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Archive for the ‘Organics’ Category

Apparently no one really knows the answer to that question. And therein lies the rub, if you ask me. When I first read Robyn O’Brien’s book, The Unhealthy Truth — which convincingly argues that eating GM foods can be linked to all kinds of health issues, including cancer and the rise of childhood allergies and autism — I immediately decided that GMOs (genetically modified organisms, including animals, crops, and milk) are the worst example of corporate greed and malevolence in recorded history and vowed never to put another morsel of GM food into my or my family’s mouths. So there, Monsanto.

For those of you who don’t follow the GMO controversy, here’s a little primer on the subject: A genetically modified organism (GMO) is one who’s genes have been altered in a lab using genetic engineering — essentially the DNA molecules from different sources are combined to create a new set of genes, which is then inserted into another organism such as a plant seed or animal. This can be done for a variety of reasons, for instance to create a breed of corn that is resistant to chemical herbicides or higher-yielding wheat crops. The US company Monsanto creates “Roundup-Ready” seeds that are resistant to the chemicals in Roundup herbicide, which allows farmers to grow more corn using more pesticides (and the company even patents these seeds). Today the USDA says that over 81% of all corn and over 88% of all soybeans grown in the US are GM. This is controversial for several reasons, including concerns that GM foods are unsafe and growing them threatens biodiversity and the environment. If you read studies like this one, you’ll get a feel for the arguments against GMOs. GMOs have been banned in 27 countries, including all of Europe, by the way.

But then I read Nina Federoff’s Op-ed in The New York Times extolling the benefits and safety of GM crops while explaining why the world truly needs more, not less, of them — which kinda made me mad but also made me think. What if GMO crops really can eliminate world hunger? What if scientists really could create more nutritious wheat? Hmmm, that’s not so bad, right? Except, it’s not clear that those GMO promises are panning out. And there’s alarmingly little non-biased research and information out there about GMOs. Many non-GMO activists feel that the seed companies like Monsanto thwart efforts to conduct truly independent research. This article explains how the corporations basically have veto power over which tests get conducted and also which data gets reported. It’s pretty icky. And, well, you gotta wonder what they’ve got to hide, right?

Which I guess brings me back to the beginning. I don’t know if eating GMOs will give you cancer, alter your kid’s brain chemistry, or make hair grow on your tongue (like it apparently did to some hamsters in Russia). And neither does anybody else. So, for now I’m sticking with my non-GMO stance. Which goes something like this: Whenever possible and reasonable, avoid foods that have been genetically altered in any way.

In case you’re wondering how to do that, it’s simple:
1. Buy organic. Foods that are certified organic cannot by law (knowingly) contain GM ingredients.
2. Buy local. You’re pretty safe buying from farmer’s markets because most GM crops are grown by large, industrial farms not your local mom-and-pop.
3. Avoid the four top GM crops: corn, soy, canola, and cottonseed. If you do buy these, buy organic. This is one very good reason to avoid processed, packaged foods; if you read the label on a typical box of cookies, you’ll find several corn derivatives and probably soy and canola, too.
4. Look for the Non-GMO Project label. This is not widely used yet, but it’s worth knowing about and supporting. Here’s what it looks like:

So, what we’re left with is…real food. Hey, what a concept.

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A few weeks ago I started making a list of all my favorite things to eat. I was doing this partly because I had thought of including it on the “about me” page on my new website (which is coming very soon, yay!) and partly because I love making lists, especially food-related lists. And partly because I was probably hungry. But instead of throwing the whole list up on a page where it would languish uselessly, I decided to blog about my food loves instead. So consider this post about strawberries the first in a series. Each post will sing the praises of some food I happen to love (or am loving that week) and include at least one recipe for said food.

Of course my Foods-I-Love list is a seasonal one. While I love cassoulet and creamy potato-leek soup, I don’t think about them much this time of year. Right now I love strawberries. The big, fat, perfectly sweet-tart berries you can only get in the summer. I love strawberries because they’re delicious but also because they really make me feel great. In addition to 100 g. of vitamin C per cup, which is almost as mush as in OJ, strawberries are high in fiber, calcium, magnesium, folate, and potassium — all good things, especially in hot weather. Recent studies have linked eating strawberries to improved memory function and reduced risk of heart attack and cancer. All that, at about 50 calories per cup.

