Saturday, January 22, 2011

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back....

(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Lots of news in food, this week. First the good news!

As we know, Michelle Obama has taken on obesity as her priority issue. This week she announced that Walmart will begin offering healthier food options. Walmart will offer more affordable produce and will decrease sugar and sodium in their store brand foods. They also will work with other corporations whose products line their shelves to create healthier foods. In addition, Walmart will open stores in "food deserts," urban areas where fresh produce is difficult to find.

Ingenious! Millions of Americans shop at Walmart every day, so the corporation is in a unique position to have a positive influence on the way Amercans eat. Fresh produce is more expensive than pre-packaged meals, which typically are packed with so much sodium, sugar and chemicals there is little real food, or nutrition, in them. But because they are so cheap, many parents have to choose between buying something healthful, versus buying something that will fill their family's tummies. It is time Walmart stepped up and changed their role in this.

And now, it is time for the government to stand up. Imagine if carrots and broccoli were subsidized rather than corn.

By the way, here is an interesting article, released this week, about a study that says those who live near Walmarts are fatter. Let's hope that changes soon.

* * * * *

And now, I'm sorry to report several pieces of bad news in the media this week. But, there are ways we can help.

First, Monsanto is at it again. Several years ago they petitioned the USDA to deregulate genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa and allow it to be planted anywhere. This will cause great harm to organic farmers, as well as farmers with traditional seeds, because the GE alfalfa will cross pollinate. GE crops have been banned completely in other countries and there are many valid concerns, including evidence that GE seeds create a new class of herbicide-resistant "super weeds," and require more powerful herbicides. Organic alfalfa is used as feed by most organic dairies.

The USDA will announce a decision this Monday, January 24, as to whether to completely deregulate the GE alfalfa or conditionally regulate it, which would place restrictions on where it could be planted so that it would limit contamination of organic crops.

You can help by asking the USDA and your congress representatives to conditionally regulate GE alfalfa. Many believe that the decision on GE alfalfa will be used as an example for future decisions on GE crops.

For information, as well as how to make your opinion known, you can go to this posting on the Whole Story Blog, Whole Food's official blog.

* * * * *

Finally, an article in today's paper says my own state of Colorado will end free school breakfasts in March (read the full article here).

Yes, Colorado, like many other states, is in big trouble, facing large deficits for the foreseeable future. Of course, any cuts will be painful. However, poor children going without breakfast? Seriously? Even if you set aside the moral argument (which is nearly impossible to do) we need to take a long-term look at how this will affect America's future: Hungry students do not perform well in school. Do we really want to go there?

Under this plan, breakfast will still be served but will no longer be free. Children would be charged 30 cents per breakfast on the reduced-fee program. For many of us, 30 cents seems like not a lot to ask. But for parents who are struggling in this difficult economy and are already "food insecure" (a full 11 percent of Coloradans did not have access to enough food during the years of 2005-2007, the most recent numbers available. We can only imagine how high the numbers have gone since the recession hit).

The lawmakers have not yet decided on the 2011-2012 budget and whether or not the free breakfasts will be available. Now is the time to let them know this is unacceptable.

For more information and ways to get involved, visit Hunger Free Colorado. For those of you who live in other states, check out Share Our Strength.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Pasta and Roasted Vegetable Casserole

Here is another great way to get your veggies, any time of year. It takes a bit of time to make it, but is well worth the effort. This recipe yields a big batch, so you can make it on a Sunday afternoon and enjoy it twice during the week. Or, use two smaller casserole dishes and freeze one for later.

Serve with a baguette.

Pasta and Roasted Vegetable Casserole
makes 8 entree servings

2 pounds vegetables
Here is a sample combination, but you can substitute your favorite; just make certain you have a colorful combination: 1 small eggplant, 1 zucchini, 1 yellow crookneck squash, 1 red bell pepper, 1 orange bell pepper, a handful of mushrooms, 1 red onion
3 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
Cracked pepper
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (if desired)
1 teaspoon oregano
1 pound rigatoni
28 ounce marinara sauce, good-quality purchased or homemade (see recipe here)
1/2 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, drained
1/2 pound fresh mozzarella
1/3 cup parmigiano reggiano, grated
Chopped basil or parsley for garnish, if desired

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Roast the veggies and garlic by using the basic method here, baking for about 10-12 minutes.
3. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.
4. While vegetables are roasting, cook pasta according to package directions for al dente. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of cooking water, and return pasta to pot.
5. To the cooked pasta, add roasted veggies, marinara sauce, red pepper flakes, oregano and sun-dried tomatoes; mix well. If the mixture seems a little dry, add 1/4-1/2 cup of the reserved cooking water.
6. Pour into a greased baking dish (you can use a 9 x 13, or split mixture into two 9-inch pie pans, saving one for later). Slice mozzarella and place atop the casserole(s) and sprinkle with parmesan.
7. If you plan to freeze this dish, cool the mixture, cover tightly and freeze. Before baking, defrost overnight in the refrigerator.
8. To bake the dish, cover with foil and bake 15-20 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 10 minutes or until cheese is melted and bubbly. Garnish with chopped basil or parsley, if desired.

Simple Marinara Sauce

This is the simplest marinara ever and one I turn to again and again. Double the recipe and freeze half. You can add herbs or sauteed vegetables with the onion to make a quick pasta sauce.

Note: I like to use good quality canned tomatoes here. San Marzanos come in several different brands (imported from Italy) and are delicious, but a bit more expensive. If you buy them whole, just crush them with your hands (remove any hard parts). I also like Muir Glen Organic.

