Monday, June 27, 2011

Recall of the Week: Dole Italian Blend Salad


I knew we wouldn't have to wait long for the next recall. This time it's a precautionary recall of some 2,880 cases of Dole Italian Blend Salad.

The recall was issued on the 22nd. The Use-by date is 6/19. Seems to me it's a little like locking the barn door after the horse has escaped. No reported illnesses, just some contamination found in one isolated package.

This recall evokes another issue I have with the "three-times washed" packaged salads. Many people believe that means the produce is actually clean. I believed that too, up until the time I bought the package of three-times washed spinach and found a big old gooey glop of clay-like mud smeared over about a third of the package. I no longer buy packaged salads, but if I did, I sure would wash them regardless of how many times the producer alleged that it had been washed.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Organic Valencia Peanut Butter

I have crossed a line, dear reader. I'm not sure whether it is for the better or for the worse, but cross it I have. Actually, that is a lie. I'm pretty sure it is for the better, all things considered, but it does make me feel like I have taken one more step away from the mainstream.

It started when Arrowhead Mills stopped making their organic Valencia peanut butter, a situation which I lamented here. Since that fateful day, I have tried several different brands of organic peanut butter, trying to find a reasonable substitute. The ones that had the right consistency did not taste all that good. The ones that tasted good had a bad consistency. Nothing came close. I thought I would never be able to enjoy peanut butter again.

I did find a brand that was palatable, but not great. I have been using it, but my peanut butter consumption has gone down significantly because it just does not satisfy that basic peanut butter craving. It has been over a year since Arrowhead Mills changed their recipe, and I have not found a decent substitute for it.

Hence the inevitable. Earlier this week I was at Whole Foods to pick up some organic apples, pinto beans and cilantro. While I was in the bulk section getting the beans, I noticed a bin of organic roasted Valencia peanuts. Hmmmmm. How hard would it be to make my own peanut butter?

And as you can see above, it's not hard at all. I decided to try a small batch in the processor attachment that came with my stick blender. I just sorted through the nuts, making sure to get rid of any pieces of red skin that was still attached to any of them, placed them in the processor bowl, turned on the motor, and let it rip.

At first I didn't think it was going to work. It did chop the peanuts, very fine, but nowhere near a paste, let alone a butter. I had read that it might be necessary to add a little vegetable oil to make it creamy, so I did (less than a teaspoon in all), and all of a sudden I had peanut butter! What a surprise!

But, I think if I had been more patient I would not have had to add any oil. This is definitely a first attempt, and there will be some tweaking to get it to suit my taste, but it's not at all bad for a prototype. Next time I will let it process longer and see if I can get it creamy enough without the oil.

When I think I have a keeper, I will let you know.

I am excited about this. It isn't that much cheaper to make than to buy, but there is a certain satisfaction in making my own. And I'm starting to think about other possibilities as well: almonds, cashews, hazelnuts . . .

The list of processed foods that I buy is getting shorter every day.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Tip of the Day: Frittatas

I now make frittatas on a regular basis. I have started cutting my basic recipe in half and making it in a smaller pan so it is an ideal weekend breakfast. Actually, I have cut it down to 3 eggs, which is a little less than half, but that makes it the equivalent of the three-egg omelet I would have if I went out for breakfast so I can eat it in one or two sittings without too much guilt. In addition, I have learned a trick or two since my last post, and thought I would share them with you.

A few weeks ago my friend gifted me with an abundance of CSA veggies she was not going to be able to use before leaving town. It was an inspiring assortment of goodies - turnips, lettuce, Swiss chard, and a different green I had never before seen. I did a little online searching, but nothing I found quite matched what I had. It was more leafy than the greens with which I am familiar, with red, almost rhubarb-looking stems. I knew it could not be rhubarb, however, because rhubarb leaves are actually toxic and should not be eaten. Ha! That's an unplanned tip I just gave you, free of charge.

This is what my mystery greens looked like. I was stumped, so I threw one of the leafy stems into my lunch bag the next morning and took it in to work with me. I figured if anyone would know what it was it would be my boss, an expert gardener and an inspiration to me with her knowledge of all things flora and fauna.

