grainy waldorf salad

While crunching my way toward lunch at the gym today, I was interrupted by a tentative voice.

“Can I ask you a question?” said a slim woman stretched out beside me on the mat, a second-year student at the oldest. “Sure!” I responded, anticipating a question about form or my Lululemon tank top, as has happened before. “How many days a week do you work out?”

She proceeded to disclose her desire for more muscle definition, and I advised away until I the “you’re boring me” cloud came over her expression. Not that I’m any expert, I just love talking about this stuff. Plus, I have a few fellow nuts in my life who exacerbate the tendency to preach the gospel of health and fitness.

This little salad I whipped up from fridge remnants is for you, dear. It’s got protein and all the post-crunch crunch you need to get you through your afternoon.

I don’t usually post on things I throw together on everyday afternoons. Just because I’m a food blogger does not license me to share every morsel chewed and swallowed.  My readers have better things to do than hear about Finn Crisps spread with peanut butter, sardines straight from the tin, and numerous kefir smoothies. (Ok, that last one did get a post, but only because I’m evangelical about kefir!)

But sometimes random is best, as I’ve written about before. Random is beautiful, and when you start with good, wholesome ingredients, you really can’t go wrong.

Today’s creation was good enough to share, at least for inspirations’ sake. The cup or so of quinoa I’d cooked to use in these muffins was sitting neglected beside my eggs. I had a two sticks of celery, a Macintosh apple that was looking to retire, and all kinds of other worthy additions hiding in my freezer and cupboards.

In went the chopped apple and celery. In went the dried cranberries and sunflower seeds. In went the red onion, salt, pepper, and drizzles of sherry vinegar. One bite revealed that no further tweaks were needed. I poured myself a glass of kombucha and settled into my writing.

So wherever you are, ab-girl, keep crunching. And squatting and lifting and curling. You’re already beautiful, but you deserve to be as strong and powerful as I know you can be.

buttercup lentil soup

Squash is a rather deceiving name for the vegetable to which it refers. With pudgy approachability and even cuteness, the squash family is far from cushy. Take, for example, this buttercup. Looks delightful enough. With its little cap and almost folded-in appearance, it’s the grandmother of the fall harvest.

But set a knife to it and it sure puts up a fight. This hard fact is what led me to one of the most important realizations of my cooking life: squash need not be peeled before cooking. Nope. No matter what those recipes tell you, “squash, peeled, seeded, and chopped” need not require a follow-up cool down and protein shake.

The secret’s in roasting the squash first: Hack it up (or not, as some argue) throw it in the oven, and digging into that squishy soft squash-flesh will become one of your happiest soup making memories.

Lately I’ve been trying to venture out of my butternut rut. There are just so many other squashes to try: hubbard (not so impressed with my specimen), spaghetti, and acorn (one of my favorites to stuff), to name a few. I finally got around to this buttercup, whose dense, creamy flesh surprised me. I’ve also got two Delicatas on hand to try sometime this week.

There are as many ways to prepare squash as there are to love it, but one of my favorites has to be soup. I know I could have just substituted this buttercup into any squash soup recipe, but instead decided to do an off-the-cuff version with whatever needed to be used.

And it was good. Very good. With bright tomato red, spinach green, and buttercup orange, this soup is fall’s palate in a bowl.

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tempeh two ways

Besides the “stuffed” part, these two recipes have little to do with our Canadian Thanksgiving up in Ottawa this past weekend. Fermented soy beans don’t have much in common with turkey and pumpkin pie, but somehow, last week’s discovery of tempeh reminded me of all I have to be thankful for.

The weekend was a cornucopia of food delights. Friday we scarfed injera and doro wat at an Ethiopian restaurant with an old friend of mine. After a delicious brunch at my aunt and uncle’s, Mark and I indulged all afternoon in delicious home-roasted coffee and mile-high ginger cookies — this time, the old friends were his.

All that food fueled a good cause— the true highlight of the weekend. On Sunday morning I hit a personal best half marathon time at the Ottawa Fall Colours Marathon. With the hubby’s support and 8 weeks of hard training, I achieved a time of 1:51:35. Knocking 2 minutes a mile off my last half marathon time made me finally feel like a woman who doesn’t just finish. She races.

It was a great way to begin a day stuffed with turkey, cabbage gratin, and pie (of which there were multiple slices).

And there were other, non-homemade treats. Sunday, at one of Ottawa’s esteemed Bridgehead coffeehouses, we got to try Clover coffee for the first time.  A late lunch at Von’s Bistro in the Glebe chased down the luscious mugs nicely. Both get five Fresh Cracked Pepper stars.

As I got to thinking about what I’m thankful for, a few things came to mind. One, the incredible variety of food available to me here, today. I’m so grateful to be able to sample the abundance of the world so freely, and so relatively cheaply. This brings me to my latest discovery and the topic of this post: tempeh (pronounced temp-ay), my latest experiment with a new plant-based protein source.

