Saturday, March 28, 2009

Songs of Innocence and Experience

Michelle Bernstein, James Beard Award-winning chef and foodie darling, moves in the kitchen like the ballet dancer she once was.  This cannot be said of my guys Rudy, Robert, Stefan and Yvan, or indeed any of the kids participating in Common Threads.  

A national nonprofit program begun in 2003 by Oprah chef Art Smith, Common Threads pairs kids from Title 1 schools with chefs (fancy pros like Michy and semipro-to-eager-amateurs like me).  Michelle provides inspiration a little cooking demo.  Volunteer chefs work with children, ages eight to 12, and make sure when they chop onions, they don't chop fingers, too. The kids learn how to cook, but they also learn nutrition basics and global awareness by making -- and eating -- cuisine from all over the world.  

I'd signed up for Common Threads because I believe in community service and believe in the importance of our connection to food, yadayada.  I did not think it would be so incredibly fun. 

Fun has not been on the menu so much lately.  The economy?  Pakistan?  Korea?  Afghanistan? Let's not even go there.  Closer to home, many people I love are struggling.  We all are.  I want us all to get through it the best we can.  In fact, I'd rather we were already out the other end. You know some people rhapsodize about the Journey?  I just want to friggin' get there. But maybe that's wrong.

The Common Threads kids may not have the grace that comes of knowing their way around the kitchen, but they've taught me, jaded me, there can be joy in discovery -- joy in discovering how to cut corn off the cob, delight in tasting tahini for the first time. It is very much like falling in love.  And it is contagious.  I like to have the kids sniff each spice, sample each unfamiliar ingredient before we add it to the mix.  

After our class had Turkey Day (the country, not the bird) Yvan, who'd never had a chickpea, became a convert. Judy said she could eat tabbouleh every day.  These things do my veggie heart good.  I want these kids to see how delicious food can be, am grateful they've reminded me life can taste pretty good, too.  I want to keep that joy going -- for all of us.

Spinach Salad With Tahini and Yogurt

Here's an easy Turkish-inspired composed salad with (mostly) familiar ingredients that come together in ways surprising ways. There's interplay between flavors and textures, with crunch, creaminess, tang, spice and sweetness, the comfort of what you know and the thrill of discovery.  

1pound fresh flat-leaf spinach
1 cup chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds (or dried cranberries)
1/2 cup pine nuts

For tahini-yogurt dressing:
3 cups plain yogurt (nonfat is fine)
1/2 cup tahini
1 teaspoon cumin
1-1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
sea salt and pepper to taste

In a large bowl, mix all ingredients for dressing until thick and creamy.  Set aside.  

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  

Place pine nuts in a small oven-proof baking dish and toast for 8 to 10 minutes, until golden and fragrant.  Give them a stir at least once during baking time. 

Place spinach on a large platter or shallow bowl.  Scatter with chickpeas, pine nuts and pomagranate seeds.  Drizzle some of the dressing on top (there will be more than enough).  Go for visual appeal -- channel your inner Jackson Pollock.  The idea is not a thoroughly tossed salad, but one where the separate flavors get to peak through at will. 

Serves 6.

Any leftover dressing keeps refrigerated in an airtight container for several days. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Calla Lillies, Almond Cookies and the Cycle of Life

All right everyone, your best Katherine Hepburn impersonations, please, as we say together, "The calla lillies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion.  I carried them on my wedding day and now I place them here in memory of something that has died."*

The cycle of life and death has been much on my mind lately, what with the anniversary of a family member's death, the death of a friend's father and several people I love recovering from serious illness.  In short, all kinds of crap has been happening at once.  Happily, signs of life are everywhere, including the birth of Gracie Soraya Abu Jaber-Eason and Stella Mary Espenkotter (go, girls!).  An orchid that had been merely two lackluster sticks has suddenly, inexplicably gone into lavish purple bloom.  Sweet, red tomatoes are proliferating on my vines.  I've been sloughing off dry skin like a molting snake.  And two days ago, I found this bird egg when I was out walking.  So there is a new bird in the Miami environs and I am glad. 

The enlightened Zen part of me knows loss and death and birth and growth are all part of the grand, mysterious cycle of life.  But most of me is not enlightened and thinks loss and death suck. I fret over why they happen, especially to people we care about, at an hour when a normal person would be asleep.  

