Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Healthy Starts at the Store

Healthy eating starts from the source: shopping for food at the right places. Now I'm a farmer's market addict during the summer season when fresh local produce is available, but am realistic that it is not possible to obtain these all-natural ingredients straight from the source year-round. So as a backup I frequent healthy food stores.

In my area the best options of the food store "biggies" are Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. Now there are merits and drawbacks to each - Whole Foods is a growing global empire (there was even one nearby when I lived in London) and thus has the resources to offer a wider selection of products, also resulting in generally higher prices a more "corporate feel" to the stores. Whole Foods is stocked will all the amenities of major grocery store chains - fresh produce; full meat, deli, and seafood counters; and an array of excellent prepared foods. Whole Foods may sell overpriced gourmet cheeses, but it's also one of the few places around that carries the hard-to-find items that epicurean foodies are looking for. They also have more specialty products, such as vegan baking ingredients, than Trader Joe's generally has. Whole Foods carries carob chips and many gluten-free baking mixes (not to mention great bulk granola!) as well as a ton of vitamins, probiotics, herbal supplements and such that other grocers lack.

Trader Joe's, on the other hand, has the "crunchy granola" feel of a neighborhood market, branding itself in a whimsical way with colorful walls and remarkably enthusiastic employees. Though Trader Joe's has less produce (and thus lacks the obscure exotic veggie finds), it still carries all the "health-food nut" essentials such as tofu in many varieties and prepackaged items like quinoa and kale. Though Trader Joe's products are limited in comparison to the competing brands at Whole Foods, resulting in fewer flavor choices to choose from in soy yogurt, for example - while Trader Joe's has soy milk, Whole Foods has that and numerous brands of almond milk and rice milk to choose from - Trader Joe's products are high quality. Their frozen food section has a great array of delicious premade meals such as Indian curry and Mexican tamales, and their low fat baked goods are excellent. By far my favorite part of Trader Joe's, I must say, is their dried fruits - from tart cherries to blueberry-golden raisin medleys, TJ's dried fruit is the perfect healthy snack to satisfy the sweet tooth's cravings.

The verdict: go to Whole Foods for lunch, indulging in their delicatessen, and peruse the shelves for a fine cheese find for later. Then stock up at Whole Foods on your basic essentials, and be sure to get some healthy snack foods! Free food samples at both stores. You can't lose.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Last Night's Dinner

Last night we used the fresh vegetables from the farmer's market this weekend to make roasted yellow bell peppers filled with a chopped eggplant, summer squash, zucchini, and plum tomato sauteed with garlic and red onion, mixed with toasted pine nuts, golden raisins and a few tablespoons of eggplant-sundried tomato paste, lightly seasoned with thyme, salt and pepper, and a hint of fresh marjoram.  A vegetable explosion!

"Let Them Eat Cake"

I decided to bake a chocolate espresso torte for my friend Viki's birthday, but since she is gluten sensitive and I am lactose sensitive I created a flourless almost-vegan concoction.  Here's the recipe:

1) Over low heat in a medium saucepan, melt 3/4 cup Earth Balance dairy-free butter and two bars dark chocolate (note you can find virtually dairy free dark chocolate at specialty food stores), stirring to combine.  
2) In batches add a cup of sugar, cup cooled espresso, and heaping spoons of cocoa powder incrementally, tasting to test flavor.  A dash of kahlua works well here as well if you have it. Stir until smooth and rich.
3) Beat four eggs with an electric mixer until frothy, then add cooled chocolate mixture to the eggs, folding into a batter.  Pour into a lightly greased pan and bake on 350 degrees for 40 minutes.
4) Remove cake from over and let cool.  Then remove from pan (I placed on a nice serving plate) and refrigerate for at least an hour.
5) I topped the torte with a raspberry puree: take two packages of fresh raspberries and place them in a small saucepan on medium heat, simmering to soften.  Add about a fourth cup of sugar and stir to thicken the sauce (also a dash of brown sugar for fun) and when it has achieved a lovely texture - not too juicy or it will drown the cake - remove from the heat.
6) Spread raspberry puree over the top of the cake (here I decorated the plate with bright pink flower leaves arranged around the rim of the cake, "plating" as they say) and serve!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Did you know?

... that the diet of northern European peasantry relied heavily upon the potato ever since it was imported from Peru in the sixteenth century?

