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.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

How many ounces of beans are in a 15 ounce can of beans?

Maybe it sounds like a funny question, but as I suspected, the answer is not 15.  The 15 ounces (425 grams) includes the weight of the liquid in which the beans were canned.

I often cook my own beans instead of buying canned, which can leave me at a little bit of a loss when I encounter a recipe that calls for a "can of beans."  Normally when this happens I just eyeball the amount- in a soup, stew, or curry the exact amount doesn't make a huge difference.  But this weekend I'm baking black bean cookies, and baking cookies requires a lot more precision than simmering a stew.

Since I had no idea exactly how many cooked beans are in a drained can of beans, I had to go out and buy a can for the cookie recipe instead of cooking my own.  Can in hand, it seemed like a good opportunity to figure out, once and for all ,how many cooked beans are in a can.

That fifteen ounce can of beans in your pantry actually contains about 9 ounces of cooked beans:

Or, if you're a metric freak like me, that's about 260 grams.

If you don't need to be super precise, and can afford to measure by volume, one drained can of black beans is almost exactly 1 1/2 cups of cooked beans.

Next time I have a big bowl of cooked black beans and need to measure a "can" for a soup or stew recipe, I'm going to grab a measuring cup and scoop out a cup and a half of beans.  

I haven't yet tested the weight and volume of any other type of beans.  I'd assume approximately the same measures for kidney beans, cannellini beans, and black-eyed peas, since they have a similar form factor and size.  I'll definitely repeat this experiment with garbanzo beans and perhaps lentils, since these have different form factor and size.  It's worth the effort, because I can say with some confidence that a "15 ounce can" of any bean or lentil is most definitely not equivalent to 15 ounces of cooked beans.

A can of beans is 1 1/2 cups, or 9 ounces, or 260 grams.  I'll sleep better tonight having cracked the mystery of the 15 ounce can.  As for everyone else, hope this was a little bit useful!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Zojirushi Bread Maker Strawberry Jam

I'd known for some time that my Zojirushi bread maker did a wonderful job spoiling me with fresh, home made, whole wheat loaves of bread, baked overnight and ready to enjoy in the morning.  But it wasn't until I sat down with the appliance manual that I realized I could also be making delicious jam.

And since I'd just come home from the farmer's market with beautiful strawberries...

I modified the strawberry jam recipe from the Zojirushi manual, which called for three cups of strawberries.  My interpretation is that the volume measure should be for the strawberries after they've been mashed, not before.  So I cut the strawberries into pieces and broke them down using a potato masher, continuing until my mash measured three cups.

The ingredients for jam are so simple- strawberries, lemon juice, sugar, and half a packet of fruit pectin, which I weigh precisely at 27 grams.  

I used to be hesitant about fruit pectin, confusing it with gelatin, but pectin comes entirely from plants (typically citrus if Wikipedia is accurate).  I use Sure-Jell pectin for "less or no sugar recipes."  It's easy to work with and always comes out great.

Add the strawberries, lemon juice, sugar, and fruit pectin to the bread maker, and the machine does the rest, gently stirring and heating so that I can get busy with other kitchen projects.  I pour from the pan directly into glass jars while still hot.  If you like, this is a good time to taste and add a little extra sugar if needed.  Sometimes I make a jar or two extra sweet for those in my life who have more of a sweet-tooth than me.

So simple, and at the end, yummy strawberry jam.  It's a great way to preserve an abundance of fruit.  The jam lasts up to 6 weeks in the refrigerator, and up to 1 year in the freezer- although home made jam has never gone uneaten at our house for so long.

My version of Zojirushi Strawberry Jam

3 cups mashed strawberries
1 T lemon juice
1/2 C turbinado sugar (Sugar in the Raw)
27 grams (1/2 packet) Sure-Jell fruit pectin made for low or no sugar recipes

Add ingredients to the bread pan in the order listed.  Set the bread machine to the jam cycle.  When the cycle is finished carefully remove the pan from the machine (it will be super hot!).  

Taste for sugar, if you want more, stir sugar in to taste while the jam is still hot.

Pour the hot jam into glass containers.  Allow to cool.  Refrigerate for up to 6 weeks or freeze for up to 1 year.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Recipe Roundup

Last week I experimented with three new recipes.  All three were good, and two were instant favorites.

First up, Smashed Chickpea & Avocado Sandwich from Two Peas and Their Pod.  This is the sandwich that was so yummy, I chose it over grilled cheese.  I love the play of salt and lime juice with the avocado and chickpeas.  Not only was this a great sandwich spread, it made an awesome dip.  A very rare recipes for which I didn't and wouldn't change a single thing.   

