Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ignorance is Bliss

I hate it when I read something that ruins something for me that I think I’ve been doing right. Most recently, this happened with an article in Mother Jones titled Steak or Veggie Burger: Which is Greener? 

For probably ten years now, I have been buying veggie burgers at Costco, sometimes Boca Burgers and sometimes Morningstar Farms, but I have pretty much had one or the other in my freezer for the better part of a decade now. I even keep a bag of the ground beef substitute in the freezer and a box of whole-grain Hamburger Helper on the shelf for those times when we need a quick-but-satisfying-and-substantial hot meal.

They’re quick and easy and nutritious, in addition to actually tasting good and not having a bunch of animal fat and residual antibiotics and hormones. Tom has to watch what he eats to keep his cholesterol in check, so we substitute them frequently. 

Or we used to, anyway. Until I read the article that told me how they’re made (Hexane? Really???) and how much energy goes into coaxing soybeans into something that passes for a burger closely enough that you can grill it, put it on a bun with the condiments of your choice and not feel like you’re missing a thing.

After I read the article I sent the link to my husband so he could read it on his phone. “Well, there is no free lunch, or in this case, guilt-free lunch, is there?” he texted back from study hall twenty minutes later. I concurred dismally that no, there certainly isn’t and reached for an Ambrosia apple grown in Washington state and trucked to my supermarket in Kansas City.

Then a couple of hours later he asked me a question that sent me to my two stand-by recipe books – the La Leche League cookbook, Whole Foods for the Whole Family and the three-ring binder where I started writing down my Nana’s secrets when I as a teenager – “Didn’t you used to make something yourself when we went to vegetarian potlucks, or when veggie-kids stayed overnight at our house?”  

He was absolutely right. “Spaghetti and wheatballs.”

“That’s it! I liked that.”

“Well, let’s resurrect it then.”

I found the “Un-Meatballs” recipe in Whole Foods and decided it was a bit bland for my current palate, since I don’t have kids to accommodate most of the time now, so I would make some adaptations.

For starters, I baked a loaf of bread in the bread machine specifically for the recipe. I used olive oil instead of canola, I added some dried onion and herbs, a dash of crushed red pepper, garlic salt instead of salt, some dried chives…and instead of blending unbleached white with the wheat flour, I used 100% whole wheat flour, some additional bran and cracked wheat and made it heavy on the seeds, adding a quarter cup of each:  raw sunflower, sesame, and flax, and a tablespoon of poppy. When the bread was done, I let it cool before slicing it and cutting the slices into cubes and drying them on a cookie sheet for a couple of days before storing them in an airtight container.

Tuesday night I decided that the time was right for wheatburgers for dinner. On Monday I had been on a road-trip, gotten not nearly enough exercise and I had eaten way too much sugar and junk food (granola bars are still junk food) the day before. I had even eaten a McDonald’s cheeseburger. It was a good day to go veggie, so I decided to give resurrecting a recipe from 20 years ago a whirl.
1 ½ Cups whole grain bread cubes and crumbs
½ Cup cooked and drained lentils (optional)
½ Cup chopped pecans or hazelnuts (optional, but delicious)
¼ Cup dried, minced onion*
1 ½ teaspoons veggie seasoning
1 Tablespoon chives
Two eggs
Broth of your choice, beef, chicken or veggie
1 T Worcestershire sauce
1 ½ teaspoons soy sauce
1 small white onion, finely minced
6 mushroom caps, chopped
1 carrot, grated
One Tablespoon Olive Oil

Combine the dried bread, lentils and minced onion* (if using dried. If using a fresh onion, we’ll get to that in a minute) and mix in the egg and the broth. This is a bit tricky – you may have noticed that I didn’t state an amount of liquid, I just said “broth.” That is because it depends on the bread. How dense or light it was to start with, whether its fine crumbs or dense, dried cubes, etc. What we’re shooting for in the end is a consistency that can be shaped into patties or balls and fried in a skillet.) I buy broth at Costco. I can buy a box with twelve quarts of organic veggie, chicken or beef broth for about ten bucks, and I keep it on the shelf all the time. The closeable boxes are handy as hell for making soups and sauces and bases and gravies. Add the eggs, soy and Worcestershire sauce then add the broth slowly. You can always add more if you need to – but it’s kinda hard to take out extra if you put in too much…

After you set the bread and broth aside, sauté the mushrooms, minced onion (if using fresh) and grated carrot in olive oil with the white pepper and veggie seasoning, then remove from heat and let cool before adding to the bread, broth and eggs.

