Friday, February 26, 2010

Recommended Reading

I am currently reading this book by Barbara Kingsolver. I've read a couple of her novels in the past, which are wonderful, but this book is a revelation. Or rather, it puts into words exactly how I feel about America's current food/health predicament and re-iterates the painfully simple solution, which happens to be the heart of this Lenten challenge.

The basic premise of the book is a journalistic account of her family's decision to abandon city life in Tuscon, AZ; move to a farm in Appalachia, and survive only on local food for an entire year, much of it grown on their own farm by their own two hands.

I find her prose remarkably humble, witty, and just so...true. Like Michael Pollan, she has obviously done lots of research on industrial food production and reports many of the same facts he touts in his books. But Kingsolver gets down into the heart of the matter in a way that Pollan never does in any of his books. Maybe it's because she's a woman charged with the task of feeding her family. Maybe it's because she came of age in an era when processed food was seen as a "gift" to women who wanted out of the house and into the workforce, much to our current demise. Maybe it's just that she's a damn good writer. Nevertheless, I find myself nodding my head vigorously at every chapter, and I just made my husband sit down so I could read him a 5 page excerpt. I'm not even halfway through the thing yet and already I want to get on the rooftops and shout to people "Read this book, it will change your life!".

This is where I get myself into trouble. I tend to get overzealous about sharing my feelings about cooking and food with others. But it's so easy, I tell myself. They should know too! I don't have a knack for humility like Kingsolver. At best, I come off sounding like a snooty, younger (and much thinner) version of Ina Garten. How easy is that?

It's so not my intention. And so I'm going to shut up now and let Barbara Kingsolver do the talking. This will the the first of a couple of installments of her writing that I'm planning to post here:

On the concept of organic/local food as an "elites-only" privilege:

"Even so, a perception of organic food as an elite privilege is a considerable obstacle to the farmer growing food for middle-income customers whose highest food-shopping priority is the lowest price. Raising food without polluting the field or the product will always cost more than the conventional mode that externalizes costs to taxpayers and the future...(she is speaking about the the tax dollars we pay that subsidize the petroleum used in growing, processing, and shipping industrially produced food, as well as the subsidies we pay to this large-scale, chemical dependent brand of farming, the amount of which is increasing each year, not to mention the toll on the environment and the depletion of resources for future generations).

She goes on to say: "Grocery money is an odd sticking point for U.S. citizens, who on average spend a lower proportion of our income on food than people in any other country, or heretofore in history. In our daily fare, even in school lunches, we broadly justify consumption of tallow-fried animal pulp on the grounds that it's cheaper than whole grains, fresh vegetables, hormone-free dairy, and such. Whether on school boards or in families, budget keepers may be aware of the health tradeoff but still feel compelled to economize on food - in a manner that would be utterly unacceptable if the health risk involved an unsafe family vehicle or a plume of benzene running through a school basement."

"It's interesting that penny-pinching is an accepted defense for toxic food habits, when frugality so rarely rules other consumer domains. The majority of Americans buy bottled drinking water, for example, even though water runs from the faucets at home for a fraction of the cost, and government quality standards are stricter for tap water than for bottled. At any income level, we can be relied upon for categorically unnecessary purchases: portable-earplug music instead of the radio; extra-fast Internet for leisure use; heavy vehicles to transport light loads; name brand clothing instead of plainer gear."

"How delusional are we, exactly? Insisting to farmers that our food has to be cheap is like commanding a ten-year-old to choose a profession and move out of the house now. It violates the spirit of the enterprise. It guarantees bad results. The economy of the arrangement will come around to haunt you..."

"...the 'Buy Cheap Eats' crusade is assisting in the deaths of our compatriots at the rate of about 820 a day; somebody's bound to notice that."

One more thought from me, Emily: My own grandfather died of obesity at age 65. They actually wrote "obesity" on his death certificate rather than "heart disease" or whatever else they could have written. He wasn't one of those gigantic people that you might stare at, but he probably wasn't comfortable in an airplane seat. I've begun to wonder just how many of our loved ones could have been saved, and who still could be saved - if our food system wasn't controlled by capitalism and an industry that sits around trying to figure out how to shove more corn byproducts into the American people. They literally have meetings like that, and they are succeeding. I think I'm justifiably angry.

The painfully simple truth I spoke about earlier is that we can beat all this, simply by finding the best foods (and by that I mean, whole, real foods) we can afford and cooking them. It can start today, with a meal, at your table, with the ones you love.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cauliflower and Caramelized Onion Tart

One of my downfalls of this challenge is that I tend to choose complicated, time-consuming recipes. I'm trying to add some quality, quick weeknight meals to my repertoire - but sometimes it's just so satisfying to spend a couple of hours in the kitchen, creating something wonderful, sipping wine, and forgetting completely about the stresses of the day. For me, the kitchen is an escape from all the other crap going on in my life and in the world. Try it sometime - pour yourself a glass of wine, put on a cute apron, and start chopping.

