Memorial Day Menu

We’re in San Francisco this weekend enjoying time with old friends and exploring new places on our own. Christopher and Noemi are napping at the moment and I’m looking out at rooftops and freighters on the bay. Doves are cooing in the eaves and leaves rustling in the breeze. And I’m thinking about menus for the weekend.

I thought I’d share a few dishes I’m pondering while you’re considering your own.


Spanish Leaning Spinach and Chickpea Dip — I waffled about whether to name this ‘hummus’ or ‘chickpea dip’, but ultimately thought it veered far enough from tradition to go with the latter. It is, in any case, delicious. If you’ve ever had any doubt as to the strength of pounded garlic, this little dish will set you straight.


Mama Kourtesi’s Beet and Greens Salad — This salad, which I learned from Mama Kourtesi in Greece, is the essence of “whole eating.” She boils both beets and their greens and tosses it all in a simple dressing of oil and vinegar for a surprisingly tasty, super-versatile salad or side dish.


Big City Souvlaki — When I lived on Corfu, souvlaki meant skewered cubes of grilled, marinated pork. But on a trip through Athens seeking out the best street food and mezedhes, we found this version to be utterly addictive; moist and tender with just the right amount of spice.


Chocolate Angel Food Cake with Macerated Strawberries — A gorgeous cake; light and ethereal and rich with chocolate all at the same time. Strawberries, in peak season right now, are the perfect topper.

Happy Memorial Day, everyone. And thank you to all it’s in memory of.

Breaking the Plastic Addiction in the Kitchen

I’ve never been fond of plastic. It’s just got to not be good to have millions of plastic food storage containers piling up every day when they take thousands of years to break down. Take plastic bags alone; over a million are used worldwide every minute for an average of just 12 minutes.


And while I feel a bit better about my stash of reusable GladWare containers after finding that they’re made of safer polypropylene plastic and are BPA-free (note that Tupperware’s reusable containers are made of polycarbonate, which does contain BPA), they’re still plastic and I’d just rather not use them.

But what’s a girl to do with leftovers? Picnic fare? Our daughter’s lunch?

In asking those questions I found a few answers. Here; my guide to breaking the plastic addiction.

Step 1: Do the Math

You’ll probably balk at the prices for reusable containers at first glance (I know I did). But you really need to think of these as an investment—the antithesis of disposable. For instance, I bought three of the sandwich bags down below for about $24 at the beginning of the school year. That’s roughly 200 days of bagged sandwiches and apple slices and crackers that saved 600 plastic baggies and they’ve probably got another two years in them. So let’s make it an even 1,800 plastic bags saved. Given that fold-top baggies are roughly $2.25 per 150 (for a total of $27 for 1,800 bags), the overall price comes out as a wash. You could make similar arguments for storage containers and water bottles, too.

Step 2: Make a Plan

Because of the high up-front cost, I’m a big believer of staging your break from plastics. Let’s say you’ve got a drawerful of GladWare containers; then sandwich bags and a water bottle might be a good place for you to start. If your plastic containers are on their last legs, consider buying a more eco-friendly set made of glass, ceramic or stainless steel. But be deliberate and make a plan.

Step 3: Make a Choice

There are two ways of going about this. You could dabble with a bunch of different options and then make the big investment with your favorite, or you could go whole-hog from the get-go; there are benefits and drawbacks to each approach. Dabbling lets you pick just what you like, but because they’re meant to have (very) long lives, you’ll be stuck with a drawer full of mismatched food storage containers. Going whole-hog will get you uniformity, but it might also get you a drawer full of containers that don’t quite meet your needs.

Whichever approach you choose, here are some of our favorites:

  • Wrap-n-Mat Sandwich Wraps – I love how this works as both a sandwich wrap and a placemat. We used this and the LunchSkins for Noe’s lunches all year.
  • LunchSkins Sandwich Bags – These reuseable bags are great for sandwiches, but I like them even more for apple slices, crackers, nuts, etc.
  • LunchBots – Stainless-steel container sets that work both for fridge and on-the-go.
  • KidsKonserve Nesting Trio – Another stainless-steel choice in a nice variety of sizes that nest to save space.
  • Bormioli Rocco Glass Storage Containers (set of three) – This set reminds me of some glass containers I bought from IKEA years ago and still love.

Do you have other recommendations? I’d love to know your favorites …

No-Bake Peanut Butter Popcorn Treats

This no-bake dessert really should come with a warning … it’s irresistible. I enjoyed a couple of squares and had to send them to work with Christopher. He said I was quite popular that day. I’d suggest popping the corn on the stove in just a bit of canola oil. It takes just a few minutes and has none of the preservatives or waste that microwaved popcorn does. This whole dish, in fact, comes together in minutes.



