Monday, January 28, 2013

Scare Aware

Here is an early Valentine you can share with those you love.
Because you wouldn't want to poison or cheat them, would you?

Well, then beware the supermarket and head for your local farmers' market even in midwinter.  The United States Pharmacopeial Convention has let loose a little data from its long study of fraudulent grocery store products, fraudulent in that they don't contain what the label says they do. That's illegal but who can keep up with all those products on all those shelves?

Some of the substitutions are seemingly harmless although disgusting, while others are downright dangerous. So for peace of mind-- and body too, for you and ones you love, buy these particular products from your local market. I chose the ones I know are readily available.

Milk (in some places terrible things are used to thicken it)

Honey (Said this earlier but it's not just Chinese junk in those bottles)

Coffee (problems lurk in what's sold already ground and packaged)

Fish (widespread, ahem, bait and switch. Almost all fish now, even in restaurants, is mislabeled or pretend, and some of the unacknowledged species can be toxic.)

Maple syrup (high fructose corn syrup and beet sugars)

Jams (chemicals used to make plastics sometimes used to thicken)

Olive Oil (nothing new here; what's in the bottle may not be a virgin or Italian or in the worse case not even olive oil.)

Friday, January 25, 2013

Something snappy and simple and different

Novelty is a good antidote to winter blahs so here's a simple sunny eat from the Mediterranean: a chickpea flour pancake. It's street food called Socca in the south of France from Marseilles east to the border, particularly popular in Nice. In Italy where it's wildly popular in Genoa and Liguria, it's known as farinata or in dialect as faina. In Tuscany it's known as cecina (made of chickpeas). It's also popular across the water in Algeria where it's known as karantita, made with cumin instead of rosemary and served with harissa, the Maghreb hot sauce.  

What you'll want to know is that it is extremely simple, very cheap, extraordinarily tasty and the perfect no worries food because it's gluten free, fat free, meat free, dairy free, nut free... . In other words, everybody can enjoy it.

Socca is a flat, crisp pancake meant to be eaten right out of the oven or while still warm.
It's so addictive you probably won't have to worry about leftovers as waste. It's a good appetizer to pass around while you plate up the main meal. It's a great after school snack or, perhaps with a side of yogurt, a healthy breakfast.

So if you're out of ideas and fresh vegetables right now, perk up with this pancake.

Socca is normally made in a 12-14" pizza pan. If you don't have one, use a well seasoned cast iron frying pan--one that will survive the heat of the oven.  If like me, your well seasoned metal pan is only 6-7", you can either half the recipe or make two separate pancakes one after the other. The 12" pancake will serve 8, or 4 if people fight for seconds. 


1 cup chickpea flour
1 cup warm (130º) water

2 tbsp olive oil (good quality improve the flavor of the final pancake)
1-2 tsp freshly ground black pepper (do this to your taste)
1 tbsp dried rosemary leaves (Lightly crush with your fingers to release the oil)
2 tbsp olive oil for the pan
coarse sea salt to finish (to your taste)

Preheat your oven to 475º.  Put the cooking pan in while it heats so the pan gets very hot.

Sift or strain (push it through a hand held sieve) the flour so its fluffy without lumps into a medium size bowl.

Whisk in the warm water, constantly whisking to make a smooth batter.
Whisk in the olive oil and then the ground pepper.  Add the rosemary leaves.
The batter should be about the consistency of cream.

Cover the bowl with a towel and let the batter rest 15 minutes. You can let it rest for hours if you don't need it right away, no problem. Just don't heat the oven yet.

Carefully remove the hot pan from the oven and coat it with 2 tbsp olive oil, swirling to evenly distribute it.  Pour in the batter to make a crepe like pancake.

Return the pan to the oven.  Bake for 12-15 minutes, until the pancake is crisp and the top is lightly browned.  Remove from the oven. (If you want the top browner, just flip the pancake for a minute in the hot pan.)

Immediately sprinkle on coarse sea salt to your taste, slice in wedges and serve.

P.S. If you tuned in looking for the French onion apple tart, I withdrew it temporarily because I want to see if precooking the onions makes a better tart.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A few recipe corrections

This is not exactly an oops but on the Peruvian Locro, you can omit the evaporated milk and the stew will be just as delicious. It actually looks more appealing to the eye than the version made with milk. To make up for that lost protein, I added a bit more queso fresco and more roasted pumpkin seeds for garnish. (Don't forget, quinoa has protein in it.)

