Monday, July 31, 2006

It Takes Two Hands . . .

Slow Roasted Pork Taco

It's not just that Burger King signature burger that takes two hands, lots of great food is best eaten without benefit of knife and fork. Easily swayed by suggestions from one of my favorite food writers, Mark Bittman, this was the weekend for slow roasted pork to enjoy as tacos, burritos and enchiladas. All but the latter easily eaten with two hands. The enchiladas do require a utensil as that molten melted cheese can get messy.

Over ten years ago, I fell in love with the adventuresome Latin American and Spanish cooking techniques that Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger introduced to me with their TV cooking show, Cooking with Too Hot Tamales. Their book by the same name quickly made its way into my food library and I began to experiment using their recipes and tips as a springboard for some mighty fine eats.

One of my favorites was a take on traditional pibil cooking from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Pork (conchinita) is marinated in a blend of achiote paste, citrus juices and spices before being wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a banana leaf-lined pit called a pibe. Several years ago, Greg took me to Border Grill in Santa Monica for dinner. Without hesitation, I ordered the Conchinitas Pibil. Just had to see if I'd come close - can you imagine my surprise when halfway through the meal, Mary Sue Milliken appeared at the table to ask if everything was okay. When I explained that I'd been attempting the conchinitas pibil at home, she asked if hers was as good as mine?

The recipe in last week's New York Times for slow roasted pork is an easy variation of this specialty. I picked up two pounds of boneless pork spareribs, marinated them with garlic, citrus and toasted spices, made a makeshift banana leaf wrap with aluminum foil and roasted them off in a 300 degree oven for a little over 3 hours. When checked, the meat was tender and lusciously fragrant.

If your experience with tacos is limited to ground meat flavored with tomato sauce and an envelope of mystery spices served in a hard shell, you might want to refer to Mark's easy instructions, Taco Technique, Bottom to Top, to learn how to build a mouth-watering treat. Mine always need two hands.

While the pork is slow roasting there's plenty of time to make some fresh salsa. If you must use the bottled stuff at least buy one with a minimum of ingredients and let those be not only things you recognize as edible but organic. Here's an easy hot, red salsa that will complement the pork and give your taste buds a little jolt!

Red Salsa Components

2 cups diced tomatoes

1/4 cup minced jalapeno or serrano pepper (more depending on your tolerance for heat)

1/3 cup diced onion (put in a strainer and rinse under cold water)

1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

1/2 tsp salt

2 - 3 TBS fresh lime juice
2 - 3 TBS ketchup (optional)
Fresh Red Salsa
This week's page turners, I'm embarrassed to say, included Pressure Drop, another one by Peter Abrahams. I just can't seem to leave the library without checking out another of his achievements. Pressure Drop was published in 1989. The storyline has a great plot interweaving artificial insemination, infant kidnapping, underwater diving, 'blue holes', war time mysteries and Nazi survivors -- hey, something for everyone. Once again, Abrahams has written another keep you on the edge of your seat thriller with a cast of characters you'd like to meet and won't easily forget, told from both the male and female perspectives. A very enjoyable undertaking.
I can highly recommend John Hart's debut novel, The King of Lies. For all you lovers of the lawyer-turned-author publications, this new Southern writer will be a pleasant addition to Grisham, Turow, etc. Hart writes from the heart both as a man, husband, lover, and lawyer. King of Lies is a mystery and a love story but most of all, it's a look into the heart and mind of a man who must face himself and find the courage to follow a path of his own making, not one carved out by parental influence and the pressures of money, power and prestige. Hope Hart keeps on writing.
Till next time . . . Keep on cooking!

Monday, July 24, 2006

How About Some Fast Slow Food?
The slow food movement is gaining momentum as more and more people realize cooking whole foods is not only fast and easy but great for both health and weight loss as well as being kind to the pocketbook. Rushing home after a hectic day at work and facing putting a meal on the table can be daunting. But with a little planning, a few minutes of preparation and a desire to eat well, putting a nutritious, tasty meal on the table can be done in a matter of minutes.

