Vegetable Paradise–An International Perspective

Just in time for Thanksgiving, I gave a talk last night:   “Getting Thankfully to the Promised Land of Vegetables.”  Just before the talk began, I was surprised by the arrival of some Japanese students, then a Russian, then a group of Saudis and another of Kuwaitis.  A Taiwanese student rounded out the group of 10 international students.

They are all here for a short language-immersion program at the University of Colorado, and their professor thought a healthy eating class would be a perfect language-immersion activity.  At first, I wasn’t so sure.  I quickly ticked through my planned talk, panicking that it wouldn’t be relevant or of interest to young people from all points of the globe.  There really wasn’t time for much adjusting, however, so I dove in.

Turns out, the topic was just fine for our international attendees–and they were a wonderful audience.  As interesting as anything was learning from them about food issues in their countries.

  • In Russia, vegetable eating isn’t the alien act that it is in our country.  Because food is so highly priced, nearly 90% of the population has a garden and derives a good part of their diet from it.  So they end up with a vegetable-rich diet automatically.  And getting exercise is no problem, either.
  • Kuwaitis are dealing with diabetes, too.  One student’s mother makes sure his father eats a lot of broccoli, among other things, to help with his diabetes.
  • Also in Kuwait, dieting is the rage among women.
  • In Taiwan, organic foods are becoming quite popular.  One student worked for a successful German importer of organic nuts and spices.
  • During the cooking portion of the class, we prepared a Light Orange Spinach Waldorf Salad.  It was interesting to see how many of the ingredients were common in other countries, e.g., Bosc pears, spinach, Asian pears and walnuts.
  • Finally, when the conversation turned to the seasonal foods in the salad, speaking to an international audience got me thinking about the meaning of this concept in countries that don’t have so many or such distinct growing periods.  In Saudi Arabia, for instance, do they ever have cool-weather crops?  Do they ever not have warm weather fruits?  Hmmm . . .

Bottom line:   American cuisine has been delightfully enhanced by the addition of international flavors.  Maybe our whole conversation about healthy eating could benefit and take on greater dimension with more international perspectives.

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Making Turkey Day Healthier for Diabetics–and Non-Diabetics, Too

7 Tricks Make Thanksgiving Easier on the Blood Sugar

You know that sinking feeling—more like a crash, really.  The rolls, stuffing, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy and pies have all been devoured and now they’ve joined forces to create white carb havoc.

While most of us joke about the stupor we fall into after a big turkey dinner, Thanksgiving aftershock is not a joking matter for diabetics.  Hence the call I got from Pam Mellskog, reporter for Longmont’s Times-Call.  November is Diabetes Month and Pam was looking for ideas that could make Thanksgiving easier for diabetics.  Here are some of the things we talked about.

First, a clarification:  There isn’t such a thing as a specific “diabetic diet.”  Diabetics benefit from the same whole and natural eating approach that everyone benefits from:  real fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, good fats, beans, nuts—in other words, foods that come straight from the earth or as close thereto as possible.  What’s not so great for diabetics are the same manufactured foods that aren’t great for any of us:  white sugar, candy, sodas, white flour breads, muffins, cakes, pizzas and cookies, and other highly processed packaged foods.*

Ideally, we’d would pitch most of the traditional Thanksgiving meal out the window if there were any diabetics at the table.  As this would like spark serious civil unrest, however, I shared some intermediate steps with Pam:

Trick 1:  Weave in Whole Grains This is one of the easiest ways to “healthify” the Thanksgiving meal.  You might remember the whole grain article in September’s newsletter, “What Makes Whole Grains So Hard to Eat?”  As one reader commented, whole grains aren’t so hard to eat if you just follow a 50-50 rule:

For my baked goods, I just make them out of half white, half whole wheat flours. The difference between 50-50 and all-white is much smaller than the jump to 100% whole grain. Whole grain flours do not hold moisture as well as processed ones, so using half white maintains a familiar texture, while actually increasing flavor.

