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Dig It?

13 Oct

We went a little wild at a plant nursery in Berkley after a rather fortuitous Living Social deal a while back. As a consequence,  we’re now herb farmers running out of balcony space. With not much experience growing food on a balcony, I felt it a little daring to take on a sunchoke; an ingredient I’ve actually never cooked with, let alone grown. A sunchoke is a ginger root-resembling tuber, also known as a Jerusalem artichoke.

Supposedly, they are very easy to grow and frequently take up residence outside farmhouses and by the sides of roads all by themselves and somehow do quite well.  They produce pretty yellow flowers. Some would even consider their ease of existence (and subsequent pervasiveness) on par with that of a weed. Our sunchoke looked so robust when we bought it, it was practically busting out of the plastic pot it came in. We relocated it to a spacious clay pot in lots of sun and thought, “How can we possibly kill it?” My mom has said that she has a knack for killing plants despite the best of intentions and I now wonder if it’s a familial trait given that after just a few weeks of love our sunchoke looked like this:

Sunchoke death knell

I figured it was time we dug it all up and cooked it. Having no idea what to expect, when I first yanked out the giant mass of tangled root and rhizome it reminded me of something out of Beetlejuice (my boyfriend said Pan’s Labyrinth).

Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice

Was this a healthy sunchoke? I have no clue! I removed as much debris as I could by hand and ended up with this:

Getting hungry? Me neither...

It would be impossible to skin these little buggers and have anything left to eat, so I spent a good amount of time with a giant potato  scrubber over the sink. You can roast these guys but I had found a recipe for a big winter stew that didn’t seem too overly ambitious so I decided to give it a try instead. I threw in butternut squash, saffron, potatoes, peppers… I had high hopes.

But the stew came out bland and mushy and I got no discernible flavor from the sunchoke whatsoever (good thing I saved several to try roasted). It was so lacking in seasoning that I forlornly threw cheese crackers on top of my helping as damage control and my boyfriend added lemon juice and a ton on hot sauce. And we now have several days worth of leftovers. It was more than a bit deflating considering the dirt now permanently lodged under my finger nails and the gallons of water wasted on scrubbing the suckers clean. So, now allow me to impress you with my learned sunchoke trivia (given that the recipe isn’t worth mentioning).

-Sunchokes, or Jerusalem artichokes are neither from Jerusalem nor are they artichokes. In fact, they are related to sunflowers, hence the more appropriate title, sunchoke.

-Sunchokes are (purportedly) quite easy to grow and will thrive under most conditions. Yea…sure…

-A few animals love the plant, and if the plant is allowed to flower,birds enjoy the seeds. Pigs will forage for and eat the tubers.

-Sunchokes are sometimes used raw in salads and have a jicama-like (or water chestnut-like) texture.

There you have it. The moral of my story? When trying a new ingredient, go small.

No Knead for That

20 Sep

If only I had this amount of counter space! Adorable photo by Dplanet, via Flickr.

So, I recently revisited my previous New Year’s resolutions after a traumatic incident involving a bathroom scale. I had pledged, among other things, to bake more of my own bread and decided that, in order to do that, I needed a bread machine. Really, I gave the issue a lot of thought:

Bake more of my own bread I’ve struggled with this one before. I rarely buy a loaf of bread from a supermarket. There are two big reasons why not. One, I’m just not a big sandwich eater. Two, have you read the ingredients in a loaf of processed bread? It’s actually a difficult task (the reading, not the baking). The ingredients may be edible, but they can hardly be considered food. So, I’ve tried buying a loaf of locally made bread from Whole Foods. Guess what? For twice as much money, not only did I find similar ingredients, but the bread was only produced in a local factory-not by a local baker. Don’t waste your money. The next step was buying bread at the farmers’ market. If you can find a bread vendor at the farmers market, I highly recommend this option. But honestly, a bread booth at the market can be a toughie to find unless your market covers a lot of prepared foods and not just produce. Now, I’ve also tried making my own yeast bread. While it’s satisfying to do and pretty yummy all said and done, baking homemade yeast bread takes a lot of time, kitchen space and money. None of which I have. I rarely say this about home cooking, but in this instance, it just isn’t worth it. So, this year, I am vowing to go the bread machine route. I’ll keep you posted.”

