Posts tagged cooking

Lunches by Melissa

There are many reasons why I admire my younger sister Melissa. Whenever she enters a room, her infectious laughter immediately brightens the mood. Extremely ambitious and capable, she has succeeded in her dream of working in the fashion business. She is intensely loyal and loving, and has always supported me in every endeavor I’ve pursued.

There’s one more seemingly small but very important reason why I am in awe of Melissa: No matter how busy or tired she is, she makes homemade lunches for herself and her husband Nedim to bring to work every day. Sometimes it’s leftover pasta, sometimes just a simple green salad. She’s also been known to cook a whole second meal after dinner for their lunches, just so she and Nedim don’t have to waste money on food during the workday.

What, you might say? Does packing lunch every day really deserve such admiration and praise? Absolutely, especially on afternoons when I’ve endured another mediocre serving of pad thai or overcooked pasta from a nondescript restaurant near my Midtown Manhattan office. For some reason, I cannot get my act together to bring my lunch to work on a consistent basis. And when I think about the waste of money and unnecessary plastic packaging involved with buying my lunch every day, I feel very upset and guilty about the food I am putting into my body. Plus, whatever I buy rarely tastes very good, and I know that I could make something ten times better at home.

Some weeks are certainly better than others; like Melissa, I’ll pour some extra pasta into the pot when I’m cooking dinner and bring the leftovers to the office the following day. On another night I’ll add an extra half-cup of brown rice to our dinner, transforming the leftovers into a mean and healthy salad. But rarely do I have the energy to make myself a separate meal for the following day’s lunch. That lovely pearl barley salad up there, filled with crunchy apples and electric pomegranate seeds, was an anomaly, a rare instance when I prepared a healthy meal specifically for my lunch. I need a system. Or maybe I just need my sister to make me lunch every day.

So for the second time in a week, I turn to you again, readers. Do you bring your lunch to work? What are your favorite, easy-to-prepare, lunch dishes?

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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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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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Mom’s Stuffed Artichokes

Stuffed artichokes grace my parents’ dining room table on almost every major holiday, as well as special dinners and parties in between. My parents even have a specific platter for them, a delicately-painted ceramic plate with indentations for eight of these green globes, inherited from my Sicilian grandmother. Thanks to my Southern Italian mother and her formidable artichoke-related skills, my family has eaten more of these spindly vegetables than I can count. We are addicted to artichokes.

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Despite my love for my mother’s stuffed artichokes, I had never attempted to make them until a few weeks ago, when artichokes were actually in season. Jim and I were having two friends over for dinner, and it was time to put Mom’s recipe to the test. I picked up my cell phone, scrolled down to my parents’ number, and pressed the call button.

“Um, hi, Mom? Do you have a sec? How do you make your stuffed artichokes? Are they difficult?” I asked. “And will they be ready by 8 o’clock?”

And so began a half hour or so of phone calls. We talked about her ingredients for the stuffing (breadcrumbs, parsley, and Parmesan cheese are the main components); measurements (“I don’t know, I always just eyeball it”); and cooking time (“Not less than 40 minutes”). I also learned that her stuffed artichokes are steamed, not baked, and that they are best served at room temperature. Too much parsley is never a problem, and if I felt like mixing things up I could add a bit of prosciutto to the basic stuffing. I hung up the phone after our third call, started trimming the chokes, and hoped that some of Mom’s artichoke skills had been transmitted to me in the womb.

chokes_after

For my first attempt, the chokes were a simple and luxurious hit, especially since I had guessed most of the measurements for the ingredients. The moist, flavored breadcrumbs complemented the silky leaves with every bite. As I scraped each leaf with my teeth and made my way down to the choke at the center, I wondered how they compared to my mother’s. Maybe I did inherit some of her artichoke-related gifts after all. 

