Friday, May 8, 2015

Coming Home to an Old Favorite

(Originally published in The News Review on May 5, 2015)

I've just returned from a week visiting my daughter in New York City. For six days, with Laura as my guide, we ate our way through the borough of Manhattan. From Indian take out on the Upper West Side, to Dim Sum deep in the back alleys of Chinatown, heavenly mac & cheese in Chelsea, and perfect pizza arrabiata in the West Village, I found myself in a food-lovers paradise. And that was just dinner. We ate authentic New York bagels for breakfast and falafel for lunch. Across the East River we visited “Smorgasburg,” a hipster food festival in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. We sampled Moroccan meatballs with harissa, crispy scallion pancakes, hibiscus-glazed donuts and Columbian arepas. Farmers markets and random street fairs provided yet more temptation in the form fresh-pressed cider, babka and a peanut butter-banana-chocolate chip cookie.

Thankfully, these gastronomic adventures were balanced with miles and miles of walking, climbing up and down hundreds of stairs and riding bikes in Central Park. Still, after my week of indulgence, I crave simple, healthier fare. I'm hungry for beans. 

Dried beans are an excellent item to have in your pantry or food storage. Cooking dried beans is less expensive than buying canned beans and allows you to control the sodium content, eliminate additives and avoid the BPA (Bisphenol A) that is still used in the lining of most commercially canned foods. When I do opt for canned beans, I buy the Simple Truth brand at Fred Meyer. They're organic and contain much less salt than other brands.

I'm happy to eat just about any type of bean dish. I adore black beans and rice. Topped with salsa, sour cream, avocado and tortilla chips, black beans are my number one choice for a vegetarian dinner. Navy bean soup is simple to make in the slow cooker and delicious with biscuits or cornbread. I often cook up a big pot of pinto beans to use in chili and then make refried beans out of the leftovers for tostadas or burritos. I always add cooked beans (pintos or black beans) to taco filling; they add fiber and make my local, grass-fed ground beef go further.

A bean tutorial

The first step in cooking beans is to sort them. Slowly pour the dried beans into a large pot, keeping your eye out for dirt clods, stones or moldy beans. I don't find them often, but I've seen enough over the years to be careful. Once they're in the pot, run cold water over the beans and swish them around with your hand. Discard any beans that float; they could be infested with insects. Rinse and drain the beans in a colander.

Soaking the beans before cooking hydrates them and shortens the cooking time. It also helps the beans cook more evenly, so they all get tender about the same time. For two cups of beans you need 6-8 cups of cold water, enough to cover the beans by at least two inches. If you've planned ahead, let the beans soak overnight at room temperature. You can also speed soak by covering the beans with a couple inches of water in a pot and bringing to a boil. Boil two minutes, then turn off heat and let stand, covered, for one hour before proceeding to cook on stove top or in the slow cooker. You can soak beans and freeze them (before cooking) so you have them ready to go if you forget to soak in the future.

After soaking, drain the beans and use fresh water for cooking. This makes them easier to digest. Truth be told, if beans become a regular part of your diet, your body develops the enzymes it needs to digest them without difficulty.

Once the beans have been soaked, you're ready to cook them. Almost all recipes say not to salt beans until the end of cooking because it will make them tough. I always add the salt at the beginning and it's never caused a problem. If I wait to add salt after the beans have cooked, they don't absorb it and never taste salty enough for me. Mark Bittman, New York Times columnist and author of How To Cook Everything, agrees with me on this point. Bittman suggests adding one teaspoon salt per half pound of dried beans, but because I almost always add broth base or bouillon too, my rule of thumb is one teaspoon salt per pound of beans.

Small beans, like black beans or navy beans, will cook on the stove top, gently simmering, in 1 ½ to 2 hours. Larger beans, like pintos, kidney beans or garbanzo beans, will take a bit longer. If you use a slow cooker, plan to let the beans cook all day on low or at least eight hours. You can vary the flavor by adding herbs, spices, and vegetables while the beans are cooking. Oregano, thyme, rosemary, chili powder, cumin, carrots, onion and celery all work well. One word of caution: add acidic ingredients, like tomatoes, toward the end of cooking, as they will prevent the beans from becoming tender.

Cooked beans can be frozen in their liquid to be used later in chili, tacos, soups, etc. I freeze two cups in a quart ziptop freezer bag or 4 cups in a gallon bag. Lay the bag flat on a cookie sheet until frozen solid, then add them to your “frozen food file.” When ready to use, thaw quickly in a sink of hot water.

