Use Your Flavorination!

When a writer is staring at a blank computer screen and can’t seem to get any words down, we call that “writer’s block.”

When an artist faces a blank canvas and is uninspired to lay down the first brush strokes, we say he has “lost his muse.”

English: Chocolate mousse with strawberries pr...

Chocolate mousse with strawberries prepared using silken tofu and soy milk. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do we call it when the uncertain vegetarian is staring at a block of tofu and has no idea how to take this bland, white piece of supposed-to-be-good-protein and turn it into dinner? I say that is a budding chef who simply needs some “FLAVORINATION!”  You know . . . to imagine some rich and piquant flavors that would please the palette and make that blank block of tofu into a taste sensation.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying all tofu is completely flavorless.  Three friends and I once spent an evening making our own tofu starting from scratch with soy beans.  We toiled and waited and cleaned up messes and drank some sake and followed the directions and strained and curdled and after several hours we had produced two pounds of the freshest tofu any of us had ever had.  It looked sooo good and that was the beginning of the end.  Once we started to taste it, it was so incredibly wonderful and flavorful–just by itself with a splash of shoyu–that two pounds of tofu was gone in about fifteen minutes.

Memorable experience, but I never again invested that much time and effort to make tofu–only to have it scarfed up immediately.  Besides, I no longer drink sake.

So.  You’re at your food store and you’re staring at packages of soft, firm and extra firm tofu.  You also notice there is tofu in little aseptic boxes.  Which one should you buy?  Knowing that soybeans are near the top of the list of genetically modified foods, you definitely should consider buying organic tofu.  Organic foods are not supposed to contain GMOs.  All tofu is stored in water and it should be spring water, so check the package for that.

Firm or extra firm tofu is great for stir-frying, broiling, coating and deep-frying or baking or for soups.  Soft tofu is, well, softer and not as dense.  It too can be used for soups and it is also good for dips and dressings that you will be blending in a blender.  Silken tofu is also great for blending and is often the tofu of choice for smooth luscious tofu desserts such as a mousse or pudding.

Now . . . the way I was brought up on tofu, we wouldn’t usually mix tofu with sweets and certainly not with sugar.  That is not a balanced preparation and not terribly digestible.  I know.  I know. The modern Japanese use tofu with sugar and all kinds of things with sugar.  That is not traditional.  They pay for their adoption of western ways with an incidence of cancer they never had in the good ol’ days.

So just because you’re vegetarian doesn’t make it okay to consume any combination of non-animal-based food you can dream up.  If you want a sugary tofu dessert, I invite you to Google it for yourself.  [If you’re thinking, “Then why did she put that photo up there of chocolate tofu mousse?”  I’m not mean, really!  That was an attractive photo and it got you to read this far, yes?]

My point here is that whatever you marinate, cook, blend, sauce or coat the tofu with is going to make the flavor of the tofu.  And just because I am in a friendly mood and don’t want to be too preachy about how you should take your tofu, I’m going to give you a suggestion for a barbecue-style tofu marinade.  This is not a recipe per se, just a concept to get you started.  You use your FLAVORINATION to put it all together.

I would combine red miso, garlic, olive oil, perhaps some tomato paste, and a bit of barley malt (a complex carbohydrate made from whole barley–sweet, but not like sugar).  I’d probably add some red pepper flakes or chile powder and a dash from a little bottle of red stuff called “Texas Champagne.”  It’s a hot sauce.  Then I’d taste this concoction and see what else it is asking for. You’ll probably add a little water and vinegar to give it that “saucy” consistency.

While preparing this sauce, slice extra firm tofu in 3/4 inch slices and lay them out on paper towels to drain off some of the water.  You can even put paper towels on top of the slices and put a cutting board or weighted flat pan on top to press out the water even more.

Then marinate the tofu in the BBQ sauce for a minimum of an hour so you really get the flavor into the tofu.  Broil it or pan-fry it or even grill it.  Garnish with something green–chopped parsely, fresh chopped basil–whatever your FLAVORINATION dreams up!

Okay, okay!  You talked me into it.  Take a quick walk over to Christina Cook’s website and look at this very easy to make dark chocolate mousse recipe.  And no sugar in it.  It’s sweetened with dates and I’m going to try it too!

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Nutmeg – Not Just For Decorating Eggnog!

Taken on our trip to Grenada in 2011 - The nut...

The nutmeg spice comes from the seed inside the nut inside the fruit of this tree. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nothing says “Holiday Cooking” like the distinct aroma of nutmeg!