In Celtic Britain it was taboo to harvest any potatoes before the festival of Lugnasa, and so the event was met with great anticipation. A dish traditionally served on Lugnasa is the colcannon, a potato and cabbage dish of numerous variations. The ritual directed that all members of the family must share the dish or risk offending the agricultural spirit that protects the crop. After the first bite everyone would shout, "Death to the Red Hag!" to drive away the spector of starvation.

The best-named colcannon dish, I think, is rumpledethumps, which uses cabbage, leeks, broccoli and cheddar cheese.

*This bit of epicurean trivia was supplied by Moosewood Restaurant, the famed natural foods restaurant in Ithaca, New York, which is operated by a Collective and has published healthy recipe cookbooks great for vegetarian and vegan lifestyles.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Julia Child on the French and Cooking

"In France, cooking is a serious art form and a national sport."
"Find something you're passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Julia Child's kitchen (now at the American History Museum at the Smithsonian)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Liberian Food

Here is an interesting article about Liberian food that I came across in the Times:

Monday, June 21, 2010

Soul of Summer

As today is the official first day of summer, here's a list of interesting healthy meals to try this season:
  • Vegetable Napoleon: grilled summer squash, zucchini, Portobello mushrooms, tomatoes, carmelized onions on a bed of sauteed spinach with saffron jus
  • Grilled shrimp with peach and blueberry salsa
  • Spiced pomegranate crusted tuna with grilled corn and asparagus
  • Summer squash topped with fresh pesto
  • Spinach salad with fresh mango, sunflower seeds, and a shallot-apricot dressing
  • Fresh avocado and orange salad with chili lime dressing, topped with sprouts

To welcome in the heat wave, last night for dinner we had Cajun spice-crusted flounder with grilled corn, zucchini and red bell peppers, served out on the back porch of course. Summer is the time to really take advantage of all the fresh local produce in season, and eat it outside!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Running Food

In preparation for Sunday's 5K the athletes will all eat to fuel themselves pre-race; though not as strictly regimened as before the Marathon, each runner has his/her own "energy food" favorites. My friend Ivonne, for example, really likes peanut butter-filled pretzel bites before she runs, whereas others go for bagels. Here are my personal picks:

  • Carb boost: granola bars. I recommend Bear Naked, Kashi, or Nature Valley "oats 'n honey" flavor - so much better than Chewy bars.
  • Protein: spoonful of peanut butter on banana - the classic combo.
  • Energy bars: I prefer Luna and Pria to other brands like Powerbar (which taste chemical-y to me) and urge men not to shy away from trying the products marketed for women - they won't inject you with estrogen, don't worry - I promise they taste good!
  • Sugar high: honey sticks are "in" nowadays in the running world as a quick fix for a pre-race sugar surge, but I personally prefer a spoonful of pure maple syrup.
  • Hydration plan: seasoned runners develop personal plans for when to hydrate throughout races, when to switch from water to Gatorade, etc. Some are even buying into the energy drink trend and going for caffeinated drinks before shorter road races, but I personally stay away from the coffee and Red Bull since it goes right through me - stick with water.
  • Post-race snack: orange slices are my favorite on hot summer days. I avoid heavy dairy after a tiring run and go for the lighter options, such as multigrain Sun Chips and hummus and fresh lemonade. Full meals to follow can range from chicken sandwiches with sprouts to lean fish and brown rice, to replenish and refuel for the next one!

Hungry for a run?

Culinary World Tour: American Indian Food

Chayote and summer vegetables
Green quinoa: healthy grains with herb flavors

* Chayote and quinoa are both tasty and nutritious yet underused foods to experiment with!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On Family and Food

"After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one's own relatives."

-Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

D.C.'s Best: Siroc Restaurant

Blending modern, improvisational cooking and classical Northern Italian cuisine, the executive chefs the Dris brothers Keram and Mehdi describe their Siroc Restaurant as "a labor of love." With an innovative menu and an intimate atmosphere in the cozy dining room located in the heart of northwest Washington, D.C., Siroc serves delicious food for a relatively affordable price with excellent service. It truly deserves its acclaim and title as one of D.C.'s "Top 100 Restaurants" as hailed by The Washington Post, for the quality is all-around top-notch.

Our meal began with complimentary crab cakes for everyone at our table of nine; upon learning that a number of the diners have shellfish allergies our helpful server returned with vegetarian substitutes for them.

Next was the appetizers. With so many options to choose from, it was hard to decide. We had the sea scallops served with braised black lentils served in a rich tomato sauce,

Quail marinated in pomegranate - achieving a glistening carmelized coating - baked with goat cheese curd, green olives, and crushed tomatoes to pair a savory kick with the delicate sweetened game:

and a composed tower of avocado, mango and roasted shrimp served on a plate decorated with basil oil and crunchy smoked prosciutto, a food art triumph!