The Secrets to True ‘Cue

By Kurt Michael Friese

No type of cooking inspires as much passion, competition, obsession, and plain old American hometown pride as barbecue. There are local, regional, and national ‘cue contests that bring together hundreds of pathologically devoted cooks and thousands of BBQ-scarfing chowhounds to debate about which wood to use and to lie about their recipes.


Barbecue may, in fact, be the original way to cook. Historians believe man’s ancestors first ate cooked meat by scavenging in the aftermath of forest fires. More recently, Spanish conquistadors “exploring” tropical islands were fascinated by the aromas coming from the small green-wood grills New World natives called barbacoa. From these origins came the huge variety of barbecue that exists around the world. No other country, though, pursues the ‘cue with such passionate abandon as the United States.

First thing’s first: Barbecuing and grilling are not the same thing. Grilling is done over high, direct heat for a short amount of time, and might even use heat from gas or electricity. Real barbecue requires patience. It’s done over low, indirect heat–usually 200 F to 300 F–and can take from two hours to a couple of days, depending on the size of the meat. True ‘cue also needs smoke from hardwood chunks or chips that have been soaked in water and which impart signature flavor to the meat. This is America’s true slow food.

Because good barbecue needs smoke and an indirect heat source, serious ‘cue aficionados use a smoker to take advantage of an adjacent fire. You can mimic this with a typical backyard grill. For a charcoal grill, pile the coals to one side, add the soaked wood directly to the hot coals, and place the meat on the unheated side. For a gas grill, light a couple of the burners on one side, place soaked hardwood chips in a smoker box or foil pouch over the flames, and set the meat over the unheated side.

While there are many talented barbecue enthusiasts here in Iowa, where I live, it is perhaps a bit surprising that Iowa does not have a rich barbecue tradition all its own. We have all the necessary ingredients: pork and beef, an abundance of hardwoods like oak and hickory, hot summers and hungry people. Still no one particular form is labeled as “Iowa ‘cue,” so we borrow nearly everyone else’s traditions and will barbecue nearly anything that moves and a few things that don’t; any excuse to play in the smoke.

Among the favorites is Texas-style beef brisket. Down there the wood would have to be oak or mesquite, but we have lots of different choices up here and I am especially fond of the fruit and nut woods, which produce sweeter smoke than oak or mesquite. I used cherry and pecan wood to smoke this Barbecued Beef Brisket.

For the beginning ‘cue chef, hardwood chips are sufficient for flavor and ease of use, and used with a smoker box or even a simple foil pouch they can convert any gas grill into a makeshift smoker. Wood chips are available in most grocery stores and anywhere grills are sold. If you want to get serious about your ‘cue, though, Iowa boasts one of the best resources in the country. Check out Hawgeyes BBQ in Ankeny for everything you’ll need and then some.

So here are my secrets to true ‘cue: Low heat, real wood, smoke … and hefty shot of patience.

kurt-thumbKurt Michael Friese is the founding leader of Slow Food Iowa, serves on the Slow Food USANational Board of Directors, and is editor and publisher of the local food magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. He’s also Chef and co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay, a freelance food writer and photographer, and author of A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland.

Barbecued Beef Brisket

Beef brisket is a tough cut that lends itself to slowly smoking on the barbecue. Soaking the hardwood is crucial for successful barbecue. As you may have learned while camping, wet wood produces lots of smoke–bad for camp-outs but just what you want for barbecue. For beef brisket and other relatively lean cuts, basting is necessary to keep the meat moist; any kind of high-quality beer will work well in this recipe. Hardwood chunks are ideal, since they burn slowly and produce gentle, consistent smoke.


Learn to Love Your Vegetables

A few years back, I interviewed Mollie Katzen—the vegetable guru—for a profile in Prevention Magazine and she spoke about a concept that really resonated with me. She talked about teaching to love vegetables rather than just telling people to eat more of them and—flash—I realized that the shift from “gotta do” to “want to do” was precisely when everything changed for me.

love your vegetablesClockwise from left: Roasted Winter Veggies; Sauteed Radishes with Mint; Garlic Parsnip Fries; Fennel and Granny Smith Salad with Blue Cheese

Sure, I’d learned through my writing that vegetables were incredible allies in health and weight management. Yes, I’d become aware of their role in eco-clean eating, and those reasons alone made me want to eat more of them. But it wasn’t until I began experimenting with a variety of veggies in ways I hadn’t thought of before—often inspired by people like Mollie—that I discovered the most compelling reason to eat vegetables yet … they can be downright delicious. And this from someone who detested vegetables (other than lettuce, raw carrots and cucumbers) well into her twenties, so was against all odds we became an item.

