Friday, September 12, 2014

Whole Grain Peach Crisp

Call it a crisp, call it a crumble, nothing makes my house smell more inviting in late summer than a delicious baked fruit dessert.  Peach crisp is one of my all-time favorite treats, and I love making it in August and September.

Peach crisp came into my childhood as a recipe off the side of a Bisquick box.  Later as an adult living in Italy, I no longer had the recipe- which was not a problem, since I couldn't buy Bisquick at my local supermercato! 

I trolled recipe websites for crisp and crumble recipes claiming any association with Betty Crocker, my go-to American dessert reference.  I found a recipe to start with, then made a lot of changes.  For healthier baking I use whole grains and alternative fats and sweeteners.  But the most radical change of all...I've taken out the peaches!

Yep, my favorite peach crisp doesn't have peaches.  After one experiment subbing nectarines for peaches, I've never made peach crisp with peaches again.

I love the hint of acid that yellow nectarines bring to the crisp.  Choose nectarines that are a touch harder than you would normally eat them, but still plenty juicy.  

So long as they're not overly ripe, nectarines are fast and easy to peel with a potato peeler.  

The recipe calls for six cups of sliced fruit, that's usually equivalent to about 6 large nectarines.  

A crisp, or crumble as it's sometimes called, is essentially like a French apple pie.  Fruit slices are coated with a mixture of flour, sugar, and spices, then topped with a butter and sugar streusel blend.  The pie crust is eliminated, and I don't miss it in the least!  To improve the nutrition served up with this yummy treat, I add oats and walnuts to the crumble topping.

This is a very homey dessert, and it adapts beautifully to alternative baking ingredients.  There are no rising agents to worry about, so feel free to sub flour types for your health needs.  For instance, replacing the wheat flour with oat flour would work well if you need to eat gluten-free.  If you need to cut down on the sugar, leave off the crumble topping, stir the walnuts directly into the filling, and bake the filling alone, with slightly reduced cooking time.  You'll miss some of the indulgence, but none of the amazing baking aroma.

And it really is worth the effort to make this dessert just for the awesome smell of it baking in the oven.  Another perk- when a few weeks go by, welcome autumn and apple season by replacing the nectarines with tart apples.  You'll fall in love with baked fruit all over again.

For the filling:

6 C firm nectarines peeled and sliced
2 T whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 C Turbinado sugar (Sugar in the Raw)
3/4 t cinnamon
3/4 t nutmeg

For the crumble topping:
1/3 C Earth Balance butter substitute
2/3 C (shy) brown sugar
1 t cinnamon
1/4 t salt
1/2 C rolled oats
1/4 C whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 C chopped walnuts

Peel, remove the pits, and slice the nectarines.  Arrange slices in a single layer in an 8x8 square oven safe dish.  No need to grease the pan.

Dust the slices with the remaining filling ingredients and stir gently to coat the fruit slices with the dry ingredients.

Combine the dry ingredients for the crumble topping (except for the walnuts) into a small bowl.  Cut the butter into the dry ingredients with a fork.  Stir the walnuts into the topping.

Spread the crumble topping over the prepared fruit.  Bake uncovered at 350 for about 55 minutes.  Peaches should be bubbly, topping golden brown.

Serve warm with ice cream on top for maximum indulgence and joy.  Pictured above with a vanilla flavored frozen almond milk dessert.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Summer Barley Salad and Hulled vs. Pearled Barley

The fresh sage is thriving in my garden this summer.  Add to that the presence of some bell peppers in the fridge that needed to be used up, and the happy coincidence of olives and gherkin pickles just waiting to turn into something yummy, it was obvious I needed to make one of my favorite barley salads.

Only problem was...I didn't have barley.

Correction, I had barley, but it was hulled barley, not the pearled barley I normally use in this recipe.  Most recipes call for pearled barley, which has had both the hull and the bran removed.  Hulled barley has also had the hull removed, but the bran is still intact.  Hulled barley looks and tastes different than pearled barley.

Pictured is pearled barley on the left, hulled barley on the right.  The difference in taste?  Since my husband is used to eating pearled barley, which I would describe as tasting like denser, chewier brown rice, I explained that hulled barley tastes "squeaky."  You have to eat it to understand exactly what I mean.  The barley cooks up plump and pleasantly chewy, adding a cool texture to soups and salads that you probably don't have in your normal toolkit.