Does the smell of nutmeg conjure up the image of a warm, sweet, glowing kitchen?  Being safe and warm by the fireplace when the wind is howling and the snow is blowing?

When I smell nutmeg, I always think of eggnog–or at least eggnog latte!  However nutmeg is a very versatile spice because its unique flavor is soft and rounded and can blend well with a lot of other things. Nutmeg is an appealing addition to hot chocolate or cocoa.  Or how about your regular coffee or tea with a pinch of nutmeg?

line art drawing

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course there’s pumpkin pie. Nutmeg goes great with that as well as other sweet and starchy dishes such as rice pudding and gingerbread.  How about something that’s not a dessert?  Like creamy winter squash soup?  Or sprinkled over hot steamed buttered cauliflower or Brussels sprouts? (A Dutch tradition.)

Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta

  • 10-12 ounces of fresh Brussels sprouts
  • 2 shallots, peeled
  • 2 Tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1/4 cup of chopped pancetta (or for vegetarian-style, try chopped “Fakin’ Bacon”–a smokey-flavored tempeh/soy product)
  • sea salt, pepper, and of course nutmeg to taste

Wash the Brussels sprouts, take off any brown layers and cut them in half.  Then slice just through the stem end to split it so it will cook evenly with the rest of the half pieces.  Peel the shallots and thinly slice them.  Pan-fry your chopped pancetta or tempeh bacon in the oil.  Do this for a few minutes and then add the chopped shallots and cook those for a minute or two.  Finally add the Brussels sprouts and a pinch or two of sea salt.  Keep stirring to keep things moving.  If you want to, you can add just a touch of water at the end to finish the cooking.  When the Brussels sprouts are tender, add the pepper and sprinkle with a bit of nutmeg–maybe 1/8 teaspoon.

All these cozy images and comforting foods with nutmeg can fool you.  Nutmeg is actually a seed from inside the nut of a tropical fruit that is indigenous to Indonesia–the Spice Islands–and India.  It makes a very nice addition to curry powder.  As you may know, curry powder is not the name of an individual spice.  It is a combination of spices blended together and used in many warm-climate cuisines.

Here’s my curry powder formula that includes nutmeg:

  • 1/4 tsp allspice
  • 1 tsp thyme
  • 1/4 tsp ginger powder
  • 1/2 tsp coriander
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp powdered stevia
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • chile pepper flakes to taste

Let’s see what you can do with this by adding it to fish, using it as a rub on broiled tofu, or seasoning a Mediterranean-style pasta and vegetable dish. Or?  Tell us what you come up with.

All of that holiday-warm-and-cozy imagery comes to me naturally just by catching the aroma of nutmeg.  But I have heard that if you take a great deal of it you can suffer hallucinations and delirium.  I have no idea how much nutmeg you’d have to ingest for that to happen, but my common sense is my guide.  Too much nutmeg would be difficult to take because the strong aroma and unique taste just don’t lend themselves to large portions.  A little goes a long way!

I have also heard that nutmeg is not good for small animals.  So don’t be slipping your dog any holiday eggnog or holiday Brussels sprouts!

The Ghost of Christmas Repast

“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
― Charles DickensA Christmas Carol

Just about everyone has a story about some disastrous Christmas they experienced.  If you ask me or my sister you’ll hear all about the year when Christmas dinner was just served on the table and my sister got a nose bleed that eventually sent her to the hospital, I got extremely ill and was sent to bed with fever and chills, the dog knocked over the Christmas tree, my father tried to vacuum up the myriad broken glass pieces from ornaments we would never see again, and the water from the tree stand made the vacuum cleaner short out and catch fire.  All of this happened in about a half an hour.

We didn’t blame our Christmas horror on the food like Ebenezer here. No one ate Christmas dinner that year.  Ours was not an earth-shattering disaster but it has always made a good story especially when my sister tells it.  She got to watch the Hoover catch fire and our father rush out the front door with it and toss it into the snow.

It seems to me the Thanksgiving dinner tradition is quite different from the Christmas one. Thanksgiving is usually one main, all-important, all-American meal and the people who are eating it are zeroed in on that main course and all the trimmings and side dishes they have loved year after year.  There’s a little less decision-making as to what to cook but a lot more investment in the final outcome of that sacred stuffed turkey and cranberry sauce with all their fixin’s and sides.

There is so much for a cook to choose from at Christmastime!  Everything from cookies, party foods, eggnog, gingerbread people in their gingerbread houses. . . not to mention that the Christmas cooking season stretches on for weeks and weeks giving us plenty of time to try all the dishes our hearts desire while still turning a blind eye to anything so mundane as caloric content because it is, after all, Christmas!

