Panza verde on Cinco de Mayo

So the buzz-kill commentariat has spent all week making sure that we understand that in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo isn’t really that big of a deal. But people, let’s focus on the real meaning of the holiday:  a ready-made excuse to INDULGE for every panza verde–lover of the avocado! I decided to celebrate by making a meal out of the Big Three–guacamole, sopa Azteca, and mango-avocado salsa.

Guacamole

Everybody has a guac recipe! Mine actually focuses more on technique, since the ingredients are pretty much standard. How to get the meat out of the avocado?–After cutting the avocado in half and twisting the halves apart, I thwack my (very sharp) knife into the pit and give it a quarter-turn. Out it comes. Then I dice the fruit still in the skin, and use a spoon to scoop it out. Sprinkle with some lime juice so it doesn’t darken. Done.

While that’s going on, I roast the tomatoes, garlic, and peppers (hot!–about 450 for 15 minutes or so, until I’m getting some char). This time I used a serrano pepper; not hot enough. Next time, back to jalapeno (or ratchet up to a habanero?–try a small one). Chop all that up. Dice some onion, chop some cilantro, juice a lime. Add some salt.

Stir it all together with a fork, mashing the avocado as you go, until you get the texture you want. (I like chunky.) If you roast the tomatoes, you trade off the texture of fresh for the flavor of roasted. I go back and forth; both are good!

Then you eat it!–And in the process, maybe you use up the whole first batch of fried corn tortilla chips that you made for the sopa Azteca.

Sopa Azteca

Do not let people tell you this is tortilla soup!–So much tastier! I found my recipe in Oaxaca back in 2006; it’s in Spanish, so some interpretive maneuvers come into play. To start, “muela y fria el tomate”–”grind and fry”? Okay, make that “chop and fry.” So, take a couple of pounds of ripe tomatoes, chop them up, and fry them in hot oil with a chopped onion and a couple of garlic cloves (“dientes” or “teeth” in Spanish). You end up with a very fragrant thick tomato slurry.

Add a handful of epazote leaves (nature’s beano), some salt, and a little water (“un poco”–I add about a quart and a half. Decide by the thickness you want). Some recipes go for chicken stock instead.

While that’s simmering, remove the seeds, veins, and stems from about three dried chiles guajillos (find them in the ethnic aisle). Toast them in a dry pan until they are fragrant and your throat is catching a little from the vapors. Cool them and cut them into little strips or squares. Add them to the soup and continue simmering for say 15 minutes minimum.

Cut four fresh corn tortillas into wedges (or strips, if you want more crunch per spoonful). Heat one or two inches of oil until it’s hot. (I’m afraid of hot oil!–I use a candy thermometer and go for no less than 350.) Add the pieces of tortilla in batches; they should foam and bounce exuberantly. Stir them until they are getting golden, then skim them out and drain them on a brown paper grocery bag. (I don’t know why either, but that’s how it’s done.)

Then dice some avocado and some queso fresco (use mozzarella if you can’t find it). Put the tortilla bits, avocado, and cheese, as well as some chopped cilantro and lime wedges, each in its own dish on the table. Ladle the soup into shallow bowls and let everybody garnish it the way they like. For me, it’s always all the way!

Mango-avocado salsa

I don’t remember where I got my recipe for mango-avocado salsa, but it’s probably a lot like yours. Diced avocado, diced mango, diced red onion. Add chopped cilantro and lime juice. A little salt. All this talk about habaneros!–I seeded one and minced the flesh. Never going back!

A salsa goes on something; in this case, a little halibut steak. Salt, pepper, a dusting of flour. Fry it until it is almost completely opaque, then let it sit there on the plate for a minute or so–it’ll finish cooking through.

After the sopa Azteca, I was way too far into hot oil! My steak picked up more of a crunchy skin than I really wanted. Note to self: take it easy (and maybe skip the dusting of flour). But very moist and tasty nonetheless! Bueno apetito!

Food bank gourmet

Last Sunday, FamilyWorks, my neighborhood’s food bank, threw a semi-“iron chef” event! Two top local chefs each prepared a three-course meal using ingredients typically found on the food bank’s shelves. Emceed by local celebrity chef Kathy Casey, the event featured Rachel Yang of Joule Restaurant and Amy McCray of Eva Restaurant, who both cooked us up a treat of a meal.

(Why semi-”iron chef?” Neither of these pro’s showed the least trace of a killer instinct!–More like “tofu chef.” But their food was great!)

Using just a small table for a workspace and two gas-canister-fueled hotplates, Rachel and Amy each came up with a starter, a main dish, and a dessert. And as each course got done, volunteers divvied it up for the dozens of us to sample. We also had a wine-tasting going on in the corner and a spread of hors d’oeuvres laid out on a side table so we wouldn’t get too restive. Sozo Wine was a sponsor of the event. Interesting organization! Check them out: http://www.sozoplanet.com)

Rachel opened with an Asian-accented pancake (a specialty of her newest restaurant, Revel) made with canned peas and fresh spinach.

Next, she went with a stew made with chicken thighs, mushrooms, veg, and–I suspect, not an ingredient she’s used to working with!–Top Ramen. Delicious.

What could be better for dessert than rice pudding? She made hers with sauted apple slices, “left-over” rice (“who doesn’t have left-over rice?”), and canned coconut milk. (The exact brand I have on my own pantry shelf. Yes, I saw it on the shelf in the food bank too. This is Seattle.)