Black beans and rice with salsa, sour cream and avocado.
Basic Black Beans

This basic recipe can be used for cooking most types of dried beans. Larger beans may require longer cooking. Feel free to jazz it up by adding garlic, cumin, chili powder or other herbs and spices. Anything acidic, like tomatoes, should be added toward the end of cooking, after the beans are tender.

1 pound (2 ¼ cups) dried black beans
6 to 8 cups water for soaking

6 cups fresh water
1 bay leaf, broken in half
1 medium onion, diced or 2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon beef bouillon (I like Better Than Bouillon brand)

Carefully pick over beans then rinse thoroughly under cold water. Drain and place in a large pot. Cover with at least two inches of cold water and allow to soak overnight or at least six hours at room temperature.

Drain and rinse the beans; return to pot. Add six cups of fresh water and the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer approximately 1 ½ to 2 hours, until beans are tender, but not mushy. Remove bay leaf pieces.

Serve over cooked rice with salsa, avocado, tortilla chips and/or sour cream.

Yield: about 6 cups of cooked beans

Slow cooker method: Follow the recipe as directed, but cook beans in slow cooker on low for 8 to 10 hours.

Aprons and Asparagus

(Originally published in The News Review on April 7, 2015.)

I grew up believing that “how you dress affects how you act and how you act affects everything.” For church, I put on my “Sunday best” because it helps me feel reverent. In the gym, I wear workout clothes; they make me feel strong. On date night I slip into high heels; they make me feel glamorous. And when I step into the kitchen, I tie on an apron; it says to my mind “Let's get cooking” and I feel like a chef.

From flirty to functional, aprons come in all shapes and patterns for both men and women. The purpose, of course, is to shield one's clothes from the splashes and splatters and spills all cooks contend with. Marcy Goldman of says cooking without an apron is akin to driving without a seat belt and I agree. Why risk it? Besides the protection it offers, an apron comes in handy when two hands aren't enough. How many times have I run out to the garden to snip a few herbs and returned with an apron full of tomatoes or beans or cucumbers!

My stash of aprons is fairly small. I have a few souvenirs: a milk chocolate-colored Ghirardelli apron, a bright red Pike Place Market apron, a black and orange OSU extension apron (though I'm officially a duck), a lacy half apron (aka hostess apron) my in-laws brought back from a trip to Europe. Yet, my ideal apron is plain white and practical, one I can bleach if necessary to keep it fresh-looking. I like a slender pocket to hold a thermometer and a big pocket to hold my smartphone/timer. (My favorite kitchen timer is a free phone app called Nag. It allows me to set and label eight different timers at once.) I need my apron strings long enough to crisscross behind my back and tie around my waist in front so I can loop a dishtowel through for drying my hands.

Dressing the part won't turn me into a chef without top-notch ingredients. Farmers markets are moving back outdoors and the produce stalls are a sea of green. The cabbage, kale, brassicas and root vegetables we've enjoyed all winter are making way for lettuce, chives, green onions, garlic scapes and asparagus. Snow peas, snap peas and shelling peas aren't far off.

I adore asparagus and eagerly anticipate its arrival each spring. It's usually sold in one pound bundles, often a mix of thick and thin spears. Pencil-thin spears are so tender they can be added raw to salads or tossed into a quick stir-fry. Larger spears are perfect for roasting with olive oil or steaming then sautéing in garlic butter. Any size works well for a creamy asparagus soup.

If your kitchen confidence needs a boost, maybe it's time to “dress for success” with a new apron. Pick a style that makes you smile, gather up some local ingredients and get cooking.

Creamy asparagus soup gets a little zing from white balsamic vinegar.
Cream of Asparagus Soup

Asparagus, garlic stalks and chives are some of the first spring greens to appear at farmers markets. All three go into this creamy soup that can be served warm or chilled. I use Trader Joe's White Balsamic Vinegar. If don't have any, try white wine vinegar or sherry vinegar or a splash of fresh lemon juice.

2 tablespoons butter
1 rounded cup sliced garlic stalks (I used it all the way up to the dark green part) or one large onion and 1 clove of garlic, diced
2 cups chicken stock
1 pound (as purchased) asparagus, woody ends trimmed, sliced into 1-inch pieces
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
fresh chives for garnish

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the sliced garlic (and/or onion) and cook until softened. Add the broth, asparagus and seasonings, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 8 to 10 minutes, until asparagus is tender. Add the milk. I like to puree it right in the pot using a hand blender, but you can also do it in batches in a regular blender. Stir in the cream. Add additional salt, if needed. Just before serving stir in the vinegar. Garnish each bowlful with freshly snipped chives.

