Affordable Organics?

Learning to Double Your Vegetable Dollars Is the Secret

“I’d like to buy organic vegetables, but they’re so expensive.”  Ever catch yourself dreaming of more affordable organics?  Try this on for size:   What if, every time you purchased an organic vegetable, you actually got not just one but two or three vegetables?  No doubt that would make the  economic equation a lot more attractive.

Red Wagon Beets, Golden and Red

Red Wagon Beets, Golden and Red  (Picture Courtesy of Red Wagon)

Here’s how to make that his kind of magic happen:  Waste Not.  For example, in last week’s Farmers’ Market Excursion class, we made beet relish, using a gorgeous bunch of organic red and golden beets from Red Wagon Farm.  The bunch cost $4.00, but

  • we made enough relish for two meals,
  • the next day, the beet greens were the centerpiece for another meal, and
  • the following day the beet stems went into a lentil soup.

In other words, that’s four meals’ worth of vegetables for $4.00, or $1.00 per meal for amazingly delicious, don’t-harm-the-environment, don’t-harm-me, super-nutritious vegetables.

Beets with luch, full beet greens

People in my classes always exclaim, “You really don’t waste anything!” In our food culture which routinely wastes tons and tons of food, I guess my actions do seem odd: Retrieving kale stems when class members mistake them for compost, saving the ends of grated ginger root for tea, stuffing onion ends and skins into a bag to make my own (very cheap) broths. But maybe it’s time for the new, less-wasteful food culture that Every Day Good Eating is bringing about.  (Picture Courtesy of Red Wagon)

Bear in mind, too, that this was no ordinary bunch of limp beets with scraggly tops.  They were firm and dense, the tops lush and huge and the stems plentiful.  Every part of the beet was rich with flavor–leaving the taste buds completely satisfied and providing plenty of vegetable nutrition.  Could anyone really argue that  $1.00 per meal is “too expensive” for this caliber of vegetable?

“You get what you pay for” is a universal law.  Pay little and you get little.  Happily, it works the other way, too, however.  Pay a fair price and you get a fair–often more than fair–product.

Now that you know the magic that makes organic affordable, begin learning how to use all parts of a vegetable.  Join us for our last class on beet relish at Isabelle Farm on Thursday, July 26.  Then check out the next blog for a quick way to use beet greens.  For the stems, just saute and toss them into your favorite lentil soup (which could be a canned variety, too.)


Recipe: Beef and Onion Saute with Rhubarb Gratin

Discover the Savory Side of Rhubarb

Rhubarb Gratin Picture

Accustomed to seeing rhubarb in fruit desserts, it may come as a surprise to learn that it is actually a vegetable.  This is good news, however, as it presents a whole raft of additional uses for this exotically red food that is so abundant in spring when the foodscape is dominated by simple leafy greens.  In this dish, for instance, rhubarb is lightly sauteed with breadcrumbs and a bit of agave nectar to make a crunchy, tart-sweet topping for tender beef and onions.

In spring, it’s always handy to have a stash of “betwixt and between” dishes for spring days that bounce between warm and cool.  This dish fills that bill, with the warmth and heartiness of a cool-weather stew combined with the  vibrant flavors of fresh herbs and lime, topped off with the unmistakably spring flavor of tart rhubarb.

In a further nod to seasonality, note that rhubarb, parsley and mint are all in their prime in the spring garden, as mentioned in the previous post on the joys of seasonal eating.

Beef and Onion Saute with Rhubarb Gratin

Step 1  Make Mushroom Broth (in the Morning)

  • 1/3 cup dried shitake mushrooms (or a combination of shitake and other wild mushrooms)
  • 2 cups water

Combine mushrooms and water in a small saucepan with a lid. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about 15 minutes, while browning beef.  Remove mushrooms with a slotted spoon (keep for another use), then use broth as directed below.

Step 2  Brown Beef and Slow Cook (in the Morning)

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 lb. high quality, lean stew meat cut into small, 1” square cubes
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Heat oil in a large, heavy bottomed saute pan until hot but not smoking.  While oil heats, gently squeeze blood from beef cubes, if any, then spread cubes across a plate, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  When oil is hot, carefully lay beef cubes across pan in a single layer.  With heat on medium high, brown sides of cubes quickly, turning with a fork to brown two or three sides of each.  As soon as a cube is browned, drop into slow cooker, before it has a chance to cook much further than the surface level.
Use 1 ½ cups of mushroom broth to deglaze browning pan, then pour into slow cooker.  Cover and cook on low 7 to 9 hours, until tender.