Simple Marinara
makes 3-4 cups

1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed.
1/2 cup onion, chopped finely
1 (28 oz) can crushed tomatoes with basil
1 bay leaf
Coarse salt
Fresh-cracked black pepper

Heat oil in a large pot and stir in the garlic and onion. Saute until onions are soft and translucent. Add tomatoes and bay leaf and let simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Roasted Vegetables

Red-orange root vegetable 02
Golden Beets
photo by Joe Mabel

Here is another very simple way to get your veggies--roast 'em.

I first began to roast lots of vegetables when I became a personal chef. It is an excellent way to prepare veggies ahead of time and is the best for freezing.

This method of preparing vegetables is often overlooked by home cooks. But, the roasting does something wonderful to just about any vegetable. And, it couldn't be easier.

Here's the basic method; we'll use broccoli as an example:

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Chop a large broccoli bunch into bite-sized pieces.

3. Toss pieces onto a paper towel to absorb any rinse water (very important! you don't want watery veggies) and place them in a dry bowl.

4. Stir in a small drizzle of olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and fresh-ground pepper.

5. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and dump the broccoli onto the sheet, spreading evenly. It is very important that the vegetable pieces have enough room--do not cram them onto the baking sheet or they will steam rather than roast.
6. Bake for 8-10 minutes and check. If the broccoli is cooked to your satisfaction, remove it. If not, cook a few minutes longer. Broccoli will be golden brown where the veggie has met the pan.

Anytime you roast vegetables, watch them closely. If cooked too long they will turn limp and mushy--if roasted longer, they will incinerate.

Here are some other ideas:

*radishes (yes! they are great poppers)

*green beans, just squeeze a little lemon juice over all when finished. Or, mix them with roasted mushrooms and shallots.

*asparagus (same as above with the lemon)

*new potatoes (these take longer--I like to leave them unpeeled and quarter them, mix with whole garlic cloves, olive oil, salt and pepper; cover with foil or make a foil packet and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour) fingerling or baby potatoes can be left uncut and prepared in the same manner.

*Beets are incredible when roasted, but remember to roast the red ones separately because their color runs. Pink rutabagas are not very appealing, trust me. Leave 1 inch of greens on the tops of the beets, scrub and do not peel; proceed with olive oil, salt and pepper and cover with foil or make a foil packet and bake for 45 minutes if you have large beets. For smaller, fresher, in-season beets, check at 20 minutes. Peel before serving--these are delicious warm, at room temp or chilled.

*A mixture of root vegetables such as carrots, onions, parsnips, turnips--all chopped to equal size. If you first render a slice or two of good bacon on the baking sheet, then mix the veggies with a little olive oil and proceed as above, the flavor is fabulous.

*Brussel's sprouts apparently are very good when roasted. I cannot tolerate them, though, so I have to take others' word for it.

*Roasting tomatoes gives them a mellow flavor, delicious in sauces and salsas.

*Broccoli is one of my favorites, and you can roast it along with cauliflower and carrots. This dish beats the heck out of those frozen vegetable packages.

*Veggies can be roasted with your favorite fresh herbs; mixed roasted vegetables are especially delicious with a balsamic vinaigrette.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Celebrate 2011 with a "party platter"!

Okay, so how many new resolutions have you broken so far? It is only the 7th day of January and I've broken all of mine already :-)

Oh, so what if a resolution gets broken here and there. We're only human, after all. I think we all need to make a resolution to not to be so hard on ourselves in 2011!

I do still make resolutions; I write them and keep them handy so I can review frequently. Never underestimate the power of the written word.

Maybe you have set a goal for your family to eat more healthfully this year. We Americans are really bad at eating our veggies and fruits, so this is a good place to begin the clean-up.

To say that most kids are not attracted to vegetables is an understatement. Last night, I thought I was sneaking a bit of finely shredded carrot into some meatloaf. Can you believe they spotted it?

So, often I take the direct approach. One thing we know is that it is easy to eat the foods that are right in front of us. So during the winter months especially, my kids often open our fridge to find a vegetable platter (I call it a "party platter"--it's all in the marketing). A veggie platter can be very simple, like the one pictured below, or more artsy like the one pictured above. The important thing is that it is eye-catching (remember: we eat with our eyes first) and ready to eat.

Start with a rainbow of colorful vegetables. Not only are they beautiful to look at, but a variety will give you loads of different antioxidants and vitamins. These can include carrots, celery, cauliflower, radishes, grape tomatoes, English cucumber, zucchini and green, yellow, orange or red peppers.

Broccoli, asparagus spears and green beans are other beautiful standards. I like to steam these veggies first to make them more palatable; let them cool before you proceed (Usually, I steam broccoli 2-3 minutes and asparagus 3-4 minutes. For green beans I use more water and steam about 10-12 minutes. You can adjust these times depending on your family's preferences). Chop veggies however you like, keeping in mind this is finger food. I arrange these on a plain white round platter with a small white bowl in the center for dip.

There are many options for dip. Bottled dressings are okay (find the organic ones with the fewest ingredients), but it is easy to make your own. My kids like a buttermilk-ranch dip, a simple hummus (really simple: into a food processor blend a can of white or garbanzo beans, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and some roughly chopped parsley) or a vinaigrette.

The platter is covered with plastic and placed front and center in the fridge. (a bowl of clementines or grapes next to it might be overkill--but you never know unless you try)

I keep the platter replenished through the week, adding a few new vegetables or a different dip to keep it interesting.

Sometimes I even put the "party platter" on the dinner table to increase our vegetable intake. When we were visiting family over New Year's weekend, my sister-in-law, Deb, made a beautiful tray of veggies and placed it next to a bowl of greens. Alongside this, she served a homemade lemon vinaigrette and everyone could build his or her own salad. Wish I'd taken a picture to show you--it was a mouthwatering display!

Give it a try--you might find your family enjoying more veggies in 2011.