Makes 5 to 6 cups of soup.

Roasted asparagus with coarse sea salt.
Roasted Asparagus

Simple and so very good.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Rinse the asparagus and snap off the woody ends. I do this by holding each spear by the cut end and a few inches up the stalk. Bend gently and the spear will break where the woody part starts.
Arrange the asparagus in a single layer in a very shallow baking pan (a half-sheet pan or a cookie sheet with sides). Drizzle with olive oil then toss with your fingers to coat the spears evenly. Sprinkle with a bit of coarse sea salt.
Place in the oven and bake for 5 to 8 minutes, depending on how thick the asparagus is. Check with a cake tester or fork. You want it tender-crisp. Do not overbake or it will turn mushy.

Serve immediately. Any leftovers make a great addition to an omelet or frittata.

Steamed Asparagus Sautéed in Garlic Butter
If your steamer basket is not large enough to lay the asparagus in, try improvising with a round cooling rack or trivet set in a skillet you can cover.

Rinse the asparagus and trim the woody ends. Place the spears in a steamer set over (not in) hot water. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and steam just until tender-crisp. This will only take a few minutes, depending on how thick the spears are.

Meanwhile, begin melting some butter in a frying pan over low heat. When the asparagus is ready, transfer it to the frying pan and add a finely minced or pressed clove of garlic. Increase heat to medium and sauté two or three minutes, just until spears are tender. Do not over cook. Sprinkle with sea salt and serve immediately.

Do ahead tip: After steaming just until tender-crisp, plunge the asparagus into a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking, drain well and store in the refrigerator for several days. When you want to serve it, proceed with sautéing instructions. You can have fresh vegetables on the table in minutes with this method.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Steamed Eggs

I love being able to buy ultra-fresh eggs at my local farmers market. The bright yellow-orange yolks, loaded with vitamin A and omega 3 fatty acids, give a lovely golden color to yeast breads, pancakes, and even homemade ice cream. The sturdy whites whip up light and fluffy in meringues. And scrambled eggs never looked so pretty or tasted so good.

My only frustration with fresh eggs is that I've always found them difficult to peel when boiled. I like to snack on hard-boiled eggs or add them to a chef salad. And I love a great egg salad sandwich. I gave up grocery store eggs years ago, but they sure were easy to peel. I've tried all the tricks when boiling my farm fresh eggs, but still ended up with a lot of the white stuck in the shell when I tried to peel them. If I wanted boiled eggs, I resorted to holding back a dozen in the refrigerator for a couple weeks so they wouldn't be quite so fresh and would peel more easily, but that takes advance planning.

I was sharing my frustration with my daughter one day and she said she steams her eggs instead of boiling them and the peel slips right off. How had I not heard about this???

I decided to give it a try last weekend when I boiled my Easter eggs. I wanted to cook a dozen and I don't have a large steamer so I improvised by placing a cake rack in a large pan. I added water so it came just under the rack, set my eggs on the rack, covered to pan and brought the water to a boil, then lowered it to a simmer. Christine said 12 minutes was the timing for hard-cooked yolks so that's what I did.

After steaming, I ran the eggs under cold water out of habit, though she said that's not even necessary. Now for the test....

...Hallelujah! The peel came off in big pieces with no white clinging to it. No pockmarked eggs! And the yolks?

Perfectly cooked with no gray ring around the edge.

I'm sold on this method. Can't imagine why I would ever go back to boiling. Thanks for the tip, Christine:)

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Scalloped Potato Masterpiece

My latest Tasty Tuesday column (originally published in The News Review on March 3, 2015) Recipes in this post: Scalloped Potatoes & Ham (updated) and a vegetarian option.

Food lovers are often mocked for taking pictures of what we’re about to eat. It’s difficult for a non-foodie type to see any purpose in visually documenting a meal. For me, it’s about storing a memory — an exquisite lunch with a dear friend, a romantic dinner, a family celebration, an unusual ingredient, a beautiful setting or presentation — and since no one has developed a way to capture taste or smell, a photograph and written notes are the best we’ve got to preserve the details of an experience.

If only I’d had a smartphone back in 1977!