During both my pregnancies I craved strawberries. I bought them in bulk at the farmer’s market (Both my kids were born in the fall, so I had perfect strawberries to offset the fact that I was carrying around 40 extra pounds during 100-degree weather.), and I got very creative with them, as only a pregnant woman can. I would stack strawberries on my toast, use slices of them for mini Parmesan sandwiches or in wraps with cream cheese and turkey, eat them by the handful as a snack with almonds, and of course plop them in my drinks (they were something to look forward to at the bottom of yet another glass of mineral water or iced herbal tea). During that time, I came up with several strawberry recipes that have withstood the test of (less-hormonal) times. While I don’t make too many turkey-strawberry wraps anymore, I do still occasionally make strawberry-pecan pancakes on weekends, and my strawberry salad has become a family favorite.

There are plenty of versions of strawberry salad out there, but I think mine is different enough to be worth trying. This recipe is on the menu of my husband’s and my fantasy restaurant — a place that would serve all the favorite meals we make at home just the way we like them, without messing up our kitchen. Like with all great dishes, the fresh ingredients each speak for themselves and also blend together perfectly. It’s simple to make and easy to adapt to your family’s tastes (Don’t like spinach? It’s also delicious with romaine or green leaf lettuce. I use spinach because it’s also in season and so awesome right now. Goat cheese would be a nice change, too.) Oh, and this salad is also easy to disassemble for kids who don’t like their foods to touch. I should know.

One last note: I can’t write about strawberries without a reminder that strawberries are one of the “Dirty Dozen,” in fact I just checked and they are currently ranked #3 on the list of conventional produce that is the most contaminated by pesticides. As if that weren’t bad enough, the state of California (where about 90% of U.S. strawberries are grown) just approved the use of methyl iodide, which has been called “one of the most toxic chemicals on earth,” as a fumigant in strawberry fields. Whether or not the methyl iodide seeps into the berries themselves seems to be up for debate, but I don’t like the sound of it. Buy organic strawberries. Please. As much as I love them, I’d rather go without strawberries than eat conventional ones. This time of year, organic strawberries are plentiful and are really no more expensive than the pesticide-soaked ones.

Summer Strawberry Salad
1 large bunch fresh spinach (I know the bagged spinach is convenient, but I don’t think it tastes nearly as good. Buy a bunch of organic spinach — #5 on the Dirty Dozen, btw — fill your sink with cold water, give the spinach a good bath and rinse under running water, then put in salad spinner.)
1 pint organic strawberries, hulled and sliced
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup shaved hard cheese, such as Dutch Parrano

Red Wine Vinaigrette
3 tbs. red wine vinegar
2 tbs. fresh lemon juice
1 tbs. honey
3 tbs. olive oil
Salt & freshly ground pepper

To make the vinaigrette, put all ingredients in a jar with a lid and shake well. Assemble the salad and toss with the dressing. If you want to get fancy, you can toast the pine nuts on the stove: Put in a skillet on medium-low heat and cook until they start to smell toasty; this only takes a few minutes so don’t take your eyes off them or they’ll burn.

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The other morning, while I was trying to coax breakfast orders out of my groggy six- and nine-year-olds, my husband said, “When I was a kid, unless it was my birthday and I got to pick out a box of cereal, my mother never once asked me what I wanted for breakfast.” Now that I think of it, neither did mine. Of course I want my kids to enjoy their food and therefore — at least theoretically — eat a balanced, healthy breakfast. But do I really have to be a short-order cook at 7 a.m.?

So I decided to just make something, put it in front of them, and see how it goes. So far my experiment — i.e. “it’s smoothies and boiled eggs today” — has gone over really well. In fact, I don’t even think the kids have noticed. 

I know breakfast, especially during the school week, can be a pain. But we all know how important it is. I think of breakfast as one of the only meals that I can completely control. I am not naive enough to think (for one minute) that the healthy lunches I’m packing every day are really exactly what my kids eat for lunch every day. For example, recently my son let it slip that he traded his (nitrate-free, organic turkey on whole wheat) sandwich for his buddy’s (GMO-laden, highly processed) Lunchables Ham & American Cracker Stackers. While the food evangelist in me cringes, the mom and former kid in me understands.