Favorite of family and friends last week were my Star Wars Day dueling lightsaber cupcakes.  Give them a try (light sabers optional).  I got the recipe for 100% Whole Grain Chocolate Cupcakes from Texanerin Baking.  I chose to top them with a Nutella-style hazelnut chocolate spread instead of the espresso frosting.  The combination of hazelnut chocolate spread with these cupcakes was just too yummy.  Erin gives a couple variations in this recipe, I used whole wheat pastry flour, turbinado sugar (Sugar in the Raw), and canola oil.

Our house is anything but gluten-free, but I'm always on the lookout for a tasty cookie with no refined white flour or sugar, and for deserts that combine some worthwhile nutrition with the treat.  These Almond Butter Chocolate Chip Oat Cookies from Kneadtocook have no refined flours and are full of protein.  I followed the recipe as written, using almond butter, and the cookies turned out well.  Next time I would add 1/4 teaspoon of salt.  To get the best cookie taste, a pinch of salt to contrast the sugar would have really added some extra kick to the flavor.  I have a feeling most almond butters contain a little salt, but my almond butter had none, so check your almond butter before deciding whether or not to add salt.  Aside from needing that kiss of salt, a decent, chewy, gluten-free cookie.  The batter is very sticky- make sure to use Silpat or parchment paper as indicated!

This week's new recipes on the horizon include an interesting spice blend to roast and grind.  It will then become part of an intriguing new spiced cashew snack.  Should be fun!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Google nutrition labels referee his and hers sandwich faceoff: avocado vs. low fat cheese

Today at lunch I made a choice to eat a very yummy chickpea and avocado sandwich.  My husband enjoyed a grilled cheese sandwich.  Whose sandwich was healthier?  I know avocados have fat- but is it mostly "good fat" like polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat, or is an avocado full of saturated fat just like the cheese?

Produce doesn't come with a handy nutrition label like, say, a package of cheese.  You might think it would take a lot of research to figure out exactly what you're getting into with an avocado- how much fat, unsaturated vs. saturated, how much protein per serving?  But getting a nutrition label for an avocado, or an apple, or any produce is super easy.

A quick google search: "avocado nutrition" yields this handy nutrition label, right on the search results page:

I've used this handy Google Nutrition Label before.  The nutrition label is interactive- I love that I can specify different amounts, such as 1 cup, sliced, 100 grams, etc. 

I'll spare you the math and get to the conclusion: ounce per ounce avocado had about 5 times had less saturated fat than our reduced fat cheddar cheese.  Avocado has a whole bunch of healthy monounsaturated fat (the cheese had none).  Avocado also had bonus fiber (the cheese had none).  But the cheese wins hands down on protein, containing about 14 times more protein than avocado!

However, my delicious sandwich was a combo of avocado and chick peas.  So I analyzed our sandwich fillings as I prepared them.  

Here's the head to head on his and hers sandwiches:  I got about a third less saturated fat that my hubby did.  And he got three times more protein than me, though he missed out on monounsaturated fat and fiber.  

So long as we don't exceed hubby's saturated fat allotment for the day, I feel good about giving him the protein boost with the grilled cheese sandwich.  I feel equally good about the healthy fats I got- so long as I make sure to keep the protein coming throughout the day.  Healthy means taking into account an individual's unique nutrition needs in the context of what's eaten throughout the rest of the day.  I think consumed wisely, both sandwiches could be part of a healthy, balanced diet.  And both sandwiches were delicious!

If you'd like the recipe for the Smashed Chickpea & Avocado Sandwich I enjoyed for lunch today, check out the recipe on  

Friday, May 2, 2014

My pet ladybug, and what makes us human

As a card-carrying member of the "eek, it's a bug" club, I can't believe I'm keeping a pet ladybug in my kitchen.  It's pretty cute, right?

It's been crawling around my windowsill for a couple of days.  I intended to take it outside when I got a chance, but then forgot.  Yesterday I found it wading in a splash of water at the bottom of my sink.  I scooped it with a paper towel and put it in the sun to dry.  Last night I pulled it out of the sink drain, afraid it would drown.  This morning I was taking photos of it!

Now, if I saw an ant crawling on my kitchen counter, I would not think it was cute.  I'd escort it out of the house immediately, scrub and vacuum the kitchen, and jump nervously all day at the tiniest speck I might imagine to be an insect in the house.  Let's not even talk about what I'd do if there was a cockroach in my kitchen- the national guard would probably get involved, let's leave it at that.

