1 teaspoon of the herbes de Provence.   Top with a layer of tomato slices and half the cheese.  Repeat the process, then top the second layer with the remaining zucchini and onion slices, and season with salt and pepper Cover the dish tightly with aluminum foil and bake in the oven at 450°F (no need to preheat) on the bottom rack for 45 minutes or until onions and zucchini on top are soft.  Uncover and top with the cubed bread, then return to the oven to bake another 15-20 minutes uncovered, or until the bread begins to brown.  Remove from oven and allow to cool 5 minutes before cutting and serving.  Pairs well with a crisp Rosé or Vinho Verde.

09 September 2011

Charlotte, NC is A-OK

I was in Charlotte, NC for the National Flute Convention (and yes, I suppose that is as dorky as it sounds) and got a chance to check out a little bit of the city.  They have light rail, a pretty comprehensive bus system, and some chi-chi looking restaurants.  Like most cities who cleaned up their acts in the recent past (circa 1995), the old buildings in existence are all scrubbed and surrounded by new, play-city looking buildings that are overly neat and bright, but it's a pleasant aesthetic that makes one feel safe. The public transportation system looks excellent on paper, but you're just sort of supposed to know that certain bus times printed on your schedule are not for real (particularly on the weekends), which is reasonable enough if it follows conventional wisdom.

The interior of Halcyon is as beautiful
as their Stone Soup.

And then there are the restaurants.  Halcyon boasts "flavors from the earth", which I guess describes anything that is served on Earth (?), but I will just say that the cooking methods of their local, impressive-sounding ingredients leave a bit to be desired.  And when you think about it, "Stone Soup", while it sounds so back-to-your-roots and everything, should not cost $7 for a teacup's worth of broth and vegetables.  That's what you make at home when you are poor (I should know).  Nor should three dried out meatballs with sauce cost $11 from the appetizer menu.  Nice try, though.

Same with Luce, a super-hip, bass-pounding-on-the-stereo Italian restaurant in the chic Uptown sector of Charlotte.  The restaurant is beautiful and the menu sounds really impressive. But execution of food was merely alright. The complimentary snacks on the table were the best: crusty bread, marinated white beans, beautiful olives and homemade potato chips--and the wine list was wonderful. If you wanted to just sit for a while and order a glass of wine while hogging a table, you would be a very tacky person (or a college student), but you'd have a good experience.  But my angel hair pasta was overcooked, and the tomato sauce is nothing special. Risotto was good and desserts were beautifully arranged, but overall, food quality is too inconsistent to trust that you will have a great eating experience. And the service was friendly but very slow.  Our waiter came by no less than four times to tell us he'd be right back to get our order.  A member of my party finally had to stop him and beg to place an order for an alcoholic drink, which you'd think he would be in a hurry to get out of the way; I know when I'm buzzed, I order more food.  

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed my stay in Charlotte.  People were exceedingly friendly and helpful everywhere I went, and with bus schedules as screwed up as they were, I had some pretty obvious tourist-type questions.  Somehow, although it was hotter than Hades and equally humid, I didn't mind the weather too much.  And, although I think they are still playing at being a worthwhile city, they're working on it, which is a valiant effort.  I can say far less for many towns I visit.  

Looks cool; it wasn't on time, though.  

02 September 2011

I ate and drank in St. Louis. It was OK.

I had some time to kill before flying out of lovely Lambert International Airport not long ago, so I decided to learn something about the respectable, hard-working city of St. Louis.  Now, I only spent a few hours there, so St. Louis fans, feel free to chime in with your suggestions.  What I found is that people like American food and lagers.  

Aya Sofia

I was looking for something a little more exotic than barbecue, so after slogging through about 10 American restaurants on opentable.com, we landed on Aya Sofia for some Turkish food in Midtown.  Good luck finding parking.  The food was perfectly fine, but there was nothing unique or surprising on the menu. They used quality ingredients and prepared the dishes capably and portions were large. Very large.  I had what ended up being a wrap sandwich (whoopee!), and my husband had a huge pile of buttery, comforting Moussaka.  Service was fast but a tiny bit on the snooty side, as if the restaurant could pretend it wasn't populated by diners with country accents and John Deere hats if they just acted posh enough.  I preferred the John Deere hats, actually.  And the noise level with relatively few people in the restaurant was quite loud. I cannot imagine how overwhelming it must be when filled. It's a beautifully decorated, laid-back little place with nice food. I'd go again if I lived there, but I won't make a special trip for it.

Moussaka at Aya Sofia
Community garden in Lafayette Square

Then we headed over to Lafayette Square, A national historic district, an area with a gorgeous park, a bunch of expensive-looking Victorian houses, and a few boutiques and hip-looking restaurants.  We went to Square One Brewery and Distillery for after-lunch drinks (and to numb ourselves a bit for the pending irritation of airport security).  The long list of beers presented nothing inventive, just the usual line-up of lagers, ales, stouts, and an IPA.  My husband, the IPA connoisseur, was not pleased.  It did have a bitterness at the front end, but dissolved quickly into a very bready flavor you would expect from a kolsch or other mild summer beer.  Weird.  

I always like to try craft beers, but I knew I could only drink so much before my behavior might run the risk of getting us both arrest at the airport, so I decide to test the distillery instead.  These guys make a massive number of grain spirits--flavored and unflavored vodkas, tequila, rum, and more, which I thought was pretty exciting.  I ended up getting a vodka flavored with gin and sweetened with agave syrup on the rocks.  It was delicious.  If my tolerance was higher (or if I lived in St. Louis), I would definitely go back and try more of their spirits.  Not so sure about the beer.   And the neighborhood is adorable--you should go if you're in town.  Only 10 minutes or so from the airport.   

He didn't look as happy after finishing his IPA.

By the way, you know how I've been slowly trying to compile places to bide your time while trapped in airports around the country?  Lambert International Airport has not been added to that list. 

Surprise reader contest: what is this thing?
I found it on the side of the road in St. Louis.
Best answer before September 15 gets a free t-shirt.
Enter your answers below!