When I cook hulled barley, I use the same portions of water to barley as I would for pearled barley, but I cook it about 20-25% longer than I would pearled barley.

Whether you use hulled barley or pearled barley, it's packed with good nutrition, and is known for regulating blood sugar and glucose response, as the Wikipedia article on barley agrees.

It also tastes awesome in this Summer Barley Salad!

Summer Barley Salad


  • 1 C barley (uncooked)
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 1 yellow pepper, diced (green works, too)
  • 1/4 C sweet gherkin pickles, sliced
  • 1/2 C pitted black olives, chopped
  • 3 T extra virgin olive oil (split 1+2)
  • 1 t balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 C chopped sage leaves
  • 1 t cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 C bread crumbs with Italian seasoning (I use whole wheat, panko would work great, too)
  • 1/2 C crumbled or diced feta
  • fine sea salt to taste (I like1/4 t)

  • Pressure cook the barley in 1 3/4 C water with a little sea salt for 21 minutes (pearled barley) or 26 minutes (hulled barley).  Or boil in a stock pot according to package directions.  Rinse to cool and drain thoroughly.
  • Chop the veggies, pickles, and olives.  
  • Put 1 T olive oil in a nonstick pan and sauté the sage, cayenne, and breadcrumbs in that order.  
  • Make a little salad dressing of the remaining oil and the vinegar.  
  • Put everything in the bowl and stir!  
You can serve this room temperature when you first make it.  Tastes great cold, too.
Serves 6-8

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Food Processor of Theseus Paradox

My Cuisinart Prep 9 food processor is broken- yet again.

Something made of plastic that gets lots of use only lasts so long.  Since buying the Prep 9 in 2009, I have broken and replaced the food processor bowl three times!  I've also replaced the blade once, the top that latches onto the bowl once, and now I'm replacing the pusher assembly.

Not much of my original food processor remains.  The only pieces of the machine which have not broken and been replaced are the motor base and the tiny pusher.    

My Prep 9 is not going to be whipping up any home made falafel in this state.  Without the replacement parts, it's not really my food processor.

But... when Cuisinart ships me my replacement pusher assembly, and I put all the replacement parts together with the base... can I still say what's sitting on my counter is the Prep 9 food processor I bought back in 2009?  With all those replacement parts, is its identity still the same?

An ancient Greek philosopher asked a similar question.  Not having my bad luck with food processors, Plutarch used the Ship of Theseus to ask whether the identity of something replaced piece by piece, gradually over time, is still the same entity when all its parts have been replaced.

Although the Ship of Theseus is now a famous philosophical paradox, its origins come from mythology.  Here's the myth in brief:  

Theseus volunteers himself as Minotaur food, hoping to defeat the Minotaur, instead, and return to Athens a hero.  Being completely without a texting plan, Theseus promises his dad that, if he succeeds and survives, he'll hoist a white sail on the sea journey home to let dad know all is well.  Well, a lot of stuff happens, and even though he does survive, Theseus forgets to put up the white sail.  His dad takes one look at black sail on Theseus's ship and commits suicide.  Theseus feels pretty badly about that, so he leaves the ship that should have brought good news in the harbor as a permanent memorial to his dad.

But, just as plastic parts can be expected to break, leaving a wooden ship in the water as a permanent memorial is just asking for trouble.  Wood in water just doesn't last forever- it rots.  But Theseus, being a king and all, tells his subjects to keep that ship maintained.  That means every time a beam rots or a board warps, or anything breaks, it has to be replaced. 

The Ship of Theseus stayed in the harbor for a very, very, very long time.  At a certain point not a single piece of the original wood remained.  The entire ship had gradually, piece by piece, been entirely replaced.  

So, Greek philosopher Plutarch asked- after all that replacing, is Theseus's ship still Theseus's ship?

I think what makes the Ship of Theseus Paradox so interesting is that it gets down to the question of identity, and not just the identity of really old ships and broken-down food processors- it makes me think about my own identity.

