If you want to offend an Italian, refer to polenta as “Italian grits.” I’m guessing. I’ve never actually had the guts to do this, after getting burned making a similar wine faux pas a few years ago:
Me: I love Primitivo wine. I think it’s made from the same grape as Zinfandel, which we produce in my hometown in California!
Primitivo Winemaker: **look of disdain/horror** We have been making Primitivo wines for thousands of years. It is not the same as this Zinfandel.
Me: …… [nods/ hangs head in shame/ holds out empty glass for more]
But really, polenta – long a staple in Northern Italian cuisine – is just coarsely ground cornmeal. Just like grits. Depending on where I’m living and what’s available at the store, I use Italian polenta and American cornmeal interchangeably. Both are easy and affordable to prepare. Both make a rich, hearty porridge when cooked in liquid. And both absolutely benefit from generous helpings of butter, salt and cheese.
In wintertime, I love to serve polenta with braised short ribs or some other meaty sauce. But as the weather gets warmer, polenta is an ideal base for lighter vegetable-based dishes. This version combines simple roasted spring veggies with creamy, cheesy polenta. I advise making extra for leftovers.
16 oz./ 453 g jarred or homemade marinara sauce, heated
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F/ 204 degrees C.
Place vegetables in 2 roasting pans: the asparagus and snap peas in one pan, and the rest of the veggies in another (the first pan might not take as long to cook as the heartier vegetables). Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast for 20-30 minutes, or until veggies are lightly caramelized and tender.
Meanwhile, start the polenta. In a saucepan, bring the water to boil over medium heat. Add a dash of salt, then slowly pour in the polenta, whisking to break up lumps. Let polenta cook, stirring occasionally, until it is soft and thick and starting to pull away from the edges of the pan (around 20 minutes). Stir in butter, goat cheese and 1/4 cup grated Parmesan until combined. Season with salt and pepper.
Spoon the polenta onto plates or shallow bowls. Top with marinara sauce, roasted veggies and grated Parmesan.
*You can vary the veggies depending on what you have, and what’s in season.
I love artichokes. I get a huge kick out of seeing their symmetrical little shapes all stacked up at the market this time of year. Growing up in California, I gorged myself on them… and I burned the roof of my mouth more times than I can count because I can never wait for them to cool down before digging in.
Until recently, I would order fresh artichoke dishes in restaurants, but I would never prepare them at home. They just seemed like too much work, and canned artichoke hearts are pretty fantastic. But it’s artichoke season, and we keep getting beautiful artichokes in our CSA basket. I am racked with guilt every time I neglect them and they go bad, so I started playing around with this pasta.
The ingredients are simple, but they complement each other so well. The artichokes are earthy and buttery, and the lemon adds a touch of brightness. And cream and Parmesan are always a good idea; use just a little for a lighter dish, or be heavy-handed for a decadent, creamy sauce.
To be clear, you can make this pasta with canned artichoke hearts, and it will be delicious. But if you have some in-season artichokes just begging to be used… well, here you go.
2 T. lemon juice (plus more for cooking artichokes)
Generous splash of cream
½ cup grated Parmesan
6-8 whole artichokes (or 1 can artichoke hearts)
Cook artichokes. If using whole, fresh artichokes, roast them with garlic, salt, olive oil and lemon juice according to this recipe. If using canned artichoke hearts, rinse and drain them. Sauté the hearts with 1 T. of butter, a spoonful of minced garlic and a splash of lemon juice. Roughly chop and set aside.
Boil a large pot of salted water. Cook pasta until just shy of al dente.
Meanwhile, melt 3 T. butter in a large skillet. Add lemon zest and cook for a couple minutes. Pour in cream. Use tongs to add the cooked pasta, lemon juice, artichokes and Parmesan. Toss, adding a few spoonfuls of pasta water to thin the sauce if needed.
Season with salt and pepper, and a splash of olive oil. Serve with additional Parmesan and lemon zest on the side.
