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For the Love of Food

by | Jan 10, 2014
For The Love of Food

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

This week kale is worse than soda, fasting goes mainstream, and you’re still not walking enough.

Want to see all my favorite links? (There’s lots more). Be sure to follow me on on Delicious. I also share links on Twitter @summertomato,  Google+ and the Summer Tomato Facebook page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you. (And yes, I took that pepper heart pic myself).
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I Love You Mom, But You Suck At Cooking Vegetables

by | Jun 18, 2012

Photo by Telephone Melts

A strange thing happens to some people after their first few experiences with perfectly cooked farmers market vegetables. It is not always easy to admit, but after awhile you might find yourself thinking that the veggies you grew up eating were, ahem, pretty horrible.

It is common for people of both my generation and my parents’ generation to have been raised on frozen spinach, canned beets, over-steamed carrots and boiled broccoli—foods that would make anyone with taste buds pick up their fork and run to the nearest steakhouse.

Is it any wonder that vegetables rarely rank on anyone’s favorite foods list?

Unfortunately, sometimes these negative early experiences can create life long food aversions that could have been avoided with a little extra TLC in the kitchen. They also help propagate the unhealthy eating habits that are now so common in America.

But our exposure to bad vegetables isn’t really Mom’s fault. Over the past 50 years America has been seduced by the allure of convenience. We’ve come to believe that meals come in packages and cooking is too hard and time consuming to bother with. We rely on supermarkets for our fruits and vegetables, which we expect to be the same year round.

The watering down of our food culture is directly responsible for our vegetables losing flavor (they are bred for shelf life, not taste) and us losing our ability to make them palatable. As a result vegetables have become an afterthought, something we eat from guilt and obligation, not from love.

But the good news is that this trend is reversing. People are starting to understand that where food comes from is important and has a tremendous impact on how it tastes. We are learning that it is worth it to go out of our way and spend a little extra money (at least occasionally) for the best ingredients. Restaurants are beginning to pride themselves on serving locally sourced foods–it is no longer uncommon to see farm names printed next to ingredients on menus here in San Francisco.

Focusing on quality ingredients and real foods is forcing us to reexamine cooking as well. I remember how surprised I was the first time I realized that instant oatmeal only saves about 3 minutes compared to real oatmeal and that sautéing fresh spinach is easier than making a bag of the soggy frozen kind. Not only are we starting to understand that taste is worth sacrificing a little convenience for here and there, but also that the inconvenience we feared isn’t as big a deal as we might have guessed.

But not everyone has been converted quite yet.

Learning to shop for and cook seasonal foods does involve a learning curve, and the first steps are always the most difficult and intimidating. (These aren’t exactly skills we pick up in school or learn in our daily lives.) To get and cook real food requires finding local farmers markets and knowing how to work a stove, for starters. Since farmers markets don’t usually run daily, a bit of foresight and planning are necessary if you hope to make it a part of your weekly routine. Working a stove demands some basic understanding of how food reacts when heated.

One of the reasons I wrote Foodist is to show you that these things aren’t actually as difficult as they may seem at first. And once you acquire just a few basic cooking skills—stir fry in olive oil, oven roasting, basic grain and legume preparation—expanding your culinary repertoire to include dozens of your favorite dishes isn’t much of a stretch.

One of the perks of starting with great ingredients is that messing up a meal is much more difficult than it is when you start with low-quality ingredients and rely on additional hacks and seasonings to mask the lack of flavor. Bad vegetables are almost always either over-cooked or under-salted, so if you can get these right you are most of the way there. Just a few extra seasoning tricks like garlic, chili flakes or lemon zest can elevate almost any green vegetable into something worth building a meal around.

Cooking vegetables well is neither an art nor a science. Learn to prepare a few of your favorites well, then branch out from there. Then next time you visit your parents, maybe you can volunteer to cook dinner and show them how broccoli is supposed to taste.

Have bad childhood memories turned you off to any foods?StumbleUpon.com

Modified since originally published on March 8, 2010.

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How (And Why) To Cook And Freeze Large Batches Of Lentils

by | Mar 17, 2010
Collards, Carrots and Lentils Recipe

Collards, Carrots and Lentils Recipe

Healthy eating is important, but for most people (myself included) there are two factors that will almost always trump your best intentions to eat well: taste and time.