But here I am, in a new apartment with a slightly bigger kitchen and a boyfriend who loves sandwiches every day for lunch. Between us we own every kitchen gadget imaginable except a bread machine. Yes, seriously. I mean, we own a rotisserie, we own a tostone press and we  just added a soft-serve ice cream machine because it was recently on final clearance in the very back of Sur la Tab. Plus, I hear my mother’s voice in my head saying, “Jessica, don’t buy a bread machine, there’s absolutely no need for it. The bread comes out like a brick and you have so many better  options. Waste of money.”

OK, so she was right about the options–when I lived in L.A. But now that I’m camped out in the outer suburbs of the Bay Area, I can’t find a bakery for the life of me. Unfortunately, this is just the case in many suburban areas as I know all too well from my childhood. And Mom was also right about the brick part, at least judging by the end results of our childhood bread machine from Costco. It was about as successful as the pasta maker my dad bought off an infomercial in the nineties, and it got about the same amount of use before being promptly sold in the next neighborhood yard sale.

How I miss my weekly trips to Sweet Lady Jane! And even though I was happy to hear about the opening of The Pastry Cupboard, it’s still about an hour away from me.

But lo and behold, I found a no knead bread dough recipe with very few ingredients and fresh herbs. What I’m saying is, this recipe doesn’t require a ton of ingredients, effort or even counter space! And guess what? It’s really good.

We practically grow an herb farm on our balcony and we always keep a stash of yeast in the fridge for pizza dough so I didn’t even need to make a trip to the grocery store for anything. The only caveat here is that you’ll need to plan ahead; the dough rises for 24 hours. (And it will smell funky after 24 hours. Don’t worry, it won’t end up tasting funky.) The only kitchen hardware you’ll need is a Dutch oven. No fancy-schmancy Le Creuset needed either, I actually used an old oven-safe porcelain casserole with a lid because actually in addition to not owning a bread machine, we don’t own a Dutch oven. (But if you need tostones pressed, you know who to ask.) You don’t even need bread flour for this recipe.

This recipe came from Allrecipes.com and it’s the first thing I’ve cooked from the site.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 2/3 cups warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage (optional)

I used all of the herbs and really wouldn’t recommend leaving them out. However, next time I make this I think I may just stick to rosemary.

Fresh herbs; use 'em if you got 'em.

From Allrecipes:

  1. Combine the flour, yeast, and salt in a large bowl and mix to combine. Add the water and herbs, if using, and mix well. The dough will be very sticky and shaggy-looking. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature for 18 to 24 hours.
  2. Generously flour a work surface. The dough will have risen and will be covered in bubbles. Transfer the dough to the work surface and dust it with flour. Fold the dough in half, and then form the dough into a ball by stretching and tucking the edges of the dough underneath the ball.
  3. Liberally flour a kitchen towel (do not use terrycloth-seriously, you’ll never be able to get the dough out). Place the dough ball on the floured towel. Cover with another floured towel. Let the dough rise for about two hours. (With floured thumb and forefinger, give the dough a little poke, your indentations should stay if the dough is done rising.)
  4. Preheat an oven to 450 degrees F (230 degrees C). Place a lidded Dutch oven or deep heavy duty casserole dish (with lid) into the oven to preheat.
  5. Carefully remove the hot baking dish from the oven. Remove the lid and gently turn the dough ball into the ungreased baking dish, seam-side up; shake the dish so the dough is more evenly distributed.
  6. Cover and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and bake until the crust is golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the loaf from the baking dish and let it cool on a rack before slicing.

Ready the butter, friends!

Also, a side note for my gluten-free friends who love baked goods and baking them, check this out!

From Florida with Love

9 May

My coworker Amanda goes home to Wisconsin and brings back cheese curds. My college pal Adam from Texas makes sure to chow down on Spring Creek BBQ dinner rolls when he visits home. My friend Rosie’s southern grandma  has sent her homemade southern style fudge, banana bread and Chex mix for the past 20 years or more (with local walnuts she would shell every year!). Who doesn’t love a care package from family?

Yes, this Sunday was Mother’s Day, but as anyone with a wayward Jewish mother can attest to, it seemed only appropriate that my mom was sending me a box full of goodies. So what’s in a care package from Florida? Alligator jerky and sunscreen. It is uniquely…regional. (Oranges are so played out.)

"Would it kill you to call your mother," he seemed to say. Photo:wwarby

To be fair, other care packages have included standards such as chocolate chip cookies.