Around 3:00 AM the other night/morning, I passed from wondering what loss teaches us (character-building?  No, thanks, got plenty already) to thinking about Katherine Hepburn's line from Stage Door.  Is there, I wondered, a food suitable to any occasion, the calla lilly of cuisine, as it were?  You could make it for someone in mourning or someone celebrating life.   It would need to nourishing and easily digestible for those regaining physical or emotional strength.  It would need to be pure and simple of flavor, rather than complex and elaborately spiced.  It would need to be deeply pleasurable and bespeak life in every bite.  Nourishing, pleasurable and chi (the Tao term for life force) for me means something green and leafy, but if you show up at someone's bedside with a plate of spinach, in most cases, you will not be greeted warmly, despite all your good intentions.  What else, then, epitomizes life force?

Around 4:00 AM it came to me -- almonds.  Rich in protein, magnesium, potassium and vitamin E, what is a nut but the essence of life?  It even looks like a seed -- or an egg.  It is the kernel of life.  Okay, but almond WHAT?  A handful of almonds offer neither comfort or celebration, but an almond cookie, we might be on to something.  Not almond biscotti, though they have their fans.  When you are of delicate disposition, you should not be forced to crack into your food.  What you eat should be tender.  It should yield.  Perhaps it was the chi thoughts that conjured the memory of Chinese almond cookies, sweet, tender, pure of almond and heart.

The problem -- traditionally, they're made with an abundance of egg, which seems karmically inappropriate in light of me finding the hatched bird egg.  They also contain, um, lard.  Cooks from southern-fried Paula Deen to Mexico maven Diana Kennedy say lard is the secret that makes food yummy.  Maybe so, but there's no way the rendered fat of an animal is chi-ish.  

At 5:00 AM, I went to the kitchen.  I surrendered to the need for butter, but would not egg. Instead, I upped the almond essence with a little almond butter.  This recipe is, I hope, suitable for any occasion.  Crisp at first bite, they dissolve in the mouth, they are light in texture, light of spirit.  Bring them to new parents, to a recovering patient, to someone whose heart is in need of a lift. These cookies are easy, pretty, and a sure and sweet sign of life.  

* George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, Stage Door, 1937.

Calla Lilly Almond Cookies 

1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick)
1 tablespoon almond butter
2/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoon amaretto
2/3 cup almond flour (or finely ground almonds)
2/3 cup unbleached flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
24 blanched almonds **

Cream together butter, almond butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Stir in amaretto and almond flour (or ground almonds).  Sift together flour and baking powder and add to butter mixture.  Stir until just combined. Dough will be slightly sticky.

On a lightly floured board, form into a log 2 inches in diameter.  Wrap well in foil and refrigerate until well-chilled, 2 hours or overnight.

When ready to bake, heat oven to 350.

Slice dough into rounds 1/2 inch thick and place on a lightly greased cookie sheet, about 2 inches apart.  Gently press a blanched almond into the center of each cookie.  Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until cookies are just turning golden.

Remove from oven and cool.  Makes 2 dozen.

** To blanch almonds -- Pour whole raw almonds into a small heatproof bowl.  Cover with boiling water and leave for 15 minutes.  Drain.  Almond skins will slip off off, leaving you perfect, bare nut kernels.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Starving Artists

This is not ANOTHER recently discovered Shakespeare portrait, this is fab Frenchman Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), who said, "To eat is a necessity but to eat intelligently is an art."  Art is not always easy to pull off, especially when you're hungry.  That's because your stomach has its own brain.

The technical term is enteric nervous system and it sends and receives impulses just like your bigger, more sophisticated brain, the one in your head.  Your belly's brain is as sensitive to emotion as your other brain is.  That's why bad news makes you feel punched in the gut or queasy. . . or voracious.  

Your belly has a brain, but it's not smart in ways we appreciate.  In fact, sometimes it seems downright stupid -- or sadistic.  It drives you to eat when you're under pressure or scared or bored or lonely.  Nourishment doesn't seem to have much to do with it.  Your belly brain doesn't say, Ahem, feeling a bit peckish right now, how about a lovely apple?  It says, Must.  Eat.  Now. It says that bag of orange rubbery circus peanuts you've had since Halloween last would be absolutely delectable.  This is eating, but it is not intelligent and even Dali would be hard-pressed to call it art.