In the long run you will not win a battle of wills against your taste buds, and if you think about it you probably don’t even want to. If you hope to build long-term healthy eating habits I suggest focusing your efforts on making the food you cook at home taste as good or better than your default, less healthy alternatives.

Convenience is also a big factor in our daily food decisions. Time is one of our most precious resources, and although I recommend eating slowly I am a big advocate of cooking simply and quickly. In fact, one of the reasons I most often decide to cook at home is that making my own food is much quicker than visiting even the closest taqueria. It is also healthier and cheaper.

On a typical weeknight, I sit down to dinner 15-20 minutes after walking in the door. Granted, I usually cook for just myself, but doubling my recipes is fairly easily and doesn’t cost much in time.

This kind of efficiency does require a bit of planning, however. My meals are typically composed of a big pile of vegetables and either beans, lentils, eggs, fish, intact whole grains, or some combination of these. Half the battle is being sure these things are in your home when you need them.

My fridge is always stocked with fresh vegetables and herbs from my weekly farmers market trip. I also usually set aside a little time each week to cook a large batch of either beans or lentils, which are among my absolute favorite foods for adding substance, texture and a world of flavor to dishes.

I’ve written before about how I make beans using a pressure cooker, but today I want to focus on lentils. Lentils are smaller and more delicate than most beans. As a result, they cook faster and don’t require as much culinary foresight (beans require an overnight soak, while lentils do not).

There are many varieties of lentils. Some are more firm and keep their shape after cooking, making them ideal for adding to stir fries and salads. They can also be used as a substitute for or addition to grain dishes. Examples of firm lentils are French green, black beluga and the most common Spanish brown varieties.

Yellow, red and orange lentils are even smaller and more delicate, which causes them to fall apart and turn to liquid during cooking. These lentils are common ingredients in soups, stews and Indian food.

Because I frequently use lentils as a last minute addition to vegetable dishes to make them more substantial, I have worked to optimize the cooking and storage for a few of the firm varieties. My preference is for the French green and black beluga, but since black lentils are harder to find I performed my experiments exclusively on the green and brown varieties.

My goal was to find the optimal cooking time and the best freezing methods for lentils. Specifically I was hoping to find a convenient method of freezing individual servings that could be stored indefinitely and used within minutes at any time, similar to my method of freezing brown rice.

Traditionally I cook lentils on the stove top in a regular covered sauce pan, but this time I also tried the pressure cooker to see if it could reduce cooking time. In each of my experiments I used 1 cup of dry lentils and 6 cups of water with salt. I added the lentils to a pot of cold water and started my timer when the pot hit the flame.

When preparing lentils, always be sure to rinse them and check for small pebbles before cooking. I do this by slowly pouring my dry lentils into a fine mesh strainer (while checking for pebbles), then rinsing them under the faucet for 30 seconds or so.

A few things surprised me during my experiments. The first is that French green lentils have a much more robust, complex flavor than brown lentils, which have a more subtle flavor and creamier texture. Brown lentils also retained more water and didn’t hold their shape quite as well as the green lentils, and took substantially longer to cook. For these reasons, I strongly preferred the green lentils in my experiments, though I would happily use brown lentils in a hearty stew or as a bed for meat or poultry.

Additionally, because brown lentils didn’t hold their shape as well, I was unable to freeze them in individual plastic wrapped servings like rice. However this method worked wonderfully for green lentils.

As you might expect, my success at freezing lentils in plastic wrap depended on how much liquid I could remove from them before freezing.

For best results, strain lentils very well using a fine meshed strainer before wrapping in individual servings. Carefully place 1/2 cup of lentils in the center of a square of plastic. Fold two opposite edges over the lentils, twist the ends and tie them in a half knot at the top, trying to avoid folding plastic into the lentil ball. To use, run the frozen ball under warm (not hot) water until you can untie the knot. Place lentils in a bowl and microwave 2-3 minutes. Stir with a fork and use.

Both brown and green lentils also froze well in plastic tupper containers. If you know you will be using lentils regularly, you can split a batch you prepare into two or more containers, keep one in the fridge for use and freeze the others. When you are ready, transfer your frozen lentils from the freezer to the fridge the day before you want to use them. Alternatively you could freeze them in Pyrex or glass containers and simply microwave when you want to use them.