Onto the food. I made an amazing leek and swiss chard tart at Thanksgiving, so when I saw this Cauliflower and Caramelized Onion Tart on Smitten Kitchen, I knew I had to make it. Also, I had some leftover tart dough in the freezer that I needed to use up.

Click the above link for the recipe. It is seriously so good. You should make this tonight. The cauliflower doesn't take center stage - it's definitely all about the onions and the cheese. Roasted cauliflower is quite a revelation though - I tasted a couple of pieces while assembling the tart and was surprised at how delicious it was! I'm thinking I might make this tart for my friend's baby shower that I'm going to be hosting this summer. Serve it with a green salad or roasted veggies. Naturally, I served it with Brussels sprouts. If you've met me lately, you have probably heard about my Brussels sprouts obsession.

Slice the ends off, cut lengthwise down the center, toss with olive oil and salt and pepper, and roast in a 450 degree oven for about 15 minutes, turning once halfway through cooking.

Tart assembly - dough is brushed with Dijon mustard, then caramelized onions spread along the bottom and topped with roasted cauliflower - then comes the cheese/cream mixture

Dinner is served! To maintain girlish figure, have a small slice of tart and fill up on those veggies.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ground Beef Take 2

My fellow fallible foodie and I must have been on the same wavelength this week, because we both bought the exact same organic grass-fed ground beef from Gene's (or rather, my husband bought it, as I was schlepping myself from gig to gig to rehearsal on Sunday, our usual shopping day). My husband isn't into the whole "paying more for food" thing (and neither am I, really, but I'm trying to come to terms with it), so he must really love me to go out of his way to get the good stuff. As Mark said, it isn't cheap, but we compensate by cooking more vegetarian dishes and trying not to make the meat the focal point of the meal. Case in point, we stretched the 1 lb of ground beef into two meals for each of us - then the $7 spent on meat doesn't seem like as much.

The hubs took the lead on this meal - yes, I married a Greek man who can cook. It's ok to feel jealous. ;)

Greek Meatballs (keftethes)
(adapted from a Greek cookbook my mom bought him for Christmas - it's one of those old church ladies compilation type thingies)

Serves 4

1 lb ground beef
1/2 c dried bread crumbs
1 small onion, minced
1/4 tsp dried oregano
3 garlic cloves, minced

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, using your hands to mix thoroughly. Form into balls. Saute in olive oil in a hot non-stick skillet until evenly browned, about 3-5 minutes per side.

My husband is also the homemade french fry champ. They are so easy! - and without the Guilt of the Golden Arches.

Homemade French Fries
(1 potato will serve 2 people)

1 or 2 baking potatoes
olive oil
salt and pepper

Peel and cut the potatoes into matchsticks. Let them soak in a bowl of cold water for a few minutes while your oil gets hot in the pan. Use enough oil to completely cover the potatoes, and wait until the oil is just smoking to add the potatoes to the pan. Fry until golden brown, turning several times throughout to avoid burning.

a three-burner night at chez Emily. more on that tomato sauce later...

our take on burgers and fries

And that my friends, is how you make the bad-for-you stuff seem not so bad at all! (We also had a big bowl of broccoli).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

TV Dinner

Ok, this is actually nothing like a TV Dinner but it's a one dish meal which makes it perfect for kicking back on the couch with a beer (or two...) after a long day. This is a Cuban Beef Picadillo, from Williams Sonoma's "Food Made Fast: Weeknight." If you haven't already guessed, I'm obsessed with Williams Sonoma. It's adapted because the recipe calls for Beef Stock. As you know, we're trying to only make our own stocks during this challenge, so I decided to simply up the spices and throw in some red wine and some water to compensate. It turned out pretty well this way, maybe a little richer tasting than this dish really should. This is served as a tribute to the famous Cincinnati "Skyline" Chili, over 100% Whole Wheat Pasta and with some shredded Wisconsin Cheddar. Also, I made some garlic bread out of the Honey Oatmeal bread I had made last weekend (bread recipes are coming!). Garlic bread made out of a slightly sweet bread like this is out of this world! Who doesn't love salty/sweet?

