Supermarket periphery cereal

I’ve always been a big fan of cereal – and as a kid, there was no cereal I liked better than Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries™. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about these newfangled GMO blue, green and purple crunch berries. I’m talking about the original red ones – the ones that grow on crunch berry trees, and are coveted by the likes of the infamous Jean LaFoote – natural crunch berries, that grow wild. Man I loved those berries … the way they stained the milk pink … the way they kind of cut the roof of my mouth.

The great tragedy for us Canadian kids was that crunch berries were only available for a brief period – just long enough for us to fall in love with their subtle charms. Then they simply disappeared. It was a dark time.

We kids knew they still existed just south of the border, as we could see ads for the cereal on US channels, taunting us through a translucent veneer of white noise. But, for whatever reason – perhaps an embargo on the import of tropical fruit – they couldn’t cross the 49th parallel.

Fortunately, I had family in Massachusetts that I stayed with for a few weeks every summer. A highlight of those trips was always heading to a US supermarket – a magical place with an entire aisle of brightly coloured, plastic-toy-laden cereal boxes. Fortified with niacin. I was always allowed to choose a box of my favourite, and that favourite was always Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries™.

Funny thing: now that I live in the US, I never even walk down that aisle. Aisles are where the processed food lives. The packaging alone represents a level of waste that is hard to justify – never mind the fact that it often involves multiple stages of processing and transportation, and the waste associated with the creation and use of additives and preservatives that humans can easily live without.

But, damn it, I still love cereal.

Fortunately, I married Bonnie Lee .. and, fortunately, a few months after we got married, she made her first batch of granola. It gave the milk a lovely brown tinge and caramel tone, had a satisfying crunch, and best of all was made with ingredients we could find in bulk at the edges of the supermarket (plus oil and honey). When I had my first bite, I knew it was love.

Granola has been a staple in our home ever since (except when we were in Japan, and had an oven the size of the bottom third of a shoebox). The recipe is never the same twice, so we don’t get bored, and it keeps well in the fridge. The recipe for Bonnie Lee’s latest batch is below.

July’s batch of granola

Granola

Ingredients

  • 4 cups rolled oats
  • 1½ cups shredded coconut
  • ½ cup sliced almonds
  • ½ cup flax
  • 1 cup pumpkin seeds
  • ¾ cups vegetable oil℉
  • ¾ cups honey
  • 1 cup dried cherries
  • 1 cup dried cranberries
  • ½ cup raisins

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 300℉.
  • Place rolled oats, shredded coconut, and sliced almonds in the largest glass baking dish you have.
  • Place the baking dish in the oven, and toast the ingredients for 15 minutes, stirring them every 5 minutes so that they toast evenly.
  • Remove the baking dish from the oven, and increase the temperature to 375℉.
  • Mix the flax and pumpkin seeds in with the toasted ingredients.
  • Heat the oil and honey over low heat or a microwave. The goal here is just to make the mixture a little less viscous, so that it blends well.
  • Stir the honey and oil mixture into the dry ingredients, until they are evenly coated.
  • Return the baking dish to the oven, and bake until the granola is nicely browned (about an hour), stirring it every fifteen minutes or so.
  • Remove the granola from the oven, pack it down, and let it cool.
  • Break the granola into chunks, and add in the dried fruit.
  • Store in the refrigerator in a sealed container.
Granola & Thai pickled cherries

Granola & Thai pickled cherries – probably not so great when eaten together.

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Cherry vinegar & Thai pickled cherries

As I entered supermarket last Saturday, I was greeted by a stack of dark red cherries just begging to come home with me. I had just seen pickled cherries (something I’ve never tried before) used on the five and spice blog (which rocks), and was really intrigued by the idea. Growing up, we sometimes had cherries preserved in brandy or jam – something I was never tempted to make myself (we don’t eat a lot of sweets) – but cherries in vinegar, with maybe a little bit of hot spice? That sounded like the perfect way to enjoy the fruit throughout the year, perhaps with some cheeses or curry.

Bonnie Lee (she’s the brains of the operation) suggested that we add a little Thai twist to the pickle. Brilliant. So, that’s the way we decided to go. The results are in the picture below.