I was in a fine restaurant with my date, seated at a table overlooking San Diego Bay. We’d soon be heading to our senior prom at the lovely Hotel Del Coronado, affectionately referred to as “The Hotel Del” by locals. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, anything about the salad, the entrée, whether or not we even had dessert, but the baked potato on the side? I wish I had a photo of that.

The waiter rolled our orders in on a cart and prepared my potato tableside. Deftly slashing a large X in the top, he squeezed the ends together, exposing the steaming, fluffy interior. Would I like butter on my potato? Yes. Sour cream? Of course. Crispy bits of real bacon? Certainly! Freshly snipped chives? Sure. Adding a dash of salt and pepper, he wrapped a clean white towel around the potato and then, holding the ends securely with one hand, took a fork and expertly whisked the flesh and condiments together inside the peel before placing it on my plate. The result? Each bite was bursting with creamy, savory goodness. The best baked potato I’ve ever eaten!

Potatoes are a staple of our winter diet. They’re inexpensive, always available and give a cook plenty of options for preparing a wholesome meal. White potatoes get a bad rap nutritionally when compared to sweet potatoes, but they’re actually rich in vitamin B6, vitamin C, potassium and, if you eat the peel, fiber. I usually buy a 50-pound box of russets at Kruse Farms in late fall and store them in the garage, covered with a thick blanket to keep out the light and cold. We eat them baked, roasted and mashed or made into hearty soups and chowders. A baked potato bar with a selection of toppings like steamed broccoli, tangy cheese sauce, chili, cooked sausage, cottage cheese, avocado and salsa lets everyone create their own “Irish Sundae.” Leftover baked potatoes get diced, browned in a bit of oil or butter and scrambled with eggs. 

If we’re not making our way through the box of potatoes fast enough and they start to shrivel, I make a huge batch of mashed potatoes and freeze portions just right for three of my favorite bread recipes: Sour Cream and Chive Potato Bread, Whole Wheat Potato Braids and my “famous” Whole Grain Pecan Sticky Buns. Finally, if we haven’t eaten all of the potatoes before the weather warms up and they begin to sprout, I bury them in my compost heap and I’ll have fresh potatoes to dig in a few months. No waste.

Potato casseroles are an excellent way to stretch a modest amount of meat to feed a family. A scalloped potatoes and ham dinner is a March tradition at our house. I won’t claim this recipe has magical properties, but I will tell you it’s the dish I served my husband just hours before he proposed. Give it a try and who knows what could happen!

Scalloped Potatoes and Ham

This is a family favorite and a fine way to stretch a bit of leftover ham into another meal. If you bake a ham for Easter, save some to give it a try. Peeling the potatoes is optional.
4 to 5 medium russet potatoes (about 2 lbs.)
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
a few grinds of fresh pepper
1 teaspoon onion powder or ¼ cup finely minced onion
2 1/2 cups milk
1 to 1 1/2 cups diced ham (6 to 8 ounces)
1 tablespoon additional butter for dotting the top

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. If using fresh onion, cook it in the melted butter for a few minutes to soften. Stir in the flour, salt, pepper (and onion powder, if using) and blend well into a smooth paste. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly about 1 minute. Whisk in the milk and bring slowly to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil and stir for one minute. Remove from heat.

Scrub the potatoes well, peel if desired and slice about 1/8-inch thick. Butter a casserole dish and place half the potato slices over the bottom. Scatter the diced ham evenly over the potatoes and then cover with half the white sauce. Layer the remaining potatoes over the ham and pour the rest of the sauce over the top, smoothing with a rubber scraper to make sure all the potatoes are covered. Dot the top with 1 tablespoon butter.

Cover tightly with a lid or aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes on the center rack of the oven. (I like to put a sheet of foil on the rack below to catch any drips.) Remove the lid or foil, turn the oven down to 375 degrees and bake another 30 to 40 minutes until potatoes are tender and the top is golden brown.
Yield: 4-5 servings

Variation: For a vegetarian version, skip the ham and reduce the milk to 2 cups. Add 1 to 1 ½ cups of grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese to the hot white sauce, stirring until melted. Optional: top with ¼ cup dry bread crumbs after you remove the lid or foil. Bake as directed above until potatoes are tender and top is golden.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Falling Sky Brewing House and Gastropub

I had some fine food on a weekend trip to the coast. My husband and I headed out for Florence on Friday with a stop for lunch at Falling Sky Brewing House and Gastropub in Eugene. It's a bit tricky to find as it's located in Oak Alley downtown, between 13th and 14th Avenues, but it's worth circling around a few times if need be.