Amy went in a different direction for the starter–a fresh salad with shredded sweet peppers and a citrus vinaigrette. (Like most neighborhood food banks, FamilyWorks gets fresh produce from Northwest Harvest and other large distributors. Stay tuned for a posting on how food distribution works in urban America.)

Next, she went with a chicken curry with carrots. Here, she worked in a “mystery ingredient”–a packet of nasi goreng flavoring. (Yes, from the food bank shelves. Again, this is Seattle.) The curry also incorporated coconut milk and canned peas. This stew may have shared some ingredients with Rachel’s, but tasted totally different! Also delicious.

(The volunteer who gave us our tour of the food bank showed us the substantial range of food products they offer to their clients. Many, many plastic bins of canned goods, peanut butter, fruit, produce, breads and other starches marched along a long table, each labeled with how many of each item could be taken by a family on each visit.)

For dessert, Amy also made rice pudding!–but again, a very different dish from Rachel’s. Amy started her rice in coconut milk, then zested several oranges (remember that citrus vinaigrette?–nothing going to waste here) and threw it all in. A lot of it! And we were glad she did–lovely fresh taste.

Great food!–And a fun event. Hats off to FamilyWorks for a creative fundraiser that was also an eye-opening introduction to the work they are doing to make good food accessible to every family. Do you have a similar effort in your neighborhood? Give us a snapshot of what it does.

EAT! Week in the rear view mirror

My one-week, 21-meal “plan-prepare-&-eat-a-thon” hit me with some big realities. First, eating this way is work; I couldn’t have done it (at least, the way I did it) had I not been on spring break. My respect has zoomed off the charts for the millions of parents out there who put food on the table every day for their families!

Also, cooking for one person has its challenges, and across the whole week, I constantly found that my planning/preparing eyes were bigger than my stomach. Most of the overage ended up in the freezer (in fact, I just had another bowl of that tasty squash soup). Some of it ended up in a second serving that I didn’t really need. (I suspect that I gained a few pounds across this little venture.) Some of it went straight from pan to freezer when I got a better offer from a friend. And some (too much!) of it ended up as worm food.

But let’s look at the up side. I definitely ate more fruits, nuts, and vegetables and less meat than usual. I had a very nice bit of fish. And the leftovers fed me almost every meal this week too, and will still be going strong next week.

Notes for next time:  Scale it down!–Plan most of your meals, not all of them. I’ll focus mainly on dinner, so that I pull things out of the freezer soon enough to defrost. And I’ll target amounts that will give me a couple of extra servings for lunch during the week, so that I don’t keep blowing my money at the taco truck–but not too much more. Beyond that, I’ll rely on my usual habits: keep some breakfast stuff around, and pantry staples like broth, pasta, grains, and canned tomatoes that let you improvise the rest. The strategy for fruits and vegetables?–Buy small amounts and then use them!–No more compost farming in the fridge.

So we arrive at the end of EAT!week! Two open questions that I continue to chew on: How local and how fresh? And where does it comes from and what’s in it? Stay tuned for more on these topics!

EAT! Week day seven

The last day of my reality show!

Breakfast

I had planned on a Saturday frittata, but opted instead to go with an omelette (after last night’s marathon with the moussaka, fewer steps is good!) I sliced up and sauted my last mushrooms, then moved them to a paper towel. I threw some spinach leaves into the pan for a couple of minutes, then added them to the paper towel. Then, in the same pan, I made a two-egg omelette, with some filling inside and the rest on top. (No toast and jam; too much food!) Very nice.

Lunch

I made a panini sandwich for (a very late!) lunch: a meat patty made out of the rest of the Lefever Holbrook ground lamb that I had defrosted for the moussaka, a Grand Central Bakery hamburger bun, some spinach leaves and tomato slices, and a horseradish/mayo dressing. Somewhere along the way I’ve actually acquired a panini press; it’s fun to use and gives you those cool ridges in the bread.

Dinner

The twenty-first meal of EAT! week! Most of my groceries are cooked (if not actually consumed), my fridge and freezer are full of leftovers that will take me through next week (and, for the now-frozen moussaka, much longer!), and I am stuffed, sated, and  . . . overfed.  So this is what I am going to have for dinner tonight. If I can eat it all.

Overall Score for Day Seven:  A-. Points for finishing with restraint.

EAT! Week day six

We are heading into the home stretch!

Breakfast

No news here–just cereal with my last banana sliced on top. (My last banana for now; I’ve resolved my banana issue. The votes are in and the verdict is, eat them whenever you want. Bueno apetito.)

Lunch

Remember the stir-fry earlier in the week that didn’t happen? It happened for lunch today. The recipe is: see what’s in the fridge and throw it in. Not an elegant dish, but crunchy-good! Here’s what I did this time.

Make rice. I use my trusty rice cooker.

Get everything that’s going in the stir-fry totally ready ahead of time because once you fire up the wok, things go FAST. Prep all the veg by cutting them into pieces about the same size. (This time I used an onion, two stalks of celery, two carrots, and a red bell pepper. In a different bowl, I sliced up almost all my mushrooms–regular white ones as well as a couple of portobellos–and tore up the rest of the Thai basil.) Slice some garlic. Measure out your sauce: for this amount of veg, one tablespoon of soy sauce and two tablespoons of fish sauce with a dash of sugar will do.