1/2 Large Yellow Onion, shopped
1 Lb. Organic Grass Fed Ground Beef*
3 Cloves Garlic
2 Tbs. Chili Powder (+ a touch more)
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp. ground allspice
I can diced tomatoes
Handful of Raisins (as much or as none as you want)
2 Tbs. Tomato Paste
1/4 cup Red Wine Vinegar
1/2 cup Red Wine
1/2 cup Water (this and the wine are my broth substitutes)
Salt and Pepper to taste

*A note on Beef: I decided to use Organic Grass Fed Beef, which as you can see is not inexpensive. However, I do think as a society we should be more concerned about where our meat comes from. No, I didn't see this cow before it died, and I have no way to prove that this meat is morally superior to other ground meats found in supermarkets, but it has to have at least a slightly better impact on the environment/my health/our collective future as omnivores than meat from a feedlot. If you can afford it (and you probably can, just don't so much meat!), I encourage the search for better meat! Is it really too much to pay for an animal that died just so I can sit on my ass watching people belt out of tune on "American Idol?" I think not.

Soapbox mode: Off.

To make a delicious meal in around 45 minutes:

Get a pot of water boiling, then add in some 100% whole wheat pasta and cook until al dente. Drain and keep aside. (This would also be good over rice).

Saute the onion in a large frying pan. warmed over medium heat with a tablespoon of olive oil. Cook until translucent, then add your beautiful beef. Stir occasionally until the beef is cooked throughout, then spoon out any fat (I didn't really do this because I didn't have a ton of fat... go figure).

Stir in the garlic, chili powder, cinnamon, and allspice. Then add the tomatoes, wine, water, vinegar, water, paste, and raisins. Keep at a simmer, uncovered, and cook until a stew-like consistency is reached (see below), stirring occasionally.

Stew-like consistency!! I know, this doesn't look incredible in the picture... trust me, it's yummy.

Add salt and pepper to taste, then serve in a large, shallow bowl overtop of the pasta with some bright yellow cheddar cheese grated on top (Hey Cincinnati!).

You've all probably noticed by now (like how I'm addressing this blog like we have a viewing audience of millions? Someday!) that I'm not an amazing photographer. You'll have to take my word for it that this meal is delicious, easy, and incredibly satisfying on a midwestern winter's night.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Because sometimes, a girl just needs chocolate...

I've long been an advocate of baking from scratch. Box mixes, while convenient, aren't nearly as good as "the real thing" - and you just don't get that satisfaction of looking at your pile of ingredients and watching it transform into something amazingly delicious.

Turns out, baking from scratch is really not all that difficult or time consuming. In his book Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan recommends that you don't partake in any sweets you didn't create from scratch with your own two hands - the thought being that you will then consume less sweets because you won't want to go to the trouble of all that measuring and stirring and cleaning dishes. Well, Mr. Pollan has not met the likes of me yet!

Here is my favorite brownie recipe, taken from Smitten Kitchen, my very favorite food blog. (Her photos are to-die-for).

Classic Brownies

1 cup (4 ounces) pecans or walnuts, chopped medium (optional)
1 1/4 cups (5 ounces) cake flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped fine
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into six 1-inch pieces
2 1/4 cups (15 3/4 ounces) sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract


Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9x13 inch pan (I use butter, of course).

If using nuts, spread nuts evenly on rimmed baking sheet and toast in oven until fragrant, 5 to 8 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Whisk to combine flour, salt, and baking powder in medium bowl; set aside.

Melt chocolate and butter in large heatproof bowl set over saucepan of almost-simmering water, stirring occasionally, until smooth. (Alternatively, in microwave, heat butter and chocolate in large microwave-safe bowl on high for 45 seconds, then stir and heat for 30 seconds more. Stir again, and, if necessary, repeat in 15-second increments; do not let chocolate burn.) When chocolate mixture is completely smooth, remove bowl from saucepan and gradually whisk in sugar. Add eggs on at a time, whisking after each addition until thoroughly combined. Whisk in vanilla. Add flour mixture in three additions, folding with rubber spatula until batter is completely smooth and homogeneous.

Transfer batter to prepared pan; using spatula, spread batter into corners of pan and smooth surface. Sprinkle toasted nuts (if using) evenly over batter and bake until toothpick or wooden skewer inserted into center of brownies comes out with few moist crumbs attached, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool on wire rack to room temperature, about 2 hours, then remove brownies from pan by lifting foil overhang. Cut brownies into 2-inch squares and serve.

They are seriously so, so good. You'll never go back to boxed mixes. (And you can eat them for breakfast - I give you permission).

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sunday Dinner

What could be better than a delicious home-cooked meal on a dark wintry Sunday night? I know. An easy home-cooked meal! Today I decided to try Oven Fried Chicken, as printed in the Williams-Sonoma "Food Made Fast: Simple Suppers" Cookbook, and you can see how well it turned out!