What about dinner? Well, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am a big believer in family dinner — for about ten thousand reasons. One of the main reasons is that when we eat together, I can make sure there’s a nice pile of sliced veggies and lean, hormone-free protein on the plate. And we do eat together as often as we can. Which is certainly not every night. This is not because I’ve got a good excuse like a high-powered job or long commute; it’s simply reality. We try, but we’re busy. I do pack healthy on-the-go meals for my kids when they have after-school activities. But the truth remains that breakfast is my best shot at consistently getting real food into my kids’ mouths.

So, now I’m in charge of breakfast, which is less painful than trying to communicate about breakfast choices with a cranky kid (“Sweetie, we have the same kind of yogurt we had yesterday.”) — but also requires me to come up with something to feed them every day. Because I’ve read several studies that say eating protein at breakfast reduces cravings for unhealthy sugars and fats later in the day, I cook a lot of eggs. One egg has about 6 grams of high-quality protein and is a naturally good source of vitamin D, something a lot of us are deficient in. Not all eggs are created equal though. If you can’t get farm-fresh eggs, go for the next best thing, which is organic eggs from truly free-roaming chickens. There is an unbelievable difference in taste as well as health benefits: Pastured eggs have been shown to contain far less cholesterol and saturated fat but more vitamins A and E, omega-3 fatty acids, and beta carotene. My kids like them almost hard-boiled, so I cook them for 9 minutes and serve them in darling little egg cups with chicken feet.

Another big hit has been PB & J’s. My son sits at a nut-free table at school, so this is his only chance to have what I think is close to a perfect meal. The key, of course, to a healthy PB & J is getting the right ingredients. First, you need organic (to ensure you’re not eating GMO wheat) whole wheat bread. We love Rudy’s Honey Sweet Whole Wheat (the Whole Foods version is also good and is less expensive). Peanut butter is a very personal thing, so go with the brand you and your kids love. Of course I recommend going organic and avoiding the brands that add weird oils, sugar, or any unpronounceable ingredients to an item that really should contain one thing: peanuts (okay and maybe a little salt). As for the jelly, in order to keep it healthy, watch the sugar. (My banana jam is fabulous, if I do say so myself, and is actually quite low in sugar.) Otherwise, I buy Crofters Just Fruit Spread, which has 8 grams per tablespoon, compared to Smucker’s Raspberry Jam, which has 12 g. Another great idea is to sub out the jam for chopped and slightly smooshed fresh berries. When they’re good (like right now), this is beyond delicious, and nobody misses the preserves.

Next post will be a couple great smoothie recipes, because those are another staple around here. Hey, What’s your kid’s favorite breakfast?

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My New Favorite Thing

I almost didn’t get a photo of these because they were devoured so quickly. After polishing off most of the pile, my nine-year old son declared, “Mom, you should make a brand and sell this, it’s so good!”

Kale is a pretty regular feature in my organic CSA box and it’s super healthy, so I’ve been experimenting with different ways of cooking it. I actually really like it. Sauteed kale with garlic and a little balsamic or soy is delicious, and kale is a great addition to smoothies (just check your teeth before you leave the house!). But these Oven-Baked Kale Chips are my new favorite way to eat kale, maybe my new favorite way to eat anything. They are so easy to make and really, really — okay, surprisingly — tasty and crunchy and salty. These could be the perfect snack food.

Oven-Baked Kale Chips

Ingredients
1 bunch of kale (buy organic because kale is one of the “Dirty Dozen”)
1 tbs. olive oil
pinch of sea salt

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Rinse the kale and dry it in a salad spinner or on a paper towel. Cut or tear into large pieces and cut out the thick center stems. Toss with olive oil and a tiny pinch of salt (the first time I made this I over-salted it, which I think is easy to do because the leaves shrink a fair amount in the oven); I tossed it in a large bowl like a salad.

Spread the leaves in a single layer onto a large baking sheet (or two). Bake for 15-20 minutes until crisp. My chips came right off the baking sheet without sticking, but you could line the pan with parchment if you’re concerned about that. Let the chips cool in the pan before trying to remove them.

Supposedly they’ll keep for a week or so in an airtight container. But I wouldn’t know about that.