Then heat the wok on high. When it starts to smoke, add about a tablespoon of peanut oil, swirl it, and let it get super-hot. (If I’m not  scared, I know my wok isn’t hot enough.) Then throw in the garlic, followed instantly by the cut-up vegetables. (This is so that you don’t incinerate your garlic.) Toss the whole time; I use two spatulas to do it. Once the veg start to glisten and maybe show a little color, add the sauce, toss again, and finally add the mushrooms and basil. If the heat isn’t turned up as high as it will go, do it now. (This is so that you don’t end up with mushroom soup.) Toss like crazy. (It feels like you are playing the cymbals.)

Now dump it into a serving bowl. I sprinkled it with some sriracha (do you know this hot sauce? I LOVE it.) It looks more carroty in the photo than it was; actually the mushrooms were the big deal. But go ahead and EAT!

Dinner

I decided to go ambitious for dinner: moussaka, which I have never made.

As I read the recipe, I got the beginnings of a bad feeling. Prepping the vegetables is going to take an hour? Well, you have to partly-peel, slice, salt, drain (this is where the hour comes in), rinse, and dry the eggplants, and boil the  potatoes. Okay, I’ll get all that going, then watch the news.

While the potatoes are cooling, you preheat the oven, line two (two??) sheet pans with foil, and oil them. Next, you separate your eggs, lightly beat the whites, and spread bread crumbs on a plate. So this is all leading up to Step One:  get your eggplant in the oven. You dip each slice in the egg whites, dredge it in the bread crumbs, and put it in one layer on the pans. This takes a while.

Now we are ready to make the meat sauce. Finely chop two onions (then hold your face under the cold-water faucet until you can see again), mince the garlic, and chop the parsley. Measure out everything else. Then saute the ground lamb, add the onion and garlic, and keep sauteing; add the wine and simmer a while; add your spices, tomato paste and puree, and sugar. Let it simmer for about 15 minutes. All of this adds up to Step Two.

Pull the eggplant out of the oven and set it over there to cool. On to Step Three:  make the bechamel sauce. Lightly beat your egg yolks. Warm the milk. Now, melt the butter and whisk in the flour; let it cook for a bit. Add the warm milk in a steady stream, whisking away. Simmer until it thickens a bit. Take it off the heat, stir in the egg yolks and nutmeg, and put it back on the fire to thicken.

This is all just prep for the main event: Step Four, assemble the moussaka. Grease the biggest baking dish you own, sprinkle the bottom with (more!) bread crumbs, and cover it with a layer of sliced potatoes. (Leave a small moat around the edges.) Top that with a layer of eggplant slices, then the meat sauce. Sprinkle with a quarter of the grated cheese. Add another layer of eggplant splices and top that with another quarter of the cheese. Now, pour the bechamel sauce over the whole thing, making sure the sauce fills up that moat. Put the rest of the cheese on top. Now heave a sigh of relief and put it in the oven!

Okay, let’s assess our situation here. It’s 9:00 at night, I still haven’t eaten supper, and my kitchen is a horrendous effing mess. But on the up side (unless, when I ran out of breadcrumbs, it was a fatal mistake to sub in the panko breading), in about an hour I will have a nice piece of homemade moussaka.

And here it is!

Overall Score for Day Six:  B. Extra credit for effort. (What was I thinking??)

EAT! Week day five

Breakfast

I finished off my ancient oatmeal today with a nice handful of blueberries on top. Then I went out and bought another box!–This is a very tasty hot cereal.

Lunch

I must admit that by now I was suffering from a slight case of food fatigue. For lunch, I had a simple bowl of leftover bean and vegetable soup. No bread, no fruit, no cheese. Just right.

Dinner

My friend Mary and I were booked to take in a movie this afternoon, so I invited her over here afterwards  for halibut tacos.

Growing up in Texas, I ate more than my share of the classic Tex-Mex taco: crisp corn taco shell, seasoned ground beef, lettuce tomato onion, jalapeno slices, and grated yellow cheese on top. I still love it.

But I’ve branched out. Tonight I pan-grilled a halibut steak and flaked it into good-size chunks to go into soft flour tortillas. On top went lettuce, tomato, cilantro, thin-sliced radishes, shredded red cabbage, and cotija cheese. And the pieza de resistencia, pico de gallo. I make mine with onion and tomato diced small, cilantro, minced jalapeno, and lots of lime juice. (Tonight’s version would have been improved with more lime juice; unfortunately it turned out that I had bought the Bartleby of limes.)

Overall Score for Day Five:  B+ (sense enough to scale down lunch, plus a pretty good taco)

EAT! Week day four

Oh good!–Today we get to do chemistry!

Breakfast

I started the day with pretty much the breakfast I had planned–cottage cheese with dried fruit and toast (no jam; the fruit was sweet enough).Those dried apricots were so plump and bright! I glanced at the package. You guessed it–sulfur dioxide. So, what is this stuff? I checked it out on Wikipedia, AltMedAngel, Yahoo Answers, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest CSPI).

Wikipedia defines it as a chemical compound with the formula SO2 (not big news, given its name) produced by volcanoes and some industrial processes. (I’m eating volcano poop?!?) It is a major contributor to acid rain; inhaling it is tied to respiratory disease, difficulty breathing, and premature death. (Death? Great.) CSPI agrees that it can cause severe allergic reactions in some people, but concludes that, for non-sensitive people, sulfites (of which sulfur dioxide is one) are safe. (I must be non-sensitive, since here I am, typing away.) Nevertheless, AltMedAngel lists it among the Top 20 Food Additives to Avoid.