Recipe for Mom’s Stuffed Artichokes

  • 4 medium artichokes
  • 3/4 – 1 cup unseasoned breadcrumbs (store-bought are fine for this recipe)
  • 3 tablespoons of Parmesan cheese
  • 3 tablespoons fresh, finely chopped parsley
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • salt 
  • pepper
  • 1 lemon, cut into quarters
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

For the stuffing: Mix the breadcrumbs, cheese, parsley, garlic powder, and a bit of salt and pepper together in a bowl. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and mix together. Set aside.

Lay each artichoke on its side and cut off the pointy tops with a sharp knife. Cut off the artichoke stems and peel them. Set aside. After cutting off the stems, your artichokes should be able to sit on their flat bottoms. Tear off the tough outer leaves at the base of each choke. With a pair of scissors, cut off the pointy tops of the remaining outer leaves. (If you work quickly, you don’t need to set each artichoke aside in lemon-infused water.)

Working from the center of each artichoke towards the outer leaves, start stretching the leaves out a bit, to create more space between them. Stuff the breadcrumb mixture in between as many leaves as possible. Fill the openings with as much stuffing as possible. 

Sit the 4 artichokes and their stems in a high-sided sauté pan or large pot. Drizzle a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over the artichokes. Add about 1/4 cup water—enough to cover the bottom of the pan and a bit more—to the pot, add the lemons, and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and cover. Cook for about 40 minutes, adding water as necessary if the pot dries out. The artichokes are done when their color has changed to a less vibrant green and you can easily pull their leaves out.

You can keep these artichokes and their stems on a platter on the stovetop until you are ready to serve them that day. Serves 4. Enjoy!

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Blogworthy or Not: Skirt Steak Fajitas

One of the more stressful aspects about maintaining a food blog is determining whether or not a dish is “blogworthy.” Every time I consider writing about a meal I’ve cooked at home, I ask myself if it’s fascinating enough to blog about or if it’s a dish everyone has seen before. For example, a meal as novel as Goan shrimp curry is absolutely blogworthy and posted about immediately. But weeknight staples like spaghetti with garlic, parmesan, and olive oil, or turkey burgers? They don’t usually make the cut. To be honest, sometimes I experiment with a new recipe just so I have something—anything—to blog about.

openfajita

But often the most familiar dish in the world is all I want to cook. And in rare instances, an ordinary, almost banal meal is even worth writing about. That’s how I feel about the skirt steak fajitas I made this week. After a weekend of eating out, I was anxious to cook, and to create something simple and full of flavor. I turned to skirt steak, a tough cut of meat that tenderizes wonderfully when marinated while also taking on the flavors of the marinade’s ingredients. I rely on three staples for my marinade: olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and lime juice. Because I had made this recipe a million times before (ok, maybe 10 times), I knew I could rely on this powerful mix of flavors.

fajitaclosed

Let’s get one thing straight here: This is Tex-Mex via my Brooklyn kitchen. As you can tell, my skirt steak fajitas are not exotic or elegant, and I make no claims to fajita authenticity. But wrapped in a soft corn tortilla with fresh guacamole, crisp cilantro, charred onions, and smoky peppers, the lime-infused steak more than satisfied my need for a fresh, simple dinner. For me, that was enough to make my fajitas blogworthy.

Recipe for Christina’s Skirt Steak Fajitas

  • 1 2-lb skirt steak
  • juice squeezed from 1/2 of a lime
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 1 red pepper, sliced lengthwise
  • 1 yellow pepper, sliced lengthwise
  • 1 onion, sliced lengthwise
  • fresh guacamole
  • 1/2 cup cilantro leaves
  • 6-8 large corn tortillas

In a shallow baking dish, mix together 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, and the fresh lime juice. Season with salt and pepper. Add skirt steak, turning once to coat. If you need to, you can cut the skirt steak into smaller pieces to make it fit in the baking dish. Marinate for 1 hour in the refrigerator, turning the meat after 30 minutes.

When the meat is almost finished marinating, take it out of the refrigerator. Preheat the broiler. Heat remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until they start to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the peppers. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until onions have caramelized and peppers start to soften, about 10 -15 minutes, stirring once in a while. Set aside when done.