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Oven-Roasted Tomatoes

Around here, the season of autumn — that splendid time of year when the leaves blow around, the weather cools, and we all eat lots of roasted squash and homemade pie — is a bit of a myth. Here in Colorado, while the leaves do turn gorgeous colors and definitely blow around, the fall usually goes more like this: One day you’re sunbathing in shorts at your son’s football game and the next you’re digging through bins at the back of a closet searching for hats and snow boots.

It’s sometimes tough to get into the fall mood food-wise when it’s 80 degrees outside. Although I have roasted my share of veggies this fall (the best being acorn squash: simply slice in half, add a pinch of salt and a little butter, bake at 350 for an hour or so until slightly browned; eat with a spoon like it’s a tub of Ben & Jerry’s — delish), in an attempt to hold onto summer because I know a giant, summer-obliterating snowstorm is coming any day, I’ve also been slow-roasting tomatoes.

I know it’s November and the tomatoes aren’t necessarily at their peak, but it’s not too late to make oven-roasted tomatoes. These have been an absolute revelation for me. Slow roasting does something brilliant to tomatoes, amping up their sweetness while cooking out the moisture, transforming them into intensely flavored, slightly dry (but not leathery like prepackaged “sun” dried tomatoes) fruit. Even not-so-hot tomatoes turn into incredible roasted tomatoes. I’ve made these with tiny grape tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, and full-sized Roma or plum tomatoes. All are great, but I think I like the tiny, candy-like dried grape tomatoes the best.

Once you’ve roasted them, store these tomatoes in a jar in the fridge. They’re not exactly “canned” for real, so they are perishable, although I’ve had a jar in there for two weeks now and they are fine (just ate about 10, mmmm). Roasted tomatoes are excellent on sandwiches, in pasta dishes, in salads, or on an appetizer platter. They also make great bruschetta. My son loves to eat them right out of the jar (so do I clearly). Here’s how to make them (it takes a while to roast them, but otherwise they are simple to make).

Oven-Roasted Tomatoes

Ingredients

  • Organic tomatoes (either grape, cherry, plum, or Roma — I suggest buying a lot — maybe 5 lbs. or more — and making a big batch of these; they shrink up quite a bit while drying in the oven)
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • Fresh herbs and/or whole garlic cloves (optional)

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray or a thin layer of oil (or line with parchment paper). I don’t peel the tomatoes, but if you want to, it’s easiest if you blanch them first in boiling water, then transfer to an ice bath to stop the cooking. As soon as they are cool, you can peel them. If you’re using larger tomatoes (anything bigger than the tiny grape ones), I suggest cutting either in half (for cherry tomatoes) or quarters (for plum or Roma). Toss tomatoes with olive oil and salt. Place skin-side down on baking sheet, and if you’re using fresh herbs or garlic, you can put those on there, too. (I usually put a couple cloves of garlic and maybe a sprig or two of basil if I have it.)

Purely optional, but a little basil and garlic can never be bad.

Roast in the oven for at least three and probably more like four-plus hours, depending on the size of the tomatoes. You can start testing them after about 2 1/2 hours, but in my experience, they hit their peak of roasted and dehydrated deliciousness after four hours. Let cool and store in a jar with the garlic, herbs, and any oil that was left on the pan. Enjoy.

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Isn’t it funny — in a not-really-that-funny-at-all sort of way — what kids will and won’t eat? Take pears for example: If I try to give my darlings a lovely fresh pear, they recoil in horror. On the other hand, if I hand them leathery dried pears (or any fruit), they devour them and come back with their hands open for more. What’s that about?

Anyway, I do buy dried fruit occasionally, but recently my organic box has been overflowing with pears (and, alas, being September, I seem to have too many less-than-fabulous peaches these days) so, because I detest wasting food, I decided to try oven-drying some myself.

Apples and peaches.

(On a side note, I am serious when I say I don’t like wasting food. I even thought about starting a new blog about how to not waste stuff, especially food — churlishfoodie.com anyone? — but decided against it because I get that it can be annoyingly bossy to scold people about tossing their bread crusts — which do make excellent croutons, by the way.)

So, it was super easy to dry the fruit, and I was pleasantly surprised by how delicious the results were. My daughter has been eating the dried peaches like candy, and the pears were fabulous chopped in a salad with roasted beets and goat cheese. Here’s a primer on how to do it, no dehydrator contraption needed.