Cells are dying off and being replaced in my body little by little, all the time, every single day.  The molecules in my thumb aren't the same molecules in the thumb with which I was born.  So where is the continuity?  What is it about my thumb now that connects it to the thumb I gnawed on as a baby?  Am I the same person now as I was when I was a little kid?  A teenager?  A newly wed?  Will I be the same person twenty years from now, twenty days from now, twenty minutes from now?

And a stickier question: if I look really closely at myself, where am I, what makes me, me?  If I was in an accident and lost a foot, I'd be me without a foot, but I'd still be me- right?  Which parts could I afford to lose and still be Heather?

Maybe my identity can't be found in the body, maybe I'm the continuity of my memories.  If I get knocked in the head and lose all my memories, am I no longer me?  To explore a more likely scenario, what happens to my identity when my memories begin to fade?  Just the other day my husband insisted we watched Forbidden Planet together.  I don't remember it, at all.  How many memories can slip away before I'm no longer me?  

The paradox of the Ship of Theseus is a big question mark asking who am I, and what makes me, me.  For the time being I don't have a definitive answer, but that's okay.  I seem to be in pretty good company with others who find the question worth asking, even without a satisfying resolution.

The Ship of Theseus keeps coming up in my reading this month.  To read a more in-depth and exciting account of the myth behind the ship, check out  The Wisdom of Myths by Luc Ferry.  For some interesting perspective on personal identity, personality continuity, and a great retelling of the paradox employing pop bands, check out  The Ego Trick by Julien Baggini.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Recipes in Translation: Summertime Vegetable Ragù

It's the first day of summer, and I can't think of a better time to share this summertime recipe for Vegetable Ragù sauce for pasta.

I'm translating the recipe for Ragù di verdure from an Italian website called "Butta la pasta."  I was excited to find it because it's nearly identical to a recipe I made often when we lived in Italy, and it's a wonderful way to celebrate the amazing produce that's in season right now.

My English version of this recipe is not a word for word translation.  I'm using my years of experience in both American and Italian kitchens to create an interpretation of this authentic Italian recipe written with directions that should seem comfortable and familiar to an American home cook. 

The recipe as written in Italian calls for a kilogram of mixed, diced vegetables, such as red onion, zucchini, eggplant, and bell pepper, plus half a kilo of tomatoes.  I used two peppers, two zucchini, a medium red onion, and a small eggplant.  Half a kilo of tomatoes is about four Roma tomatoes.

If you want to invent your own vegetable blend, the volume measure is 8 cups of diced vegetables (not including the tomatoes)

Tomatoes when peeled, de-seeded, and diced, should be about three cups.  

To peel tomatoes, drop them into boiling water for 30-45 seconds.  If you're lucky you can slide the skins off with your fingers.  You may still need to use a vegetable peeler to remove some of the peel, but this job is much easier after the tomatoes have been dunked in boiling water. 

Scoop out all the seeds with a spoon.  Then dice.

Sauté the vegetables (except tomatoes) in 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil for 7-9 minutes.  Add the tomatoes, salt, and cayenne pepper, and sauté another 7-9 minutes.

When the tomatoes begin to melt into the sauce, add fresh basil.  Stir basil into the sauce and immediately turn off the heat.

Now you have a beautiful vegetable ragù, perfect for a warm or cold pasta dish.

This is enough vegetable ragù for a one pound box of pasta.  Here are my detailed instructions on how to cook pasta (including whole wheat pasta, as pictured here).

Summertime Vegetable Ragù

Servings: makes enough to dress a 1 pound box of pasta, serves 8

1 red onion, diced
2 bell peppers, diced (mix colors to make it pretty)
2 zucchini, diced
1 small eggplant, diced
4 Roma tomatoes, peeled, de-seeded, and diced
4 T extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 t fine sea salt
1/2 t cayenne
1/2 fresh basil, chopped

Heat the olive oil on medium high heat in a large sauté pan.  Add onions, peppers, zucchini, and eggplant.  Sauté uncovered for 7-9 minutes, until vegetables begin to soften.  Add the tomatoes, salt, and cayenne, sauté another 7-9 minutes, until tomatoes just begin to melt.  Add the fresh basil, stir quickly, then remove from heat.

Add to 1 pound of cooked pasta.  

