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Learning to love cooked greens. March 12, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. In the part of the South where I grew up (Nashville), cooked greens pretty much meant collards, turnip greens, or mustard greens, boiled to a sludgelike consistency with fatback or bacon grease. They were bitter and slimy. Beet greens and Swiss chard tasted like dirt. Eeewwww! The only cooked greens I could bear were spinach leaves, still boiled into sludge (usually from a frozen box) but served up with vinegar, salt and pepper, rather than pork fat. Spinach never became bitter, and the vinegar (and good old S&P) perked it up nicely.*

What about kale (now my favorite green), you ask? It was unknown in the South of my childhood. The only time in my school years when I misspelled a word in a spelling bee was when my fourth-grade teacher (a Northern transplant) gave me the word “kale.” She was incredulous when I told her that my spelling, “cail,” was based on the sound, since I’d never heard of the word, much less the plant. I thought it must be a Scottish or Irish word (think “ceilidh,” pronounced caylee).

Once I was out on my own, I read about the huge health benefits of greens, releasing megadoses of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other super-healthy stuff, along with fiber and very few calories. I also found out that all these nutritional goodies were most readily available if cooked.

I was lucky to love kale, mustard greens, cabbage, arugula, watercress, endive, sprouts, matchstick broccoli stems, and many another green raw in salads. I could eat a mixed-green salad packed with nutrients every day. But yikes, I realized, those nutrients would be even more available if I cooked the greens before eating them.

Clearly, it was time to rethink cooked greens. I started with my favorite, cooked spinach. I abandoned my mother’s time-tested technique of boiling a box of frozen chopped spinach to death. Instead, I bought bags of organic fresh spinach. I prepared this two ways: I added the washed leaves to a heavy pan, in which sweet onion and mushrooms had already been sauteed, covering the pan and letting the spinach wilt. Or I dry-steamed the spinach in a heavy covered pan with just the wash-water clinging to the leaves and/or a bit of veggie stock, with added black pepper, salt (we like RealSalt and sea salt), gomashio/gomasio, a Japanese seasoning that combines sesame seeds and sea salt, and balsamic vinegar (instead of Mama’s ubiquitous white vinegar).

Okay, what about the heartier greens, like kale and collards? I found a wonderful recipe for those in Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Diet (Rodale, 2009). Thanks, Alicia!

To make her recipe my way, you saute 3 minced garlic cloves in extra-virgin olive oil. Meanwhile, wash a bunch of collards and cut out the stems, then chop them (the stems), set them aside, and tear the greens into salad-size pieces. Add the stems to the garlic pan with 3 tablespoons of raisins, sea salt (or RealSalt or Trocomare), black pepper, and red pepper flakes or a splash of your favorite hot sauce (optional). (I like Frank’s Red Hot Sweet Chili Sauce in this.) If the pan starts to dry out, add a splash of veggie stock or broth.

When the stems start looking translucent, add the damp collard greens to the pan, stir well to coat with the saute mix. Add 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (or more to taste), add another splash of veggie stock/broth if needed, stir well, turn the heat to low, and cover the pan. When the greens are heated through but still have a bright green color and retain their shape, serve. Top each serving with a sprinkling of roasted pumpkin seeds. (Alicia uses toasted pine nuts on hers.)

Yum! These are good greens, people. I plan to try a variation tonight using kale and subbing diced sweet onion for the garlic, adding a handful of chopped mushrooms with the onion, and using gomasio instead of the pumpkin seeds.

Other ideas: You could use peanut oil and chopped peanuts instead of olive oil and pumpkin seeds for a richer taste, maybe subbing shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) or tamari and rice wine or ume vinegar for the balsamic vinegar. For a decadent taste, try subbing toasted sesame oil, black sesame seeds (usually available in health food stores), shoyu/tamari and rice wine/ume vinegar. Or for a very mild taste, use canola oil instead of the olive oil and fresh-squeezed lemon juice instead of the vinegar, swap out the dark raisins for golden raisins, and top your greens with almond pieces or slivered almonds. (If you can find Meyer lemons, as I did recently at Wegman’s, they’ll add a delicious sweet-tart taste.) Hmmm, I’ll bet diced dried apricot would taste really good in this, too…

I also need to consider the more conservative tastes of our friend Ben, who enjoys balsamic vinaigrette on his salads but refuses any cooked greens with even a whiff of vinegar, and is no fan of Brussels sprouts, collards, and kale. What to do? Hide those greens in stir-fries, bean dishes (even refried beans and dal), soups, lasagna, and the like. (I’ll share my ultimate soup recipe tomorrow.) Fortunately, OFB loves spinach in his salads, and he obliviously eats kale and mustard greens when they’re tucked into a big, crunchy salad as well.

I’m still working on a cooked-greens recipe that is healthy enough to suit me and still is tasty enough for Ben. (Any ideas?) ‘Til then, I guess I’ll be having my cooked greens for lunch.