So Trick 1 this Thanksgiving is to make 50-50 baked goods.

  • For the rolls and pie crusts, get some whole wheat pastry flour in the bulk aisle of a health foods store.  (Great Harvest also makes some delicious whole wheat rolls.)
  • For the stuffing, use half whole wheat or other whole grain bread.
  • If you want, make the gravy with not just half but all whole wheat flour—the difference is negligible.

Trick 2:  Cut Back on Sugar With sugar so cheap, it’s no wonder it gets overused in recipes.  I discovered long ago that I could safely reduce the sugar in most recipes by a quarter without anyone so much as batting an eye.  Start with this much in your Thanksgiving pies, but feel free to continue gradually cutting back to half the sugar called for.

Trick 3:   Use Alternative Sweeteners Many dietitians will tell you that to the body, sugar is no different than honey, maple syrup, agave nectar and so on.  This isn’t the place for a debate of the science behind this statement, but it does bear noting that the major sponsors of the American Dietetic Association include Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills, Kellogg Company, Mars, the American Beverage Association, Post Cereals and Safeway.  Their sponsorship is not insignificant, either.  It costs $18,000 just for a booth at the ADA’s annual conference.

On the other hand, it costs nothing and doesn’t hurt anything  to experiment going without sugar, which is how I found out that substituting honey and agave nectar eliminated my sleeping problems.  Don’t worry about how to use these new sweeteners; recipes are plentiful.

Trick 4:  Use Fruits  and Flavors Instead of Sugar This trick is especially good for cranberry sauce which contains a lot of the white stuff, very often the High Fructose Corn Syrup variety.  My Cranberry Fig Relish, for instance, uses orange juice, pears, dates and figs, with just a small amount of maple syrup.  Also, strong spices like ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and orange zest help create flavor that isn’t reliant on sugar.

Trick 5:  Add More Green There’s a reason Thanksgiving frequently precipitates carb arrest:  Practically the whole meal is comprised of starchy carbs!  So what about making two or three (light) vegetable dishes, like a clean, fresh green salad, a simple kale dish and maybe some Brussels sprouts.  Fill half of your plate with those and at least it will take a second trip to the food bar to get any more servings of carbs.

Trick 6:  Moderation Of course eating smaller portions would help stave off a carb attack, but that’s almost antithetical to Thanksgiving tradition.  I mention it anyway, with the thought that it might pop up in time to save you from a second helping of pumpkin pie.

Trick 7:  Thin the Taters This is the trick Pam is featuring in her article.  Potatoes are high on the Glycemic Index, which is particularly bad for diabetics according to some experts.  However, Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes and gravy would be no Thanksgiving at all for most of us.  So Pam and I talked about how celeriac (or celery root) could be used for part of the potatoes, “thinning” their glycemic rating.  For the recipe, be sure to check out her article and get the recipe on Wednesday, November 11 in the Times-Call Food Section.

* See “Diabetes Diet, Variety and Consistency Are Key,” Dr. Tedd Mitchell, M.D., USA Weekend Magazine, November 12, 2006; and Sandra Woodruff, MS, RD, LD/N, author of The Complete Diabetes Prevention Plan (Avery, 2005), as quoted in Energy Times, July/August, 2006.

Last-of-Summer Marinara Sauce

Cooking and Eating with the Seasons

Homemade Marinara Pasta

Homemade Marinara--Simple yet Elegant

There’s not much to a basic marinara sauce: Tomatoes cooked down with onion and garlic, then seasoned with salt, pepper and herbs.  In summer, a fresh tomato sauce doesn’t go much beyond that.  Moreover, it’s kept light by cooking only briefly and using sweet onions, fresh garlic and fresh basil.

