More Reasons to Buy Organic

Sorry for missing a week. I was enjoying the good life in Hawaii and haven’t quite mastered the remote blog mechanics just yet.  But more on that later!

Periodically I will jump back on my soap box to eschew the virtues of eating organic and sustainable foods.  This morning the New York Times provided yet another compelling article which highlights the hazards of melamine – found in much of the human food chain – especially imported from China.  In summary, this dangerous chemical is infecting many of our staples, which is of even greater concern to young children.

Of course we know about this product from the pet food recall last year which killed thousands of dogs and cats.  But melamine seeps its way into our own agriculture through conventional fertilizers, and can affect not only the beef we consume, but the milk from cows and eggs from chickens who eat contaminated feed.

Bottom line (again) is to stick with trusted food sources which are locally grown. Personally, I am not feeling too confident about many of China’s assurances these days…and my body is my temple.

>> Just in time for Turkey Day – check out this Sam Fromartz’ post on how to order local items, from fresh greens to the big bird.

Pumpkin Primer

Wait!  Don’t send your pumpkin to the compost pile without extracting the fleshy goodness inside.  There are a variety of ways to use pumpkin,  the least of which is in baking.  The moisture is absorbed beautifully by whole grains, making the end result moist and tender.

Pumpkin is highly nutritious and most noted for its seeds, which are full of protein and EFAs (essential fatty acids.)  But the meat itself also has many health properties. It helps prevent cancers, cataracts, and regulates blood pressure.  Key nutrients are calcium, iron, magnesium and beta-carotene, which explains why it prevents visual impairment.

Your recipe will determine the preparation of the pumpkin. For baking I prefer to roast it to bring out golden, caramel flavors. The best pumpkins for baking are sugar pumpkins which tend to be a little smaller than the ones we use for carving.  To bake, cut in half and scoop out all the pulp and seeds (save those for toasting.)  I sprinkle a splash of olive oil on top and bake at 350 until tender (which could take up to an hour.)   Once cooled, you will have enough for the following recipe, and maybe more for a vegetable curry.

Pumpkin Muffins

2 C whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. ground cloves
¼ tsp. nutmeg
½ C unsalted butter
¾ C Sucanat or brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 C fresh or canned pumpkin (you can also use sweet potato)
1 C chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans are best)
Pumpkin seeds

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Prepare two muffin tins with liners.

Whisk together first seven ingredients in medium bowl.

Cream butter and sugar in mixing bowl until light and fluffy.  Beat in eggs one at a time, scraping sides and bottom of bowl.  Mix in vanilla and pumpkin.  Add dry ingredients, blending gently until moist.  Stir in nuts.

Scoop batter into muffin cups and top each with pumpkin seeds.  Bake until toothpick comes out clean, approximately 22-24 minutes.  Remove from oven and cool on rack for five minutes before removing muffins from pan.

>>Let me know if you have a favorite recipe for toasting the seeds!

Trick or Treat? Beware Foods Toxic to Pets

A slight deviation this week – but it is seasonal! Our dog, Ellie, loves to romp in the vineyard (hubbie Jay is president of Cuvaison Estate Wines.)  So there we are on one of our regular outings when Ellie became enamored with the ‘bounty’ of dried grape clusters that didn’t make the cut for wine. She must have stopped at every other row, gobbling up at whatever her mouth could muster, devouring stems, seeds and all.  At first I thought, good – she’s getting her fruit ration for the day – until I suddenly remembered that grapes were on my list of toxic foods for pets!  Fast forward past the ‘loose’ evidence that something wasn’t right with her digestion and Ellie has recovered nicely.  She has found another ‘natural’ snack – carrots – which is safe and great for the teeth.

If you Google ‘toxic foods for pets’ you will discover a slew of tips and opinions on the subject. One of the better sources I found came from “About.com” with regards to dogs ingesting grapes.  Thankfully, we did not need vet intervention this time, but it is something to watch closely.  Keep the ASPCA Poison Center number handy.  They are available 24/7 and have a team of experts to help.

For more information on other foods pets should avoid, check out Wise Geek.  You’ll notice chocolate is potentially fatal – something to make note of during the holidays, including Halloween.

Ratatouille Two Ways

I’m always trying to find new ways to use eggplant and in keeping with my motto of eating with the seasons, I thought I’d play around and see what appeased my discriminating palate. While ratatouille isn’t original, I have added just about everything from the farmers’ market (save the fruit) and cooked up two variations.

Ratatouille over Polenta

Ratatouille over Polenta

And now to mention the nutritional bennies eggplant contains: it is heart healthy, high in potassium, vitamins A, C, and B complex.  It’s also a good source of fiber and is low in calories (just 28 in 1 cup.)  I guess because eggplant seems more substantial, I would have thought that number to be higher – but that’s what makes it an ideal food for weight control.

So here’s my version of this late summer dish using those yummy tomatoes we just canned and roasted:

If you have time, sprinkle the eggplant with salt once sliced to extract some of its bitterness.  I made dishes with both soft rosemary polenta , and baked over farro pasta.