We ended up with about ½ cup of extra cherry vinegar, which is bright red, has a nice cherry finish, is slightly sweet, and will be great in dressings and marinades. We haven’t tasted the pickles yet, as we’re waiting for all those great flavours to blend. I’m traveling for work again – but they should be ready to crack open when I get back to the US in mid-August. I’ll let you know how they came out then.

Cherry vinegar & Thai pickled cherries

Ingredients

  • 2 quarts fresh cherries
  • 1 lime
  • 2 sticks dried lemon grass
  • 4 pieces dried Thai ginger (galangal)
  • 10 dried bird’s eye chilis
  • 2 cups distilled vinegar
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup rice vinegar

You will also need a mason jar that holds 4 cups.

Directions

  • Wash and pit the cherries, discarding any that are not firm.
  • Demonstrate that you’re smarter than me by not wiping your cherry-juice-covered hands on your shirt.
  • Sterilize the mason jar.
  • Zest the lime, and place the zest in the mason jar.
  • Toss the lemon grass, ginger, and bird’s eye chilis in the mason jar.
  • Pour the distilled and rice vinegars in a deep skillet, and squeeze in the juice of your lime. Add in the sugar, and stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves.
  • When the vinegar solution is warm, add in the cherries and poach them in vinegar for about 3 or 4 minutes.
  • Remove the cherries from the vinegar with a slotted spoon, and put them in the mason jar.
  • Strain the bright red vinegar through a wire mesh.
  • Pour enough strained vinegar into the mason jar to cover the cherries.
  • Put the remaining vinegar in a clean bottle.

Thai tofu cakes – attempt #1

We never finish a block of tofu in one meal, so often have a bit of frozen tofu on hand. As I mentioned in a previous post, tofu keeps well in the freezer – and after you thaw it, squeeze the water out of it, and crumble it, you’re left with a chewy, porous protein that absorbs flavors well.

One thing I’ve been meaning to try with it for a while is something similar to Thai fish cakes, and I made my first attempt at that this weekend.

The result was a bit too bready, and the flavors were less strong than I like them, so this recipe isn’t quite ready for company yet – but it did make for a tasty, hearty lunch, and went well with sliced cucumber (tossed in rice vinegar, honey, red pepper & cilantro dressing with a pinch of salt).

Thai tofu cakes - attempt #1

Thai tofu cakes (serves 2)

 Ingredients

  • 8 oz tofu, frozen, thawed, squeezed then crumbled (see image below)
  • 1 Tbsp fish sauce (or soy sauce)
  • 2 Tbsp grated ginger
  • 1 tsp red curry paste
  • 2 Tbsp cilantro, finely chopped
  • 1 Serrano pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 scallion, finely sliced
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • About 12 Tbsp panko or fine breadcrumbs
  • 2 Tbsp cooking oil
  • 1 lime
  • 4 Tbsp Thai sweet chili sauce

Directions

  • Toss tofu with fish sauce, grated ginger, and red curry paste.
  • Add in the cilantro, Serrano pepper, scallion and eggs, and mix well.
  • Mix in the breadcrumbs, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the mixture is sticky enough to form patties.
  • Make 4 patties, and place them in the fridge for 10 minutes, to allow them to set.
  • Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat.
  • Cook patties until they are golden brown – about three minutes per side.
  • Serve hot, with Thai sweet chili sauce.
Tofu: frozen, thawed, squeezed and crumbled

Tofu: frozen, thawed, squeezed and crumbled

Rescued mushroom risotto

A few months back, I wrote an entry on stone soup, which suggested that people freeze vegetable peels and bits that they would normally compost or throw away, and then use them to make stock. If you followed that advice, you will have noticed by now that you generate a fair amount of stock. We end up making about 8 cups of it a week.

This week, I found myself with about six cups of stock to use up, and was in the mood for something heartier than soup. We also had a few oyster and porcini mushrooms that were drying up in the vegetable crisper – all of which added up to the perfect excuse to make a white wine and mushroom risotto.

I started by rehydrating the mushrooms in white wine, which not only made the mushrooms nice and plump, but also gave me a rich-coloured mushroomy liquid to start the risotto with. (Bonus! That wouldn’t happen with fresh mushrooms.) That, plus a stone soup broth that had strong corn, beet and celery notes made for a dish with a complex palette of flavours and a creamy texture. Not bad, considering that the slightly shriveled mushrooms and stock ingredients were all things that would have ended up in the bin in many homes.