Hunger will not be silenced.  Alas, when you're stressed, into your fourth bananatini and need an intervention, that's when your two brains decide to stop speaking to each other.  That's why the food choices you make in crazy times really matter.  So does stocking your fridge and pantry, so you have options other than the aforementioned circus peanuts.  

Of course, my first choice would be something along the lines of fresh produce, that lovely apple, some nice fresh celery, but if you're produce-averse or only use your refrigerator for lab experiments, you can also do with food that has a shelf life.  I'm not talking protein bars or whathave you, I'm talking real nutrient-rich food, like nuts, not faux ones, dried fruit like figs and raisins, oatmeal, even popcorn (easy on the butter and weird toxic chemicals, please). Snarf what you will, but remember, you're an artist.

Next up -- the calla lilly of cuisine.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

It's Great American Meatout -- Kiss a Cow

French-kissing cows are the logo for Les Halles, the Franco-American steakhouse in New York, Washington DC and Miami. If you go tomorrow night, I can recommend the petatou, a warm goat cheese and potato salad, the lovely salade d'Auvergene, with arugula, apples, walnuts and blue cheese, a very decadent macaroni and cheese or the healthier and perfectly pleasing vegetable plate.

I cannot recommend the steak, for which the restaurant is known because 1) I don't eat it and 2) tomorrow, neither should you. It's the 25th annual Great American Meatout --

Back in 1985, the national nonprofit FARM (Farm Animal Rights Movement) set aside March 20 to promote animal compassion and plant-based ways (what we used to call vegetarianism). Since then, thousands of Americans have celebrated the first day of spring with a day of meatlessness. Great American Meatout has spread beyond our borders. It's an annual event in 20 countries including France, where it goes by the name of La Journee Sans Viande (the Day Without Meat -- everything sounds better in French).

You can have a delightful meatless experience at Les Halles, despite the fact that in his book Kitchen Confidential, the establishment's best-known former chef, Anthony Bourdain calls vegetarians "a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. . . the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit." Gosh, Tony, we don't have anything against you.

Well, maybe we do. Other chefs worth a damn don't seem to feel the way you do, so kindly don't speak for them. Food gods Michael Schwartz, Norman Van Aken, Bill Telepan and other chefs more than worth a damn have prepared amazing vegan meals for me and they were happy to do it. They like a challenge, revere fresh produce and what they do with it is nothing short of sexy (Bill, honey, you had me at wild mushrooms).

While I'm on the subject, Tony, eating odd bits of animals does not make you manly. I'm sensing a little aggression on your part (from eating all that hormone-stoked beef, perhaps?). You seem to be a very angry carnivore.

I'm not saying a day without meat (I'm embracing the French translation, okay?) will make you feel like you're on Ecstacy, but I think a meatless life, or even a meatless day does engender compassion. It's good for your health, not to mention the good it does the cow and an overtaxed planet. According to Environmental Defense, just one meatless meal per week per person would save as much carbon dioxide as taking half a million cars off the road. Going meatless makes nice to your wallet, too, because plant-based sources of protein like the dried split peas in my soup recipe below, are cheaper than their animal equivalents.

If you really want to save money, skip Les Halles tomorrow and make this soup. Enjoy it for a Great American Meatout dinner and have leftovers throughout the weekend.

Curried Split Pea Soup

2 cups split peas*
2 tablespoons butter
2 onions
2 carrots
6 cups vegetable broth
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
juice of 1 lemon
chopped cilantro for garnish -- optional

*Start the peas the day before. Pour them into a large pot, cover with water and soak overnight.

In a large soup pot, melt butter over medium-high heat. In a food processor finely chop onions and carrots (or and saute in the butter until just tender, about 7 minutes. Add drained and rinsed split peas, vegetable broth, curry and turmeric. Turn heat to high, bring to boil, then reduce head to low, cover and simmer for an hour or until peas start to go mushy. Turn off heat and let the soup cool down.

At this point, you can puree the whole thing with an immersion blender, if you're fortunate enough to have one. If, like me, you don't, here's what I advise -- strain into a large. Take the pea and vegetable solids and puree in the food processor. Then stir back into the liquid until thickened and uniform. Squeeze in lemon juice, season with salt and pepper.

