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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.

Sleepover fare

My daughter who loves vegetables and will often eat them ahead of whatever else is on the plate at supper suddenly became selfconscious yesterday about serving them to her friends at her birthday sleepover–no, no, no, Mom, none of my friends will eat them, and they probably don’t want fish, we want pizza. Not your pizza. Pizza from the good takeout place in Sierra Madre. And no anchovies this time.

We’ve known these girls since kindergarten–or earlier. They eat vegetables. But pizza it was. With some raw veggies for snack thrown in beforehand.

Our experience with the standard kid party fare is not very happy. Chips, soda, candy, popcorn–and that’s just the open bowls sitting around. Then pizza, cake, ice cream, possibly more candy.You’ve got to wonder what kind of parents actively choose such a menu–and the answer these days is, most people. All of these things are pretty addictive–everyone grabs for seconds without thinking.

Our daughter has been to a few of these parties and discovered the hard way that everything she knows how to do as a Type I diabetic flies out the window the instant she gets there. All her friends are grabbing handfuls of these very high-carb, mostly processed foods which we never get at home (except for ice cream), and the behavior is as addictive as the snacks. Even when she plans a strategy ahead of time with a goal for a limited reasonable maximum of carb grams and she calculates insulin for everything meticulously, she ends up pretty high hours later–as in, at 3 a.m., long after the insulin for the food has run its course.

It’s extremely hard to calculate carbs accurately enough with most processed snack foods at a party to avoid big glucose spikes later on. Even if you do everything right. There’s just something about junk foods–either you end up eating three meals’ worth of carbs in an hour of snacking without even feeling it because your friends are eating that way and it seems normal at the time, or these foods really digest a lot differently from standard things like bread or pasta. If it’s happening to our daughter, who can see the ugly results by getting a fingerstick three or four hours down the road, when she’s antsy and fractious and can’t sleep at 3 a.m., you know it’s also putting an extra burden on your kid who has a working pancreas.

So it might be a good idea to get fresh with the standard teen birthday party menu–if you’re doing pizza, skip the bags of chips and soda, add some veg and lighten up on dessert.

Salad was not achieved despite best intentions only because there was no room to get through to the kitchen where the vegetables of the week were lounging in the fridge. With the girls suddenly launching into “girl tawk” over pizza (a less appetizing combo would be difficult to imagine), and since we don’t have a separate den, our living room and dining room quickly became no-parent territory. My husband and I sidled up, grabbed some pizza and some carrot sticks and hid out in our bedroom so as not to intrude or have to hear any of it–win/win.

So given the awkwardness of getting past them and into the kitchen, vegetabalia last night was reduced to the bag of sugar snap peas and a bag of baby carrots we’d put out for a snack–not up to par, really, but it worked out fine. The girls ate them happily enough and didn’t notice the lack of or even seem to miss chips, cheetos, popcorn, potato chips, pretzels, goldfish etc. They were all too busy watching “Big Bang Theory” episodes and gossiping nonstop. It just goes to show you–the party is not in the bag [of chips, as per the tv ads], it’s in the participants.

I’d made a rather large and beautiful raw blueberry pie for dessert–chocolate cake after pizza just seems so wrong when it’s so hot out, and besides it’s summer with a vengeance. All indications (pretested and verified by my kid) were that both the crust and the filling were up to snuff. My daughter calculated for her best chances of being happy and more or less within range at her own party so she could have a piece with her friends, and she stopped worrying about the lack of junk food. I mean, pizza serves perfectly well as its own form of junk food–you don’t need any extra.

Plus you don’t want to be crunching too loudly when Sheldon and Leonard are going at it over whichever comic book hero’s superpower is the more mathematically sound.

 

 

 

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

Parsley Doesn’t Count

It’s nearly June, the big northeast snowfest that lasted into April is pretty much over, and all the May and June issues of the big food magazines are showing…almost no fresh vegetables on the covers. Or inside. Oh, you do see some green–but it’s garnish. Flat-leaf parsley, a little cilantro, a sprig of basil maybe, chopped or torn over the cover dish to make it pretty. But very few actual vegetables–take a little walk with me down the newsstand for a sec.

magcovers

All magazine cover thumbnails shown have been lifted shamelessly–they’re not mine, they’re the property of their respective publishers–and pasted together here solely for parody value and critical review of the food literature.