Of course, we ended up with more risotto than we could eat in one sitting – but the leftovers made for very good risotto cakes.

One thing I should mention is that making risotto the old-fashioned way takes time (about 45 minutes) and much that time is spent stirring. If you don’t have time for that, you can make it in a rice cooker with a lot less fuss (there are a few recipes on-line). I’ve tried that, and the result was quite good, though not as good.

Mushroom risotto

Rescued mushroom risotto, served with faux meat balls & salad

Rescued mushroom risotto (serves 6)

Ingredients

  • ½ cup dried mushrooms
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 6 cups stone soup (or other) stock
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • ½ large onion, sliced thin
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1½ cups Arborio rice
  • ¼ cup grated parmesan
  • Salt and pepper to taste

 Directions

  • Cover mushrooms in wine, and allow to reconstitute. This can take up to 30 minutes, depending on how dry the mushrooms were to begin with.
  • While the mushrooms are reconstituting, heat your stock in a deep skillet, and keep it warm over medium low heat.
  • When the mushrooms are reconstituted, set the liquid aside for later use. Sauté the mushrooms in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil until they are tender – then set those aside for later use.
  • Heat 1 tablespoon of butter and one tablespoon of oil in a skillet over medium heat, then toss in the sliced onion and crushed garlic, and sauté until the onion is translucent.
  • Add in the Arborio rice, and sauté for an additional 2 minutes.
  • Add in the liquid from the mushrooms, and stir until it the liquid absorbed.
  • Add in the warm soup stock, one ladleful at a time, and stir until the liquid is absorbed. When you’ve used up about ¾ of the stock, add in the mushrooms, and keep going. After each ladleful is absorbed, you should taste the risotto. When the the rice is al dente, and the sauce is creamy, it will be done. You may need a little less stock than indicated, or a little more. If you need more, and have run out, just use water that has been boiled and is still warm.
  • When the risotto is done, stir in one tablespoon of butter, the parmesan cheese and salt and pepper to taste.
  • Serve immediately.
Fun facts
Amount of shriveled mushrooms saved from landfill per six portions of rescued mushroom risotto. 1/4 cup
Approximate volume of shriveled mushrooms that could be saved from landfill every year if everyone in the US had 4 servings of rescued mushroom risotto a year. 12,000 cubic meters
Approximate volume of the Tower of Pisa. 10,000 cubic meters

Dry vegetable curry with cauliflower leaves & stems

One way to minimize waste is to have a few go-to recipes for the unused odds and bits that accumulate in the vegetable crisper. One of mine is dry vegetable curry. It’s a quick and tasty way to cook up whatever vegetables you have on hand.

This past the weekend I made some roasted cauliflower florets, which meant that I had a cauliflower stem and some cauliflower leaves to use up – and those made up the bulk of my most recent dry curry. I also threw in a couple of carrots, mushrooms, and plum tomatoes, as well as a few green beans and part of an onion.

In case you’ve spent your life blithely throwing away cauliflower stems and leaves, let me just point out a few things:

  • Cauliflower stems and leaves are food.
  • My most recent cauliflower weighed about 2 lbs 9 oz, and of that 9 ounces was made up of stem and leaves. That’s 22% of the cauliflower. If you’ve spent your life throwing these parts away (and if we use that 22% as an average), then for every 9 cauliflowers you’ve ever bought, you’ve thrown away 2 cauliflowers worth of perfectly usable food that you paid for. You probably don’t do this with donuts. Or socks.
  • Cauliflower stems may be less pretty than florets, but they taste similar, and are very tender. I usually just cut the big central stem in half, then cut those halves into slices.
  • Cauliflower leaves are very tender and thin at the tips, and cook up like any leafy green. Near the base, the leaves are more like cabbage, but more watery (which balances hot spices nicely) and not as tough.

I served this week’s dry curry with some turmeric rice and watermelon rind chutney (which we’re close to running out of). Easy. Tasty.