There’s traditional Christmas food from every part of the world as well as our own homegrown family traditions. I guess some people get around all those choices by simply making another Turkey Dinner for Christmas.  My mother did that.  Our Christmas dinner was always exactly like our Thanksgiving one except at Christmas there were Christmas cookies.  (Including my grandmother’s wine cookies which I wrote about last year but I promise this year not to whine about wine cookies again.

My own Christmas cooking has run the gamut starting with Turkey Dinner Like Mom Used to Make until one year when I saw a recipe for slow-cooked turkey that promised a very amazingly moist roasted bird.  I learned there is a big difference between slow-cooked and no-cooked.  We ended up ordering pizza because the turkey didn’t finish cooking until very late.

Next I decided to impress a boyfriend by cooking Roast Beef with Yorkshire Pudding in honor of his British heritage. He was born in Philadelphia, PA but his adorable aunties and  mother were always talking up the English in them and he did too. The Beef and Yorkshire was very experimental–no Internet in those days to look up recipes and watch videos on how it’s done–my recipe was cut out of the newspaper and it came out surprisingly well.  And not surprisingly it was a very heavy meal what with the eggy Yorkshire batter being fried in the mostly fat roast beef drippings.  I tried this for two Christmases just before I became a complete vegetarian.

That changed everything as far as holiday cooking was concerned.  Not only was I vegetarian, I had stopped eating any refined sugar and got into brown rice and seaweed! (Still into those.)  But when it came to Christmas, I tried to mock up vegetarian versions of traditional food.  Maybe you’ve heard of “turkey” made from tofu or Japanese seitan (sometimes called “wheat meat”) shaped like something recognizable.

Hubbard Squash

Hubbard Squash – Just like a big green and orange turkey!  (Photo credit: Smitten with Kittens)

I often opted for stuffing a squash.  I would choose a Hubbard squash because it was fairly easy to find one that had the general shape of a turkey. (Go ahead, squint your eyes and imagine this is a turkey!)  Being a big squash, the Stuffed Hubbard Turkey Squash took almost as long to bake as a real stuffed turkey.  The stuffing was what you might expect–whole wheat bread dried and cubed, onions and celery sauteed in olive oil with garlic, sage, salt and pepper.  Then there were all the fixings plus mock mince meat pie, pumpkin pie, cookies, potatoes, cranberry relish, etc.  It would take me the best part of two days to make this dinner and my dear children would periodically come into the kitchen to hang out with me and steal stuffing.

Sometimes we wouldn’t eat Christmas dinner until well after normal dinner time.  My family generously refrained from complaining.  This kind of grand dinner plan nearly always included way more dishes than we needed to have at one meal and, especially in my earlier years as a vegetarian, was challenging to make.  And let’s not even think about the dishes, pots and pans involved!

“Besides, the kettle was aggravating and obstinate. It wouldn’t allow itself to be adjusted on the top bar; it wouldn’t hear of accommodating itself kindly to the knobs of coal; it would lean forward with a drunken air and dribble, a very Idiot of a kettle, on the hearth. It was quarrelsome, and hissed and spluttered morosely at the fire. To sum up all, the lid, resisting Mrs. Peerybingle’s fingers, first of all turned topsy-turvey, and then with an ingenious pertinacity deserving of a better cause, dived sideways in – down to the very bottom of the kettle. And the hull of the Royal George has never made half the monstrous resistance to coming out of the water, which the lid of that kettle employed against Mrs. Peerybingle, before she got it up again.
“It looked sullen and pig-headed enough, even then: carrying its handle with an air of defiance, and cocking its spout pertly and mockingly at Mrs. Peerybingle as if it said, “I won’t boil. Nothing shall induce me!”
― Charles DickensA Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings

I am no longer a complete vegetarian, though I do eat a lot of vegetarian food.  I have not yet decided what to make for Christmas dinner but I am planning to include a few choice dishes from family traditions over the next couple of weeks.  At the top of that list is my vegetarian lasagna made with my family-famous squash and carrot sauce and tofu cheese.  That sauce was once manufactured in a Brooklyn factory under the brand name, “Sarah’s.”  They made 500 cases of my sauce before we decided to call it quits.  The one that comes out of my kitchen is a thousand times better.

Another will be a Hungarian chestnut pudding called “Gesztenyepure.”  I learned about it from my daughter-in-law who is from Budapest.  And if it comes out well, I’m thinking about how I could make it and send it to her.  And if it comes out well, I’m thinking about how I could photograph it and give the recipe to you, my dear blogging friends and followers.

