Archive | January, 2012

Hudson Highlands: Three-Cheese Lasagna & Vegan Tahini Oat Puffs

29 Jan

Trail dog

Living up in the Hudson Highlands in the core of the Appalachian Mountains has put me in touch with the world at my feet in a physical and tangible way. That I expected. What’s surprised me is the odd touches of metaphysical mysticism thrown into the mix.

Until now, I lived in teeming cities as an adult, quite close to my human neighbors, but far from anything wild, untamable and furry, and I lost touch with that side of life: the mystery, the excitement, the inherent strangeness of woods and non-domesticated animals.

Here, there’s wildness at my doorstep; often, I suspect it wants to come inside with me. Sometimes, I suspect it has even more ominous plans.

For example, the 16-foot tall and 30-foot wide Rhododendron outside of our sun porch is clearly trying to eat our house. I beat it back with holy water, prayers and my sharpest shears every once in a while, but it’s like a Chia Pet Rhodo that has spent too much time in the Pet Sematary, fed by some evil subterranean source of Rhodo protein, bulging with buds even when the mercury dips below 0, quaking with supersonic leaves the size of my head even after Nor’Easters shave the green off of every other bush in our yard; it’s bad, possibly malevolent.

Luckily, there are plenty of auspicious natural delights to combat the Rhodo jujitsu.

When I get up in the morning to cook my breakfast, sparkling, pristine, diamond shards of frost coat the windows overlooking the yard in our kitchen. I scan the backyard, searching for the herd of deer that leaves trails of pellets near my compost pile, or the rabbit that Penelope almost caught on our first week here, the groundhog that lives under the big boulder halfway to the beginning of the woods, the shrews and field mice that like to jump and scamper when the sun peeks out, and most of all, the family of coyotes that welcomes me home every night with a bone-shattering series of shrieks and howls. When they howl, there isn’t room for anything else in the world. I sit in the dark in my car, and their compact, small fierceness fills the night around me. It’s beautiful, bold, otherworldly, here, at my feet.

I always thought these piles of rocks on the Appalachian Trail were some sort of hippie altar to the wood gods, but apparently, hikers just add one when they pass, for luck. I added one too: the littlest one on the top right pile.

Every time, I curse myself for forgetting to leave the porch light on. I poke my head out of my car, grab my iPhone, massive purse and run for the door, terrified I’ll run into a coyote and yearning for just a glimpse. I saw one once when I took out the garbage, but I screamed, puffed up and it ran away before I could really get a good gawk in, a patch of wildness mooning me in the Hudson Highlands night. I went inside, hugged my dog, quaked in my double-wool socks, lit a fire and waited for Stephen to get home.

Maybe it’s the closeness to the land and creatures out here, maybe it’s the winter – but my food cravings have changed drastically since living here. Instead of froofy, pretty salads, rich cheeses, flash-fried fish and sky-high chocolate mousse, I crave root vegetables braised in buttery stocks, simple farmer’s cheese, funky meat stews and cookies with a decidedly Eastern flavor.

This week, I made a super simple, but uber yummy cheese and sausage lasagna. It only takes about an hour to make, making me feel vaguely Sandra Lee-ish and lame, until we tasted it. We both love the lasagna – and the fact that there was plenty of extra free time for frolicking in the Hudson Highlands. The cookie? That was just for me. To Stephen it tasted like a digestive biscuit born in the health food aisle at the co-op – his worst granola nightmare, realized, on a plate. To me? Like a carefree run in the fields with coyotes; earthy, deep, strange, rich. Click on for recipes!

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Miso Demystified: Diving In With a Simple Miso Soup, With Shrimp

22 Jan

Miso yummy! (Boo, sorry, I know)

A nation’s borders used to contain not just its land, but its people, its culture and its products. Got a craving for Wiener Schnitzel? Get ready for a long boat ride, sweet cheeks.

