Posts tagged food

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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A Weekend in the Finger Lakes

I know, I know. Every time I get on a roll updating the blog, I suddenly disappear again. Believe me, I’m as tired of the excuses as you are. But this month I endured a series of seemingly endless travels for work (Florence and Singapore, again) and family reasons (Pittsburgh), and I am only now starting to catch my breath. (In fact, I am currently home ailing with a sore throat. I think all this jet setting has finally caught up to me. Cough, cough.)

haybales

But in the midst of all these crazy journeys, at the beginning of the month Jim and I escaped to New York’s Finger Lakes for a weekend. The sparkling lakes and waterfalls, gorgeous green hills, and quiet country roads—along with the local wine, farmers’ markets, and amazing restaurants—were just what we needed before summer said its farewell and autumn appeared at our door.

winery

Let’s start with the wine. There are more than 100 wineries clustered around the region’s eleven lakes. Winemaking has been a tradition here for over 150 years, with most of the well-known wineries situated around the three largest, oblong lakes: Seneca, Cayuga, and Keuka. With a climate that has often been compared to Germany’s Rhine region, the Finger Lakes are primarily known for cool-weather whites such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer; however, we found that the reds were surprisingly deep and sophisticated. As Jim and I visited the wineries around Seneca Lake, we picked up bottles of Riesling and Cabernet from Standing Stone vineyards, as well as Viridescens and Cabernet Franc from Red Newt Cellars.  The Celsius iced wine from Atwater Estate vineyards was too sweet to resist, and we ended our tour with a few bottles added to the backseat of the car.

danos

We revived our weary palettes with some delicious dinners around Seneca Lake. Our favorite meal by far was at Dano’s Heuriger, a modern, glass-encased, Viennese-style restaurant right on the lake. We started with some of the unique spreads, all of which were visible in the glass counter near the entrance. The liptauer, a tangy Austrian cheese-based specialty, and the hotel sacher, made from capers, mustard seed, and anchovy paste, were incredibly intense, while the pumkinseed oil spread from my German-themed bento box blew me away with its smooth texture and flavors. As you can tell from the photograph below, the bento box gave me a small taste of everything the heuriger had to offer: fresh, vinegar-laced salads and potatoes, as well as various forms of juicy pork. Jim declared the wiener schnitzel the best he had ever tasted, and we immediately started to wonder if we could justify coming back for lunch the next day.

danos2

Another food-related highlight of the weekend was the Ithaca Farmers’ Market on Cayuga Lake. Here I need to thank Amy Maltzan of the wonderful blog Eggs on Sunday, first for her posts inspiring us to visit her local market, and also for the personal dining suggestions she provided for our getaway weekend. Amy, your farmers’ market didn’t disappoint. I was amazed by the sheer number of small local farmers selling their fruits and vegetables in the wood-beamed hallways of the market.

market

From one end to the other, down the side halls and in between, I browsed through piles of garlic, berries, cherry tomatoes, greens, and beans. Jim enjoyed a local cider tasting, and we bought some ham from a cute little butcher called the Piggery, as well as bread and cheese for snacking between wine tastings. I was a little surprised by the absence of fish mongers, and the relatively small number of cheese and meat vendors, but I loved how local crafts such as pottery and wood furniture were included in the market.

shopping

In addition to all this eating, drinking, and shopping, we visited some beautiful natural sights around the Finger Lakes. If you plan to head up there anytime soon, must-sees include the waterfall at Taughannock State Park, and the incredible rock formations in Watkins Glen State Park. The Corning Museum of Glass also deserves a lengthy stop. As you can tell from this post, you certainly won’t go hungry or thirsty during your travels.

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Rampless Risotto

risotto

What are the most obvious signs of spring? Some might say the flowering trees and plants; others celebrate the arrival of warmer temperatures and lighter jackets. But in the world of food blogs, spring means one thing: ramps.

Food bloggers love these mild spring onions. Once they are sighted at farmers’ markets, new posts about ramps fill my RSS reader, almost to the exclusion of anything else. Ramps in pasta, ramps on pizza, ramps, ramps, ramps. I’m sure there are many good reasons for this unabashed ramp love, but I don’t understand it—I’ve never tried a single ramp. I don’t know how I’ve survived in this rampless state until now, but I sure hope I don’t get banned from food blogging because of it. 

In fact, starting last weekend I did everything I could to cure my ramp-related ignorance. Jim had picked up a local flyer advertising that last week’s farmers’ market would be “all about ramps.” On Sunday morning, with my shopping bag slung over my shoulder, I bounded down my apartment steps and made my way to the Carroll Gardens market. I went straight to the W. Rogowski farm stand and searched earnestly between the piles of lettuce, spinach, and green onions.

“Excuse me, do you have ramps today?” I asked, a hint of worry creeping into my voice.