I’ll probably end up telling you about my Instant-But-Not-Out-of-a-Package Stuffing, too.  I miraculously discovered how to make a bread stuffing in ten minutes that comes out very well and can be made for only one or two people or servings at a time.  My husband liked it so much, he thinks I should blog about this.

I often indulge in an oyster stew for Christmas dinner.  It’s on my list of maybes, depending on where the oysters are from.

Surely my Field Greens and Pear Salad will be a part of Christmas cooking, too.  I’ve made that for many years and I think it all started with memories of pear halves dyed red (cinnamon-flavored) and green (mint-flavored) that my mother served us over the holidays. These delighted us.  Well, mine aren’t dyed but here is my simple recipe:

Field Greens and Pear Salad

  • 2/3 cup soft wheat berries
  • 1 cup spring water
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • juice of one lemon
  • one pound of field greens washed and dried
  • 3 pears cored and sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 2 oz. currants

Salad Dressing:

  • 3 tablespoons walnut oil
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 3 teaspoons brown rice syrup
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Soak wheat berries in one cup of water overnight.  Drain wheat berries and place in a small saucepan with 1 1/2 cups spring water and a pinch of sea salt.  Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat.  Cover and cook 30 minutes until the liquid is absorbed and berries are tender.  Spread the cooked berries out on a towel to dry.

2. Heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat.  Add wheat berries and saute until lightly toasted (about 10 minutes).  Stir in soy sauce, cayenne and lemon juice.  Keep the wheat berries warm until you are ready to serve.

3. Combine the salad dressing ingredients in a small jar and shake vigorously.  (The dressing can be made a day ahead of time.)

4. Assemble the salad, toss the field greens and pears with the dressing in a salad bowl.  Top with warm wheat berries and if desired, garnish with currants.

This is such an aesthetic and pleasing look at the subject of edible flowers. Far more so than the one I wrote a while back (https://mycookinglife.com/2012/03/03/please-dont-eat-the-hyacinths-but-its-okay-to-drink-the-dandelions/). I just had to re-blog . And man! I wish I could draw and paint all my graphics. I tried it once when I wrote about the super hero, Coffee Man, (https://mycookinglife.com/2012/05/23/coffee-man-sigh-my-hero/).

Illustrated Bites

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It’s Rasta Pasta Time!

It happens to all of us sometimes, I’m sure.

I love to cook.  I really do.  And I’m good at it!  But occasionally the culinary muse seems to have gone on vacation.  No incoming inspiration.  No outflowing “Ahas.”

Sometimes all it takes to start the wheels turning is a trip to my favorite farmers market or natural food store to see what’s there.  Sometimes a little game, like “Use Up What’s in the Refrigerator,” or “Cook a Meal Using Only Locally Grown Food,” or “Take Five Unlikely Ingredients and See What You Can Make Out of Them” gets the creative juices going.

But one of my all time fav games is to put on my ear buds, turn up the volume on the iPod, head out to the market and let the music take me.  Today’s choice is a selection of Bob Marley classics!

Wait for it . . .

Wait for it . . .

English: Bob Marley live in concert, just a co...

English: Bob Marley live in concert, just a couple of years before his death (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mmmmm.  This could be good.  I’ll call it “Rasta Pasta!”  Inspired by Reggae music and Jamaican spices and flavors, I created my own jerk spice which can be used as a dry rub on fish.  But I am using it today as seasoning for a pasta dish.  Not that Rastafarian cuisine includes pasta, mind you.  I don’t think it does.  Many before me have named their Jamaican-inspired dish “Rasta Pasta” and this is my version!

First you need a selection of spices typically found in Jamaican food.  I checked in my natural food store and could find no Jamaican spice combos or Jamaican jerk rub that didn’t have sugar in it.  So I made my own this way:

Jamaican-style spicy rub or seasoning

  • 1/4 tsp allspice
  • 1 tsp thyme
  • 1/4 tsp ginger powder
  • 1/2 tsp coriander
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp powdered stevia
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • chile pepper flakes to taste

Combine these dried spices and adjust according to how you want it to taste.  My family doesn’t like extremely spicy food so I used a bit of chile pepper flakes.  You could leave that out and add a very hot diced pepper to the dish such as scotch bonnet or habanero. Or you could go with a super-mild taste and include green pepper in your dish.

Next I started the pasta and for this I used orzo because it imitates the shape of rice and a very typical Jamaican dish is “rice and peas” which is actually rice and kidney beans.  I decided to use black beans instead because they are slightly smaller and I thought they’d look good.