The real oops in the Locro recipe is that it's probably better to use not 2 lbs of squash but more like 1 1/4 lbs.

In the Libyan pumpkin dish, sugar pumpkin turns out to be just as good as red kuri squash so I apologize for dissing it. You can probably use any winter squash. I just haven't had time to test every one of them in this recipe.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Winter Squash, Libyan style

Here in the middle of January, winter squashes are probably the best vegetable bet at your local farmers' market. They have real staying power.  They also go great with beans, another market staple of the moment.

Since novelty is often a good antidote for winter blahs, here's a unique way to present a squash at this point in time. It comes from the once thriving and now extinct Jewish quarter of Tripoli, Libya --or so I understand, where it was used like hummus. It's a dip or a side dish (superb with a grilled cheese sandwich) or best yet a great spread for a toasted baguette or piece of olive loaf. 

How many it serves depends on how you serve it, but think 6.

1 lb winter squash cubes (start with a 2 lb squash or pumpkin)
   NOTE: I like this best with red kuri squash; sugar pumpkin is not as good. Red Kuri is in the hubbard family so any cousin will serve well.)

1/4 cup plus 1 tbsp (separate) olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/2 tsp caraway seeds, ground or crushed
1/2 tsp chili powder (I use arbol chili powder here)
2 tbsp vinegar (Sherry, apple, white wine)
salt to your taste

Flat leaf parsley for garnish

 Preheat oven to 450º.
Cut the top off the squash and remove its seeds.  Peel and cube the squash. (This is the annoying part. Everything else is a cinch.)
Spread the cut squash out on a baking sheet and coat with 1 tbsp olive oil and a pinch of salt.
Bake at 450º about 20-30 minutes until cubes are soft.
Cool and mash in a processor or by hand.

In a medium skillet, heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic, reduce to low heat and sauté just until garlic is fragrant. Stir in the chili. Once it is absorbed, add the pumpkin and blend.

Continue to cook over low heat 3-4minutes. Add vinegar and salt. Blend well. If mixture is too thick add 1 tbsp of olive oil.  Cook through until the squash is very soft and creamy. Just before you finish add the crushed caraway.

Put into a serving bowl. Cool before eating. Optionally drizzle fruity olive oil over the top before you garnish with minced fresh flat leaf parsley to serve.

This would be a colorful, tasty accompaniment for the pasta and beans dish provided earlier.  And certainly perfect for anyone on a post Christmas binge diet.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Time for Refreshing

You can get caught up on the "web" in something like 40,000 food blogs. The megabyte for every taste makes a grandiose buffet and a lot of chatter. This blog, among the least pretentious and pictorial, is simply for anyone who needs to eat.

The extraordinary amount of blogs served by the internet is a sign of how food has become a fetish, something folks can play with now that they have enough not to worry where their next meal is coming from. Like just everything else in our world, it's been turned into entertainment, complete with pornographically luscious pictures, hyped competitions, seductive background scenery and breakout stars. The hype, spin and theatricality are more and more ginned up because it's now a player in what I call the Excitement Bowl.

Food was late to be recruited for this great American sport because prior efforts had been to make it very unexciting: cheap, fast and for granted. But it became hard to overlook once the potential of so much else had been exhausted, because why not? It is every entertainment profiteer"s wet dream: our lowest common denominator.

No food no life. And to quote bumper stickers: No farms no food. (At least not yet, if cloners and chemical corporations get their way.) As I said in my much liked opinion piece online in The Daily Dot: "Food is our connection to the earth, sky and sea. Like feng shui, it harmonizes us with our surround. Food is our link to each other, to everybody out there past and present, for food is the one same need everyone--regardless of their financial percentile, political state, geographical region, age, gender, dress, whatever—shares in common. And because even with supersonic jets and super fast electronics, we would not be alive if that need isn’t met, we share food, share the labor and love of it, share recipes. Eating makes us all one big community... ."

The world is awash with people for whom just having food provides excitement just as it is becoming more and more washed away by desecration in serving up all the exciting exotica the elite can eat. Many blogs serve concern for the mess we're making--in the rain forests that have become cattle grazing grounds to feed demand for burgers, in the Bolivian highlands where the people who lived on quinoa for centuries can no longer afford to eat it now that Westerners have discovered how nutritious it can be, in Africa which the Chinese are devouring for farmland. But few have linked the dots. Destitution...depredation...titillation...