                   ‘Til next time,

                           Silence

* I don’t know why WordPress changed the font on the first paragraph, but I apologize. Hopefully it’s just a fluke and not their latest style.

Vegetarian cookbook roundup. June 5, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Recently, I’ve been reading three new (to me, anyway) vegetarian cookbooks. (I love reading cookbooks for inspiration and to relax before bed.) One is from our local library, and the other two mysteriously turned up at my door last week in an Amazon box. (“Now, how did that happen?” I innocently asked an apoplectic—“MORE cookbooks?!!”—our friend Ben.) Let’s take a look at them:

A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen: Easy Seasonal Dishes for Family and Friends by Jack Bishop, Executive Editor of Cook’s Illustrated magazine (Houghton Mifflin, 2004, $35). I’m a sucker for seasonal cookbooks, and a vegetarian seasonal cookbook was a must-buy. Jack Bishop’s philosophy is “shop local and cook global, but keep it real.” That works for me!

Recipes are, of course, arranged seasonally, but there’s also a section of “Everyday Basics” like Greener Pesto, Creamy Polenta, Mashed Potatoes, Lighter Refried Beans, Simplest Rice Pilaf, Basic Pizza Dough, and Vegetable Stock. There’s also a chapter of Bishop’s favorite seasonal menus, and you can tell from looking at them that he really loves them and serves them, not that some editor said “You need to include some menus in this book.”

Let me tantalize you with a few recipe titles: Roasted Fennel, Potatoes, and Artichokes with Fennel Gremolata; Spinach and Arugula Salad with Indian-Spiced Chickpeas and Charred Red Onions; Potato-Leek Pizza with Goat Cheese; Rigatoni with Fava Beans, Ricotta, and Lemon; Red Curry-Braised Tofu with Snow Peas, Red Pepper, and Scallions; Gazpacho with Grilled Vegetables; Spanish Omelet with Peas, Potatoes, and Saffron; Bulgur Salad with Grilled Zucchini and Onion, Middle Eastern Style; Tomato and Mango Salad with Curry-Orange Vinaigrette; Tender Lettuce and Peach Salad with Pumpkin Seeds and Sour Orange Vinaigrette; Fried Green Tomato Salad with Goat Cheese; Black Bean Chilaquiles; Mexican Citrus Salad; Frittata with Caramelized Onions; Fettucine with Mascarpone and Sage-Walnut Butter; Spinach-Onion Quesadillas with Avocado-Chipotle Salsa; Gingered Carrot Soup; Curried Red Lentils with Caramelized Onions.

There are 248 recipes in all, so I could go on (and on). But you’ll notice that there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned, and that’s dessert. There are NO dessert recipes in this book. That’s because Jack Bishop’s wife is a former pastry chef, and the division of labor in their kitchen is that he cooks the meals and she makes the desserts. I don’t view that as a drawback—I have plenty of dessert cookbooks—but just FYI. The other drawback is a lack of color photos—there’s a puny color insert showing just 16 of the 248 recipes, though admittedly the photos are gorgeous.

But there are two big bonuses that dwarf these drawbacks: First, the intro to each recipe is lively, authentic, helpful, and experience-based. No bland generalities (“This dish is warming on a cold winter night!”) here. You’ll both enjoy and appreciate them. And second, the book is simply packed with useful tips on everything from buying and using rice noodles to keeping basil from browning, how to correctly sharpen a knife, the best way to use cream, and how to develop flavor in bean soups. Jack Bishop’s experience helming Cook’s Illustrated and starring in PBS’s long-running “America’s Test Kitchen” cooking show really shine through in these invaluable tips.

Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen by Deborah Madison (Broadway Books, 2005, $19.95). If I had to point a finger, I’d say that Deborah Madison was responsible for transforming American non-vegetarians’ views of vegetarian cooking from the crunchy-granola Hippie-era enthusiasm of the original Moosewood Cookbook and Laurel’s Kitchen or the earnest striving of The Tassajara Cookbook to actual haute cuisine. (Not that others, like Anna Thomas with her wonderful Vegetarian Epicure series, didn’t try. She was just too far ahead of her time.)

As founding chef of San Francisco’s fabled Greens restaurant, Deborah Madison showed America that “vegetarian” wasn’t synonymous with brown, heavy, and tasteless, but rather that it could be colorful, flavorful, sophisticated, and cutting-edge. Her books conveyed that message to a wider audience. Even my brother, who has never eaten a vegetarian meal in his life, came up with Ms. Madison’s The Savory Way for me as a birthday present one year. Wow. And her classic Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone opened the door for books like Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

In Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen, the word “suppers” is actually misleading. Ms. Madison provides 100 main-dish recipes with suggestions for accompaniments (including wines and desserts), but no recipes for anything but the main dishes. (She points out that recipes for the accompanying soups, salads, side dishes and desserts can be found in two of her previous cookbooks, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and Local Flavors.) Again, I have no problem with this, but wish the book had been called Vegetarian Main Dishes from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen instead to avoid confusion.