Rasta Pasta for Four

  • 2 TBLS olive oil
  • 3 cloves of crushed garlic
  • 1/2 cup of diced onions
  • 2 cups of orzo pasta [Note this is not a whole grain pasta.  It is 100% semolina.]
  • 14-16 ounces of coconut milk
  • salt
  • 1 TBLS or more of your Jamaican spice mix
  • 14 1/2 oz canned organic whole peeled tomatoes or use fresh if available
  • 1/2 cup diced green pepper
  • 1/2 cup cooked black beans
  • 1/2 lb large shrimp, peeled and deveined [I am staying away from Gulf shrimp and Key West shrimp because there are still many problems in the Gulf area due to the oil spill despite what the media would have us believe.  I used Thai shrimp for this dish.  You can use other seafood or another white fish or don’t add any at all and you will still have pasta and beans which create some protein]
  • 1 lime
  • 1 scallion sliced thinly for garnish

Put olive oil in a large frying pan or stewing pot.  Saute the garlic briefly without letting it brown then add the onions.  Add a pinch of salt and saute the onions until they are translucent.  Add the orzo pasta and stir it around a few seconds to coat with oil.  Add another pinch of salt and add the coconut milk.  Stir that in and put a lid on your pot and simmer the orzo on a low flame, stirring occasionally to keep the bottom from sticking.  After about 15 minutes, add the tomatoes.  Break up the tomatoes in the pan while they cook into the dish.  When the pasta is just about tender add the green pepper and put the lid on for another 1-2 minutes.  If you need to add more coconut milk while the pasta is cooking, do so.  Stir in the black beans and put the shrimp on top.  Let this cook with the lid on until the shrimp are pink.  Don’t let the shrimp overcook or they will be tough.

When the dish is finished cooking, serve it out with a garnish of sliced scallions and maybe a squeeze of lime and some lime zest if you have it.

Enjoy mon!

Quick Cooking Tip – Parsley!

Here’s a little tip for getting the most out of your cooking time, especially in the summer when most of us would really like to create fast, bright, nutrition-packed dishes without using a lot of heat.

The tip is:  P A R S L E Y

Parsley

Parsley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the stuff that nearly every restaurant uses for a garnish on your plate.  You know, the little green sprig of greens on a tiny stem that add color to the otherwise medium-dull plate of food.

I had never thought of parsley as a vegetable, as in—something you actually eat—until I met my friend Carolyn years ago and went to her house for lunch.  She served parsley sandwiches!  She used some homemade whole-grain bread with a bit of mayo, sliced tomatoes from her garden, a few slices of red onion and a huge bunch of parsley.

This turned out to be a delightful sandwich!  I have indulged in parsley sandwiches ever since.  I happen to prefer the “Italian” parsley which is the flat-leafed variety.  And yes, if you do eat the little sprig served as a garnish, chlorophyll-rich parsley will help you cleanse your breath.  Parsley is often eaten raw but it can also be added to cooked dishes.

English: Petroselinum crispum, Parsley, leaf. ...

English: Petroselinum crispum, Parsley, leaf. Deutsch: Petroselinum crispum, Apiaceae, Petersilie, Blatt. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Parsley can be washed, cut and dropped into a dish you are cooking and will rapidly turn bright green.  When it is bright, it is done.  This delicate culinary herb takes almost no cooking at all yet it has powerful nutritional properties.  Usually I add parsley to a dish I’m cooking and turn off the stove. Gorgeous!

Parsley is a nutritional powerhouse!  For one thing it is a good source of Vitamin K. You can learn more about the vitamins and minerals in parsley here:  http://www.nutrition-and-you.com/parsley.html

If you want to, you can wash an entire bunch of parsley by filling your sink or a bowl full of cold water and immersing the entire bunch still tied together.  Shake it around and get all the sand and dirt out, then drain the bunch and untie it.  That way you will not be chasing around small sprigs of the stuff in your wash bowl.

Preserved Lemons – A Tradition in Moroccan, Mediterranean and Indian Cuisine

I’ve been longing for preserved lemons and their uniquely intense flavor for months now.  What a wonderful flash of zing!  What a refreshing, piquant, tart highlight to bring simple dishes alive!

You will find recipes using preserved lemons from Northern Africa, the Middle East, from India and even in some Caribbean cuisines.  They are extremely easy to make, too!