Tempeh is an old food. It’s been made for centuries in Indonesia from fermented soy beans, and it’s more nutty and chewy than even the firmest tofu.

I tracked some down at the Syracuse Real Food Co-op, and quickly discovered that tempeh can be used just about anywhere: stir-fries, burritos, pastas, and sandwiches are all worthy vessels. It’s low in fat and high in protein, and best of all, it’s fermented. (Yes, I have a thing for fermented things. Case in point.)

I searched for a few tempeh recipes online, and taking a pinch of inspiration from this one, concocted fajitas that showcased tempeh’s satisfying chew (pictured above). The next day I mixed up the leftover filling and stuffed it into poblano pepper halves, one of my favorite ways to use up leftovers.

One dinner is often a door opening into another. Along the way, two fabulous new ingredients boldly introduced themselves: tempeh, and canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. As I face the lows that a cold and rainy, post-race week will bring, I look forward to new experiments in the cozy refuge of my kitchen.

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quinoa tabbouleh

I debated calling this next series of posts “The Unemployment Project, Part I (etc).” Since I’m not sure how long this is going to last, however, I figured I’d spare you from an ever-lengthening string of Roman numerals. Until my employment prospects crystallize, I’ve decided to give this neglected website of mine some love: Get ready to eat.

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve had to adjust lately to this strange new thing called free time.  Sure, there have been weekend road trips to weddings and triathlons and concerts. There have gatherings with friends and leisurely walks. But the consuming projects and imperatives, not so much.

It’s like returning to an older verison of myself. There are going to be days where I’ll have to dig through those familiar storerooms of strength.

That said, things haven’t been so bad.

I shot photos for Edible Finger Lakes magazine on Monday (wait! I’m supposed to be a writer!), and got to meet the ringleader of Central New York’s Slow Food Chapter. Dipping into a different medium however, shooting his kitchen, meeting his bees, and marvelling at his asparagus plants was inspiring. And the invitation to pick fresh mint, marjoram and lavender whenever I need to? Priceless.

Tuesday was a frustrating day spent trying to secure certification to work in this country. But this is a food blog, not a rant, so I’ll spare you the story. Three things helped redeem that day: Wegman’s air-conditioning and rotisserie chickens, and this tabbouleh salad.

Tabbouleh (ta-boo-lee) is a Middle-Eastern dish that showcases fresh herbs. If you don’t like to be hit over the head with parsley, simply use the lesser amount.

It’s also traditionally made with coarsely-ground bulgur wheat, but since my life is basically one big steamy love affair with quinoa, I decided to try mixing it up a little. More protein and ancient grains never hurt anybody.

It’s funny how one little conversation with my mother about her parsley plant led to subsequent days of fresh, tangy leftover salad. Not a bad way to start off this new, as yet unnamed season in my life.

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walnut, gorgonzola and caramelized onion pizza

I tried to come up with a more clever name for this amazing Monday night surprise, but knowing that few could resist such an alluring combination, decided to tempt away. I came home at 8 p.m.  to the fruits of Mark’s unlikely domestic day: fresh pizza dough and israeli couscous salad for tomorrow’s lunch. Not to mention the new 15$ box of wine sitting in my cupboard, happily plump.

Even when it comes to life’s finer things, sometimes I’m not afraid to admit to a cheap streak. Drinking wine with pizza on a cold and rainy Monday night would otherwise seem too indulgent. That’s the short story of how boxed wine became my best friend.

Let me walk you through this creation we’re just on the brink of perfecting. The first time we made it we used too few onions, and our blue cheese wasn’t blue enough. Add our too-toasty walnuts to the mix and we had ourselves a disappointment. But I wasn’t prepared to give up on such robust ingredients, waiting there as if to beg me to bring them to justice.

This time we ramped up the caramelized onions, spreading them thick and sweetly gooey over olive-oil brushed dough rounds. (Next time I’d do even more than the picture shows!)

Then we added the walnuts, in chunks big enough to be surprising but small enough to blend in. If you’ve never had nuts on a pizza, you’re in for a treat. Pine nuts could work well here, too.

After about 7 minutes in a firey hot oven, we dotted them with cubes of perfect gorgonzola, and placed them back in the oven 5 more minutes.

The result? A crisp, yet chewy pizza dough (we used this month’s Bon Appetit recipe because of its large, freezeable yield), teeming with flavors that almost seem to good to be hanging out together on a pizza. I almost felt guilty finishing mine, but then I remembered how stressed I am, and how food tends to make medium-sized sorrows turn to extra-large joys.

Even if for only 30 sweet, candle-lit minutes.

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the chi of kimchi

If only there was something yummy and exotic that made itself. Something you could just quickly cut up, stir, and plop in a container, only to turn out 5 days later in a delicious new guise.

