July 31, 2009

Kiwi + Thai Flavors = Delicious

Kiwis are an odd-looking fruit. Yet the brown, hairy skin is deceptive: what lies underneath is a beautiful, bright green or golden interior, with concentrically scattered tiny black seeds. Many kiwi converts say the succulent and flavorful inner flesh is reminiscent of strawberry, banana and even pineapple. That said, there is no fruit out there quite like it and the only way to truly appreciate its intricate, unique nature is to try one yourself.

The kiwi is native to China and originally called the Chinese gooseberry. When the fruit was introduced to the United States from New Zealand, the name was subsequently changed to kiwi, after the native bird of New Zealand. Catchy isn’t it? The fruit’s popularity can be attributed to its unique, sweet-tart taste, its high vitamin C content and the attractive appearance of its flesh.

Although delicious halved, scooped out and eaten as is, kiwis can be peeled and sliced, and make a great accompaniment to salads and desserts. Cross-sectional slices are very attractive and are a popular garnish to fruit tarts.

With several kiwis on hand, I was interested in learning more unconventional uses of the delicious fruit. What if, I thought, I use its natural unique flavors to impart a tangy note on a Thai-inspired meal? The tropical-tasting fruit would surely compliment coconut rice, a popular dish in Thailand. And adding pan-grilled, marinated chicken would make for a complete, satisfying meal.

So I set out to prepare the dish I had conjured up. The result was, in fact, what many desire in a meal: easy, healthy, kid-friendly and tasty. Best of all, the it really highlighted the kiwi’s natural beauty and unique flavor.

Below the recipe, I show how the meal can easily be assembled in a divided tupperware (or several small tupperwares) for a school lunch. Cucumber and carrot sticks make a nice accompaniment.

Pan-Grilled Chicken with Thai Kiwi Salsa and Coconut Rice

In this satisfying main course, grilled chicken is paired with a vibrant, tangy kiwi salsa and sweet coconut rice. The Thai kiwi salsa is versatile and would also go well with shrimp, pork, or salmon. You can also try to use brown rice, but the cooking time will be considerably longer.

Serves 4.

For chicken

1 tablespoon lime juice

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoon nam pla (Thai fish sauce)
1 tablespoon canola oil

Freshly ground pepper
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, cut into 1/2-inch thick slices

For kiwi salsa

3 kiwis, peeled and finely chopped

1/4 cup chopped green onions

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

2 teaspoons nam pla

1 Tbsp brown sugar

1/2 jalapeno or 1 Thai chile, seeded and finely chopped (or to taste)

For coconut rice

1 cup uncooked basmati rice, rinsed

1/4 cup unsweetened flaked coconut, toasted

3/4 cup light coconut milk

1 1/4 cup water

1/4 teaspoon salt

For garnish

1/4 cup cilantro leaves

Thinly sliced cucumber

  1. Whisk lime juice, soy sauce, nam pla and canola oil in a shallow dish until combined; season with pepper. Add chicken pieces and turn to coat. Cover and let marinate in the refrigerator until ready to cook.
  2. Meanwhile, prepare the kiwi salsa: combine all ingredients in a medium bowl, tossing to combine.
  3. To prepare coconut rice, combine rice, toasted coconut, coconut milk, water and salt in a saucepan; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover, reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes or until liquid is absorbed and rice is cooked through. Remove from heat; let stand covered. When ready to serve, fluff with fork.
  4. Heat a cast-iron grill pan over high heat. Pat chicken dry and discard marinade. Add chicken to the pan, cook 2 minutes on each side or until browned and cooked through. Serve with coconut rice and Thai kiwi salsa. Garnish with cilantro and cucumber.