These days, not so much. I have good friends from Bosnia, Mexico, France, Britain living and playing beside me in New York State; my cousins have flitted in and out of Honduras, Nicaragua and various countries in West Africa for years on various work and school adventures, and I’ve gone to and fro between Europe and America a few times myself.

Yoga, acupuncture and tofu, once the Holy Trinity of back-to-the-land hippies,  is now de rigueur for Connecticut soccer moms. (What do you mean you don’t do the Vrschiknasana as soon as you wake up? How do you expect to unclog your chakras?)

We’re a mobile, adaptive species, quick to adopt cool, shiny products that improve our lives.

But despite everyone’s exposure to … everyone and everything else, there are still certain staples in Middle Eastern, African and Asian cuisine that I can’t quite incorporate into my ho-hum average Wednesday at home diet, and I know I’m not alone. I’ll eat cassava when I go out for Nigerian food, and I could live on hummus, tahini and flatbreads, but I’m strangely unwilling to replicate classic non-Western dishes at home – probably because my few attempts to make them from scratch have been so wildly unsuccessful, not to mention expensive, since I have to buy almost every ingredient (and then watch it molder in my pantry after one use).

Premade hummus is heavenly, and dirt cheap; why go through the bother of soaking chick peas, squeezing lemons, mincing garlic and pouring in pints of oil for, what, inevitably, is never as smooth and flavorful as the $2 tub sitting in my grocery store, just waiting for me?

Am I suffering from the foodie version of NIMBY? I love going out for shrimp sushi, but make it at home? Are you mad?

And then there’s miso. A mystery ingredient if there ever was one.

Every time I see a recipe or dish involving the stuff, I’m fascinated, yet vaguely troubled. I’ve eaten miso countless times. It’s delicious, savory, slightly sweet, overpoweringly intense, waftingly subtle, a riddle rolling around the tip of my tongue… Yes, but what is it, exactly?

To be precise, miso is a fermented Japanese paste made by injecting cooked soybeans with a koji, or mold, grown in either a barley, rice or soybean base. The tweaked beans are then left to ferment for days before being ground into a concentrated, luscious, spreadable delicacy beloved the world over.

(Yum?)

Miso has the consistency of a thinned down nut butter, and its color, flavor, texture and level of sophistication is as varied and titillating as The Situation’s social calendar.

There’s the Peter Pan of miso (delicious in its own right, of course) and the MaraNatha of miso as well (hold the Ritz crackers please). But no matter how lowly or elevated, it tastes prominently of salt and butter, with a wine-y tang.

Yum!

Not surprisingly, miso is used in almost every dish that lands on the typical Japanese table, from breakfast to dessert, in soup and on nuts. But wait. Since it isn’t a typical Western staple, miso manages to be good for you, in addition to being delish. Although fairly high in sodium, it boasts sky-high levels of zinc, manganese, copper and a decent kick of protein, fiber and phosphorus. And there are only 25 calories per TBSP (nut butters have about 100 calories per TBSP).

As part of my New Year’s pledge to stretch myself and try new things, I left the grocery store with a bottle of miso paste wedged under my oatmeal, kale and chicken thighs this week. I stared at it for several days, wondering what on earth I should do with it; the miso mocked me, silently.

Finally, I decided to utilize it in its most basic, naked form: I made a simple soup starring the stuff. Warming, hearty, light, packed with nutrition. Perfect for a snowy day when your wet dog wants to sit on your lap and cuddle.

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Slow-Food Convenience: Turkey-Ricotta Meatballs

16 Jan

Ingredients of meatballs, the colors of the Italian flag

I don’t know about you, but as much as I love to cook, there’s nothing more unappetizing than the notion of creating a warm, wholesome (read: three course, three-hour) supper for the fam after a long day at work. Yes, the idea of filling my home with the celestial scent of braising meats, roasting tomatoes and melting cheese triggers my most visceral nesting instincts, but on an average Wednesday at 7 pm after a day schvitzing over my TPS reports and grinding through a hectic commute, momma ain’t cooking a meatloaf.

Empirical data suggests I’m not alone.