Wait! There is! It’s called kimchi, and for its tart and tangy goodness we can thank the Koreans.

I’m seeing Korean food turn up everywhere. On the pages of Bon Appetit, on food blogs, and even in the New York Times. It’s even gone fusion, with a Twittering taco truck that brings mobile eats to its loyal followers. Kimchi is so important that the Korea Aerospace Research Institute even developed space kimch. Why? To accompany the first Korean astronaut to the Russian space ship, Soyuz, of course.

I can’t remember when I first tasted kimchi, but it wasn’t too long ago. I then started buying some locally-made stuff, available at the Central New York Regional Farmer’s Market, in all sorts of shades and styles. Being the fermentation freak that I am, my next thought was  “OK, my turn.”  Anyone who’s been to my apartment has seen the various fermenting things lying around my house. And before you run away scared, know that each one of them is darn delicious.

Food that is fast, easy, healthy and given to leftovers is manna for me right now. Finishing up my masters leaves little time for poring over new recipes (sad face #1), therapeutic vegetable chopping (sad face #2), and Zen-like-stove-top stirring (sad face #3). To this sorry state came my new friend kimchi.

The fabulous ferment did not only arrive to a dire, time-crunched situation, but to a household with a brand-new mandolin. Picked up for a steal of a deal on Amazon with Christmas money, this Japanese slider-knife is a miracle in a drawer. With this little beauty and a far superior recipe, my second batch of kimchi turned out much better than my clunky, over-garlicked first batch.

What, you may ask, is kimchi? It’s a Korean side dish with an inimitable taste, yet a Korean proverb reads, “if you have rice and kimchi, you have a meal.” To me, it’s crunchy ribbons of daikon and carrot folding over each other between layers of ruffled Napa cabbage. It’s chilies melding with garlic and ginger, and crisp veggies fermented to perfection. Served at room temperate over fried rice or a plate of egg rolls, or just eaten out of a jar, kimchi is a great snack full of healthy probiotics.

Best of all, the do-it-yourself kind pretty much does it itself. Just make sure you don’t spill it all over your gym bag.

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spiced bangladeshi mung beans and rice

I didn’t intend to post on this, but it begs to be shared. Born from the need to make lots of healthy food to sustain us through a busy week, it materialized one afternoon between work sessions. The recipe is from a former roommate, and it’s the kind of thing you’ll almost always have the ingredients for.

Usually when I think of mung beans, bean sprouts jump to mind. But this showcases them as the meaty, chewy legume they were born to be. OK, maybe beans don’t have destinies, but we can pretend. You can find them dried in Asian grocery stores, and all they need is a couple hours’ soak.

You start off by frying some fragrant spices in oil, add your beans and rice, top it with some water and set it to simmer. It’s that easy, and it all happens in one happy wok. It’s incredibly low-maintenance, great for a busy work day.

It’s hard to get sick of this (even after day 5) because you can dress it up in so many different ways. By adding sweet caramelized onions, a sliced hard boiled egg, and a side of yogurt, it becomes like an Indian curry—a platform for all sorts of tasty additions. You could make fried rice out of it one evening, and wrap it up in some flatbread with slices of baked tofu the next.

Sometimes a bowl of beans and rice, redolent of mild chai, can remind you that it’s good to be alive. Perhaps that’s a stretch, but it makes me appreciate the simple things.

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give peas a chance

One of my fondest school days memories is a grade four geography project. Our teacher put us in teams and gave each team a country to research and report on. At the end of the unit, we put on a cultural fair for our parents and other classrooms. Each team hosted one of the booths set up around the perimeter of the classroom.

What country did I get assigned to? France. Trying to ignore pangs of jealousy for the kids on the African, Asian, and South American teams, we began to brainstorm. One thing on the list was which French food we would provide samples of. My vote for fries was quickly bulldozed by the safety issues of a deep fryer in an elementary classroom.

The next best thing? Pea soup. As if France wasn’t bad enough. Now nobody would come to our booth.

I was a naive child. In the end I was proud of us, decked out in berets. I was also proud of the booth we ran, with its red-and-white checkered tablecloth and café atmosphere.

But oh, the soup. I can’t remember whose mom made it, but it was silky-smooth and a bright crayon-green. Sweet, with a gulp of robust legumes. Fresher than chili but more satisfying than your average, pedestrian vegetable soup. Parents were passing up  chow mein and strudel for our soup.

I don’t know why, but I didn’t eat pea soup again until a few months ago at a friend’s house. It was one of those simple suppers — one I’d never think of making, but that delighted me with every slurp. Pea soup went back on the back burner.

And then I bought a cookbook that convinced me to try it for myself. With one success down, I decided to go for it. After all, the first day of spring passed on Friday with nary an offering from me—how could I be so ignorant? A new season, one of my favorite things, and a warmer, friendlier one at that.