So naturally, it’s used as a food preservative! Especially apricots. Yahoo Answers informs us that dried apricots without it are darker and drier. Well, I’m too cheap to throw out the rest of my chemically enhanced apricots, but now I know what to look for in my next batch–pick the ones the color and texture of ancient sandal soles!

Lunch

Too much food! The lunch I planned for today (leftover lamb shank, spinach) seemed like overkill, so I just had another bowl of yesterday’s squash soup with baguette croutons. Just right!

Dinner

And my calendar tells me that I’m signed up for a Bon Vivant cooking class tonight! Vegetable Paradise. I’ll see if they’ll let me take a pix or two. Before I go, I’ll have some cheese and crackers or grapes or both; the class doesn’t start until 7:00, and it takes a while to crank out the first dish.

Maybe later in the week I’ll cook the dinner I had planned for tonight. But in any case, on to Day Five!

Overall Score for Day Four:  Incomplete

EAT! Week day three

Breakfast

Today I woke up pretty sullen about the whole question of tropical fruit. (Hey, coffee drinker, I’m eating the banana. You got a problem with that?) And I did have the banana, sliced on my LOCAL Cascadian Farm cereal.  A simple, tasty breakfast!

Lunch

Today’s plan for lunch was to make soup out of the rest of last night’s butternut squash. After dinner last night, to get a jump on today’s cooking, I went ahead and pureed the squash, and I’m glad I did, because I ended up making a fairly complicated soup. (I got the recipe from foodnetwork.com; it was posted by Michael Chiarello back in 2007.) I had to scale up the quantities to match my more than three cups of squash puree (this was a hefty linebacker of a squash!), so I doubled the recipe.

Tip #1: I went ahead and made the toasted-spice rub that he described. Very good! But I wouldn’t encourage tossing the toasting spices to keep them from burning; stirring does perfectly well. I’ll be vacuuming up coriander seeds for a week.

You get started by sauteing onion, celery, and carrot–AND cinnamon sticks!– in olive oil; salt and pepper the mixture, and add your broth (plus  spices–I added coriander, plus some sage and a tiny dollop of balsamic vinegar, since I didn’t roast the squash with them). Let it simmer, then add your squash puree and let it simmer some more. Take out the cinnamon sticks. I threw in some of the spice rub as well.

(All of this was taking a while, so I ate half the apple that I was supposed to have for dessert. A tart green Granny Smith. It went so well with the flavor of the soup that I cut up some for garnish!)

More simmering. Now puree the soup mixture.

Tip #2:  Do not, I repeat do NOT, over-fill your blender with hot soup. (Don’t ask.) About one serving at a time is good.

Dinner

Serendipity!–My friend Jan invited me out for a glass of wine and appetizers. (We always go to Bai Pai, a Thai place with a great happy hour.) Crab won-tons, spring rolls, calamari, and spicy green beans. Mmm good. Plus, of course, a couple of glasses of wine!

So no peanut butter pasta; all those ingredients are pantry staples and will keep. And I’m not hungry enough for a salad either. But I did whip up the eggplant and green onion side dish, just because I had the ingredients fresh on hand, it’s more or less a Thai dish, and I love it! (Roast the eggplant; stir-fry the green onions, add the lemon juice-garlic-sriracha-fish sauce, add the sliced eggplant and stir-fry briefly, dish it up and sprinkle with Thai basil!)  I’ll eat it over rice one of these days.

Overall score for Day Three:  B+, for attitude!

EAT! Week day two

Day Two of EAT! week was supposed to be a skate–nothing on the menu that I hadn’t cooked and eaten a dozen times. But . . .

Breakfast

How can a bowl of oatmeal with blueberries go wrong? As I stirred the bubbling pot of cereal, I found myself noticing that the familiar old cardboard cylinder it came in looked a little . . . tired. When did I buy it? I turned it over: “Best before Jul 10 ’09.” Ack!–Was I breaking Mindful Munching Rule #2? (“Don’t eat Pharaoh Food–food so thoroughly preserved that it lasts millenia.”) The ingredient list on the carton was reassuring: “Ingredient: 100% Natural Whole Grain Quaker Quality Rolled Oats.” So if it was well-preserved, it came by it honestly.

I’m currently reading Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland (see “What I’m Reading” soon for a review), so I decided to get his take on “best before” dates. He has much to say on the subject, but for dry cereal,  here’s the nut (p. 166): “Shelf-stable groceries such as cereal . . . are tossed  . . . even though [they] wouldn’t go bad for years.” (He blames a “cult of freshness.”) So, I’m not sure I’ll take two years (!) to eat my next box of cereal, but at least it appears that I won’t drop dead from finishing this one.

Now about those blueberries. Beautiful! But I’m a skeptic now, so I take a closer look at the clam-shell label: “Product of Chile.”–So much for “eat local!” I have to confess, however, to a lack of zealousness on this point. As I said in an earlier post, I eat bananas. I drink tea. Also, I’ve visited several countries in Latin America (Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, Mexico always and often) and in the course of a couple of those trips I’ve met farmers, coffee growers, and dairy operators. Many run sophisticated family operations and most of the rest are hustling to get there. Can’t we eat some of their berries in winter, and offer them some of ours in summer? Can we prefer local, but make room for global? I understand the issues around energy and transportation, but I’m also sympathetic to people working hard to produce beautiful food and make a better life for their family. What do you think?–Let’s discuss.