When the sautéed veggies are cooled, add them to the bread crumbs, liquids and eggs. Mix thoroughly and shape into patties or balls and fry in olive oil over medium heat until golden brown and cooked through.  

When I made this for dinner on Wednesday, I made two nice sized patties and nine good sized “wheatballs” for spaghetti the following night.

I served the patties with steamed green beans and potatoes and a sauce made from sautéed mushrooms and onions, beef broth, a splash of red wine and corn starch. I then added a pinch of salt, just a splash of red wine, the slightest dash of soy sauce and a couple of sprinkles of white pepper. This mushroom sauce was then drizzled over the burger and the excess was a lovely compliment to the steamed veggies.

And there you go. A green and healthy alternative to both meat and processed veggie burgers that can be totally vegetarian if you want it to be, and still satisfy that craving for a substantial, hearty, tasty, protein-packed meal. And while it isn’t fat free, the fats are all monosaturated “good” fats that allow for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins without the health-risks of other oils and butter. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

I hate it when this happens...

Last night my son -- he moved into our building as part of his nefarious plot to never buy groceries again -- came in from work and announced that he was over whatever bug had plagued him for days and he was hungry.

I have 16 credit hours and a job, and all my classes are Monday through Thursday. I wasn't really planning on cooking so much as I was planning on having them fend for themselves. But I'm a Mom, his Mom, first and foremost, so I fed the boy.

I went into the kitchen with no idea what the hell I was going to make, I just started cooking. I started with a Near East Rice Pilaf -- Garlic and Herb, to be exact, and I cooked it in the automatic rice cooker. If you don't have one of these, get one. It will change your life at least as much as the Shins.

While the rice cooked, I looked in the fridge and on the shelves. I had quite an assortment of veggies...I decided that I would bake chicken and rice and veggies, and that it would be hearty enough to fill him up yet not too rich and heavy after he had been feeling puny for a few days.

Now, I try to keep my life simple. So I pretty much always have chicken breast marinating in some sort of acid-based dressing, because it keeps for days and just gets more flavorful the longer it soaks. But I also pick up a rotisserie chicken in the deli at Price Chopper when they have a special, and it just so happened that I had one of those in my fridge as well. While I chopped veggies, Tom cleaned most of the white meat from the breasts and put it aside for me.

I started by ever-so-slightly steaming a couple of cups of cauliflower, and while it steamed I sauteed half an onion, three stalks of celery, twelve baby bellas and half a yellow bell pepper in one tablespoon each of butter and olive oil. I chopped a couple of cups of broccoli into smallish florettes and left them raw.

When the rice was almost done, I put it in the bottom of a deep, covered baking dish and spread it evenly, and in a large mixing bowl I combined the raw broccoli, a can of water chestnuts (drained), the sauteed veggies, the steamed cauliflower and the chicken breast that I had chopped into cubes. After thoroughly mixing the chicken and veggies, I covered the rice with the mixture.

Then I set that aside while I made the sauce...

Three cups of veggie broth
Three tablespoons corn starch
two tablespoons of cream cheese
dash of soy sauce

Thicken the broth with the corn starch, blend in the cream cheese to make it creamy and the soy to add salt and a tiny bit of color. Pour the sauce over the veggies and rice and bake for about a half hour at 325-350. The objective is to get it hot through, and for the sauce to barely boil, but the veggies to be hot but remain slightly crisp.

It was one of those necessity-as-mother-of-invention meals that turned out better than I anticipated and I will definitely make again, and before I was finished with dinner I was kicking myself for not taking a picture.

Monday, December 26, 2011


I consider myself something of a pie prodigy. My grandma taught me when I was a wee sprout that the best pie crust is made from ice-cold ingredients -- and she did it without a Cuisinart, using a pastry-cutter like a Barbarian.

The first time someone sees one of my pies, if it's a two-crust pie, they always smile at the way I vent my crust, and where the idea came from is actually a pretty cool story.

My middle kid is a Pastry Chef. A real one. She makes her living doing really elaborate and beautiful things. But before she was a professional chef, she was a curious kid who liked to spend time in the kitchen with me. I used the fact that she liked to cook and her siblings and father had to eat as the antidote to middle-kid-itis.