Ratatouille over Farro

Ratatouille over Farro

(like rigatoni – only whole grain)

Ratatouille – Serves 6

2 yellow onions, diced
2 cans diced tomatoes (14 oz. ea.)
2 cups roasted tomatoes
1 medium eggplant, sliced
2 zucchini or yellow squash, sliced
1 red pepper, sliced and seeded
1 medium fennel bulb, sliced
Fresh oregano and sage or dried Italian herbs
Olive oil
Red wine vinegar
A big wedge of Parmesan or Pecorino cheese

Preheat grill. Brush eggplant, fennel, pepper and squash with olive oil and sea salt.  Grill to desired texture and set aside.  Chop once cool.
Sweat onions in olive oil, lightly salted.  Allow to cook until soft, no color. Deglaze pan with small amount of vinegar and reduce until pan is dry.  Add canned tomatoes and allow to cook until juices reduce, forming stew-like consistency.  Add herbs and season to taste.  Combine with all tomatoes and grilled veggies.

Serve over soft polenta or whole grain pasta (photo below) and top with freshly grated cheese.

Preserving Summer: Roasted Tomatoes

It seems we wait all year for just the right time to pluck those ruby red and yellow globes from our gardens or farm stands, and then all too soon they are gone.  Goodness knows we don’t want to then depend on the grocery store for a new supply, because we are all about seasonal produce.  Do you really need a flavorless tomato in January from Chile? Methinks no.

So in the interest of preserving the fullest flavors possible from this great source of lycopene and vitamin C, I have immersed myself in the kitchen canning and roasting tomatoes for sauces and stews in the months ahead.  It’s also therapeutic and economical.

This is the first of a three-part series on prepping tomatoes for future use, and recipes to enjoy today. Its not too late to grab the last of San Marzanos, Romas or plum tomatoes from the farmers’ markets.  And they’re at a great price now. YUM.

Roasting Tomatoes

Preheat oven to 300. Cut tomatoes in half and remove seeds.  Put in bowl, drizzle with olive oil and toss with sea salt, garlic powder and fresh ground pepper to taste.  Be careful not to overdo the salt, as they become pretty concentrated when roasted.

Place cut-side up on cookie sheet or roasting pan lined with parchment.  Bake for two hours or until tomatoes are about half their original size.  You might want to check on them after 60 minutes to make sure the outer ones don’t burn.

Once cooled, you can either store them in the refrigerator in oil, or vacuum seal them and stash in the freezer.  When ready to use, add fresh garlic and herbs, and whatever meat source you desire.

Next up: late summer dishes using…uh, tomatoes!


Are You A Green Foodie?

Like many people, I subscribe to several blogs and every now and then, I actually read them:) OK seriously, I do, and today I’d like to share one of my favorites: The Daily Green.  It covers a range of my favorite topics – food, the environment, green issues, and recipes – everything except pets (a future blog.)  Inside today’s edition there’s a quiz for my fellow devotees committed to living green and ingesting organic. It tests your knowledge on a variety of food sources and briefly touches on the Slow Food movement. Even if you’re inching your way towards sustainable food (bravo!) I think you’ll find it educational and hopefully inspiring.  Afterall, that’s why we do this.  It’s delicious fun!

Cranberry Beans and Garlicky Kale

Cranberry beans are gorgeous for their color alone, but they also have a wonderful texture which is somewhat creamy beneath a hearty skin.  And they’re fresh right now at your local farmers’ markets. Steve Sando pairs them with my favorite green – kale- another super food, loaded with calcium and anti-oxidants from vitamins A and C.  Serve this as an appetizer or light lunch with soup or salad.

3 TB extra virgin olive oil

1/3 C chopped white or yellow onion

3 garlic cloves

1/8 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary

1 1/2 C cooked cranberry beans

2 bunches kale, tough stems removed, coarsely chopped

1/2-inch-thick slices crusty artisan bread

Grated pecorino romano cheese

Preheat oven to 400.

In large, heavy skillet over medium heat, warm 1 TB of olive oil.  Add onion, one garlic clove and rosemary. Saute until soft and fragrant, about 10 minutes.

Put sauteed vegetables and beans in food processor and blend until smooth.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Put the bean puree in a small skillet and warm over low heat.  You will have about 2 cups.

In same skillet you used for onions, etc. warm the remaining 2 TB olive oil over medium heat.  Add remaining garlic and saute for about 10 minutes.  Do not allow the garlic to brown.  Add kale and stir until it begins to wilt.  Partially cover, reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until kale is tender – about 8-10 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper and keep warm.

Brush bread slices with olive oil.  Arrange on baking sheet and toast in oven until crisp, about 7 minutes.  Spread bean mixture over toasted bread and top with kale. Sprinkle with cheese and serve on a platter.

Serves 4-6

Recipe borrowed from “Heirloom Beans”

Where Have You Bean?

One of my favorite protein sources has just gotten some respect, as in really good press.  The legume, or in more familiar terms – the bean – has an entire cookbook dedicated to it’s heritage, preparation, and recipes which will entice even the leery ‘musical fruit’ lover (see ‘romantic’ note below.)

