Monday, June 29, 2015

Sustainable Eggs

When I think of seductive foods, some of the things that come to mind are Pasta Carbonara, a gorgeous Caesar Salad, blanched asparagus spears and toast points dipped into a barely soft-boiled egg, or a small guilty pleasure like sneaking a spoonful of raw cookie dough.  When I think of these foods, I think of the luxurious feeling on my tongue, the delicious saltiness playing against the rich creaminess, the deep satisfaction of the complex relationship of the act of eating, tasting, smelling, and yet providing for basic physical nutritional needs.  What I usually don’t think of is the potential for illness with the possibility of hospitalization or even death.  However, all of the foods just mentioned have a common ingredient that could lead to such an outcome:  undercooked or raw eggs.  
Most cooks are very careful when handling raw chicken, being aware of potential salmonella contamination.  They typically cook the chicken to 160 F – the USDA’s recommendation to kill the salmonella bacteria – wash their hands, surfaces and utensils carefully after handling raw chicken, and keep everything separate.  Some cooks are even cautious of eggs.  However, most cooks are not likely aware that the USDA also recommends that eggs be cooked to 160 degrees.  This would essentially preclude not only the above-mentioned foods, but also most breakfast egg dishes, Hollandaise sauce, homemade mayonnaise, and even many eggnog or ice cream recipes which call for little to no cooking of the eggs.

While this may seem like heartbreaking news to many food lovers, there are several ways to accommodate many of these classic dishes while minimizing the health risks associated with salmonella contamination.  One of these ways is in the selection of the eggs you purchase.  Current industrial farming practices are geared towards maximizing output while economizing on inputs.  Inputs in egg farming include, amongst other things, feed and space.  As a result, the egg-laying hens are often housed in extremely cramped enclosed quarters involving small, stacked cages with very little exposure to sun and low-cost grain to feed them.  These conditions work toward creating an environment that is conducive to sickness, virus and bacteria that are spread easily.  While the regulated industrial farms take steps to lessen the spread of disease through regimens of antibiotics and other additives, some farmers take a different approach through more sustainable farming practices.

Sustainable egg and chicken farms are rising in popularity.  Most of these farms have gotten rid of the compartmentalized cages and give the chickens more room to roam, sunshine, fresh air, and a more varied diet, including grasses, bugs, supplemented by organically grown grain.  The outcome of these free-range, organic practices is healthier chickens that are exposed to less disease and producing far superior eggs.  Further, sustainably raised eggs are richer in nutritional values such as folic acid, vitamins B6 and B12, calcium, zinc, sulfur, magnesium, carotenoids, and choline, to name a few.  Additionally, these eggs have a richer flavor with a firmer structure that makes for a far different experience with even the most delicate dish.

While purchasing sustainable eggs is not an absolute guarantee of preventing food borne illnesses, it goes a long way towards healthier and tastier menu.  Moreover, you can further reduce risk of contaminated eggs by washing the outer shell off first before cracking them open, since that is where most of the salmonella bacteria live on eggs.  So, find your local organic free range chicken farm and eat that creamy Caesar salad, have your velvety Eggs Benedict and enjoy a luscious Pasta Carbonara.

Date Night Pasta Carbonara

Carbonara is a great date night food – particularly when trying to make an early… *impression*.  It’s silky, rich, opulent, sensuous, and satiating.  I made this early on for my husband while we were dating; I’m pretty sure it was what sealed the deal for us.  My husband has been cooking professionally in restaurants for more than 20 years, so I knew I couldn’t just slap together any old pasta dish on a plate and bat my eyelashes (although this had worked on dates in times past).  I need something downright luxurious.  So, carbonara seemed to be a really good option for my Midwestern, pork-loving guy.  It has bacon – an aphrodisiac in and of itself.  Then add the egg, cheese and some fresh black pepper and you have a little piece of heaven on your plate.  Carbonara is a really classic dish and it seems like almost everyone has their own way.  I have tried a thousand different recipes, and had pretty well settled on Nigella Lawson’s recipe, that incorporates dry vermouth (or white wine) that is cooked down with rendered pancetta.  It adds an extra depth to the dish. My version uses bacon ends cut into pieces (that I talked about in my Lentils and Rice post), which works just as well.