Tilapia with Jerk Seasoning

This quick meal for one is easily multiplied to fit your needs. I've used one tilapia filet but any mild white fish will work equally well. Notice it's in two pieces. Invariably tilapia filets are thicker on one side. By cutting the filet in half, the smaller side can be removed from the pan sooner than the thicker side, preventing it from being overcooked and dried out. The filets are dusted with a delicious Jamaican style BBQ blend of jerk seasoning for chicken and fish from Penzeys Spices and slipped into a little hot olive oil along with a wedge of lemon. The lemon is not squeezed at this point, it just rests in the pan allowing the heat to carmelize it. When the filets are plated, the warm juice from the wedge is squeezed onto the fish using a pair of tongs. Two minutes cooking on each side was all that was needed for this little filet. Some romaine hearts with sliced red onion and diced tomato drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice made a simple salad and I heated up a serving of frozen petite peas with a handful of frozen shoe peg corn (cooked together). Once the salad greens were washed and spun dry, the onion sliced, the tomato diced, and the veggies were at the boil, I put the fish in the pan, dressed the salad and within 15 minutes from start to finish, I was pouring a glass of wine to accompany this fine plate of food. Talk about fast food ! This is simple, wholesome, economical and mighty good!

Fast meals leave lots of time to read. I'm really making a dent in Peter Abrahams' entire ouevre. This week I was thoroughly entertained with Oblivion. It's easy to understand why Stephen King said Abrahams was his favorite American suspense novelist. Each tale I've read has a distinctive voice as well as a unique plot and cast of characters. Nick Petrov, Oblivion's brilliant private investigator accepts a case to find a missing daughter. Fast on the trail with many clues in hand, tragedy strikes and Nick experiences oblivion when he is stricken with a stroke brought on by a brain tumor. Waking with a memory lapse, and the uncertainty of his prognosis, he nevertheless prevails in pursuing the case. This bright author weaves a marvelous tale with twists and turns to keep the reader on the edge of his seat.
Susan Richards' memoir, Chosen by a Horse was a departure from my usual bill of fare, and a wonderful respite from the tense drama of the wagonload of psychological thrillers I've been delving into lately. I'm a sucker for a good animal tale and while I usually gravitate toward dog stories such as Marley and Me and all of Jon Katz' wonderful tales of his border collies, Richards' story about taking in an abused horse named Lay Me Down, and how the bond that developed between horse and woman helped her find direction for her life is a good short fast read. A story not just for animal lovers.
Until next time . . . keep on cooking!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Fruit on the Bottom?

Do you love yogurt with fruit on the bottom? Have you looked closely at the nutritional facts on the container? Many commercial yogurts with fruit have also added an extremely generous portion of sugar, sweetener or other additives designed to prolong shelf life. Why not put your own fruit on the bottom?

I've been enjoying the season's plentiful harvest of big fat juicy blueberries, one of the most potent SuperFoods, by covering a serving of berries with Stonyfield Farms organic, fat free, yogurt. Not only is yogurt another of the SuperFoods, providing prebiotics as well as probiotics, aiding in maintaining a healthy digestive system, but combined with fresh fruit, it's a super tasting snack! In addition to the powerful disease-fighting antioxidants contained in blueberries, recent studies have shown blueberries to be an effective food to lower cholesterol. Read all about it.