To you spring, I offer this bowl of pea parmesan: surpassing my expectations with its richness, the heartiness of a passing winter and the freshness of new green.

Good thing seasons don’t eat soup, because I’m a selfish sparrow.

bracelet2*bracelet by Rachel Sudlow

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best before

There’s two kinds of people in this world. Those who take best befores as expiration dates, and those who take expiration dates as a supper idea. I’ve lived with both over the years, a family member who will toss a whole container of yogurt past it’s best before, and roommates who’ll scrape the moldy skin off the top of sour cream, give a little sniff, and dollop away.

A bit of mold or natty spinach leaves don’t bother me much. I believe that when it comes to food, the nose knows, and the tastebuds will tell.  That doesn’t mean that when you come over for dinner next I’ll be secretly poisoning you, it just means that I use my senses, not a “MAR 5-09” stamped on white plastic. 

stilltasty2

Being frugal is also important these days, and as a student, I’m always looking for ways to eat well on a budget. Imagine my delight when I came across a new website called  Still Tasty, tips on how to keep your food fresh, and how to spot when it’s not. 

This is the ultimate resource when your Mom’s not around to tell you if Saturday’s stir-fry is still safe. Still Tasty offers guidance on how to keep fruit gorgeous, how to defrost safely, and the best ways to store your staples. Storage tips can be lifesavers. When I learned how to store herbs from Simply Recipes, I went from someone who never has cilantro or mint to a veritable herb garden.

So next time you find yourself unsure of how to care for your fresh chervil or tamarillos, get clicking!

steel yourself for winter

Summer day after summer day out at our family cottage, us kids would wake at 6 every morning to our grandfather’s porridge. He had put it on the old stove long before then, and retreated to the forest to chop wood or “putter,” as our parents called it.

Slowly, we’d rise, assembling one by one by the fire he’d made.

I didn’t love oatmeal as a kid, but I loved him and so I ate it anyway.

I’ll always associate the storied three-bears’ dish with him—doling it out into bowls for our crew of cousins. We’d sit out on the deck around a cracked wooden table, us girls in our baby-doll nighties, and him hovering with pot in hand. I’m not sure if it’s a photograph I see or a real memory.

I guess we all come back to porridge, because lately it’s all I crave for breakfast. I’ve also recently discovered the steel cut, or Irish variety, which is less processed and more “whole” than it’s rolled and instant cousins.

Calorie-wise there is no nutritional difference between steel cut and rolled, but the extra steps in the processing of rolled oats does diminish some of the micronutrients (like Magnesium and Selenium) that oats have to offer. Steel cut oats are whole groats that have been chopped into two or three pieces. Rolled oats are groats that have been steamed and pressed. Quick or instant oats have been chopped, steamed, pressed, cooked, and dried. Even the littlest bear doesn’t want that in her bowl.

Oats are a superfood like no other. They stabilize your blood sugar, meaning you won’t get hungry as soon after eating breakfast. They also lower your cholesterol, and are high in fiber and protein.

But besides health, steel cut oats are just so much better than the instant ones. I can’t even begin to explain it. They create their own starchy sauce while they cook, and when their done still have an al dente chewy snap that other hot cereals don’t hold a candle to. They also keep really well in the fridge, so you can make a huge batch on Sunday evening and have it for breakfast all week.

Making this hearty breakfast is a snap. For two servings, dry toast 1 cup of oats to give them a nice, nutty taste. You can do this right in the pot you’ll be using, stirring constantly over high heat for 2 minutes, or until you can smell them toasting.

Then add 3 cups of water to the saucepan (remove it from heat while you do this, or it might splatter, and watch out for steam!), stir, and lower the heat to medium-low. DO NOT ADD SALT. Salt inhibits the release of starch, and will stop your oats from becoming as creamy as they were meant to be. Now you can go take a shower or do what you need to do for about 20 minutes, without stirring them once. You’ll find the heat setting on your element that’s right for you…the stew should gradually thicken and bubble gently. The higher the heat, the faster they’ll cook.

When you come back to your oats, they should be nice and tender, and just beginning to stick to the bottom of the pan. It’s no problem if they’re sticking a bit, unless you have the heat too high, they’ll scrape right off.

Scoop a generous portion for yourself into a bowl, and sprinkle with a little good-quality sea salt (we’re lucky to have some from Slovenia kickin’ around right now, a gift from a friend). Salt actually increases the natural sweetness of the oats: you might not even need sugar! If you want it, add brown sugar or maple syrup to taste, a shake of cinnamon, and some milk.

And once, promise me at least once, you’ll try it with whole milk or a splash of cream. To feed a bigger crowd or have leftovers for mornings ahead, simply increase your oats and water proportionally.