Thursday, January 22, 2009

It's what's for dinner

I had eaten shakshouka, a Tunisian and Israeli dish of cooked tomatoes, spices and eggs, at Sunday brunch, but wouldn't have ventured to make it myself had my co-worker not successfully done so and given it an enthusiastic Two Thumbs Up. Once I realized that there really wasn't much to it - just slow-cooking some tomatoes (either fresh or canned will do), spices, and adding an egg or two on top to essentially poach in the stewing vegetables - I couldn't deny what a deal this was: a fast, healthy and delicious weeknight dinner for one. Major duh here, people.

So I set about making the dish, of course adding some splatters of culinary paint to the blank canvas, such as a glug of red wine into the tomatoes, a few handfuls of fresh spinach for color and texture, and a few sprinkles of red pepper flakes for zing. And the final product:

Drunken Shakshouka with Spinach
Yield: 1 dinner serving

- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 15-oz can of whole peeled tomatoes (go for organic, no-salt if available)
- 1/4 cup dry red wine
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 3 handfuls fresh baby spinach/arugula leaves
- 2 eggs (organic, free-range is the best)
- dash of crushed red pepper (optional)
- salt to taste

1. Set a large saucepan (with a lid) over low heat. Add the oil after a minute or two and swirl around to coat bottom of pan. Add the garlic and stir 2-3 minutes, until fragrant and just sizzling. Add tomatoes and raise heat to medium-low. Cover pan and let the tomatoes break down about 10 minutes. Open lid, pour in wine, and raise heat to medium-high to allow for alcohol to cook off, stirring frequently. Once the tomato sauce starts looking thicker, add the spinach on top, turn the heat back down to medium-low, and cover the pan to allow the spinach to wilt, about 2 minutes. Uncover and stir to incorporate the wilted spinach into the tomato sauce.

2. With heat still on medium-low, crack one egg into a cup and carefully slide it into one side of the pan. Do the same with the second egg, on the other side. Cover and let the eggs cook 3-7 minutes, depending on your preference. (I went for an even 5 minutes and got egg yolks that were still gooey but totally set - just the way I like them!) After the eggs are cooked to your liking, transfer the contents of the pan to a large dinner plate (carefully, to not upset the eggs), sprinkle with red pepper (if using) and salt to taste, and enjoy with a slice of whole grain toast.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ironing out the Beef Situation

Thus begins my first communique involving beef (just as a friendly warning to those who might not be so keen on the idea)...

Beef is a pretty sticky situation in this day and age: Overcrowding, injections of antibiotics and other mystery drugs, fecal run-off, deforestation, e. coli - and on and on. Why would I even suggest eating such nasty stuff, you ask? Well, in my case, my propensity to be iron deficient - and my doctor's admonitions - require that I do so. But the stuff's not all bad, as long as you know what to look out for. Here are a few helpful guidelines:

GRASS FED: Cattle that are pasture-raised naturally subsist on a diet of grass, rather than industrial feed. Mass produced beef tends to be fattened up with soy and corn by-products and kept in tiny pens indoors, away from the sun, with no room to even turn around (thus the need for such excessive amounts of antibiotics). What is wrong with this? Well, for one, it's cruel. Furthermore, Americans eat far too many refined corn and soy products to begin with (high fructose corn syrup, chemically altered soy derivatives, cornstarch, etc. etc.) which is partly responsible for our current obesity dilemma. And what the cow eats, you eat. Thirdly, pasture-raised cows, if they truly are that, are more environmentally sustainable, because
you can't keep thousands of grazing cows on one farm, however huge, meaning there is less fecal matter that runs off into our water systems. (However, the "grass-fed" label can lie: it might mean that the cows are left to graze for only the first few months of their lives, and are henceforth confined to cattle pens - so better yet, look for "grass-finished"). As an added perk, if the farmer adheres to a crop-rotation system, once the cattle have completely trampled and eaten up all the grass, the manure they leave behind can be used as natural fertilizer to grow crops in the very same swath of land, which makes use of the important carbon-nitrogen cycles that for centuries have supported the sustainable use of limited tracts of farmland.

LOCAL: If you can't find grass fed stuff at the supermarket, go to your local farmers market and start poking around there! Since local probably means small (unless you live next door to a big cattle factory), any way you slice it, this beef will have had less of an impact on our planet than the supermarket options. Also, it's fun to get involved in the resurgence of local agriculture and support the fight that these folks have ahead of them against the big-name, US government-subsidized agri-evil-businesses.

ORGANIC: If all else fails, go for organic - an unfortunately increasingly meaningless label. What you'll be getting: beef from factory-raised cattle that never saw the light of day, were fed feed (albeit organic) rather than grass, and may or may not have been shot up with cocktails of drugs during their lifetime. Oh, you thought organic meant drug-free? No sir. Another battle won by the commercial cattle-farming industry and another blow to the USDA's waning integrity.

Okay, now that you're thoroughly disheartened, I'll show you the beef dish I made, which used a grass-fed (I couldn't find grass-finished) lean bottom round cut.
Deconstructed Beef Negimaki

A bottom round cut of beef holds up well in stir fries because it's extra-tough and marbles nicely. This recipe can be doubled, tripled, even quadrupled - just make sure you have a large enough wok or saute pan to pull it off without overcrowding the pan; doing so could leave you with a steamed mush of meat.