I made the dish during one of my first, ahem, “weekend” dates with my husband.  He loved it.  Since it fared really well, I have added this into our dinner rotation every few months for a nice date night dinner.  However, being from the Midwest, my husband finally confessed that the carbonara seemed incomplete without peas.  As a California girl, I had never heard of such a thing.  Peas in carbonara?!?!?!  Apparently this is a very essential Midwest regional addition that I was unaware of.  But, to appease my husband’s tastes for comfort food, I have since added peas to my recipe, as well some fresh parsley.  This has strayed from the simplicity of Nigella’s original recipe, but it is still a luxurious and sensuous date night dish.

The eggs in this recipe are cooked through residual heat of the pasta, so use good eggs.

Carbonara with Peas

  • 1 lb spaghetti
  • 1/2 pound bacon
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (or vermouth)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese (freshly grated)
  • black pepper
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 2/3 cup frozen peas
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • Fill a large pan with salted water and bring to a boil. 
  • Cut the bacon into ½ inch cubes.  Coat a large pan that will fit the pasta later with oil and heat over medium low heat until the oil starts to shimmer.  Cook the bacon in the oil until crispy but not crunchy.  Add the white wine or vermouth and reduce by almost half until the wine bacon mixture is syrupy. Take the pan off the heat.
  • In a bowl, beat together the eggs, Parmesan, cream and some pepper. Cook the pasta according to the directions on the package, but start to check it 2 minutes before the indicated cooking time and drain when al dente, reserving about 1 cup of the pasta water before draining. Put the pan with the bacon back on the heat and add the drained pasta, tossing well to coat. Add a little of the reserved pasta water to lubricate if necessary.
  • Remove the pan from the heat again and add the eggs and cheese mixture, quickly tossing everything to mix.  Add the peas and grind more pepper to taste.  Toss and cover pan with a lid and let sauce thicken and peas warm through with the residual heat from the pasta.
  • Add parsley and grate fresh nutmeg over the pasta just before serving. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Allergy-Friendly One-Dish Meal

A good friend of mine recently had an emergency where she had to take her 3-1/2 year old to the hospital for an acute health situation. Her husband is in the Coast Guard and happens to currently be working on a project on the other side of the country, so it’s just the two of them. One of the things that I do when others are in need is try to figure out how to feed them. Not only will I cook, but try to organize others to take feeding shifts. Now, both my friend and her daughter have some pretty severe food allergies and the list is long. I think my head actually started to spin when she provided a complete list of food don’ts. And, again – these are allergies, not preferences. So, any cross-contamination could lead to potentially serious medical reactions. Some of the top offenders are gluten and all things dairy. And if anyone has ever known, loved, or had to cook for someone with actual Celiac Disease, gluten occurs in more than just wheat. And many processed foods or food products somehow have gluten, such as soy sauce. Okay. No gluten and no dairy. Check.

Also, this dish had to come in one container. There is no room in a shared hospital room for multiple courses in a fancy plating. Okay – so a one-container dish. I also only had about 90 minutes to prepare it. So, I looked at her loooooooooooooong list of allergy restrictions, looked in my fridge, freezer, and pantry, and decided to do a lentil and rice dish. I searched the internet for lentil and rice dishes, and found this delicious (and easy) looking dish from Aarti Sequira on the food network. I made some changes, such as adding some meat proteins (chopped bacon and chicken) to make it more of a one-dish meal, made some substitutions for what I had in my pantry, and altered some of the preparations in order to streamline the cooking time. But I tried to stay pretty close to the spice profile of this dish and it came out amazing. The recipe that below is my version of this wonderful dish.