Here, in one neat little package, are the reasons I fell in love:

Vegetables reduce risk of heart disease

Several studies around the world have concluded that people who eat more vegetables are less prone to heart disease. One of the most wide-ranging studies, looking at nearly 85,000 women over a period of eight years, concluded that each additional serving (1/2 cup for most, 1 cup for leafy ones) of veggies a day reduced risk of heart disease by 4%. Pretty significant! Vegetable’s cocktail of micronutrients (called phytonutrients) are probably a major contributor.

Vegetables can help you maintain a healthy weight

Many studies have looked at associations between diet and weight, but some are now beginning to specifically analyze whether people who eat more vegetables weigh less. Initial results look like indeed they do. One of the theories behind why this is so is that vegetables are less calorically dense (or energy dense) than other food groups (and, at the same time, more nutrient dense).

Eating more vegetables (and less meat) can reduce your carbon footprint

Many people don’t recognize that livestock farming—the intensive concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—that most of our meat comes from produces more greenhouse gas than all forms of transport combined (18% of global, man-made greenhouse gas emissions). It also uses a great deal of water. It takes an average of 22,000 gallons of water—22,000!—to produce just over 2 pounds of beef.

Eating vegetables is FUN!

Eating seasonal, locally grown vegetables opens up whole new worlds of foods to play with. It’s like a Dr. Seuss book—your carrots can be orange, white or purple, and your cauliflower the same. Radishes can be red hot and spicy, or icy white and sweet or a gorgeous hue of magenta. If you don’t like steamed broccoli, try roasting it. If you don’t like boiled carrots, try sautéing them with a bit of spice.

Don’t just eat more vegetables (boorrrinnng) … fall in love with them.

Braised and Seared Fennel Wedges

These fennel wedges are the ultimate crossover food. Served warm, they’d be be lovely side dish on a cold night with Simplest Roast Chicken or Spiced Pork Roast. Served cool, they’re terrific finger food appetizer for a picnic. This recipe is based on one from the Gotham Cookbook, by Alfred Portale. I’ve always loved how the braising in this dish makes the fennel silky and tender, while the finishing sear gives it savory caramelization; a luscious juxtaposition.


Time For a Gut Check on Organic?

Fifteen years ago, I got the kind of call from my doctor that began with, “I have some news.” The kind of call that resulted in a hastily scheduled visit with an oncologist and two surgeries less than two weeks later. The kind of call that saved my life, and at the same time changed it forever.

A year later, Christopher and I packed up everything we owned (almost) and drove down to Costa Rica. It was an incredibly intense time for me, of being angry at and grateful for and in awe of my body for the first time. Before, I’d taken it for granted. But now I had an intense, almost motherly, instinct to nurture it.

I became more aware of how much my body hurt when I didn’t get enough sleep. I could discern a calm confidence when I practiced yoga regularly. I noticed how fresh foods made me feel clean and balanced and energized. And I felt, in my gut, a strong conviction to switch over to organic food. Something just felt wrong about putting chemicals—even if I was told they were safe—into my body.

Why do I bring all this up? Because in the last two weeks a couple of reports have come out that make my decision look not just intuitively right, but scientifically sound too.

The first, a report on reducing environmental cancer risk released by the President’s Cancer Panel (which was appointed during the Bush Administration), found that “the risk of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.” It goes on to give several recommendations for reducing exposure, including choosing organic food. The second, a study by researches from the University of Montreal and Harvard, found a link between ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and organophosphates (i.e., agricultural chemicals). Nothing definitive, but enough to make my ears perk up on the heels of the cancer risk study.

Gary Hirschman, former president and CEO of Stonyfield Farm suggested yesterday at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking for Solutions that organic isn’t really the “new–”organic practices have worked for thousands and thousands of years–the chemicals used in agriculture are what are really unproven over the long haul. We are, in essence, in the midst of a 60-year experiment.

It seems to me that this is a good time for a gut check. Not an extended analysis or time spent poring over the latest studies—we’ll forever be inundated with contradictory data from varying sources—but a simple, 30-second reflection on what feels to you like the right thing to do.

What feels right to you?

