Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Tahini Honey Chews

So tomorrow is my last day of class for the semester. Then I am free! Free, that is, until the 19th of May when my summer course starts. Oh, and there is that field research report due May 12th. And, of course, the field research itself, which involves riding all around town on my bicycle and drinking beer. (Bike messengers are notoriously mobile and can only be pinned down at their watering holes).

But in between all these fun activities I found the time to invent and test a new recipe, one that I had listed in my journal for over a month now. In Belize when I ate tahini it was always mixed with honey and spread on my Mom's fresh baked bread. I wanted to recreate that, but as a portable dessert. Basically something like a peanut butter cookie, but with sesame. And something that would be sweet, crunchy, but chewy. So I came up with these cookies. They are tiny and delicious and moreish. And they are even, I think, gluten free, so you can serve them with tea to your most discriminating guests.


Tahini Honey Chews

Makes about 32 small cookies, at around 45 calories each.

1/2 cup tahini (if your tahini has separated so there is oil on the top, pour that away into a separate container before you measure)

1/4 cup flax seed meal

1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds

1/4 cup turbinado sugar (for added crunch)

1/4 cup honey

A pinch of salt if desired

Procedure:

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees Farenheit and move the rack to the middle of the oven. Place a silpat or parchment paper on 2 cookie pans. They do not need greasing. Toast the sesame seeds by stirring them in a small skillet over medium low heat until they begin to color slightly.


2. Cream together the tahini and honey. Add the sugar, sesame seeds, salt, if used, and flax meal. Stir together thoroughly.


3. Using a teaspoon, scoop small balls of the mixture and place them on the cookie pans. Tip: keep a small cup of water nearby to dip the teaspoon in as needed, this will make removal of the dough easier.


4. Flatten the cookies slightly with the palm of your hand. Pop in the oven and check after 4 or 5 minutes. If the edges of the cookies are a deepening brown, quickly remove them to cool. The middles may look soft, but they are done. If you wait too long the bottoms will burn before you know it. Let them sit on the cookie sheet for 5 or 10 minutes, then remove to a rack and cool completely before storing. Store in a cookie tin and they will taste just as good a couple days later, if they last that long.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

For a cup of Rice.

It is hard to blog about food these days without getting political. Without thinking about starvation, and famine, and countries that continue exporting their crops to us while their people riot in the streets for want of food. But Tea over at Tea and Cookies says it so much more eloquently than I.

Please stop by her blog, where you can read something written with real conviction and insight, by a truly talented writer: Tea and Cookies: No Words.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

How to buy Organic without breaking the Bank.

As you can probably guess, I advocate buying locally, organically grown foods as much as possible. But like most people the world over, rising food prices have been hitting me hard. I greatly appreciate that I am not starving as a result of this inflation. I have a job and a roof over my head and I still shop at my local farmers' market. At the same time, as a full time graduate student living in an expensive city, I have had to change my eating habits, mainly by trying to eat out less, and searching for organic bargains (they do exist).

If you are trying to eat healthily and sustainably, but finding that food prices keep you from buying all local and/or organic products, you might want to try shopping selectively. The other day I opened my hotmail account only to see that MSN has come out with a slide show of the top 12 foods that you should buy organic. This handy list of the top ten vegetables, fruits and grains that you should buy organic is from the consumer's union's 2001 report on the EPA.

Why should you buy organic for these particular foods as opposed to any others? As the lists explain, some "conventionally raised" food products can be particularly bad for you. The reasons are legion. To keep it simple, lets tackle each group at a time:

Dairy products and beef: Monsanto's Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) was approved for use by the FDA going on 20 years ago and has raised concerns ever since. This hormone forces dairy cows to produce more milk when raised conventionally and opponents believe that it poses serious health risks to humans. Read more about it at Wikipedia. rBGH aside, milk cows and beef cattle are normally not allowed to graze freely and beef cattle may be force fed in overcrowded stock pens to quickly bring up their weight. Animals are packed so tightly together that heavy doses of antibiotics are necessary to keep down the levels of infection and disease. The same applies to chicken and pig farms, where thousands of animals are jammed together in large buildings. These animals don't merrily run around in a grassy field, in fact, many of them never see the sun in their entire lives.