One glance at the menu and you know this will be no ordinary meal. The fine print says it all,
"We bake all our breads across town at the Pour House & Delicatessen! We make our ketchup, mustard & mayo. We use local, seasonal & organic ingredients whenever feasible. Our meats are local & humanely raised. We proudly support the following local farms & purveyors: Groundwork Organics, Creative Growers, Knee Deep Cattle, Fern's Edge, Carlton Farms, Turnip the Beet, Longs Meat Market, Lochmead, Hummingbird, Draper Valley, McKenzie River Organics, Hey Bayles Farm, Anderson Ranches."
Definitely my kind of place!

I choose the flatbread special, a thin crust smeared with a butternut squash puree topped with roasted broccoli and carrots. It was superb. I also had the Hearty Fall Salad of roasted beets and carrots, kale, golden couscous and feta in a lemon-tahini vinaigrette. It, too, was excellent. I will definitely be trying to recreate both of these at home.

As a non-drinker, I can't speak to the quality of the beer, but my gut tells me one wouldn't be disappointed.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Out of the Best Books

(Originally published in The News Review on Tuesday, February 3, 2015) Recipes in this post: Marvelous Meat Loaf, Marvelous Mashed Potatoes.

I adore cookbooks! Even after paring down my collection, I still own dozens of cookbooks. Add to that recipes I've torn out of magazines, scribbled on napkins and scraps of paper or pinned on my Pinterest board and I've got more recipes within reach than any sane person needs. Still, let me loose in a bookstore or library and I'll eventually end up in the cooking aisle. There's a comforting camaraderie in reading, writing and sharing recipes with a worldwide community of cooks.

I love flipping through the glossy pages of a beautifully designed and photographed cookbook. I am inspired to try a new technique or seek out an unfamiliar ingredient to add variety to my menus. Perusing a well-written cookbook can spark my culinary creativity and enrich my understanding. I have a habit of reading a new cookbook cover to cover and flagging the most enticing pages with post-it notes.

Yet, if I'm honest, the recipes I actually cook day in, day out, time and again come from the tattered and splattered pages of my least glamorous cookbooks. Well-used and much-loved, they hold the recipes we've been enjoying for decades.

My copy of Melrose Ward Family Favorite Recipes, which ladies from my church congregation collected, printed and bound with yarn thirty years ago, is always within easy reach on my bookshelf. It's filled with simple, inexpensive, kid-tested, family-approved, tasty dishes that even Mikey would like. They require little time or skill to get on the table.

The family recipe book my mother-in-law and I compiled is an archive of all the traditional holiday recipes from my husband's and my own family, along with dozens of contributions from our siblings. Rosemary and I put this book together using a typewriter and clip art, back when cutting and pasting was literal. We had it photocopied and spiral-bound at Workmates in Roseburg. It's a family treasure, now in its third printing. My daughter Laura scanned the whole book while she was home at Christmas to preserve it in digital format and make it easy to update.

My introduction to the wonderful world of cookbooks began when I was nine years old and my mother presented me with a copy of Betty Crocker's New Boys and Girls Cook Book. Everything “a junior cook” should know is in this book, from definitions of cooking terms, which pan to use for what, and basic measuring skills to instructions on making carrot curls, setting the table and good manners at mealtime. The recipe I'm sharing today is adapted from the meat loaf recipe on page 64. I've been making it for decades, though I use local grass fed beef, low fat milk and whole grain bread crumbs, so it's lighter and leaner these days. The photo in the book shows it as Meat Loaf à la Mode with a scoop of mashed potatoes on top of each wedge. I'm more likely now to bake a few potatoes alongside the meat loaf and serve them with butter and sour cream. Either way, it's classic comfort food.

 Marvelous Meat Loaf

I always process the bread into crumbs in my food processor so they are more evenly distributed throughout the loaf.

1 large farm fresh egg
1 pound 90% lean grass-fed ground beef
3 slices whole grain bread, made into crumbs or torn into pieces
1 cup skim or 1% milk
1 ½ teaspoons onion powder (or ¼ cup finely minced onion)
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon sea salt
ketchup for serving

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, beat the egg slightly. Add remaining ingredients and mix well with one hand until well-combined. I use a latex glove to keep my fingers from getting so cold.

