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Are You Bean Careful?

by | Dec 3, 2008

Yesterday I mentioned that if you are going to use dried beans for cooking you should pick them over for pebbles before using them. Today I want to show you that I’m not kidding.

For my apartment’s last Soup Night I decided to make a recipe I found in the New York Times. The recipe was for Andean Bean Stew With Winter Squash and Quinoa, and it called for a pound of dried pinto beans. Since I was cooking for 20 people I doubled the recipe and bought a full 2 lbs of dried beans.

That’s a lot of beans, folks.

Because of the huge volume I had to be extra careful when looking for pebbles. To pick through beans I like to lay them out on a large cookie sheet, as shown. You can sort through a smaller amount of beans on a solid-colored plate or even in a clear bag on the counter.

As you can see from the top picture, 2 lbs of beans from the bulk bin at Whole Foods yielded 4 not-so-small pebbles.

Finding these little guys didn’t take more than a minute or two, and I guarantee you my guests appreciated the extra effort.

Let this be your warning. I do not wish to send you into shark-filled waters if you happened to be inclined to go buy dried beans this weekend. The last thing I need is a bunch of angry emails from your dentists!

Lentils are known to harbor pebbles as well, so searching for small rocks is a good habit to cultivate with all dried legumes.

The Soup
On the food front, the recipe turned out absolutely amazing! Since doubling the recipe required two whole winter squash anyway, I chose one large butternut squash and one kabocha squash. Both were delicious, but I was particularly fond of the kabocha (just look at that color!). It was denser, but the texture was creamier and the flavor more sweet and nutty than the butternut.

Peeling the kabocha was no easy task, however. I always just use a vegetable peeler for butternut, but on the kabocha the skin was so tough this was not an option. Instead I boiled it whole for 3 minutes on each side (it floats) and took the skin off with a pairing knife. Alright, I admit I had a boy do the peeling.

Does anyone have an easier way to peel a kabocha?

The Andean stew was very hearty, but our guests were not shy about finishing every last drop. I highly recommend it, particularly for a cold winter weekend.

This picture was taken after the quinoa was added but before it finished cooking.

Don’t forget to bean careful!

UPDATE: I have since learned that a kabocha does not need peeling. If it is cooked through the skin is soft and edible. My new favorite trick is to cut one in half, scoop out the seeds and roast it face down for 40 minutes. Mmmm.

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Silky Parsnip and Sunchoke Soup

by | Nov 24, 2008

I am really proud of myself for this one, guys. You could probably guess I was a little nervous about what to do with my parsnips and sunchokes. I find both these vegetables a little alien and I have only recently started experimenting with them.

Following my gut and combining them in a soup with leeks turned out to be a stroke of genius.

The soup I made is really simple. But do not be deceived, the subtle complexity of the flavor it packs is absolutely divine and the creamy texture of the sunchokes makes it luxuriously silky.

The finishing touch is the juice and zest of a Meyer lemon, an addition that brightens and balances the creaminess of this soup. In a pinch you could use a regular lemon, but I really recommend making an effort to find the real thing.

Because this soup is so easy it is perfect for a weekday lunch or dinner. But the rich, earthy flavors would make an excellent first course for your Thanksgiving meal as well.

Silky Parsnip and Sunchoke Soup

Ingredients:

  • 3 large parsnips
  • 5 medium sunchokes
  • 1 large leek
  • 3-1/2 cups cold water
  • 1 chicken bouillon cube
  • 1/2 Meyer lemon
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Scrub and peel the parsnips and chop them into small slices (in half in necessary), about 1/3 inch thick. Scrub the sunchokes as well, but do not bother to peel them. Instead use a pairing knife to remove any rough patches. Cut the sunchokes into 1/4 inch slices.

Clean the leek very carefully and chop it into thick sections, as described previously. In a large soup pot heat olive oil and add leeks. Saute the leeks for about 2 minutes, then add the parsnips and sunchokes. Lightly salt and pepper. Continue to saute, stirring frequently for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables become soft and partially translucent.

Add 2 cups of water and the bouillon cube to the vegetables and bring to a simmer. Allow to simmer about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the vegetables are completely tender, turn off heat and add the remaining water. Use a hand blender* to finely puree the vegetables.

Before I got to this step I was certain that I was going to end up straining this soup. Most good pureed soups need straining to thin them out. While you are welcome to do this, I found it was not necessary if I pureed the vegetables long enough, probably because of the texture of the sunchokes. This does take some patience, however. Puree the mix for at least 5 minutes.

