Archive | March, 2012

Pantry pasta

16 Mar

One of my go-to meals for days I haven’t made it to the store in a while, haven’t bothered to plan anything, or just don’t particularly feel like going to a lot of effort to make dinner, is a variation on a dish Mark Bittman wrote about in his column in the NY Times. Pantry pasta, as I think of it,  is easy, flexible, and doesn’t require any advance planning. (Assuming you are willing to stock your pantry with things like sardines, which is the kind of person I have become. No judgment, please.)

The essentials ingredients for my version of pantry pasta are: pasta, sardines, and garlic. From there, I throw in whatever additional ingredients I have on hand that I think might be good. Lemon, capers, and Parmesan cheese are all safe bets. If I have fresh veggies I will include them as well (I’ve made variants with asparagus, brussels sprouts, and spinach – all with success). Bittman uses onion and breadcrumbs in his original recipe. Onion is good, but frankly often I am so lazy I don’t feel like peeling and chopping an onion so I skip it. I also skip the breadcrumbs since I tend to use brown rice pasta and make this a gluten-free meal. Parsley, if you have it on hand, takes the whole thing to another level. When I buy fresh herbs for a specific recipe, I usually have leftovers that languish and eventually rot unused in my fridge unless I find places to add them in, which is one reason why I love recipes like this that can be cooked at the end of the week and act as a catch-all for the leftover ingredients I’ve accumulated.

Here’s what I had on hand tonight:

Sardines, capers, Jovial brown rice pasta (a fantastic gluten-free pasta), spinach, parsley, garlic, lemon, and some Parmesan.

My preparation method for this recipe is to give whatever needs a chop a rough once over while the water boils (tonight that was the spinach and parsley) then, after I put the pasta in the water, I let the sardines and a little oil heat up in a pan, add crushed garlic, throw in the spinach and some capers, squeeze some lemon on top and mix that all around for a few minutes until the pasta is ready. After the pasta is drained I put it all in the pan together, add the parsley, grate a little cheese on top, toss it a few times and serve it up.

I’m realizing as I type this that a few turns of the pepper grinder might have made it even better. But no matter, tonight’s version hit the spot.

It was warm enough in Minneapolis today that I had several windows open into the evening. Just as I finished cooking and was sitting down to eat, I heard some neighbors leaving the building exclaim, “Mmm, smell that? What is it? It smells SO GOOD!” They may have been talking about someone else’s dinner, but I doubt it.


To ferment or not to ferment?

10 Mar

Here’s the thing: I love beer. I love wine. Fermented beverages such as these have a special place in my heart (and my liver). So when fermented food started popping up on my radar in the last few years, I decided to have an open mind. Fermented foods aren’t even that far outside the mainstream of American food culture, if you consider the popularity of pickled cucumbers.

However, I don’t actually love the flavor of pickles and other veggies fermented in vinegar, so I decided to give the recipes in Nourishing Traditions that use water, salt and whey to ferment food a try. I started basic, with cabbage and carrots.


I used a cabbage, 1 tbs salt, 1 tbs caraway seeds, and 4 tbs whey (yes, I made my own whey, which is probably the most out there hippie thing I’ve done in a while but I kind of love it and I’ll get to why in an upcoming post).

Ginger Carrots

For these I used a big bag of carrots, 1 tbs fresh ginger, 1 tbs sea salt, and 4 tbs whey.

The process is pretty simple. You chop up the veggie (I grated the carrots), mix it with the other ingredients and then pound the heck out of it until it releases juice. A great arm work out! Then you pack it down tight tight tight in the jar, cover it, and leave it on the counter for a few days.

Guess what? When you ferment food it bubbles just like beer does during fermentation! Amazing.

After a few days at room temperature, it goes in the fridge. I gotta tell you, the cabbage smelled pretty gross to me at this point. I wondered if maybe something had gone wrong? I left both jars in the fridge for a week and after that the cabbage returned to smelling normal. It tastes like sauerkraut. The ginger carrots have a more complex flavor. Both are clearly best as condiments. I ate the ginger carrots with left over beer bourguignon and the combination was fantastic.

Am I sold on fermenting my own veggies? Not really. I like both of them just fine, but my life is not changed by them in the way it was by my now beloved homemade almond milk or even the whey (I’ll get to it, I promise). Maybe someday when I fulfill my dream of having my own garden and I have surplus veggies to deal with. But for now, as an apartment dweller who buys her fresh produce on an as-needed basis, I am not so convinced I should be going out of my way to ferment my food.