Place in a nine-inch glass pie pan and bake 45 minutes to one hour, until no longer pink in the center. Cut into wedges and serve with ketchup.

In a hurry? You can create mini meat loaves in an oil-sprayed or non-stick muffin tin or form baby loaves on a cookie sheet (with sides!) and shorten the baking time to about 30 minutes.

Love a great sandwich? Bake the meat mixture in an 8 x 4 inch loaf pan and slice the leftovers when cold.

Marvelous "Mashed" Potatoes

Like most “mashed potatoes” these are actually whipped with an electric mixer for a light and airy texture. I do have an old-fashioned potato masher; I use it to crush berries for jam or for making refried beans.

Here's my method for creamy potatoes:

Start with russet potatoes. Other varieties are great for boiling or roasting or smashing with garlic, but for classic mashed potatoes, russets are what you want and they're available year round. Plan on one large or two small potatoes per person. Peel potatoes and cut in half lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces. Place in a large saucepan and cover with water. Add ¼ to ½ teaspoon salt depending on quantity of potatoes. Cover, bring to a boil over high heat. When the lid starts to rattle, reduce heat to medium-low and boil for 10 – 12 minutes, just until the potatoes are tender when poked with a fork. Do not overcook! The starch will deteriorate and the potatoes may become gluey.

Drain the potatoes in a colander (I like to save the potato water for baking bread) and return them to the pot. Shake the pot over the residual heat of the burner for a minute or two to thoroughly dry the potatoes.
Unless I'm making a huge quantity, I whip the potatoes right in the pot. Do not add milk yet! Mix the potatoes on low speed for 30 to 60 seconds, stopping to scrape down the sides once or twice. You want a fine texture before you add anything else. If you add the milk at the beginning, the lumps will just run around through the beaters and you'll never break them up.

Add salt to taste and a few tablespoons of soft butter, if desired. Warm ½ cup of milk or more, depending on the quantity of potatoes. Add milk slowly (you may not need all of it) and continue mixing until potatoes are light and smooth. (I add any leftover milk to the potato water I'm saving.)
Serve immediately with additional butter or gravy.

Good to know:
  • If you like your potatoes a little tangy, try using buttermilk or sour cream in place of the milk.
  • Leftover mashed potatoes, along with the water they were boiled in, are a key ingredient in two of my favorite bread recipes, Whole Wheat Potato Bread and Sour Cream & Chive Potato Bread. Both recipes are on my blog. If you won't be baking within a few days, freeze potatoes to use later.
  • Feeling festive? Every year for Valentine's Day, my friend Gloria bakes her meat loaf in a heart-shaped pan. She tops it with mashed potatoes she has colored red and then sprinkles on grated cheese and paprika. It's become a family tradition.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Baked Oatmeal for the New Year

(Originally published in The News Review on January 6, 2014)
Recipes in this post: Baked Oatmeal, Individual Baked Oatmeal Cups

Baked Oatmeal with berries and hazelnuts
For me, 2014 will go down in my journal as a year of tracking. With the help of my smartphone and several free apps, I was able to gather data about many aspects of my life. Technology has made this quite simple. I used My Fitness Pal to record what I ate. I wore a Fitbit activity tracker to see how much exercise I got. I used Spendee to keep tabs on where my money went.

What did all this tracking teach me? When it comes to diet and nutrition, I learned just how many calories I currently consume. I found that I have no trouble keeping my saturated fat intake under 20 grams or my dietary cholesterol under 300 mg. per day. I do a good job limiting my sodium intake to 2300 mg. I get plenty of fiber, calcium and vitamin C. I rarely, however, get the recommended amount of vitamin A or potassium. Like most folks, I need to eat more vegetables.

By monitoring my physical activity, I discovered that on days I don't hike or go to the gym, it's pretty difficult to rack up 10,000 steps. I definitely sit too much.

By recording where I spent my money, I was able to see what percentage of my grocery budget goes to local food. By now you know that I am passionate about supporting our local farmers, ranchers and food producers. There are, however, many food items not grown or produced in this area that I purchase from a grocery store. I was curious to see how many of my food dollars stay in Douglas County. Turns out, on average, more than forty percent of my food budget is spent on local fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products and a few miscellaneous prepared food products. I don't qualify as a locavore, but every bit counts toward growing our local food economy. Still, I have room for improvement.

