Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Romance with Food

My first date with my husband was at the Sizzler. I think I chose the Sizzler because 1) it was a lunch date and I was coming from work and it was the nearest restaurant I could think of because 2) I was nervous, but mostly 3) I wasn’t very sophisticated food-wise. When I was younger, Sizzler seemed like a nice place to eat, not quite Stuart Anderson’s Black Angus (which was the pinnacle of quality for me), but it was a treat for my family and something I looked forward to.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, Ned was far more sophisticated than I in a culinary sense, but apparently was enamored enough not to guffaw out loud at my restaurant choice. In the end, the quality of the restaurant didn’t matter. We were both so nervous that we just drank coffee and water and talked.

I remember about 20 minutes in, we discovered that we both knew and loved the same obscure singer/songwriter, Maria McKee. This kind of clinched it for me, because I had a passion for this musician that I thought no one could understand, but Ned did. Not only did he understand, he matched my enthusiasm.

Though there was no food involved, this is still one of my favorite food memories. Perhaps it's a favorite because it came at the start of 19 years of food memories with my husband. Some were extravagant – the most excessive was at Farallon in San Francisco, and soooo worth it – but we have also enjoyed many simple meals at home, just the two of us.

Here’s one of the simplest recipes for two from our 19 years together:

Zuppa Pavese
Serves 2

2 slices firm country-style bread
2 cups chicken broth (preferably homemade)
2 eggs
Grated Parmesan cheese
Italian parsley, chopped

Bring chicken broth to a boil and salt to taste. Toast and butter the bread, and place butter-side-up in bowls. When broth is ready, break an egg onto each slice of bread and pour the boiling broth over it. Garnish with parmesan and parsley.

Adapted from a recipe by Lorenza de’ Medici in The Best of Italy: the Beautiful Cookbook (Collins, 1994).

This is obviously a light dinner, so supplement it with a salad. If you want more control over the done-ness of your eggs, poach them in the chicken broth first, spoon them carefully onto the bread, and pour the broth into the bowl.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Interspecies Cuisine

The other day I ate dogfood for lunch. Don't be horrified. It was homemade dogfood, a version of a recipe for doggie diarrhea I'd found in a book by a holistic vet. For this miracle diarrhea cure, you cook chicken thighs, diced sweet potato, and diced potato in just enough water to cover everything, for about an hour. This cure has worked almost overnight on our dog, Maxie, more times than I can count.

So I was curious to see if this remedy would work for humans too. And it did... But that's really beside the point. My point is this -- and I have several friends and colleagues who agree with me -- why should my beloved dog eat corn starch and chicken meal out of a can when my husband and I feast on healthy, homemade, whole foods-based meals?

Several years ago, after we lost a second dog to major health problems at a relatively young age, I began to experiment with making our own dog food. Unfortunately, this was short-lived because of the time and effort (and freezer space) involved in producing freshly-made dog food in bulk. And this was about the time that a number of companies began producing higher quality pet foods, so we easily fell off the bandwagon for the sake of convenience.

My interest in the subject was renewed when Maxie began to have chronic diarrhea that defied the vet's diagnostic skills, and could not be resolved by changing her canned food to a different brand or flavor of canned food. Besides her health, I was a little concerned about our carpet and getting back the deposit on the apartment when we moved out. Dr. Goldstein, the aforementioned holistic vet, referred in his book, The Nature of Animal Healing, to the aforementioned diarrhea remedy. It worked on Maxie, and now she's hooked.

However, because I don't think she can subsist on chicken, sweet potato and potato alone, we are now experimenting with a different recipe, one developed by a fellow nutrition student at Bastyr for her own dog. I will find out if Laine (pronounced ly-na) is willing to let me publish it here...

In the meantime, if I'm ever stumped over what to have for lunch, I can always have what Maxie's having.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

One-Pot is Hot

Delicious one-pot meals are at the top of my list of most useful recipes, especially for a busy student. This Chicken Tomatillo Stew is a favorite in our family, adapted from a recipe by Rick Bayless, originally featured in Eating Well magazine in the Feb/Mar 2005 issue. The original recipe is unfortunately not available on the Eating Well website, but I found it here.