This reveals a personal quirk of my own food philosophy, which is that I’m only really willing to go to the extra trouble if I perceive it to be “worth it” or if a commercially produced alternative is not available or far inferior. For instance, I am all about making my own pie crust because there is just something so satisfying and irreplaceable about a flaky, homemade crust. But I am also a big supporter of farms and ranches using humane husbandry practices because I would like to continue to enjoy a nice steak now and then, but goodness knows I am not interested in raising, slaughtering, and processing my own cattle.

I’ll continue trying out food experiments like fermentation, and even returning to them if my life circumstances suggest I give something another chance, but in the end not all of them are going to speak to me or become regular projects in my kitchen. For now, in terms of fermentation, my heart still belongs to adult beverages.

Finishing What I Started

5 Mar

Monday night dinner:

Last of the beef bourguignon leftovers, roasted potatoes and parsnips, pickled ginger carrots.

The more I cook, the more leftovers I have. Turns out most cookbooks don’t have recipes that serve just one person. I’m working on actually eating leftovers when I have them rather than moving on to the next new exciting recipe. Not very cost effective to throw away half the food I make.

Almond milk + bonus pancakes

4 Mar

I don’t like cow’s milk. I know this is blasphemy to some, but it is true. The only way I can tolerate drinking straight cow’s milk is if it is extremely cold. As in, yes, sometimes I put ice cubes in my milk (I’m sorry). But mostly I just don’t drink milk. I do consume plenty of dairy products (mostly in the form of butter, let’s be honest) and I sometimes cook with milk, but I do not drink it regularly.

What I do love are nut milks (go ahead, make your dirty joke, get it out of the way). Almond milk in particular. I long thought I had no choice but to drink store-bought almond milk because I assumed that to extract actual milk from almonds must require a) magic and/or b) industrial equipment. However, I recently stumbled across this tutorial, which makes it seem like the simplest thing in the world. Also, how freaking good does the almond milk she made look in that picture? I mean, yum. Always one to enjoy a laborious and time-intensive alternative to buying something pre-made, I jumped right on this one. Well, sort of. I jumped right on ordering a nut milk bag (heh) and then I waited about 10 days for it to arrive. And then I jumped right on it. (Cautionary tale: I figured this was the kind of obscure thing one could only find online, but about two days after I placed the order I saw these in my local co-op. D’oh. Dear self, I know you love the Internet, but always check local stores first.)

Homemade Almond Milk

I soaked my almonds overnight and then got up on Saturday morning with the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning (really) to start the experiment. My 1 cup of soaked almonds got rinsed and went in my blender with 4 cups of filtered water. I set it on “puree” and let it go for 5 minutes. I was impressed by how quickly and smoothly it seemed to process. My blender did not seem to be struggling at all. Here’s what it looked like:

It got very foamy in 5 minutes! I turned the blender off and let it settle a bit, then poured it into my newly arrived nut milk bag (heh) set in a bowl like this:

Then I lifted the bag up over the bowl and twisted and squeezed the heck out of it until just dry (ish) almond meal was left in the bag. I set the bag aside in a smaller bowl and then returned my almond milk to the (rinsed) blender along with 1 tbs of maple syrup, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of cinnamon. I used less sweetener than Kristina suggested in her tutorial because my main complaint about store-bought almond milk is how sweet it is (unless it is unsweetened, in which case my main complaint is how bland it is – I am hard to please). I gave it a quick mix in the blender and then transferred it to the glass milk bottle I had saved for this purpose. I had a little more than could fit in the bottle with all the foam, so I put that in a glass to taste test immediately. The bottle went into the fridge to let the foam settle.

You guys? This stuff tastes so good! It is much richer and more flavorful than pre-made almond milk. The best way I can think to describe it is that the pre-made stuff tastes like you watered down and flattened the homemade version. I put it in my coffee and it was a revelation. Am I coming on too strong? I just can’t believe the difference. I am hooked.

Kyle says he would add a bit more sweetener next time, whereas I find the level of sweetness just right. So adjust to your personal taste. I also want to experiment with different spices. Cardamom, what do you think?

Grain-Free Banana Almond Pancakes

Since I knew I would end up with almond meal as a by-product of this experiment, I looked up uses for it and found several promising options. Cake, cookies, muffins, but I decided to go with pancakes since I was undertaking this project on a Saturday morning. Also, this recipe really intrigued me because it is grain-free. I am pretty convinced I have gluten intolerance, so I tend to save my wheat products for what really matters (read: beer). The recipe actually calls for almond butter, not almond meal but I figured I could try to substitute and see what happened. Experiments! (I love them.)