And sure enough, I handed it to her and she said, "That's Russian red kale." Reassured, I decided it would make a lovely frittata.

And, in fact, it made three lovely frittatas over the course of the week. Yes, that's how much there was of it. I chopped up the stems and cooked them with the onion and garlic, and then added the chopped leaves just before adding the eggs. (Unplanned tip number two: When using greens that have a thick stem, don't discard the stems. Chop them separately from the leaves and cook them with the aromatics before adding the greens. They're full of nutritional goodies and you won't feel nearly so wasteful.)

I was forced (poor me) to buy some double cream cheese when I couldn't find organic cream cheese at the two stores I had access to when I needed it, then after I got the cream cheese I no longer needed the double cream, which freed it up for use here. You can see how lovely it looks in the picture up there, and I can tell you that it tasted delicious. A Russian Red Kale and Double Cream Cheese frittata is a very good thing, to quote some other person out there who cooks a little.

And here is another very good thing for a frittata. Instead of putting the cheese on top at the very end, mix about one fourth of a cup of grated parmesan cheese in with the egg and vegetables. It sets up beautifully and tastes delicious.

Now for the main tip. This is something I had heard from different sources, but didn't think it would really make that much of a difference, so I ignored it. Then I was watching the show "Extra Virgin" on the Cooking Channel. I love this show. I have always like Debi Mazar and now I think I have a little girl-crush on her. Her husband Gabriele Corcos isn't so bad either. Now that I think of it, I guess it would be more accurate to say I have a couple-crush on the both of them. They are just too cute together . . .

Ok, I'm back. On one episode they made a frittata, and Gabriele was quite insistent that you should mix the vegetables into the egg mixture and then pour the whole thing back into the pan, rather than adding the egg mixture while the vegetables were already in the pan. And since Gabriele was telling me I had to do it that way, I realized I had to do it that way.

And guess what? He was right. With this method, the vegetables get spread evenly throughout the frittata, rather than staying on the bottom. But you have to be a little careful or you will cook the eggs when you add the hot vegetables. You have to temper them. Here's how.
Saute the onions, garlic, and whatever other vegetables you will be using in one or two tablespoons of olive oil. While the vegetables are still cooking in the pan, crack the eggs into a bowl large enough to hold everything and add whatever seasoning you are going to be adding (I like to add about one-half of a teaspoon of crushed dried tarragon in addition to the salt and pepper). Whisk together until well blended and the eggs are frothy.

Take the skillet with the vegetables off of the heat. Add a scant spoonful of the vegetables to the egg mixture and whisk it in immediately. This will bring down the temperature of the eggs so they match the vegetables, and this keeps them from cooking. You can add another, bigger, spoonful of vegetables and stir them in, and then you can add the rest of the vegetables without worries.

When the skillet is empty, return it to the burner. Add about a tablespoon of butter and let it melt. Slowly pour in the egg mixture so it spreads the butter out ahead of it. Turn the heat as low as it will go and cook until the egg is mostly set, then finish the frittata the usual way.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

EWG Shopper's Guide: An Apple a Day? As Long As It's Organic

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently published the 2011 Shopper's Guide, which rates produce according to their pesticide loads. (For a pdf of the list, click here.)

Recognizing that not everyone can afford, nor wants, to only eat organic produce, the group publishes the guide so people can make more informed decisions about organic versus conventional when buying their food.
“Though buying organic is always the best choice, we know that sometimes people do not have access to that produce or cannot afford it,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “Our guide helps consumers concerned about pesticides to make better choices among conventional produce, and lets them know which fruits and vegetables they may want to buy organic.” - from EWG Press Release
According to the EWG, if you choose to eat your five servings of fruits and vegetables from the Clean 15 list, you can lower the volume of pesticides you consume by 92 percent, and you will be ingesting fewer types of pesticides as well.

Guess what debuted at the number one spot on the dirty dozen list this year (last year it was celery). Yep, it's the apple. So if you're going to eat one of those a day to keep the doctor away, you might want to make it organic.