Why do I have such a different reaction to a ladybug than I would to another insect in my kitchen?  After all, an ant and a ladybug both have six legs, are teeny tiny, and crawl about in places I'd rather they didn't.

I can find a rational explanation for the difference.  Ants exhibit different behavior than ladybugs.  Ants have a hive mentality, and once they find a source of food in my kitchen they will come back in droves to invade.  So when I see an ant I'm immediately afraid it will bring the whole hive to my place for a pantry feast.  Ladybugs don't do that.  

While this is true, I don't think it fully explains the disgust with which I dash from the house to shake an ant from the dust pan, versus the way I tenderly dried my pet ladybug with a paper towel.  The thought of an ant crawling on my skin causes intense revulsion.  I picked up my ladybug with my bare hands.

My different reaction to the ant and ladybug comes from the fact that I find ladybugs cute, and I find ants disgusting.

I'm reading a fantastic book right now called Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene.  The chapter I happen to be reading is talking about emotion.  Greene makes a rough analogy linking emotion to "automatic" behavior, like the automatic settings on a digital camera.  He likens reason to the manual setting on a digital camera.

The idea is that as human beings we have two sets of tools to deal with any situation.  One tool is reason,  thinking logically through the pros and cons to determine an appropriate response.  My explanation about lady bugs being less of a problem in the kitchen than hive-mentality ants is an example of "manual" reasoning.

Sometimes an automatic reaction run by our emotions or "gut feelings" is the more efficient way to deal with a situation.  If a bee lands on my arm I'm going to feel afraid and flinch- I wouldn't even think about it.  Spoiled milk smells disgusting and I don't need any analysis to know not to drink it.  We need automatic responses that don't require too much discursive thinking so that we can put one foot in front of the other and get through our day.  And when we have all day to think, reasoning can take us only so far before we get down to what is good, and realizing that what is good differs from culture to culture and person to person.  It isn't possible to root out all emotion.

But what happens when our emotional responses lead us astray?  For one thing, emotional auto-responses work better at avoiding short-term threats than they do at planning long-term well-being. And emotions that might have protected us in a certain extinct context can cause us to make just plain bad decisions in our actual lives.  Misleading emotions can get codified into attitudes that form the moral fabric of an entire community and infect everyone with fear.  I only need recall a childhood memory, being pulled out of line by an elderly family member who was afraid of the African American family behind us, for a sobering example of how fear can cause harm instead of protecting us from it.

I think what makes us human isn't just our ability to reason, but our ability to negotiate between emotional auto-pilot and manual reasoning control.  How do we know when to go with our gut, or when to stop and think?  Which emotions are keeping us safe, and which are limiting us?  What about the emotions that are useful in some situations, and harmful in others?  And where did those emotions come from- our own experience, the influence of our community, our genetic inheritance?  Paying attention to what we do and why, trying to answer those questions, is the most difficult and important job we have as human beings.  The only way I can think of to get better at it, is to practice paying attention to my reactions and where they came from, day in and day out, from big, important decisions, down to the little ladybug on my counter.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Making paneer, a photo journey

The first time I considered making my own paneer I felt so daunted, but in reality making this homemade Indian cheese is super simple and fun.  All you need is milk, lemon, cheesecloth, and some boiling water.  

I learned to make paneer from this recipe (with video) from  If you feel inspired, give it a try!  Otherwise just scroll and relax as you watch the process unfold in photos- from milk and lemon to cubed paneer ready to add to a palak paneer curry.  

Monday, April 21, 2014

Cookbooks Vs. Food Blogs

This week I've noticed some recently published cookbooks based on popular food blogs.  When I saw the books I wondered why the publishers think I'd spend money to buy a cookbook when the same recipes are available online, in a more convenient format, at no cost.  Most of the new recipes I've tried at home over the last few years haven't come from the cookbooks I buy, they come from recipes freely available on food blogs.

I'd hardly call myself a food blog devotee.  I don't follow any particular bloggers, don't pore over the artistic step-by-step photos, and don't engage with the personal stories that accompany each entry.  When I'm looking for a recipe I google for what I want and scroll directly to the bare bones recipe.  In seconds I can tell from reading the ingredients whether or not the recipe is right for me.

