Sunday, April 20, 2008

Of Beans and Gardening

I love beans. I love them in soups, stews, tacos, burritos, with rice and with veggies. They are probably one of the most perfect foods around from a nutritional standpoint, if not a social one. In Chinese medicine, black beans are good for the kidneys (as well as kidney beans, of course), while white beans are good for the kidneys and the lungs.

And that's a good thing, too, after spending a day bending over in the garden, pulling weeds and inhaling probably more than my share of dust. I hauled bricks away and put stones in place, reminding myself how grateful I am that I work on my abs every day. I treat enough back patients to know I don't want to become one! As the kidneys are located in the lower back, I'm always happy to treat them to foods as well as exercise which nourish them.

The days become longer, and the garden becomes more central to my life. I need the respite of it's greens and purples, it's stones and mulch. I need my little corner table to sit and read or journal.
And when the day is done, I need something hearty but not heavy. At this time of the year, something stovetop, not oven. Beans, anyone? Burritos? Chili? I decided to revive an old favorite for this evening, and to create a new one for tomorrow for lunch. Tonite's fav is Tex-Mex style chili. Tomorrow I go for the burrito! Chop an onion and sautee it in some canola oil with some chopped garlic. I used 3 cloves. Add ground meat. This time I used --- hold on to your hats -- ground buffalo. How's that, you ask? Well, I went out to dinner with some friends last nite and actually ordered a hamburger of all things. But this place gave you a choice - ground beef, lamb or buffalo. Who was I to argue about buffalo? Anyway, you can obviously mix and match whatever kind of meat you like. Add a dash of oregano, salt, pepper and some kind of hot chili powder. If you can't get ground red chilis, you can use cans of green chili. Those are usually pretty mild. If you want more heat, use some Hungarian paprika. (When you mix red and green chili it's called Chili Colorado.) Or if you're like me and like it hot, you can dice up some jalapenos and add them. Just remember to remove the seeds first, and then don't, under any circumstances, touch your face or your eyes! When the meat is browned, add a can of beans if you haven't cooked any the old fashioned way. This time I actually did make some in the pressure cooker, but canned works well, too. Then add a can of chopped tomatoes. Stir, simmer, taste and correct seasonings. One thing I like to add when using tomatoes is fennel seeds. There's something about the combination of fennel and tomato that I like. I'll use it in everything from marinara sauce to moussaka. It may not be the usual addition to chili, but once you open the doors to tinkering, what's to stop a little fennel seed from blowing in?

For health news, visit Mission Valley Acupuncture

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Spinach Ricotta Tart For a Promised Rainy Day

I grew up on Long Island, where winters are cold, spring is rainy and blustery rainy and summers are....well, sometimes they're kind of gloomy with clouds and rain and sometimes they're sunny and warm and humid. That's the weather that got programmed into my system. But so much of what was programmed back then seems out of date these days.

Sometimes I actually like those changes - like being able to dress more casually to go to work, or wearing flip-flops just about anywhere. And certainly the availability of fresh vegetables at any time of the year is over-the-top fantastic. I'll never forget the first time I saw a large, expansive grocery store. (The ones on Long Island where I lived, as well as the ones in Manhattan were small, as they were in old buildings.) It was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and in this brightly lit emporium of food, there were large pyramids of peppers - one red pyramid, one yellow one, and one green one. Even if you didn't like peppers, you'd be drawn to them for the color alone.

Fortunately, I love peppers. And spinach. And just about anything else I find in the produce aisle. I didn't need to hear some health guru telling me that five servings a day was good for me. I think in a previous life I might have been a rabbit. I don't know. I just know that to me, a meal isn't a meal without veggies. But sometimes, fixing a standard meal - with a protein and veggies and some kind of starch just seems like too much work. I always bring my lunch to work, so it isn't a question of not being able to eat all of it. It's just that I've really grown to appreciate one-dish meals. So I go through phases. I was on a fritatta kick for a while. (Not so good the next day for lunch.) Then risotto took over. (Works better as left overs.) And now it's savory tarts. Oh my, do they ever make life easy for me! Cut off a slice, throw into micro, eat. Does it get any easier than that? And there's something so satisfying about biting into that buttery crust when it's raining outside. The weather people claimed it was going to rain again this week. How better to be prepared than have a tart at the ready?