Step 3  Saute Onions (at Dinnertime) 

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 4 med.  or 2 lrg. yellow onions, diced into large pieces, about 1” square
  • 1 tsp. turmeric
  • 2 Tbsp. tomato paste

In a large, heavy-bottomed, oven-proof saute pan, heat oil over medium heat until hot but not smoking.  Add onions and saute about 10-15 minutes until browned and sweet tasting.   Add turmeric and saute another 2 minutes, stirring a couple times.  Add tomato paste and stewed meat from slow cooker, stirring until everything is well-combined.  Reduce heat to low and simmer while preparing the rest of dish, stirring occasionally and allowing most of liquid to evaporate.

Step 4  Make Fresh Herb Sauce

  • 4 cups loosely packed fresh parsley
  • 1 cup loosely packed fresh mint
  • 2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice

Place parsley and mint in food processor, removing any very large stems.  Add lime and remaining ½ cup mushroom broth and process until fairly smooth but with some texture remaining.  Stir into onion-meat mixture, then cover pan and remove from heat.

Step 5  Make Rhubarb Gratin 

  • 2 cups rhubarb, cut in ¼ to ½” dice (about ½ to ¾ lb. stems)
  • ½ Tbsp. olive oil
  • ¼ tsp. nutmeg
  • ½ cup whole grain (not plain white) breadcrumbs, preferably made from a crusty bread
  • 1 Tbsp. agave nectar (or 2 tsp. sugar)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 450 (F).  In a second, large, heavy-bottomed saute pan, heat oil over medium heat until quite warm.  Add rhubarb and saute just 2 to 4 minutes, until it softens slightly.  Stir in nutmeg, then breadcrumbs and saute another 1-2 minutes.  Stir in agave nectar, then season to taste with salt and pepper.  Sprinkle mixture evenly over onion-beef mixture, then place in oven and bake about 10 minutes, until gratin begins to brown slightly.  Remove and allow to sit for 5 or 10 minutes, if possible, before serving.

Accompaniments:  For a light dinner, serve with just a simple salad of spring greens and carrots.  For a heartier meal, serve with brown rice –or buckwheat for something even more adventurous.

Time Saver:  Substitute ready made mushroom or beef broth for the homemade mushroom broth

No Ovenproof Saute Pan?  Pour the beef saute into an oiled casserole dish just before topping with gratin.

Why We Love Seasonal Eating

Mealtimes that are easier tastier and more fun

Rhubarb in the Early Summer Garden #1

Rhubarb is a lush addition to the Early Summer Garden . . .

Seasonal eating gets a lot of press these days.  Usually it’s in the context of eating locally, since the two go hand in hand.  Sometimes it’s in the context of saving money, since seasonal produce is  less expensive than produce grown in greenhouses or shipped from different climates.  Rarely is there mention of the best reasons to eat seasonally:  because it makes mealtimes easier and tastier as well as more interesting and fun.

This month’s Beef and Onion Saute with Rhubarb Gratin is a good case in point.   It is based on a recipe for Rhubarb Khoresh that I clipped from the newspaper years ago–long before seasonal eating became a common kitchen term.  Nevertheless, the recipe writer knew her seasons.  This became clear when I struck out into the rain last week to harvest the rhubarb from my garden, then the parsley, and then the mint called for by the recipe.  So there were the three main ingredients, all in their prime, in the garden, at the same time.  That’s seasonal sensibility.

More Rhubarb

. . . so gorgeous

The resulting dish was obviously local and economical, but it was a pleasant surprise to discover, once again, how well the season’s flavors melded together.   That’s where the easy and tasty part comes in.  It may seem splendid to have practically unlimited options in terms of grocery store produce and recipes; little do we realize how burdensome is the flip side of unlimited choice.  Somebody has to sift and think through hundreds of options to find just one thing for dinner!

With seasonal eating, however, only a dozen or so items are in their prime each month, which automatically narrows the options to a manageable range.  Better yet, what’s in season almost always tastes great with whatever else in in season, even with a pairing as odd as rhubarb, parsley and mint.  So it’s easy to come up with tasty meals.

