10 Minutes to Salvation from Boring Vegetables

The Magic of Simple Sauces

Here’s What the Experts Say:  “You should be eating four to five servings of vegetables each day.”

Here’s How This Gets Translated in Our Brains:  “Guess I need to put a bigger pile of broccoli on my plate” (or squash, spinach, beans, whatever.)

Here’s What We End Up Thinking:  Boring–so much so that we conveniently “forget” a vegetable resolution within days of making it.

If this describes your situation, you get a free excuse called “Debilitating Boredom Syndrome.”  But before getting too cozy in your minimal vegetable world, remember that excuses only apply to the past.  The future is up for grabs and can definitely be changed.

Sauces are one of the best cures for Debilitating Boredom Syndrome.  Not only are they easy to make, but they add such delicious sparkle and shine to veggies.  No more forcing down forks-ful of steamed zucchini.  Glaze it with a super simple orange balsamic glaze, for example, and you’ll get giddy with excitement at the table.

Sounds easy, but deep down, Sauce Fear might be seeping into your cooking consciousness:  How do you make a sauce?  I don’t know what to buy.  Which sauce should I make?  What if it doesn’t taste good?  Which vegetables taste good with which sauce?

Stop!  Before talking yourself out of salvation and returning to the barren wasteland of boring broccoli, 1) check out the recipe for Simple Chinese Vegetable Sauce and 2) join us for

A Sweet Potato Afternoon on Saturday, February 1

See Class Description and Registration

We’ll make sweet potato fries, which are great on their own, but  we’ll also make and taste four lovely sauces in case you get bored:

  • Orange 5-Spice
  • Coconut Curry
  • Somewhat Spicy Mexican
  • Roasted Garlic-Mustard

As we cook and taste, we’ll also:

  • Explore what makes us nervous about sauces
  • See how sauces are really pretty easy to make
  • Learn what to have on hand for fast sauce-making
  • Begin to understand which flavors you like, which you like in smaller amounts, what goes with what.
  • Find flavor in herbs, spices and low-calorie condiments, steering clear of the butter, cream and cheese trap
  • And much more

Here is the Class Description

Sauces, Sweet Potatoes and a Winter Salad

Ready to see how everyday meal making can be engaging and enjoyable?  Join us for a delicious sweet potato afternoon. We’ll experiment with different potato varieties and four different rubs and sauces. You’ll go home with new flavors and ideas to perk up your winter meals.  In addition to sweet potatoes, we’ll make a winter salad for some complimentary crunch.  Bring a friend and make new friends as we cook and learn together in this hands-on class.

Gluten- and dairy- free; vegetarian, too

  • Saturday, February 1 from 2:00 to 4:30 p.m.
  • Louisville area (directions emailed upon registration)
  • $30 plus $5 materials fee; includes light tasting meal
  • Register Here
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Recipe: Simple Chinese Vegetable Sauce

Find Salvation from the Barren Wastelands of Boring Veggies

Find Salvation from the Barren Wastelands of Boring Veggies

The next post will talk about Debilitating Boredom Syndrome and how sauces can be just the cure if you’re agonizing over having to eat more broccoli, or spinach, or zucchini.  This Simple Chinese Sauce is a perfect example.  One of our class participants, CSU Extension Agent Ann Zander, couldn’t believe something so simple could turn plain old broccoli into a treat.

But here’s the thing about sauces:  Everyone’s tastes are so different.  You have to taste, taste, taste and adjust.  Use the following combination as a starting point, but be sure to add more lime or soy sauce as desired.  Toasted sesame oil can be quite strong, so add only a few drops at a time if you should want more.

  • 2 Tbsp. lime juice
  • 1 Tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. toasted sesame oil*

Combine in a small bowl and allow to sit for 5 minutes or so.  Taste on a vegetable piece and adjust flavors.  Be sure to stir immediately before serving to make sure ingredients are evenly combined.  While this sauce adds welcome zing to broccoli, it can also be used on many other vegetables, including green beans, zucchini, spinach and stir-fried cabbage.

*Note:  Toasted sesame oil is different than plain sesame oil that is used for stir-frying.  The toasted variety is dark brown in color and has the smell characteristic of Chinese cooking.