Once you have finished blending the soup you can heat it up again if necessary. Otherwise, squeeze the lemon half into the soup and add the zest (leaving some aside for garnish). Adjust salt.

Ladle soup into bowls, garnish with zest and freshly ground pepper and serve. You can drizzle more lemon juice on top as well, it is delicious.

*Note: I am of the opinion that whoever invented the hand blender deserves a Nobel prize. These things make pureeing soup a snap, and are easy to store and clean. This is the one I use (I have also added this item to my sidebar if you want to purchase it from Amazon). If you do not have one and want to make this soup immediately, a regular blender will suffice. However, be very careful when blending hot liquid and do not fill the blender more than halfway at a time unless you want to be doused with scalding hot soup. Hold the lid down firmly with a kitchen towel for your protection.

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Lunch Vol. 3: Roasted Root Vegetables

by | Nov 21, 2008

You may remember that last week I switched my work lunch ritual from salads to roasted vegetables. They take a while to cook, but I prepare them in large batches on Sunday night and eat them for the entire week.

After my first experiment, I had a few complaints. First, the cauliflower took too long to finish cooking, so I wished I had steamed it first. Second, ultimately there was not enough food to get me through the week so Wednesday night I made a quinoa dish to supplement my calories. That was a fantastic move!

This week I wanted to make a lot more vegetables, and I wanted them all to cook for roughly the same amount of time. To this end, I bought a zillion different kinds of root vegetables and threw them in the roasting pan.

The root vegetables I used: parsnips, carrots, fingerling potatoes, candy striped beets, and red and white Tokyo turnips. I seasoned them with sea salt, pepper and rosemary.

One thing that instantly struck me is that it was not nearly as much food as I thought it was. All those leafy green tops can be deceiving (though the beet greens were delicious!). After everything was cleaned and chopped, it was only one large roasting pan filled with vegetables.

The worst part is that after roasting, it all fit into one medium-sized tupper.

To be fair, I realized when I got home that people do not really cook radishes, so those were not included. Instead I thinly sliced my beautiful black and watermelon radishes and tossed them with rice vinegar. I let them marinate in the fridge for at least half an hour and ate a few that first night, but I ended up taking them to work and using them as a supplement to my roasted vegetables.

The good news is that I did not run out of food as expected. Also, the root vegetables were surprisingly filling and did not upset my stomach.

But I do not think I will make this exact dish again. For one thing, I was not particularly pleased with the way the turnips turned out. I used Tokyo turnips, both red and white. They were delicious raw, but after roasting they gave off a funny smell and also became a bit soggy.

The best thing in the dish, by far, was the beets. Something about roasted beets just wins my heart every time. I was also impressed with the way the parsnips and carrots turned out. I am still having trouble telling the difference between these two vegetables, however. Maybe the parsnips cooked a little better, but in my opinion they taste almost exactly the same. Thoughts?

Also, while the potatoes were good I think I prefer them roasted on their own. Roasted fingerlings with rosemary is one of my very favorite winter dishes, but they lost their luster when combined with all the other veggies. They were a little chewy, so I wonder if the juices that seeped out of the other vegetables caused them to lose their crispness.

I do still have half a bag of potatoes left, so I will be able to enjoy them roasted correctly this weekend. Yay!

In the future (next week I will be out of town for Thanksgiving) I think I will roast more beets (probably combining different kinds), and bring back the Brussels sprouts. I may continue to buy parsnips/carrots too.

I am also still taking suggestions on favorite winter vegetables for roasting. Thank you for all your suggestions so far!

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Turkish Quinoa Pilaf With Chickpeas, Kale and Pomegranate

by | Nov 16, 2008

A couple weeks ago the New York Times health section featured several recipes using quinoa (keen-wah), a small, round ancient seed from Peru that can be used much like a cereal grain.

Because I had all the ingredients on hand, I decided to make this recipe for Quinoa Pilaf With Chickpeas, Pomegranate and Spices. I must admit, while it sounded good I did not expect to like it as much as I did.
I did not have an onion, but I had leeks so I used them instead. This made the recipe faster since leeks only require 1-2 minutes of cooking before additional ingredients are added.
Also, I do not have a spice grinder so I added slightly smaller amounts of already ground spices instead of toasting and grinding them myself. I just eye-balled the amounts using a teaspoon measure.
The recipe says that canned chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) are fine, but I prefer to make my own. In my opinion, homemade beans are much better than canned. However, I have the luxury of having a pressure cooker in the house, which reduces cooking time for beans to about 25 minutes (including depressurization). Otherwise beans require at least an hour to cook. They also require several hours of soaking. Since beans are one of my most reliable and affordable protein sources, this process is worth it for me. If you would rather just crack open a can, that is your call.
Finally, I wanted a little more green in my meal so I steamed half a bunch of dinosaur kale. To prepare, I cut it up into bite sized pieces and steamed it for 8-10 minutes. I salted it then added it to the quinoa after I added the chickpeas. I strongly recommend adding kale if you plan to use this recipe as a main course. It was delicious!
Adaptation of New York Times Quinoa with Chickpeas, Pomegranate and Spices (with kale):
  • 1 teaspoon(ish) cumin
  • 3/4 teaspoon(ish) coriander
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium leek, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 cups cooked quinoa, (1 c. dry)
  • 1 cup cooked chick peas (canned are fine), rinsed
  • 1/4 cup pomegranate seeds