Photo source: This travel blog photo's source is TravelPod page: Fruit picking, aka SAS training

Monday, June 13, 2011

Baking Class: Banana Bread

I can't remember whether or not I have written about banana bread before. It was something my mother made frequently, I suppose owing to the simple fact that it calls for over-ripe bananas, and for some reason that happened fairly often in our house, even with six people living in it. I always loved the smell of it baking, but it was not my favorite sweet thing to eat. I hated most banana-flavored foods, but because it was so often the only sweet option in the house, I learned to tolerate it.

And I would even bake it as an adult, whenever I found that I had bought more bananas than I could eat before they turned. And while I still loved the way it smelled, the taste, not so much. I would take it to work or bring it to friends after one piece confirmed to me that my taste had not changed.

With this loaf, I am surprised to say, it has. This banana bread is moist, rich, and sweet, with just the right amount of banana flavor. I am not sure why, but I suspect part of it might be the ingredients, and part of it might be how over-ripe my bananas were. In addition, as I have grown more aware of the huge disconnect in this country between the food we eat, how it is produced, and from whence it comes, I have made the choice to use ingredients as close to their original states as possible.

So, the bananas are fair trade, the flour is white whole wheat, the butter and eggs are organic, and the sugar is fair trade organic evaporated cane. The baking soda is the only conventional name-brand product in the mix. And now that I have decided to do some research on that, I have discovered allegations that they test on animals, so I will have to look further into that and decide what I want to do about it.

In the meantime, this recipe is ultra easy to prepare. The trickiest part is making sure you have the ripe bananas, and that they they are over-ripe enough. This was so good, however, that I think there will be many occasions in the future when I will take a look at my bananas, see a brown spot or two, and decide that they are beyond edible consumption and I might as well wait another three or four days and make banana bread with them.

The recipe as originally written is just a list of ingredients and two short sentences. In those days, it was assumed that one would know what to do with the ingredients without needing step by step instructions.
Home Cookin Chapter: Breads and Muffins

BANANA BREAD
Makes 1 loaf

3 over-ripe bananas
1 egg
1/4 cup melted butter,at room temperature
1-1/2 cups white whole wheat flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. Peel the bananas. Put them in a small bowl and mash them well with a fork unti they have become liquid.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt, then whisk well to blend the ingredients together.

In a larger mixing bowl, beat the egg. Whisk in the melted butter and then the mashed banana. Add the dry ingredients and stir just until combined.

Pour the mixture into a greased loaf pan (approximately 8 x 4 x 2 1/2 inches). Bake at 350 deg. F. for 50 minutes to an hour, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean.

Exported from Home Cookin 6.46 (www.mountain-software.com)

Monday, June 06, 2011

Homemade Mayonnaise

Whenever I thought about making mayonnaise, I thought of failure. All I had heard about was how difficult it is to make and keep the emulsion, and how easy it is to break it and end up with an oily, gloppy mess. In addition, it is labor intensive; you have to add the oil drop by drop, whisking vigorously with every drop, which seemed both time-consuming and labor-intensive, neither of which have any appeal for me.

And then I read about a method of making it with a stick blender. You just throw an egg, some lemon juice, dried mustard, salt, and the oil (in that order) into a tall narrow container, and insert the stick blender down to the bottom of the container, turn it on, and slowly bring it up, and when you are done you have a nice batch of mayonnaise. It seemed pretty straightforward, so I tried it, and knock me down if it didn't work beautifully. The first time. I was hooked.

I was a little concerned about using raw egg, but not overly. I was already buying from local brands, if not organic, and none of the brands I buy have ever been listed on any of the recent egg recalls. But then I heard about Vital Farms eggs, which come from organic pasture-raised chickens down in Austin. I know it's always a crap shoot, but it seems the chances are less likely that there will be any contamination problems with these eggs. They are expensive, so like Laura at Wringing out My Sponge (which is where I found out about them), I use them only for mayonnaise or when I need raw eggs. So far, a dozen eggs has lasted me quite a while (and no, I don't worry that much about the best by date on eggs).

The only problem I had with the stick blender recipe was that it used a whole egg, and I wasn't sure what those egg whites were doing to the overall effect. I also wasn't sure what would happen if I used only the egg yolk with the immersion blender, however, and I didn't want to end up with an oily, gloppy mess. And then I read online about someone who made mayonnaise with a stick blender using only the yolk, so I decided to try it. It worked just fine.