Freezes well, keeps covered and refrigerated for days. To serve, heat through and top with chopped cilantro.

Serves 6.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Chaos, Conspiracy, Carrots

I comfort myself by believing in chaos theory, that seemingly unrelated events are linked. A garden in Milwaukee can have consequences for a girl in Miami.  There is a great shiny matrix of connection, something that binds us all. You just have to be open to the signs. There's the rub.

But I've been seeing signs lately. Yesterday, I went to hear Will Allen, who heads the nonprofit Growing Power.  At 60, Allen still has the build of the pro basketball player he used to be and the forearms of the farmer he is. He's an urban farmer.  Okay, he does have a 30-acre farm in rural Wisconsin, but Growing Power also has a farm in residential Milwaukee. Allen creates sustainable urban farms and vegetable gardens in Chicago, Kenya, the Ukraine and hopefully soon somewhere near you.  His sustainable farm systems are on a scale that puts my postage stamp-sized garden to shame, yet he says I'm on the right track.  He says we all need to grow our own food.   He spoke to my heart when he said, "We cannot have sustainable communities without a healthy food system."

Allen spoke at Temple Israel yesterday, a talk that came about because the temple's rabbi Jody Cohen had been thinking of how in Leviticus, farmers allowed those in need to harvest fruits and vegetables from their land. Cohen wants to make that happen now at Temple Israel, in the middle of impoverished Overtown.  You know, I just get to thinking that we're inherently design flawed as a species when people like Allen and Cohen prove me wrong and make wonderful things happen.  They bring out the better part of my nature.  Must hang with them more.  

So I was blogging away about how fresh, sustainable food is a right, not a luxury and urban farms put what seems like a dream within reach, that growing healthy food improves our health, our lives, our connection with our food and with each other when the doorbell rang.  It was my postman (who does not ring twice) delivering my copy of T. Colin Campbell's The China Study.

Campbell's study has come up in almost all my nutrition research but I'd resisted buying the book because 1) I'm cheap and 2) I'm already on board with his message -- a vegetarian diet can save your life.  But in the name of due diligence, I bought the book, here it was and I flipped it open.  "Good nutrition creates health in all areas of our existence," Campbell writes. "All parts are interconnected."  Spooky.

See?  It all comes back to the same thing -- caring, whether it's caring for ourselves, our communities, our planet or about what's for dinner.  I can multitask and do it using these gorgeous organic carrots from my community farm share.  It's a divine conspiracy.

Tomorrow -- what to do with a cow.   

Tunisian Roasted Vegetables

4 cloves garlic, minced
1 red pepper, cut into strips
3 carrots, sliced
1 zucchini, sliced 
2 ribs celery, sliced
8 ounces mushrooms, quartered (or halved, if small)
1 large onion sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon harissa (Moroccan chili sauce)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon lemon juice
sea salt
1 bunch cilantro, chopped fine

Slice and chop vegetables.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, add olive oil, tomato paste, harissa, cumin and lemon juice.  Stir together until smooth.  Add vegetables and toss to combine.

Place vegetables on cookie and roast at 400 for 15 minutes.  Stir vegetables.  Roast for another 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender.  Salt to taste and garnish with chopped parsley. Kinda spicy, kinda festive, very easy, very healthy.

Serves 4-6.  

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Eating of the Green

To celebrate today, I wanted to create a new recipe that's beyond green. Sure, you're wearing green because it's St. Patrick's Day and that's what one does.  That's lovely, but even better is the green you wear inside.  I'm talking about the eating of the green -- green as in environmentally aware and green as in vegetable and green as in saving green.  This is what I wanted for you, friends, because that's the kind of girl I am.

The other kind of girl I am is cheap.  I have a horror of waste.  This is why I utilize as much as I can in the kitchen, recycling, composting, making soup stock from veggie bits like too-tough stems from the collard greens in my Obama victory garden (see above in all their green splendor).  While my broth puts to work the rich green flavor and nutrients from those woody stems, the waste-hating part of me wishes I could make a sweater from the stem bits or power my computer or at least make a meal of it.