Now for the sustainability part – The main components of this dish are onions, lentils, and rice, all of which are inexpensive ingredients where you can splurge on the organic and keep on budget, that keep well in the pantry, and provide a pretty substantial and filling meal. The original recipe is vegan (if you omit the yogurt suggestion), and can be kept that way by skipping the bacon and chicken. However, it is also extremely flexible and you can use up other random vegetables you have around (like carrots and sweet peppers), or leftover cooked meats, like the chicken I added, reducing potential food waste.

Moreover, lentils are not only a powerhouse, economical protein, but are a great crop for farmers to grow to recharge their fields. They do not require chemical fertilizers and nitrogen-fix depleted soil. As these become more of a staple in American diets, it becomes a more and more attractive option for farmers to implement in a financially, and environmentally stable crop rotation system.

Additionally, the bacon that I used in this recipe came from a package of bacon “ends and pieces” that I buy in bulk. Sustainable pork is wonderfully flavorful, and has a better environmental impact, but it can also be hard on a modest budget. I find that so often when I use bacon in cooking, I am cutting it up into small pieces and cooking it. I don’t need to get the pretty center cut bacon, and the less pretty bacon ends and pieces tend to be much less expensive per pound. I ask my butcher for the ends and pieces, buy a few pounds (also capitalizing on bulk pricing), then freeze it in ½ pound bags, so when I need bacon for a recipe, I can pull it out and cut up what I need.

Lentils and Rice with Chicken

1 cup brown or green lentils (not lentils du Puy), sorted for debris and rinsed *see Notes below

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil (if skipping the bacon, increase oil to 2-3 tbsp)
1/4 lb chopped bacon
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
3 medium onions, thinly sliced (red or yellow will work)
Pinch of sugar
1 medium carrot chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
Kosher salt
1 cup basmati rice
3 cups water
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 (1-inch) cinnamon stick
1-1/2 to 2 cups chopped cooked chicken meat
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast (optional) 
*see Notes below
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice

Pour lentils into a medium saucepan and fill with enough cold water to cover the lentils by about an inch. Bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, then turn down to a simmer and cook until the lentils are tender but not mushy, about 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, as the lentils cook, grab a large skillet and pre-heat over medium-low heat. Chop up the bacon into 1/2 inch pieces. Put oil into pan and let it warm up for a minute, then add bacon. Cook until bacon is crisp, then remove from pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add the cumin seeds and cracked peppercorns to remaining fat in the pan and cook, shaking the pan once in a while until the cumin seeds darken a touch, about 1 minute.

Add the onions and carrots, sprinkle with a dash of salt and pinch of sugar and cook until the onions turn dark caramel brown, stirring often. This will take about 15 minutes. Splash the onion mixture with a little water if they stick to the bottom of the pan.

While the onions are cooking, cook basmati rice according to directions on package with 2 cups of water. Place cinnamon stick in cooking water through the cooking process.

When onions are done, sprinkle in the ground cumin and cayenne; sauté about 1 minute. Add the cooked rice and cinnamon stick to the onion mixture. Add the cooked lentils, remaining cup of water, and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt. Bring to a simmer and cook until the water is evaporated. About 5 minutes before the mixture is done cooking, add in the chicken.

Add in the cooked bacon and taste the rice for seasoning. Add in the nutritional yeast, chopped parsley and a little squeeze of lemon juice. Remove the cinnamon stick and re-adjust seasoning as necessary. You can also garnish with a little yogurt at the end.

Adapted from:

*Notes: I have used pre-cooked steamed lentils available in the refrigerator section of the grocery store for this with much success. You can skip the first cooking step if you use this short-cut.

The nutritional yeast is a gluten-free, vegan product. It is usually found in health food and organic stores, but is starting to become more available in other commercial grocery stores. I used it in place of yogurt to help moderate the heat of the cayenne. This is optional, but a good added a nice richness to the dish.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Blog Reboot!

When I first conceived of this blog, I was a single woman who had just finished a Master’s in Sustainable Business, and very involved in various food-related organizations.  I also liked to cook.  I wanted to share how I cooked sustainably for myself as a party of one, and friends and family. 