I've said before that I'm not a baker and that my recent forays into baking seem like an aberration to me. In the past, if I were going to make a savory tart, I would have bought some frozen phyllo dough and used it to make the crust. But whoever this baker spirit is that I've been channeling these days has decided that it was time I got over my F.O.D. - Fear of Dough. Flour, water, salt and shortening. How hard could it be?

That's when I got out 2 cookbooks and decided to combine ideas to come up with a perfect tart. I used the Union Square Cafe Cookbook by Danny Meyer and Michael Romano for the dough, and Trattoria Cooking by Biba Caggiano for the filling. With variations, of course. What I wound up with was a heavenly tart crust - light, flaky, and slightly addictive, and a filling which is satisfying as is, and open to infinite variations, depending upon what you've got in the fridge.

For the dough:

2 C All purpose flour
1 tsp Kosher salt
12 TBS (1 1/2 sticks) chilled butter, cut into pieces
5 TBS ice water

Combine the flour and a half tsp of salt in a bowl. Add the chilled butter, and using your fingertips or 2 knives, blend until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Work in the ice water until the dough holds together. Form the dough into a smooth, flat disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Lightly flour a clean work surface and roll the dough into a 16 inch disk. Place the rolled out dough into a 10X2 1/2" deep cake pan or springform mold. Pressing with your fingertips, flute the top edges of the dough. Place in the freezer and chill thoroughly, about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Line the tart shell with aluminum foil and fill with dried beans or pastry weights. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes until the dough is set. Remove the foil and beans and cook an additional 10 minutes, or until the dough is light brown.

While the dough is in the freezer, you can make the filling:

1 pound whole milk ricotta
2 pounds of fresh spinach, or one 10 ounce package of frozen spinach
3 TBS olive oil
4 ounces sliced pancetta, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
3 large eggs, separated
3/4 C grated parmigiano
salt to taste

If you're using fresh spinach, discard any stems and any bruised leaves. Wash the spinach thoroughly under cold water. Put the spinach in a large saucepan with 1 cup cold water and a pinch of salt. Cook until the spinach is tender, 7-8 minutes. If you're using frozen spinach, cook according to the package directions. In either case, drain well and squeeze out any water with your hands. Chop the spinach quite fine.

Heat the oil in a medium sized skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring until it begins to color, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic, stir once or twice and set aside.

Beat the egg yolks in a large bowl with the parmigiano and salt. Add the ricotta and spinach, and mix everything until thoroughly combined.

Beat the egg whites in a medium sized bowl with a pinch of salt until stiff peaks form, then fold into the spinach-ricotta mixture.

Fill the prepared dough with the spinach-ricotta mixture, smoothing with a spatula. Reduce oven heat to 375 and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 10 minutes. Cool to room temperature before cutting and serving.
Kitchen Notes: I didn't have a 2 1/2" deep tart pan and I didn't want to use a cake pan or a pie pan, so I used what I had. This meant that I used a small container of ricotta, not the full pound. I also used the low fat variety, and it produced a firm filling - not watery at all. As you can tell from the photos, I had something red to throw in as well - in this case some red peppers, which I roasted first, then cut into strips, and cut those strips in thirds.

The other thing I learned somewhere (can't remember where), is that it's wise to cover the edges of the tart when putting it in for the final baking with the filling. Since the crust is basically baked, if you don't cover the edges you'll wind up burning them. I used aluminum foil, as I had curved pieces left over from cutting out those circles to fit into the bottom of the pan. Kind of a pain in the ass, as they want to fly off as you're putting it in the oven, but truly necessary. Someday, if it ever actually rains, maybe I'll get the hang of it.