Really, some days this "Lenten Challenge" doesn't seem like a challenge at all!

It's served with a side of Mashed Potatoes and some Brussel Sprouts (or "health balls", as Suz lovingly refers to them) sauteed in olive oil with salt and pepper. Delicious. Filling. Easy. Healthy (ish), what's not to love?

For the chicken:

Zest and Juice of 1 Lemon
3/4 cup buttermilk
3 Tsp fresh marjoram (I used less because I used dried)
Salt and Pepper
The pieces of 1 Whole Chicken (I just used Chicken Thighs... they're moist and delicious and when you're buying higher quality meat, it saves some money)
2/3 cup Cornmeal (check ingredients list! I bought an organic brand from whole foods)
1/3 cup bread crumbs (again, be careful! The ones I had in the panty had high fructose corn syrup as one of the ingredients!! No thank you! I can put my own stale bread in a food processor, thank you very much!)
1/4 cup Fresh grated Parmesan
4 Tbs unsalted butter, melted (mmmmmm)

First, you have to soak the chicken in a mixture of the buttermilk, lemon juice, 1 teaspoon of the zest, a third of the marjoram, and salt and pepper, which looks like this:

Raw Chicken Thigh Buttermilk!!!

After that soaks for ten minutes, dip each piece of chicken in your cornmeal mixture (Cornmeal, bread crumbs, cheese, remaining zest and marjoram, and more salt and pepper). Throw it on a a shallow roasting pan, or something with sides... it'll get a little messy while it cooks. Drizzle the butter over the chicken and pop in into the oven for 35-45 minutes until it's done.

SO easy and incredibly satisfying!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Breakfast for the Bean

Schleichy-bean, that is. The golden soprano of St. Louis came to stay with me this weekend to hit up two auditions on Saturday. I wanted to make sure she'd have a nice breakfast before she started belting the high notes... naturally I thought of a quiche! Some protein, some fat, some veggies all wrapped into a buttery crust... what could be better?

I used the quiche recipe from the Williams-Sonoma "Food Made Fast: Baking"Cookbook. I can't praise this book series enough... I have several of the editions and have never been disappointed by their recipes. They sometimes take a little longer to make than the book claims, but everything is still relatively simple and comes out looking exactly like the gorgeous picture.


First, you have to make your pastry shell. I have to admit, I've been using frozen pie crusts for my quiches lately, instead of making them from scratch (SHAME! I'll never be the wife of a French peasant...). It's really not hard to make a crust, though, so I have no excuse for being lazy.

Pastry Dough:

2 cups Flour

.5 tsp Salt

1.5 sticks Butter (6 oz... oh yeah!)

3 oz really cold ice water

In a food processor, combine the flour and salt and pulse until mixed. Add the cubed butter overtop and pulse until coarse crumbs start to form. Then drizzle the water over top and pulse until the dough starts to come together. Roll this out onto a floured surface and then transport to your pie tin.

Long live BUTTER!

Note: The recipe in the book actually makes enough for 3 shells. What you see above is that recipe halved.... so, that makes enough for 1.5 shells. You can easily tweak this to make slightly less, but I like have extra and I'll show you way at the end of this post!

Pop the crust into the freezer for 5 minutes, then throw into a 425 degree oven for 10 minutes, or until lightly golden. Pull out of the oven and let cool while you prepare the filling.

Now the magic! Leek and Asparagus Quiche:

1 Leek, sliced

Half a bundle of Asparagus, cut into half inch pieces (you want roughly 1.5 cups total vegetables... I usually throw in more)

4 Eggs

1.5 cups (6 oz) grated Gruyere Cheese (again, I usually end up using more)

1 3/4 cups Organic Whole Milk (or Half-n-Half, or Cream... low fat milk is for losers)

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper (or to taste)

Sauté the leeks in about a tablespoon of butter until they start to get wilty, then throw in your asparagus, and cook until it's all soft, but not mushy, then set aside. Sprinkle half of the cheese into the crust. Then, wisk the eggs until blended and add the milk, salt and pepper. Stir in the veggies and the rest of the cheese. Pour into the partially baked and cooled crust.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and the middle is set. Resist temptation (this is Lent, after all) and wait until it cools before you dig in!

So I said I had extra dough... what to do with it? Make mini-quiches using ramekins, of course! Since I always end up adding more veggies and cheese than I'm supposed to, the filling ends up being too much for the crust. Just make sure you keep an eye on them in the oven, they'll be done faster than the big quiche. With this recipe, I made two extra little guys.