July 30, 2009

Italian Summer Salad

Italians are really good at eating seasonally. Authentic dishes are simple and highlight the seasons freshest ingredients. Summertime is definitely the best time to cook Italian, when markets are bursting with juicy heirloom tomatoes, baby squash, eggplant, crisp greens, basil and sweet fruits. Insalata caprese, panzanella, eggplant caponata, pesto sauce, bruschetta and pasta primavera are all delicious dishes to make during summer months. Light and refreshing sweets such as sorbetto, semifreddo, granita, gelato, panna cotta and crostadas utilize the season’s finest stonefruits and berries.

I have twice visited Italy during the summer months, and what left an impression on me is their overt celebration of food, family and nature. Large groups dine al fresco, and linger over a traditional meal made with local, seasonal ingredients. Simple and light preparations of salads and antipasto dishes are especially popular during warmer months. Here is my creation of a refreshing summer salad--Italiano-style.

Arugula Salad with Prosciutto-Wrapped Peaches and Fig-Balsamic Dressing

The saltiness of the prosciutto pairs very well with the juicy peach. Spicy arugula best compliments the sweet flavors of the salad, but mixed greens or spinach would also work.

Serves 4.

For dressing

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons fig jam

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

For salad

8 cups arugula

1 large ripe peach, sliced into 12 wedges

4 prosciutto slices, each slice cut into 3 strips

8 dried figs, stems removed and sliced

1/3 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped

2 oz Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese, thinly shaved with a vegetable peeler

1/4 basil leaves, thinly sliced

  1. In a small saucepan or skillet over medium heat, simmer balsamic vinegar until syrupy and slightly reduced, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar, fig jam, and olive oil; season with salt and pepper.
  3. Wrap each peach wedge with cut piece of prosciutto. Divide arugula among 4 salad plates. Arrange 3 peach slices on each plate. Sprinkle each plate evenly with figs, walnuts, cheese and basil. Drizzle each salad with about 2 tablespoons of fig-balsamic dressing. Serve immediately.

July 28, 2009

Old Fashioned Blueberry-Cornmeal Muffins

The muffin has undergone a drastic transformation ever since it gained popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. I speculate that there a several events during this time period that contributed to the rise of American muffin:

  • The decline of home-baking: the muffin became a convenient, gourmet food that could be purchased at specialty shops
  • The rise of gourmet coffee shops: the muffin became a standard accompaniment to coffee
  • The health food movement: the muffin’s versatility made it an easy means to incorporate various health ingredients (grains, nuts, seeds)

Since then, the food industry avariciously responded to the rising market for gourmet baked goods. Companies began to add various preservatives to packaged muffins and mixes so that they would have a much longer shelf life. With preservatives came added fats and sugars, as well as much larger portion sizes. Food companies met the demands of consumers with unparalleled success.

According to the American Century Cookbook: the Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century, women made muffins well before the 20th century and included different flours (graham, cornmeal, rye) and often a handful of chopped fruits (dates, raisins, blueberries, apple). These muffins were the product of the early home-baker’s imagination and the nutritious ingredients make them exemplary recipes.

In the late 20th century, several states adopted official muffins, perhaps hoping to preserve the respective region’s distinct food history. Minnesota has claimed the blueberry muffin, Massachusetts the corn muffin and New York the apple muffin.

Blueberries are in peak season during the summer months and are a classic American addition to baked sweets and breads. They are deliciously sweet and tangy and are bursting with powerful antioxidants. Blueberries are an all-American fruit; they are native to the woods and mountainous regions of North America. Historically, blueberries played an important role in Native American foods but were not cultivated until the early 20th century.

This recipe is my adaptation of a muffin that is nutritiously superior to its modern muffin counterparts. That is, it is closer to the early home cook’s fabulous muffin concoctions that have nearly faded in history.

Old Fashioned Blueberry-Cornmeal Muffins

1 3/4 cup white whole-wheat flour, whole-wheat pastry flour, all-purpose unbleached flour, or a combination
1/2 cup fine cornmeal

1/2 cup natural cane sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups low-fat buttermilk
1/4 cup canola oil
1 large organic egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries

Turbinado or other sugar for sprinkling on tops

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Lightly coat a standard muffin tin with cooking spray or line with paper liners.
  2. In a medium bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together buttermilk, canola oil, egg and vanilla. Add dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Do not overmix. Gently fold blueberries into the batter.
  4. Spoon batter into muffin tins, filling each about 3/4 full. Baking 12 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with sugar if desired. Continue baking 6-8 minutes longer, or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool before turning out of muffin tins.