But I think that was just beginner's luck. The next time I decided to make it I was not so lucky. I finally ended up with that oily, gloppy mess about which I had heard so much. I knew the way to fix a broken emulsion was to start over with another egg yolk, and then gradually add the gloppy mess. So I put another yolk at the bottom of the jar, added the gloppy mess, inserted the stick blender down into the bottom of the jar, turned it on, and slowly brought it to the top, which is the way to make mayonnaise with a stick blender.

But alas, it was not to be. I now had two very expensive egg yolks invested in this batch, so I wasn't about to give up. But I did know better than to try yet another yolk with the stick blender. I decided it was time to try the old fashioned, drop by drop whisking method.

It was an intense process, because I didn't really know what I was doing and you don't know if it is working properly until you're well committed. Never having done it by hand before, I was sweating it. I heard you should add the oil a drop at a time, so I was literally adding one single drop at a time. I don't know if you've ever tried to pour one single drop of oil out of a measuring cup, especially when it has failed mayonnaise ingredients in it as well, but it is a messy business. But I persevered long past the feeling that my arms were going to fall off and, lo and behold, an emulsion was formed and I had mayonnaise.

As you can see if you compare this mayonnaise to the batch up at the top, it was rather yellow from the three yolks, and it was quite thick. I added some hot water to thin it out and it thinned out to a more mayonnaise-like consistency.

It was not the best tasting mayonnaise, but it was good enough to eat, especially in tuna salad, which is where most of it went. And I was proud of myself for having finally mastered the elusive emulsion.

But I went back to my stick blender when I whipped up my next batch. And ended up with another oily mess. Part of me suspects it was subconsciously intentional because I wanted to see if I could do it again by hand. I could. With only two yolks it was not as yellow as this version, but it was still one more yolk than I wanted or needed.

The next time I decided to just skip the stick blender altogether. I felt comfortable enough with the hand method that it just seemed easier. And I discovered that when they say to add the oil a "drop at a time," they don't literally mean one drop at a time. They just mean in really small batches. So it wasn't nearly as labor intensive as the first two times. And since I knew what I was looking for in terms of successful emulsion, I didn't have to beat the mixture nearly as frantically as I had before.

The result was what you see in the picture above. It was my most successful to date, in look, texture, and taste. Much better than what I had been producing with the stick blender. Enough better that I have decided to use this method from now on. Yes, it is labor intensive, but I don't make it that often and when I do make it, I want it to be the best that it can be. And, as with every other condiment that I have started to make myself, it gets easier every time.

If you've never made mayonnaise before and are nervous about it, I would recommend that you start with the stick blender (if you have one), so you can get an idea of how the process works. I will post the recipe for that as well as the hand version. But if you are like me, it won't be long before you are whisking it up by hand.

Whichever method you use, I think you will find that it tastes so much better than what you find at the grocery store.

The first time I made the stick blender mayonnaise, I used olive oil. While successful, it was almost fluorescent green in color and tasted like olive oil. Which was not bad in and of itself and it was quite tasty with saffron added and mixed into this lovely potato salad that I made for a spice blogging event. But for everyday use, I like to use an unflavored oil like canola or grapeseed.

The biggest secret to a successful mayonnaise? Make sure all of the ingredients are at room temperature.
Home Cookin Chapter: Sauces

STICK BLENDER MAYONNAISE
Makes about 3/4 cup

1 egg, room temperature
1-1/2 tsp Fresh lime juice, room temperature
1/2 tsp dry mustard powder
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup oil

Place all of the ingredients in the order listed into a jar that is just wider than the wand of the stick blender.

Position the blender at the bottom of the jar so that the egg yolk is sitting directly under the blade. Turn it on and, rocking side to side, slowly pull it up to the top. This should only take about 5 to 7 seconds. The mixture will emulsify as you bring the blades up, so you should have mayonnaise by the time the blender reaches the top of the jar.

Check the seasonings and adjust to taste.