All I want, all winter long, is a big bowl of body-warming, soul-soothing soup. And usually I want it instantly, with next-to-zero work on my part. Ramen is the magical concoction that satisfies both of these desires.
I make it a little differently every time, depending on what veggies and toppings we have in the house. It is delicious in its simplest form – broth and noodles – but I love it even more when we have greens, mushrooms, sprouts, soft-boiled eggs and other fixins to add for flavor and texture.
Feeling a little chilly and also a little lazy? Go fix yourself a steaming bowl of broth, noodles and veggies. You deserve it.
Soak mushrooms in warm water until they soften (20-30 minutes); rinse and drain. Slice mushrooms.
Heat sesame oil in a large pot over medium heat. Cook garlic and ginger for 2 minutes, then add miso and cook for another minute. Add broth, a splash of soy sauce and Sriracha, 5-star spice (optional) and mirin (optional).
Stir in mushrooms. Bring the broth to a simmer and season to taste.
While broth is heating, boil water in a separate pot and cook noodles until al dente. Drain and rinse with warm water; set aside.
Add greens to the broth and cook for a few minutes until wilted.
Put a serving of noodles in each bowl, ladle soup over the top, and garnish with toppings.
Unless I’m making chocolate-chip cookies or brownies, I find baking stressful. I like to experiment when I cook, even when I’m following a recipe. But apparently “winging it” and baking don’t mesh well.
Nevertheless, I want to bake around the holidays. You can’t have Thanksgiving dinner without a homemade pie, right? My mom always made amazing pies for holidays, and she insists it’s not that tricky. I can totally make a pie! All of the pies!
So my annual pattern is:
Attempt a new and complicated recipe the day 15 people are coming over for dinner
Fake confidence and refuse help
Freak out when something goes wrong
Swear profusely and insist the holiday/the dessert are ruined
Halfheartedly eat the slightly mangled finished product anyway
It’s fun. For everyone. Happy Thanksgiving!
This year, we asked several other people to bring dessert so I could start step #1 without as much pressure. And with wonderful pep talks and troubleshooting advice from friends who are better bakers than I am, this pumpkin crumble tart experiment turned out surprisingly well. I wanted the creaminess of traditional pumpkin pie, along with the crunchy texture of a crumble, and this checked both boxes.
Before I dig into the recipe, here are some caveats:
This is a quick and dirty recipe; I didn’t plan to write it up until I had made it a few times and had taken more photos. But tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and this is top of mind. (Just like I always say, “Better done than perfect.” Hahahaha, just kidding, I would never say that.) The picture above Brian snapped with his phone, and I’ll update once we’ve polished the recipe and made it a second time.
1 cup (100g) pecans (or almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts)
1/4 cup (50g) packed dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
6 Tablespoons (85g) unsalted butter, chilled and cut in rough chunks
Make the dough
Let butter soften out of the fridge for about 5 minutes before you use it. Add it to the bowl of a stand mixer using the paddle attachment, then add the sugar. Mix until there are no large chunks of butter.
Add the egg yolks, then flour and sugar. Pulse the mixer a few times until the dough is sticking together.
Grease a 9 1/2-inch (24 cm) nonstick springform pan, and place a circle of parchment paper on the bottom of the pan (cut to fit). Use your fingers and the heel of your hand to press the dough evenly over the bottom of the pan, and about halfway up the sides.
Put the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).
Line the chilled crust with parchment paper and cover with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 15 minutes, remove pie weights and set aside.
Make the filling*
Whisk together pumpkin puree, eggs and brown sugar. Add the cornstarch, salt, spices, cream and milk. Mix well until everything is combined.
Pour filling into the crust; it will likely go past the edge of the crust.
Place the pan on a baking sheet and bake for 50-60 minutes; it may jiggle slightly but appear mostly set.