Colder weather calls for a heartier sauce, not to mention that sweet onions and fresh basil are long gone.  Hence my idea for a more savory, longer simmered sauce with regular winter storage onions, roasted garlic, a little red wine, some sausage meatballs and mushrooms, all topped off by hardier herbs like fresh thyme, oregano and parsley.

A Note About Time: Making a long-cooking savory marinara is more akin to ritual than fast everyday meal making.  As probably any good Italian grandma will tell you, there’s no rushing a good marinara.  So I allow it to be an evening or weekend project, something done piecemeal, while cooking a different dinner or puttering around the house.  The fact that it may not be done for dinner is a good thing.  Tomato sauces always taste better the second day.

Serves 6-8 (since of course you’ll want leftovers)

Step 1: Puree and Cook the Tomatoes

Box of Tomatoes--Fresh and Canned

Cut and puree enough tomatoes to make about 10 cups of puree. When fresh tomatoes are gone, use 2-3 large (28 oz.) cans of Muir Glen or a similarly high-quality canned tomatoes with their juices.

It all starts with the tomatoes.  No matter how skilled a cook you are, a marinara will be only as flavorful as the tomatoes that  go into it.  So start with the best, which generally means heading to the garden or farmers market.

Fresh tomato marinara takes a lot of tomatoes, about 6 to 8 pounds.  Don’t be surprised at how many tomatoes that comes out to.  Remember, once the water is cooked out, there’s not much left.

Scoop out stems, cut roughly into halves or quarters, then process in the food processor until pretty smooth.  Save time and don’t bother peeling; the skins just get chopped up, too.

Cooking Down the Tomato Sauce

The big surface area of this saute pan allows for faster evaporation of the tomato juices.

Cook the puree in a BIG, flared side sauté pan until it is no longer runny, but thick and rich.  This may take as long as 2 or 3 hours; which is why this is a good evening or weekend project.  Go ahead and fix a different dinner and prepare all the other ingredients while the puree cooks.

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Step 2:  Roast the Garlic

How to Roast Garlic

Roast 1-2 heads of garlic, depending on your taste for it, bearing in mind that roasting turns it sweet and mild.

Garlic is easy to roast.  Just dribble a little olive oil (about 1/2 Tbsp.)  over each head, rub it all over, then pop in a small, lidded baking dish and bake at 350 (F) for 45-60 minutes.

While a small terra cotta garlic roaster is nice, I often use a small baking dish so I can roast 3-4 heads at a time.   Roasted garlic keeps for a week or so in the frig, so why not keep some extra on hand for the wonderful flavor it adds to most dishes.

How Long to Roast Garlic

FYI, this particular variety of garlic has a purple hue; roasting didn't turn it purple!

You’ll know the garlic is done when it feels squishy and spongy when squeezed lightly.  I throw in a head or two whenever I have the oven on.

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Step 3:  Cook and Puree Carrots

Add Carrots to Marinara Sauce

It doesn't take many carrots to work a mellowing magic, just 2-3 large ones.

Pureed carrots are a Mary Addition to classic marinara.  I like how their sweetness mellows the acidic taste of the tomatoes while adding valuable nutritional depth.

Cut carrots into 1/4″ thick half moons, then microwave with about 2 Tbsp. Imagine Vegetable Broth for 8 minutes (stirring twice during the cooking time.)  Once cooked, puree in the food processor and stir into the sauce.

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Step 4:  Saute Onions

How to Saute the Onions

Use 2 medium onions, diced to about 1/2"

As always, warm about 1 Tbsp. olive oil in a saute pan before adding the diced onion.  Cook and stir about 10 minutes, until they are nicely browned.  Then reserve them in a bowl until the tomatoes are cooked down.  This way, they don’t get cooked to death while the tomatoes simmer away their juices.

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Step 5:  Saute the Mushrooms

How to Saute Mushrooms

Use 1/2 to 3/4 lb. Cremini are a favorite, but white button are fine, as are portobellos if sliced thinly

The same goes for the mushrooms.  After sauteing, I reserved in a bowl until the tomato sauce is cooked down.