Since the advent of tertiary processed food, Americans have embraced the shortcut lifestyle. After World War II, most large-scale food companies were saddled with an enormous excess of product, and they responded as all quick-witted American capitalists have: by inventing a market into which they could pour their surplus.

Suddenly, store shelves were awash with canned and frozen meals, shelf-stable powdered cakes and gravies, and we lapped up the shortcut lifestyle it afforded – and the vats of fat and sodium that came along with it.

Frowny face. Weh …. weeeeh.

In 1954, the folks at Swanson (most likely cackling with glee while guzzling martinis and stroking fat, black, purring cats), introduced the – wait for it – TV Dinner! Horrors! The first year on the market, it sold 10 million units.

And now, we’re a nation of convenience addicts. A confluence of sociopolitical factors have helped enable our addiction, of course. (More women working, our country’s perennial obsession with whiz-bang space age anything, fewer families that prioritize meal-time together, etc.)

So when I heard that Hostess was filing for bankruptcy, I was shocked – and, I admit it, greatly saddened. I wholeheartedly welcome the green food / slow food / locavore revolution that’s sweeping the country, but I’ll always have a soft spot for Twinkies, arguably Hostess’ most ubiquitous product. I associate them with the pure, unadulterated sweetness of early childhood.

Meanwhile, they’re made with flour bleached with chlorine gas, brimming with white cellulose gum and Polysorbate 60 filling, and coated with corn dextrin. But contrary to many pundits’ initial reactions, Hostess’ demise cannot be blamed on the foodie revolution, and the general public’s demand for whole grains in everything. In reality, it’s rising pension and medical costs for its 19,000 employees and the sky-rocketing prices of commodities like sugar (up 21%) wheat (up 69%) that are grounding the great, transfat-fortified Hostess blimp.

So is the potential destruction of the 82-year old candy snack (rumored to be) the most likely to survive a nuclear attack some sort of existential, metaphysical metaphor for the dangerous, self-destructive path so many of us find ourselves on when we look for cheap shortcuts in life? I don’t know.

But it did inspire me to make my own form of foodie convenience snacks this weekend: meatballs! And as far as I’m concerned, no one makes meatballs like the Italians. I cranked out a version of Turkey-Ricotta Meatballs that I can eat “on the go” – or with candlelight and proper cutlery, leisurely, with my husband, while we calmly talk about our day, find

Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions,

Before taking our toast and tea.

Any meat will do. Click on for my recipe.

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Summer in January: Pollock with Caponata

8 Jan

Warm January days are ripe for backyard rambles -- you never know what you'll find in your backyard

An abandoned carriage in an abandoned barn

Hey there, global warming! Nothing like a series of 60 degrees sunny days in January to snap you right out of SAD.

While I always enjoy the post-holiday weeks of close-to-home hanging and hibernation before Spring’s inevitable Bacchanalia, I found that I’ve been craving balmy summer breezes, sunlit terraces, garden-fresh salads, icey adult drinks braced with bitter tonic and sharp squirts of lime this week.

Since I can’t dash off to Bermuda right now, I have happily settled for the uptick in the mercury (despite vague feelings of guilt about being thrilled by the effects of greenhouse gases)…. And a hint of August on my plate.

Variations on traditional agrodolce sauces, often in the form of caponata, always trick my mouth into thinking Summer. When I’m stuck in Winter’s gaping maw, wondering how I’m ever going to paw my way out, the versatile sauce gives me a lift.

Agrodolce (agro means sour, dolce means sweet), is a classic Italian recipe, by way of Arab cuisine. In its most basic form, it’s simply a reduction of vinegar and sugar, with other elements (oils, wine, vegetables) added in. It’s traditionally served with roasted meats or fish, and comes in many guises. Caponata is one of my favorite iterations of agrodolce’s magic.

The Caponata preparation hails from Sicily, by way of Spain, circa roughly 1709, according to the food historian Clifford Wright. These days, it is often served as an antipasto relish, but it may have gained popularity in the 18th century for its super-long shelf-life (thanks to the vinegar, which acts as a preservative); it was a staple on sea voyagers and for travelers. And the savory-sweet sauce, bursting with flavor and moxie, has also served as a helpful reminder of Summer’s bounty — just around the corner.