Dry vegetable curry (for 1)

Dry vegetable curry

Ingredients

  • Enough oil to grease your skillet
  • 1 cup mixed chopped vegetables
  • 1 tsp crushed garlic
  • 1 tsp grated ginger
  • 1 Tbsp tamarind paste (or 1 tsp lemon juice)
  • 1 tsp cider vinegar
  • ¾ tsp dry curry mix (see below)

Dry curry mix (these days)

  • 2 parts cumin
  • 2 parts paprika
  • 2 parts turmeric
  • 2 parts mustard powder
  • 1 part garam masala
  • 1 part cayenne pepper (or to taste)
  • 1 part cinnamon
  • 1 part brown sugar
  • 1 part salt (or to taste)

Directions

Sauté the vegetables over medium heat in oil until just shy of desired tenderness. OK, this is vague, but the timing depends on the vegetables you use, the size you cut them, and how tender you like them. Also, you’ll want to add things that take longer to cook a little earlier. I like my vegetables crunchy, so this step usually takes me 4 or 5 minutes.

Add in the garlic and ginger, and sauté for an additional 30 seconds.

Add in the tamarind paste (or lemon), vinegar, and dry curry spice mix, and stir until vegetables are coated.

Serve.

Fun facts
Annual per capita demand for cauliflower in the US 1.7 lbs
Total annual demand for cauliflower in the US 264,853 short tons
Unnecessary food waste created if no one in the US eats cauliflower stems & leaves (assuming they represent 22% of mass of cauliflowers) 58,267 short tons
Equivalent number of 2lb 9oz cauliflowers 45,476,682
Cargo mass of a Boeing 747-8F 295,800 lbs
Minimum number of Boeing 747-8Fs needed carry all that waste 394

Fuzz is for peaches

One 20 hour flight later, I’m back in LA (for a little while anyway) – and one of the first things we did when I returned was head to the farmers’ market in Torrance. I figured a little sunshine and fresh food would help me forget my jet lag.

I was wrong.

We didn’t do much shopping in the end, though we did pick up some stunning Seascape and Chandler strawberries – two varieties that are bursting with flavor, especially when they’re perfectly ripe (as these were), and bright red all the way to the center.

Seascape & Chandler strawberries

Our Seascape & Chandler strawberries, begging to be devoured

It seems that whenever we get strawberries at the local supermarket, we find one or two in the middle that are covered with fuzz – and the rest of the batch isn’t far behind. That’s why I’ve gotten in the habit of soaking berries in a vinegar and water solution for a couple of minutes before putting them in the fridge (I use about 3 cups of water and 4 tablespoons of water). That kills the beasties that lead to fuzz (and waste), and the berries generally keep for a couple of weeks after that. (It helps that supermarket berries are inevitably underripe.)

None of the berries from the farmers’ market had any fuzz, but I soaked them in a vinegar solution anyway – just to be safe. I needn’t have bothered, as they only escaped being eaten for a couple of days. The few that weren’t eaten immediately, ended up in strawberry rhubarb crisp.

Strawberry rhubarb crisp (serves 2)

Ingredients

  • ½ cup cut strawberries
  • ½ cup cut rhubarb
  • 1 Tbsp +1 tsp brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1 Tbsp flour
  • 1 Tbsp rolled oats

Directions

Preheat your oven to 375℉, and grease a baking dish with butter or cooking spray (you can do the planet a favor and make your own cooking spray with oil and a spray bottle). You want the fruit to be about an inch to and inch and a half deep – for this quantity, a round dish with a 5¾ inch diameter did the trick.

Toss the cut strawberries and rhubarb with 1 teaspoon of the brown sugar, then place it in your greased baking dish.

Melt the butter and stir in the flour, rolled oats and remaining sugar – then crumble the mixture on top of the fruit.

Bake at 375℉ for 45 minutes, then enjoy while it’s still hot.

Stone soup dahl

About a month ago, I wrote an entry on what I call stone soup. The recipe in that entry is simple:

…whenever I peel or chop vegetables or meats, I toss any bits that would usually be destined for the compost or garbage bin into a colander, wash them, then put them in a container in the freezer.  When I want to make stock, I throw the stone-like frozen scraps into water and boil.

As one friend noted, though, “Ive started my stone soup freezer bag! Once you start, it grows quickly!” Very quickly – and the challenge is to find varied ways to use up all that stock (we end up making about 8 cups of it every weekend). Last week, I did something based on this great dahl recipe from  Wolfgang Puck, and it’s definitely a keeper.