One last note: Nicholas Tonozzi, I need my roller back! I just mushed this dough out by hand and it was a little too thick. I blame you for this.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Roast Chicken - Simplicity and Deliciousness!

One thing I have learned to make well is Roast Chicken. It's a ridiculously simple thing to make, it looks fancy, and if you do it right, it tastes amazing. It also helps to have a quality bird - which unfortunately you won't find in most supermarkets today. No, theirs are the industrial feed lot variety, and even if you don't care about animal rights you probably don't want to be ingesting the sorts of things they feed to those chickens - remember, you are what you eat eats, too. My main concern, however, is TASTE. The industrially raised chicken tastes "chicken-like", but if you've ever had a pastured bird from a local farm, you won't want to go back. And so I've been searching for a quality bird that won't break the bank.

I ventured out to Gene's Sausage Shop this week, a delightful new butcher shop in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. Lo and behold, for $2.99 a pound, they had Amish chickens!

So for $11, I got this 3.5 lb chicken, enough to feed my husband and I for 2 meals. Not a bad deal, if you ask me - sure, you can find cheaper, but after reading the package thoroughly, I felt good about this chicken's origins. These days, many farms have websites that discuss their farming practices and even show pictures of their land and animals, which is a great way to learn more about your food and how it was grown/raised. Of course, the best way to know exactly where your food comes from is to visit a local farm yourself and buy directly from the farmer - more money in the farmer's pocket and you can ask questions first-hand about your food. This is something I'm hoping to do in the near future.

But I digress, as usual. Here is the recipe for Emily's Easy Roast Chicken (adapted from ATK, of course). While this makes a wonderful Sunday dinner, it's simple enough to make on a weeknight, especially since it's not very labor intensive.

1 3.5-4 lb whole chicken
4 TBSP butter, softened (unsalted)
fresh or dried herbs, whatever you like best
1 lemon, quartered
6 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Remove the gizzard from the inside of the bird (this is usually in a little baggie) and discard. Trim any fat you see hanging around. Stuff the garlic cloves and lemon quarters inside the chicken. Mix the softened butter with 1 or 2 TBSP of the herbs and some salt and pepper. Use your fingers to gently work the butter under the skin of the chicken, then distribute it by massaging your fingers around the outside of the bird. Brush the outside of the chicken with the remaining butter (you can just use your fingers).

Note: If you have a rack to place in your roasting pan, it is good to use it. We don't have one, so we use potato wedges to get the bird off the bottom of the pan, which make a delicious side dish.

Roast for 40 minutes at 375 degrees. Turn up the heat to 425 and roast until the chicken reaches 170 degrees (use an instant read thermometer - if you don't have one, I highly recommend getting one, they are super cheap and a lifesaver when cooking meat), about 30 minutes. Cover with foil and let rest for 20 minutes before cutting.

oops, it's one degree over!

You will feel like Martha Stewart when you pull your beautifully roasted chicken out of the oven. On a day when you may feel like you accomplished nothing else (like the sort of day I was having when I made this meal), it can all be turned around by this chicken. Thank you, kind chicken!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Quick Dinner

Today is Thursday, which means church choir. This leaves me one solid hour between the second I walk in the door from work until the moment I have to leave for rehearsal. I usually try to make this night a left-over meal, but figured in the spirit of the project, I would try to make a delicious meal as quickly as possible. I turned to "Healthy Recipes," one of the apps on my Droid (beloved Gizmo... you have so much to offer and I barely know how to work you!). I ended up attempting "Authentic Indian Chicken Curry," but basically only used the ingredients that I had at home, so we'll call this Bastardized Indian Chicken Curry Stir-Fry Thing. Below is a close approximation of what I made, I was kind of a mess with the spices.

1.5 Lbs of Chicken, cut into cubes about 1" thick
Half of a big yellow onion, diced into small pieces... ma non troppo! You want them to be about the same size as the tomatoes.
1 can of diced tomatoes
2 Tbs EVOO
1 Tbs Fresh grated Ginger
4 cloves of Garlic, finely diced
1 tsp Cumin
1 tsp Curry Powder
1 tsp Red Pepper Flakes
2 tsp Sea Salt
1 tsp Cinnamon (actually, I just sprinkled a bunch in the pan.. I have no clue how much it was)

Fallible Note: I'm unfortunately not too sure what my chicken was before it became my dinner... It's from Gene's Sausage Shop so I'm telling myself it lived a slightly better life than the pre-wrapped crap from Jewel, but I have no way of knowing this... much more research is needed!