One cold, grey day when she was eight and March was coming in like a lion, we were baking pies and she asked me why I made cuts in the top crust before I put it in the oven. I explained that the fruit had a high water content and that it would turn into steam in the hot oven, and that if it wasn't vented, the filling would be watery, the bottom crust would be soggy and the top crust would be tough. She scrunched up her face and agreed that pie wouldn't be anyone's favorite dessert, let alone practically everyone's, if the top crust wasn't vented. Then she added "but it's still boring."

That's when the lightbulb came on. I knew where two teeny-tiny cookie cutters were -- they were in my kitchen "junk drawer." A couple of weeks before, she had taken the cookies for the Valentine's day party, and we had made a flying trip to the closest big box store for a heart-shaped cookie cutter when it was discovered five minutes before we rolled out the dough that ours had been...for want of a better word...smooshed. The only ones left in the store on February 13 was a card with four of them nested together. We had tossed the two smallest ones in the junk drawer, thinking they may have a future use with playdough, but they had no future as cookie cutters.

I took them out of the drawer and told Chev "I have an idea..."

When we rolled out the top crust for our second pie, I gave her the two little hearts and lightly drew a circle in the flour on the top of the dough with my finger and said "use these and cut five or six hearts out inside the circle." She lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree and thought about where she wanted to put each and every heart.

We gave the first pie out of the oven to Lucy and Martin next door, and after dinner, she took great delight in bringing her pie to the table and showing it to her dad, who displayed the appropriate level of excitement at her brilliant idea.

And from that day forward, we never just cut a boring old slit in a pie crust ever again.

Perfect Pie Crust

  • 14 Tablespoons Butter, frozen
  • 2 1/4 Cups flour, in the freezer overnight
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 5-7 Tablespoons iced club soda
  • 1 Tablespoon cider vinegar

Put all the dry ingredients in the food processor and pulse to blend thoroughly. Chop up the frozen butter and put it in the bowl of the processor and cut the butter into the cold flour. Remove the lid, make a well in the flour and spoon in five tablespoons cold club soda and the tablespoon of vinegar into the well. Pulse to mix then turn on high for a few seconds. If the dough starts to come together in a ball, it's good. If not, add more club soda, a tablespoon at a time, until it does. Once the dough forms a ball, turn it out onto a floured board, work briefly and form a ball.

This recipe makes enough crust for one two-crust pie or two one-crust pies. If making two one-crust pies, divide the dough in half, work into two equal size balls, flatten to discs, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill for at least an hour, two is better and overnight is best. When I am making a two-crust pie, I don't divide the dough in half. Instead I make about a 2/5 - 3/5 split.

Roll it out about 3/8" thick, turn into a glass pie dish and form it, making sure to work out any bubbles. For a one-crust pie, press the edge with a fork, trim the excess, prick the bottom with a fork, fill, cover the edges of the pie with foil and bake until the filling is done and the crust is golden brown.

For a lattice pie, reduce the amount of the ingredients as follows:
  • 9 Tablespoons Butter
  • 1 1/2 Cup + 1 1/2 Tablespoons flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vinegar
  • 3 1/2-5 Tablespoons iced club soda
For a single crust:
  • 8 Tablespoons Butter
  • 1 1/3 Cup + 4 Tablespoons flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar
  • 2 1/2-4 Tablespoons iced club soda

So...Christmas happened...

You know the drill -- I cook for two days and they tear through it, leaving carnage and debris, in something south of fifteen minutes. Then they ask for pie.

On Christmas Eve, I made eight dozen cookies and four dozen traditional Bohemian pastries, from my immigrant grandmother's recipe for Kolaches. (They're involved and complicated, we'll get to them in a separate post all their own.)

On Christmas Day, I made the pies, so they would still be slightly warm when they were served. This was possible because my son lives downstairs and I used his oven for the ham and the baked sweet potatoes. Upstairs, I made the sides: Spinach Salad, steamed Brussell's sprouts, rice pilaf, angel biscuits, and a bourbon-and-brown-sugar sauce.

None of that is noteworthy. We eat four or five spinach salads a week, we have Brussell's sprouts at least twice, whole grain rice pilaf is my go-to side dish, and I make fresh bread -- literally every single day -- in my bread machine. Literally nothing about the meal was out of the ordinary, outside the quantity cooked, about anything on the table yesterday.

But pie...that's a different story...

That post is coming along...

Monday, December 19, 2011

There is no such thing as wasted leftover rice

That epiphany came to me yesterday morning as I was cleaning up after breakfast.