If making a cold pasta salad, be sure cool the ragù and to rinse the boiled pasta under cool water before combining.

Buon appetito!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Strawberry Spinach Salad of Wellbeing

Dinner for one should be fun and easy to make.  I have fond memories of a delicious salad I used to order: spinach and fresh strawberries, feta cheese and candied nuts.  When I came across this similar recipe for Strawberry Spinach Salad from Emma's Little Kitchen, I couldn't wait to try it.

If you check out the recipe you'll notice it serves 4-6, which is 4-6 times 1, the only person around to eat the salad this evening.  Despite the fact that my amazing Paprika Recipe App will scale the recipe to a quarter, giving me the exact number of grams of each ingredient to put in the ideal salad for one, I decided to estimate amounts off the cuff.  After all, it's a salad.  Exact proportions are only a matter of taste, right?

The result of my hasty estimation:

If it isn't obvious from the photo, it was certainly apparent from the taste: the cheese and nuts (and to some extent the strawberries) were way to much for the amount of spinach in my bowl.  When not paying careful attention, I had generously piled on the yummiest ingredients- the parts of the salad that really excited me- in complete disregard for the salad as a whole.  So much nuts and cheese made the salad a bit too dry and salty.

Mae West tells us that too much of a good thing can be wonderful.  I say any amount of a good thing can be wonderful- until it isn't.  

There's a sneaky line between wonderful and not, between wellbeing and not.  It's in a slightly different place from person to person, and the only way I know to find it is through paying attention to my personal experience.  Sometimes I worry I'm tossing too much of the yummy stuff into my days- too much sofa time with a book and a kitty in my lap.  And, since I really do enjoy worrying, at other times I worry my life is too much spinach- too many days that are just checks off my todo list, leaving me low on energy and feeling like there's no fun in my life.

Wellbeing is a dynamic balance, kind of like making a good salad- only without a recipe.  The best way to figure out the balance of ingredients in a salad is to eat it.  The best way to figure out balance between what I should do and what I want to do, is to experience how I feel as my days, weeks, and years weave work and play.  When eating salad alone, I can sneak extra spinach leaves onto the plate as I eat, to get the proportions back in balance.  And as I try to find the balance of wellbeing, I get a new opportunity every morning, every hour, every breath, to adjust and recalibrate.

Once brought back into balance, the Strawberry Spinach Salad was delicious.  For convenience I subbed balsamic vinegar for champagne vinegar, and sesame seeds for the poppy seeds.  But the recipe impressed me enough that I'd splurge for the champagne vinegar next time, just to try.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Lentil and Veggie Taco and Burrito Filling

This weekend I was so excited to try a new Vegetarian Times recipe for Super Veggie Lentil Taco "Meat."  The name, itself sounded so encouraging: veggies, lentils, super- I'm in!

Although the idea of using lentils as taco filling, and the veggie mix listed in the recipe were both awesome, I knew the minute I got into the kitchen that I was going to completely ignore the method suggested by the recipe.  As written, the recipe would have been mush, vegetables boiled for half an hour in water together with lentils- then pulsed in the food processor?  No way!  Since I was throwing the directions out the window, I tossed out some of the ingredients, as well, choosing to infuse the lentils with my husband's favorite taco seasoning mix, instead of the recommended spices.  The result was the super yummy the original recipe promised.

This filling would work great in tacos- we used it in burritos, assembled with salsa, low fat cheese, and our signature Greek yogurt sauce for a protein packed, delicious lunch.  It's fantastic to have the veggies already cooked into the filling, and with this method you can still enjoy the texture, taste, and color of the veggies.

Lentil and Veggie Taco and Burrito Filling 

1 cup dry lentils
1 package taco seasoning

1 Tbs. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ large red bell pepper, chopped
5 oz. mushrooms, sliced
1/4 C tomato puree (or 1/2 C canned diced tomatoes or 1 fresh tomato, diced)
salt if needed

1. Cook the taco flavor right into the lentils!

I pressure cooked 1 C lentils with 1 3/4 C water and the contents of our favorite taco seasoning packet for 19 minutes.

If you don't use a pressure cooker, you can combine 1 C lentils with 2 C of water.  Bring the water to a boil.  Lower the heat and add the seasoning.  Then simmer for 30-45 minutes until all the water is absorbed.