To change the way food is presented, we need to change the way we ourselves perceive it. This blog is a quiet plea for awareness of hard reality: if we want to sustain life, the Earth and all who we hold dear, we need to focus exclusively on genuine seasonal eating and real appreciation for the local farmer who's gotten down and dirty to keep us alive.

We can do this eating not so much simply as graciously, nutritiously, deliciously, always guided by a strong sense of when enough is enough. This blog is trying to work within and on those parameters. It wants to be a hand out to people afraid of food or afraid to cook, to people who are also just afraid they don't have the time. What better use of time than to serve up love to those you care about, including yourself? Serving food is preserving life, something you may find you and they need more than a pedicure or Porsche.

This is a difficult time of the year for farm fresh ingredients but that doesn't mean we are without shining options. Here is a recipe I adapted from one I found in my French "sister's" file.  It's refreshing, as a new start should be. It's ridiculously simple and fast, cheap, as seasonal as we can be right now, and something to serve as a side dish or full lunch with perhaps a side of bread and cheese.  

Orzo and Fennel Salad

Serves 6.

2 fennel bulbs, cleaned and chopped, greens too
1 2/3 cups orzo (about ½ lb)
3 seedless mandarins, or clementines, peeled and pulled apart*
1 lemon
½ lime
12-15 pitted prunes, coarsely chopped
2-3 tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
salt to your taste

Put a few of the fennel fronts aside to chop for garnish.
* if you want to cut the sections in half, feel free.

Cook the orzo according to package instructions, until just al dente

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a small skillet and sauté the chopped fennel 4-5 minutes. Midway, add the garlic and blend.

Pour the contents of the skillet into a salad bowl.

Add the mandarins and prunes and blend.

Remove the zest from half the lemon and grate it. Add to the salad.
Juice the lemon and lime, mix and add to the salad.

Drain the orzo. Salt them to your taste. Add to the salad
Stir to blend everything.

Chop the reserved fennel fronds and top the salad.
Refrigerate an hour before serving.



Thursday, January 3, 2013

Bean me up....

For warm comfort on these cold, dark winter nights, you might want to leave the foams and gels in the bathroom and stick to hearty, old-fashioned bean dishes. Italians are masters of this genre and one of their greatest hits is the Tuscan Pasta e Fagioli, pasta and beans. The debate as to whether it's soup or pasta has never been resolved, so soupy or dry it's perfectly delicious.

 Pasta e fagioli for 4
(This doubles easily)
1 cups dried white beans  (Great Northern, Cranberry, Cannellini)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 sm yellow onion, diced
1/2  tsp dried rosemary leaves
1/8 tsp fresh cracked black pepper
2 sm or 1 lg carrot, peeled and diced
1 lg celery stalk, diced
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried sage leaves
1 cup chopped tomatoes in their juice (canned or boxed is okay)
4 cups vegetable or beef broth
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
¾ cup tubellini, ditalini, or some small pasta
handful arugula, chopped
½ cup freshly minced flat leaf parsley
parmesan cheese for garnish

Soak the beans overnight. Or if you're in a hurry, soak them in boiling water for two hours. Drain and rinse.

Line the bottom of a heavy gauge casserole or soup pot with the olive oil and warm it over medium heat. Add the onion, rosemary leaves and black pepper. Sauté over medium low heat until the onion is soft and golden.

Add the carrots and celery and continue to sauté another five minutes so they start to soften.

Add the oregano, sage and tomatoes in their juice. Stir to blend. Cook 7-8 minutes over low heat.

Add the beans and stir them in to the mix. Add the broth. Bring the pot to a boil. cover and immediately reduce heat to simmer. Cook 50-60 minutes until beans are tender.

Scoop out about 1/2-2/3 cup of the beans--veggies will come with them, that's okay, and puree them. Return to the pot to thicken the broth. Add salt to your taste.

Bring the pot again to a boil and add the pasta. Cook until pasta is done, about 10 minutes.  Toss in the arugula and parsley and turn off the heat. Let it sit 10 minutes before serving.

Serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top of every bowl or plate.
Serve this with a kale or other green salad, crusty bread (olive bread would be delicious) and a platter of artisan cheeses.

Italians make something similar with black-eyed peas and sweet sausage. (That's plain pasta e fagioli in the bowl on the right.)

You add 2 cloves of minced garlic with the carrots and celery. With a fork, you puncture holes in the skin of 1 lb sweet sausage, then cut it into 1" chunks and add it before the tomato, cooking 5 minutes to brown.  And of course, you don't add the pasta. You can add 2 cups chopped kale instead.

More bean dishes coming...