To serve two people I used:

  • 2 ripe bananas
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 C almond meal
  • 1/2 tbs vanilla
  • Sprinkle of cinnamon

I combined these ingredients in my blender and the resulting batter was really, really thick. So I thinned it a bit with some of my freshly made almond milk. This amount made 4 decent sized pancakes. These babies are much denser than traditional pancakes, so I found 2 sufficient for a serving. Heartier appetites might want to make a larger batch. These required a lot more time to cook than regular pancakes and they have a very different texture. I used a 1/3 C to make each pancake but next time I might try 1/4 C and spread the batter thinner on the pan. Taste-wise these are great. You definitely get both the banana and almond flavor. I ate mine with maple syrup and butter and loved them. Results: Almond meal in pancakes = success.

So, to review, I took 1 C of raw almond, left them in water overnight, and the next morning I got amazing fresh almond milk and tasty pancakes. So. Very. Worth. It. (Also, it made me feel like a wizard of food transformation.)

Food Philosophy (beta)

4 Mar

The main reason I have been cooking more in recent years is because I am on something of a journey to develop my own food philosophy. Though I didn’t really think of it in terms of a food philosophy at the time, the first stage on this journey was when I became a vegetarian in college. It was the first truly intentional decision I made about food for myself. At the time, if I thought about it at all, I still believed that food choices had to fit neatly into prescribed categories. This was well before Omnivore’s Dilemma was published and that term was not one I was familiar with yet. In my mind it was carnivore, vegetarian, or vegan. And even beyond that there were people who ate “health food” and people who ate “junk food.” Everything was hard lines and strict boundaries. College was the first time I really became aware of the problems with the factory farm industry. The solution? I assumed it was vegetarianism. It made sense at the time, for where I was knowledge wise and development wise, but it did turn out to be the wrong choice for me. Here’s why: 1) I like meat. I mention this because I think preference matters. People vary a lot on the kinds of food they enjoy, and even how much they care/enjoy food in general. I both care about and enjoy food immensely, and more specifically I like and crave flesh as food. 2) The problems with factory farms do not end at animals raised for meat. To truly protest the existence of factory farms via abstinence, one needs to be vegan. Read up on the plight of egg-laying hens for an example of why this is true. 3) Abstaining from meat products is not the only way to protest the factory farm industry. An alternative is to not buy or consume products from factory farms, and furthermore to actively buy products from farms that practice more humane and sustainable forms of animal husbandry.

My vegetarianism came to an end with the end of college, and the exact reasons I gave it up could fill their own post (maybe I’ll write that one eventually). What followed was a period of “anything goes” omnivory, during which I continued to feel like a hypocrite for being against factory farming but financially supporting the industry. It felt like a catch-22 to me, which forced me to start thinking much more actively about food. During this time I read books like the Omnivore’s Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and started learning more and more about the omnivorous ways to support changes in agriculture. I also had numerous conversations with people all over the food spectrum about their food philosophies. The very idea of a food philosophy came to me quite gradually as a result of seeing how extremely diverse and deeply personal people’s food choices really are. Food politics can get as divisive as true politics or religion. Common ground gets lost under surface differences in the food choices people make. Food is at once very personal and highly communal, which makes it a tricky issue to navigate. I have come to recognize that categorical thinking is counterproductive for my own food philosophy. I prefer fuzzier boundaries. But at the same time, I still respect people who find the hard boundary approach works for them. Sally Fallon perfectly captures my position on food politics in the introduction to her cookbook Nourishing Traditions; “The challenge to every individual is to determine the diet that is right for him and to implement that diet in a way that does not divorce him from the company of other human beings at mealtimes.”

So that is where I am right now, trying to determine the diet that is right for me. I’m taking an empirical approach to this process, by cooking and eating all sorts of foods and paying attention to how they make me feel both physically but also morally. For example, I’ve discovered that cooking food from scratch makes me feel incredibly virtuous, even if that is absurd because I am cooking pie or some equally unhealthy, sinful food product. I’m okay with this, I enjoy the psychological benefit even though I recognize its objective falsehood. Because I no longer follow any particular dietary guidelines, it becomes rather challenging to sum up my own food philosophy succinctly. I am an omnivore, but I am constantly trying to find new and awesome vegan recipes. I believe in humane, sustainable and local food production and I put my money where my mouth is by buying high-welfare animal products and local products whenever possible. I aim for a variety of whole, minimally processed foods. I don’t count calories, I do soak and sprout my grains, make my own chicken broth, and try anything from scratch even when it would be easier and cheaper to buy the pre-processed, pre-made, pre-packaged alternative. Simply put, I love food and I spend a great deal of my time, energy, and money on eating the best* food I can.

*where best = some combination of subjective preference and current objective understanding of nutrition and food ethics.