October 28, 2009

German-Inspired Warm Red Cabbage Salad

Good ol’ cabbage: cheap, abundant, hardwearing and… in season! Cabbage is widely cultivated and used in cooking throughout the world, but there are few traditional American dishes that come to mind that feature the vegetable (the obvious exception is coleslaw).

Cabbage belongs to the family of cruciferous vegetables that also includes kale, collards, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. The early form of wild cabbage more closely resembled kale or collards, composed of leaves that did not form a head. Then somewhere along the line, we cultivated the full-bodied cabbage head that we know and love today.

The phytochemicals found in cabbage are potent antioxidants and are known to significantly decrease the risk of many cancers. The ancient Greeks and Roman civilizations were right on (as usual) when they revered cabbage as a cure-all for a number of health problems.

During the Middle Ages, cultivation of cabbage spread across Eastern and Northern Europe and it became a major crop, largely due to its potential for high harvest yields, cool temperature growing conditions, and ease of storage. The vegetable has become an integral component of many of these food cultures. Cabbage soups are popular in a number of European countries. Cabbage is also an essential ingredient in a "boiled dinner” and “bubble and squeak,” two dishes of English origin that also include potatoes and meat, which are boiled or fried, respectively. (There is definitely a common theme of the food of England…)

The large, sturdy leaves of cabbage also make it a fine vessel for stuffing—cabbage rolls are a common Eastern European and Middle Eastern delicacy. In addition, cabbage fares well with fermentation---one of my absolute favorite ways to eat it. German sauerkraut and Korean kimchi are very flavorful products of fermentation that make great condiments or side dishes.

Since my opinion is that cabbage is underused and somewhat underappreciated in most American cooking today, I want to introduce (or reintroduce) you to an easy, healthy, and delicious German tradition: warm red cabbage salad. The dish was adapted from a recipe from Austin’s Granite Café and is perfect for these upcoming cool, autumn months.

A slice of warm hearty beer bread is the perfect accompaniment to this German-inspired meal and I provide you with a simple recipe for you to try. And of course, for any meat-lovers out there, you can’t go wrong with a bratwurst plopped right on top.


Warm Red Cabbage Salad

Serves 4-6.

For cabbage salad
1 teaspoon toasted caraway seeds
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon neutral vegetable oil
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 medium red cabbage, halved and thinly sliced
2 tart apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons honey
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper

For mustard dressing
2 tablespoons Dijon or stoneground mustard
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Optional additions/toppings
Boston lettuce leaves or other greens
Crumbled goat or feta cheese
Toasted walnuts
Shredded or sliced carrots
Warm beer bread

Soak caraway seeds in apple cider vinegar for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, cook onions in oil over medium heat until slightly browned. Add cabbage and apples; cook for 5 minutes. Lower heat. Add vinegar mixture, honey and bay leaf and cook for 30 minutes, partially covered. In a small bowl, combine dressing ingredients. When cabbage is done cooking, season with salt and pepper and toss with mustard dressing. Serve over Boston lettuce (if desired), with optional toppings and beer bread.

Whole Wheat Beer Bread

Makes 1 loaf.

2 ¾ cups white whole-wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
12 ounces beer
1 tablespoon honey

Heat oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, combine flour, salt and baking powder. Slowly mix in beer and honey, stir until just combined. Spread batter in a lightly greased loaf pan and bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45-50 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes before removing from pan.

October 19, 2009

Pumpkin Pasta

In past posts, I have alluded to my opinion that too many Americans are disconnected from the idea of seasonal and traditional eating. This definitely doesn’t hold true during October and November, however, when we see bright, orange pumpkins piled high at markets and on every doorstep, symbolizing the start of a cool, colorful season. The popularity of the pumpkin is likely due to its versatility in cooking and decorating, as well as its fundamental role in America’s cultural history.

I learned something new while I was researching the pumpkin’s history. Pumpkin carving evolved from the Celtic tradition of All Hallows’ eve, but it wasn’t pumpkins that were being carved (they are native to the Americas): turnips and rutabagas were hollowed out and transformed into skeleton heads. Personally, I think pumpkins are much more fun.

References to pumpkin date back hundreds of years; it was an important food for Native Americans and was primarily eaten roasted or dried. When the earliest settlers arrived, they readily embraced the pumpkin’s culinary uses. In fact, the origin of the pumpkin pie is thought to be a result of the colonists slicing off the pumpkin top; removing the seeds; filling it with milk, spices and honey; and baking it in hot ashes. The sweet, versatile pumpkin was also used in side dishes, in soups, and even to make beer. Pumpkin beer is very popular during the fall months in New England and I have definitely been enjoying my share of it.

The widespread availability this time of year inspires me to take advantage of fresh pumpkins and feature them in my fall cooking endeavors. I plan to eat and cook plenty of pumpkin baked goods in the near future, so I opted for an entirely different approach, inspired by the delicious pumpkin raviolis of Italy.