Have Your Risotto and Get Your Whole Grains Too

By Alison Ashton

As long as there’s a jar of arborio rice in the pantry, stock on hand, and a smidgen of leftover wine, I can bust out a hearty, comforting risotto for supper any evening. But because I’m expanding my repertoire of whole grains these days, I’m experimenting with different types of grains so I can have my risotto and eat it, too.

risotto-technique-postThe term “risotto” refers to a method as well as a dish and involves gradually adding hot stock to a grain, which gently coaxes out the starch for a lovely creamy texture. It’s a technique that can be used to cook all kinds of grains, and the Italians have a long tradition of using the risotto method to prepare grains other than arborio rice. Heck, it even works with pasta.

The basic steps of risotto are simple and worth committing to memory so you can improvise:

Soffrito. Heat a little fat–olive oil, butter, lard (if you’re feeling decadent)–in a large, heavy pan (a saucepan, Dutch oven, or saute pan is fine) over medium heat. Add finely chopped aromatics (shallot, onion, carrot, and/or celery), and cook until tender. Add minced garlic, if you’re using it, and cook 30 seconds or until fragrant.

Riso. Add the rice or other grain, and cook it a minute or two, stirring constantly. White rice like arborio or carnaroli will turn translucent; whole grains will get a bit toasty. Arborio and carnaroli are both types of short-grain, starchy rice, which makes for particularly creamy risotto. When using whole grains, you’ll want something similarly plump and starchy, like short- or medium-grain brown rice, farro, barley, or even steel-cut oats. I even made a pretty risotto recently with Madagascar pink rice. Long-grain rice and non-starchy whole grains like quinoa don’t lend themselves to the risotto method. These grains will still cook using the risotto technique, but they won’t become creamy.

Vino. Next, add a generous splash or two of wine, and cook, stirring the grains constantly, until the wine is absorbed. White wine is traditional. In a pinch, I’ll use dry vermouth. Rose, sake, or even sherry or red wine also work.

Brodo. Risotto requires liquid, which can be hot water, stock (chicken, vegetable, beef, our Mushroom Stock, fish), or even milk. Whole-grain risotto requires more liquid than risotto made with white rice. The Whole Grains Council has a general guideline for grain-to-liquid ratios, and you can always supplement with extra water if you need more liquid. Add the hot liquid a little at time, stirring frequently, until it’s absorbed before adding the next ladleful. The risotto is done when the grain becomes creamy and al dente–tender, but not mushy.

Condimento. Risotto is a rich canvas to showcase seasonal ingredients–delicate English peas or asparagus in spring, grilled bell peppers and eggplant in summer, roasted butternut squash, and root veggies come fall. Mushrooms are a classic match for risotto; so is shellfish. A little grating of cheese is a nice finishing touch.

Five easy steps to risotto-style whole grains … great for any season.

alison-thumbA longtime editor, writer, and recipe developer, Alison Ashton is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and the Editorial Director for NOURISH Evolution. She has worked as a features editor for a national wire service and as senior food editor for a top food magazine. Her work has appeared in Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times, and Natural Health as well as on her blog, Eat Cheap, Eat Well, Eat Up.

Pearled Barley Risotto with Peas, Pecorino & Prosciutto

Pearled barley yields a creamy, toothsome risotto. And here’s your language lesson for the day: The Italian word for barley is orzo (not to be confused with the rice-shaped pasta of the same name), and risotto made with barley is called orzotto. Yes, we probably should call this orzotto, but most people will think of this as risotto. In any case, it’s delicious by any name. This recipe also would be tasty with pearled farro (labeled farro perlato) if you find it at gourmet markets, in which case, this would be farrotto.


1 cup pearled barley
3-1/2 cups low-sodium chicken stock, divided
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided
1/2 cup finely chopped shallot
Sea salt, to taste
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 ounce prosciutto, chopped
1 cup shelled fresh English peas (about 1 pound in pod) OR 1 cup frozen peas, thawed
1/4 cup (1 ounce) finely grated pecorino Romano cheese, plus additional shaved cheese for garnish

Place barley in a medium saucepan. Cover with cold water by 1-1/2 inches. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 8-12 hours.

When ready to begin cooking, place stock in a small saucepan over medium heat; bring to a simmer (don’t boil). Drain barley, spread on a clean kitchen towel and blot dry.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add shallot and a pinch of salt, and cook 2 minutes, or until tender, stirring occasionally. Add barley and cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add wine and cook 3 minutes, until wine is absorbed. Add 3 cups warm stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook at a low boil for 12-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the barley is tender and creamy.

While barley cooks, heat remaining 1 teaspoon oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add prosciutto and cook 5 minutes or until crispy. Remove prosciutto from pan with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel. Raise heat to medium. Add peas and remaining 1/2 cup warm stock to pan for 5 minutes or until peas are tender and stock evaporates.

Stir peas and grated cheese into barley. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve garnished with prosciutto and shaved cheese..

Serves 4