I was also curious if a pressure cooker could reduce the time necessary to prepare lentils. For beans a pressure cooker provides an obvious advantage, since on a stove top they can take hours to cook thoroughly. But lentils take only 30-40 min and do not require pre-soaking as beans do. Boiling lentils requires very little attention (make the rest of your food while they cook) and cleanup is easier, so I was curious if there would still be a time advantage using a pressure cooker.

I got different results for the different varieties. For green lentils the pressure cooker did not provide much of an advantage over regular boiling. I found the optimal pressure cooker time for green lentils to be 5-6 minutes, but it takes about 15 minutes for it to pressurize (could maybe be reduced with less water) and another 5 for depressurizing after cooking. Given the extra cleanup/hassle of using the pressure cooker over a sauce pan, the 35 minutes it took to boil the same amount of lentils feels like a better deal.

Another advantage of not using the pressure cooker for green lentils is it’s possible to check the texture as they cook. With the pressure cooker I found it was easy to undercook or overcook the lentils, and the time window was very narrow. This is not ideal if you want the lentils to keep their shape for freezing.

On the other hand, the time advantage gained by using a pressure cooker for the bigger brown lentils was substantial. Brown lentils cooked completely in 7-8 minutes in the pressure cooker, bringing the total cook time to under 30 minutes. However it took well over 45 minutes for them to soften up with boiling alone.

Though I didn’t test them in these experiments, my experience with red and yellow lentils is that they cook in a pressure cooker in about 4 minutes, much faster than simply boiling. This substantially cuts the amount of time it takes to cook with them.

Summary

French green lentils were my favorite for flavor, ease of cooking and storage. They are easiest to prepare by boiling with salt in a regular covered sauce pan for approximately 35 minutes. If well strained, they freeze beautifully in either individually wrapped balls or in a tupper. They can be kept 4-5 days in a sealed container in the refrigerator.

Brown lentils take longer to cook and time is saved by using a pressure cooker. These lentils can be frozen, but do better in a large solid container than in individually wrapped servings.

Either variety stores well in the freezer and has the potential to substantially cut down on daily cooking times when prepared in large batches and used repeatedly.

Do you freeze lentils? Do you prefer to use a pressure cooker?

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How To Eat Healthy Without Whole Foods

by | Mar 4, 2009

junk foodBy this point you can probably guess that I do the bulk of my grocery shopping at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and at Whole Foods (with the occasional trip to Trader Joe’s). But not everyone is blessed with year-round farm stands and high-end grocery chains in their cities. So how are you supposed to take my advice when you don’t have access to the same resources?

What Would Darya Eat?

I will admit I am not a seasoned grocery shopper when faced with either a real winter or non-city suburbia, but I can guarantee you that I would find a way to eat healthy despite these obstacles. Here is how I would approach these difficult situations:

Use Google to find a health food store.
Most towns have at least one small health food store, and these can be a lifesaver (literally) if you are trying to maintain a healthy diet. Finding one can be tricky, but you can do it if you know what to search.

Unfortunately, the idea that fresh, whole foods are the best way to promote health and fight disease is still something of a radical concept associated with hippies, liberals and elitists (run!!). For the most part, people still do not take the idea of healthy food seriously. Thus, a Google search for “health” will usually bring you links to medical sites or shady pills and powder supplements. And “health food” will get you a mixture of vitamin shops and useful grocery stores.

To get what you need, I recommend searching “organic groceries” followed by your city, then state.

In the following example I searched for “organic groceries Newport Beach, CA”. Several entries come up, but the most useful are Google’s local business results or the local.yahoo.com link.

organic groceries search
Stores that come up in these searches usually have an excellent selection of healthy shelf items such as grains, beans, cereals and canned goods. The best deals are usually in the bulk bins (check near the back or side of the store).

These places will often have a small selection of organic produce.

Find a local produce market. Like the health food stores, produce markets that primarily sell fresh fruits and vegetables are not big fancy operations that are easy to find. Instead they are usually small, family-run shops that cater to a loyal clientele. Frequently these shoppers are hunting for specific products used in, for example, Asian or Latin American cuisines.

The fruits and vegetables you find in stores like this are often imported and inexpensive, which is a mixed blessing. Clearly imported produce is not ideal if you are interested in buying local, organic foods. However, in many cities fresh fruits and vegetables are almost nonexistent during the winter, and these specialty stores can be a fantastic alternative. They are certainly better than nothing (or Costco).