Make the crumble
Pulse the ingredients in food processor (or chop the nuts and mix ingredients by hand)
Place the crumble ingredients in a thin layer in a second pan. When the tart has been baking for about 20 minutes, put the crumble pan in the oven alongside the tart to start browning. Add the crumble topping to the top of the tart toward the end of the tart's baking time, when the filling is almost set (about 10 minutes before it's done).
Take the tart out of the oven and set on a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes. Run a knife along the inside edge of the pan. Let it rest for 30 minutes before removing the springform pan.
Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.
* I had a difficult time working with the Trader Joe's organic pumpkin puree. It seemed to have a more watery consistency than Libby's, making the filling super thin, and I ended up using two cans of the TJ's puree – but it did set correctly in the end. If your filling seems very watery, use 1 1/2 to 2 cans of filling.
In a previous post, I talked about what inspired me to do my thesis on food and cooking. Now that it’s done and turned in, I thought I’d adapt some portions of my writing and focus on them here. One of the first, and most significant topics when talking about our food, is that of food processing.
Scientists, doctors, nutritionists and health organizations all acknowledge that the production and consumption of processed food and drinks are important causes in the current pandemic of obesity and related chronic diseases.1
As food writer Michael Pollan so eloquently puts it, big food corporations “cook very differently from how people do (which is why we usually call what they do ‘food processing’ instead of cooking). They tend to use much more sugar, fat and salt than people cooking for people do; they also deploy novel chemical ingredients seldom found in pantries in order to make their food last longer and look fresher that it really is”.2
These novel techniques and ingredients, along with excessive amounts of sugar, fat and salt, create a diet that health professionals describe as “intrinsically nutritionally unbalanced and intrinsically harmful to health”.3
Shall I go on? OK, I will…
Carlos A. Monteiro, Director of the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition at the University of Sao Paulo, proposes that the amount of processing our food undergoes is what determines how healthy or unhealthy it will be, not the food itself, nor its nutrient parts.
Across the globe, government food recommendations do not recognize this difference, and as a result, food like whole fresh fruit, fruit canned in sugary syrup and reconstituted sugary fruit beverages all get classified as “fruit”.4
Side note: A 2010 study found that the diets of nearly the entire US population did not fall within federal dietary recommendations. So, even with sugary fruit beverages being classified as fruits, we still do not meet the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables.
Monteiro argues that most food today has some degree of processing and that there is little use in classifying food into only processed and unprocessed groups. Instead, he proposes three levels to describe the drastic differences in processing that occur between, for instance, pre-washed fruit and a gummy fruit snack.
The three categories are:
Group 1: Unprocessed and minimally processed foods: No processing, or mostly physical processes used to make single whole foods more durable, accessible, convenient, palatable or safe. Group 2: Processed culinary or food industry ingredients: Extraction and purification of components of single whole foods, resulting in producing ingredients used in the preparation and cooking of dishes and meals made from Group 1 foods in homes and traditional restaurants, or else in the formulation by manufacturers of Group 3 foods. Group 3: Ultra-processed food products: Processing of a mix of Group 2 ingredients and Group 1 foodstuffs in order to create durable, accessible, convenient, and palatable ready-to-eat or to-heat food products liable to be consumed as snacks or desserts or replace home-prepared dishes.
The groups are described more thoroughly below (from Monteiro’s research) but it’s easy to see that foods like cookies, snacks, pre-prepared meals, processed meat like chicken nuggets and burgers all belong in Group 3.6
He does not propose that healthy diets are made up of entirely unprocessed/minimally processed foods, but rather a healthy balance of the three groups.
The problem is, that across countries like Brazil, the UK and the US, we seem to completely lack the ability to maintain this balance.