This stew is so simple to put together that the complexity of the flavors in the finished dish comes as something of a surprise. Prepping is just a matter of slicing up the onions, potatoes and tomatillos, and layering all the ingredients in a Dutch oven. Then the dish is baked long enough to release all the natural juices from the ingredients, creating a rich and tangy broth in the bottom of the pot.

It can be served simply, in a bowl garnished with cilantro, or do as we do in our household and add a lime wedge and diced avocado and serve with warm corn tortillas.

In my version of the recipe, I use bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs. There are several reasons for this -- they're cheaper than boneless, skinless thighs, and the bone keeps the meat from cooking too quickly and drying out (it probably adds flavor as well). Of course, this means it has to be cooked a little longer, but not much. Leaving the skin on adds fat to the dish, which is otherwise virtually absent, meaning deeper flavor and silkier mouth-feel. If you don't want the fat, just take the skin off yourself.

I also use two or three fresh jalapenos instead of pickled jalapenos and leave them whole during the cooking because I want the flavor but not all the heat. Lastly, I use two onions instead of just one, just because the stewed onion is so luscious.

Here is my version of the recipe:

Chicken & Tomatillo Stew

Makes 6 servings
Preparation time: 20 minutes | Time to completion: 2 hours

2 medium white onions, sliced into 1/4-inch thick rounds
3-4 medium red-skinned potatoes, cut into 1/4-inch thick rounds
2-3 fresh jalapenos
6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
1 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves (leave some for garnish)
1 1/4 pounds tomatillos (about 12-16 medium)
Salt to taste

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. In a 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid, layer ingredients in the order they appear above, starting with the onion. Lightly salt each layer.
3. Bake, covered, for one hour. Remove lid and bake for an additional 20-30 minutes to reduce juices and brown chicken.
4. Serve garnished with cilantro.


Never heard of a tomatillo? It comes in a papery, pale green husk, and inside the husk is a plum-size fruit that looks like a green tomato. They can be found at most grocery stores in the produce section.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Great Minds Think Alike?

Readers, I just found a post on the same NY Times article about chocolate chip cookies (and the same recipe) on the venerable and slightly more well-known Chocolate & Zucchini blog. In her post, she links to another blog talking about the same recipe, which links to another blog... apparently this recipe has made the rounds.

Anyway, check out what Clotilde has to say about the cookie recipe. She made a lot of changes to the original recipe so that it's more suited for the home cook as opposed to commercial baker. I'll try it as soon as I can and report back on my results.

NOTE ADDED 5/17/09: See this post for my experiment with Clotilde's recipe.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Today's Lesson: Compare and Contrast

You are looking at [a photo of] what should be the world's BEST chocolate chip cookies, based on modifications made to the original Toll House cookie recipe by some of the world's most renowned bakers and chocolate artisans.

This batch, made by me, is not so much the world's best.

Compare this picture with the one in the article. My cookies came out dry and thick, lacking the goo factor that's so apparent in the NYTimes picture. See how the NYTimes cookies have folds of dough at the edges? In these folds you can actually see the process of baking, almost watch the dough melting on the cookie sheet! Doesn't that texture suggest a slight crispiness on the outside, almost a crust if that's possible, and a soft, warm interior? Cookie heaven.

My cookies are neither crunchy nor doughy (either of which would have been preferable), but have a kind of a soulless texture reminiscent of plastic-wrapped cookies sold in mini markets. In baked goods especially texture adds to flavor, so these taste soulless as well. You can't get into heaven without a pure and happy soul, hence these are NOT cookie heaven.

If I were to explore the Food Science 101 behind the failure of this batch of cookies, I would probably conclude that it was too humid that day -- not a bad assumption in Seattle -- an environmental factor which can alter baking outcomes significantly. I think I could have fixed the problem by using less flour, but I'm not a baker and I don't have a dough thumb, or whatever the term would be for the baker's instinctive knowledge of dough behavior.