While the peppers and onions are cooking, remove the meat from the marinade and cook it under the broiler. Cook for about 5 minutes per side. (The meat will be about medium to medium-well done at this point. Adjust cooking time to your preference.) Remove from the broiler and let it rest for 5 minutes. Slice the meat into thin strips, at an angle.

Wrap your tortillas in aluminum foil and warm them in the oven for about 10 minutes. Remove and assemble the fajitas to your liking: Place a few spoonfuls of peppers and onions with 3-5 slices of skirt steak in the center of the tortilla. Top with fresh guacamole and chopped cilantro. Wrap. Serves 4. Enjoy!

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A Pause

I apologize for the sudden pause in posting last week. I can’t say much about it except that real life has once again gotten in the way of my food-related thoughts and blogging. This time it crept up on me out of the blue. It could be the weird weather shifts—Will it ever stop raining?—or just a recent turn inward that has kept me from updating Artichoke Heart. Maybe it’s just a two-year itch. I can’t believe it, but mid-March marked the second anniversary of my little blog. Perhaps after two years I don’t have much left to say.

cookbook

In any case I’m hoping to get back in the groove soon. Yesterday I treated myself to David Tanis’s beautiful cookbook, A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, and I think it will provide me with the inspiration I’ve been lacking. I’ve heard about this book by one of Chez Panisse’s head chefs for the past few months, but a stroll through Williams-Sonoma gave me my first opportunity to thumb through it. Page after page of elegant photographs and seasonal, family-style recipes called to me, and I bought it. Now I just have to decide what to make first: spinach cake with herb salad or lobster risotto? I’ll let you know.

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Too Many Meatballs

meatballs2

A few years ago, restaurants in New York City couldn’t open without meatballs. From the Little Owl’s adorable sliders and Apizz’s ricotta-enhanced monsters in Manhattan, to over the Brooklyn Bridge for Sicilian-style spheres at Frankie’s 457 Spuntino, the city’s restaurants were offering all meatballs, all the time.

A look through my own recipe archive shows that I’ve also done some experimenting with the little guys. For our annual holiday party I’ve made both the pork-and-veal and beef-and-pork versions of Mark Bittman’s polpetti, otherwise known as tiny meatballs. They were so popular they disappeared as soon as they hit the table. And I never told you about Mario Batali’s turkey meatballs, which I made last year: The rosemary was so overpowering that I couldn’t bring myself to write about them. (Actually, I just looked for the recipe online. In contrast to the page I originally printed out, the current version online is completely different and does not mention rosemary at all. Hmm, very suspicious.) So far, my go-to meatball recipe is from Cook’s Illustrated’s America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook. It combines both ground beef and pork with breadcrumbs, parmesan, egg, and a touch of yogurt, creating rich, soft versions of this favorite comfort food.

But last week I tried another recipe, this one inspired by Luisa over at the Wednesday Chef. She had written a post about some marvelous pork and ricotta meatballs that she tried at a restaurant called A16 in San Francisco. (I guess that meatball trend also stretched out to the West Coast.) After reading about Luisa’s desire to replicate the meatballs at home, I decided I needed to try them too and searched for the recipe published in a recent issue of Food & Wine.

This recipe calls for ground pork, plus pancetta, ricotta, and other traditional elements such as parsley, breadcrumbs, and oregano. The meatballs are baked, not fried, in sea of crushed peeled tomatoes for 2 hours. When they finally emerged from the oven they weren’t as browned as we expected, but oh were they cushiony and rich, bursting with pork flavors from both the ground pork and pancetta. Light and soft, swimming in a thick sauce, they were the perfect food for yet another snowy evening at home.

Jim and I didn’t adjust the recipe at all, meaning that we wound up with enough meatballs for a family of six. We ate some leftovers with spaghetti later in the week and froze the rest for a weekend lunch in the near future. But it wasn’t a problem. I think most people, whether eating at home or in a restaurant, would agree: You can never have too many meatballs.

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