Next came the pasta course, for which diners may request half orders. Among the pastas we tried were the handmade potato gnocchi in a ragu of Maschovy duck with carmelized carrots and parsnips - soft pillows in a rich, aromatic broth; gorgonzola-filled raviolini in a vibrant green creamy pistachio sauce with diced Parma prosciutto, and cappelacci filled with lobster, roasted corn with a sweet pepper buerre blanc:

There was too much lemon juice on the cappelacci, overpowering the lobster flavor one desires, but overall all the pasta dishes were fresh and pleasing. Next came the entree course, with a fairly extensive meat selection ranging house-made sausage to duck breast on a turnip and taleggio cheese torte. The veal ossobucco with rosemary and lime gremolata was fall-off-the-bone exquisite, melding with the parmesan polenta and marinating before your eyes. The roasted eggplan layered with braised lamb shank in a roasted pepper sauce was innovative and created a truly exceptional flavor, and the roasted whole boneless braised branzino

paired perfectly with the spicy sauteed spinach, priving that white fish and cooked vegetables do not have to be bland and boring. For spinach and chile peppers, an underused and underrated combination was the surprising triumph of the multi-course meal, an enlightening culinary experience.

4/5 stars.

*The espresso leaves something to be desired - too watery, not authentic - tasting like an Americano.  Go for an aperitif.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cheeseless Cheesecake

Here is a recipe I made up this week, taking a recipe for white chocolate raspberry cheesecake and making it my own by modifying and "veganizing" it (quite successfully):

1) Make crust with graham cracker crumbs, brown sugar and melted Earth Balance butter. I am never exact with measurements here as I eyeball the quantity - enough to coat the pan (use a springform if you have one) - and mix with melted butter thoroughly to stick properly to the sides. It should be golden and slightly moist to reach optimal crust when baked; too dry and it will flake away. I have used Earth Balance many times and no one ever knows it's not butter!

2) With electric mixer on medium speed, beat approx. 2 1/2 (8 oz.) containers Tofutti cream cheese (the original called for two packages fat free cream cheese and one 1/3 less fat, but I found with the tofu-based consistency this was sufficient) until creamy. Add cup of sugar, dash each of vanilla extract and Grand Marnier, and some Amaretto for extra flavor. I then grated in some orange zest and stirred in about 5 oz. melted white chocolate - the original recipe I referenced calls for 3 oz. but that's not enough in my opinion - not authentically vegan and can be omitted for those going totally dairy-free. Blend until smooth.

3) Add two eggs, one at a time (or egg replacer if desired) - though the non-vegan recipe uses three eggs I found two to be perfect for this cake.

4) I scattered frozen raspberries around the inside of the crust-lined dish and poured the batter over it, so that each piece would have raspberries embedded inside.

5) Bake at 325 degrees for at least an hour - test by jiggling it - in a water bath of about an inch of water in the large pan with the cake set inside. This was my first attempt at the water bath method, as I've made countless cheesecakes without it but was never brave enough to take "the plunge," and I am proud to report that this cake came out really well, with a smooth, perfect top that I let cool for six hours to prevent an ugly crack from forming. Then refrigerate for another night and by the next evening it's ready to serve.

*Note this must be made in advance to achieve classic cheesecake consistency (and it really does, I promise!)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Experimenting With Granola

Lately I've been experimenting with homemade granola, making it up with different combinations each time:

  • "Fairfield Granola" - based on recipe courtesy of Nigella Lawson, with oats mixed with slivered almonds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and raisins. Secret ingredient: apple sauce! I added bran and substituted maple syrup for brown rice syrup to give it a richer flavor. The verdict: consistency was a bit too sticky. Less syrup next time, I decided.
  • My made-up "Blueberry Pumpkin Blast" - started with a base of 2 cups oats and added a pinch of flax, safflower oil, a mix of honey and maple syrup, pumpkin seeds, dried blueberries and tart cherries, and a dash of pumpkin butter to spice it up. Baked for 20 min. at 325 degrees and removed to stir with spatula, mixing in about 1/4 cup of blueberry pomegranate juice (on a whim) to add an extra layer of flavor, and baked 20 min. more. The verdict: should have lined the pan with wax paper! I allowed the granola to cool to the pan and predictably it stuck to the edges.
  • Upcoming varieties to try: "Sinful" granola with dried cranberries and dark chocolate pieces, and "Southern style" with brown sugar and pecans.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Culinary World Tour: Quebec City