Variations: dry mixing in 1/2 teaspoon dried crushed lavender and/or 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

July 22, 2009

Eggplant Parmesan Stacks

Eggplant, or aubergine in Europe, is a vegetable with a long history, valued for its beauty as well as its unique flavor and texture. Eggplant was introduced to Europe in the 14th century by China, but it would not be until centuries later, when new varieties were developed, that the eggplant would assimilate itself into the Mediterranean cuisine as a fundamental ingredient. The early variety was actually quite bitter and some even suspected it to be the cause of insanity and leprosy!

Summertime eggplants are ubiquitous in the European kitchen, when they are at peak freshness—sweet and mild with inconspicuous seeds and no trace of bitterness. There are many varieties of eggplant but most of us are accustomed to the large, round, deep purple type. You can find the most interesting varieties at farmers’ markets: ranging in shape—round to oblong, size—2 inches to 12 inches long, and color—white, green, magenta, lavender and even striped. As a general rule, the lighter the color, the milder the flavor. Larger eggplants may also have thicker, tougher skin, which can be peeled at your discretion.

When enjoying the season’s eggplant, look for smooth, firm and glossy skin and a bright green stem, which indicate freshness. Eggplants deteriorate more rapidly at room temperature and will begin to develop bitterness overtime. The eggplant perishes quickly once its inner flesh is exposed to air; leave it whole until you are ready to use.

Eggplants have a dense, spongy texture and are a fine substitute in meatless dishes. They are quite versatile and can be broiled, grilled, fried, roasted, and stir-fried. One of my favorite spreads is baba ghanouj, a delicious additional to sandwiches, or as a dip for pita bread and veggies. Eggplant is also great in pasta and casseroles and of course, is the key ingredient of eggplant parmesan, or parmigiani di melanzane, a classic preparation in southern Italy.

To salt of not to salt? Salting is often used to tenderize the flesh’s texture, lower its capacity to absorb oil, and remove bitterness. Simply sprinkle eggplant slices with salt and allow to rest on paper towels for 30 minutes. Blot dry and rinse to remove the salt. Chances are, if you buy eggplant fresh, in season at the farmers’ market, it won’t need any salting. Fresh eggplant is always best, with a delicate, spongy texture and hardly a trace of bitterness.

Eggplant Parmesan Stacks

This is my take on eggplant parmesan. Instead of frying the eggplant, I opted for a lighter method of coating the slices in egg whites and bread crumbs. Whole wheat bread crumbs are easy to make : tear up bread into pieces, toast on low until thoroughly dried out, and pulse in a food processor. My "stacked" version, with a modest amount of cheese, makes for a nice presentation. The prosciutto is optional (the dish is substantial as is), but is a light way to incorporate a hint of meat for those who prefer it. Serve with warm crusty bread, pasta, and a light summer salad.

Serves 4

12 eggplant rounds, each 1/4-inch thick (from 1-2 eggplants depending on size)

2 egg whites

¾ cup fine dry breadcrumbs

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

1 - 14 ½ oz can organic tomatoes—diced or whole

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil leaves

2 tablespoons olive oil

3½ ounces mozzarella, thinly sliced into 12 pieces (fresh is optimal)

4 slices of prosciutto, cut in half (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 400F. Salt eggplant if desired (see section above).

2. In a shallow dish, whisk egg whites until frothy. In another shallow dish, combine breadcrumbs, ¼ cup Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. Dip eggplant slices into egg-whites, then coat with breadcrumb mixture. Arrange eggplant in a single layer on a large, rimmed baking sheet. Bake about 25 minutes until crisp and golden, turning slices over half way through baking time.

