The Uses of Yogurt

The other day a friend said to me, incredulously: “You always have yogurt!”

Well, it’s true. I do always have yogurt.  It’s a very common thing to have here in Portland. (Yogurt, kale and lentils — cheap, nutritious foods — are enshrined in Portland kitchens, I think.)

The fact is that yogurt is good for your guts.  It’s well known that the probiotic cultures in yogurt aid your digestion and enhance your ability to absorb nutrients.  And the chemistry in your bowels doesn’t just help govern digestion — it also helps regulate mood!

(Regular Radiolab listeners may have ascertained this from the most recent episode.)

Anyway, in light of the importance of yogurt, here is a brief list of things you can do with it:

  • smoothie (provided you have some sort of fruit and some sort of ice)
  • quiche (mix yogurt with eggs and various cheeses and you have instant quiche filling)
  • dip (mix greek yogurt with ranch dressing — seriously)
  • baked goods (it fits in wherever you need liquid to balance out your dry ingredients)
  • instead of sour cream (greek yogurt tastes almost exactly the same!)
  • lazy desert (with honey and cinnamon — who ever heard of these flavors together??)
  • add to mashed potatoes/scalloped potatoes
  • base for creamy pasta sauces (as I asked in an earlier post, why buy cream?)
  • mix with granola for breakfast (why buy milk, even?)

PLUS it’s got a hell of a shelf life.  Yes, may your refrigerators always contain the familiar pint of yogurt — you’ll be happier and healthier for it, I’m willing to bet.

[This post sponsored by the World Yogurt Association!]

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Split Pea Stew w/ Kale

T’was a chilly February morn, with freezing rain in the forecast. The desire for piping hot stew hits hard and fast in situations like this.  Unfortunately I didn’t have any of the cheap cuts of meat that usually form the basis for rustic stew, so I cut ties with conventional cookery and grabbed some  yellow split peas instead.

Get ready for some exciting photographs, people. Here’s an action shot of water being added to the split peas!

They are like lentils in that they don’t need a whole lot of time to cook — simply boil in one or two inches of water for twenty-ish minutes.   (With legumes like this, why do people cook beans at all?)

Well anyway, I can’t ditch *all* cheap cuts of meat for my stew, so I start with bacon. A few small pieces of bacon (or lardons) at the beginning of a soup or sauce will really liven up the proceedings later on, I find.  So: cut up some bacon and fry it (not pictured). Then cut up a red onion, taking a moment to appreciate how awesome it looks:

Get rid of most but not all of the bacon fat, then add some typical stew-style aromatic ingredients to your hot bacon-y pan: the onion, a chopped rib of celery and carrot, then three or four diced garlic cloves and a knob of ginger finely chopped.  Once that’s browned up nicely, throw in about half a bunch of chopped kale, the curly leaf variety of which also strikes me as looking awesome:

When I eat kale and its leafy green cousins, I feel a wondrous burst of health almost instantaneously. Like, I think I just grabbed a handful and ate it raw. Grrr!  Go vitamins!

Then after the tremendous kale has started to wilt a bit, add some chicken stock (homemade this time):

Serve with goat cheese on organic hippie bread — that’s some wholesome and healthy(ish) fare to see you through this grim winter:

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Risotto! (or, in anagram form: Sttir O_o)

Wow, I didn’t blog for the entire month of December!  That’s a sobering thought. Of course, January sobriety is a good thing if you enjoyed the holiday season as much as I did.

OK, here are your ingredients. Note that they all look rather beige and bland in their unsullied state.  Not to worry: when we cut open that squash and roast it for about an hour at 450 degrees, it will come out looking all sorts of vibrant and delicious and vaguely sexual:

When you have about 20 minutes left on the squash cooking time, start heating up some stock in a saucepan. I used store-bought chicken broth, and am slightly ashamed of myself for doing so. (My excuse is that I don’t have any chicken bones lying around…but I could always have made some sort of vegetable broth. The process is “wonderfully easy and blissfully imprecise“)

Back to the Risotto. Put a pan on medium heat, add a glug of olive oil, then wait a few moments for good measure.  Now, appreciate this wondrous universe in which we live.  Then add some chopped onion to the pan. Add minced garlic too, as many cloves as you dare.  You can add cumin and dried sage too, if you like.  Once the onion is soft and translucent, add about one and half cups of arborio rice.  You want to stir well and let it toast for thirty seconds or so, then, slowly but surely, start spooning in broth.

Then, stir. Then, after each spooning of the broth is absorbed, add more. Stir.  Etc. This is where the anagram comes in — you really do have to stir until your facial expression resembles O_o.  You can never over-stir in this situation. This type of rice that will absorb as much broth as you throw at it, as long as you stir constantly and add the broth in small quantities.  After 20ish minutes of this, your risotto should have a creamy texture and stew-like consistency.