In Brazil, ultra-processed (Group 3) foods made up 20% of consumed calories. As income increased, so too did the presence of these ultra-processed foods. In the households with the highest income, nearly one-third of all calories came from ultra-processed foods.7
In the UK, ultra-processed foods made up 45% caloric intake.8
In the United States, the five most commonly consumed foods were all considered Group 3 foods: sodas, cakes and pastries, burgers, pizza and potato chips. These five foods alone made up 20% of the total calories consumed in the United States.9
A similar study in Canada showed that 61.7% of dietary energy consumed came from ultra-processed foods and that 80% of the Canadian population had diets consisting of more than 50% of ultra-processed foods in terms of caloric intake.10
Yeah? So what does that mean?
Monteiro’s claim that the act of processing food is a culprit in our rapid decline in health is being confirmed more specifically in subsequent studies. One recent study showed a link between two commonly used emulsifiers and the development of metabolic syndrome and low-grade inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract of mice.11
Emulsifiers can be found in nearly all processed food and are used to prevent ingredients like fats and oils from separating. They go by many names, but some of the common ones are: polysorbate 80, lecithin, carrageenan, polyglycerols and xanthan gum. The “metabolic syndrome” that these items are linked to is a term used to describe a group of risk factors, including high levels of cholesterol, high blood pressure and high blood sugar, as well as obesity. Someone with metabolic syndrome is more likely to develop more serious health issues like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems like heart attacks and strokes.12
The addition of emulsifiers is by no means the only cause of obesity, but the inflammation that it causes in the gastrointestinal tract appears to interfere with the feeling of “being full” while eating.13 Not feeling full often leads to overeating and, in turn, the development of more fat.
So what can I do about it?
Simple! First, decrease, limit and/or eliminate ultra-processed foods from what you eat. It has clear benefits in preventing disease and promoting general well being, Monteiro says.14
Second, even with the downward trend of cooking, more than two-thirds of caloric intake for adults in the US still occurs in the home.15 Therefore, the most good can be done by focusing on food and meals we consume at home.
I think these point to a clear path forward: cut down on processed foods by cooking more at home. It is one of the easiest daily acts we can do to improve our health.
Numerous studies have the same conclusion, one even suggesting that, “Efforts to boost the healthfulness of the US diet should focus on promoting the preparation of healthy foods at home while incorporating limits on time available for cooking”.16
An increase in cooking at home has been shown to relate directly to a decrease in Body Mass Index (BMI),17 and lower BMI decreases the risk other health issues like diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease and many types of cancer.18
So what are you waiting for? Put down the fast food and the pre-packaged meals and make your next meal from simple, fresh ingredients.
If you want to read my Masters Thesis in its entirety, you can download it in the Download section. You can also see a shorter slide show here. Enjoy!
We’ve been on a grain-based salad kick for a while, combining couscous, bulgar, farro or whatever we have in the cupboard with vegetables, nuts, legumes, herbs and spices for new combos. I think this started because:
Green salads can get pretty grim during the winter months.
Whenever we serve simple salads to guests, no one eats it and we end up with a neverending bowl of wilting lettuce in our fridge.
I like these heartier salads because they have endless variations, and they are a blank canvas for all the spices we have been collecting. I made this one for our last EatWith event and loved the contrast of the different textures and flavors (I think the cinnamon is a must).
We hosted our first big EatWith event last night and had an absolute blast. We had more than 20 guests, and it was such a great mix of interesting, cool people from all over.
Brian made his amazing slow-cooked BBQ pork, setting up the grill on our wee balcony and tending to it lovingly all day. We also made crudité, tzatziki, bulgar salad, coleslaw, bourbon-chipotle BBQ sauce and a new version of mac and cheese we’re experimenting with.
True to my American roots, I love mac and cheese in all its forms, and I’m always looking for my new favorite recipe. This one turned out really well. A few people asked for the recipe, so here it is! You can be flexible with the kinds of cheese you use – feel free to play around with combinations and see what you like. I’m not sure there’s a wrong way to make delicious cheese sauce.