Saveur? Fried chicken. Seriously. Cooking Light? Hotdog special–one with a slice of pickle and tomato, another with avocado, to represent Vietnamese and Mexican, respectively.  Whoo-don’t you feel like a world traveler now. Food and Wine? Burgers by Bobby Flay. Bon Appétit? Another burger. Food Network? They don’t even pretend. Ice cream cone. With whipped cream and a cherry on top. On a cone.

The women’s mags are leaning toward desserts: Martha Stewart–cake. Southern Living, Allrecipes–pie. Better Homes & Gardens and BHG Diabetic Living both feature watermelon and ice cream or sorbet assortments. All of it very pink.

Eating Well cover Vegetarian Times cover

But even EatingWell and Vegetarian Times aren’t doing all that much vegetabalia on their green-looking covers. EW has a vegetable serving platter with a nice looking bunch of raw green beans and tomatoes at the bottom, but more than half of the platter is canned  beans or dip. Not that I’m against those, but they really aren’t fresh veg.  VT has a grilled veg and quinoa salad platter that looks wholesome enough, but if you zoom in for a closer look you realize it’s not mostly veg either. If you took a quarter of it for yourself, you’d only get 3 or 4 thin slices of pepper and zucchini on your plate along with the grain. Most of the green you see in the picture is a token sprinkling of arugula and basil sprigs strewn over the top–a strategy that’s being used and abused in the less veg-forward pubs to make steak or pork loin or mac ‘n’ cheese look like they have something fresh and healthy about them.

Lucky Peach and Cook’s Illustrated both go for graphics rather than photos. LP has a cartoony poster graphic of garden lushness for “The Plant Issue”–do they really have vegetabalia inside? Cook’s Illustrated has a pastel of radishes.

It’s as though they all decided to try to look summery without  including actual bulk greens–the signature of summer (well, other than watermelon). I’ve complained about this before, I know, but back then I was talking about friends who don’t cook much and are somewhat veg-phobic, not about upscale food media. For years the food glam world has been touting local sourcing, farmers’ markets, heirloom this and that, Provençal and Spanish and Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines, which are full of vegetables one way and another. But they really are no longer practicing what they preach. They’ve shrunk their focus down to the meager American fast food paradigm while pretending otherwise. And charging you between 4 and 10 dollars an issue.

But vegetables are so easy to ruin, you say. The green ones turn brownish olive if you hold them too long after cooking. If you’re going to hang around a whole hour waiting for the photographer to get the right shot, you’re going to have to cook a couple of batches in a row. Strewing a couple of sprigs of cilantro or parsley over something is so much easier!

The other reason we’re not seeing vegetables on the magazine covers: editorial production lag. Monthly magazines typically take anything from 2-6 months to produce from start to finish, so they work ahead. The May and June issues probably went to press two months ago, when it had barely stopped snowing in the northeast (per my mother and sister). Summer vegetables are not bountiful in March and April under those conditions–at least not in New York and Boston. But the editors could have put together something decent and thematic for the covers if they wanted to–I’m pretty sure I could have sent them a likely looking CARE package from my local greengrocer’s if they’d only asked and were willing to foot the overnight shipping.

A weekly haul from my greengrocer's comes in under $30 even with coffee, spices and special items.

Eat your heart out, foodie magazines! Time to gloat. A typical weekly haul from my greengrocer comes in at under $30 even with a pound of coffee or tehina or yogurt (not shown, obviously), bagged spices, dried beans, and  specials on fruit or nuts. When the tomatoes are better I stagger out the door with 5-10 lbs. at a time, but on the other hand the snow peas were a serious bargain this time around.

There are plenty of good vegetables around. Fresno tomatoes are back in my Armenian grocery (for which, oh! be joyful), we have green and romano beans, we have lettuces and purslane and bunches of fresh basil and dill and mint and za’atar (and yes, parsley, 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

Starting with Breakfast

“The Well” blog at the New York Times has posted a new interview with pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig about his new book, the Fat Chance Cookbook, and about the possibilities for treating obesity in children with a better, less processed diet.

Two or three takeaways from the interview surprised me by echoing things I’ve either thought or written about here since my daughter became a Type I diabetic four years ago.

Almost always, we see an obese kid come in with an obese parent. And when the kid loses weight, the parent loses weight, because the parent actually changed what’s going on in the home.