More Rhubarb in the Early Summer Garden

. . . I had to include a couple more shots

Now for the fun and interesting part.  In late spring to early summer, rhubarb is everywhere.  That may seem like a sure recipe for boredom.  After all, what else is rhubarb good for besides strawberry rhubarb pie?  Just as necessity is the mother of invention, however, a commitment to seasonal eating is the mother of culinary innovation.  Who would have known rhubarb has a savory side?  Who would have used it to brighten up a beef and onion saute with springy, tangy sweetness after all the long months of winter?  Only someone dedicated to maximizing the bounty of the season, rather than being lured by the siren song of grocery store tomatoes, eggplant and peppers shipped in from warmer climates.  Their time will come in Colorado, and they’ll be filled with juicy goodness, but not now.  Now is the time for rhubarb’s springtime punch.  So be sure to try the stew right away, while there are still a few coolish days when a warming beef dish has appeal.

Looking for a Quick Lunch?

Green Salad with Chicken plus Fresh Fruit and Herb Dressing

Think you can’t cook?  This recipe’s great flavor comes not from fancy cooking skills but simply from good ingredients.  Stellar ingredients make a cook’s life easy!  So be sure to read the Buying Notes for each ingredient to help you get the best.

Making the Strawberry Apricot Dressing

The combination of apricots and basil is as lovely to look at as it is to eat.

Step 1  Make the Dressing

If you can dump things into a blender and push a button, you can make this dressing:

  • 3/4 cup fresh apricot-strawberry puree (from about 3 apricots and 6-8 small strawberries)
  • 2 Tbsp. walnut oil (or high quality olive oil)
  • 1 Tbsp. brown rice vinegar (if you don’t have some, it’s worth stocking)
  • Double handful of fresh basil leaves (see picture)
  • Single handful of fresh parsley (see picture)
  • Just a small spoonful of fresh tarragon leaves (they are a lot stronger than basil and parsley)
  • Sea salt (start with 1/4 tsp.)
  • Freshly ground pepper (start with 1/8 tsp.)
  • 1/2 tsp. sugar

Directions Combine everything in the cup of an

A double handful of basil

immersion blender (or food processor or blender) and process for just 20-30 seconds to combine.  Now comes the most critical step:  TASTE.  For ANY recipe, there is a 90% chance that the flavors need to be adjusted to suit your taste buds.  So pour the dressing into a small bowl, dip a piece of lettuce into it and taste.  Stir in more salt and pepper first, then more chopped basil, parsley or vinegar to find a taste that is good to you.  Always go slowly and taste after each addition.

Serve dressing at room temperature.  To my taste buds, fruits taste better when they aren’t chilled.

Buying Notes Flavor-less fruit = flavor-less dressing.  For fruit that taste like fruit not

A single handful of parsley

cardboard, head straight to the source:  the grower, usually an organic one.  Next, taste before buying very much.  If the grower doesn’t offer samples, buy just one piece and taste.  Once home, let stone fruits like apricots and peaches ripen.  Doing so in paper bags is often recommended.  Let the fruit get pretty soft, since that point, just before it goes overboard, yields flavor most reminiscent of heaven.  Keep a close eye on the fruit (especially if it’s hidden in paper bags!) and keep tasting each day, watching for optimal flavor.

Variations Could be equally good with whatever fruit is in season: sweet cherries and apricots, peaches and raspberries, or pears and raspberries.

A Double Handful of Basil

A small spoonful of tarragon leaves

Step 2   Make the Green Salad

  • 4-6 cups very fresh lettuce, washed and torn (or cut with a serrated knife if you’re in a hurry)
  • 1-2 med. carrots, grated finely

Directions Nothing too complicated about this step, although it does help to wash the lettuce in a good salad spinner, so you end up with crispy, not soggy lettuce.  Another trick:  Wash the lettuce the night before.  Place in salad storer, cover with a clean, folded tea towel, then seal and refrigerate until the next day.  The tea towel extracts excess water, leaving the lettuce crispy and light.

For the carrots, grate using the fine hole on your box grater for something different.

Buying Notes A salad is only as good as its greens.  They need to taste fairly good on their own, so the dressing is just enhancing flavor, not making up for an absence thereof.   Good lettuce is where local farmer’s markets shine, since lettuce is a crop that really tastes best when fresh picked–so good you barely even need dressing, if you can believe it.

In mid-summer, finding good lettuce can be tricky, since it’s is a cool weather crop.  I always taste a bit before investing in a bag to make sure it’s not bitter.  Also look for farmers who have taken steps to work around the heat issue, like Oxford Gardens at the Boulder Farmers’ Market, where owner Peter Volz sells a heat-tolerant variety that is quite good.  Abbondanza, also at the Boulder Market, seems to have perfected a technique for hot-weather lettuce growing as I’ve gotten great lettuce there even in July and August.