I keep a Pinterest page of recipes that intrigue me, which keeps me organized as I search for, or happen across, cool recipes online.  If I plan to make a recipe in the next several days, I save it to my beloved Paprika recipe app, which displays the recipe while I cook.  Often with one click of a button on my laptop, I can have the recipe waiting on my iPad in the kitchen in a matter of seconds.  And if a recipe turns out great, a food blog recipe is so simple to share (and free to share) with friends and followers.

Food blogs are incredibly convenient when I want to search for, organize, display for cooking, and share recipes.  Cookbooks aren't so convenient.

Searching inside a Kindle book isn't as powerful as a google search and isn't universal- I have to repeat the search from book to book- assuming what I want is even in my collection.  There is no automatic way to keep a list of the recipes I want to try in various Kindle cookbooks, I have to manually create a list outside the app.

When it's time to cook, display on a Kindle cookbook is problematic.  The Kindle cookbook often spreads the recipe across a number of pages, so I have to scroll back and forth with gooey fingers.  The Kindle book will automatically turn off after a couple of idle minutes, while Paprika App will keep my tablet powered and displaying until I manually tell it to go to sleep.

Getting a Kindle cookbook recipe into the Paprika App is possible, but involves downloading the Kindle book to my computer, followed by a tedious series of manual copies and pastes, and gives me no option for capturing a photo of the recipe.

The last major downside of making a recipe from a cookbook, is that when I want to share a great recipe, whether here on my blog, or via social media, I can't do it.  No link, stringent copyright notices, no sharing.  The recipe lives isolated in my kitchen.

Given the advantages of searching for, organizing, and sharing recipes with food blogs, why would I want to pay for the inconvenience of a cookbook when the more convenient and more comprehensive blog is available for free?

A closer look not just at the recipes I've made, but at the things I've learned about cooking over the last year, shows that the money spent on cookbooks was far from wasted.  A book on vegan Indian cooking inspired me to try making popcorn on the stovetop for the first time, and introduced me to the idea of peeling and prepping veggies right when I get them home from the store.  A book on making homemade crackers taught me to keep a jar of mixed seeds in my pantry that I now use regularly in all sorts of my own recipes.  Reading the nutrition forward from the Runner's World Cookbook inspired me to create our favorite new post-run snack: Pink Lady apples dipped in crunchy natural peanut butter with a hint of sea salt.  The cookbook that came with my bread maker has a section on jam.  Jam?  I can make my own jam?  I can make my own jam!!

I think cookbooks are better purveyors of ideas than food blogs.  That's certainly not to say that food blogs lack ideas, but those ideas are presented in bite-sized doses based on the context of what's going on in the world at large or in the blogger's kitchen/life at that time.  Cookbooks present a linear transmission of a cook's approach to creating food.  Introductions lead us through nutritional, cultural, and some personal information.  Then there may be a discussion of ingredients and techniques.  And sprinkled throughout the introductions and recipes are tips and tricks that are often far more valuable to me than the dishes, themselves.

When it's time to get dinner on the table, and to share the joy of cooking with my family and friends, food blogs are a much better option than cookbooks.  But cookbooks still have a place for me.  My cookbooks are great teachers.  They've brought goodness from their writers' kitchens to mine, and helped me grasp fundamentals of approaching new styles of cooking, new tips and tricks, and new ideas for creating.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Portable Post Run Recovery Snack

Wanted: a healthy snack that can survive an eight mile run while bouncing up and down under the hot sun in a very unrefrigerated pocket.

Having a small snack after a serious run is supposed to do all sorts of helpful things to aid in muscle recovery so that we can feel well and get back out on the trail again sooner.  Problem is, we walk almost a mile to and from the trail.  By the time I get home to prepare a fresh snack, we've missed the half hour window where that post run recovery snack can make the most difference.

We had to find a portable snack that we could eat on our walk home.  It couldn't be too messy, it had to be nutritious.  The obvious choice was to buy a nutrition bar, but we wanted fresh, home made food, not something loaded with preservatives that came out of a box.

So today we auditioned Soft & Chewy Sugar-Free Granola Bars from

Thanks to the Vitamix this recipe was very easy to put together.  I used the dry container to grind the oat flour and the wet container handily made the paste of dates and water.  The bars turned out great- not too sweet, palatable, and gentle on the stomach.  We put both bars in a little Ziploc in my husband's pocket (yes, Ziploc snack bags are BPA free- I checked!)