Lunch

Just a simple salad! Okay, the grape tomatoes and green onions were from California, but after my breakfast blueberries, that seems like just down the street. I’m golden on the greens, mushrooms, and cottage cheese–local as in my own county! The grapes?–Well, Whole Foods, but now that I think about it, beyond that I have no idea. The walnuts?–From . . . Costco. My friend Kathy bought a bale of them and gave me a big bag. And actually, the vinaigrette used vinegar from California and olive oil from Portugal. Its Dijon mustard? Grey Poupon, now owned (I see) by Kraft, so probably from anywhere/everywhere. And does anybody actually know where salt and pepper come from? Oh my.

Who knew that it would be so hard to know what you are eating! Stay tuned; I’m going to dig around on this and see what I can find out.

Dinner

Let’s start off strong–I know exactly where the lamb shank came from: it came from a lamb raised by Paulette Lefever in Goldendale, Washington. And the carrots and broccoli are as far as I can tell local. The butternut squash, not so much; my first clue was the brand on the little label stuck on it: Si Senor. Product of Mexico.

But at least I know! The orzo I used, on the other hand, was a national brand, so once again, probably made anywhere/everywhere. The lemon I squeezed on the broccoli didn’t have a sticker, but let’s face it, it sure didn’t come from here; maybe California? maybe Mexico? The ton of spices in the braise–definitely from around the globe.

I’m beginning to feel a certain lack of clarity about what I’m trying to do here! So let’s review:  I want to eat well. I want to use fresh, local ingredients when I can. I want to waste as little as possible. I want to know where my food comes from and how it was produced. And I want the same for everybody else, whether or not their income matches mine.  Are some of these goals mutually exclusive?

Overall score for Day Two:  C. Just muddling through.

EAT! Week day one

Day One of EAT! Week and I’m already in the weeds.

Breakfast came off almost to spec: two poached eggs on Grand Central Bakery’s chewy Como bread. Instead of buttering it, I drizzled it with olive oil and rubbed it lightly with a garlic clove. Delicious.

(Digression: If you’ve taken three minutes to watch my first micro-movie (I know–I’m a beginner; my next one will be better), you may remember Herdade do Esporao Winery. I forgot to mention that they also make a fantastic fruity olive oil, which is what I used on my toast. http://www.esporao.com.)

Deviation From Plan #1: I didn’t eat my breakfast orange.

But my real menu troubles had already started yesterday. I had invited several people over for dinner, but two of them couldn’t make it. I ended up with three defrosted but uncooked chicken breasts.

So after breakfast I decided to cook the raw chicken. While I was at it, I also sauted the little filet pieces that I’d pulled off of all six breasts. I packaged, labeled, and froze the breasts, and then I just munched my way through all of my homemade “chicken tenders!”

Deviation from Plan #2:  In my defense, I got up late!–So the chicken counted for lunch. I froze the panini bread I was supposed to use for my veggie sandwich and promised  myself to eat the salad with my soup tonight.

On the plus side, in the middle of the afternoon I snacked on a nice handful of grapes. (We won’t discuss the diet coke.)

So let’s move on to dinner. I love the flavor of roasted vegetables in soup, so to get started, I oiled a sheet-pan; cut up a couple of carrots and onions, tossed them with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, and spread them out nicely; and roasted them at 400 degrees for almost an hour. (But stir them when you hit about the half-way mark.) (If you’ve looked at EAT! week for Sunday, you know I was supposed to roast a red pepper too; but I had some left from dinner last night.)  Roast the veg until they get some crusty caramelized patches and edges!–Your soup will thank you for it.

Dump a couple of boxes of broth into your soup pot (I used chicken; to make this a vegetarian soup, you can use vegetable). Sometimes I make homemade broth; usually I don’t. But now that I’ve raised the issue of cutting corners, let’s go back into the confessional.

Deviation from Plan #3:  My half-pound of dried cannellini beans that I was supposed to soak overnight?–Sitting in the pantry, dry as a bone. But!  As luck would have it, tucked in not so far from them was a can of the very same beans. I used them.

So now we are ready to assemble this soup. First I mince a clove of garlic and add it to the broth with a chopped-up tomato. I let that simmer while the vegetables finish roasting. Then I add the carrots, onions, red peppers, and beans and let the pot simmer for a while. Finally, I add some herbs (this time I went with thyme, summer savory, and oregano) and salt and pepper, and let that all simmer some more. Now the finishing touch–I throw in the spinach just until it wilts (say two minutes).

I love this soup! It’s just a hearty, homemade “fridge cleaner” of a soup, but it has a nice sweet/savory flavor from the onions and carrots. I added a green salad with a simple vinaigrette and a slice of toast. (And a glass of wine.) Nice meal!

Then I ate my orange that was left over from breakfast.

Overall score for Day One:  I’d give myself a C+. I ate more meat than I meant to, and basically skipped a meal, but I made a pretty good soup!

EAT! Week meal planning: seven days of menus

Here’s the plan for EAT! Week, my own meal-planning reality show. (Not that I actually will! pull it off!–check the daily posts to see what actually happens.).