“No, I’m sorry, I didn’t have time to go down to the swamp to look for them this week,” responded a harried-looking Cheryl Rogowski. “But we do have watercress.”

Boo. Boo on watercress. I sighed and bought some asparagus, swiss chard, and green garlic instead.

But I wasn’t ready to give up on my ramps. On Monday morning I headed to the Union Square Farmers’ Market. At 8 am. Before work. In the rain. 

I walked around and around the market. I saw more asparagus, and I saw more watercress. I spied bread, greens, and flowers.

But no ramps. 

And then, my friends, I gave up. 

That evening at home, I took the spring risotto recipe that I had planned to make with ramps and shifted the ingredients around a bit. The original recipe called for a ramp and swiss chard pesto to be stirred into a risotto of asparagus, fava beans, and peas. Instead of using ramps in the pesto, I chopped some leeks with the swiss chard. I didn’t have any fava beans, and I hate peas, so I concentrated on the asparagus and green garlic that I had purchased the day before. And in the end, even without ramps, I created two beautiful and creamy plates of risotto. Each lemony forkful was full of fresh, green specks of seasonal goodness. I’m not giving up on ramps for good, but with them or without them, spring has definitely arrived. 

Recipe for Spring Risotto with Asparagus, Green Garlic, Swiss Chard, and Leeks (Adapted from the New York Times, April 23, 2008)

For the pesto:

  • 1 leek, cleaned and chopped
  • 3/4 cups packed swiss chard leaves
  • dash of salt
  • 1/4 cup of olive oil

For the risotto:

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon minced shallots
  • 3 sprigs of green garlic, minced
  • 1 cup Arborio rice
  • About 5 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 6 to 10 rods of asparagus, sliced into 2-inch pieces
  • Parmesan cheese

For the pesto: Place the chopped leeks, swiss chard leaves, and salt in a small food processor or hand blender. With the machine running, slowly add the olive oil. Season to taste. Set aside.

For the risotto: In a medium saucepan, bring your chicken or vegetable stock to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Add 1/2 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil to a large pot. Once the butter has melted, add the green garlic and the shallots. Cook garlic and shallots together until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the rice. Stir the rice for a minute or two, until the edges become translucent.

Add the white wine to the pot, and stir the rice until it has absorbed most of the wine. You know the liquid has been absorbed when you can scrape your spoon through the rice and it sticks to the sides of the pan a bit, showing the bottom of the pan. 

Add a few spoonfuls of stock to the rice. I usually work with a ladle, and add 1 full ladle of stock at a time. Stir the rice until the liquid is absorbed, and then add some more stock. Stir the rice continuously. (Taking a few small breaks is fine.) Continue to add stock and stir the rice in this manner until the rice is al dente and quite creamy, about 18 to 20 minutes.

When the rice is about halfway done (at the 10-12 minute mark) add the asparagus to the pot. Continue to stir.

When the rice is done, remove it from the heat. Stir in the pesto. Stir in 1/2 tablespoon of butter and about 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, topped with grated Parmesan cheese. Serves 2. 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.

chokes_pre

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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The Tart That Changed Everything

blueberrytart

A few months ago I made a firm and definitive statement on this blog: I don’t like yogurt. I told you how throughout my entire life I had attempted to make my peace with this sour dairy product by mixing it with granola or fruit, but to no avail. I simply hated it.

Well, today I am here to openly recant my anti-yogurt diatribe. I’d bow my head in shame except I’m so happy about my recent conversion I can’t hide it. And it’s all because last weekend I made Food & Wine’s glorious Honeyed Yogurt and Blueberry Tart. A smooth sea of honey-enhanced yogurt nestled in an electrically spicy graham cracker crust and dotted with plump, fresh berries has finally vanquished my yogurt-related negativity.

You may be asking why I would even attempt to make Food & Wine’s tart, given my professed aversion to the contents of its cool and creamy center. Honestly, I made this dessert because the recipe looked easy. All it requires is a quick whir of graham crackers, candied ginger, salt, sugar, and one egg white in the food processor. After being shaped into a tart pan, the crust is baked for a mere 20 minutes. (Actually, next time I think I will bake the crust for a few minutes less, as it was slightly overcooked and too crisp after 20 minutes.) The whole process takes less than half an hour and the crust can even be prepared the day before you plan to serve the dessert.

After mixing a few tablespoons of honey into the yogurt, spread the mixture into the cooled baked shell and top it with the blueberries. The slightly sweetened yet still tangy yogurt is perfectly complemented by the ginger-spiced crust and fresh berries. As I cautiously tasted my first bite, for once I was not overwhelmed by the sour flavors I usually associate with yogurt. It may have been the addition of honey that made the difference, or perhaps it was the powerful crust. Whatever the reason, I can’t wait to make it again when blueberries are actually in season. Try this tart. I promise, it will change everything.

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