Pumpkins can readily be cooked and pureed or mashed to produce a velvety, creamy texture, perfect for a delicate sauce. Below you will find my recipe for a very satisfying fall pumpkin pasta dish. The sweet, subtle flavors of pumpkin are accented with the familiar tastes of autumn with the addition of sage and nutmeg. The result is a flavorful, rich pasta sauce that is balanced nicely with parmesan, sautéed kale and my personal favorite, crunchy pecans.

Contrary to what one might think, the recipe is considerably nutritious: the pumpkin provides a host of vitamins A and C, potassium, folate and fiber and it loans a creamy texture to the sauce without the addition of heavy cream or cheese. The sauce in itself is delicious and could also be used as an accompaniment to other types of pasta, grains, sautéed greens, or even seafood.

Don’t forget to make use of the pumpkin seeds, a great source of omega-3’s and -6’s. My favorite way is to roast them at 350 degrees with a bit of olive oil, salt and chili powder until they are fragrant and toasted, about 15 minutes.

Lesley's Pumpkin Pasta

1 lb pasta shells or penne
3-4 lb fresh sugar pumpkin, cut into large pieces, seeds scooped out
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large bunch kale, rinsed and sliced
¼ cup flour
2 cups organic milk
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons fresh sage, chopped finely (or 1 ½ teaspoons dried)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
½ cup pecan halves, coarsely chopped

1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook pasta until not quite al dente (about 2 minutes less than package instructions). Drain, rinse with cool water, and set aside.

2. Insert a steamer into a large pot and fill with several inches of water. Bring to a boil, add pumpkin pieces and cover tightly. Reduce heat to medium-low and allow to steam for 30-45 minutes, until inner flesh is soft. Remove from pot and to cool.

3. Meanwhile, In a large saucepan, melt ½ tablespoon butter over medium heat. Add onion and garlic; stir until soft, about 6 minutes. Add kale and sauté until wilted (it may have to be done in batches). Remove from heat, season with salt and pepper, and set aside.

4. Remove skin and any stringy flesh from pumpkin. Melt remaining butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add pumpkin pieces and sauté 5 minutes. With a fork or potato masher, mash pumpkin until smooth and no chunks remain. Sprinkle with flour; stir well and cook 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in milk and cook, stirring frequently until mixture thickens, 8-10 minutes. Whisk in nutmeg, sage, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Remove from heat and season to taste.

5. Arrange sautéed kale on the bottom of a 9x13 inch casserole dish. Top with cooked pasta and pour pumpkin sauce over pasta, spreading evenly. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and pecans. Bake until heated through and pecans are toasted and fragrant, about 15 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

October 10, 2009

West African Peanut & Sweet Potato Stew

Picture courtesy of the lovely Ms. Sarah Clark

I must share with you an incredible program that I recently became involved with: New Entry Sustainable Farming Project (NESFP). It was founded in 1998 by Hugh Joseph, faculty at AFE (my program), with the mission to assist small-scale farmers with limited resources while “supporting the vitality and sustainability of the region’s agriculture.” The program is a perfect example of a successful effort to enhance the resurgence of local agriculture. New Entry provides farmers with education, resources, training, and production and marketing assistance so that they can sustainably grow New England foods.

NESFP is an important part of the Tufts AFE program and gives students like myself a variety of opportunities to explore areas of community agriculture. My role, for example, is to facilitate the wholesale process for next year’s crops, by both developing an education guide for farmers and a wholesale catalog for buyers. Although much of the agriculture is distributed to consumers via the World PEAS Cooperative CSA and farmers’ markets, the program would like to see an increase in wholesales to retail stores that promote local agriculture, like Wholefoods and co-ops.

Picture courtesy of Sarah Clark

One of the most interesting aspects of the New Entry program is that it was one of the first initiatives to help facilitate farming opportunities for immigrants and refugees. Farmers have come from a number of countries including Africa, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Europe and South America. The program helps these farmers grow and sell many of the crops native to their homelands.

Picture courtesy of NESFP website

I recently had an opportunity to visit a new acreage site and meet some of the farmers at the NESFP Harvest Festival in Dracut, MA. I brought home an array of new and exciting ethnic crops including amaranth greens, sweet potato greens, green eggplant, African peppers, and garlic chives. As you can imagine, my mind is constantly racing with new cooking ideas….Ah ha! I got it: West African peanut soup with sweet potato greens, inspired by a delicious recipe from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

* For more information on the NEWSFP visit: http://nesfp.nutrition.tufts.edu/index.html
*Click here to listen to NPR’s Here and Now feature on New Entry.

The cuisine of West Africa (Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia…) varies by region, but in a broad sense, is known for its use of peanuts, cassava, plantains, pumpkins and sweet potatoes, usually in the form of a soup or stew served over grains like rice, couscous or millet. The following recipe is an adaptation of what I can imagine would be typical in many regions of West Africa.