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet (or a wok), over medium heat. Brown the onions, then add the garlic, cumin, curry, red pepper, and cinnamon. Then toss in your ginger, diced tomatoes, salt, and finally the chicken. (For the sake of time, I actually just kind of threw everything in...) Cook, stirring often, until the chicken is done.

The real recipe (which calls for many more ingredients....) suggests serving this over rice, and I know that would be delicious. I didn't have any rice so I just threw it in a pita and it was wonderful. Sloppy, but wonderful.

This literally took 30 minutes to make... I walked in my door at 5:58 and was eating at 6:32. Suck on that, RR!

This picture is not quite amazing... you'll have to take my word on its spicy deliciousness.

Day 1 and Eggplant Parmesan

Well, we survived Day 1! It wasn't easy, since I had to be at church in the evening for Ash Wednesday service in addition to working at my temp job all day. That is where the key to surviving this whole challenge (and life, I think) comes in to play: LEFTOVERS. Leftovers are the absolute savior of the home cook. I always hear people say - "Oh, I don't have time to cook every night" - and you don't have to! Just cook two or three nights a week, choose dishes that make a good amount of food (and reheat nicely) and you're done!

So Tuesday night, I set about to make Eggplant Parmesan. Now, I would not recommend you make this on a weeknight. It is a tad time-consuming, but oh so worth it in the end. I had made it once before, and had somehow forgotten how much time I spent on it - my husband remembered though. This is a great dish to make for Sunday dinner - heck, I think it's wonderful enough to serve to dinner guests - and perfect for vegetarians and omnivores alike.

The first step is salting and draining the eggplants for 40 minutes in a colander, then drying them on paper towels.

Now let me digress for a moment and introduce you to my Bible:

This amazing cook book, with over 1,200 recipes, comes from those lovely people who do the PBS show of the same name (hereby known as ATK) and Cook's Country. They also publish my favorite cooking magazine, Cook's Illustrated. I have learned more about cooking from this book than I have in all my years of watching Food Network. They guide you through the process of creating each dish with ease, and each recipe I've made from this book has turned out quite well. I recommend this book to all my friends.

Anyways, onto the recipe (and lovely pictures of course, all taken by my talented husband, whose hobby is photography):

Eggplant Parmesan (serves 6-8, reheats beautifully)
from America's Test Kitchen

For the tomato sauce in this recipe, they recommend making their Quick tomato sauce - which is what I did. The recipe for that follows as well. If you're in a time crunch, you can use jarred - but it's so easy to do it yourself - and cheaper.

2 globe eggplants (2 lbs), sliced into 1/4 inch thick rounds
1 cup all purpose flour
4 large eggs
4 cups plain dried bread crumbs
3 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (1 1/2 cups)
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 cups tomato sauce
8 ounces mozzarella, shredded (2 cups) (I used fresh mozz and just cut it into small pieces, it worked well).

Note: Since I haven't had time to make bread this week, I've been using this pita in its place: it's locally made and has only a few ingredients:

I decided to try to make breadcrumbs out of it for this recipe and it worked beautifully! For 4 cups of breadcrumbs, just tear up 4 pitas, toss into your food processor and pulse until it resembles breadcrumb consistency!

1. Toss the eggplant with 1 tsp salt (easiest if done in 2 batches) and let it drain in a colander for about 40 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, adjust two oven racks to the upper- and lower-middle positions, place a rimmed baking sheet on each rack, and heat the oven to 425 degrees. Combine the flour and 1 tsp of pepper in a large zipper lock bag and shake to combine. Beat the eggs into a shallow dish. Combine the breadcrumbs, 1 cup of the Parmesan, 1/4 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp pepper in a second shallow dish.

3. Spread the drained eggplant over paper towels. Wipe away as much salt as possible and press firmly on each slice to remove as much liquid as possible. Working with about 8 eggplant slices at a time, place them in the bag with the flour, seal, and shake until thoroughly coated. Remove the eggplant, shaking off any excess flour, and dip it into the eggs. Remove the eggplant from the egg, allowing any excess to drip off, and coat evenly with the breadcrumbs, pressing them to adhere. Lay the breaded eggplant on a wire rack. Flour, dip in egg, and coat the remaining eggplant with breadcrumbs in the same manner.

4. Remove the pre-heated baking sheets from teh oven. Pour 3 tablespoons oil onto each sheet, tilting to coat the sheets evenly. Spread the breaded eggplant in a single layer over the hot sheets. Bake until the eggplant is well-browned and crisp on the first side, about 20 minutes. Flip the eggplant slices over. Switch and rotate the baking sheets, continuing to bake until the second side is browned, about 10 minutes longer. (Do not turn off the oven).

