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    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

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    Copyright 2008-2015Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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Hot Air

The last two or three months of school seems to be getting more and more fraught every year–for parents, certainly. I’ve just woken up to the fact that I’ve been offline for something like three months now–March! yeesh! Not because I had nothing new to say about food, exactly, but because I had three or four competing ideas and no time to figure out pictures for the posts. And as everybody knows, if you didn’t take a picture of it, it practically didn’t happen. Just like all those tourists who used go to the Grand Canyon and (back in the day of actual film) had to wait for their pictures to be developed to see what it looked like…

And now that school’s out, it’s hot. 107 degrees twice this week in Pasadena, smoke in the air from the San Gabriel fire not too far away, and no desire to cook, walk during the day, or listen to anything resembling hot air.

Because the recent spate of presidential campaigning has become poised to take away almost any American’s appetite for a while.  Just read a newspaper online and look at the prominent photos and bombastic quotations and examples of rank cowardice.

I mean, yeah, I voted in the California primary two weeks ago, and I even researched all the local judges and assemblypeople for my district this time, hoping to make something count or at least not to commit any hideous mistakes.

Contrary to what you might think, reading the candidates’ own statements will actually give you a feel for what kind of people they are, whether they give a flying leap about their prospective constituents and whether they know how to tie their own shoes. Reading through about fifteen last-minute write-in candidate statements for various assembly-and-county-supervisor-type posts was pretty entertaining, actually–most of the hopefuls (you could guess which parties) stated their qualifications as “I believe in God.” Seriously. Sum total.

Nationalistic and bigoted fervor seem to be going around, though. To wit, “Brexit”, which actually won the vote today. Not that I don’t understand Britain’s–and everyone else’s–frustration with the EU administration, but the vote results and the resulting–utterly predictable–mess announced this morning are really disheartening.

Some are calling it a shot in the dark; to me it looks like a solid a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot-why-don’t-you move. It’ll take at least two years to execute, cost an immediate fortune in lost business and one-downmanship, and probably cost a lot more time, money and headache than previously suspected to resolve with the EU countries. Let’s face it; if Trump (king of the gold-tone hot air vent) thinks that it’s a great idea, you know you’ve gone wrong somewhere. Scotland, where his fabled floundering golf courses are located, went solidly for “remain,” by the way…

So is it any wonder I feel like taking a major break from my computer, my kitchen, and possibly your kitchen as well? If only to soothe your eyeballs and your rapidly developing ulcer, for which I apologize profoundly. Oy.

Now that that’s over, I guess I have no more excuses. What was I going to post all this time, anyway?

Harking back to early April, it looks like I made a couple of tries at something about microwaveable side dishes for Passover seders. Yes, it’s now too late to care where I hid the afikoman, but I maintain that the ability to microwave greens like asparagus or broccoli to perfection in a couple of minutes at the drop of a hat can save a meal–Passover or not–and some heat in the kitchen. If you’re vegetarian or leaning toward it, some of the not-chicken microwaveable soups can also be kind of handy and quick to nuke and store in those big snaplock containers in the fridge and free up your stove.

I didn’t go so far as to try any microwave matzah balls. No idea whether that would be a great idea or a terrible one, I was too not-chicken to try it. What can I say–be relieved. Be very relieved.

However, a crustless Israeli-style spinach and feta casserole, basically a quiche but more rustic in texture, was a hit both conventionally baked and browned for a Saturday congregation lunch during Passover and later for us at home via the quickie microwave method (minus the crust, so you don’t need the oven at all). It’s less glamorous-looking, more get-it-on-the-table-and-don’t-heat-up-the-house.

Israeli-style spinach, feta and egg casserole

Unfortunately for the spinach and feta thing, it turns out there are a gazillion of these posts all over the web, especially on low-carber fitness sites. Which takes away some of the charm of posting about it. But it’s still a good and very simple dish.

Israeli Spinach and Feta Crustless Quiche

Per casserole dish:

  • 6 eggs
  • 1 c. milk (skim is fine)
  • 1 lb. thawed and squeezed-out frozen spinach
  • 1 lg clove garlic, minced/mashed/grated
  • 2-3 chopped scallions
  • handful of chopped dill or 1-2 T dried
  • 6-8 oz. crumbled feta

Toss the spinach, herbs and feta lightly in the casserole dish so there are visible clumps of cheese (i.e., don’t blend it too fine), mix the eggs and milk together and pour them over. Optional–grate or sprinkle a pinch of nutmeg on top. Either bake about 35-45 minutes at 350F, which makes it all pretty, puffed and browned on top, or (as I see it, the better option for Pasadena weather), just nuke it covered in a microwaveable stoneware casserole for about 7-8 minutes until puffed and cooked through to keep your kitchen from sweltering.