The religieuse pastry: creme-filled heaven

Friday, June 4, 2010

Montreal Dining

My sisters are heading up to Montreal this weekend so I thought I'd share my favorite places to eat in the city up north:

Breakfast: crepes, of course. Chez Cora is the inexpensive yet tasty chain, or if you want to splurge go to Creperie Chez Suzette in Old Montreal, and enjoy the area's quaint cobblestone streets and French-inspired decor
Coffee and a snack: Cafe Presse on Rue St. Catherine - get a croissant or pain au chocolat
Lunch: bistro fare such as Bistro le Republique - get a croque monsieur or baguette sandwich
Dinner: I highly recommend O Noir, the restaurant where you dine entirely in the dark - it is an experience unlike anything else you've had. More expensive but worth it as a "once in a lifetime" dining experience!
Late-night snack: poutine! the quintessential Canadian junk food, essentially french fries covered in gravy and cheese - you can find this at any fast food place or cheap late-night diner all over the city. It wouldn't be a complete Montreal trip without trying it ... "when in Quebec ..."

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Slow Food

The "Slow Food" movement is a way of eating and living in antithesis to the fast food industry. Slow Food a global grassroots movement that attracts thousands of like-minded individuals from all over the world. The primary goal is to marry consumption with responsible food sourcing, protecting our communities and the environment. Following a sustainable agricultural model and making healthy eating choices, Slow Food enthusiasts aim to eat in a way that ultimately benefits our planet.

Ways you can "do the right thing" in your own life:
  • Eat healthy: farm-grown fresh produce is much more environmentally friendly than manufactured products that only increase pollution and waste
  • Recycle: reuse food storage containers and buy eco-friendly products)
  • Energy preservation: cook with raw ingredients rather than electric appliances for a change
  • Water preservation: don't let that faucet run when washing dishes, to start ...
  • Composting: makes excellent natural fertilizer for your garden so that you can grow your own herbs, fruits and vegetables at home - my mother named her compost Seymour (as in the giant plant creature from Little Shop of Horrors)
  • Green-friendly disposables: think biodegradable
  • Spread the word: let others know how great you feel - not to mention look - after making the lifestyle switch, and they will follow in suit

*Shopping at farmers markets is an easy way to get sustainable, "green-friendly" food, and what better time than summer to Go Slow?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Metropolitan Cooking Show

The Metropolitan Cooking and Entertainment Show is a premiere event for cooking enthusiasts, featuring live presentations by Food Network celebrities, mroe than 150 exhibitors, cooking demonstrations by nationally renowned chefs, tasting and entertaining workshops, food and wine pairings, wine seminars, and more. Held annually in Atlanta, Georgia in May and Washington, D.C. in November, it's a great event for foodies and newbies alike. (Last year I bought tickets for my parents to see Giada live. They came home happy.)

For more information visit

Memorial Day the Healthy Way

Non-traditional cole slaw salad: shredded cabbage with sliced almonds, sunflower seeds, fresh parsley, ramen noodles for a crunch, and vinegar dressing (that's right, folks, cole slaw without mayo. So much lighter it won't weigh you down.)

Dessert: grilled pineapple skewers, which we served over vanilla ice cream

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

On Grilling

As we welcome summer and all the great barbequing that comes with it, I'd like to offer some grilling alternatives to the tired hamburgers-hot dogs routine. Here are some delicious yet underrated grilled foods:
  • Portobello mushrooms: for those who are fur-friendly or watching their cholesterol, instead of the bland store-bought veggie burger, why not grill up a large Portobello mushroom cap? They are actually remarkably juicy and meaty in texture, and like burgers can be served with interesting toppings such as roasted red peppers and mozzarella or goat cheese, or stuffed with spinach and ricotta - the possibilities are endless.
  • Seafood: take a break from the red meat and save the steak for another night, and instead grill up some seafood on skewers! Try terayaki salmon skewers with pineapple and green onion, or shrimp (or scallops) in a tequila lime butter, with bell peppers.
  • Fruit: this healthy grilled dessert is the perfect alternative to watery popsicles at cook-outs; my personal favorites are grilled pineapples or peaches - served over vanilla ice cream the warm fruit juices mix with the cool to create a delectable yet light treat.

*Grilled peaches served over greens also make an excellent salad, and go nicely with brie and pecans, served with white wine spritzer - a simple and easy dish to entertain with.