- 3/4 lb. piece of bottom-round grass-fed beef, cut into thick slices
- 6 scallions, white part minced and green part chopped (separated)
- 2 tablespoons shoyu (soy sauce)
- 2 tablespoons (brown) rice vinegar
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil

- pinch salt to taste

Start off by heating a large wok or high-sided pan over medium-high heat. When a drop of water will sizzle, lay the beef slices out in the pan. Do not try to move them until the juices have released a bit - otherwise they will stick and tear. (You can judge if they've released by lifting the corner of a piece slightly with a spatula) Flip and continue to cook a few minutes more.

Meanwhile, mix the white part of the scallions, shoyu, rice vinegar, and sesame oil in a bowl and add to the cooking beef. Move around with a spoon or spatula, lowering heat slightly if the scallion starts sticking to the pan or the sauce scalds . Keep moving around until the pieces are all well coated and the sauce thickens a bit, 3-5 more minutes.

Turn off the heat, move pan from the burner, and sprinkle with scallion greens. Serve immediately over brown rice or rice noodles.

Monday, January 12, 2009

My cracked-out Lasagna

The first subject to be addressed in this entry is not the mysterious lasagna itself, but the vessel that birthed it: my brand spanking new Le Creuset casserole! I got it for the best deal in town...from my family's house. Evidently, the Le Creuset cookware came with the place. That this has been kept from me for so long is a sick joke. So I'm making up for lost time...

Say hello to my little friends:
Le Creuset of wonder (left) and my shiny new Cuisinart Multiclad saucepan (also totally dreamy)

But putting my consumer gratification aside, I finally come to the real reason why I've summoned you here to ooh and ahh at my wondrous cookware. It's all about what's inside...

Cracker Lasagna (Adapted from a recipe by Heidi Swanson)
Yields about 8 portions

First, a hefty headnote explaining why this isn't as crazy as it sounds. I don't know about you all, but I've about had it with pasta. And I happened to have a whole box of crispycrunchyclassy Kavli crackers sitting in my cupboard. Plus, I have Heidi Swanson of to thank for ample inspiration. So let me just say: this ain't no lasagna-substitute, diet-food crazed alternative. No suh. With just the right amount of onion and mushroom caramelization, enough frothing on the cottage-cheese/egg mixture, and a healthy sprinkling of whole wheat breadcrumbs on top, you'll never want to go back to the heavy, slimy pasta stuffed up in your lasagna (sorry, was that obscene?). Now, hit it...

- 2 cups low-fat cottage cheese
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 cup skim/low-fat milk

- 1 box Kavli Hearty-Thick crisps (about 18 crackers)

- 1 shallot, minced

- 1 large onion, sliced lengthwise
- 1 lb. brown mushrooms, chopped

- 3-4 handfuls baby spinach
- 1/2 cup whole wheat breadcrumbs/panko

- 1/4 to 1/3 cup grated parmesan, for dusting on top.

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

2. In a blender, mix the cottage cheese, eggs, and pour in the milk slowly until the mixture swirls more freely but isn't quite liquid. In a large flat casserole or baking dish, spread out the crackers and pour the dairy mixture over, to cover. Let soak 10 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large saucepan over low flame and add the shallot and onion. Stir occasionally, letting cook for about 10-15 minutes, until soft and lightly colored. Add mushrooms to the pan and incorporate. Cover and sweat for 5 minutes, until the mushrooms are soft, fragrant, and have released some liquid. Quickly fold in the spinach and turn off the heat while continuing to stir. The spinach should be just wilted.

5. Lightly oil a 12-inch casserole (or something similar). Begin with a layer of the soaked crackers (you will have to break some to fill in the spaces; don't worry about overlapping, that's fine). Next ladle in some of the cottage cheese mixture, smoothing ov
er the crackers. Lastly, spoon about 1/3 of the veggies on top and spread evenly. Repeat for another two layers, ending with the last bit of veggies and a sprinkling of breadcrumbs and dusting of parm on top.

6. Bake uncovered 30-40 minutes, until the top is turning golden and has cracked a little. Allow for some growing space in the casserole - the crackers soaked in the egg mixture rise noticeably! Remove from the oven and let stand 10-15 minutes to set completely. Serve or refrigerate for later (it keeps pretty well).

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The last supper of 2008

The final hours of 2008 were spent ingesting food among friends (how else?) - appearing here are just a few of the apps. Also key players were hummus, caramelized onion dip (courtesy of Kat), and broiled eggplant rounds topped with feta, peppers, and minced olives. And the main course (I know, we must have been out of our bloody minds), consisting of garlic-and-lemon-stuffed roast chicken and polenta squares with mint-walnut pate, will not be photo-documented here. I couldn't bear to reproduce the entire gluttonous parade.
It was just too much food!!

I take no credit for this masterful arrangement of cheese ravioli, grape tomatoes, and pesto (above). This was a Paul-n-Leigh Production. A total knockout on taste and presentation!

The heavenly nova...

And the spicy olives of yummmm....