Archive for March, 2010

Thoughts on “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution”

By now you may have heard about the new reality show “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” on ABC. In this engrossing program, my favorite celebrity chef leaves Great Britain behind to incite a food revolution in America. Starting with the town of Huntington, West Virginia—recently named the unhealthiest city in America—Oliver is determined to turn its residents (especially its children) away from the dietary dangers of processed food. Obesity and obesity-related diseases have been on the rise in our country for some time, and Oliver’s investigation into our school diets and eating habits leaves little doubt as to why. Fortunately, even after viewing his dramatic demonstrations involving chicken fat, garbage bags full of chocolate milk, and the burial of a deep fryer, I found a few glimmers of hope by the end of the second episode.

Photo: ABC

The first two episodes show Oliver facing the same problems as when he revamped Great Britain’s school lunch program: skepticism from the lunch ladies who have been trained to simply reheat frozen, processed foods filled with sodium and artificial preservatives; kids who spit out fresh pasta and vegetables in favor of chicken nuggets (and turkey twizzlers in England); and administrators wary of the extra costs healthy food requires. But by the end of the second episode, Oliver has convinced the elementary school students to give his home-cooked meals a try, and has made significant progress with the obese Edwards family, teaching them about healthy eating and cooking, and using graphic scare tactics to direct them towards a whole foods diet.

While making these small steps, Oliver openly criticizes our government for our nation’s health issues, especially where school lunches are concerned. He blames the government for allowing processed junk into our schools in the first place, and for not providing funds for meals based on fresh fruit and vegetables. Children are being fed garbage for the sake of a manageable bottom line, and it’s helping to create the first generation of kids who will not live longer than their parents. Oliver forces the Edwards family to get check-ups (something they don’t do with regularity), and signs of impending diabetes are recognized in twelve-year-old Justin. While stating that he doesn’t understand what’s going on with our healthcare system, Oliver finds it “shocking, scary, and strange” that he had to be the one to take this family to the hospital. In just two hours of TV, he made many powerful and refreshing points about our general health and lifestyle.

Photo: ABC

While Oliver hands out a lot of criticism regarding fast food and government bureaucracy, the main point of his program is change. Turning away from processed foods is the first step towards claiming a healthy lifestyle. Step two is cooking with fresh fruits and vegetables so that you actually have a connection to your food, and step three is making this lifestyle accessible to everyone. I agree with Oliver that our government can and should help with these ideas, whether by example or through direct action. Some important seeds have already been planted, as with the recent passage of healthcare reform. Hopefully more families like the Edwards’s will visit their doctors and receive dietary advice in order to avoid illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. And in contrast to other recent administrations, Michelle Obama has focused her energies on ending child obesity. Her first step was planting an organic vegetable garden on White House property just last year, and now her Let’s Move program directly tackles childhood obesity at home and in schools. These efforts, combined with the increase in farmers’ markets, CSA’s, and programs such as Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard will perhaps give Oliver less to complain about in the future.

Oliver’s show is fascinating, and I believe he truly cares about changing the eating habits of kids all around the world (even if he is trying to create compelling television at the same time). Watching him teach Justin Edwards how to cook chicken with noodles and fresh vegetables, while telling him how his self-esteem and health would change as soon as the weight started dropping off, brought tears to my eyes. The feelings it inspired relate to why I started this blog in the first place. Jamie Oliver understands that food is more about filling our stomachs. It’s a crucial key to our health and happiness. This is one revolution I can get behind.

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution airs on Fridays at 9 pm on ABC. This week Jamie Oliver heads to the kitchen at Huntington High School.

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My Quest for La Quercia

Last week after our lovely lunch at Mimi’s Hummus, Rachel and I ducked into Market, the gourmet food shop next door. I walked slowly around the store, perusing the jars of local pickles and Middle Eastern spices, purposefully restraining myself from making any unnecessary (yet likely delicious) purchases. In fact, I probably would have left empty-handed had I not taken a closer look at the refrigerated case of cured meats, olives, and cheeses. That’s when I saw the yellow- and green-accented packaging of La Quercia Prosciutto Americano.

La Quercia is the only American producer of high-quality prosciutto, and its products have been lauded by Americans, Italians, and all nationalities in between. I had read about this unique Iowa-based company last year, and had recently tried its prosciutto at Danny Meyer’s new restaurant, Maialino. My dining partners and I were astonished by the meat’s authentic, natural flavor, and how it more than held its own against the Italian offerings on the cured meat platter we shared as an antipasto. But it was only after I found this pre-sliced, handy package of La Quercia’s cured pork at Market that I reviewed the company’s inspiring background again.