Even if you don't care about what this does to the animals, it is important to remember that you are what you eat. Stressed out farm animals loaded full of growth hormones, pesticide and herbicide residues and antibiotics not only aren't good for you, they also don't taste as nice. Why do you think they massage wagyu cattle? A happy animal equals better meat and dairy. This goes for eggs too. Crowded and insanitary conditions only increase the chances of salmonella, mad cow disease or other fun stuff making its way into your kitchen.

Fruits and Vegetables: While perusing the two lists that I linked to above you probably noticed that some fruits and vegetables appear on both. So, if you can't afford to buy all organic produce, why should you at least ensure that these particular items are? For two reasons. Some fruits and vegetables have thin permeable skins that allow pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizer residues to soak right in. No amount of washing will remove these chemicals, so if you buy conventional strawberries, peppers, celery or apples, just to name a few, be aware that you will be consuming the residue of up to 40 different fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. Yeah, I said 40. That brings us to number two. Some crops are hit with up to 500 lbs of chemicals per acre (think strawberries). And these aren't innocent chemicals either. Pesticides are meant to kill things, and some are very persistent carcinogens and mutagens. You want to reduce your exposure to these babies as much as possible.

Soy products and Canola: If you buy conventional soy products in the USA, you are pretty much guaranteed to be eating genetically modified (GMO) soy. Most conventional canola oil and other canola products are GMO as well. What's bad about genetically modified organisms? Well, some say nothing and others say a lot. Personally I don't like the effects of the GMOs as they have been observed so far. There is no labeling requirement for GMO products in the USA, so if you want to play it safe, buy organic. Certified organic products cannot be genetically modified.

You can read more about the issue here and here. Or just Google it. This is an ongoing controversy with a lot of people on either side, and if you don't know anything about it and want to learn more, the Internet is full of institutions, corporations and individuals arguing both for and against genetic modification (specifically manipulation, splicing and inserting of genes) of animals and plants. It is important to clarify that genetic modification as it is used here does not mean hybridization, or the natural crossing of different varieties of a plant or animal to yield a new variety. Genetically modified organisms are usually created by inserting genetic material from one plant or animal into the genetic structure of another. For example, Monsanto's infamous Roundup resistant soybeans. If you want to avoid supporting these creations, buy organic soy and canola much as possible.

Wheat products: Conventional wheat has some of the highest pesticide residue levels on the market today. For this reason the Consumers Union suggests that you buy organic wheat and wheat products whenever you can.

The Bottom Line: Of course it all comes down to money. And sadly food, health and economic class are closely intertwined not only abroad but right here in the USA. The bottom line is that sometimes one can't afford to buy organic. At the same time, what we eat is also about choices and priorities. Do we pay for cable TV or do we buy organic veggies instead of conventional ones? Should we splurge on consumer electronics or organic meat? Do we purchase an extra grande cappuccino on the way to work each day or do we use those extra bucks to make sure our fridges are stocked with organic milk instead of the conventional stuff? However, if it ever comes down to either buying organic strawberries or paying the rent, please just put that pint basket down and call it a day.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Clams and Calamari


So I'm in the last two weeks of a busy semester. Final papers to write, projects to present, data to collect and of course, books to read. Barely any time to go to the gym and certainly hardly any for blogging. However, we all have to eat, so believe it or not, I have been cooking. This month I have been exploring Indian cooking. I love curries and in the past few weeks I made chicken tikka masala and a lamb vindaloo. I also tried out a chicken kung pao recipe that my boyfriend claims is "just like the restaurants". I promise I will post about these sometime. The tikka masala and the lamb vindaloo were both good, but not "restaurant quality". Something was off with the spices. I need to invest in more red chilies.

Another culinary first for me happened on Sunday when I cooked clams and calamari at home. I love seafood. Love it. Could eat it everyday. But because of the cost and the ecological impact and the fact that we are causing serious global problems through overfishing and badly managed fish farming, I don't. But on Sunday at the farmer's market I saw clams for sale, direct from the Chesapeake bay, courtesy of the seller, the latest in a long line of family fisherfolk. So I grabbed a bag of a dozen and went home to concoct something.


In my freezer was a one pound bag of pre-cleaned calamari, supposedly caught in US waters. I bought it after eating some fantastic black squid ink risotto with calamari at Hook, one of my new favorite restaurants (or it would be if I could afford to eat there more than once or twice a year). You support sustainable fishing while enjoying fine dining-what a great combination!

Anyways, I soon realized that without squid ink I couldn't replicate the risotto, so I decided to mix it up with my clams and some wine and pasta and call it a day.