5. Spread 1 cup of the tomato sauce over the bottom of a 9x13-inch baking dish. Shingle half of the eggplant slices over the tomato sauce. Distribute 1 more cup of the sauce over the eggplant and sprinkle with half of the mozzarella. Shingle the remaining eggplant in the dish and dot with another cup of the sauce, leaving the majority of the eggplant exposed so that it will remain crisp. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup the Parmesan and the remaining 1 cup mozzarella.

6. Place the dish on the lower middle rack of the oven and bake until the cheese is bubbling and well-browned, about 15 minutes.

shingle the eggplant slices like so

et voila!
The eggplant is crispy and flavorful, the sauce is just sweet enough with a hint of basil and garlic - and the melted mozzarella...well, this is leagues better than any gloppy/greasy eggplant parm you'd get in your neighborhood Italian joint. We've been eating it happily for 2 days now.

Quick Tomato Sauce

3 TBSP olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
3 TBSP fresh basil, chopped fine
1/4 tsp sugar

Saute the garlic in the olive oil on medium-low heat for about 2 minutes until fragrant but not brown. Pour in both cans of tomatoes, stir to combine, then bring to a simmer and cook for 15-20 minutes, until it thickens slightly. Stir in the basil and sugar and remove from heat.

How easy is that? :)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Hearty Vegan Lunch

Many of you who know me well may scoff at my advertising a vegan dish, as not too long ago the thought of even a purposely vegetarian dish would make my eyes roll to the back of my bacon and butter filled head. However, as a true omnivore and a great lover of both animals and their meat, I acknowledge the fact that we have to be more aware of how our meat gets to our plate. I'm not a PETA person, and I can't say that I really believe in "animal rights" or anything, I'm just a human who doesn't like to see unnecessary suffering inflicted on animals. I think that they should be treated well for the nourishment they provide, not brutalized in factory farms. I know, I know... I'm going to be a hypocrite about this at some point (hence, fallible), but I'm certainly going to avoid any burger that is selling nation-wide for only $1...

But I digress. Lunch!!! Lunch is probably going to be the easiest part of this challenge, as I try to pack something for work almost every day. And it's really not too much of a hassle to make something in advance that will last for a few days... it's like left-overs of something you never ate in the beginning.

I decided to try a recipe from Cat Cora's Cooking from the Hip (thanks Mom!). This is a great cookbook that strongly encourages recipe tampering. Above is a picture of Curried Lentils with Butternut Squash, and yes it looks like baby food... I think I see why she didn't include a picture of this dish in her book... but it tasted great! It's nice to have a warm filling meal that doesn't weigh you down. This made a good 5 portions, served with a side of brown rice.

1.5 cups lentils
3 lbs butternut squash (I used half a GIANT squash), peeled and chunked
1.5 Tbs EVOO (God Damn you, Rachel Ray!)
1.5 Tbs Curry Powder (or more)
1.5 Tsp Fresh Grated Ginger
1.5 Tsp Chilli Powder (or more)
Salt and Pepper as you like it

In a pot, cover the lentils with water and bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, throw in your squash, cover, and simmer until the squash is squishable (about 25 mins). Drain, then dig out the squash and throw it in a bowl. Mash it up, then add the lentils and the rest of the ingredients. Bake for 20-30 at 375 (or however long you feel like it) in whatever you have lying around... I just used an 8x8 Pyrex.

Below is my tupperware... Taste: 10, Looks: 3. Well!....

Hummus of the Week: Artichoke Parmesan

Behold the glory of the chick pea! It's like magic watching a can full of oddly shaped little balls turn into one of the most nutritious and satisfying snacks... and it happens in mere seconds in your food processor. The flavor possibilities seem endless, which is why I'm going to try to create as many hummus recipes as possible during this challenge. The first one is inspired by the delicious hummus of the same name found at the Rockwell Grill.

Artichoke Parmesean Hummus
(2) 15.5 oz cans of Chick Peas (organic, Goya brand)
(1) 14 oz can of Artichoke Hearts (Trader Joe's)
3/4 cup Freshly grated Parmesan Cheese
3 cloves of Garlic, finely chopped
The freshly squeezed juice of 2 lemons
Ground Pepper to taste

Pop all of that into a food processor and blend until it's hummus! You won't regret it. In the picture, it's topped with some paprika for a splash of color and flavor. If you're looking for the perfect crunch to go with this dip, make some pita chips... just slice up some pita bread, brush with olive oil on both sides, sprinkle with some garlic and sea salt. After 10 minutes in the oven at 400, you'll have the perfect vehicle for transporting this delight into your stomach.