We eat a lot of hot cereal for breakfast; cracked wheat, oatmeal, rice, Cream of Wheat, all the classics. Yesterday morning our Sunday brunch was built around a bowl of rice sweetened with local honey and a dash of cinnamon. Along with that, we had an apple each, a half a plum, a piece of toast and a pair of soft-boiled eggs.

We were full and miserable too, but in a Chinese food sort of passed quickly.

An hour later I was in the kitchen cleaning up and there was about 3/4 of a cup of rice left in the rice cooker. I looked at the shelf behind me and saw the ingredients for baked pasta that would keep for a day and changed my mind about what to have for dinner.

Instead of Florentine baked shells, I would make a hearty mushroom soup with lots of green veggies...I used chicken broth for my base, but this could easily be converted to a vegan-friendly quite easily:

6 cups stock (chicken or vegetable)

Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer with a couple of bay leaves.

1 cup chopped celery
3 cups sliced baby bellas
garlic butter, or olive oil, to saute celery and mushrooms

1 cup fresh green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup frozen or leftover peas*
1/2 cup chopped baby carrot and/or a small sweet potato, peeled and cut into small cubes. (Optional, but adds nice color.)

4-6 cups spinach
2 cups broccoli florettes
1 bunch scallions, chopped, including the green tops.

Add sauteed celery and mushrooms to broth, peas and green beans. Let simmer for about 15 minutes, then remove a cup of broth to cool and add four-six cups of fresh baby spinach. (It will cook down. A lot.) About ten minutes after the spinach is added, thoroughly mix four tablespoons of corn starch into the broth that you removed to cool (add an ice cube if necessary) and return it to the pan to thicken the soup. Once thickened, add the broccoli and scallions, and any leftover rice you have -- white, long grain, pilaf, whatever...

When the broccoli is bright green, turn off the heat, transfer it to a tureen and serve.

Sprinkle with crumbed feta and serve with pita crackers.

*if using pea pods, don't add them now, add them later, with the broccoli and scallions

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Easy spinach, chicken and ricotta tortelloni

These tortelloni are surprisingly easy to make. They aren't quite "official" tortelloni, because the dough is square instead of round, and because I used wonton skins instead of semolina pasta dough. But they work well enough, and they're easy.

The filling:

4 oz. cooked chicken. I used the frozen cooked chicken from Trader Joe's.
1/2 bag frozen chopped spinach
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
16-oz. container ricotta (I used fat free and it worked fine)
Grated parmesan cheese, about 3-4 tablespoons
salt & pepper to taste.

Defrost the spinach and squeeze out excess moisture. Cut chicken into chunks.
Heat some olive oil in a frypan and lightly saute the garlic with the spinach. Remove from heat and put in food processor with the chicken. Pulse until well chopped, almost to a paste. Remove from food processor and add ricotta, parmesan, salt, pepper. Mix till well blended.

To make the tortelloni, open a package of wonton skins. On each skin, brush all 4 edges with beaten egg. Put about 1 rounded teaspoon of filling in the center. Fold into a triangle, press to seal, then press the two sealed edges again with a fork. Squeeze out all air pockets if you can. Then pinch the long center to wrap the points as shown. What you end up with will look like a wonton. Put a damp towel over the finished tortelloni until you're ready to cook them. Save whatever filling you have left to make chicken florentine later in the week.

To cook, boil water in a wok or similar pan. Add tortelloni gently and simmer -- do not rolling boil -- about 3 minutes. Remove from pot with slotted spoon.

These are good with just some good marinara sauce and freshly grated parmesan.

(cross posted at Brilliant at Breakfast)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

those traditional thanksgiving clams

one great thing about the holidays (some years, the only great thing) is the wonderful foodstuffs, meals and treats that we indulge in. fruitcake aside (as far aside as possible) there's a literal cornucopia of great dishes we prepare and consume as part of the festivities.

but i'm using this space to consider the non-traditional fare that i've come across in the last few years. i'm reminded of one thanksgiving many years ago when mrs. skippy and i had neither the time nor energy nor the inclination to spend a day and a half preparing a huge turkey dinner w/all the trimmings. we decided that year to celebrate the bountiful harvest by having spaghetti w/clam sauce, one of our fav dishes in the non-holiday days.

our joke, from then on, was the "traditional holiday clams."

another great food we enjoy this time of year can only be found up beachwood canyon in los angeles. beachwood canyon is a lovely series of roads that snake into the hollywood hills (and in fact, is where the famous hollywood sign resides). a few blocks up the canyon on gower street is the convent of the angels, one of the last convents in america where the dominican nuns are cloistered.