Step One:  Gather up your ingredients.  You’ll need fresh, organic lemons.  Pick ones that look good and don’t have a lot of blemishes.  You may choose Meyer lemons or regular ones.  Wash these thoroughly.  You’ll also need course sea salt.  Do not use regular commercial salt as this has additives and it is too harsh for this use.  You’ll also need a clean jar in which to put your lemons while they preserve.  I chose a Kerr one-quart jar with  tight-fitting two piece top.  You can also use the kind of jar with the rubber seal in which the lid clips on.  Some recipes I saw online recommend sterilizing the jar first but most do not.

You need lemons, course sea salt, a jar and of course a good sharp knife and a cutting board.

Step Two:  Hold the lemons stem-side up and cut them into quarters but without going all the way through the lemon.  You want to end up with a lemon that is quartered and can open like a flower, but is still all in one piece.  If you have a good, sharp knife this is easy.  And to make it even easier, you can place the lemon between two wooden spoon handles or anything else wooden that will stop your knife from going all the way through the lemon. And, should you accidentally cut all the way through the lemon . . . no worries!  Just carry on and use those pieces too.

The wooden spoon handles prevent the knife from slicing all the way through.

Step Three:  Salt those babies!  Open the lemon up and generously salt each cut surface with course sea salt.  You don’t need to rub it in or do anything else to it.  But, you can experiment with adding other spices and herbs to your salt and mixing them in before you salt your lemons.  Hmmm, what about coriander, fennel, cloves, cinnamon stick, peppercorn, bay leaf . . .?

Thoroughly salt the lemon surfaces with course sea salt.

Step Four:  Close up the salted lemons and pack them as tightly as possible into your jar.  Fill the jar with spring water and secure the lid.  The lemons will take about thirty days to preserve and then they will last for a year or more.  I have my jar sitting right on my kitchen table because I think it looks beautiful and I enjoy the anticipation of all the wonderful recipes I’ll come up with when they’re ready to use.  (And I’ll be sharing those with you, my friend!)

Close the lemons and pack them into the jar tightly.

Add spring water, seal the lid and wait thirty days.

Shop Your Local Farmer’s Markets

The growing season is upon us in the Northern Hemisphere and soon we will be able to get freshly picked, locally grown foods!

Copley Square Farmer's Market

Copley Square Farmer’s Market (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the best things you can do to improve the nutritional value and taste of your cooking is to venture over to your local farmer’s market or roadside stand and buy fresh, locally-grown produce.  Your local natural food store may even feature local food growers and producers.  Mine does and they usually have special weekend events where you can meet and talk with these local growers and ranchers.

I would much rather make the acquaintance of the people who are actually growing and raising my food than suffer a distant, from-my-wallet-to-your-cashier relationship with a huge mega-supermarket conglomerate food chain.  I am much more interested in supporting a local grower and seeing that my dollars go into his/her hands rather than having my food dollar pay for transportation, packaging, marketing and warehousing my food—all of which contributes to reducing the taste, freshness, safety and nutritional value of that food.

There has been quite an increase in farmer’s markets over the past decade or so.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, operating farmer’s markets have increased by 17% between 1994 and 2011.  One resource I found quoted Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of the USDA, saying, “There’s a yearning for the 99 percent of Americans who are no longer connected to the farm to reconnect.”  Check here for the entire article which includes tips for locating truly organic food at these markets.  http://www.mnn.com/money/green-workplace/stories/farmers-markets-spur-job-growth-new-report-finds

That is good news and it reflects a demand for fresh, locally-grown food.  In a economically stressed environment it is refreshing to see this food marketing niche showing such healthy growth.  (Pun intended!)

For both experienced and budding cooks, preparing fresh, locally-grown foods has the big advantage of creating great taste without much effort.  We’ve all probably had the experience of picking or buying fresh-picked corn on the cob at the height of its season in the summertime and taking it home and cooking it same day.  Can’t get any sweeter!  And we’ve all probably had the experience of buying same corn and storing it for a few days in the refrigerator and then tasting the disappointing starchy corn that results from letting it sit.  No comparison.  Fresh-picked corn wins!

The same is true for all vegetables and other food products.  When you buy it fresh and prepare it right away you have superior taste as well as superior nutritional value.  That alone makes it easier to create incredibly delicious food without breaking a sweat.  And I’m all about making my cooking life cooler and easier in the summertime!

Do you frequent a farmer’s market?  I’d love to hear what you find there and how you like it.

Summer Dinner Salads

Let’s say you want to eat well—nutritionally speaking—and you are willing to put in some quality time in the kitchen. (That’s Great!!!!)  But you don’t feel you have enough time or know-how to make fresh, new, organic, whole-food meals every day.  To top it off, summer’s coming and the kids will be out of school and you have a gazillion things you also would like to do.