The only snafu in our experiment was that the two thin bars I packed came out of our 8 mile run completely fused into one big bar.  Kind of romantic, in a sugar-free, nutrition bar kind of way.  We just broke the two-become-one bar in half and enjoyed!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Try freezing the tasty stuff

When it's time to clean out my produce drawer, there's always a bag of withered ginger, wrinkled thai chiles, and a few blackened curry leaves lurking shamefully at the bottom of the drawer.  Recently I've been experimenting with freezing small to medium batches of ingredients I know I'll be using in upcoming weeks for cooking Indian curries.

I've frozen a lot of things over the years- ice cream, ground espresso, leftover cookies, an overabundance of plums, veggie burgers (store bought and home made), the impossible-to-find curry leaves I used to order from  Whenever I freeze food it is either because I bought it already frozen, because I have too much of something and don't want it to go to waste, or because I need I need a way to preserve something precious.

I've long known that freezing curry leaves works surprisingly well.  Even now that I can walk to an Indian grocery, when I buy fresh curry leaves I use half fresh and freeze the rest, unwashed, directly in the plastic bag in which I bought them.  When it's time to use the frozen curry leaves they're so easy to pluck from the stem, rinse under water, and pat dry.  The process of rinsing them easily defrosts them, and the smell of curry leaves fills the kitchen the moment the leaves hit the hot oil.

This week I've frozen ginger root, turmeric root, garlic, and jalapeño.  I had read that frozen ginger could be easily grated using a microplane grater.  Sure enough, when I grated my teaspoon of frozen ginger using my trusty parmesan cheese grater, the ginger fell like powder into a neat little pile on my prep board.  And, as promised, I didn't have to peel it.  Although the process worked well, getting more than a teaspoon or two out of a small piece of ginger is just as time consuming as grating it fresh.  I've frozen some larger pieces to see if, with greater surface area, I can get a better bang for the buck on my time when I grate.  In the meantime, I keep a half cup of fresh ginger paste made in my Vitamix ready to go in the refrigerator.  It also makes great ginger tea!

I've  successfully used small pieces of frozen turmeric root and ginger root in smoothies.  I chop them into one inch pieces and dry them before freezing, so that I can easily add them in the Vitamix.  

This week I also started experimenting with freezing peeled garlic.  I never have any trouble keeping garlic fresh, this is purely a time saver, so as not to have to stop and peel a bunch of garlic while busily prepping the many ingredients used in starting an Indian curry dish.  I was shocked by how easily I could mince frozen garlic straight out of the freezer!  The first curry I made using frozen peeled garlic was received with rave reviews, my husband had no idea I'd done anything differently than usual.  Tomorrow I'm going to try introducing frozen garlic into a pesto sauce.

From nutrition and aesthetic standpoints, fresher is always better.  For those who only use ginger paste or curry leaves once or twice a week, freezing these potent flavor and aromatic powerhouses may equate to fresher food, and will certainly mean less waste.  And if having speedily prepped ginger and garlic means more home made weeknight meals, I say give it a try.  The worst that can happen is you decide you just can't give up fresh from the refrigerator instead of the freezer.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

What is processed food? And what's in a definition?

One food choice that I make, and that many people I know make, is to limit the amount of processed food we eat.

But what, exactly, is processed food?

Maybe you think the answer to that question is pretty straightforward.  Here's one of many things that made me think a little deeper:

What's that just above the USDA organic seal?  "Processed in the USA."

Processed?  Wait, when did plain spinach leaves become processed food?

The Oxford Dictionary defines to process as:
"Perform a series of mechanical or chemical operations on (something) in order to change or preserve it."

My baby spinach has been changed and preserved.  The little roots on the bottoms of the leaves were removed.  It was triple washed, so some mechanical operation was used to wash away the dirt.  Then it was dried so it wouldn't get moldy, and packaged in a recycled plastic container.

By definition baby spinach is processed food.  So are dried lentils and beans, oatmeal, and rice.  So is flour- even my home milled flour is processed in the Vitamix at home, and is made from wheat berries which were milled in a factory!

When I say I'm trying to avoid processed food, stuff like brown rice, lentils, and baby spinach is not what I mean.  There's a problem with my definition of processed food.

I used to think that philosophy was just a waste of time, messing around with the meanings of words.  But after the first few years of my foray into studying philosophy, I learned that defining terms is just the first step in this practical and very useful art.  But no wonder I noticed all the defining that goes on in philosophy- definition is an absolutely crucial first step!

Having an accurate definition is critical to any productive discussion- or any productive thinking!   Before determining a clear definition of processed food, I was not even able to recognize a processed food when I ate one!  When I say I want to avoid all processed foods, I'm not being specific about what I want to avoid or why.  Without a clear working definition of what I do and do not want to include in my diet, how can I make good choices?