Sunday March 20th:

Breakfast

glass of orange juice
tea with 1% milk & sugar
2 poached eggs on buttered toast, salt & pepper
Half of an orange

Lunch

Veggie panini sandwich: mushrooms sauted in olive oil, fresh spinach, 1/2 roasted red pepper,
sliced tomato, chopped fresh rosemary, mayo, salt & pepper
green grapes

Dinner

Bean & vegetable soup: dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight; chicken stock, spinach, tomato, roasted red pepper, roasted onion & carrot,garlic, thyme, summer savory, salt & pepper
Toasted baguette slices brushed with olive oil and rubbed with raw garlic clove

Notes:
This week’s plan assumes that yesterday (Saturday) you bought Monday dinner’s lamb shanks unfrozen. If (like me) you are working with frozen meat, you need to pull the shanks out to defrost a couple of days ahead of time (say, last Friday)!  Breads:  I’m starting off three different breads today. The toast is from a loaf of Grand Central Bakery Como bread; the rest of the loaf goes in the freezer. The panini bread comes in packages of four; use one today, put one in the fridge for later in the week, and freeze two for future use. The baguette: slice it and freeze all but the slices you have with dinner today. Then, the vegetables:  Almost all of these vegetables will appear later in the week as well. Save some mushrooms and spinach for your Monday lunch and next Saturday’s frittata! And the soup:  No recipe on this one–check the blog for the day for details. But basically, soak the beans and simmer them in chicken stock. Roast the onion, red pepper, and carrot. Add veg and spices to the soup. Eat! Put enough of the soup in the fridge for Thursday lunch; freeze the rest in serving-size containers. Label and date!

Monday March 21st:

Breakfast

glass of orange juice
tea with 1% milk & sugar
oatmeal with blueberries

Lunch

cottage cheese
salad:
butter lettuce, field greens, mushrooms, parsley, cherry tomatoes, green onions, walnuts
dressing: simple vinaigrette
toasted baguette slices
red grapes

Dinner

braised lamb shank with carrots and roasted butternut squash on orzo
steamed broccoli with a squeeze of lemon, salt & pepper

Notes:
Almost all of these ingredients will show up once again later in the week. The recipe for the braised lamb shank is from Joy of Cooking. (There are other great recipes, many of them simpler, on the Web.)  Choose a biggish butternut squash and roast the whole thing; use about a third of it in this dish and save the rest to make tomorrow’s squash soup for lunch. Put some of the lamb dish in the fridge for Wednesday lunch; put the rest in single-serving containers and put them in the freezer. (You’ll have to pull the meat off the bone, of course; it’s easier to do when the dish is still warm.) Be sure to label and date the containers!

Tuesday March 22nd:

Breakfast

glass of orange juice
tea with 1% milk and sugar
Cascadian Farms Multi-Grain Squares with sliced banana

Lunch

roasted squash soup
toasted baguette slices
apple slices with a nice cheese

Dinner

Judy’s “Thai” peanut butter pasta
Grilled eggplant with green onions
Green salad with rice vinegar/sesame oil dressing

Notes:
The recipe for the soup came from foodnetwork.com; instead of following their (pretty elaborate!) directions for roasting the squash, I just used the squash from yesterday, which had simply been cut up, tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then roasted. The recipe for the peanut butter pasta originally came from an old friend from North Carolina, but since I’ve been making it for 30 years or so, I’ve appropriated it! See the blog for the day for details. The grilled eggplant recipe came from Suzanne Hunter of Cuisine By Suzanne (http://www.cuisinebysuzanne.com/), but you can find a similar one at foodgawker.com and other sites. (Take Suzanne’s cooking classes!–She’s a fantastic, fun teacher!) I just made up the salad dressing. I mixed a tiny bit of the sesame oil with canola oil or another neutral oil.

Wednesday March 23rd:

Breakfast

glass of orange juice
tea with 1% milk and sugar
cottage cheese with dried cranberries and apricots
toast with jam

Lunch

leftovers: lamb shank
served over rice
sauted spinach with a squeeze of lemon
blueberries

Dinner

Vegetable stir-fry:
broccoli, onion, carrot, tomato, celery, 1/2 red pepper, garlic)
rice

Notes:
Today we catch up!–Nothing is hard or complicated here. The only ingredients that are possibly unusual are the sherry, soy sauce, and cornstarch needed to make a nice stir-fry sauce for the vegetables; see the blog for the day for details.

Thursday March 24th:

Breakfast

glass of orange juice
tea with 1% milk and sugar
Oatmeal with blueberries

Lunch

leftovers:  bean and vegetable soup
toasted baguette slices
red grapes with a nice cheese

Dinner

halibut tacos
pico de gallo (tomato, onion, cilantro, lime, jalapenos)
shredded raw cabbage
2 flour tortillas
green salad with lime vinaigrette

Notes:
You may want to add a hot sauce on the tacos; I make the pico de gallo strong with lime and jalapeno. (I think it has a cleaner taste.) I just grill the halibut, but watch it!–it can get dry and/or tough. I take it off the grill when it just barely begins to flake (still a bit translucent); it mostly finishes cooking while I pull everything together, and then the lime finishes it off! Freeze the rest of the flour tortillas; be sure to label and date the bag. End of the blueberries today?