…Are we sensing a theme here? I hope so–because yes, it’s actually been 107 degrees this week in Pasadena. I’m not that good at keeping my cool or not cooking at all (don’t ask about the sourdough I “rescued” by baking around midnight with all the doors and windows open when the temperature dropped below 90…) But I’m trying hard not to cook.

When it’s this hot, dinner becomes a pastiche of sort-of-niçoise salads with beans or canned tuna added, maybe some cold hard-boiled or medium-boiled eggs. I’m also not above making a dinner of wedges of leftover cauliflower omelet reheated (or not) in the microwave, and either tomato-cucumber salad or some sliced tomatoes with vinegar, olive oil, maybe basil flowers from the struggling plant outside.

box of winter salad

The big box of grab-and-go salad vegetables is still looking like a good strategy too–veg that doesn’t wilt in an instant is as valuable in summer as in winter. As is shredded Greek cabbage salad. Cold raw or microwave-blanched green beans, romano beans, cauliflower or broccoli with mustard dressing, Italian-type vinaigrette, or a yogurt-based dip is also a relief.

Here are a few other hot weather ideas dragged from the depths of my blank-book cookbooks, which I now realize I’ve been keeping more than half my life.

Cold marinated tofu

Tofu is actually pretty handy to have in hot weather–either nuked with vegetables instead of stir-frying if you can stand to eat it hot, or else sliced cold and marinated for ~ half an hour with jao tze dipping sauce ingredients poured over it. Continue reading

Green Beans Get Serious

If you’ve gone to the supermarket the last couple of weeks, and seen huge haystacks of green beans on sale for under a dollar a pound, you might be wondering to yourself how much green bean casserole can any one family take? Pretty bad that Thanksgiving only has one sanctioned green bean recipe, and that no one can think of anything better to do with them over the holidays.

Not that I’m against plain and simple green beans, as long as they’re actually still green. Fresh, lightly steamed or microwaved or stir-fried, not boiled to death. Although frankly, I often prefer them raw and fresh as something to just wash and nosh, like carrot sticks or celery.

Even frozen green beans are fine if you treat them gently and cook them a bit less than you would fresh ones–the freezing and thawing break down all vegetables slightly, and you don’t want them to go to mush or turn brown.

Just not the dank, slimy brown horrors that emerged from a can every once in a while when I was a kid, and which my mother insisted, against all reason, had once been something living. Canned green beans are the zombies of the green bean world.

But with a bounty of cheap greens in winter, what to do with them is a pretty good question, and one that begs a three-minute solution, especially when most green vegetables are getting harder to come by. You want to stock up but you don’t want to be eating the same old, same old for a month.

My best solution for a quick green bean dish–other than the grab-and-go raw snack vegetable business above–is of course to wash and trim the tough ends from a bunch of green beans (I usually grab about a pound at a time). Stick them in a covered container or between two microwaveable stoneware or Corelle dinner plates with a drizzle of water (anything from a couple of tablespoons up to about a quarter-inch in depth) .

Three minutes on HIGH should cook a pound of rinsed and trimmed green beans to that crisp-tender ideal where they’re still green and just cooked but still have a bit of bite to them. Basically like blanched or steamed, but without the big stockpot of boiling water (which I hate to wait for and which seems a waste), the strainer, or the ice water bath (another wasted bowl).

And you can do it right before dinner as a last-minute thought, just enough for that meal so they stay green. Drain and serve them ASAP for best results. Don’t give ’em a chance to go brown.

If you want to keep them green for later, microwave them a little less, maybe 1.5-2.5 minutes per pound, just until they begin to turn jewel green, rinse them under a cold tap as soon as they’re done, drain and chill. Do not add anything acidic to them until just before you serve them so they don’t turn olive-brown.

Yes, it’s pretty plain–which is handy if you want it versatile. You can serve them hot with a mustard garlic vinaigrette or other salad-type dressing to dip into or drizzle over them. Or the richer (but not saturated-fat) sauces, tehina with lemon and garlic (and either water or plain yogurt), or Asian peanut sauce with chile, garlic and ginger are also good.

If you want something a little fancier-looking and vaguely French (we’re going for “day in Monet’s Garden,” not “tacky tourist café with haricots verts side dish that turns out to be nothing more than buttered overcooked green beans”) you can arrange the green beans in a covered stoneware platter or bowl, with thinly sliced onions and a bit of thyme and minced garlic strewn around to get a fairly nice-looking and savory microwave-to-table kind of dish that still only takes a few minutes to throw together and zap to perfection.

greenbeanswithstuffedcriminimushrooms

Slice some mushrooms over the green beans or nestle mushroom Continue reading

Another Greek salad

Greek cabbage saladWhen we think of Greek salads here in the US, it’s mostly horiatiki (a version of which is my current favorite lunch)–chopped tomato, cucumber, maybe peppers, some onion, feta and olives. Lahano salata, a shredded cabbage salad with lemon and olives, is less familiar and served, according to cookbook author Rena Salaman in The Greek Cook: Simple Seasonal Food, (Aquamarine/Anness Publishing, NYC ©2001), as a winter side dish–because you always have cabbage available, and lemons are a winter crop in the Mediterranean (and southern California). All you need to add are garlic, parsley, olives and olive oil and you’ve got it. Actually, that really sounds like a perfect summer thing to me.