Processed foods aren't all evil.  Foods are processed to preserve their freshness and nutrients, processed to improve their palatability, processed to improve their usability and convenience.  There's a huge spectrum of ways these goals can be achieved, and how a food is processed is far more important that the fact that it was processed.  Was freshness achieved by sealing food in an airtight container, or by the use of chemical additives that make me uncomfortable?  Was palatability achieved by finely grinding or dehydrating a food, or was it achieved by dumping in a bunch of sugar and salt?  Is the trade-off of nutrition for convenience worth buying flour that was milled at a factory instead of freshly milling my flour at home?  How do I feel about prepared foods?   What are the impact of costs?  Does it matter whether food is processed in my home or in a factory- if so, why and in what cases?  What is the impact of different types of packaging on human health?  And what is the impact on the environment of different types of processing and packaging?

My questions about how food is processed won't be exactly the same as yours.  Different people will have different values, and have different needs when caring for themselves and their families.  But in order to make decisions that best serve our needs and best reflect our values, everyone needs understand what processed foods are, how they are processed, and where they are processed, in order to decide which processed foods they want to include in a healthy lifestyle.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

How to get a vegetarian to eat you alive (adventures in home made veggie burgers)

There is something comforting about a sandwich.  Two fresh slices of bread cuddling a nice chunk of protein, maybe some fresh vegetables as well, with a little spread of mustard.  Yum.

Unfortunately for vegetarians the chunk of protein between those two slices of bread is all too often a heavily processed, salty, packaged, veggie burger.  So the idea of home made veggie burgers combined with my love of lentils, made this recipe for Vegan Lentil Burgers from seen quite attractive.

So attractive that I didn't even consider the dangers of making my own veggie burgers.

The recipe for Vegan Lentil Burgers didn't look too daunting.  It required me to cook some lentils, do some grinding in the food processor, shape the resulting dough into patties, and bake for 35 minutes.  I slated the recipe trial for a weeknight dinner and, armed with whole wheat bread I'd baked earlier that day and my favorite mustard, I felt confident about dinner.

However the dinner I embarked on making veggie burgers happened to coincide with one of our evening workouts.  I got a late start making dinner because of the workout, then went through the inevitably slower process of carefully reading and measuring ingredients for a brand new recipe.  By the time I had a dough ready to form into patties, my post-workout, ravenous hubby wanted to know why dinner was taking so long.  The starving glint in his eye threatened that if I didn't hurry he was going to eat me alive...

...or order pizza.

In a happy ending we both survived the late dinner.  My starving hubby thought the lentil burgers tasted fine (though he might have eaten an old shoe at that point), but I was less impressed.  In subsequent experiments I pan fried the veggie burgers in a little oil, once before baking, once after- and on both occasions the pan frying improved the texture so that no one had to be starving to enjoy them.

What I learned from this adventure (aside from not letting my husband get that hungry) was that part of the comfort of a sandwich is in the ease and speed of its preparation.  Sliding a frozen veggie burger out of its plastic wrap into a skillet or onto a cookie sheet, and having dinner ready in twenty minutes, is part of the innate comfort of the sandwich.  A sandwich is all about having your work done well ahead of mealtime- bread baked, condiments prepared (by you or the manufacturer), requiring at most the cooking of the protein and a quick slice of bread and tomato.

As suggested in the recipe, I froze leftovers of the lentil burger dough into patties to make them more convenient for the future.  Cooking these home made prepared veggie burgers still involves the foresight to thaw, the time to fry, and then the half hour to bake the burgers.  But having seen some improvement in texture with frying and decrease in prep time by freezing the patties, I plan to experiment with pre-frying and pre-baking the burgers before freezing so that I can get closer to the fast and easy convenience of the veggie burger as I've come to know and love it.

I'm also interested in changing out the oat flour used this recipe for lentil flour made in the Vitamix.  I think the protein chunk satisfaction would be even more satisfying if there was less grain in the sandwich and more lentil.

The idea to fry before baking the burger comes from Vegan Burgers Every Which Way by Lucas Volger.  Some of his recipes also incorporate chickpea (besan) flour, which was part of my inspiration to try making my own lentil flour.
 Veggie Burgers Every Which Way
Veggie Burgers Every Which Way

Assuming I can get dinner on the table before anyone eats me, I'll have some more adventures in making veggie burgers to share soon.