For the version I made, I used brown lentils, rather than orange ones – and stone soup stock rather than chicken stock. The stock that week was made with a healthy amount of beet peelings, and was dark colored with earthy tones, which worked perfectly in this recipe. I served the dahl with some homemade dosa (a rice and lentil batter pancake), kale salad, a spicy coleslaw, and some watermelon rind chutney – a satisfying, warming meal.

One thing to note: unless you’re catering a wedding, I suggest that you make about a quarter of the recipe at the link. That makes about 4 normal sized servings.

Strawberry tops

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are usually listed amongst the seven wonders of the ancient world – yet as far as gardens go, they were missing one thing that would have made them even better: strawberries, a fruit that would not land on the shores of the old world for another couple of thousand years. It was a sad berriless time in human history, unless you lived in the Americas.

I’m a huge fan of strawberries (maybe you guessed that), and, as a kid, I used to surgically remove their leaves (calyxes) to ensure that not one molecule of that sweet red flesh went to waste. I must confess, I’ve gotten sloppier as I’ve gotten older – but I don’t feel good about that. So, I recently started to wonder about strawberry tops, and what I could do with them.

It turns out that many people use them in smoothies, or to make tea. One word of caution, though: the leaves of strawberry plants release hydrogen cyanide gas as they decay – and that’s not so good for you. So, if you want to use strawberry leaves, you either need to use them before they start to wilt, or after they’ve had time to dry out.

After I made strawberry pancakes yesterday, I was left with a half dozen strawberry tops. Rather than waste them, I seeped them in hot water, and ended up with a light pink, fruity herbal tea.

And after I was done soaking all the goodness out of the strawberries, the worms in the composter got a delicious snack that would have been the envy of His Royal Highness, King Nebuchadnezzar II. They seemed happy.

Storing tofu

In Japan, we were spoiled. There was a tofu shop a short walk from our apartment, where the tofu was made daily. You had to go early to get what you wanted, because the shop closed once they’d sold what they made that day. And you had to get there particularly early to get the silken tofu, which was rich, creamy and velvety; with a little bit of soy and ginger, this stuff was decadent. It was best eaten fresh, and there were never any leftovers.

Japanese silken tofu

Outside of Japan (and that includes the rest of Asia), tofu is a completely different food; it’s good, but doesn’t feel like an indulgence. It’s also not a food that stands up on it’s own, so we tend to marinate it and mix it with other ingredients. For one meal, we only need half of a firm 12 oz block – which means that half needs to be stored. If I plan to use the other half in the next couple of days, I just keep it in the fridge, submerged in water. More often than not, though, I just freeze it.

Firm tofu holds up well to freezing – and I actually prefer the texture North American tofu has after having been frozen. It chewier. It’s also more porous, and absorbs other flavors well.

Before freezing their tofu, some people squeeze the water out. I don’t bother. I just pop it into the freezer (in a baggie) where it turns a lovely shade of yellow. I take it out of the freezer several hours before I plan on using it, and let it thaw in the fridge or on the counter. After it thaws, I squeeze the water out of it, crumble it, then get cooking.

For the dish below, I tossed the crumbled tofu in a bit of cooking oil, with a few drops of Worcestershire sauce, some chipotle powder, salt and pepper. I sautéed it with onions, garlic and diced red jalapeño, then served it on a warmed tortilla over melted cheese, along with avocado (tossed in lime juice), sour cream, and a hot salsa. Quick, easy and satisfying.

Tofu taco

Tofu taco

Mixed Greens Fritters

Mixed green fritters are a great way to enjoy edible greens – both the ones that people traditionally eat (like kale, mustard greens and spinach), and the ones that people usually throw away (like those of sweet potatoes, radishes, beets and broccoli).

I made my most recent batch using a simple and healthier-than-deep-fried recipe from food to glow that I had been meaning to try. (Food to glow is a great food blog focused on nutrition and cancer.) The original recipe was made with foraged greens – but rather than go foraging around LAX, I decided to use what I could forage from my fridge: beet greens, kale (with stems removed), cilantro and scallions.

The cilantro, scallions and beet green stems elevated what would have been a very nice side dish to a more central role in the meal, and were nicely complemented by a dollop of chipotle mayonnaise.