Then I discovered this traditional Turkish recipe.  The Turks, like the Irish, are a fun and frugal people, disinclined to waste.  They make a version of hummus with the familiar trio of tahini, garlic and lemon, but replace chickpeas with Swiss chard stems.  The stems, fibrous to say the least, are simmered until they just give up, then pureed.  The traditional method probably involves using mortar and pestle to smash the greens to the sound of strumming baglamas (Turkey's most popular stringed musical instrument).  I used a food processor and blasted "Turkish Song of the Damned" by the Pogues (they're Irish, a St. Patrick's Day plus ).

I blitzed away, thrilled with the prospect of a nutritionally rich dish that employs every bit of veggie goodness.  However, here's what the recipe did not mention -- hair.  Not real hair, but the little fibrous bits of stem even Cuisinarting can't cure. There's probably some sort of stem cell pun a clever person could make right here.  Go ahead and insert it.  

Okay, okay, there's a razor thin line between frugality and kookiness and perhaps I crossed it. I may go back to the drawing board on this stemmy hummus business because I love green as much as I hate waste.  However, as it stands, the traditional recipe, even with technology and the Pogues on my side, is not a keeper.  

On my best days, I believe understanding the vital connection between what we eat and where it comes from can change the world.  Other days, I think I'm nuts.  I do not have the new green recipe I'd hoped for.  I have an old one adapted from our friends the Italians, because it's green, it's tried and true and who doesn't love bruschetta?  

Irish, Turkish, Italian --  is this post global or what?  It is also green, because greens are our one-stop shopping source of nutrition -- they're rich in iron, potassium, fiber and vitamins A, C and K. They're detox at its most natural and adorably edible.  

Wishing one and all a joyous and green St. Patrick's Day.  To get the full Pogues experience, here they are doing "Turkish Song of the Damned" live albeit many years ago, when Shane McGowan had more hair and teeth and hadn't been kicked out of the boozing band for drinking too much --

Tuscan Kale Bruschetta
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch kale (roughly 8 ounces)
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
6 slices thick whole grain bread
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
sea salt and freshly ground pepper

optional but very nice:
2 teaspoons butter
1 egg

Rinse greens and pat dry.  Slice the tender leaves from the tough, woody stems.  Save stems for the amazing stem recipe I will soon perfect.  In the meantime, chop leaves into bite-sized strips.

In a large pot with high sides, heat 3 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat or until oil shimmers.  Add minced garlic and saute for 3 to 4 minutes, or until golden and fragrant.  Throw in the chopped kale.   Stir for a minute or two until kale starts to wild.  Cover and reduce heat to low and cook until tender, about 10 minutes.  Squeeze in the juice of one lemon.  Add sea salt and pepper to taste.

Heat oven to 375.  Brush bread with remaining tablespoon of olive oil and bake for 7 minutes, until toasty and just slightly crisp.  

Here's where the egg option comes in.  In a small omelet pan, melt butter over medium-high heat.  Crack in the egg and fry for 2 to 3 minutes.  Do not flip.   

Remove toasts from oven and place on platter.  Mound kale atop toast slices and slide optional fried egg atop all. Top with grated cheese and an additional sprinkling of salt and pepper. The idea is to cut into the egg and let the golden gooey yolk run over everything.  It is great for the spirits and senses.  This is no dainty canape, it's a gutsy knife and fork affair.  Dig in.  Have fun. Buon appetito, slainte, and whatever it is the Turks say.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Banana Bread and the Theory of Relativity

Fabulous art courtesy of the fabulous Philip Brooker.

I got thinking about banana bread this morning when I saw the bananas on the kitchen counter had gone all black and gnarly.  This is a good thing -- tired, past-their-prime bananas are what distinguish a superior banana bread from its pale, dry imitations.  

My grandmother's banana bread was the first I ever tasted and it's spoiled me for any other. She made it with sour cream or sometimes soured milk (which scared me as a kid).  I use fat-free yogurt.  It adds happy probiotics and richness, but less fat and ameliorates for me the butter and sugar in the recipe. There are more Spartan and ascetic banana breads out there, but they are not worth eating.  This banana bread is tender, moist, banana-intense, racy with vanilla, homey and comforting.  