Truth be told, I could have used more Artichoke flavor in this hummus... this is pretty lemon-y, but I still really like it. And I've never made pita chips before and just kind of made something up, which worked out pretty well!

While you're snacking, be sure to check out what's going on in the wonderful word of hummus, at Peak Hummus.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Happy Paczki Day!

According to Wikipedia: "Traditionally, the reason for making paczki was to use up all the lard, sugar, eggs, and fruit in the house, because they were forbidden to be consumed due to Catholic fasting practices during Lent."

While I won't be refraining from sugar, eggs, and fruit this Lenten season, I will be forgoing any sweet treats that aren't produced by my own two hands. My husband and I happen to live in close proximity to one of the best bakeries in Chicago, the Swedish Bakery, and we are frequent customers. We stopped in on Monday and happened to get the very LAST paczki with fresh strawberries and cream (much tastier than the jelly-donut style). It was a delicious.

What are your Fat Tuesday food traditions? Hope you enjoyed some sort of yummy treat in preparation for your Lenten journey or just for the fun of it!

The 2010 Lenten "Real Food" Project: An Introduction

The Mission: Spend 40 days eating as close to the earth as possible in an attempt to provide an alternative to the “Western diet” imposed by American culture, media, and industry.

The so-called “Western diet” was brought to our attention by the writing of Michael Pollan and is somewhat complex. The “food-like substances” that constitute this diet can be described as the commercial, profit driven, nutrient deficient, highly processed, environmentally unsound, artificial chemical-filled, and brutally cruel (when it comes to animal treatment). For more information, we highly recommend his books including “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food.”

Since reading these incredible books, we have both made changes to the way we think about where our food comes from and how it ends up in our bodies. But we wanted to take an extra step… we both love a good meal prepared at home by our own hands, but could we do it every day? We’ll be using the framework of the Christian Lenten season to test our abilities in the kitchen and test our willingness to make an extra effort when to comes to really knowing where our food comes from. This will include omitting all processed foods from our diet, eating only “whole foods”, or foods that remain as close to their natural state as possible, seeking out humanely and healthfully produced meat and dairy products (i.e. no growth hormones, no anti-biotics, animals that were not raised on industrial feed lots), wild-caught fish, and most importantly, cooking from scratch with high-quality ingredients.

Drawing from Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food”, we will be avoiding any food that: a) contains High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
b) contains unpronounceable ingredients
c) does not rot (with some small exceptions for canned items such as canned tomatoes and canned beans)

Eliminating processed foods from our diets will take care of most of these items, but we will be using discretion with each food we bring into our kitchen and into our bodies – the industrial food system is far reaching and has a hand in practically every item you find in the supermarket today.

Not only do we hope to improve our own health and well-being, we hope to improve the health of the environment and dispel the myth that cooking from scratch is difficult and time consuming and expensive – in fact, we believe it will save you money! (And it will certainly save you money down the road in health care costs). If you’re willing to give up just a couple of hours of time per week (and who doesn’t spend a couple of hours a week aimlessly surfing the net or watching television), we think you can change your life by avoiding the “Western diet” and taking control over what goes into your body!

It is not our intention to alienate ourselves from our friends or families, neither is it our intention to deprive ourselves of the basic necessities (and by that we mean coffee and alcohol), and we will allow ourselves one meal out a week (we’re certainly not going to become creepy shut-ins, after all). In addition, we plan to host some fun “cooking parties” at home with friends – which can be just as enjoyable as going out to dinner (and certainly more economical). We plan to explore and share various ways to “get out of the supermarket” and buy quality food from local producers and businesses.

This all being said, we will have some ground rules for the experiment. We are, after all, human beings with jobs and families and friends and lives - busy ones! We will not be making our own dairy products, but we will be seeking out dairy products that are locally produced and do not contain additives (many dairy products that are made to be “low-fat” contain many additives to give them proper consistency, not to mention all those products out there with artificial sweeteners and myriad unpronounceable ingredients – but more on that later).

We will be baking our own bread and making our own stocks. If we want a brownie – we have to bake it ourselves – from scratch. No box mixes, spice packets, canned soups, or pre-made anything. Sound challenging? We know it will be – but we believe that the rewards will be wonderful meals, an enhanced quality of life, a greater sense of our connection to the natural world, and better relationships with our friends and family through meals cooked and enjoyed together.

Why ‘fallible foodies’? We’re going to make mistakes. Who doesn’t? This is about learning how to eat well in a way that will both benefit our bodies and have a more sustainable impact on the environment; creating a positive relationship with food beyond the American "fast food" culture; it’s not about becoming holier than thou perfectionists in the kitchen. So we’ll see what happens…. Let the games begin!