From the picture to the right, it may look like I’ve used two different kinds of mushrooms, but they are all cremini.  The darker ones on the far right were just a couple weeks old when I finally found them in the frig.  Although they were on the verge of rotting, my waste-not, want-not conscience made me use them up.  Good thing.  They were actually much richer-tasting than the pretty, light-colored mushrooms on the left that I had purchased that day.

Optional Step:  Deglaze with Wine

Deglazing the Pan with Wine

Use about 1/2 cup good quality wine to deglaze

For a gourmet touch, deglaze the onion and mushroom sauteing pan with 1/2 cup good quality red wine.  After scraping any bits and coatings from the bottom of pan, cook the wine a few minutes to reduce slightly, then  add directly to the sauce.

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How to Make Meatballs

To keep our meat consumption moderate, I used just 3/4 lb. of Italian sausage rather than a full pound. I mixed it with 1/4 cup gluten-free breadcrumbs, 1 egg, salt and pepper and 2 tsp. of dried leaf basil, since there wouldn't be any fresh basil in the sauce.

Step 6: Basic Meatballs

Like a basic tomato sauce, it’s good to know a basic meatball recipe.  And like a basic tomato sauce, there isn’t much to basic meatballs:  Meat, whole grain breadcrumbs, onion, egg, herbs and salt and pepper.

For this dish, I saved time and skipped the onion since I was using sausage which has plenty of flavor.  Also, the sauce already contained a lot of onion.

The best way to mix meatballs?  Knead everything together with your hands.  It’s messy, but go ahead and form the meatballs while you’re at it.  I size the meatballs small (about 1 1/2″), both to spread the meat further and so they cook through without burning.

How to Mix Meatballs

How to Fry Meatballs

Because my sausage was so lean, I had to fry the meatballs in a little olive oil

Once formed, fry the meatballs in the same pan used to cook the onion and mushrooms.  No need to wash in between.  The flavors just keep piling up.

I found a large soup spoon does the best job of turning each meatball without destroying its neighbor.  Once done, I just turned off the heat and reserved until the sauce was done.

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How to Use Roasted Garlic

Cut off the "hairy" end of the head.

Step 7:  Mash the Garlic

Once roasted, garlic turns soft and silky.  Cut off the ends of the cloves and the pulp can be easily squeezed into a small bowl.  Start mashing with a fork, then gradually add a little broth (2-4 Tbsp.) to thin so it can be stirred easily into the sauce.

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Squeezing Roasted Garlic

Squeeze the soft pulp from its skins, either clove by clover or several cloves at a time.

Thinning Roasted Garlic

I used a little Imagine's Vegetable Broth for a flavorful thinning agent.

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Seasoning the Marinara

Just a teaspoon of sugar takes off the acidic edge of the tomatoes.

Step 8: Season

Stir in sea salt (I used Celtic salt) and freshly ground pepper, to taste.  If in doubt, start small.  More can be added at the end, after all the other ingredients are added.  This is also one of the few times when I use white sugar, just a teaspoon, to further “smooth out excess acidity,” as Joy of Cooking puts it.

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Adding Savory Herbs

The herbs rescued before the big storm come to my aid now. About 1/4 cup of thyme leaves, 1/3 cup of oregano leaves and a handful of flat-leafed parsley will add magnificent flavor to the sauce.

Step 9:  Prepare the Herbs

Fresh herbs take a little more time than dried, but the flavor is worth it.  Hold the top end of each stem with one hand and with the other hand, strip the leaves from the bottom part with the thumb and index finger.  The idea is to eliminate the tough parts of the stem.  The small thin tops of each stem aren’t a problem.  Chop everything until fairly small.

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Adding the onion and mushrooms

Step 10:  Put It All Together!