More Good News on the Healthy Eating Front: People Ditching Diet Sodas

Diet ColaA previous post shared the good news that Americans are getting smarter and taking control of their health by reducing soda consumption.  It was always assumed that diet sodas were off the hook, but some experts aren’t so sure those cans of artificial ingredients don’t harbor health risks of their own.  (Here’s one report)  At the very least, they aren’t doing anything positive for our health.  So it was with interest that I read a recent Wall Street article, “Diet Soda’s Glass Looks Half Empty.”  Here’s the story of Joanna Stepka, “the soda industry’s new nightmare.”

“The 33-year-old Rhode Island resident began drinking Diet Coke in kindergarten, graduating to three cans a day by adulthood.  She quit in August after her gym trainer told her artificial sweeteners are unhealthy and make people fat even if they don’t have calories.”

Feel free to join the trend!

How a Good Food Goes Bad

Sweet Potato Fries--Do they deserve a healthy halo?

Sweet Potato Fries–Do they deserve a healthy halo?

Another good food gone bad.  It was bound to happen.

I’m not talking about some broccoli gone bad in the bottom drawer of the frig.  I’m talking about the industrialization of poor sweet potatoes.

You might remember five or so years ago, when roasting became popular.  In the midst of our roasting fun, someone discovered the joy of roasted sweet potatoes, a/k/a sweet potato fries when cut to resemble French fries.

Back in those good old days, we started with high quality sweet potatoes.  Consistent with healthy roasting technique, slices were tossed with a moderate amount of high quality olive oil (e.g. 1-2 Tablespoons for 2-3 potatoes.)  Next came a sprinkling of salt that could be very moderate because high-quality, unrefined salt was used, bolstered by freshly ground pepper and sometimes other herbs and spices.  Roasted at high temperatures, the outsides browned while the natural sweetness of the potato condensed and intensified.

Not only did these fries add marvelous flavor and delightful color to our plates, they provided us with increased nutritional variety.   They were also great for people who can’t tolerate regular potatoes very well.

Downfall of the Joyous Sweet Potato

Something so ideal was bound to catch the eye of the industrial feeding machine.  First, trading on their healthy reputation, restaurants began offering sweet potato fries made like regular French fries, i.e., drowned in a vat of fat and coated with half a day’s worth of sodium.  In some restaurants, sugar is even being added to complete the addictive fat-salt-sugar triad that is the hallmark of our addictive fast food industry. (1)

Now the sweet potato itself is being subjected to an “industrial transformation,” not unlike that of countless foods from hamburgers to burritos and noodle bowls to stir fry.  Once perfectly fine and healthful, they are now classic examples of junk food.  Evidentially, the same fate awaits the poor sweet potato.  With consumption rising 30% over the last decade, The Wall Street Journal reports that food behemoth ConAgra has launched its biggest bet in years:  “to reinvent the sweet potato for mass consumption, starting with its shape and sugar content.” (2)

What exactly does it look like when a food goes from edible fruit of the earth to industrial product?  Many of industrial ag’s products (note the use of “products” not “foods”) have been a part of the foodscape so long we don’t even notice them or their effects.  But the re-making of the sweet potato is happening right now, under our noses, providing insight into how our modern food system has been shaped and why it no longer serves us.

The Model  ConAgra hopes to make the sweet potato a modern-day equivalent of the russet potato, which in the mid-1940s was “elevated” by entrepreneur J. R. Simplot from kitchen staple to multibillion-dollar franchise.  Simplot’s “genius” lay in developing a standard-sized, brick-like potato that could be efficiently machine-processed then quickly and conveniently cooked for mass consumption.(3)

The Fallout  We have mass consumed alright–right into an obesity epidemic in fact, with French fries a leading contributor.  Besides shifting the national diet away from nutritional balance, Simplot’s profit-driven efforts lessened valuable plant diversity,(4) diminished potato flavor(5) and compromised small farmers in favor of large corporate farms and mono-culture production.(6)

The Process  20,000 sweet potato lines are evaluated annually, from which scientists breed just a few that have a certain amount of sweetness, consistent deep orange color, a brick-like shape instead of pointed ends, a denser weight and the ability to store for a year rather than six months.  (Side Note:  In a world plagued by hunger, isn’t it interesting that millions and millions are being spent to create a boutique sweet potato for unhealthy frying instead of just growing and distributing plain old sweet potatoes to starving consumers?)