We do something called “the teaching breakfast.” Every kid comes in fasting because we’re drawing blood. So they’re all hungry. They go to the teaching breakfast with their parents – it’s six families all at a communal table – and our dietitian spends an hour with them. The dietitian narrates exactly what’s on the table and teaches the parent and the kid at the same time….We make sure four things happen. No. 1, we show the parent the kid will eat the food. No. 2, we show the parent that they will eat the food. No. 3, we show the parent that other kids will eat the food, because they have other kids at home and they have to be able to buy stuff that they know other kids will eat. And No. 4, we show them the grocery bill, so they see that they can afford the food. If you don’t do all four of those, they won’t change.

Also, and I think this is my favorite:

…my wife is Norwegian… When she’s mad at me, she bakes…My wife has learned by experimenting that she can take any cookie recipe, any cake recipe, and reduce the amount of sugar by one third, and it actually tastes better…. And you can taste the chocolate, the nuts, the oatmeal, the macadamia – whatever is in it.

Right on!

Back to the top, though, I’ve got to say I love the idea of the teaching breakfast. My one concern is the reality of time cost for families with school-aged children, because eggs and vegetables, two of the (sometimes) inexpensive staples of the UCSF clinic’s teaching breakfast, take more time to prepare than a bowl of cereal, and require more cleanup. On weekdays, that might be a real challenge, especially for families with two working parents and/or long drives to school. A lot of the families I know in this situation (long drives and no school buses being a common problem in Southern California) are used to tossing their kids in the car with some kind of makeshift breakfast to eat on the way–often resorting to bagels, pop tarts, or bananas, none of which are great choices.

Perhaps if the dietician showed some simple microwaveable 5-minute meals like oatmeal or an easy vegetable-filled frittata (with some of the yolks left out) that can be made the night before and refrigerated? The plain yogurt with fresh fruit idea is also quick and simple but not especially cheap–these days a quart of plain non-Greek yogurt goes for $2.50 at Trader Joe’s, almost the same as a gallon of milk, and costs even more at the local Ralph’s (west coast Kroger affiliate), but it serves only 4 if each serving is a whole cup. Cereal with milk is a lot cheaper–but it could certainly be better cereal, high in fiber and low in sugar and salt, and measured by the cup or on a scale before pouring it into the bowl to make sure you don’t get more than you think you’re getting.

Cutting up fruit and vegetables takes time that parents usually feel they don’t have. And berries, which don’t need cutting up, are relatively expensive fruits, even when frozen. So showing parents a couple of “instantly grabbable” ways to serve the less expensive fresh (or fresh-frozen) fruits and vegetables instead of Froot Loops might be key.

A simple “just wash and nosh” approach would probably be a good start. I know I generally rail against buying precut, expensive little baggies of manicured (and dried out) vegetables in the supermarket, but the big bags of “baby carrots” that don’t require peeling and are finger-food size would be an okay starting point to get kids and parents to think about vegetables as a good snack or even breakfast choice. My daughter lived on them for lunches (along with a PBJ on whole wheat and an apple) for most of her grade school years, and even though she has (and will probably always have) a mean sweet tooth, she still seeks out raw green beans, wedges of red cabbage, roma tomatoes and broccoli or cauliflower branches to break off, rinse under the tap and nosh on after school.

DASH is US News & World Report’s “Best Overall Diet”

US News & World Report asked a panel of nationally recognized nutrition, diet, cardiovascular health and diabetes prevention experts to rank 32 popular diets. DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) topped out as the overall best, including for long-term weight loss and maintenance.

The article and rankings online: Best Diets 2014 | US News & World Report

Where the experts complained–sort of–was that following it requires eating more real food and fewer boxed processed meals. So it’s technically “harder” to do than Lean Cuisine, Jenny Craig, and so on. They also said that buying produce is more expensive than eating out at fast food restaurants all the time. I’m not sure where they’re shopping or how they’re counting. But from my experience and checking out current fast food prices for a family of three, shopping relatively smart and unchic and sticking with the cheap nutritious bulk vegetables rather than the fashionable or precut, prebagged ones in the foodie magazines that cost three times as much–I’d have to say no, it really isn’t more expensive for what you get. Especially if you count the extra gasoline per trip to the fast food joints on a daily basis.

And I’m not happy that a nationally acclaimed panel of nutritionists–or the editorial staff, I’m not sure–seem more than a little veg-phobic. Buried somewhere in the blather–I mean, expanded description of the DASH Diet and how they ranked it–is the distinct suggestion that it’s too much work and too unrealistic to expect people to prepare and eat–you know–fresh unprocessed vegetables and fruits themselves. They actually put in the phrase that it’s too much “gruntwork” unless you can hire a private chef to do your cooking for you. Makes you wonder how they were raised–probably on a steady diet of Pop-Tarts.

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