Frozen Yogurt
Take advantage of the abundance of fresh blueberries available now and whip up a batch of frozen blueberry yogurt.
Zest and juice of one small lemon
2 cups plain nonfat yogurt
1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar (sweeten to taste)
1 pint blueberries.
In a bowl, blend the lemon zest, lemon juice, yogurt and sugar until smooth. Stir in the blueberries. Freeze in a plastic container for easy scooping or make pops by lining twelve 2 1/2" muffin pan cups with fluted paper baking cups. Divide the mixture among the paper lined cups and freeze until almost firm (1 1/2 hours) Insert a popsicle stick in the middle of each pop. Freeze until firm.
Let stand at room temperature for 5 minutes to soften slightly for easier eating.
Cool Greens
Summer salad options abound with farm stands bursting with crisp greens and lovely sun-warmed red, ripe juicy tomatoes. I'm a romaine or green leaf lettuce lady but on a hot summer day, the crisp cold sweet juicy crunch of fresh iceberg lettuce is so refreshing. I've indulged lately and had bacon and blue cheese dressed iceberg wedges several times for lunch. With the warm salty richness and the cool crispy crunch offset by the smoky flavor of the bacon and the delicate juicy tang of sweet vine ripened tomatoes, who can resist?
Iceberg Wedge with Bacon and Blue Cheese
This is one of those wonderful, quick and easy to prepare dishes that needs no careful measuring. Play it by ear based on how many servings you need.
Cut a generous wedge of lettuce per serving.
Cook 2 -3 strips of bacon per serving until crisp, drain on paper towels, then cut or tear into 1" pieces. While the bacon cooks, dice 1/2 well ripened tomato per serving and whip up some dressing (you can use bottled blue cheese dressing if you don't want to bother with homemade - but use a good one, like those found in the refrigerated portion of the produce department.) If you choose to whip up your own dressing - use approximately 1/4 cup mayo per serving, thinned with a tsp of lemon juice and a little buttermilk until it's a nice consistency to flow over the lettuce. Add some freshly ground pepper and a generous serving of crumbled blue cheese. Assembly is next: drizzle some dressing over the wedge, sprinkle on the warm bacon pieces and the diced tomatoes. Thin slices of red onion are a great addition.
Three books to recommend this week. The summer heat and humidity is my excuse to hunker down in the house and get lost in a novel. Amy Ephron's short light fiction is entertaining reading. I chose her novel set in the jazz-age era of flappers, bobbed hair and ladies looking for husbands. One Sunday Morning is a fun fast read set in New York and Paris among the socially elite. Fancy clothes, grand mansions, gossip, luxury liners, mystery, murder and not too much mayhem as the engaging cast of characters seek Mr. Right. If you like this be sure to pick up her equally well-crafted novels, A Cup of Tea and White Rose.
Early in the week, I was pleased to find the new Lincoln Rhyme novel, Cold Moon, at my door courtesy of PEP Express and the Orange County Library. Diligently devious Deaver does it again, pitting the abrupt yet brilliant quadriplegic Rhyme against an equally brilliant criminal mastermind, the Watchmaker. The plot has more twists than a skein of yarn. A bizarre yet intriguing array of plots within a cunning master plot unravel with the mystery, clues and police procedures offset by the personal interplay with Amelia Sachs, Rhyme's partner and love interest. Cold Moon, coming so quickly on the heels of Jeffery Deaver's The Twelfth Card in 2005 is a nice treat for Deaver fans.
I wrapped up my reading week with another of Peter Abrahams clever psychological thrillers, Cry Wolf, set in a New England college town. Abrahams uses the architectural features of the college to generate mystery and intrigue while developing characters that we've all met before. The poor, bright boy who attends the posh, exclusive school by dint of merit, scholarship, loans and campus employment who falls into the malleable hands of a pair of gorgeous wealthy twins and is introduced to a world and lifestyle hitherto never dreamed of. We're whisked off to Christmas Eve in a New York penthouse, then by private jet to the family's Caribbean island for the Christmas break then back to school and the ensuing complications of a suicidal roommate, a larcenous townie, loss of funding for the second semester and then the devious plot to kidnap one of the twins for ransom. This is not the stuff Pulizter's are made of, but Abrahams is a master storyteller and this tale has enough mystery to keep the pages turning to the end.
Till next time. . . keep on cooking!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Convergence - tending to move toward one point . . .
I think it was 1985 when Billy gave me Mollie Katzen's Enchanted Broccoli Forest encouraging me to cook more vegetarian fare and get away from eating so much meat.
I grew up with a working man's lower middle class idea of the evening meal: meat, potatoes and a vegetable. The potato was invariably white and boiled, occasionally mashed and the vegetable came from a can with little variety: peas, green beans, stewed tomatoes and spinach. There was a variety of meats alternating between steak, hamburger, pork chops, daisy ham and chicken. Beef stew and pot roast showed up every now and then on weekends to break the monotony.