Then life got busy.

I embarked on several branches of my career path – consulting, teaching, and writing educational programs.  I dated.  I started dating one person in particular.  I got married, had a child, and continued to work.  And cook.  (How do you think I got married?!)  So, what was once the Sustainable Food and the single girl morphed as life happened. 

Now I’m back.  I’m still cooking and fully committed to sustainability, but I had to refocus on what the term “sustainability” meant to me – and my family.  “Personal sustainability” took on a whole new meaning as I started to experience things like career ups and downs.  Moments of prosperity, and moments of austerity.  But one thing has been a focus – I love to eat.  And often I need to eat and cook within a budget; and the tighter the budget, the more planning I found I needed to do.  This will be the lens that this blog will start to take on – sustainable food planning on a budget.

I also am dismayed that it took SIX years to pick this blog back up.  I am recommitting to myself and to this blog to produce content.  My plan is once a week.  I figure if I state this commitment publicly on the internet, I am more likely to follow through.  So, I will focus on trying to update somewhere around Mondays.  (Maybe Sundays, maybe Tuesdays, but early in the week.)

Okay, so, with that, here we go!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Birthday Dinner for Two: Balsamic Fig Pork Chops, Skillet Roasted Potatoes, Large Green Salad, Vanilla Cupcakes with Blackberry Creamcheese Frosting.

Birthday dinners are supposed to be luxurious, joyous and even a little decadent. And a birthday dinner for two can be very cozy, intimate and make the two diners feel a little closer and a little more magic for the day. That sounds great 'n lovely if you HAVE a significant other, but what's the single girl supposed to do? Find another single girl to have birthday dinner with.

So, as the most recent Fourth of July weekend was coming to a close, I discovered that I had NOT made it to several of my weekend obligations and thus had some fantastic Vanilla Bean Cupcakes with Blackberry Cream Cheese Frosting left over which needed to be consumed. My dear friend Kristina P. from grad school - another absolutely fabulous single girlfriend - was having a birthday celebration on her birthday that Tuesday. I had other obligations Tuesday (which included me, The Fillmore, and Duran Duran) and so, it seemed a small personal celebration the Monday prior was in order. So, I offered to come over and make her a birthday dinner, complete with cupcakes.

Now, mind you, I have certain menus that I make for "date" night, or for bribing what I call the rent-a-boyfriends (male friends who come over and do "man-things" around the house - usually involving power tools, or IT things that I lack the skill in) to do things. And I like my menus to make an impression. But, single-girl birthdays also involve decadent treats. So, I thought that this dinner deserved a date-night menu.

Now, for all the non-meat eaters, you can skip the following paragraph as it goes into the beauty of pork. And, I've done the vegetarian route. And I've done the decidedly NON-vegetarian route. And I have to say that of all the flesh I have put in my mouth, pork is one of my all-time favorites. Now, I also remember the days of my gramma's pork chops - back when pork had to be super well-done in order to be "safe". (*Spoiler - this is the sustainability lesson coming up*) This had to do with farming practices that included a sub-par diet and stressful living conditions, producing meat that was often flavorless, at times acrid, and needed to be cooked until bone dry to reduce the risk of ingesting transferable parasites. While current farming practices have started to improve the feed, reducing instances of trichinosis, meaning pork may now be cooked with a little tenderness and flavor left, the return to more sustainable farming practices has put the flavor back into the nobel swine. Further, my local butcher shop carries Marin Sun Farms pork chops which are spectacular. That said, I picked up some gorgeous, pink pork chops. I didn't feel the need to brine them as they were fresh, and I had planned on using an instant-read meat thermometer to make sure I got them cooked perfectly.