It's also a high performer on the perceived effort-to-reward ratio. "Oh, but you went to so much trouble," people tell me as they slice it and snarf it.  Nah, it's a breeze.  I make it all the time. Friends and family donate their nasty bananas and I'll have a loaf of banana bread to them later that day.  The princess in Rumpelstiltskin could spin straw into gold.  I spin bananas into banana bread.  I cannot spin them into gold -- that'd be a talent worth having.  
Seeing as how I had rotten bananas this morning, I made a batch of banana bread on my lunch hour.  In seven minutes.  Really -- I clocked it. The only head start I gave myself was taking the butter out of the fridge ahead of time so it could soften.  I started creaming the butter at 12:53 and had the whole shebang in the oven at 1:00.  It is now 1:42 and the house smells heavenly.

When I was little, my grandmother baked banana bread and the process seemed like going to church --it was ritualized, filled with mystery and above all, lengthy.  So how do you account for the fact I can make it in almost no time now?  Einstein would have answers. Me, I just have banana bread.

I also have this link to Joe King Carrasco singing "Banana," which its jubilant chorus, "All the nation like banana" --  How to describe Joe King Carrasco -- a quirky '80s Tex-Mex musician who in the depths of Goth had the cojones to be relentlessly fun.  Where are you now, Joe?  I still have a photo of you in the bathtub (with crown) and my prized autographed Joe King Carrasco  t-shirt.  Come back to Miami any time.  Banana bread's on me.

Banana Bread

1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
2/3 cup fat-free yogurt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups flour
3-5 nasty old bananas
1 tablespoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350.  Lightly grease a 9X5 loaf pan.

In a large bowl, cream butter until fluffy.  Add sugar.  Keep beating and add eggs.  

In a separate cup or bowl, measure out the yogurt and stir in baking soda.   This will make the yogurt fizz up and be very science experimenty.  This is my favorite part of the whole deal.

Work the 2 cups of flour into the butter and sugar mixture, alternating with the yogurt.  You will have very thick batter.

Mash the bananas in a bowl or on a plate, then stir into the batter.  Finally, stir in the vanilla and you're done.

Pour batter into baking pan and bake for 1 hour until golden-brown and gorgeous.  It smells wonderful, tastes even better, keeps wrapped in foil for ages.   

Monday, March 9, 2009

And When Life Offers You Turnips. . . .

What you'll probably never see on a Gourmet cover -- "Our top ten turnip recipes!"  Face it, turnips are no one's favorite vegetable (are they yours?  Talk to me.).  And yet they're as much a part of the vegetable kingdom as the more popular potato, they're almost indestructable, they last for ages, the staple of root cellars.  They're easy to grow and cheap to buy.  They get us through tough times.

Their shape is not unlike the noble onion, and at their tops, they have a stripe of purple, like a sash worn by dignitaries.  Turnip greens are great -- sky-high in vitamin K (one cup offers over 660 percent of your RDA) and barely there in calories (28).  The turnip itself, cruciferous like its better-loved kin broccoli, is rich in vitamin C, calcium (!), folic acid and magnesium.  It's a veritable pharmacy in root form.  

And yet, the turnip is often the vegetable of last resort.   Even M.F.K Fisher, queen of penurious eats, doesn't provide a turnip recipe.  We'd rather feed it to livestock than eat it ourselves.  The taste and texture is the root of the problem.  Turnips are often served mashed, so unsuspecting folk spoon it up thinking it's mashed potatoes only to find out otherwise.  Turnips are more fibrous and somewhat other than potato in texture.  They have more in common with the radish.  And yet their density makes it hard to use turnips as you do radishes or daikon.  It is perplexing, especially so since I have acquired nine turnips through my farm share program and I have a horror of waste.  What to do?

I am opposed to the concept of sneaking vegetables into recipes.  Sneaking sounds so furtive and underhanded. I am much more in favor of recipe enhancement, you know, like enhanced breasts.   To enhance means you're not denying anything, it implies an active desire to improve, to make better.  And to enhance a dish with vegetables means you're adding nutrition and flavor, yet very little money and effort. This is everything I stand for. 

This turnip-enhanced vegetable tagine draws on the Moroccan flavors I love.  It is layered in taste, easy to prepare and contains turnips, which as God as my witness, I will never look down on again. 