Herb and Kathy Eckhouse lived in Parma, Italy, for three and a half years, and fell in love with the idea of making Italian dry-cured meats in their home state of Iowa. After years of experimentation with this centuries-old tradition, the Eckhouses founded La Quercia (“oak” in Italian) in 2000. Not content to simply create an Italian facsimile of prosciutto, La Quercia produces cured meats that celebrate Iowa’s natural bounty without using artificial ingredients or preservatives. All of the pigs for its various cured products—in addition to different variations of prosciutto, La Quercia makes speck, coppa, pancetta, and guanciale—come from within 200 miles of the prosciuttificio, and are raised on vegetarian, grain-based diets, without antibiotics. These are pig products we can all feel good about.

I took the simple route with my package of Prosciutto Americano, draping its thin slices over squares of cantaloupe and eating it for lunch. Each buttery, supple slice was a revelation. The chewy, slightly fatty meat, falling in elastic sheets over the fresh fruit, was less salty yet somehow creamier than other Italian prosciutto I have tried, and I found myself eating slice after slice without pause. Later in the week, Jim and I sandwiched the remaining pieces in between some turkey cutlets for this recipe, adding a more intense layer of flavor to a simple meal. No matter what dish it appeared in, La Quercia’s prosciutto was the star. And we have Iowa and the Eckhouses to thank for it.

La Quercia’s prosciutto and other artisanal cured meats can be found at specialty food and grocery stores such as Whole Foods and the Red Hook Fairway. Check out their website for more store and ordering information.

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Lunch at Mimi’s Hummus

Most rainy days find me curled up on my couch, watching TV or flipping through the pages of a magazine in order to avoid the terrible weather outside. But during last Saturday’s torrential downpour, I actually left the apartment, for a very important reason: My dear friend Rachel was taking me out for a belated birthday lunch at Mimi’s Hummus in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. This tiny Israeli-inspired restaurant, with its warm orange walls and high ceilings, has received much positive attention lately, and I couldn’t wait to try it. Even the driving rain and high winds couldn’t keep me away.

We started with much-needed cups of hot mint and sage tea ($1.50), and snacked on complimentary olives and pickles while deciding what to order from chef Mimi Kitani’s varied menu. Five types of hummus with intriguing toppings such as mushrooms, tahini, and ground beef with pine nuts made it difficult to choose just one. But we finally settled on the fava bean version ($8), and ordered a basket of whole wheat and white pita bread to accompany it.

As soon as the hummus arrived, Rachel and I tore off bits of pita from the soft, pillowy rolls and eagerly scooped away at the spread. Creamy, light, and silky smooth, the hummus was simply amazing. The warm fava bean stew, nestled into the center of the spread, added an extra layer of richness, and I was so enthralled with the dish’s texture that I barely noticed the delicate lemon garlic dressing.

Next we split the shakshuka eggs, a piping hot, bubbling pan of eggs, tomatoes, red peppers, and spices such as turmeric and cumin ($9.50). It reminded me of a more fiery, Middle Eastern version of the Eggs in Purgatory I made a few weeks ago. Once again we put the pita bread to good use, swiping away at the sides of the cast iron pan so that none of the eggs or the deep, yolk-infused sauce went to waste. A crunchy Israeli salad, with cucumbers, tomatoes, and herbs, added a cool freshness to our meal as well ($5).

As Rachel and I chatted and sipped more tea, our waitress asked if we’d like dessert. After a moment of surprise—we had been so engrossed in our food and conversation that we hadn’t considered it—we went with the mysterious punchim ($3). Crushed chocolate graham crackers coated with coconut, these punchim were soft, buttery balls of chocolate decadence.

We took a peek at Market, the adorable food shop next door that is also run by Mimi’s owners. A quick tour revealed Brooklyn favorites such as McClure’s Pickles and Brooklyn Brine Co., as well as an array of Middle Eastern ingredients, specialty cheeses, and cured meats. Later, as I walked to the subway in the growing storm, I realized I was already thinking about my next visit to Mimi’s. Even if it’s raining again, I have four more types of hummus to try.

Mimi’s Hummus, 1209 Cortelyou Road between Westminster Road and East 13th Street in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. T: 718-284-4444. Market is located right next door, at 1211 Cortelyou Road.

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From Leaf to Stem

Every few weeks I find myself in the same position: Hunkered down in front of my open refrigerator with a plastic bag in hand, tossing withered produce and uneaten leftovers into the trash. Limp, yellowed parsley; saggy celery; dried-out chunks of onion; I’m always surprised at—and disappointed by—the amount of food that Jim and I waste each week.

In contrast to my guilt-inducing produce situation, Cathy Erway (of the popular blog Not Eating Out in New York) talks about her success with limiting food waste in her lovely new book, The Art of Eating In. As part of her desire to cook more and spend less, Erway employs often-discarded vegetable accessories such as beet greens and fennel fronds in her dishes, so that no part of the vegetable goes unused. While reading these pages, all I could think was I bet celery never goes bad in Cathy’s fridge. I hung my head in shame and once again vowed to change my ways. Surprisingly, I actually had some luck doing so.