Now comes the fun part.  By the time you’ve cooked dinner and prepared the other ingredients, the tomatoes should be cooked down to a thick, rich sauce—like the stuff you buy in jars.  Now dump in the onion, mushrooms, meatballs and roasted garlic.  (The pureed carrots and wine, if using, should already be in there.)  Stir everything together well, and continue simmering for about 5-10 minutes.

When Should Fresh Herbs Be Added

Not until now, when you turn off the heat, should you stir in the fresh herbs.  They shouldn’t be cooked much to better preserve their bright, fresh flavor.

By now, you’re surely tired!  So put the lid on your sauce and put it in a cold place.  I have an outdoor shed that makes a perfect winter refrigerator.  Of course the sauce can also be stored in a regular refrigerator, but cool it completely first.  It’s hard on a refrigerator—and uses a lot of energy–to cool a hot dish.

The hard work will pay off.  As the sauce sits all night, the flavors will meld and you’ll be set for a super easy, super delicious seasonal meal the next night.  Enjoy the passing of the season.

It may take a while, but

Pair pasta and marinara with a simple salad made with the last of the lettuces and yellow and purple peppers of the season.

P.S. Gluten Free?  No Problem

Fresh, Gluten-Free Pasta from Villa Bozza

Fresh Pasta is now available in a gluten-free form

In addition to the many brands of dry gluten-free pasta (Tinkyada being my favorite), Longmont-based Villa Bozza now makes fresh, gluten-free pasta for a special treat.  Find it in the Denver metro area at select Whole Foods and King Soopers stores, and at several farmers markets.

How to Use Up Halloween Pumpkins

Sugar Pie Pumpkins

Small, round sugar pie pumpkins pack a lot more flavor than the big Jack-O-Lantern varieties

Picture Recipe:  Pumpkin Red Bean Tostadas

About now, there are likely a lot of pumpkins sitting around having the post-Halloween blues.   While most are the big Jack-O-Lantern variety with little flavor (and many of those are coated in candle wax), you may have a couple of the small, round sugar pumpkins left over from the day of the pumpkin.  Roast them and you have a good start on this easy recipe.

This recipe is a skillet recipe–the best kind in my mind.  Just throw everything in one pan, cook a while and voila! you have a complete meal.  It’s shared here in picture format.  See how you like that:

PumpkinTostadaRecipe

Pumpkin Red Bean Tostadas--Part 2

Ppumpkin Red Bean Tostadas--Part 3

Pumpkin Red Bean Tostadas-Part 4

Substitutions and Variations:

Squash: Roasted acorn could be substituted for pumpkins

Tomatoes: A 28-oz. can of diced Muir Glen (or comparable quality) tomatoes could be substituted for fresh.  Include the juices.

Jalapeno: Canned diced chiles could be substituted, mild or hot and in an amount that suits your spice tolerance.

Tortillas: Use hard shell tostadas; warm on a pancake griddle or in the microwave.

The Cabbage Core Challenge

4 Tricks for Taking the Sting Out of Bitter Vegetables

There’s a reason grocery store displays of broccoli rabe, rutabagas and turnips go

Cabbage Core

Does my "waste not-want not" motto really extend to cabbage cores?

untouched for hours at a time.  Some members of the vegetable kingdom are just a little harder to like than others.  But we still want the flavor and nutrient diversity they offer.  Happily, there are ways of preparing these difficult specimens that make them more palatable.  Although the following article focuses on cabbage cores, a particularly challenging vegetable, its tricks can be used to form a good working relationship with any of the harsher vegetables.


Here’s an honest admission:  I have a “waste-not-want-not” thing going on. My Twitter column is filled with vegetable dishes fast enough for breakfast and lunch—a good many made with stems, stalks, cores and leaves that normal cooks would pitch.  But not me.  I have this thing about waste, so I set myself a personal goal of starving my compost pile as much as possible.

To date, things have been going pretty well.  I’ve been turning kale stems, cauliflower leaves, broccoli stalks and other such “refuse” into tasty dishes—boosting my vegetable intake and stretching my vegetable dollars.  But then came yesterday’s cabbage core.  Couldn’t I safely pitch that without violating my self-inflicted waste code?