For health news, visit Mission Valley Acupuncture.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

An Ongoing Love of Shrimp

It's been cloudy off and on, with cool breezes blowing. Perfect weather for hiking! My friend Jeff has been dragging me off to Mission Trails Park for hikes lasting hours. He calls them "Death Marches". I confess I haven't been doing a whole lot of physical activity recently, so these hikes have been a Godsend. I'm usually the active type. As in...."Take a 6 hour hike up a mountain? No problem." But lately I've been working on my website, trying to tweak it so that it will work better and look just a little better. Since I've been busy growing my website, I thought it might be a good idea to go in now and fix what needs fixing, before it became an even more overwhelming task. (That's why I haven't been posting that much of late. Sorry!)

Anyway, too much sitting and not enough moving has been the order of my days, so when Jeff asked me if I wanted to go on a hike with him, I knew I had to do it. This winter "muffin top" was beginning to feel like an alien, and I'm not going to stop enjoying my food. So the only option is to chug up a mountain. Or two. Grumbling and complaining all the way, of course, but smiling, too. And asking Jeff to please get the car and bring it so that I wouldn't have to walk back.

Now, I may walk like I've got a Rotweiller chasing me, but when it comes to hiking into canyons or up mountains, I've never been particularly speedy. I remember taking a hike in Bandolier National Monument with a group of people ranging in age from about 25 to 65. We spent hours hiking down into this canyon and exploring the caves, and then we hiked back out towards the end of the day. I was one of the younger people in the group, and I was the next to last one out, preceded by all those in their 60s. I was huffing and puffing my way to the top, and they were all grinning and drinking deeply from their canteens by the time I got to the parking lot.

The main difference between then and now is the food waiting for me when I got home. Back in those days, Bob did the cooking, and I never grew tired of it. Now I'm the one in the kitchen, trying to come up with variations on a theme. And recently that theme seems to be fish. Any and all kinds, with or without a shell - halibut, shrimp, scallops, tuna - anything from the sea. I think it might have been my friend Kathye's birthday party that started it. She had ordered a shrimp cocktail as one of the hors d'oevres, and when I tasted one of those giant shrimp......well, as they say, the rest is history. But a shrimp cocktail can only take you so far. After a while, I started casting around for something else to do with shrimp. Somehow I decided to cast my eyes towards Africa for inspiration.

In northern Algeria as well as Tunisia and Morocco, every village and family makes it's own charmoula - a marinade used mostly to flavor fish (though it can be used for other things as well). It's made primarily of oil, lemon juice and herbs and spices - garlic, cumin, coriander, etc. In other words, it is to north African cuisine, what Masala is to Indian food.

I found the recipe for this particular version of charmoula in the February issue of Gourmet. It was perfect, as I had all of the ingredients except the shrimp and shallots, and Whole Foods is a mere 10 minute walk from my house - on pavement. Flat pavement, in fact!


1 lb large shrimp in shell (21 to 25 per lb), peeled, leaving tail fan attached, and deveined
3 large shallots, finely chopped (1 cup)
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 small leek (white and pale green parts only), finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 fresh serrano chile (optional), seeded and finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika (optional)
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons mild honey
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley or cilantro


Cook shrimp in a large pot of boiling water until just cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain and cool.

Cook shallots in 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy medium skillet over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until very tender, about 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, wash leek and pat dry.

Add leek, garlic, and chile (if using) to shallots and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add paprikas and turmeric and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lemon zest and juice, honey, parsley, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and remaining 1/4 cup oil.

Toss shrimp with sauce in a glass or ceramic bowl and marinate, covered and chilled, at least 8 hours. Season with salt and serve in sauce. This will keep in the fridge for an extra day, especially if your shrimp is very fresh. You could serve this as is, with a side of salad or asparagus (another "must have" on my list these days). Or you could top a salad with this. In either case, you will have charmoula left over. I tossed mine into some rice along with a few frozen peas (and leftover asparagus, of course).

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