West African Peanut & Sweet Potato Stew

Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

The sweet and savory stew is excellent over millet, which allows the grain to soak up all of the delicious juices.

Makes 4-6 servings.

¾ cup roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 Tbsp peeled and minced fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper, or to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4-5 cups vegetable broth
1 ½ pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into thick slices
10 plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped (canned are fine)
½ pound sweet potato greens, collard greens, or kale, cut into wide ribbons
¼ cup natural chunky peanut butter
1 cup millet, rinsed

To cook millet:

In a medium saucepan, combine millet with a large pinch of salt and 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cover. Simmer until water has been absorbed, 20-25 minutes. Turn off heat and let stand until ready to serve. Fluff with fork.

To cook stew:

Put oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add onion, ginger and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in ½ cup of peanuts, cayenne and salt and pepper to taste.

Add broth and sweet potatoes; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer, partially covered, until sweet potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes.

Stir in tomatoes, greens and peanut butter. Cover and cook until greens are tender, about 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve over prepared millet, garnished with remaining peanuts.

October 1, 2009

Squirrels and Apples

I came to the embarrassing realization the other day, while walking home from school, that squirrels really do eat acorns. During this time of year, I see many, many squirrels busily zipping up and down the oak-lined streets and yards, gathering and storing acorns for the winter. They are so speedy that many times, you only catch a blur of a big, bushy grey tail.

The squirrel-acorn connection is very prevalent in society; as kids, we grow up making crafts and reading stories with autumn themes during these months (apples, changing leaves, hayrides, crisp air, pumpkins…). Where I come from (Arizona) the actual, physical celebration of seasons is pretty limited due to the lack of temperature fluctuation. Looking back as a child, I think it’s pretty funny that these images and symbols of autumn are ingrained in our minds—and I never even really looked around and thought: where exactly are these things happening?

Speaking of fall...oh my! I AM IN APPLE HEAVEN. I’ve always loved the fruit and appreciated many of the good hybrid varieties available in the western part of the country, but I had no idea how delicious apples can really be!

Take Macouns for example, my new absolute favorite apple. They are a cross between a McIntosh and Jersey Black, developed by the Canadian fruit grower W.T. Macoun in 1923. Many contend that it is "the finest eating apple in the Northeast" and I must say, I wholeheartedly agree. Other delicious varieties include Paula Red, McIntosh, Cortland, Empire, and Northern Spy. I am definitely planning a road trip soon to go apple picking, so look forward to a blog posting in the near future.

The apple bounty of the season means that there are plenty for eating, baking and canning. I was recently (generously) given two bags full of delicious Macouns and Cortlands. Frankly, the Macouns were just too good to do anything else with but eat. However, I thought the Cortlands would make a lovely apple butter.

The following recipe makes the best apple butter I have ever tasted—rich, buttery texture; a marriage of tart and sweet; and just the right amount of spice. I adapted the recipe from the “guide to preserving” book that came with the canning kit I recently purchased. If you are intimidated by canning (don’t be) or do not have the equipment, you can definitely make a smaller batch and store it in a sealed container. Experiment with your favorite local apple varieties, but I bet they won’t be as good as the apples I can get right here in the best place on earth to be in the fall—Massachusetts.

Keeping with the northeast theme, I am also providing my favorite Irish soda bread recipe that pairs extremely well with the apple butter. I am really looking forward to breakfast the next couple of days….Bon appétit!

Spiced Apple Butter

Makes about 40 ounces.

4 lbs apples, peeled, cored and quartered
1 ½ cups natural cane sugar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves

1. Combine apples and 2 cups water in a large saucepan; bring to a simmer. Cook partially covered, stirring occasionally, until apples are tender throughout (cooking time will vary depending on type of apple and size of pieces). Allow to cool 5 minutes.
2. Puree apples in a food processor. Return puree to saucepan along with sugar, lemon juice and spices. Simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally until thick and darkened, about 1 hour.
3. Ladle hot butter into sterilized jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Adjust lids and process 10 minutes (alternatively, spoon cooled butter into an airtight container and refrigerate).

Hearty Irish Soda Bread

Makes one large loaf or two mini loaves.

1 ¼ cups whole wheat flour
1 cup unbleached white flour
½ cup rolled oats, blended
¼ cup wheat germ
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ cups buttermilk
½ cup raisins (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (if using a baking stone, place in oven before it is heated)
2. Whisk together flours, oats, wheat germ, salt, sugar, and baking soda in a large bowl. Pour in buttermilk and raisins and mix with a wooden spoon until stiff.
3. Shape the dough into a ball, and flatten into a round about 2 inches thick. Cut 2 diagonal slashes across the top of the loaf forming an X. Place dough on an oiled baking sheet or preheated baking stone. Bake for 35 minutes. Cool before slicing.
*For mini loaves, divide the dough ball in half and form 2 rounds of the same thickness. Cooking time will be slightly less.