So I'm still in search of the world's best chocolate chip cookie recipe. Do you have one?

Monday, April 13, 2009

...And Sometimes I Like Them Raw

And now, for my next trick, I'll successfully counter the outrageous claim in my last post that greens should be well-done by offering some options for eating greens raw -- well, ALMOST raw, anyway. Two of my favorite recipes come from two of my favorite instructors/mentors at Bastyr:

Emerald City Salad from Cynthia Lair's cookbook, Feeding the Whole Family. Follow the link to see the recipe AND watch her make it in a short, entertaining video AND buy the book. She mixes wild rice, greens, fennel, red pepper, and red cabbage into a beautiful salad, and the best part is that the greens are slightly steamed under the warm cooked rice. Since wild rice can be expensive, I made this salad with a more budget-friendly Lundberg Wild Blend, a mix of rices that includes wild rice, and it was just as delicious.

Then there's the Massaged Kale Salad from Jennifer Adler. In this dish, the chopped kale is sprinkled with coarse salt and literally massaged by hand to break down the cell walls a little, in effect tenderizing the kale. A yummy recipe as it stands and also, as we found out this summer at Quillisascut Farm (more on this at a later date), a very flexible recipe. Substitute pears for the apples, or goat cheese for the bleu cheese, it's all good!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

I Like My Greens Well-Done...

This is an obvious place to start for a nutrition student blogging about food and nutrition because greens are one of the most underappreciated nutritional powerhouse foods (along with beans). But I don’t mind being obvious in this case because I love greens and I want the world to love them too.

Greens are easy to love. They’re visually striking, with tapered stems like spines holding the curly leaves in a slight backbend that I imagine evolved to let them take advantage of the sunlight. They’re extremely healthy, containing abundant amounts of folate, vitamin K and calcium, not to mention the plentiful phytochemicals (read: beneficial plant compounds) hinted at by their deep color. And the flavor can be spectacular -- earthy and sweet, with a bitter edge.

But in my experience, people tend to undercook greens. Granted, from a nutritional point of view undercooking vegetables is better. The logic behind this is that the less they are cooked, the more they retain of their vitality and the better they are for you. More enzymes are deactivated with increased heating, and some vitamin activity may be lost. So as someone on their way to a career in nutrition, I should be recommending that greens be cooked less, not more.

Yet for me the pleasure of eating greens can be blunted by the texture – chewy, sometimes stringy – and the excess bitterness that is retained when greens are only slightly cooked, a flavor my husband appropriately calls “green.” I have nothing against the taste of green, but I prefer that raw flavor in a salad. Also, as a nutritionist who will no doubt be recommending greens to her patients, I have to think that these might be qualities that would put off a newbie to the world of greens.

Last night my husband cooked up some polenta and sausage, and served them with stewed red chard. He sautéed some sliced onions and garlic for a good 10-15 minutes first, then added the greens and a little chicken broth, covered the pan until the greens wilted, stirred it all together, and let it stew for another 10-15 minutes. Chard can hold up well to this amount of cooking, retaining the distinct color in its red stems and deep green leaves, holding its shape and enough chewiness that it was perfect in a bite with the polenta, and gaining sweetness from the long cooking. If it were kale, he would have cooked them for another 5-10 minutes.

Nutritionally, it could be argued that breaking down the cell walls with longer cooking actually releases more of the nutrients in the greens, and they may be more easily digested, since cooking does some of the work for you. So for all the above reasons, I urge you to try overcooking your greens. And in my next post, I’ll satisfy my inner nutritionist by talking about ways to eat greens that are NOT overcooked.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Cocoa nibs are crunchy morsels of concentrated cocoa essence. They deliver a burst of bitter chocolate against the top of the mouth and a little kick of energy (that's the caffeine). My goal with this blog is to share tasty and stimulating nuggets of information from my studies as a nutrition student that will make cooking, eating, and working towards health a more satisfying experience. Check back in a day or two for the first installment.