One way to handle that without feeling like you have to slave away in the kitchen in the heat of summer is to plan and make all-in-one-meals.  That’s not a new idea, of course.  But let’s make it into a new idea by creating some wonderful whole grain salad meals.  These will have your whole grains, protein and vegetables all in one dish.

Harvested Quinoa Seeds

Have you ever tried quinoa?  I was first introduced to it about 30 years ago and at that time I had never heard of it.  All of a sudden it appeared on the shelves and bulk bins of the natural food stores along with quinoa flour, bread and pastas.  I took a close look at some that was cooked for me and was fascinated by the fact that each cooked grain of quinoa looked like a little planet with a ring around it–like Saturn.  Far out!

Quinoa is referred to as an ancient grain.  Technically it is a seed but is considered a grain as far as its qualities and uses.  Quinoa was a staple food for thousands of years in the Andes region of South America as one of just a few crops the ancient Incas cultivated at such high altitude.  I suppose that’s why I’m attracted to eating it here in Albuquerque which is more than 5,000 feet above sea level.

[From Wikipedia:  The Incas, who held the crop to be sacred, referred to quinoa as chisaya mama or ‘mother of all grains’, and it was the Inca emperor who would traditionally sow the first seeds of the season using ‘golden implements’. During the European conquest of South America, the Spanish colonists scorned quinoa as ‘food for Indians’, and even actively suppressed its cultivation, due to its status within indigenous non-Christian ceremonies. In fact, the Conquistadores forbade quinoa cultivation for a time and the Incas were forced to grow wheat instead.]

Quinoa Salad - An all-in-one meal!

2013 has been declared UN International Year of Quinoa and I’m all for it!  Here is a recipe I recently developed for a summer dinner salad using quinoa.

Quinoa Salad

Serves 4-6

  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 2 cups water
  • ½ tsp finely minced fresh turmeric root
  • 2 tbls currants
  • 1 two-finger pinch of sea salt
  • ½ cup diced red pepper
  • ½ cup diced celery
  • 1  cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1  cup black beans (cooked)  [For this I used Eden canned black beans.  I like this brand because they have cooked the beans with kombu seaweed.  The kombu provides minerals which balance the fat and protein in the beans and reduces the (ahem) “tooting.”
  • ¼ cup brown rice vinegar
  • 3 Tbls oil of your choice.  I used toasted pumpkin seed oil but you could also you toasted sesame seed oil or olive oil.
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • 2 Tbls barley malt
  • Dash of cinnamon
  • ½ cup chopped roasted almonds
  • thinly sliced scallion garnish

Wash the quinoa by placing it in a bowl and filling the bowl with cold water.  Make sure the water has mixed with the quinoa by gently stirring and then pour off the excess water.  Use a strainer to catch the small quinoa seeds so they don’t get wasted.  Repeat the washing process.

Bring the cup of quinoa and 2 cups of springwater plus a two-finger pinch of sea salt to a boil.  Add the currants and the tumeric.  Simmer or lightly boil for 10 to 15 minutes.  If you live at a higher altitude like I do, you may have to simmer the quinoa a bit longer.

While the quinoa is boiling, finely dice the peppers, celery and parsley.

When the quinoa is done cooking (it is tender and there is no more water in the pan) then turn it out onto a plate to cool.  When the quinoa is cool, mix in the red peppers, celery and parsley.  Add the cooked black beans.

Combine oil, vinegar, cinnamon, sea salt and barely malt.  Adjust to your preferred taste.  Pour the dressing over the quinoa mixture and mix it through.  Add the roasted chopped almond slivers*.  Garnish with thinly sliced scallions.

* I roast almonds by taking organic raw almonds and rinsing them off in cold water and draining them.  I spread them onto a baking pan and put that into the oven at 350 degrees until they start smelling aromatic and roasted and then take them out.  Let the roasted almonds cool off a bit before chopping them up.

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Whole grain dinner salads can be made with infinite combinations of grains, vegetables, beans and other garnishes.  I suggest using recipes until you get the hang of it and  then just go for it!  No limitations.

Summer Salad Time!

Moon Rising on a Hot New Mexico Afternoon

When the mercury rises and the daylight stretches out in the evening, I’m not interested in turning on my oven and I don’t even want to spend much time at the stove.  I prefer to spend my time enjoying the beautiful weather outside and staying cool when I’m inside.

My husband and I like to make sure we take extra minerals to replace what we’re losing when we sweat and to keep us feeling good even in high heat.  My husband takes salt and potassium while I usually just take a little potassium.