Rinse and chop kale and place in steam basket over shallow water. Cover and steam 8-10 minutes. This step is particularly important for dinosaur kale, which can be very tough. If you are using traditional kale, reduce cooking time accordingly. Cook until tender then sprinkle with sea salt.

Adjust a frying pan to medium heat and add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the leek and cook, stirring often, until tender, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and salt, stir together for about half a minute, and stir in the cumin and coriander. Add the remaining olive oil and stir in the quinoa, chick peas, kale and 3 tablespoons of the pomegranate seeds. Stir over medium heat to heat through, several minutes. Taste and adjust salt.
Transfer to a platter or wide bowl and decorate with the remaining pomegranate seeds. You can also mold the pilaf into 1/2-cup ramekins or timbales and unmold onto the plate, then decorate with pomegranate seeds.
Leftover pilaf can be stored in the refrigerator for several days. Picture above was after 3 days, and it was still beautiful. Only the pomegranate seeds started losing color after awhile, but they were still tasty. Reheat 1-2 minutes in the microwave.
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Oven Roasted Vegetables, At Work!

by | Nov 11, 2008

As I mentioned, salad season is pretty much over and I have embarked on a new era of work lunches. This week I am experimenting with roasted vegetables because they can be cooked in large batches and store very well in the refrigerator. They also reheat nicely in the microwave.

It cracks me up to say this, but my vegetable choices this week were cauliflower, golden beets and Brussels sprouts. If you would have told 8-year old me that this is what I would be having for lunch every day this week I probably would have vomited in horror. By some strange evolution that can probably be blamed on San Francisco elitism, last Saturday this unthinkable combination of vegetables just sounded brilliant.
Luckily for me, it actually worked. To make sure the Brussels sprouts were not gross, I first halved and par boiled them as usual. In retrospect, I wish I would have also steamed the cauliflower for a few minutes too; it ended up taking longer to cook than everything else.

The vegetables were delicious immediately after cooking and even when reheated at work. My only complaint is that Brussels sprouts got a little too soft because of the extra time it took the cauliflower to cook. But the texture was not too bad and the flavor was fantastic.

Oven Roasted Vegetables

  • 1 whole cauliflower
  • Brussels sprouts (3/4 lb or so)
  • 3-4 medium golden beets
  • fresh herbs (I finished off my oregano)

Preheat oven to 400 (I sometimes do 375). Bring 1 qt water to boil with a few pinches of salt. Set up steamer for cauliflower. Halve the Brussels sprouts and boil exactly 5 minutes. Cut up cauliflower into florets and steam 3-5 minutes. Peel beets and chop into bite-sized 1/2″ cubes.

Spread equal portions of vegetables into two large baking pans. Alternatively you can add all vegetables into one large bowl to make seasoning easier, then distribute them into pans. Coat vegetables liberally with olive oil, sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Finely chop herbs and sprinkle into mixture, about 2-3 tbsp final volume.

Place vegetables in oven and roast for 40-50 minutes, or until they reach desired tenderness. Be sure to stir them every 10 minutes or so, and monitor them to avoid burning. When they are finished cooking, allow them to cool 10 minutes and then immediately transfer to tupper and place in the refrigerator.

To reheat, microwave on high for 2 minutes, stirring half way through.

This recipe works for almost any durable vegetable. Simply adjust cooking time to reach appropriate tenderness. Serve with brown or wild rice.

What are your favorite roasting vegetables? I will be trying different combinations each week and would love to hear your suggestions.

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Lunch: Office Envy

by | Oct 7, 2008

Several weeks ago I held a poll asking which meal people found the most difficult to keep healthy: breakfast, lunch, snack or dinner. The overwhelming response was lunch.

To me this implies that the vast majority of you do not bring your lunch to work, but opt to eat out every day instead. Indeed, it is extremely difficult (and boring) to be healthy if you rely on restaurants for your meals. But if you want to eat healthy you must find a way to bring your lunch, and eating out needs to be the exception rather than the rule.