Within the category of main dishes, chapters cover a wealth of options: savory pies and gratins; vegetable stews and braises; pasta with vegetables; crepes and fritters; tofu and tempeh; eggs; hearty cool-weather dishes; light meals for warm weather; and supper sandwiches. There is also a section called “Pantry Foods” with Ms. Madison’s no-nonsense take on what staples to keep in your pantry and what to avoid. And there’s a fantastic chapter of basic recipes for condiments and sauces (from guacamole and tomato sauce to harissa and tapenade); polenta, rice, and beans; and stocks and seasonings (mushroom stock, porcini powder, and stock for stir-fries).

The book’s presentation is great, with plenty of color photos of both finished dishes and “mood shots” scattered throughout. And the recipes! Green Rice with Roasted Green Chiles and Leeks; Polenta Squares with Gorgonzola Cream, Braised Greens, and Cannellini Beans; Frittata with Sauteed Artichokes; Spicy Tofu with Thai Basil and Coconut Rice Cakes; Lemony Risotto Croquettes with Slivered Snow Peas, Asparagus, and Leeks; Winter Squash Lasagne with Sage, Walnuts, and Black Kale; Dried Porcini and Fresh Mushroom Tart; Sweet Potato Gratin with Onions and Sage; Neelam’s Festive Rice Pilaf; Wine-Braised Lentils over Toast with Spinach and Red Pearl Onions; Yellow Peppers Stuffed with Quinoa, Corn, and Feta Cheese.Yum!!!!

The Kind Diet: A Simple Guide to Feeling Great, Losing Weight, and Saving the Planet by Alicia Silverstone (Rodale, 2009, $29.99). This one’s the library book, and it’s easy to see from reading it why it’s a New York Times Bestseller. Alicia’s still as adorable as she was in “Clueless,” and her passion for animals and for saving the planet shine through. Unlike the others, this book presents a passionate argument for becoming vegan. The opening chapters present three eating plans to entice readers to make the change: Flirting, Vegan, and Superhero (macrobiotic). They’re followed by hefty sections of vegan and macrobiotic recipes. Atmospheric color photos of the food, ingredients, adorable animals, and Alicia and her husband Christopher cooking and eating add even more to the presentation. 

I’ve really enjoyed reading The Kind Diet, but I doubt that I’ll add it to my bookshelf. That’s because I have problems with both vegan diets, with their emphasis on super-processed meat and dairy substitutes (eeewww!!!), and macrobiotic diets, with their emphasis on heavy, tasteless “brown food” (getting right back to the Hippie health-food era) and seaweed (which takes up every pollutant in the ocean, like organ meats, which also were considered supreme health foods until our toxic lifestyles caused them to become pollutant warehouses).

Not, I hasten to add, that we don’t eat tons of beans and grains here at Hawk’s Haven. But we do add spices, which macrobiotics shuns. If I were going to opt for a totally foreign diet, it would definitely be Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern/Mediterranean, or Thai, not macrobiotic. It would be easy to eat a delicious vegan diet of Chinese or Thai food, and you’d enjoy the most delicious vegetarian meals cooking Indian and/or Middle Eastern/Mediterranean. But frankly, I see no point in giving up Mexican, Southern, Southwestern, and European food, not to mention food from everywhere else on the planet, as long as it’s vegetarian. “Buy locally, cook globally” works for me and for our local economy.

But: I still recommend reading Alicia’s book if you’re a vegetarian or are interested in becoming one, and especially if you’re drawn to a vegan lifestyle. The writing is fun and inspiring, and I’ve picked up some new foods to try (like Earth Balance vegan “butter”) from flipping through. The hefty recipe chapters include treats like Radicchio Pizza with Truffle Oil; Moroccan Couscous with Saffron; Crispy Tofu Slices with Orange Dipping Sauce; Eggplant Chana Masala; Sweet Potato-Lentil Stew; Sugar Snap Peas, Radishes, and Edamame with Lemon Butter; Summertime Succotash; and Alicia’s Sexy Inspired Salad.

Unlike the other books, Alicia’s has plenty of desserts, including Quick Chocolate Ganache Strawberries; Coffee Fudge Brownies; Chocolate-Apricot Coins; Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups; Lemon-Poppyseed Poundcake; Peanut Butter Pie; My Favorite Cupcakes; Mixed Berry Cheesecake; and Peach Crumble. Decadent as they sound (and probably taste), all these desserts are vegan.

So there’s today’s roundup! Check ’em out and let me know what you think. And if you have your own favorite vegetarian cookbooks, please share them with us and let us know why you love them!

                ‘Til next time,

                             Silence