I picked up a green cabbage today at my local greengrocer’s because it was there, it was cheap, I already had a red cabbage at home for other stuff, and besides, you can’t just hang around your local greengrocer’s picking up seven or eight pounds of fabulously ripe Fresno tomatoes all on their lonesome every couple of days. People will suspect you of becoming a tomatoholic. You need to branch out. And besides, I’d already made a tomato-cucumber-pepper salad pretty much every day for the past two weeks for lunch (as noted above). Not that I’m bored with it, but it gives me permission to do something else for dinner.

This Greek slivered cabbage salad is something I’d had in the back of my mind for half a year or so since paging through Salaman’s cookbook and its gorgeous food photos. But since it’s summertime, limiting the herbs to parsley seems like a missed opportunity when there are so many fresh herbs going wild in my fridge.

Dill, basil, mint, scallions–my current favorite mix for the lunch salad would probably also be good with shredded green cabbage. So I did a variation using those and foisted it on my unsuspecting nearest and dearest, who were both in need of something lighter than usual for supper. It went pretty well and we all agreed it would be a good filler for the salad part of a felafel pita.

I mixed this salad up about an hour before serving and stuck it in the fridge. I realized belatedly that the abundant lemon juice in the dressing would probably start wilting the cabbage, and it did slightly. It would have retained more crunch if I’d mixed it right as we were about to eat, but we still liked it and it wasn’t actually limp, just a little softened. I didn’t think the leftovers would hold up more than a day in the fridge but they did okay and didn’t wilt further overnight–perhaps because I poured off the excess liquid before storing the salad in a snaplock container.

One thing I like about cabbages is that they go a long way. You can take a quarter, wrap and refrigerate the rest and it should stay good for a couple of weeks. You might have to shave off any dried-out cut surfaces the next time (certainly for red cabbage, which also discolors a little at the dried surfaces) but the rest should stay pretty fresh.

Lahano Salata (Greek Green Cabbage Salad, Summer-style)

(Adapted from Rena Salaman’s The Greek Cook: Simple Seasonal Food; ingredient amounts are “use your best judgment”)–for 3-4 people as a side dish or pita filling as a bed for other stuff like felafel or kebabs. If you use a whole head of cabbage as in Salaman’s original recipe, increase everything by about 4-fold or to taste.)

  • 1/4 head of a washed green cabbage (the two outer leaves peeled and discarded, the rest rinsed under the tap)
  • small handful of herbs–a sprig or two each of dill, basil, and mint; parsley is okay too–finely chopped
  • 2 scallions, finely chopped
  • 3-4 pitted Greek-style olives (kalamata, Alfonso, Gaeta…), slivered
  • juice of a lemon or to taste–half a very large lemon was pretty lemony for just a quarter of a cabbage. For a medium or small lemon, taste and add a 3rd half if you think it needs more
  • 1-2 T olive oil

Shred the cabbage finely with a sharp knife and chop into manageable lengths unless you like the shreds long (Rena Salaman’s book had a pretty photo with very long straight shreds, almost like angel hair pasta. She mentions that the cabbages in Greece are different from standard American or northern European ones, so that may be part of it. Ours are curlier when shredded). Add the herbs, scallions and olive slivers, squeeze on the lemon and drizzle on the olive oil, then toss with two forks until everything’s well mixed. You can let the salad soften a little in the fridge for half an hour or so, or you can serve it straight up while it’s still a bit crunchy–it’s good either way.

This always happens right before vacation…

Finally, finally, we are going to the East Coast. We’ve had to put off seeing my mom and my sister (and assorted boys) twice since December due to incessant snow, none of which hit Los Angeles in the slightest. So as soon as school lets out, we’re packing for an ungodly wake-up call the next morning and getting out of SoCal for a bit more than a week. The cat gets a hotel/spa vacation without all the schlepping around between Bahston and New Yawk. We get the do-we-have-enough-clean-undies-to-make-it version.