and the hip foodies in los angeles know that this time of year is when the nuns offer their home-made ('convent-made'?) pumpkin bread for sale. better than fruitcake, more substantial than any holiday pie, but not as over-sweet as cakes, this great bread has the texture and quality of fresh-baked gingerbread, only with the taste of pumpkin.


the pumpkin bread makes great gifts, because not only is it delicious, the whole story of cloistered nuns making dessert from scratch is a rather christmas-y kind of tale to start with.

mrs. skippy and i always buy a few for presents to co-workers and friends, and are sure to keep a couple of extra loaves for our own holidays.

does anyone else have some non-traditional tradtions for holiday treats?

[cross-posted at skippy the bush kangaroo]

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Happy Hanukkah!


These delicate little cookies are a decadent, melt-in-your-mouth treat that I make once a year, for Hanukkah. They are such a wonderful indulgence that my Anglican-raised husband starts making filling requests for the Hanukkah rugelach as we sit down to the table for the Jew* and I to break the Yom Kipur fast.

Start with the dough - put the following in the mixing bowl of your food processor:

1 Cup flour
1/4 Cup confectioners sugar
1 stick butter, cut into pieces
4 ounces cream cheese, cut into pieces

Pulse the processor for ten seconds at a time until the ingredients form a ball. Turn out onto a floured board and work into a ball. Divide into four equal pieces, work into balls, and flatten into discs about 6 inches in diameter, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until the dough is manageable. Do this three times to make 96 pieces. You want to end up with 12 disks of dough that will yield eight cookies each.

While the dough chills, make your fillings.

Cranberry Pecan Filling

1/2 Cup pecans
1/2 Cup dried cranberries
1/4 Cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

With the steel chopping blade in your food processor, add all the ingredients and pulse until the ingredients have a uniform texture. Set aside, and make the other fillings.

Date-Walnut filling

1/2 Cup walnuts
1/2 Cup chopped dates
1/4 Cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Process to uniform texture, set aside.

Chocolate Pecan filling

1/2 Cup pecans
1/2 Cup mini chocolate chips
1/4 Cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Process for a few seconds and set aside.

Flour a glass or marble surface and roll the dough out, one disc at a time, to between 8-10 inches diameter. The thinner you roll the dough, the more delicate the cookie - but the harder the dough is to work with - and you have to roll this delicate dough around chopped nuts, so don't go thinking you are the second coming of Marie-Antoine Carême. The first time you try this, go with a diameter that is closer to 8" than 10" and has a little thicker dough to work with.

Roll out the dough on a floured surface, use a pizza wheel to make eight equal wedges. Spread 1/4 of one of the filling mixtures over the dough.

Roll cookies into crescents and transfer to a glass baking dish and bake in a 325 degree oven for 15 minutes, then check them every couple of minutes until they look like this:



*The Jew - after several generations of agnostic, cultural, kitchen-table Judaism that makes your average Reform congregation look orthodox, God has delivered unto our family a real live, candle-lighting, face-the-wall-and pray Jew in the person of our youngest daughter.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Fresh, hot bread for breakfast

It's winter, and that means the kids don't want to get out of bed. Let me tell you how to get them up without any argument.

  1. Buy a bread machine
  2. Use it!

Seriously. That is all there is to it.

Not only will it get your kids out of bed, dressed and downstairs, it is just about the best breakfast you can feed them, and it takes five minutes prep time, total.

Think about it.

Before you go to bed, you put the ingredients in the machine, and you set the timer so it is done thirty minutes to an hour before they have to get up. The smell of fresh-baked bread will get them out of bed. You take a loaf of bread from the bread machine and put it on the table with the requisite fruit bowl (mine currently resides on the kitchen shelves, at a level Zoe can reach it and help herself to a piece of fruit any time she wants) and whatever spreads you and yours prefer.

Give everyone a hearty slice of warm bread, a cup of yogurt and a piece of fruit and you just gave your kids - and yourself - a head start on the day with a truly healthy breakfast.

Cranberry-Pecan Breakfast Bread

1 Tablespoon butter
1/3 Cup dried cranberries
2 Tablespoons sugar
1/2 Tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 Cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/3 Cup flour
1/3 Cup chopped pecans
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 Tablespoon yeast

Put ingredients in bread machine in the order listed. Set the timer so the bread is finished about a half hour before you have to get up. Go to bed.

Wake up to the smell of baking bread, and you are virtually guaranteed to have a day that doesn't suck.