Heretical Vegetable Tagine With Turnips (Deal With It)

Traditional Moroccan tagines simmer away all day.  Honey, who's got the time?  This heretical version produces the same result in a fraction of the time (see, sometimes heresy is a good thing).   Steadfast turnip refuseniks, some good news -- substitute a can of rinsed, drained chickpeas for the turnips and you're good to go.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion
3 medium-to-large turnips
1 large carrot
4 stalks celery
2 peppers, red or green
6 collard greens or handful of Swiss chard or spinach leaves, sliced into ribbons
1 15-ounce can organic diced tomatoes
1 handful raisins
1/2 teaspoon each paprika, cumin, cinnamon, aleppo pepper (or cayenne)  and saffron
1 wedge preserved lemon or 1 fresh lemon
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch Italian parsley
sea salt to taste

Fill a large pot with water, then bring to boil.  Peel turnips and chop into bite-sized pieces.  Add turnip bits to water, cover and reduce heat to low.  Simmer until turnips are tender, about 25 minutes.  Drain and set aside.  

In a large stock pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat.  Chop onion, carrot, celery and peppers.  Add to oil, along with turnips.  Toss well.  Add paprika, cumin, cinnamon, aleppo pepper and saffron.  Stir in greens.

Add diced tomatoes plus any juice from the can.  Stir well.  Bring to boil, then cover and reduce heat to low.   Let it simmer on its own for 45 minutes or so, until vegetables are tender.

Add preserved lemon, chopped fine, or the juice of 1 fresh lemon.  Add sea salt to taste.

Just before serving, stir in finely chopped parsley and cilantro.

Serve over whole grain couscous.

Serves 4-6.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

When Life Offers You Lemons

With the stock market in freefall and joblessness at a 25-year high, it helps to remember attitude is everything. If you're going to eat humble pie, make it tasty.

Some of our most exciting culinary times have grown from poor soil. During the worst of food shortages and ration cards, M.F.K. Fisher taught us How to Cook a Wolf (1942). Frankly, some of her recipes, like the one for mock duck, made with breaded flank steak, scare me. However, I can utterly get behind her belief even in dire times, we have to live and we might as well do it stylishly. In "How to Be Cheerful Though Starving," she wrote "It takes a certain amount of native wit to cope gracefully with having the wolf camp out on your doorstep."

The good news is, native wit is free. It can't be bought. But it can be cultivated. "There are many ways to make a little seem like more," wrote Fisher. "They have been followed and changed and reinvented over ten thousand years, with small loss of dignity to mankind."

My dirty secret -- I find deprivation a little bit of a turn-on. Well, it's challenging, and I like a challenge. When Benjamin and I were first back in the States and I put him through grad school, our food budget for $25 a week. Granted, I don't remember eating for a couple of years, but we must have done. Of course we did -- I remember making great pots of soup to last us several days, I remember dried beans. I remember trying to make my recipe for pasta with broccoli, lemon and mint without the lemon (having neither lemons nor money) when my downstairs neighbor came up to visit. She carried a handful of lemons from her tree. I remember cupping the fruit, sun-warmed and fragrant, in my hands. It felt like Christmas.

Look, I don't want to get all Dickensian about this. Poverty sucks. All hardship does. And yet we somehow summon the spirit to get ourselves through. Thsi is what I like best about us as a species. Opposable thumbs are also nice.

This dish is satisfying, cheering, nourishing and cheap -- even if you have to buy your own lemons.

Whole Wheat Pasta With Broccoli, Lemon and Mint

1 head naked broccoli, cut into florets and chopped stems
1 16-ounce box whole wheat pasta, any shape that moves you
4 lemons, juice and zest
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup torn fresh mint leaves, lightly packed
1 jalapeno, minced
sea salt and fresh pepper to taste

Make naked broccoli (see March 2 post). Rinse, ice down and set aside.

In a large pot of boiling water, cook pasta until just al dente.
Strain and rinse.

Using the same pot, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium high heat. Add minced jalapeno, stir until softened, about 3 minutes. Add remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, chopped broccoli and pasta. Stir well to coat.

Add lemon juice and zest, mint leaves and salt to taste. Stir until flavors are dispersed and pasta is heated through.

Serves 4-6.