The Motivation  Not to be confused as an avenue to boost consumer health, all of ConAgra’s work is dedicated to the production of deep-fried sweet potato products, driven by the hope “that new, improved sweet potatoes will fuel growth and profit in its $2.2 billion potato business.”  As even the Wall Street reporter acknowledged, although sweet potatoes “are widely perceived as healthier, . . . when fried it’s debatable whether they are healthier than regular potatoes.”

The Misfortune  Nature has given us a joyously sweet edible.  Why do we demand more, to begin with, and when we demand more, what careful natural wisdom are we upsetting?  Contrary to modern industrial thought, we can’t have it all.  Just look at the tomato.  Clever engineering made it ripen more evenly for easier harvesting, but oops, that engineering also “contributed to making tomatoes less sweet.” Breeding for a redder tomato had similar unfortunate consequences.(7)  So what tradeoffs will be required to make sweet potatoes sweeter, or more uniform in color or able to store for an entire year?

The Solution   Easy.  No need to engage in civil disobedience, donate all your money to an environmental group or even write a letter.  Just be smart, be wise, be mindful of what you buy–and start making different choices.

Remember the Every Day Good Eating Motto   You can’t buy good nutrition in a box–or a package or at most restaurants.  So go home and make your own roasted sweet potatoes with real, nature-produced sweet potatoes, minimal amounts of fat and salt and NO added sugar!  They are easy.  You’ll love them.  And it will feel so rewarding to make your own, nutritious food.   Here is the recipe.

Notes:

While this isn’t meant to be a scholarly research paper, many authors have carefully researched and documented the industrialized food system.  Here are some citations that might be of interest as you begin understanding what has happened to our food system:

(1)  Fries or Sweet Fries?  Should you be eating either?  Bonnie Liebman, December 28, 2013, Nutrition Action

(2), (3)  “ConAgra Pushes Sweet Potato to Straighten Up and Fry Right,” Ilan Brat, The Wall Street Journal, May 23, 2010

(4)  “Consider that in the Andean highlands, a single farm may host as many as 40 distinct varieties of potato. . . , each having slightly different optimal soil, water, light, and temperature regimes. . . . (In comparison, in the United States, just four closely related varieties account for about 99 percent of all the potatoes produced.)”  Eat Here, Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a global Supermarket, Brian Halweil, W.W. Norton & Company, 2004, p. 71  (As climate change takes hold, we may find ourselves wishing we had more potato varieties with different tolerances.)

(5)  “About 90 percent of the money that Americans spend on food is used to buy processed food.  But the canning, freezing, and degydrating techniques used to process food destroy most of its flavor.  Since the end of World War II, a vast industry has arisen in the United States to make processed food palatable.  Without this flavor industry, today’s fast food industry could not exist.”  (Leads one to wonder whether the loss of a food’s natural flavor coincides with a loss of naturally-occurring nutrients as well.)  Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser, Perennial, 2002, p. 120.

(6)  “Over the past twenty-five years, Idaho has lost about half of its potato farmers. . . .  Family farms are giving way to corporate farms that stretch for thousands of acres.”  Schlosser, p. 118.  Sadly, Brat reports that Louisiana sweet potato farmers are eager to see ConAgra’s entry into the market, believing that the company’s new, $155 million sweet-potato processing plant as a key to their survival.

(7)  “Why Your Tomato Has No Flavor,” Jie Jenny Zou, The Wall Street Journal; “Bring Back Those Tasty Tomatoes,” The Los Angeles Times in The Daily Camera, “Monsanto Digs Into Seeds,” Ian Berry, The Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2012, p. B9:  “For years, seed companies have emphasized shelf-life and durability in shipping at the expense of taste, Consuelo Madere, vice president of Monsant’s vegetable-seed division, said in an interview.”

Recipe: Roasted Sweet Potato Sticks

After reading a Nutrition Action article bursting the healthy halo  around sweet potato fries, I got busy and recorded how I make Roasted Sweet Potato Sticks.  While not an exact replica of a crispy fry, they are a darn good-tasting substitute for the high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar dish cropping up in restaurants these days.  So if you’re tired of being misled into unhealthy eating, take a stand and do something different.  Make your own food, it’s revolutionary!