1 1/3 lb. cheese, grated (about 600 g) - I used aged white cheddar, Grana and a semi-curado Spanish cheese that reminded me of Monterey Jack
1 egg, beaten
6 yellow onions, sliced thinly
Panko bread crumbs
Grated black truffle (optional)
Salt, pepper, other spices/herbs to taste
Heat a small amount of olive oil and butter in a non-stick pan on medium-low.
Add sliced onions and cook until golden brown and caramelized, stirring frequently, about 30-40 minutes. Set aside.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, adding a generous handful of sea salt.
Cook macaroni for a few minutes less than the cook time on the package (it should be too firm to eat, not yet al dente). Drain and set aside.
While the pasta water is boiling, melt 5 tablespoons of butter in a sauté pan on medium-low heat.
Add 5 tablespoons of flour, whisking constantly to remove lumps and to keep from burning. The consistency should be a slightly thickened liquid (I added a few more tablespoons of flour here to make a bit more dense). Cook for 5 minutes, whisking constantly.
Stir in milk and dry mustard slowly. Cook for 5-10 minutes on low heat, stirring often.
Add a small cup of the sauce to the bowl holding the beaten egg, whisking constantly.(This is called tempering and gradually raises the temperature of the egg without scrambling it.)
Mix in cheese, reserving a small amount of Grana for the topping. The consistency should be thick and creamy.
Taste sauce and add salt, pepper and other spices or herbs to taste.
In a small pan, toast a few generous handfuls of panko breadcrumbs in a little butter for a few minutes.
Add macaroni and caramelized onions to cheese sauce and mix well.
Transfer mac and cheese to a casserole dish. Sprinkle breadcrumb mixture and leftover Grana on top.
Bake at 375 degrees F/ 190 degrees C for 20-25 minutes, until the topping is golden brown.
Sprinkle a little grated black truffle on top if you're feeling extra fancy.
The French dish tartiflette is everything you want in a winter comfort food. It combines rich cheese, bacon and potatoes in melty amazingness, and it’s guaranteed not to result in any leftovers. You’re probably supposed to eat it after a long day of skiing in the Alps, but since I don’t ski or understand the cold, I think it’s acceptable to eat it any time there’s a little chill in the air.
Our lovely friends Marylise and Joan invited us over for a pre-Christmas dinner and made a to-die-for tartiflette. We had an entire conversation about how you should pace yourself while eating it because it’s so rich and filling that it’s easy to overdo it and end up with a belly ache later… and then we licked the pan clean. It was too good to stop.
I asked Marlyise for her secrets and consulted a few recipes before making my own tartiflette for family in New Orleans. Some recipes have you parboil the potatoes before baking, others have you pan-fry them. I opted to pan-fry because it worked better for our timeline, but I think either way would work well.
The tartiflette was delicious, if I do say so myself. Everyone liked it, from my parents to my wee toddler nephew. We’ll be having this one again.
Note: We were able to procure reblochon – a soft washed-rind, stinky cheese – by means I cannot reveal, but if that is hard to find, you could look for a similar substitution. There are “reblochon-style” cheeses, and I’ve also read about using gruyère or other cheeses you would use in fondue. Go to a cheese shop or a grocery store cheese counter and see what suggestions they have.
It is a daily challenge to make a healthy dinner instead of grabbing takeout from the many tempting places in our neighborhood. And I do love to cook. But when we don’t plan ahead, and it’s 8 p.m. and the hangries are coming on… well, a kebab or a wok stir-fry someone else has prepared starts to look pretty appealing.
Sometimes I give into takeout’s siren song, and I enjoy every bite. But I know it’s not great for our budget or our health to do it as often as it crosses my mind, so I try to have a few easy recipes to draw from that I actually look forward to.
The wok takeout places are our default for fast food: you choose your noodles, your sauce and your protein, and they stir-fry it to order with veggies. It’s tasty and cheap, and because it has vegetables in it, it feels healthier. But I’ve been working on making our own version at home with whatever we have on hand. It’s cheap, it makes a ton – so we have leftovers for days – and it’s delicious and much less greasy than the takeout version.