Exported from Home Cookin 6.46 (www.mountain-software.com)
HOMEMADE MAYONNAISE
Makes about 3/4 cup

1 egg yolk, room temperature
1 tsp dijon mustard, room temperature
1 Tbsp lemon juice, room temperature
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup oil

In a very small bowl combine the lemon juice, vinegar and salt and set aside.

Combine the egg yolk and the mustard in a small, heavy mixing bowl. With a whisk, break the yolk and blend well with the mustard. Add a scant dribble of the oil and whisk it thoroughly into the egg and mustard mixture. Once it has been incorporated, add another dribble and whisk thoroughly. Continue until you have added about one half of a cup of the oil, dribble by dribble.

By now the emulsion should be set and the mixture should be somewhat thick. Add about half of the lemon juice, vinegar and salt mixture and whisk well. This should thin the mixture but will not break the emulsion. Start adding the oil in larger amounts, about a teaspoon at a time. After the next half cup of oil, or when the mixture becomes unwieldy, add the rest of the lemon, vinegar and salt mixture. Continue whisking in the oil in larger amounts, up to a tablespoon at a time, until it has all been incorporated. If the mayonnaise is too thick, you can thin it with hot water, adding in small amounts at a time until it reaches the desired consistency. It will thicken in the refrigerator.


Thursday, June 02, 2011

Creamy Root Vegetable Soup

Remember those braised vegetables that I mentioned in this last-braise-of-the-season post? This is the soup I made from them. It was super easy, and most delicious. I don't know if the picture does it justice, but the beets added a beautiful red tinge to the orange and a fresh tartness to the flavor.

This is more of a technique than a recipe. You just take your braised (or roasted - also delicious!) vegetables and put them in soup pot with enough chicken or vegetable broth (you can even use water if that's all you have) to just barely cover the vegetables, bring it to a boil, then lower the heat and let it simmer for a few minutes. Using either a stick blender (my preference) or a regular blender, puree the vegetables together until you have a smooth soup. Return to the heat and adjust for seasonings. If it's too thick, add more broth. Finish it off with about 1/4 cup of cream, milk, or even yogurt.

For a garnish, I highly suggest this Cucina Viva Truffle Balsamic Cream that comes from Tuscany. It was a holiday gift from a knitting friend, and it is marvelous. The rich, tart sweetness of the balsamic vinegar is pungently infused with the dark, earthy tone of the truffle.

Just a small amount is all you need to bring out the rich, earthy flavors of the root vegetables. I cannot wait to see what other things can be done with this wonderful condiment.

In the cold winter months, roasting the vegetables is the way to go. When it gets warmer and you don't want to heat up your house, braised vegetables make an equally delicious dish.

If my brief recap up above wasn't enough, the recipe follows.
Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes

CREAMY ROOT VEGETABLE SOUP
Serves 4 large or 6 starter

2 Tbsp grapeseed oil
1 large onion, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, cut on the diagonal 1/4-inch wide
1 celery rib, roughly chopped
2 medium or 1 large rutabaga, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 medium or 1 large fennel bulb, cored and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
2 medium or 1 large beet, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 tsp fennel seeds, toasted
1/2 tsp caraway seeds, toasted
2 cups tomato puree
2 cups water
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1-2 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 quart vegetable or chicken broth
1/4 cup heavy cream
Truffle balsamic cream, for garnish (or anything acidic - regular balsamic vinegar, sherry vinegar, or lemon juice)

Preheat oven to 325 deg. F.

Heat the oil in a large dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until just softened. Add the garlic, carrots and celery and cook another 5 minutes, still stirring frequently. Add the rutabaga, fennel, and beets and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the toasted fennel seeds and cook for 2 minutes more.

Add the tomato puree, water, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, and apple cider vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Bring to a boil and then cover tightly. Remove from the stove and place in the 325-degree oven.

1 to 2 hours, until the vegetables are soft. Remove from the oven and place on the stove over medium heat. (At this point you could store the vegetables in the refrigerator and make the soup later, wthin 3 or
4 days.)

Add the vegetable broth and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and puree the mixture, using a stick blender, or in a regular blender. Return to the heat and add the cream. If it is too thick, add more
broth or water. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Serve warm, with a small swirl of truffle balsamic cream to garnish.

Exported from Home Cookin 6.46 (www.mountain-software.com)
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