2. Sauté the veggies.

I prefer to sauté with the lid off for the first minute or two, then cover with a lid for the remaining time.  Don't forget to lift the lid and stir from time to time.

Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Sauté all the vegetables except mushrooms together in a large wok for about 5 minutes.  Add the mushrooms and sauté another 5 minutes.

3. Finishing touches.

Add cooked lentils and tomatoes of your choice to vegetables and cook another 3-5 minutes, uncovered.

The packet of taco seasoning probably already has enough salt for the dish.  If not, add a little more to taste.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Never again! The Leaky Chicken Disaster and my meditation practice

Yesterday I needed just a few things from the grocery store.  I happened to be right next to a Trader Joe's, so instead of driving all the way to my normal Whole Foods, I decided to save time and shop at Trader Joe's, instead.

Sadly, no time was saved.  I came home from Trader Joe's with a bag of groceries completely coated in raw chicken juice- a nasty experience, indeed, for a vegetarian and germaphobe.  As I was mopping up the mess and throwing away groceries purchased not fifteen minutes past, I vowed never to shop at Trader Joe's again.

The moment I made the vow I was struck by a terrible feeling: how many times have I had a bad experience that made me exclude something permanently from my life?  "Never again."  It sounded so satisfying as I scrubbed bacteria-laden goo off the hummus, but it's a little sad, too.  Ok, I can probably still live a fulfilling life without my favorite Trader Joe's dark chocolate bar.  But how many more important doors have I shut in disgust throughout my life?  How many doors have I closed without even knowing it?

Once in awhile I accidentally come across an aversion rooted in a fear from the past, a door that closed so long ago I forgot there could even be an opening.  It takes time, luck, and a lot of hard work to find all the closed doors camouflaged in my habitual attitudes and routines.  And even if I do come across a lost door, there's still the tricky problem of opening it.

I'm only a newbie meditator, but so far the point of the practice, whether I'm learning it from a guided  Headspace meditation, or from a teacher on YogaGlo, seems to be becoming more aware of all my experiences, so that bad experiences don't sneak around behind my back and close doors.  I'm supposed to be noticing each and every little thing that happens while I meditate: thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, breaths- sometimes while paying this kind of close attention I'm shocked to find some part of my body that actually hurts- how had I not noticed that before?  At the end of each guided session, regardless of the tradition from which it came, the teacher gives a big lecture on how I'm supposed to use my new-found awareness to notice how I'm feeling throughout my day.  I'm supposed to notice how I react to big stuff, little stuff, good stuff, bad stuff, neutral stuff- the goal is awareness of all stuff all the time- so that there is no sneaky, accidental door-closing happening when I'm not looking.  Noticing is supposed to give me the chance to evaluate each experience and decide for myself whether a bad experience merits a "never again."  The more I pay attention, the more I get to decide which doors should be left open, which doors shut.

And some doors should be shut.  Stick your finger in fire- serious ouch- never again!  The "never again" reflex can be useful, but if it happens without our awareness it can lead to lots and lots of unnecessarily closed doors.  In the case of shopping at Trader Joe's, I'd be smarter not to buy chicken from them again unless they change their packaging or improve their customer service.  After all, the chicken at Whole Foods comes hermetically sealed, and cashiers go out of their way to wrap it in plastic and make sure it's in a separate bag from the rest of my groceries.

So don't buy chicken at Trader Joe's.  But why miss out on their extra dark chocolate bars and yummy trail mix?  It's fine to leave the door open to Trader Joe's, all I have to do is skip the chicken.

The Leaky Chicken Disaster, as it shall from now on be remembered, was, to be dramatic, a mini trauma.  At the very least it was quite an unpleasant experience.  Sure is easier dealing with mini traumas and bad experiences right when they happen.  Saves me from trying to figure out, ten years from now, why I keep making excuses to avoid Trader Joe's.  What little I understand about meditation so far, is that it can help me deal with bad experiences right away, before they have a chance to grow into lifelong patterns of avoidance.  I don't know if there's supposed to be more to the practice than that, but even with just that goal, it's already pretty useful.

Oh, and the reason this vegetarian is out shopping for chicken...

...happens to be someone's all-time favorite dinner.