3. Meanwhile, puree tomatoes in a blender or food processor; remove any large chunks. Bring to a boil in a heavy small saucepan; reduce heat to medium and simmer until thickened, about 20 minutes. Add garlic, oil and basil; simmer 5 minutes longer. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

4. Place 4 slices of eggplant on baking sheet. Top each slice with 1-2 tablespoons sauce, a mozzarella slice, and a half prosciutto slice if using. Repeat layering twice (omitting prosciutto for the last layering). Sprinkle the remaining ¼ cup parmesan evenly over the mozzarella.

5. Bake 12 minutes, until bubbly. Serve immediately.

July 13, 2009

My Perfected Banana Bread

Banana bread conjures up childhood memories of one of my favorite after-school snacks. I liked it best cold, with a glass of milk. I learned later that many banana breads are unnecessarily rich. To give my mom some credit, her recipe was not as sugar and butter laden as most (she usually avoided having too many sweets around the house). My mom’s bread contained Bisquick and was very moist and dense. I developed a preference for this type of banana bread over the light and fluffy kind.

Banana bread has become a staple baked good in many households, and a great way to use up those uneaten overripe bananas. It is a type of quick bread, and may have been first created in the early 1900’s, when American housewives discovered pearlash (a form of potash that produces carbon dioxide in dough) as a chemical leavening agent.

By this time, the banana was a beloved fruit of many households thanks to the United Fruit Company, that dominated Latin American agriculture and supplied Americans with imported bananas. The company deeply influenced the economic and political development of the “banana republics.” The multinational corporation was accused of exploitation, pollution and meddling in the internal politics of many Latin countries. In 1970, the company merged to become United Brands Company, and was later transformed into the present-day Chiquita Brands International. I must add that in the 1990s, Chiquita set out to take responsibility for its company's past actions and reportedly strives to reverse its negative impact on worker conditions and the environment. (Personally, I still look for other sources of bananas. There are so many great varieties that most of us have never tried!)

At any rate, the popularization of baking soda and baking powder in the 1930s, lead to the publication of Pillsbury’s 1933 Balanced Recipes cookbooks, where the first banana bread recipe was published. Banana bread really reached its peak in the 1960s, when a home-baking revival took place. At this time, cooks began to experiment with variations that contained nuts, dried fruit, coconut and chocolate chips. What is your favorite combination?

I know that everyone’s banana bread preferences may be different, but I am please to say that after much trial-and-error, I have come up with what I call an excellent banana bread recipe. Not-to-sweet but sweet enough, with a moist center and a crispy crust. The buttermilk gives the banana bread some richness without the need for much fat (just a few tablespoons!).

Lesley’s Banana Bread

2 cups cups white whole-wheat flour or unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 cup natural cane sugar

2 eggs

3 very ripe bananas, mashed

1/2 cup buttermilk

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 1/2 tablespoons butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup walnuts, pecans or macadamia nuts, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup shredded unsweetened coconut (optional)

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 9x5-inch loaf pan and dust with flour.
  2. In a medium bowl, combine flour, salt, baking power, baking soda and cinnamon. Set aside.
  3. In a separate bowl, with an electric mixture beat together sugar and eggs for 2 minutes. Stir in bananas, buttermilk, canola oil, melted butter and vanilla.
  4. Combine banana mixture with dry ingredients and stir just enough to combine. Gently fold in nuts and coconut.
  5. Transfer batter to prepared pan. Bake about 1 hour (or up to 1 1/2 hours), until nicely browned and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool for at least 15 minutes before removing from pan.

July 9, 2009

Lentil Burgers for 4th of July

Call me un-American but I don’t enjoy a big, juicy beef burger like many people do. What to eat for Fourth of July then, when people roll out grills, pop open beers and chow down on burgers, hotdogs and steaks galore....

The good news is that burgers are not just for meat-lovers anymore. The definition of what constitutes a burger has become very broad over the years. Unusual topping combinations and different burger patties of all different flavors and textures are in demand.