Now, when I first made this recipe, I had found a suggestion for a treatment of pork chops on the Food Discussion Forum of involving fresh figs, onions and balsamic vinegar. I spring-boarded off this treatment for what is now my final recipe. In my recipe, I use dried figs that have been reconstituted with boiling water and brandy. I also use a custom seasoning rub of herbs, salt, pepper, olive oil. This combined with the sweetness of the fruit, sweet and acid of the balsamic vinegar, and savory from the spices and onion create a crazy explosion of flavor in your mouth. The best I can describe it goes as follows: you cut a bite of pork off the chop, and pick up a bit of fig and onion so that everything hits your mouth simultaneously. The pork itself has been cooked so that when you bite into the flesh, it's firm, but tender without being dry or too chewy. The juice from the bite of pork mingles in your mouth with the soft, dense figs, ripe and sweet, sugars concentrated from the drying process, but the water and brandy plumping out the fruit. The sharp, tart, onion flavor lends it's own sweetness and complexity to the seemingly simple bite in your mouth. This, layered on top of smoky, caramely flavor of the balsamic, the freshness of the herbs, the salty and peppery flavor all makes you pause to savor and enjoy this bite. All conversation stops as your eyes close and notice the synergy and symphony happening with every bite - the complimenting flavors and sensations. It deserves a moment of quiet meditation as your senses are all at once stimulated and toyed with. Ahhh... as that bite diminishes and slides down and starts to dissipate, it's time to look at the plate for what's next.

VEGETARIANS - you can come back now. Okay, so the next dish were the pan-roasted new potatoes with rosemary. What I meant to make was a wonderful recipe from Jacques Pepin. What I made, was good, but not quite the result I wanted. What I wanted was potatoes that had a crispy outer texture and a creamy inside with a lot of flavor, enhanced with a little fat, salt, pepper and rosemary. I tried to make it off the top of my head - by memory of when I'd made it before, but the key here is just how much exposure the potatoes have to the heat, how much water is used and how it's absorbed all add to achieving the right texture. While what we ate was nice, it didn't have quite the texture I wanted. So, the recipe included below will be exactly from Jacques Pepin as I can't improve on his perfection.

Green salad -- pretty simple, yes? Well, yes, but there are a few things that take it from nice to spectacular. Here are my tips: FRESH lettuce. The crisper and fresher the better. But, even if your lettuce is a little less than super fresh from that day, there are a few things that can make it alive. One is fresh herbs. Stuff like fresh parsley, thyme (or even a pre-made "fresh herb" mix if you are short on time) helps to brighten your greens. Local veggies in season. While that may seem to be obvious, the less food has to travel, and the riper it’s picked, means the most nutrition and flavor. This means, local and in season. It’s summer – tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, etc. are a good addition. Lemon zest. O. M. G. Lemon zest is my secret ingredient in SOOOO many things. Add a bit of fresh lemon zest and juice will brighten up almost anything. Fresh dressing. Yes - my lemon vinaigrette will be included below. Taking a few minutes to make a fresh dressing with make a huge difference. Fresh ingredients - very few, without added chemicals and stabilizers is the best flavor you can add. And cheese. Yep, just a little crumbled cheese makes it from being just another vegetable side, to being that much closer to decadence.

Now, the story behind this is the love and bonding time in the kitchen with two good friends. Date night, or two good friends preparing food together, the it’s the love that will come through and shared. Kristina and I shared a nice bottle of wine, over wonderful conversation, laughs, and food that brightened our souls. Something that two fabulous girls deserve – not just on birthdays, but makes a damned fine excuse.

Pork Chops in with Balsamic Figs and Onions
(Please note, that these measurements are approximate. For the spice rub, I kinda go until it ‘looks right’, which is hard to translate into exact measurements. The important thing is to adjust to how powerful a punch you want.)

Serving Size: 2 generous portions

2 bone-in pork chops
1 Tbsp fresh rosemary chopped finely
2 tsp dried thyme (or a Tbsp chopped fresh thyme)
1 tsp kosher or coarse sea salt
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
1-2 cloves of garlic made into a paste (you want the garlic flavor, but you don’t want it to burn in the rub while the chops are cooking)
1-2 Tbsp Olive Oil (or just enough to make a nice paste)

7 oz. dried figs – chopped into quarters
½ cup (or so) boiling water
¼ cup brandy
1 white or yellow onion coarsely chopped
½ cup balsamic vinegar

Preheat heavy bottomed, oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat. (I use a cast-iron frying pan.) Combine the rosemary, thyme, salt, pepper and garlic paste in a small bowl. Add enough olive oil to make a medium thick paste. Brush paste onto both sides of chops. Sear chops on med high for about 2-3 minutes on each side until you get a nice golden color.