I have heard several reasons why people choose to eat out for lunch, and would love for you to share your own personal reasons in this week’s poll. But so far, the most common reason I hear is peer pressure. People do not want to be the odd man out at the office. No one wants to be left alone at their desk with a salad, even if the alternative is a Big Mac and trans fat-laden fries. And it isn’t any better to try and choke down a soggy McDonald’s salad while everyone else enjoys their delicious salt and cholesterol.

I completely sympathize with these arguments and at first glance I can see how they seem almost impossible to overcome. But in my experience, it does not have to be this way. Believe it or not, most people agree about what food looks really delicious, and bright, colorful and fresh is always appealing. So as you can imagine, the first step to successfully bringing your lunch to work on a regular basis is to make sure you pack food you actually want to eat. An added bonus is that if you sit down with a meal that looks and smells amazing, it is likely your friends at work will not only respect your decision, but may even be a little jealous. Instead of being the poor sucker on a diet, you will be the new lunch trend-setter!

A couple years ago I started a mini revolution at work. Giant café sandwiches and personal pizzas were the norm in the lunch room. Knowing this was not an option for me, I started dropping by my local market on my way in to work on Monday morning. I would pick up a bag of spinach, a basket of cherry tomatoes, an avocado or two, zucchini or cucumber, red bell pepper, a bag of walnuts, some kind of salad dressing and fruit. This adds maybe 5-10 minutes to my commute (shopping can also be done on weekends). My office kitchen is stocked with plates, forks and knives, but clearly it would not be hard to bring these items in if necessary. A large tupperware is particularly nice to have around because it makes your lunch portable.

Chopping the vegetables and fruit onto a bed of spinach or mixed greens takes about 5 minutes, and within that time I am invariably bombarded with compliments and praise from envious people microwaving their Healthy Choice entrees. Since I started this approach fresh, seasonal salads have become a common sight in our lunch room, and a trend has grown toward healthier, homemade lunches in general. Importantly, this new lunch culture started without an ounce of resentment or exclusion from the former pizza crowd.

One obvious barrier to this method would be if your office lacks a refrigerator. But even then all is not lost. Cut up vegetables are perfectly stable in a tupperware for several hours without refrigeration so long as they are not dressed. I keep bottles of California olive oil (Trader Joe’s) and balsamic vinegar (TJ’s again) at my desk, along with walnuts and salt and pepper grinders.

If you feel the need for a more substantial lunch, brown rice, boiled eggs and smoked salmon are fantastic additions to any salad. Adding fruits like figs, berries, pears or grapes help create a gourmet “wow factor” that elevates your lunch from good to exceptional.

Alternatively, one could make a smaller salad and use it as a supplement to a purchased lunch. For example, one of those giant sandwiches can last you two days if you fill up first with seasonal greens.

I admit that I buy my lunch at least once every week or two, but on those days it is a choice that I make and it is never because healthy eating is too difficult or elusive. If you hope to hit your 60th birthday in full stride, healthy eating must become at least a semi-automatic part of your routine.

Consider that you eat lunch at work 5 days a week. I say that makes for a fantastic opportunity to streamline your healthstyle.

What do you think, does that really sound so bad?

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Poll Results: When is healthy eating the most difficult?

by | Aug 21, 2008

Thanks to everyone who voted in this week’s poll. Here are the results:

Breakfast 0%
Lunch 60%
Dinner 40%
Snack 0%
All Day 0%
Never 0%

n = 10

Lunch! When I first saw these results I must say I was a bit surprised. For me lunch is routine and, because I’m me, it is a healthy one. Lunch is almost the same every day, so I have tuned it to be an automatic contribution to my healthy lifestyle.

In my world (I didn’t vote), dinner is the most difficult meal because it is the most likely to be laced with the element of surprise. I usually only eat out at dinner because when friends want to get together, after work is typically the most convenient time. But that’s me and I do not go out very often.

I would be willing to wager that those of you who answered lunch did so because you go out for lunch almost every day. Is this true?

I am curious to know how much of this decision is need-based (i.e., there is no refrigerator, microwave, sink or lunch space where you work) versus how much is office culture (i.e., everyone goes out for lunch, you cannot be expected to sit alone with your salad)? Or are you all just too busy to find a healthy lunch and end up at the closest, quickest food option available (rarely the healthiest)?

Please enlighten me by posting comments about your lunching habits.

Stay tuned for advice on how to re-structure lunch to actually contribute to your healthy eating.

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