I don't intend to continue tracking every morsel I eat or every step I take this year. The goal, of course, is to use what I learned to make positive changes. Isn't that what January and the New Year are all about? It's a chance to take stock and consider adopting a few simple habits that will help us live healthier, happier lives.

If improved health is on your list, incorporating more whole, nourishing foods into your diet is a step in the right direction. Breakfast is a great place to start. I'm a big fan of morning smoothies and I have a high-fiber cold cereal that I enjoy, but on frosty mornings there's nothing like a hot meal to warm me up from the inside out. A steaming bowl of oatmeal topped with fruit, nuts, cinnamon and a touch of sweetener makes a “stick-to-my-ribs” breakfast that will carry me all the way to lunch. It's quick and easy; no recipe required.
Baked oatmeal takes those same ingredients and kicks it up a notch. The addition of eggs and milk bumps up the protein and instead of a bowl of porridge you end up with a breakfast “cake” you can eat with a fork. What's more, you have leftovers for the rest of the week. Just pop a square of baked oatmeal into the toaster oven or microwave and breakfast is ready. Baking the oatmeal in individual muffin cups or ramekins lets you vary the combinations for each family member.

Resolutions needn't be grand or complicated to be effective. Whatever your goals might be, here's to a healthy and happy 2015!
Baked Oatmeal

This recipe lends itself to endless adaptation. Vary the amount or type of sweetener according to your tastes. Substitute coconut oil for the butter or omit it entirely and spray the pan with oil instead. Experiment with different fruit and nut combinations like sliced bananas, blueberries and walnuts; dried cranberries and pecans; or finely diced apples and raisins.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 cups berries, fresh or frozen, divided
½ cup coarsely chopped nuts, optional
2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
6 tablespoons Sucanat* or packed brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¾ cups milk, whole or low fat
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Melt the butter over low heat or in the microwave. Use part of it to generously brush the bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking pan. Set the remaining butter aside to cool. Scatter 1 ½ cups of the berries over the bottom of the pan. If using nuts, sprinkle about a third of them over the berries.

In a medium bowl, stir together the rolled oats, sweetener, cinnamon, baking powder and salt. Cover the berries and nuts with the oat mixture.

In a the same medium bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, vanilla and the rest of the melted butter. Pour over the oats and fruit. Sprinkle the remaining berries and nuts on top.

Bake at 375 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes, until golden brown on top and a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cut into squares and serve with cream and/or maple syrup, if desired.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

*Sucanat (which stands for “sugar cane natural”) is a less refined sweetener made from dehydrated, rather than crystallized, sugar cane juice. I love its strong molasses flavor. It's available in the bulk bins or natural foods section of most grocery stores. If you decide to use a liquid sweetener, whisk it into the egg and milk mixture rather than combining with the dry ingredients.

Bananas, blueberries and walnuts are ready for the oatmeal topping.
Individual Baked Oatmeal Cups

Baking the oatmeal in small ramekins or a muffin tin allows you to make several varieties in one batch and customize the ingredients for other members of the family. 

Follow the recipe as directed but distribute the fruit, nuts, oat mixture and egg mixture evenly among well-buttered muffin cups or ramekins. Fill the cups only about two-thirds full as the oatmeal will rise as it bakes. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Fresh Produce in the Land of Plenty

(Originally published in The News Review on Tuesday, December 2, 2014) Recipe links: Glorified Cauliflower, Roasted Romanesco, 

A lovely display from Norm Lehne Garden & Orchards
A stroll through the farmers market is like a trip to an art museum, with the added benefit that I can afford to purchase the edible masterpieces I admire. The produce vendors in particular go to great lengths to create esthetically pleasing displays. With an eye for color, texture, balance and detail, fruits and vegetables are carefully arranged in baskets, bins, crates or free form pyramids. The results can be stunningly beautiful. No wonder still lifes of food are my best-loved works of art.
A beautiful Big Lick Farm display
 My dear friend Gloria Johnson is a woman who loves vegetables almost as much as she loves cheese. Gloria and her husband Roland are currently humanitarian missionaries in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They are thrilled to be in Africa serving people they have grown to love. Gloria is the most enthusiastic, energetic, upbeat person I have ever known (her maiden name is Jolley!) and she's embraced the daily challenges they face with courage, optimism and a sense of humor. One of her only complaints about life in the capital city of Kinshasa is the limited availability of fresh produce and its exorbitant cost. A tiny box of grapes? Thirteen dollars! A single red pepper? Six bucks! In one of her email updates to friends back home, Gloria implored us not to take the abundance and affordability of our fresh fruits and vegetables for granted:

"The next go to the grocery store, Kruse Farms, any other farm, Sherm's in Roseburg, anywhere that has produce!  Please PLEASE hug...(I MEAN IT!!!) the produce person and anyone else within reach.... then... pick up a head of cauliflower and caress it, kiss it, hug it, buy it, take it home, prepare it any way you want then slowly and lovingly chew each morsel and say my name at least 10 times while doing so.   And forever more don't race through the produce section of the store, or farmer's market, just stop, savor every color, every texture EVERY beautiful piece of freshness and thank the Lord that you have it."

In honor of Gloria's wishes, I offer my version of Glorified Cauliflower, a whole head steamed to perfection and covered in a "glorious" cheese sauce. I serve it in a shallow bowl with a large spoon and it looks lovely. (Well, one member of my family says it looks like a brain, but he eats it nonetheless.) If you're lucky enough to have leftovers, you can easily turn them into a creamy soup.

Of all the varieties of cauliflower on display-- white, orange, purple, green-- the most intriguing to me is Romanesco, also called Romanesco broccoli. It stands out from the crowd with it's lime green, cone-shaped head of spiraled florets. (For you mathematicians reading, the number of spirals on a head of Romanesco is a Fibonacci number.) Roasting it with olive oil brings out the sweet, nutty flavor.

You and I are indeed fortunate to live in a land of plenty. We have year round access to more fresh fruits and vegetables than we could ever tire of eating and at prices we can afford. So take your time. Saunter through the market or produce aisle and let your senses delight in the visual feast. Then fill your bag or basket or cart and count your blessings.

Roasted Romanesco

Romanesco (some say it's cauliflower, others call it broccoli) with it's lovely green color, nutty flavor and spiky,spiraled florets, is my favorite variety for roasting. Rinse well, break the florets off the stem and toss with olive oil and salt right on a shallow baking sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 to 25 minutes, just until barely tender when pierced with a fork or cake tester. Serve immediately.

Glorified Cauliflower

This recipe is adapted from one in my old Betty Crocker cookbook. A tender head of steamed cauliflower is cloaked in a velvety cheese sauce. As a bonus, any leftovers can be pureed into a creamy soup.

1 large head (about 2 pounds) cauliflower
a heel of bread* (optional)

Remove the leaves, stalk, and any bruised or discolored areas, leaving the whole head of cauliflower intact. Rinse thoroughly and drain. Place a rack or steamer basket in a large saucepan. Add an inch of water and a 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Place the cauliflower on the rack and place the bread (if using) on top of the cauliflower. Cover the saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook 20-25 minutes, just until tender. While the cauliflower is steaming, prepare the cheese sauce.

*Placing a slice of bread on top of the cauliflower absorbs some of the "aroma" and keeps it from filling the whole house. This helps when cooking broccoli and cabbage, too.

Cheese Sauce

Betty Crocker may have enjoyed processed American cheese, but I like to use extra-sharp aged cheddar in this sauce. Be careful not to let the sauce boil after you add the cheese or it may separate.

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1 cup milk (preferably whole milk)
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
one or two dashes of cayenne pepper, to taste
paprika for garnishing

In a medium saucepan, heat the butter over low heat until foamy. Stir in the flour, dry mustard, salt and white pepper with a wooden spoon or rubber scraper until smooth and bubbling. Whisk in the milk and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil and stir for one minute. Add the shredded cheese and stir until melted. Remove from heat and season with cayenne. Cover to keep warm until ready to serve.

When the cauliflower is tender, carefully remove it from the pan and allow any water to drain off. Transfer to a shallow serving bowl. Pour half of the cheese sauce over the top, letting it run down the sides of the cauliflower. Garnish with paprika. Pass the remaining sauce at the table.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Note: I use ground white pepper because it is invisible, but black pepper is fine, too. You can buy white pepper in the bulk spice section of most grocery stores. 

Easy Cheesy Cauliflower Soup: Turn your leftovers into a creamy soup for a light lunch or first course later in the week. Puree the cauliflower and any remaining cheese sauce with equal parts milk and chicken stock (canned or made from chicken soup base). Start with a half cup of each and add more to desired consistency. Heat gently to serving temperature. Do not boil. Alternatively, you can freeze the leftovers (without additional milk and stock) to make soup at a later date.