But what I like even better is adding more sea vegetables to my diet.  Sea vegetables provide a great source of minerals and trace minerals in a highly assimilable form.  That is because the plant has already converted the minerals from the earth or sea for us.

Cooking with sea vegetables can be quite easy.  If you aren’t familiar with using them, then I suggest you take a look at some cookbook recipes to get some ideas.  To get you started, here are a couple of my favorite summer salads using sea vegetables.

Rather than repeat this each time I list an ingredient, I will just say here that I only recommend using certified organic vegetables wherever possible.  I will also tell you that when choosing your vegetables, the biggest is not necessarily the best.  Super big veggies do not have the flavor that smaller ones do.  For instance if I am picking out cucumbers, I’m going to go for one that is not really fat.  The fat ones are more seedy and watery and have less flavor.  I would choose one that is more compact.

I will also remind you that it is far more adventurous to consider the recipe as a guide and play around with the ingredients and proportions until you get what you like best!  However I really do make and test-taste any recipe I give you, so you aren’t going to go wrong following them even if you decide to tweak them here and there according to your own preferences.

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BETTER THAN AT THE SUSHI BAR SUNOMONO

  • 2 ripe cucumbers or about 3 cups sliced
  • Wakame sea vegetable flakes
  • 2 Tbs brown rice vinegar
  • salt
  • 2 tsps mirin (I recommend naturally brewed and aged with no added sugar or synthetics enzymes)
  • 1Tble toasted sesame oil
  • A sprinkle of toasted black or light sesame seeds

Refreshing!

Wash the cucumbers and slice them lengthwise.  You do not have to peel them if they are organic.  Take a spoon and scoop out the seeds.  There is nothing wrong with leaving the seeds in, but this is a slight refinement that I feel makes this particular salad more appealing.

With a sharp vegetable knife, slice the cucumbers at an angle as paper-thin as possible.  [Note:  I find that trying to use a mandolin or some other slicer-dicer gadget is unworkable and annoying.  They don’t compare to a using an excellent-quality, sharp knife.]

Put the cucumber slices into a bowl and sprinkle them with the salt and mix it up.  The salt will start to draw some of the water out of the cucumber and that’s what you want.  You are ever-so-slightly pickling them.  Let the cucumbers sit that way while you prepare the dressing—about 20 minutes.

Drain off the excess water from the cucumbers and salt.  Taste a slice of cucumber and if it tastes salty you can quickly rinse them in cold water.   Combine the rice vinegar, mirin and toasted sesame oil for your dressing and mix it into the cucumbers.  Add in the wakame flakes and give them time to reconstitute into bigger soft pieces.  Serve with a few toasted sesame seeds sprinkled on top.

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NOT YOUR MAMA’S POTATO SALAD (Unless you’re one of my kids!)

  • 1 1/2 pounds red-skinned new potatoes (the smaller the better)
  • 1/4 cup diced celery
  • 1/4 cup diced red onion
  • 1 hard-boiled egg
  • 1/4 tsp celery Seed
  • 1/4 cup applewood smoked dulse
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
  • 2 tsps mustard powder
  • pinch of garlic powder (I love fresh garlic but I found it is too overwhelming in this salad)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 Tbs brown rice syrup or sweetener of your choice

If you don’t already have your egg hardboiled, do that first.  You’ll want the egg to cool down before adding it into the potato salad.

Wash the potatoes and cut them into bite-size pieces.  I like getting the smallest red potatoes I can find because they are less starchy and more sweet-tasting.  I cut them in halves or quarters if they are bigger so they will cook in about the same amount of time.  Bring water and a pinch of salt to a boil and cook your potatoes until they are tender enough to poke with a fork but not falling apart.  If you need to, you can take them out of the water when they’re done and rinse them in cold water to stop the cooking.

While the potatoes are cooling down, wash and dice the onions and celery.  Assemble the salad by combining the potatoes, diced hardboiled egg, celery, onions and celery seed in a bowl.  Make the dressing by mixing the sesame oil, mustard , lemon juice, salt and pepper together adjusting the seasoning to suit your tastes.  This is a simple dressing, but you certainly can add more herbs or spices as you desire.  Add the dressing to the salad.  Break up the dulse into bite-size pieces (or I often cut it with scissors) and add that to the salad and combine it all together.  The dulse will easily reconstitute.

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Look for these special ingredients in your natural foods store.  I don’t recommend going to the asian food market unless you are able to read the ingredient labels.  The asian food stores will have items like mirin and sea vegetables, but they are not usually naturally brewed or dried and they may have sugar and other unwanted additives.  I also like to order online or from a company called Gold Mine Natural Foods for things I can’t get locally.