Another bonus of these markets is that they can be great sources for hard to find ingredients like fresh galangal (Thai ginger) or kefir lime leaves.

To find these stores in your neighborhood type “produce” into Google followed by your city and state. Again look for Google’s local business listings.

It is worth noting that these stores can vary quite a bit in quality and cleanliness, so it is a good idea to stop by several different shops until you find the one that best meets your needs.

Read local blogs. I am admittedly a little biased on this topic, but blogs can be a fantastic source for local news on food, eating and gardening, all of which will give you clues about what local food is available during the current season. You can use Google’s Blogsearch tool and type in what you are looking for (e.g. “winter vegetables”) along with your city and state to find what is buzzing near you.

Buy frozen vegetables. I do not particularly like recommending frozen vegetables because in my opinion they do not taste as good as fresh ones, and I believe enjoying your food is a critical part of establishing healthy eating patterns. But despite their texture, frozen vegetables actually retain most of their nutrients and can be an excellent healthy option during the cold months. When I do buy frozen goods, I stick to the hearty fare like beans, peas, corn and bell peppers, but if you do not mind the texture of some of the leafy greens, they are perfectly healthy. Frozen berries also hold up pretty well.

Be creative. Winter is one of the best times of the year to go pantry diving and finally do something with that bulgur or those red lentils. Be creative!

Cans of diced tomatoes, anchovies, capers and olives can easily be turned into a puttanesca sauce. Winter squash is great for bean stews. Have fun with what you have and winter will be over before you know it.

Conclusions

This list is meant to be a jumping off point for people to explore healthy eating in challenging circumstances and is an example of the kind of thinking I would use if faced with a similar situation.

Effectively using Google’s search tools to find vendors in your local area can make it much easier to stick to your healthy diet, even without warm weather or a big city. Getting involved in your local food scene is another way to discover healthy opportunities anywhere.

I am certain there are many more effective ways to stay healthy without a Whole Foods.

For those of you who actually live in places where fresh vegetables can be hard to find, I would love to hear your strategies for healthy eating all year long! Let’s brainstorm!

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Quick Fix: Edamame and Peas

by | Aug 6, 2008

We are all in a hurry sometimes. I happened to be in a hurry tonight. I won’t bore you with the details, but I got held up at work today and had more things to do when I got home than I could really fathom (including writing this post). I needed dinner, I needed it to be healthy (I’m going out twice tomorrow and for dinner Friday–wish me luck) and, most important, I needed it to be quick.

What to do?
I can’t stress this enough: stock frozen vegetables.
One of my most reliable dinners is sauteed soy beans (edamame), petite peas, pistachios and basil. To prepare, heat some olive oil in a pan, toss in half a chopped shallot or any mild onion like leeks or Maui (you should always have onion, garlic and some kind of fresh herb in the house–this is what weekends are for) and some kind of nut (these also have a long shelf-life). I prefer the roasted, unsalted pistachio “nut meats” from Trader Joe’s, but you can choose whatever you like or have available (walnuts, cashews and almonds are all delicious).
Let the onion and nuts cook for a few minutes until just starting to brown, add sea or kosher salt, then dump in about 1/2 cup of frozen, shelled soy beans (per person). If you are unfamiliar with soy beans, they look like lima beans only a little smaller (and they taste better). Stir them to cover in oil. Once shimmering, add an appropriate volume of frozen petite peas (petite peas are far sweeter and more delicate than regular peas) and mix. While cooking, crush and chop a clove of garlic. Clear space in the center of the pan and add garlic in a single layer. When garlic becomes fragrant (about 30 seconds), stir contents of pan. Add a handful of whole or chopped basil leaves (or any other herb you have in the house), salt and pepper to taste, and mix another few seconds. Remove from heat when beans and peas are bright green and the herbs have wilted. Do not let brown.
Usually I eat this dish on a bed of (1/4 cup) brown rice. Today I threw in some chopped raddichio (with the basil) and served it on a bed of brown rice and purslane, because I had it. This added depth (and nutrients) to the dish, but is not necessary. Spinach is another nice accompaniment that can be added with the herbs. Please do not over-cook, this shouldn’t take very long.
Whole grains should be prepared in large batches and frozen in individual servings in plastic wrap. To thaw, run under warm (not hot) water for a minute or two until you can remove the plastic, then microwave (covered) for approximately 1 minute.
What is your favorite quick, healthy dinner?
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