Clams and Calamari with lemon and capers

This isn't so much a recipe as an idea. Feel free to change things, especially the seasonings, and toss in some vegetables. I mixed some of my leftovers with sauteed broccoli, Lima beans and artichoke hearts for a nice spring dinner last night. Serves two.

4 ounces whole wheat linguine or spaghetti

1 lb cleaned squid cut into bite sized pieces or rings

12 clams, scrubbed and prepped by placing them in a bowl of salt water for an hour or so to clean out the sand.

1 tbsp olive oil

about 1/2 cup white wine

about 1 tsp red pepper flakes

3-4 cloves of garlic, minced

salt and fresh black pepper to taste

zest and juice of one lemon

2 tbsp capers or to taste

Procedure:

1. Heat half the olive oil in a cast iron pan (non stick pans will get scratched), toss in your clean clams and stir. Pour in the wine, put on the lid and let the clams steam open. Remove them and their juice from the pan. Take all but a couple of the clams out of their shells.

2. Get some hot water boiling in a big pot and toss in your pasta. In the same frying pan, heat the remaining olive oil at medium high heat. Toss in the pepper flakes and calamari (if it was frozen, let it thaw before using and pat off the excess water with paper towels). Turn the heat up for a minute. Turn the heat to medium-low, add the garlic, capers and the clams and their juice. Add the salt and pepper, lemon zest and lemon juice to the pan. You should time it so that your pasta is finished by now. Dump the drained pasta into the pan and swirl it around so it soaks up the clam juice, wine and lemon juice. Give everything a taste and adjust the seasonings as needed.

Eat!

Hook gives out a handy guide to sustainable seafood that I use while shopping. It is put out by the Blue Ocean Institute and you can access a copy here: Blue Ocean Seafood Guide. You can see that one of the more important aspects of buying seafood is knowing where it was farmed or harvested. You would be amazed at how much shrimp is farmed in South East Asia. I have yet to find US-farmed shrimp (supposedly the most sustainable choice), at any supermarket around Washington DC.

In the end, the best fish is the fish you catch yourself. If the Potomac river wasn't so full of lead, I'd be there with a pole right now....

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Nothing says Spring quite like Dandelion Greens

Sometimes you can find them at your farmers' market or specialty grocery. Bundled and placed next to the other expensive greens, they make a fine treat, but put a real dent in your pocketbook at $5 a bunch. Or you could just stuff a plastic bag in your pocket and go out for a walk. I guarantee that you will find some dandelions before long, poking up in your neighbor's lawn, clumping in green queues next to the sidewalk, or squeezing through a crack in some vacant lot.

If you intend to eat your dandelion, though, I wouldn't go searching for it in a nearby yard, unless you know for sure that it isn't sprayed with all sorts of poisonous lawn chemicals meant to kill the very plants you are out to collect. Find a dandelion that hasn't been assaulted by human kind, one that doesn't have any flower buds on it yet, and cut those leaves off right at ground level. Stick them in your handy plastic bag (aren't you happy you brought that along?) and head on home.

Once you get there thoroughly wash your dandelion, scrubbing behind the ears and removing all dead leaves, dirt and debris that may be left over from winter. Now pull off a leaf and give it a taste. If you are lucky, and picked a young dandelion that hasn't been exposed to too much warm weather, the leaves may carry hardly a tint of bitterness. If you aren't so lucky, you may find yourself making faces like someone who forgot the sugar in their lemonade. Either way you can eat your dandelion greens, but the bitter kind may take a bit of processing to be palatable.

If you have mild greens, with little bitterness, a simple salad will properly display the virtues of this famous potherb. Just toss the leaves in a little olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. They go wonderfully with slices of pear and a bit of cheese.

For the bitter dandelion, you need a kettle of boiling water. Coarsely chop the dandelion leaves and place them in a pot. Pour boiling water over them, stir, let sit for a few seconds, then drain. Repeat two or three times with fresh boiling water. While the taste of spring dandelions may be greatly improved through this method, I don't know if boiling water is enough to rid dandelions that have already bloomed of their overpowering bitterness. If you have experience in this area, please let me know! Once you have reduced the bitterness of your dandelions to a palatable level you may then saute the greens with a crumbled piece of good bacon, or simply spritz them with olive oil and a dash of red wine vinegar and serve with a sprinkle of your favorite hard cheese.