Friday March 25th:

Breakfast

glass of orange juice
tea with 1% milk and sugar
Cascadian Farms Multi-Grain Squares cereal with banana

Lunch

leftovers:  vegetable stir-fry with rice
Half of an orange

Dinner

moussaka
green salad vinaigrette with green grapes

Notes:
I got the recipe for moussaka from http://www.greekfood.about.com/. Eat one serving and freeze the rest in individual servings. Label and date the containers. Of your 2 lbs. ground lamb, use 1 3/4 for this recipe. This should be just about the end of the grapes, bananas, and orange!

Saturday March 26th:

Breakfast

glass of orange juice
tea with 1% milk and sugar
2-egg frittata with mushrooms & spinach
toast and jam

Lunch

Panini sandwich:
cooked 1/4-lb. ground lamb patty
lettuce, tomatoes, onions
small salad with chive vinaigrette
apple

Dinner

pork chop with roasted grape salsa
roasted carrots
steamed cabbage
green salad with dill vinaigrette
toasted baguette slices

Notes:
The roasted grape salsa was a find! The recipe (which I tore out of the New York Times a while back) says it is modified from Radically Simple by Rozanne Gold (Rodale Press), but I haven’t found the original. The idea is simple: divide the remaining green and red grapes in half. Roast half of them about an hour. Puree the other half in a blender, then strain out the skins. Sear the meat in butter in a skillet, then add the grape juice and simmer until the meat is cooked and the sauce is thicker. Remove the meat, whisk in some more butter, bring the liquid to a boil,  then add the roasted grapes. Pour some over the meat and save the rest for another meal!

Today we finish off the eggs, mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes, lettuce, ground lamb, apple, grapes, carrots, chives–and possibly the baguette slices! A big finish!

Meal planning: My own reality show!

I’m good at thinking ahead in some areas of my life. But my meal planning usually amounts to one of two activities. Either I stare vaguely into the fridge until something that appears edible comes into focus. Or I find a recipe I want to try, rush out and buy all the ingredients, make a great meal, and then watch the leftover ingredients morph steadily into worm food.

But! In the spirit of Mindful Munching Rule Number One (do not throw out usable food), I am attempting my first-ever weekly meal plan.

My sister-in-law Marilyn has remarked several times over the years that when she was a single mom raising her daughter, she’d take time on weekends to plan out all the meals for the coming week. I was always impressed, but let’s say not exactly moved to action.

However, lately it’s gotten personal. I’ve now got a freezer full of the best meats in the world from Lefever Holbrook Ranch (I’ve been raving about them here for weeks)–but you can’t cook them if they are frozen solid! So it has dawned on me that some level of forethought is called for here.

And Paulette Levefer herself gave me a glimpse of the way meal planning works for her, in the context of helping me figure out how large my meat orders from her should be. (I am buying a share in her  community-supported agriculture–CSA–plan.)

She says: “Set your CSA orders based on your meat needs; look at your upcoming months ahead and what menu items you will have the time and the desire to work with. Think about the seasons… spring and summer.  One idea from a cook that  I knew long ago was his tips on prepping food items and refreezing to use while in the crazy of a dinner rush. We live a busy on the go life and I have two teenage kids that are hungry 24/7, so to keep healthy, fresh, good tasting food that can be user friendly, fast  and not have me in the kitchen 24/7 is a challenging but do able.  I will sit down once a week and plan out the meals/snacks/ soups/ salads/ desserts. Take your main two meat items- thaw them out and plan-prep your next 5 days’ meals. Refreeze only if you still have ice in the raw meat. I will refreeze my cooked pulled pork, beef and poultry into small pkgs for later use. I still struggle at times to find the time…. but after prep time, relish the satisfaction of looking to the refrigerator fully stocked for the upcoming week.”

Beautiful advice! Can I come even close to eating this mindfully? Let’s give it a try! I’ll start this Sunday! (Amendment!–Thanks to a gratifying uptick over the last couple of weeks in my roster of social events, “this Sunday” has marched across my calendar from the 6th to the 20th!–But I swear that I’ll start my “EAT! week” this weekend!)

EAT! Week meal planning: shopping lists, pantry lists

Never in my life have I planned meals for an entire week! But this year I spent my spring break doing just that.  What an eye-opener!–Come summer, I may do it again. Try it yourself!

The idea here is to account for the ingredients that are needed for the whole week of cooking. Each of us starts off with a pantry, a spice rack, and probably a freezer; we have to stock up, but we also have stuff on hand. This is how it looks like it will work for me. (Note!–I am cooking for one. You will need to scale up!) (Double-note: I have no idea if this is going to work!–Consult the daily EAT! Week blog posts for updates on how it is going.)

Provisioning for a week proves to be a formidable task! I decided that I’d better count on shopping twice (once on the Saturday before I got started and once on Thursday), to allow for mid-course corrections. I also wanted to give you a clear idea of what I was pulling off the shelf or out of the freezer. Here’s the picture at this point, a week before I start this venture!