Ingredients

  • 4 cups sweet potato sticks, roughly 1/2″ square and 2-3 ” long (from about 2 medium or 1 lb. sweet potatoes)
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Drizzling with Oil

It doesn’t take much oil to transform sweet potatoes into a delightfully different side dish.

Quick Instructions

Preheat oven to 425(F).  Pile sweet potatoes on a large cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil, then “massage” to evenly coat sticks with oil.  Spread across cookie sheet in a single layer, leaving a little space between sticks.  Roast about 15 to 20 minutes until tender when stuck with a fork, flipping about halfway through cooking time

Notes

Pictures of Sweet Potato Varieties

Certain varieties of sweet potatoes are labeled as “yams” in regular grocery stores, but actually they are sweet potatoes. Yams are from an entirely different plant family, are grown primarily in places like Africa and don’t appear in our country except in an international market.

  • Jewels and garnets (far left and far right) are pretty similar, with a fairly mild but good taste. As its name suggests, garnets have a more reddish tinge, both inside and out.
  • Despite their pale color, white sweet potatoes are quite flavorful.
  • But nothing quite matches the exotic Japanese potato with its dense, rich flesh that can be yellow or purple (with the purple being slightly drier and denser.)

 

Like the recipe for a pie crust, the “recipe” for sweet potato sticks isn’t much, with just two ingredients (other than salt and pepper.)  That’s because the recipe isn’t so much about lots of ingredients as about the type of ingredients and the cooking techniques employed.  Here are some pointers from my experience:

Potato Varieties  In our healthy meal making classes, we taste test baked sweet potatoes and in those contests, the yellow-fleshed Japanese potato always wins.  However, sweet potato fries are roasted at higher temperatures which makes the moister, less dense garnets and jewels more suitable.  Whites become almost mushy with the high temperatures and Japanese are almost too dense and rich.  But test it out for yourself, too, knowing that practically anything roasted will come out pretty darn good.

Quantity Equivalents  Depending on the variety, a medium-sized potato will be anywhere from two-thirds to a pound in weight and will yield between two and four cups of sticks.

Organic?  Sometimes sweet potatoes can be fairly tasteless.  Sticking to organics has minimized the tasteless problem considerably for me.

Peel?  Why bother?  It takes a lot of time just to lose flavor and nutrition.  Just scrub well with a vegetable scrubber and slice off any bad spots

Chefs knife picture

Cutting sweet potatoes: a chefs knife is the best tool.

Cutting

  • Sweet potatoes are just plain hard.  Don’t try cutting them with anything less than a heavy chefs knife.
  • Cut off the pointed ends first and roast separately in a small baking dish.  The centers can then be cut into more uniformly-sized sticks, which promotes even cooking.
  • Sweet Potato Cutting

    Cut into slabs, then sticks as uniformly-sized as possible.

    Cut into slabs, getting to a flat side as soon as possible, then into sticks.  Join one of our knife skills classes to learn more about safely and efficiently cutting vegetables and fruits.

  • The flesh of white sweet potatoes darkens once cut and exposed to air, so work quickly to get them into the oven. However, should they darken, it does not affect taste or food safety.

Pans and Parchment Paper  Rimmed cookie sheets keep sticks from falling off.  In case your sheets are rusted, cover with parchment paper (preferably unbleached for environmental reasons) to prevent the off taste of an old sheet from permeating the potatoes.

Salt and Pepper  A good, unrefined salt makes a surprising difference in flavor.  For an inexpensive experiment, try Vitamin Cottage’s Orsa salt.  Savory Spice also has many fine varieties of salt.  Because they are so packed with flavor, you can get by with less, reducing sodium intake.

Give ‘Em Room Be sure to spread sticks evenly across the cookie sheet, leaving a little space between each.  Crowded foods will steam rather than brown, so if necessary, use a couple cookie sheets.

Roasting

  • When baking sweet potatoes, temperatures are kept at around 350 (F) to maximize sweetness.  However, roasting is done more quickly at higher temperatures.  Depending upon your oven, experiment with an even higher, 450(F) oven and if you have a convection setting, see if it produces more flavorful browning.
  • The potatoes closest to the heating element will brown and crisp the best, so when cooking more than one sheetful, rotate them halfway through the cooking time and be sure to flip the sticks as well.