It wasn't until I was in college and began meeting people from different backgrounds that I was introduced to different cuisines including a wider variety of foods and methods of preparing them. And I developed a strong preference for ethnic foods over 'plain, old American'. I still give 'plain, old American' a wide berth in favor of foods with a European or Asian influence.
Vegetables and grains dominate much ethnic cooking. That was true for American cooking, too, until we got so affluent that families went from sharing a piece of meat, rounded out with a starch and some vegetables, to each family member having his own piece of meat, and not a small piece either. A whole steak, a couple of chops, half a chicken, you know what I mean.
While meat came from farm raised livestock and our produce from local farms, we were okay. But gradually the food industry became a big business, livestock is raised on factory-farms now, fed a diet they can't digest without hormones and antibiotics to keep them going. The seeds for our produce have been genetically modified and the plants grow with built in pesticide and fertilizer.
The quality of the food we now consume has become our slow poison, contributing to dozens of chronic diseases afflicting our corpulent nation while most of us continue to pile our grocery carts high with convenience foods loaded with strange ingredients we don't recognize, can't pronounce or begin to spell! High fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils are found in practically every item on the grocer's shelves. What have we let happen to our food supply?
I've had a strong interest in food for years. More so after being diagnosed with cancer in 1983. My surgeon asked if I were a vegetarian as my blood was like that of a vegetarian (a good thing). This was the result, no doubt, of eating small portions, 3 - 4oz pieces of meat at each meal during my adult years and having fresh salad each day along with fruits and vegetables. I'm sure I never ate anywhere near the quantity we now know is important for good nutrition and illness prevention, but her comment on my blood was a good indication that even doing something right, if not everything, makes a difference.
Gradually, more vegetarian fare made its way into our diets and Enchanted Broccoli Forest was just the beginning of the resources that I used to plan and serve whole foods.
Recently, I've been doing much more reading and investigation into the role foods play in our overall health and I've been very concerned about the quality of food that has found its way into our markets and onto our tables. Last December, I ordered the documentary, The Future of Food, which is a frightening picture of how industry has manipulated the production of our food supplies to benefit their bottom line. We still have the upper hand, as individuals we are the consumers without which big business cannot survive.
One key element from the film: "The choices we make at the supermarket determine the future of food." We are the customers to whom big business panders...are they really giving us what we want? Must be; we buy it.
One of the PBS stations in Los Angeles recently had a fund-raising drive and as is the case with public broadcasting stations, they bring in top gun programs to increase audience participation and hopefully increase donations. One of the programs recently aired was Mark Hyman, MD who presented material from his book, UltraMetabolism and his system of Neutrogenomics - how food talks to your genes. Dr. Hyman has down to earth simple guidelines to help prevent and cure chronic illnesses as well as the additional upside of eating well = natural weight loss. Greg burned DVD's of the program for me. I've watched it once, ordered the book and I plan to watch the program again as there is so much practical information to be digested and Dr Hyman is such a lively presenter that gaining insight and knowledge is also entertaining.
Several years ago, I picked up a copy of Nicholas Perricone's book, The Perricone Prescription. Dr. Perricone is a dermatologist and while assisting patients achieve radiant skin tone he found the nutritional and dietary information increased cardiovascular protection, decreased inflammation(the culprit responsible for so many chronic ailments) and helped melt away pounds.
These are a few resources if you are concerned about your health, the health of loved ones and the future for our children and grandchildren. What you put on your plate and on their plates is one of the most important concerns you can have.
I stopped by the Oriental supermarket the other day to pick up a few items and as the cashier rang up my 5lb bag of Jasmine rice, the smallest portion they carry, he looked up at me and asked, "What, no Uncle Ben?" We chatted a bit about the importance of food quality and he spouted facts that I haven't corroborated but which are probably in the right ball park. He told me that Americans spend about 7% of their income on food and Europeans and Asians spend about 40% of their income on food. (Is the disparity in this ratio a result of our high income and their lower ones?)
He pointed out that in other countries the quality of the food is of utmost importance. Freshness and the method of preparation are key. Quality over quantity most places except here. Here, our policy is the bigger the better - super size it? Who cares if it's a form of plastic with sugar and fat. It's fast, it's convenient, there's a lot of it and it's cheap. We pay the true price down the road.