Add chunks of squash, and you are in the money:

(I probably should have continued stirring and adding broth…but my patience is limited.  Ultimately I can submit to a little al dente risotto if it means relief for my stirring arm.)

In any case, this risotto is a luscious savory winter dish. Make it a meal with a crisp green salad…or some brussels sprouts roasted in bacon fat!  But that’s another blog post entirely.

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Don’t throw away your pumpkin puree!

If [God forbid] you took turkey out of the running, then what traditional dish could take up the mantle to symbolize the bizarre holiday that is Thanksgiving?  Not ordinary mashed potatoes, surely?  Definitely not stuffing, which would fall lifeless when robbed of its stuff-ee. Not mere sauces like gravy or cranberry…so, what?

Why, pumpkin pie, of course!

Maybe I ascribe special significance to pumpkin pie because my parents would never make it.  To this day they feel scared and alienated by the goofy American dishes they see on TV, like green bean casserole or candied yams.  Besides the time I baked one in protest, pumpkin pie has never made an appearance on our dinner table.

Not making it home for Turkey day this year, I realized that I didn’t have to contend with parental desserts. So I gleefully bought a couple cans of pumpkin puree, in hopes of bringing the beloved pie to a friend’s feast.  When I found out that someone was already planning on making one…well, the wind went out of my sails.

You can see my position.  I’m a pumpkin pie fiend and I have the pumpkin part covered, but no occasion to make a pie.  (And somehow the idea of making a pie for myself, not sharing it with Thanksgiving revelers, is too depressing.)

If you find yourself in a similar situation, here’s a few suggestions:

1) Pumpkin bread (check out this recipe from The Wednesday Chef. I didn’t try it, but it looks good.)

2) Pumpkin pasta sauce.  Cut up some shallots, garlic and rosemary and/or other fresh herbs and sautee lightly with olive oil, starting with the shallots. Then pop open a jar of  roasted red peppers, cut some up, and threw those in.  Now stir in the pumpkin puree and a good couple tablespoons of whole milk yogurt (who needs cream?) along with some brine from the peppers.  Let that simmer on low for a while.  To avoid a curdling catastrophe, make sure the yogurt doesn’t heat up too quickly.  Meanwhile, carnivores can brown up some sweet Italian sausage to go with:

Pretty damn good. Though next time I think I’d roast the garlic first, since the sweeter taste would work well.

3) Pumpkin ice cream. I want to use this blog to promote cheap, easy, practical, non-junk food — and pumpkin ice cream fails on all counts.  Still, I was inspired to embark on this, my first ice cream adventure, when my roommate left a giant Cuisinart ice cream maker on the kitchen counter.  As if I needed extra encouragement, he also left a note that read: “Ice Cream Maker.”

I soon found a suitable pumpkin ice cream recipe but, not reading it closely enough, I figured the ice cream was as good as made. What’s an “ice cream maker,” if not a machine that makes ice cream?  Just like a dish washer washes dishes, I figured an ice cream maker essentially “makes” ice cream.  Seems reasonable, right?

It turns out that making ice cream is not so straightforward as I had hoped.  Basically you have to first make a custard, a suspension of (constantly stirred and gently heated) cream and egg yolks, then chill this for hours, then thicken it again through freezing.  So it’s a long and drawn out process.  Here’s one stage where you cool the custard in an ice water bath before mixing in the pumpkin:

What kind of madness is this? Are we in chemistry class?

After going through all that drudgery, I decided to reward myself by taking something from the Ben and Jerry’s playbook:

Fold in Heath Bar chunks (don’t sue me, Nestle!) during the final stage of freezing, and  here’s a spoonful of the final result:

Not too bad, although it did basically take 36 hours.

In sum, pumpkin puree can survive outside of its popular pie form.  Really it’s much more than bright orange, almost flavorless mush: it is a tool that can be used to craft random food items.  Enjoy!

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Easy Cheesy Vegetable Bake

Roast veggies are great. Things covered with cheese are great.  Acting on a crazy theory, I put these two things together in an impromptu dish that ended up receiving rave reviews! It must be a full moon or something.  Anyway, here’s a quick recipe, by popular demand:

Cut up medium size chunks of the following: one golden beet, one carrot, several cloves of garlic, and a shallot (see footnote).  Roast with copious amounts of olive oil, pepper, and kosher salt at 450 for 50 – 60 mins. When you have about 15 minutes left, chop up, de-stem, and sautee one bunch of kale on medium-high, until it is wilting nicely.  Season the kale with some theatrical dashes of white wine vinegar, which should make a satisfying hiss when it hits the pan.  Arm your guests with cheese graters, or bust out your roommate’s food processor, to grate up about 4 oz of mozarella cheese and 4 oz of parmesan.  Like puns, it’s really the cheesier the better here.  Cube or crumble up some polenta for texture. (Polenta, an Italian corn meal paste, is one of the easiest alternative starches for those of you who dare defy the rice-pasta-potato trifecta.)