So good, already. But as in many of my tangled big-event preparation schemes, I have a slight problem with the fridge:

Stuffed fridge right before traveling

The problem, part I…Note the tomatoes: 10+, excessively ripe, and the invisible 6 or so red peppers behind them. Not to mention the huge bag with 7-8 bunches of fresh herbs…

fridgedoor

Part II, the door…Note the huge bag of nectarines, lower left, the chiles just behind the mushrooms and two bags of apricots at right, just because…

AAAgh…just a little insane. Suffice it to say, it’s been an enthusiastic week or so vegetable-shopping-wise because the Fresno tomatoes are back in my local greengrocer’s, along with a lot of other produce, and I’ve gone overboard on a number of items, not least of which are lemon basil, mint, dill and tarragon (which I haven’t even decided if I like). The market beckons, the low prices for herbs and vegetables even more so, and the sun’s finally come out again after a month of gray days. And I’m a purple thumb as a gardener, so the greengrocer’s wares beckon even more strongly. How could I not want it all? But a little thought for the calendar might not have gone amiss.

So I’m in trouble again. We leave in 4 days. There are a maximum of three humans in the house (depends how we’re behaving at any given moment). Nobody but me really gets into gazpacho the way they should–though they will go with salads (the coarse-cut version of gazpacho). And it’s a sorry day when you have to threaten people with apricots and nectarines three meals a day. We should be reveling in the produce section, not roiling in it. If we were staying here, this would be an ideal scenario for the next week and a half, Continue reading

A salad in winter: counterintuitive comfort food

box of winter salad

If you skip the lettuce and choose more robust vegetables, you can make a big box of salad in minutes and keep it crisp several days in the fridge.

It’s gotten cold here. Ok, so no one else is pitying us; we had 80-plus degree weather only last week, but now there’s a very dry, sunny cold spell setting in, it’s in the 50s daytime, 40s at night, and Southern California doesn’t do insulation that well. Or ski jackets. Or wool.

On the upside, it’s been cold enough so that I can run the oven and bake–a rarity in Pasadena this year. [OK again: prepare for a couple of digressions from the main topic]

I made a big round spanakopita for a Chanukah party, quick pizzas for my daughter and her friends and calzones for me and my husband, rosemary and sesame bread, and rye bread–which is still in the attempt stage; I didn’t have a properly developed sour and wasn’t scrupulous about weighing out and getting the hydration and gluten ratios right and all that the first time around, and it collapsed in the oven…

I’m determined to get the sour and the rise textures right, so now I’m following the Inside the Jewish Bakery instructions more closely, having met and been impressed by one of the authors. It’s a matter of some urgency: my grandmothers are no longer alive to schlep good deli or bread out here on a visit, Trader Joe’s has broken ties with the really good bakery that made serious “pain miche” half-rounds that tasted like kornbroyt, none of the commercial rye breads in SoCal (or most of the country) are anything more than tanned white bread, and I’m desperate for the real thing–tough, chewy, tangy, caraway-laden, with a serious crust. Before my genes start going beige and I start deciding Bing Crosby was a really good singer.

[True unexpected fact here: a church choir director I know says that because of all the practice sessions, she and all her colleagues get serious carol fatigue by about two weeks before Christmas every year. I thought it was just me avoiding the mall, but no.]

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about comfort food, because winter cold brings on the desire for heavier dishes–stews, starches, cheeses, meat and potatoes, and more starches, and the winter holidays bring their own calorie-laden version of cheer to the table with abundant puff pastry, eggnog, latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiot (jelly doughnuts), cookies, fruitcake, and all the rest of it.

Not too many people think about salad as a comfort food this time of year. Potato salad, maybe.

And yet…it’s really not very comfortable to find you’ve gained five or ten pounds in a month when you didn’t mean to, and New Year’s is coming with an actual dress-up-like-a-grownup-with-a-life party invitation. If I’ve managed not to succumb to the excess so far this year, it’s only because I’ve been cautious-to-paranoid about eating latkes and sufganiot last week and even my typical penchant for cheese and dark chocolate (not together!) has me thinking twice. I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford to regain the weight I lost last year–even though it was “only” ten pounds, it was hard enough, and like many people, I could use another ten down before spring without having to work too hard.

So salad is what I have in mind at the moment. Yes, there will also be stew–this week, spicy vegetarian eggplant and chickpea stew, because I made a vat of it and stuck it in the fridge. Very hearty, filling, warming, and all that winter-holiday-recipe-talk, yet not very devastating diet-wise, and doesn’t make you feel like you need another nap pronto. Plus once it’s made, it’s really fast to reheat in the microwave. As I discovered yesterday, a mug (nuked less than 2 minutes and eaten on the run) can power me through a rushed non-cook evening–something I don’t do often or well–of ferrying my kid to the movies at the mall with her friends. During the very unpleasant after-Christmas sales season. What can I say–when put to the test, it was faster than fast food and twice as effective.

If only salad were like that [finally back on topic]. I’m not generally a cook-for-the-month kind of person, but it seems to me that if a restaurant salad bar can get away with making blah bulk salads that sit out for hours, surely I can do a bulk salad that looks and tastes lively and stores nicely for a couple of days in the fridge without going bad. Chop once, eat twice, right? Continue reading

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