A hunter's blind in our woods; we're debating the back-woods ethics of taking it down since we don't use it, but we know other hunters (who don't have permission to hunt on our property)do. For now, it's staying.

Caponata generally stars eggplant, but in Italy (the birthplace of seasonal, local food ways), it can put anything you’ve got hanging around in the spotlight – as long as you balance the agro with the dolce.

When I saw a recipe for Caponata by Michael White, my current favorite chef, I couldn’t wait to try it. I ended up tweaking it a bit, but that’s only appropriate. Click on for both versions of the recipe.

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Eat Like It’s 1959: Mediterranean Tuna Pasta & Tuna Cakes

2 Jan

So, 2012. Hi.

Lorraine, a born hostess

Stephen and I, and a small group of our dearies said “farewell” to 2011 this weekend.

Ajla visits from DC!

It was a pretty good year. It deserved a party.

The ladies ... we're looking .... um ..... well, there's always 2013

I have a good feeling about 2012 – I think we’re going to be friends. In fact, I’m ready to tackle it like a fierce February wind, howling over the Nebraska plains. 2012: With a Vengeance.

However. I will attempt to temper my rabid enthusiasm with a dose of pecuniary medicine. First step? Finding creative recipes that are frugal, yet fab. The first frugal edible that springs to mind is canned tuna. The second thing that springs (or rather lurches) to mind is extreme boredom, with random blips of aesthetic (ugh, mayo-logged wet sandwiches) and moral revulsion (surely I’m not the only child of the 80’s who automatically associates dead dolphins with tuna fish).

Not fab.

Still … Tuna’s pros are hard to ignore:

  • The fish is a fantastic source of Omega-3’s, a fatty acid essential for our health, but something our body cannot manufacture; Omega-3’s ensure cardiovascular efficiency, stymie cholesterol, fight inflammation and combat cellular degeneration.
  • Tuna is brimming with high-quality protein and selenium, important for our overall health, energy levels and ability to detoxify. (My liver is begging for selenium after the holiday onslaught of rich desserts and extra glasses of vino.)

The cons, however, are equally compelling:

  • The high levels of nervous system-ravaging mercury make it a dicey choice for young children and pregnant moms. (The FDA says 12 ounces a week is safe, but I’d reduce it to 6 to be safe and source it from small, organic companies that carefully spell out where and how they catch their fish).
  • The worst offenders in the tuna category are solid white and chunk white – albacore and chunk light have lower levels of mercury and other toxins found in large ocean-dwellers. Albacore is more substantial and “chunky” than the chunk light, so it’s what I go for every time.
  • Then there’s the “dolphin issue”. Despite the cheerful “no dolphins harmed” label on the can, there is little guarantee that dolphins have not been injured in tuna-fishing expeditions – not to mention scores of other large fish. Since scandals in the 1980s and a widespread consumer boycott of tuna, the industry has shaped up, but there are still widespread abuses and problems in the industry, resulting in upwards of 100,000 tuna-fishing related shark, porpoise and other wildlife deaths each year, depending upon which report you’re reading. The World Trade Organization recently ruled that it is no longer legal for companies to use the “dolphin safe” label on their can. So far, the WTO ruling has not been enforced. Stay tuned.

In other words, tuna is complicated, even if America’s favorite way of eating it – the dreaded tuna salad Sammie – is anything but.

To shake things up, I revamped a few tried and true recipes starring our scandal-ridden hero, canned tuna, and also trotted out a few slightly tarted up old faves. It looks like tuna can be as delish and exciting as it is wholesome and fiscally responsible.

Here’s to a 2012 as well-rounded as Kim Kardashian’s rear! Click on for recipes for Mediterranean Tuna Pasta and Tuna Cakes, plus links to my favorite classics, kicked up a notch.

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