Oven-Dried Late Summer Fruit

First, make some light syrup in a pan: Dissolve 1/3 cup of sugar in about a cup of water. Then add 2 tablespoons honey and 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Next, wash the fruit and cut it into halves or quarters. I peeled the pears because they were kind of bruised; I didn’t peel the apples, but I might next time as the skins do get tougher. I also peeled the peaches because it seems like it would be a little weird to dry peach fuzz. The easiest way to peel peaches is to blanch them first in boiling water for about a minute. Then the skins come off easily.

The pears.

Using tongs, dip the cut fruit into the syrup (or you can just dump it all in the pot if it’s big enough; just make sure the burner is off so you don’t cook the fruit), then place directly on a rack in the oven. My peaches were from a neighbor’s tree and fairly small, so I put them on parchment paper on the rack. Place a cookie sheet on the lower rack to catch any fruit juice that drips while drying. Turn on the oven to its lowest setting (mine is 175) and leave the oven door slightly open so you don’t get any steam or moisture buildup. Let it go for about 6 hours; then you can probably turn off the oven and just use the heat from the pilot to continue drying the fruit. I left mine in the oven for about 12 hours total. Just make sure you leave the door open.

Candy?

The final product was difficult to photograph but very tasty. It keeps well, by the way, since it’s dried. And it makes a nice, portable snack for kids’ lunches or after school.

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To me, summer feels like it’s really, finally here when the market is overflowing with tomatoes that actually look like tomatoes — instead of those artificially shiny orange balls we seem to get all winter. When the tomatoes are plump and gorgeous like they are now, I know it’s time to make my all-time favorite Summer Tomato Sauce.

Full disclosure: I actually don’t like plain, raw tomatoes and rarely eat them. Some people might think it’s strange, then, that this time of year I seriously crave this sauce and even eat it straight. Maybe it’s just me, but I think raw tomatoes and cooked tomatoes are completely different things. I wish I liked them raw; it would save me lots of hassles in sandwich ordering.

Anyway, I discovered this sauce on my honeymoon, when my husband and I biked through Provence. One of the things I remember most (besides the fact that every medieval French village was inconveniently built on the top of a very steep hill) is the fresh tomato sauce they put on just about everything from pasta to eggplant to rabbit. This sauce to me is the epitome of Mediterranean cooking —  seasonal, simple, healthy, and of course delicious. It took me quite a few attempts to recreate it (part of that is due to ingredients; I really think that with very few exceptions, the groceries in Europe are better than they are here), but this is it! Whenever I make it, I feel like I can taste summer and southern France — and who wouldn’t want that?

The sauce is what foodies call “crude” — it’s chunky. It’s very easy to make, out of a few simple, healthy ingredients (see picture below; that’s basically it), which puts it in the “perfect food” category if you ask me. It’s heaven on grilled eggplant and zucchini as well as pasta. I’ve tried it on halibut before, and it was excellent. It’s even good cold. I’m not a wine expert, but it goes perfectly with Rhône style wines like they make in Provence. But it’s plenty tasty with a chardonnay or cold beer, too. It keeps in the fridge for a couple of weeks, and then you can freeze it and have some in mid-winter to alleviate symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

If the ingredients are beautiful, simple, and delicious, the finished product will be, too.

Since this recipe is one of my best attempts at French cooking, we might as well call it by its French name, non?

Coulis de Tomates d’été

  • In a very large skillet or Dutch oven, heat 5 tbs. extra virgin olive oil over medium heat. Cook 3/4 cup diced onion (about 1/2 tp 3/4 of a large onion) and 5 large garlic cloves (finely chopped) for about 5 minutes. Don’t let the garlic burn.
  • Stir in 5 lbs. unpeeled, chopped tomatoes (I buy the ones on the vine and sometimes mix in a few dark-colored heirlooms if they have them), 1 tsp. sugar, 1 tsp. salt, some ground black pepper, and 1 cup fresh basil leaves (I cut the basil with kitchen scissors but not too finely). Cook over high heat for 30 mins. and stir occasionally.
  • Depending on how juicy the tomatoes are, the sauce will be very thick to soupy. If it’s too thin, simple simmer a while longer. You can add another tsp. or so of olive oil if it’s too thick. If it needs more sugar or salt, add a bit, but it probably won’t.

Tastes like summer. In France.

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