Once the veggies in the oven appear something like 80% roasted, combine them in a bowl with the kale, polenta, and about three quarters of the cheese.  You could add red chili pepper flakes or other seasoning here if you like, though I didn’t.  Distribute the mixture into a small casserole dish or loaf pan, then sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese and a generous layer of breadcrumbs.  Lower the oven temperature to 375-400ish and bake the thing until the breadcrumbs are golden brown and cheese is bubbly.

I served this with a mixed salad including raw snap peas.  This was especially fortuitous because the peas produced a fresh, crunchy contrast to the rich and gooey cheese.  We also had peanut butter cups for desert, almost always a good idea.

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NB: For the uninitiated, shallots look and taste like a kind of funny combination of garlic and onion.  Sometimes people use them instead of onion because their flavor is a lot more mellow and they take less time to cook.  Unfortunately, shallots come with a couple built-in disadvantages.  First, they cost considerably more per pound than onions.  Also, like garlic, each shallot “bulb” contains multiple shallot “cloves” — individually wrapped, if you will.  This gives rise to some ambiguity when a recipe calls for a shallot, because it’s often unclear whether this refers to a shallot clove or an entire bulb. In this case, go ahead and use the whole shallot bulb.

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Spicy Sweet Potato Hash w/ Chorizo

It’s autumn, going on winter — time to clear out those sinuses with a spicy sweet potato concoction!  Gather up a large sweet potato, a fresh jalapeño pepper (complete with tilde over the n), some cilantro, a bunch of spring onions, and a couple chorizo sausages.  Like so:

Chop up the sweet potato into small pieces, something like quarter inch cubes.  Place the sweet potato pieces in a microwave safe bowl and mix ’em up with small splash of vegetable oil. Cover this with a non-metal lid (or plastic wrap) and microwave for 3ish minutes.  Once the sweet potato is cooked through, dump it into a hot skillet and add chopped jalapeno and spring onion.  Cook for a few minutes, attempting to brown the sweet potato on all sides.  You could add other quick-cooking veggies at this point, e.g. I threw in some green pepper that needed to be used up.  Depending on how spicy your chorizo is, you could also add some extra flavor in the form of spices. Any combination of cumin, paprika, turmeric, or cayenne would work, but I skipped all those and just went for about a half a teaspoon of curry powder.

After mixing in the spices, decant the sweet potato veggie mix into a bowl:

and now for the chorizo part, which is pretty straightforward. Just start cooking up your chorizo pieces in the now empty pan:

Once those are nicely browned, mix in the sweet potato hash and tear up some of that fresh cilantro (remember, from the first picture?) to sprinkle on top.

And if you really want a classy breakfast, slide a runny fried egg over the hash just before serving.  Perfect!

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Food and Feeling

Source: Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, by Michael Pollan

Not having a whole lot to show for myself in the cooking department lately, I decided to share a recent food related episode of The Moth podcast instead.  The Moth is a non-profit organization that hosts live storytelling performances and gathers stories from folks across the nation, then organizes ‘story slam’ competitions for the most entertaining ones.

Check out the most recent installment of The Moth podcast, in which writer Adam Gopnik recounts the hilarious story of differing culinary tastes that nearly destroyed his marriage.  I love it! If you don’t subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, you can simply click here to listen (and you can also avoid the ads by starting around the 2:30 mark)

In the midst of the story, Gopnik makes some interesting points about the self-imposed moral weight that food choices seem to have.  He says:  “You think food would be the most frivolous thing that we experience as people, but it’s the most serious thing, isn’t it? Because if you think about it, every mouth taste that we ever have becomes a moral taste. You taste something, you think you like it, and instantly it becomes a moral principle

Gopnik isn’t channeling the organic evangelists here — instead, he’s referring to the strange significance that food has for us and the strong feelings that food can produce.  People attach a lot of meaning to what they eat.  This ‘meaning’ can take the form of religious dietary restrictions, or cultural associations sold to us by junk food conglomerates (such as: pizza = fun), or even just personal taste.

For example, when I was a kid I used to experience both disgust and anger when served any form of squash.  Outraged, I named it “squish.”  But now that I’m older and (in some ways) more mature, I think about squash as a symbol of adulthood.  Eating squash gives me an immediate feeling of accomplishment, a weird satisfaction with my own grown-up-ness.

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