Saturday’s shopping:

1/2 gallon of orange juice (use every day)
1 dozen eggs (use Sun, Fri, and Sat)
1 orange (use halves Sun and Fri)
1 lb. mushrooms (use Sun, Mon, and Sat; maybe in other salads)
1 loaf Grand Central Bakery Como sliced bread (Sun, Sat)
package of panini bread (Sun, Sat)
1 baguette (use all week)
1 bunch spinach (2X Sun, Wed, Sat; maybe in other salads)
2 red peppers (Sun, Wed)
4 fresh tomatoes (2X Sun, Wed, Thurs, Sat)
1 lb. green grapes (Sun, Fri, Sat)
1 lb. red grapes (Mon, Thurs, Sat)
1/2 lb. dried cannellini beans (Sun)
4 boxes (at least!) chicken stock (Sun, Mon, Tues, Fri, Sat)
6 onions (almost every day)
6 carrots (Sun, Mon, Wed, Sat; maybe grated in some salads)
1 bunch celery (Wed, and possibly salads)
1 sm pkg blueberries (Mon, Wed, Thurs)
1 pint cottage cheese (Mon, Wed)
1 head bibb lettuce (butter lettuce?) (almost every day)
3 lemons
2 limes
1 sm container cherry tomatoes (Mon, Thurs, possibly other salads)
2 bunches green onions (Mon, Tues)
2 heads broccoli (Mon, Wed)
1 large butternut squash (cook on Mon; use Mon and Tues)
1 bottle white wine (for cooking!–doesn’t include for drinking!)
1 can tomato puree (Mon, Fri)
1 tube tomato paste
2 bananas (Tues, Fri)
2 apples (Tues, Sat)
a nice cheese (Tues, Thurs)
1 Japanese eggplant (Tues)
1 sm. bunch fresh Thai basil (Tues; in other salads)

Thursday’s shopping:
1 sm. halibut steak
1 sm. bunch cilantro (Thurs; other salads)
2 jalapenos (Thurs)
1 sm. head cabbage (or 1/2 head) (Thurs)
1 pkg. flour tortillas
3-4 eggplants (about 4 lbs. total) (Fri)
1 lb. potatoes (Fri)
1 bottle red wine (for cooking!–doesn’t include for drinking!)

Out of my spice cabinet:
Summer savory
Thyme
Ground ginger
hot paprika
dried mint
ground coriander
ground cumin
ground cinnamon
ground allspice
cinnamon stick
Red pepper flakes
nutmeg
chives

Out of my garden, pantry, fridge, and freezer:

black tea
1% milk
sugar
Cascadian Farms Multi-Grain Squares cereal (Tues and Fri)
butter
olive oil
sesame oil
canola oil
vegetable oil
Soy sauce
Fish sauce
Chunky peanut butter
Parmesano-Reggiano parmesan cheese
misc. vinegars (mirin, rice vinegar, etc.)
dijon mustard (for vinaigrette, etc.)
flour
Harissa
Sriracha hot sauce
mayo
breadcrumbs (from previous drying-out bread)
kosher salt
peppercorns for fresh-ground pepper
pine nuts
strawberry/rhubarb jam
dried fruit (cranberries, apricots, currants)
fresh rosemary (from the garden)
fresh parsley (from the garden)
rice
orzo
fettucini
oatmeal (I’m currently finishing off some good old Quaker Oats!)
garlic (from last year’s garden)
2 Lefever Holbrook Ranch lamb shanks
2 lbs Lefever Holbrook Ranch ground lamb
1 Lefever Holbrook Ranch pork chop

What’s left over for next week and beyond:

2 pcs panini sandwich bread
rest of Como loaf
rest of flour tortillas
part of celery head
rest of cabbage
possibly some cottage cheese
frozen leftovers!–meals in the bank!

Cooking rice–The pot or not?

Today I decided to break into my Lefever Holbrook pork chops. (Remember Conor and his hog operation? I introduced you to him back in January. I just recently got some of his luscious pork!) I pulled out the smallest one, but still a mighty chop indeed!–I’ll eat just half of it tonight. I pan-broiled it, then dressed it with a pineapple salsa: chopped pineapple, lime juice, cilantro, minced ginger and garlic, and a little sambal hot sauce for tingle.

It’s cold out there tonight! I added some roasted squash and put the whole thing on a bed of rice, with a small green salad.

Digression #1: I decided to try a trick that I just learned last Friday at the UW Club’s wine dinner. Instead of making a salad dressing, I just tossed the leaves in plain olive oil. (Well, not so plain!–A beautiful Portuguese oil made on the same estate as the wine that was featured at dinner: Herdade do Esporao.)

Then, on the plate, I put some of the pineapple salsa on the lettuce as well, and the fruit’s acid with the oil became the dressing!–Very nice.

Digression #2:  About that UW Club wine dinner!–I videotaped it and (as soon as I figure out some technical details) will post a micro-movie about it. There’s a great “kitchen adversity” story there too–stay tuned!

Now back to that rice. Before, I always made rice in a saucepan, and it either turned soupy or went off the crunchy deep end. Then about ten years ago I bought an electric rice cooker for maybe thirty-five bucks. Best investment I ever made! I almost always get lovely fluffy rice.
But now a minor controversy has broken out in my beginner-foodie circle: are rice cookers strictly for beginners? I don’t believe it, so I went right to the source: my friend Mani, who grew up in Vietnam. Here’s his take: “rice cookers are very very easy!! the new ones can also do steaming of vegetables, soups, etc. the asians have used electric rice cookers since the late 1960s even in places like vietnam, cambodia, etc. There are many chinese / vietnamese markets selling them at excellent prices here.” [NB: Mani doesn’t capitalize. waste of effort, in his view.]

However, on reflection, that doesn’t exactly put the argument to rest. Is “easy” an option exercised only by beginners? Or do accomplished cooks in Asian cuisine (like Mani!) also go for convenience and predictability? What do you do??