Step 3  Add Chicken to the Salad

  • 1-2 cups chicken, shredded or cut into small pieces

Buying Notes Again, this is another simple step with finding good chicken being the only tricky part , since not all store chickens are not created equally.  Again, it is usually local and/or organic birds that have more flavor.  This salad is a great way to use of leftover bits and pieces.  If you don’t have any however, then try canned chicken for a highly convenient option.  Before you blanch at the thought of canned bird, read the next blog entry on two, surprisingly taste brands I’ve recently discovered.

Want to learn more about the little tricks and tips that make everyday good meal making natural, stress-free and even a little creative?  Join Mary Collette in one of her Whole Kitchen Way to Wholesome Meal Making classes.

Frozen Veggies Can Be As (or More) Nutritious Than Fresh

Fresh Broccoli vs. Frozen

Think of frozen veggies as a convenient alternative to, not a straight substitute for fresh vegetables.

After one of my Easy Everyday Cooking Classes, one participant wrote an alarmed message on her evaluation form:  “Why did you use frozen vegetables for the Cauliflower Tomato Curry?  I never eat anything but fresh!”

My bad.  Not for using frozen veggies, but for failing to clarify the reasoning.  While the word is getting out about frozen vegetables, let me repeat the key points in case you’ve missed anything:

1.  Fresh vegetables are better, if they’re really fresh, When nutrition experts rhapsodize over fresh vegetables, the vegetables they have in mind are those picked that morning then stored properly until dinner time.   Sadly, however, the “fresh” vegetables in your grocery store aren’t generally far from this kind of fresh.  Even though they look fresh, they may well be two, three or four days old, depending upon how long it took to transport them from the field (often in a distant part of the country), through warehouses and distribution points and onto your store’s shelves, where they may sit for another day or two before being purchased.  Then they may sit another day (or week) in your frig before making it onto the dinner plate.

2.   Vegetables begin the slow slide into compost the minute they are picked. And they begin to deteriorate nutritionally as well as physically.  While proper storage can minimize nutrient loss, consumers are often lax in this regard.  Produce isn’t bagged properly, it sits in hot cars too long, is forgotten about on counters and is denied the optimal humidity in the frig.

3.  Meanwhile, produce destined for the freezer case is flash frozen shortly after picking, at its nutritional peak. That nutritional high point can then be maintained for six months at least.

4.  So while the translation from fresh to frozen undoubtedly results in nutrient loss, it’s surely no worse than that suffered by “fresh” produce that has survived three (or maybe 13) days in trucks, warehouses, grocery shelf bins and crisper drawers.  And nutritional studies have confirmed this fact.

Despite the evidence, it not uncommon to still feel uneasy about using frozen vegetables.  For so long, the “eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables” prescription has been drilled into us to the point where, at a visceral level, it just feels wrong to eat frozen veggies.  And let’s not forget about taste.  Without a doubt, fresh vegetables (even if a few days old), generally taste a whole lot better than frozen.

On the other hand, frozen veggies have a lot to offer over fresh:

  • They won’t rot in the crisper if you forget them for a week, buy too many veggies or experience schedule changes that make mincemeat of your dinner plans.
  • They are enormously convenient:  No peeling, paring, dicing or slicing.  Just cut open the bag and dump into a pan.
  • They are reasonably priced, especially considering that there is not wastage.
  • While their taste is not as good as fresh, the last few years have seen a huge improvement in the quality of frozen vegetables.

My bottom line:  I view frozen veggies not as a straight substitution for fresh veggies, but as a convenient alternative.  In other words, where taste is critical, I stick with fresh (and strive my best to use really fresh vegetables.)  However, where convenience and speed are the more critical drivers, I have no problem drawing on my freezer pantry for veggies.   As an example, I don’t microwave frozen broccoli for a free-standing vegetable to serve alongside chicken parmesan.  But in my quest to get more vegetables into my life, I don’t hesitate to add frozen broccoli into a scramble so I can enjoy a vegetable-rich  breakfast in a hurry.