In the meantime coarsely chop one onion. Reconstitute the dried figs in boiling water and brandy. Then add the figs (after draining them from the water) and the onion to the chops in the pan and put in a 450 degree oven for about 10 minutes until an instant read thermometer read 150. (You may have to adjust the cook time, depending on how thick the chops are, but go be temperature). Take out the chops, place on a separate plate and cover with foil. Put the figs and onion back on the stove top, add 1/2 cup of balsamic vinegar and reduce it down until thick. Plate chops and pour sauce over it. The sauce marries nicely with the little bit of spices left in the pan from the spice rub.

Skillet-Roasted Potatoes with Rosemary
(This recipe comes from: Jacques Pepin, “Cuisine Economique.” William Morrow and Company, New York, New York, 1992. Pg. 20.)

Serving Size: 6 side portions (My own note: Makes FANTASTIC leftovers for breakfast the next day – pan fry it up with some scrambled eggs – PERFECT hangover food!)

2 pounds small new potatoes (about 24), thoroughly washed and any damaged spots removed
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup water
¼ tsp salt
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves or 2 teaspoons dried rosemary

- Place potatoes in one layer in a large saucepan and add the oil, butter, water and salt. Bring to a boil, cover and cook over high heat for about 8 minutes, until the water has evaporated. Reduce the heat and continue cooking, covered, over low heat for about 10 minutes. Add the rosemary and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 minutes longer.

- Serve warm.

Lemon Vinaigrette

1 lemon zested and juiced
1/3 cup olive oil
2-3 cloves of garlic minced
1-1/2 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp pepper

- Whisk all ingredients together until well-blended. Taste and adjust seasoning. Do not over-dress salad. Excess dressing will keep in the fridge up to about a week.

Introductory Post

Few things that have shaped the many days of my life as love (or the pursuit thereof) and, importantly, FOOD. Food has gotten me through some very difficult and some very wonderful times. Food has been shared with family and friends and has just been enjoyed alone. Food has been sensual, nourishing, comforting, energizing, soothing, fueling, and always the perfect accompaniment to life. I cook often. I cook for those I love and to show my love. I cook when I know what to do and when I don't know what else to do. I cook for others and I cook for myself.

I know what you're saying: "ANOTHER food blog? How many of these can really populate the internet?!!" Well, sorta. As a woman in my *cough* 30's, I have led an adventurous life - frequently with a mate, mostly with friends, but always with myself. And during some recent conversations with some very good friends, we all agreed that pretty much every scenario in life has a wardrobe, a soundtrack and a menu. This blog while at times explore all three, will focus always explore the menu that goes along with my life. The layout will be in three sections. The first - a story in the life of, well - ME. The second will be why the menu fit, and the third will be how the foods in the menu are sustainable. The menu will either focus on dining out experiences, or have accompanying recipes. Either way, food will be my main lense.

Oh yes - and let's not forget the sustainability part. My passion is food. But it also focuses on how the food is cultivated and ends up on my plate. Fresh, organic, local, fair, nutritious - the way the earth intended for us to eat. Sustainable and conscious eating doesn't mean inaccessible or un-affordable. Quite the opposite. Conscious choices around eating means healthier community, healthier economy, healthier planet, and healthier you. Explaining some of the factors that go into my food choices to a friend one night, he said "don't you ever just eat for the taste?" Um, hello - are you new here? Have you just met me? (I was actually surprised since this friend has known me for well over a decade and been to many of my dinner parties.) I explained that conscious eating was less a sacrifice as much as it was more of a reward.

So, bear with me, relax and have fun.