It started with a big, floppy bunch of Swiss chard. I removed the stems and combined the pink-rimmed leaves with some leftover baby spinach, onions, feta cheese, and phyllo dough for a gorgeous Greek-inspired vegetarian pie. This light, flaky pie lasted us through one dinner and several lunches; not a single bite was left behind. And as I emptied the crisper drawers of plastic spinach containers and leftover cheese wrappers, I placed the Swiss chard stems in their place, instead of throwing them in the trash like I often do.

For the next few days, those stems stared at me every time I reached past them for tomatoes or salad greens. Finally, when they were about to turn, I pulled out a recipe for baked Swiss chard stems that I’d been saving for years. Similar to a casserole, the stems are layered with tomato sauce, garlic, and parmesan cheese, and baked in the oven until golden brown. Classic Italian flavors combine with an overlooked yet ruby-red vegetable for a satisfying side dish. And the best part was, not a single part of that Swiss chard went to waste. Not only was I proud of myself—and happy that I evaded another round of chard-induced guilt—but I discovered a delicious new side as well. I hope the trend continues; maybe I should try beet greens next. Thanks for the inspiration, Cathy!

Recipe for Baked Swiss Chard Stems with Tomatoes, Garlic, and Parmesan (adapted from Jack Bishop’s recipe as published in the New York Times on April 5, 2000)

  • 1/2 lb chard stems, bruised parts trimmed, halved crosswise
  • salt
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for baking dish
  • 2 small garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1-14 1/2 ounce can of diced tomatoes, drained
  • 1 tablespoon minced parsley
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bring a few quarts of salted water to boil in a large pot. Add the chard stems and cook until they are tender, about 10 minutes. Drain.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium in a medium skillet. Add the garlic and cook until golden, about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and simmer until sauce is almost dry, about 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Cover the bottom of a lightly greased baking dish with a single layer of chard, cutting stems if necessary to fit them in the dish. Spoon a bit of tomato sauce over the stems, and sprinkle with a little cheese. Repeat with the next layer of chard, alternating the direction of the stems. Finish tomato sauce and cheese. Sprinkle the parsley across the top.

Bake until chard is very tender and top layer is browned, about 25 minutes. Remove pan from the oven and let settle for 5 minutes. Cut into squares and serve. Serves 4 as a side dish. Enjoy!

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It’s the Little Things

Over the years, I’ve revealed a few facts about myself on this blog. For example, I often mention my Italian-American upbringing and that I currently live in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. You know that I’m married to a wonderful man named Jim, and that I join the local CSA every summer. Well, here’s another piece of information about me, albeit a bit more obscure: I have a fascination with small things.

Let me explain: In the back of my pantry, you’ll find an entire row of pint-size ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise jars. I used to collect sample packets of shampoo and hand lotion as a kid, and my Facebook photo is a picture of me eating a miniature creme brulee with a tiny spoon. Perhaps my obsession stems from the fact that I’m only 5 feet tall, I’m not sure. Whatever the reason, I’ve been fixated on little things for as long as I can remember.

On Valentine’s Day, Jim and I planned our menu around my small-sized fetish. A year ago we purchased two sets of Staub mini cocottes and promptly stored them away in the cupboard, forgotten. Cocottes are small cooking vessels, often shaped like Dutch ovens, that are suitable for individual portions of food. (Apparently cocotte is also the French word for a prostitute or promiscuous woman, but we’ll leave that discussion for another blog.) We pulled ours out from their dusty boxes on Valentine’s Day and finally put them to good use, primarily with the help of Le Creuset’s handy mini cocotte cookbook that we stumbled across during a recent trip to Pittsburgh.

First course
For the first course, we made French onion soup. Granted, the soup was first cooked in a big pot and then transferred to the tiny cocotte, but it fit the size requirement just fine. It was next topped with crusty bread, gruyère cheese, more onion, and baked in the oven for a few minutes. Hot and hearty, this soup was a cozy opening course on a chilly holiday.

Spinach souffles in mini cocottes

Second course
The next part of our tiny-themed meal arrived in the form of mini spinach soufflés. They had already started to deflate by the time I took this photo, and I’ll be honest, they weren’t the most successful part of our meal. We’re still not certain what went wrong; we beat the egg whites until they were stiff, and we followed the recipe closely. In the end the soufflés were a rather deflated and defeated mess of fresh baby spinach, eggs, and parmesan cheese.

Dessert
Moving on from our soggy soufflés, we ended our meal with vanilla creme brulee, served in two small ceramic hearts that Jim bought for our first Valentine’s Day together. They were rich, creamy pick-me-ups after our disappointing second course. And of course they looked absolutely adorable.

So that’s the photographic tour of our Valentine’s Day feast. It was pint-sized all the way through, from start to finish. I’d love to eat out of these cute containers every day, but that would be impossible; my appetite is anything but cocotte-sized.

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