“Heirloom Beans” is a hot new publication by Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo, whose passion for indigenous New World food inspired the creation of his book.  In a quest to find lost varieties of heritage beans, Steve ‘searched the Americas’ for interesting and rare selections that he could bring back home and cultivate.  After discovering many nuances and flavor profiles previously unknown, Steve’s mission took on a whole new life – and it pretty much became his life.

Well, good for us on many levels. As you will read in the book, beans are a super food. They are a wonderful source of plant protein, high in fiber, low in fat.  It’s the soluble fiber which helps cholesterol move out before it has time to be absorbed.  And it’s the high fiber which slows down the rise in blood sugar, making beans a favorite choice as ‘medicine’ for people with diabetes.  Beans are also high in iron, calcium, vitamin B-complex and a slew of other minerals.  They help reduce blood pressure (as in good for the heart) and are said to promote ‘balanced’ sexual activity (I’m not exactly clear on this term but perhaps that’s why Steve labels them ‘romantic.’)

Bottom line is – they taste good!  Heirloom beans have different textures and complex flavors over their mass-produced counterparts. If you have the time, it’s best to pre-soak them to ‘turn off the music,’ so to speak, before cooking. (But according to Steve, his beans are fresher which will reduce the soaking time.) And now with over 100 succulent recipes to choose from, you can make beans a ‘regular’ part of your daily diet. (See next post for an appetizer!)

To purchase a copy of “Heirloom Beans,” I always recommend your local bookstore first, or you can find it at Amazon.  To buy the beans, visit Rancho Gordo’s website for a complete listing of varieties and shipping details.

Mediterranean Frittata

We have some major construction going on at my house, so I offered the workers a homemade lunch in lieu of their usual fare (picture a bag with golden arches…you know the rest.)  I had no idea what I would whip up on such short notice, but then all I had to do was rely on my recent trip to the farmers market for inspiration.  I collected farm-fresh eggs, roasted tomatoes, Swiss chard, goat cheese and parsley for one of my favorite ‘kitchen sink’ recipes: the frittata.  You always know it’s a hit when they ask for seconds, or in this case – thirds.  And it’s incredibly easy.  Serve for lunch or dinner with a garden salad and heaven awaits.

MEDITERRANEAN FRITTATA

9 free-range eggs
1/3 C organic low fat milk
1 med. onion
1 TB garlic, minced
1 TB olive oil
1 C spinach, chard or kale
1 C roasted or sun-dried tomatoes (drain excess liquid)
2 TB chopped parsley
1/4 C chopped Kalamata olives
1/3 C  feta or goat cheese
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
1 TB flax seeds
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350.

Beat eggs with milk and season with salt and pepper.  Set aside.

Chop all veggies.

Sauté olive oil with onion and garlic for about 1-2 minutes, but don’t brown.  Add all veggies and cook over medium for about 4 minutes.  Add Italian seasoning.

Prepare ceramic baking dish (pie shape or oblong) by spraying with oil and coating with freshly ground flax seeds.

Add veggies to egg mixture, along with cheese. Pour into prepared dish and bake at 350 for 25 minutes or until center is set. For additional browning, broil for 3 minutes until golden.

Storing Fresh Produce

A lot can happen from the time produce is picked off the vine or pulled from the earth. Some fruits and veggies go to a packing house; others are cooled and transported an average of 1200 miles before reaching the consumer.

According to the folks at “Ideal Bite,” the average cost of food per American family jumped 36% between Jun. 2000 and May 2008, so every lil’ bit you can save helps.  Since I know you are all shopping at your local farmers’ markets, here are some hints on how to preserve the freshness and nutritional values of your perishable produce:

Store at room temperature

  • apples               lemons            pineapple
  • bananas            limes               pomegranates
  • grapefruit         mangoes          papayas
  • watermelon     persimmons    basil (in vase with water – cut stems every other day)
  • garlic                dry onions       potatoes (put in paper bag and keep in drawer – avoid light)
  • tomatoes          eggplant          peppers

Ripen on counter first, then to refrigerator

  • avocados         nectarines        pears
  • kiwi                 peaches            plums

Refrigerate

  • blueberries       cherries            strawberries (put in Tupperware with paper towel – do not wash first)
  • apricots            grapes              figs
  • raspberries       blackberries     artichokes
  • green beans      herbs               Brussels sprouts
  • carrots              cabbage           peas
  • radishes            corn                 spinach/lettuces (wash first, then store with holes in plastic bag)
  • cauliflower       celery              leeks
  • beets                 broccoli           mushrooms (put in paper bag in produce drawer)

General: store fruits and vegetables separate.  Some fruits let off the gas ethylene, which speeds ripening during the process.

Check out the Oliso Frisper Foodkeeper, a vacuum sealer for all types of food that uses reusable plastic bags.

I use  Evert-Fresh reusable bags which truly have a lasting affect on the produce .

In order to maximize the nutrients you receive, it is best to consume your fresh (organic) produce within two days of purchase but these tips can help extend their life span.  General rule of thumb is to wash all produce – even citrus – just before eating, with exceptions above.