If we have chicken, I’ll add it to the hot wok first, browning it on all sides, and then adding the veggies. But more often, I’ve been making it with just veggies. If you use a good portion of something hearty like squash or sweet potato, it’s really filling (even meat enthusiast Brian agrees) and a great way to use up produce you don’t want to spoil.
The “recipe” below is just a basic framework. I do it differently every time, and it’s very forgiving and adaptable. I’d love to hear any variations you try!
Fresh vegetables, cut into cubes (suggestions include: squash, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, snap peas, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, bell peppers)
½ can- 1 can coconut milk
1 package rice or egg noodles
Curry paste or powder
Sriracha hot sauce
Ginger, garlic, fresh basil or cilantro (optional)
Heat a small amount of oil over medium-high heat in a wok or large pan.
Add the heartier veggies that will take longer to cook (such as squash and potatoes) and stir-fry until they start to soften a bit. If they begin to stick to the pan, add a little more oil, water or broth.
Add the rest of the veggies, as well as curry paste/powder, soy sauce, ginger and garlic (if you’re using them), and cook for a few more minutes.
Add the coconut milk, stirring well to mix in the spices, and let simmer until the veggies start to become tender. Season with soy sauce and hot sauce to taste.
Meanwhile, boil water for the noodles. When the veggies are just about done, cook noodles until al dente (usually 1-2 minutes).
Drain noodles and add them to the veggies (along with fresh herbs if you’re using them), mixing well and turning off the heat.
I make enchiladas at least once a month, usually when I have a random assortment of leftovers and vegetables I need to use, and I am craving something a little spicy. What I like best about enchiladas is that you can make them a thousand different ways, and they’re almost guaranteed to be delicious no matter what you put in them. My commitment to creating authentic Mexican cuisine is minimal, so it frees me up to try a lot of possible combinations.
My basic formula is:
Put a few cups of cooked beans or leftover chicken, pork or beef into a mixing bowl. (This is an excellent use for slow-cooker pulled pork or dried beans that you soak overnight, then cook on low all day in the slow cooker.)
Mix beans or meat with sour cream (or Greek yogurt), a few generous handfuls of shredded or crumbled cheese, chopped cilantro, salt and pepper.
Lightly sauté some veggies in olive oil.
Take flour tortillas (or corn tortillas that have been softened by microwaving them briefly or sautéing them in a little oil) and add generous dollops of beans or meat and veggies in the center.
Roll the filled tortillas up, and nestle them in a casserole dish, seam down.
Cover with enchilada sauce and bake, adding more cheese on top for the last few minutes.
Heat a small amount of olive oil in a pan and sauté pepper, onions and mushrooms for 5-8 minutes, until vegetables start to soften. Preheat oven to 375° F.
Make the sauce in a separate saucepan: sauté garlic in olive oil for 1-2 minutes, then add the tomatoes and their juices, crushing them well with your hands as you go and breaking them up more with a spoon or spatula. Season with spices and let simmer uncovered for about 15-20 minutes. Blend with an immersion blender if you want a smoother sauce.
In a large bowl, mix pinto beans, cilantro, sour cream and half the bag of cheese. Add a few good shakes of salt and pepper, and mix well.
Grease a 9 x 13 casserole pan with a bit of olive oil to keep enchiladas from sticking. Place heaping portions of bean mixture and veggie mixture on a tortilla, roll it up and place it seam side down in the pan. Repeat until the pan is full and you use up all the filling.
Pour the sauce over the enchiladas. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for about 40 minutes.
Take the enchiladas out of the oven, remove the foil and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. Return to the oven and bake for another 5-10 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the tortillas are starting to get crisp on the edges.
Serve with extra toppings: sour cream, jalapeños, salsa, hot sauce, avocado, lime, cilantro, etc.