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New Resolve

13 Jan

I'm doing butt crunches in here, I promise. Photo: virtualern via Flickr

Ah yes, we all have our vices, and we all know mine involve cake. But judging by the fact that the gym now looks like a stampede is hitting it nightly, I’m guessing some people, you know, actually act on their New Year’s resolutions. I’m not saying that I don’t, I’m flat out saying that I don’t bother to make any. (Cake was pretty good last year, I bet it will be this year too!) But this season, while masses of people are forgoing meals for diet bars and sneaking out of the office early to give Zumba a try, I mapped out some actual healthy eating changes grounded in reality that I would like to continue to work on this year, or to be more diligent about. If you’re like me, and the most attention you usually pay to the new year is struggling to get the new digit of the year correct on office paperwork, I’ve got some easy ideas that you might like too. Because, frankly, if I see another commercial for the Shake Weight on Food Network I might scream.

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What David Letterman Should Have Learned From Rachel Ray

19 Oct

Self-restraint isn’t usually the first word I would use to describe the venerable Rachel Ray. While I don’t watch Rachel, I like what she stands for and I appreciate her honesty about not being a professionally-trained, fine chef. As she puts it, she delivers “a square meal on a round plate.” A visit to Rachel’s site or a snippet of her show might give you tips for hiding veggies in your kids’ food, a recipe for an easy dinner using what’s in season or a bit about her own non-profit work, fighting to end childhood hunger and teaching kids how to cook and have healthy relationships with food. But I just can’t get past the fact that she doesn’t bake.

Public Enemy Number One? Photo: clevercupcakes via flickr

Although, this fact surely played in her favor when she made a recent visit to the David Letterman show about a week ago.

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Lunch Lady

24 Sep

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to chat about the environmental health of the Santa Monica Bay with some true VIPs. Kids. We talked about dolphins, we talked about sand crabs, we talked about sharks, we talked about the importance cleaning up after ourselves. And then we ate lunch.

Would YOU eat it? Oh good, let's feed it to the school kids...photo: megansquire via Flickr

As we sat in the sand, I was impressed with how well-behaved and quiet most of the students were (later on, each and every child threw out their trash). And then I looked at the lunches. While some students brought a lunch, many were given lunches from the schools they traveled from. The main course of which were plastic packaged Smuckers “Uncrustables” (ingredients include high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils). I just have to ask how difficult it is to just put peanut butter and jelly on some wholesome bread rather than using something pre-packed in plastic with undoubtedly more preservatives. But, time may be a big constraint when it comes to field trips and I guess I can understand that; get the kids on the bus as easily as possible. What I can’t understand is why the school packed way too many lunches that ultimately got completely thrown away. What a waste. Most of the other childrens’ lunches consisted of things like Kraft Lunchables and flavored drinks in neon colors that stained faces for the rest of the day. Wanna know what’s IN a Lunchable (advertised as “wholesome and nutritious lunches for kids”)? Check out the ingredient list on one of the new, more “healthful” ones. I didn’t see a whole lot of fruit and basically didn’t see much of anything not in plastic. If I had eaten these lunches, I would’ve gotten sick on the bus ride back to school.

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You’re a Vegetable

5 Aug

That’s right. Your parents warned you; spend too much time in front of that TV or computer screen and you’ll be a total veggie. And here you are, eight hours (at least) in front of a computer screen at work under fluorescent lights, before you head home in traffic, watch the tube and continue work on your laptop.

This could be you…

We all know the worst thing to eat when the 3pm office slump hits: refined sugar and/or carbohydrates. That corn-syrupy, flavored latte, that stashed emergency candy bar, your organic raspberry “healthy” soda… All of these quick, easy snacks generally deliver the exact opposite reaction than the one you were looking for. Thus, you’re still tired and cranky (maybe more so since being tired and cranky tends to make us, well, more cranky). This is because eating (or drinking) a lot of highly-processed foods full of refined sugar and carbs can actually result in your body releasing too much insulin.  Symptoms? About two hours later you are irritable, craving more sweets, sluggish and now you might have a headache (another reason to be cranky).Does that sound like your afternoon in cubicle-land?

Unfortunately, junk food is usually what’s most readily available in or near the office. (Leftover supermarket birthday cake in the break room, anyone?)

Well, yesterday at work I walked in to a wonderful surprise.

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