Tasting a piece of it triggered deep, gastronomic memories of everything bad about cabbage.  I now knew why the cabbage itself was unbelievably sweet and light:  Every bit of the head’s strong, musky, sour and harsh taste had been sucked into the core!  And that foul taste is what I got upon testing a bite.

I immediately started to scrape the whole thing towards the compost bin.  Not until the last

Cabbage Core Headed to the Compost Bin

The compost bin got the moldy end of the core, but the rest got chopped for a higher purpose.

second did my better self rise to the occasion.  The compost bin got the moldy end of the core (I do have some limits!), but the rest got chopped as I decided how to transform it into something I could stomach.  Working with vegetable parts that are frequently discarded, I’ve learned a few tricks to render them not only palatable but pretty decent-tasting.  This core was about to be my biggest challenge to date.

Trick 1:  Cook It Cooking is the best way to extract the bitterness from a vegetable.  In this case, I didn’t even consider steaming or sauteing but went straight to boiling, which is the preferred cooking method for really tough vegetable characters.

I know that boiling has lost favor over the years, probably because we get vegetables shipped in year round that are tender enough for just a light steaming or sautéing, which is generally better taste wise and nutritionally.  But imagine a pioneer farm wife faced with some garden remnant in November—it may be tough and gnarly, but it’s the closest thing to fresh that she will have for four months.  She is going to make those stalks or stems taste good no matter what, and boiling is the tool for the job.

Note, however, that boiling isn’t limited to throwing vegetables in a huge pot of water, cooking the vegetables to death and then pitching the water.  On the contrary, I simmer rather than boil my vegetables in a tiny, not a potful, of liquid.  This means any leached out vitamins and minerals get concentrated in an amount of liquid small enough that it can be fully incorporated into the finished dish, minimizing nutrient and flavor loss.  Also, I only simmer until the vegetables have lost their bitter or harsh taste, which is often when they are still crisp-tender.  My cabbage core had to be cooked beyond crisp-tender, but still far short of mush, before losing its harsh taste.

Trick 2:  Inject Flavor While water certainly works as a cooking liquid, experiment with

Simmer in Imagine's Vegetable Broth

This broth has plenty of flavor, so little additional salt was needed.

different broths.  They can inject flavor into the spaces left by the extraction of the vegetable’s bitterness.  I used Imagine’s Vegetable Broth, which has plenty of flavor to spare.

Third:  Salt Salt is also good at both drawing out bitterness and imparting flavor.  Your broth might be salty enough as is, but if using a low-sodium variety or water, try adding a little (maybe 1/4 tsp. to 1/2 tsp.) of good sea salt.  I used about 1/4 tsp. of Celtic salt in my simmer water.

Fourth:  Combine with Other Flavorful Ingredients.

I always say that sausage is a miracle ingredient.  Add just a little and the entire dish tastes great—no work, little cost and no cooking knowledge required.  Sausage was the primary tastemaker I added to my simmered cabbage core.

Sausage and Onion are Great Taste Makers

We just received a shipment of sausage from pasture-fed pigs. It I had no fat, so I had to add olive oil to saute the onion. Less than 1/4 lb. is all I needed for a great-flavored dish.

I also added sweetly browned onions and sweet snap pea shoots (I rescued a few from thegarden before last week’s snow.)  Their sweetness balanced the trace amounts of bitterness left in the cooked core pieces, as would other sweet vegetables (red peppers, corn, etc.) or sautéed fruits (like pears and apples), or just rice, chicken, tofu or some kind of sauce with a little sweetness.

The end result?  I think I met the challenge with a delicious for lunch that wasn’t just another sandwich–not by a long shot!

Cabbage Core with Sausage and Onions

For a little color, I added vivid green pea shoots at the end.

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