I also don’t hesitate to use frozen veggies when suffering from a case of “vegetable exhaustion,” as advised in yesterday’s post.  Today’s recipe for Creamy Ginger Peas and White Fish is a perfect example of using frozen to give myself a rest in the kitchen while still enjoying a vegetable-rich meal.  See the next post with “5 Quick Vegetable Boosts with Frozen Veggies,” and “10 Top Frozen Vegetables to Stock in Your Freezer Pantry.”

Using Frozen Veggies: Creamy Gingered Peas and White Fish

Yesterday’s post offered advice for dealing with “vegetable exhaustion:”  Take a break every now and then by using frozen vegetables, which require little to no prep time.  Here’s a great, “take-a-break” one dish meal, made easy with not only frozen peas, but also a convenient frozen fish fillet.

Creamy Gingered Peas and White Fish

  • 2 10-oz. pkgs. Columbia River Organic Peas and Pearl Onions

Place peas in medium-sized saute pan with a lid.  Turn heat to medium, cover and cook about 5-8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until peas and onions are thoroughly cooked and moisture has evaporated.

  • 2 Tbsp. freshly sqeezed lime juice, divided
  • 2 tsp. soy sauce
  • 1 6-oz. frozen Mahi Mahi filet, thawed and cut into roughly ¾” cubes

While peas cook, combine half of lime juice and all of soy sauce in a soup bowl.  Gently squeeze fish cubes to eliminate excess moisture, then place in lime juice mixture and toss to coat.  Reserve.

  • 2 tsp. canola oil
  • 2 tsp. freshly grated ginger
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth
  • 1/4  to 1/3 cup coconut milk, to taste

Once peas are done, reduce heat to medium low and push to sides of pan.  Into center of pan, pour oil and allow to warm for 10-15 seconds.  Stir ginger into oil and cook about 30-45 seconds.  Dump reserved fish over ginger and spread into a single layer.  Cook a minute or two to lightly brown one side, then pour in broth and coconut milk.  DEGLAZE pan, then reduce heat to low, cover and allow fish to cook another minute or two, stirring a couple times, just until fish is cooked through.  Avoid overcooking fish.  Immediately remove pan from heat.

  • 1-2 tsp. fish sauce, to taste
  • 2 cups cooked Forbidden Rice, brown basmati or other whole grain brown rice or quinoa.

Sprinkle with fish sauce and remaining lime juice, to taste, then serve stew nestled into a bed of rice that has been warmed in microwave.

Notes and Options

Snap or Snow Pea Option: Try substituting fresh snap or snow peas for the frozen peas, when in season.  Slice them about ¾ to 1” thick and SIMMER-STEAM in about ½ cup broth, just until crisp-tender and still bright green.

Fish Options: Cod, snapper and talapia make good substitutes if Mahi Mahi is not available.

Brands: Columbia River peas are called for because they are so sweet and flavorful.  Another brand can be substituted, however.

Vegetable Exhaustion? Take a Break with Frozen or Pre-Cut Veggies

With Summer’s Harvest at Its Peak, Odd but Good Advice

Even the best among us need a break sometimes.

Allison, for instance, has enthusiastically embraced a diet focused on all the best foods:  lively vegetables and fruits, wholesome whole grains, lean proteins, healthful fats and satisfying beans and nuts.  In fact, she’s journeyed long enough that root beer, her former nemesis, is no longer even a credible temptation.  In other words, her taste buds have been transformed into allies, exactly as described in an earlier post.

Sounds picture perfect–except for one thing:  vegetable exhaustion.  At our last Whole Kitchen class, she confessed that she’d hit a vegetable chopping wall the night before.

I knew exactly what she meant!  About every 10th day I hit the same wall.  The lesson I’ve

Frozen Onions

Frozen vegetables, like these chopped onions, lighten the load on nights when you're facing vegetable exhaustion.

learned?  Don’t beat yourself up just because you occasionally want a healthful meal with minimal effort.  Give yourself a break instead, with frozen vegetables from your freezer pantry or with pre-cut veggies from a salad bar.

Don’t worry that utilizing a few healthful modern conveniences will lure you onto the slippery slope back down to a fast food diet.   Quite the opposite is true.  Refreshed after a break, you’ll be anxious to once again create colorful, flavor-full, meals with fresh vegetables–which is an especially good thing right now, at the peak of the summer harvest.  Don’t let vegetable exhaustion keep you from the season’s gorgeous produce any longer than need be.

Need a good, take-a-break recipe?  Check out the next post for “Creamy Gingered Peas and White Fish,” an easy but tasty meal-in-one dish.

Also see this post on dealing with Vegetable Exhaustion.

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