The popular book, French Women Don't Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano is all about the pleasures of eating well - wine, bread, chocolate - a delightful guide to choosing the best, freshest and tastiest for your plate while staying slim and healthy. Portion control...what's that?, say we. Ah, champagne and leek soup, mais oui!
I've started keeping a running list of the portions of fruit and vegetables I consume each day as it takes discipline and concentration to eat enough. The list continually surprises me at how short I fall on many days.
Lots of salads on these hot humid days...with many ingredients is the easy way to satisfy the bodies nutritional needs while satisfying the palate. If we don't enjoy the produce when it's in season, we're short changing ourselves. And if we don't seriously consider what's on our plates, we're short changing the next generation, too.
Till next time...keep on cooking!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Amazing Grains
Must be close to twenty years ago, I borrowed a book called Amazing Grains from the library to learn more about cooking grains but I can't recall ever cooking anything from it. Recently, I found the volume in the Friends of the Orange County Library used book store, and couldn't resist the temptation to buy it. The book is an overwhelming resource for anyone who wants a thorough education in preparing various grains. . .and it's a nice addition to my eclectic collection of books on food.
While I discourage anyone from using 'quick' grains, things like Minute Rice or Instant Oatmeal, which have been denuded of most of their nutritional benefits and have lost all their flavor leaving them a close match to boiled cardboard, I, like most everyone, want all the benefits of eating grains with a minimum of preparation but at the same time, have them yield maximum flavor. This means using unadulterated grains and planning on some soaking time as part of the preparation.
As 21st century Americans, grains are not a common staple of our everyday diet. Sure we eat some processed grains in bread and cereal but rarely do we plan a meal around millet, barley, quinoa, etc. It seems so old fashioned, doesn't it?
Summer is a great time of the year to start experimenting with grains. I know we think of grains as something to add to soups -- like mushroom/barley soup and we prefer soup as cold weather food, but barley is a perfect grain for a salad paired with garden fresh vegetables. Substitute cooked barley (not instant barley, please) for the pasta in one of your favorite pasta salads or just toss a cupful into a regular dinner salad. Or be adventurous and build a meal around the freshest vegetables, herbs and barley as I did recently.
I compromised and bought a pound of pearled barley. While this doesn't require pre-soaking, I did soak it for a couple of hours before cooking and found it cooked up much more quickly than the 45 minutes suggested in the cooking instructions on the bag. By the way, the bag I bought, store brand from my favorite supermarket, includes another interesting salad recipe to expand your repetoire.
Florida sweet corn and vine ripened tomatoes along with fresh basil from the patio and some young green onions joined the cooked barley with oil, vinegar and seasoning. Isn't it great when something so good for you can taste so wonderful? Here's the recipe I adapted from the New York Times.
Corn and Barley Salad
1 cup pearled barley
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels (I used 6 ears of sugar and honey corn)
1 cup of diced red tomatoes
4 - 5 young green onions, sliced, green and white parts
2 - 3 TBS fresh chopped basil leaves (or oregano)
3 TBS extra virgin olive oil
2 TBS wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
3 TBS fresh goat cheese (optional)
Cook barley according to package instructions. Prepare veggies, cut corn from cob if using fresh. Whisk together oil and vinegar, basil or oregano and green onions in large bowl. When barley is cooked (drain any excess water) return to pot and add corn. Mix well. Add barley mixture and tomatoes to large bowl and mix gently. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve on a bed of greens of your choice with a few dollops of goat cheese, if desired.
With a meal this simple to prepare there's plenty of time to catch up on your reading. I didn't do much to improve my mind this week but I was thoroughly entertained with a couple of Peter Abrahams' novels. I started with The Tutor while I waited for the newly released End of Story to arrive. Both are good entertainment. Abrahams' talent for suspense novels is layered with intriguing detail. This is a very bright man, who must do a lot of research.
Following up with Robert Parker's new release, Blue Screen, was sadly disappointing. Sunny Randall sounds like Spenser in high heels. When the plot doesn't interest you and you can't muster any sympathy for the characters, it's time to quit. Despite my formula for giving up on a book, I wallowed along for 86 pages before giving it the toss.
Hope everyone has a happy and safe Fourth of July. We need to all take a moment and contemplate exactly what we are celebrating on this Independence Day. We each have an obligation to ensure we remain independent. A quick scan of headlines indicates we are not far away from figments of Orwell's imagination. Is Big Brother watching you?
Until next time...keep on cooking.