When Are They Done?  The 15- to 20-minute guideline in the instructions is but a starting point.  The actual cooking time will vary depending upon your oven, type of potato, number of cookie sheets, whether you use a convection setting, and so on.  Most importantly, doneness is a matter of personal preference.  That’s why the critical rule of cooking is test and taste, test and taste.  Test with a fork to check for a tender interior.  Then taste, checking to see how you like the roasted sticks.  The first time you make them, consider roasting some for different lengths of time to see if you prefer them more or less cooked.

Sticks Not Fries  A crispy fry is difficult to obtain without deep frying.  Because our creation is roasted rather than fried in a vat of grease, we called them “sticks” to avoid raising expectations that the end product will be an exact replica of the high-fat, high-sodium fries found in restaurants.  It is instead a wonderfully tasty dish in its own category.

Spicing Up Roasted Sweet Potatoes Sticks

Spicing Up Roasted Sweet Potatoes Sticks

Playtime One of the best things about Roasted Sweet Potato Sticks is how wonderful they taste for something so simple.  So don’t feel compelled to do anything more, but if you get an urge to experiment and play, try a different sweet potato variety or use a sauce or rub either before roasting or as a dipping sauce.  Some examples. . . .

  • Orange 5-Spice Sauce
  • Coconut Curry Sauce
  • Spicy Mexican Rub
  • Roasted Garlic-Mustard

. . .  which leads me to mention some fun classes coming up:

  • Sauces, Sweet Potatoes and a Winter Salad:  Ready to experiment?  Join us to try all the varieties of sweet potatoes and sauces.  Discover some new flavors and ideas to perk up your winter meals.  We’ll also make a winter salad for some complimentary crunch.  Cook together, learn together, make new friends in this hands-on class.
  • Saturday, February 1 from 2:00 to 4:30 p.m.
  • Louisville area
  • $30 plus $5 materials fee; includes light tasting meal
  • Gluten and dairy free; vegetarian, too
  • To register, just complete the form below.  We’ll send you a link for payment.
  • Alternatively, join our 5-week, Mediterranean Diet session through the City of Boulder where we’ll experiment with lots of new ideas in addition to sweet potatoes.  Tuesdays from 5:30 to 8:00, Jan 21- Feb. 18, East Boulder Rec Center.  Use the contact form below for more information or just register here (class #207782)

Another January Giveaway: Control of Your Kitchen!

Cover of Take Control of YOur Kitchen

Tips, Tricks and Strategies to Make Everyday Meals Healthy, Easy and Enjoyable

While on the subject of organizing, I’m giving away a copy of my kitchen organizing book, Take Control of Your Kitchen.

How many times have you wished your kitchen life could be more in control?  This is the year when it can happen!  Divided into very beginner, intermediate and advanced sections, this book will walk you, step by step, to the land of a sane, supportive kitchen.  Besides discovering how to tame your kitchen spaces, learn to manage your shopping and cooking time for smooth, stress free meal making.

My New Year’s gift to you:  Experience the magic and see how tasty, healthy meals really are achievable for ordinary home cooks.  Just complete the form below

January Giveaway for New Year Organizers

Cover of House of Havoc

How to Make–and Keep–a Beautiful Home Despite Cheap Spouses, Messy Kids, and Other Difficult Roommates

It’s January and who isn’t afflicted by the organizing bug?  As a kitchen organizer, I can tell you that a friendly, manageable kitchen environment is key to healthier, tastier meals, so please follow through on those organizing urges!

But this New Year, how about putting some fun and laughs into a task that’s usually counted among the grim and tedious.  House of Havoc by Marni Jameson offers a warm and witty perspective on organizing that’s sure to keep spirits high while slogging through piles of clutter.  Be sure to check out the chapter titled “Your Kitchen Is Under Arrest,” (doesn’t that tell all!) where Marni recounts her kitchen organizing session with Yours Truly.

Special Offer:  Marni has graciously provided an extra copy of her book that I’m giving away to the first reader to claim it.  Besides great organizing advice, the book offers excellent design tips and tricks as Marni is also a home design expert. I think you’ll enjoy it immensely. 

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