Over the years, I have had good veggie burgers that are flavorful, moist, and pleasantly textured, and not-so-good ones that are bland and readily fall apart. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to burger fix-ins--crisp vegetables, moist toasty buns, ketchup and a grainy mustard are essential.

I have always been curious to know when the hamburger became an icon for American food and how the classic hamburger came to be a beef patty sandwiched between two sesame buns with condiments such as lettuce, tomato, pickles, ketchup and mustard.

The origin of the original hamburger remains debatable. The word hamburger actually predates the idea of putting beef between a bun. It originates from “hamburg steak” from Germans in Hamburg who would shred and season low-quality beef to make it more palatable. In the 1850‘s, immigrants to the United States from German-speaking countries brought the hamburg steak with them and it became a standard meal among the lower classes.

There is a dispute as to who invented the hamburger as we know it. Several families from across the country claim to have come up with the bun-and-burger patty idea. All stories take place around the first part of the 20th century, at a time when thrift, ingenuity and convenience were dominating principles.

The family of Oscar Weber Bilby claim to have served the first burger in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1891. Grandpa Oscar’s story also explains how the American tradition of grilling on July 4th may have evolved:

"Grandpa himself told me that [...] he took up a chunk of iron and made himself a big ol' grill [...] and when those coals were glowing hot, he took some ground Angus meat and fired up a big batch of hamburgers. When they were cooked all good and juicy, he put them on my Grandma Fanny's homemade yeast buns - the best buns in all the world, made from her own secret recipe. He served those burgers on buns to neighbors and friends under a grove of pecan trees . . . They couldn't get enough, so Grandpa hosted another big feed. He did that every Fourth of July [...]."

In 1933, Oscar opened the first hamburger stand in Tulsa called Weber’s Superior Root Beer Stand. Throughout the 1930s, drive-in hamburger restaurants sprang up all across the country. By the 1950s, the hamburger was an American icon. In 1948, the first McDonald’s was opened in San Bernadino, California...and the rest is history.

In celebration of July 4th I am going to share my lentil burger recipe. I’ve experimented with different ingredients and have found that mashed lentils, thickened with old-fashioned oats make for a well-textured, tasty and nutritious burger. Good-quality buns and spreads are essential for a top-notch burger, as are fresh vegetables. If you want to be even more ambitious, you can try and make homemade pickles , ketchup, or buns.

A mixed greens salad and homemade fries make for great sides. My personal favorite are spicy sweet potato fries (see recipe below).

Lentil Burger

Makes 4 burgers.

A convenient source of cooked lentils is Trader Joe's

1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats

2 cups cooked lentils

1 organic egg

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

2 tablespoons parsley leaves, chopped

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoons olive oil

1. Pulse oatmeal in a food processor a few times until the oats break up into smaller pieces. Set aside in a small bowl.

2. Combine lentils, egg and salt in a food processor and pulse until chunky but not pureed.

3. Place lentil mixture in a large bowl and stir in oats and remaining ingredients. Combine well and let it is for 10 minutes.

5. Divide mixture evenly into 4 balls. Shape each into a patty.

4. Place a large cast iron skillet over medium heat; drizzle with olive oil. When hot, add patties, cook 7 minutes undisturbed until browned (lower heat if burgers start getting too brown). Carefully flip over and cook 5-7 minutes longer until browned and firm. Serve on a toasted bun with your favorite burger toppings.

Oven baked Sweet Potato Fries

Makes about 4 servings.

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 3”x ¾” strips

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more to taste)

1. Preheat oven to 425 F. In a small bowl combine the salt with spices; set aside.

2. Place the sweet potatoes in a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with spice mixture. Toss to combine.

3. Transfer sweet potatoes to a large baking sheet, making sure the sweet potatoes are not overcrowded and spread in a single layer. Roast 35-40 minutes or until cooked through and lightly browned, turning every 10 minutes.