Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Springtime Split Pea Soup

 Spring is finally here and I'm so excited to start cooking fresh green foods.  This soup is made with dried split peas, but it's a preview of the fresh  peas that will be growing in gardens  and popping up at farmers markets very soon. I remember when I was younger, my dad would make split pea soup a lot. He let the peas boil away until they turned into a smooth thick blender required. He also made it the traditional way, with lots of ham to flavor it. I liked the soup like that at the time, but now, I could do without the ham. I'm also not too fond of the way the peas lose their bright green color after boiling them for over an hour. Their vibrancy disappears, they take on a grayish hue, and I can see why split pea soup normally doesn't go over well with too many people.
 This particular method of making split pea soup is quite different. Instead of waiting for the peas to break down in the pot (which takes well over an hour), the peas are cooked until they soften, but still retain their green color. It's then pureed in a blender to achieve the smooth consistency. It's also made without ham, but the smoked paprika sprinkled over the top definitely lends that smoky flavor reminiscent of ham. The lemon brightens it up and gives it a nice fresh flavor. It's also incredibly quick and easy with very few ingredients.

Split Pea Soup
(adapted from 101cookboks)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2  onions, chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups dried split peas, picked over to remove any stones
5 cups water or vegetable broth
juice of half a lemon
smoked paprika
olive oil to drizzle

In a soup pot, cook onions in olive oil and salt until they soften, about 5 minutes. Add the split peas and water or broth and bring to a boil. Let simmer about 25 minutes until the peas soften, but do not turn to mush. Add the soup to a blender, squeeze in the lemon juice, and puree until it's nice and smooth. Return to the pot and taste it for seasoning. You should add salt a little at a time (especially if you only used water instead of broth) in order achieve a flavorful soup. Salt does make a difference in a simple soup like this. Ladle into bowls and serve with a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a few pinches of smoked paprika.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Yellow-Eyed Beans

 Aren't these beans so pretty? It looks almost as if their little eyes were painted on them individually with a tiny paint brush. I picked them up at a co-op recently as I've seen black-eyed peas before, but I had never seen yellow-eyed ones, and I figured I had to try them.

Being able to try unique types of beans is just one reason why I cook with dried beans over canned beans. For more reasons why I prefer dried over canned and how to properly cook dried beans, see a previous post on beans here.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Spinach and Gruyere Quiche

Quiche is one of the first things I learned how to make when I was younger. It was easy to make and was always a hit in my family. And it can be easily made vegetarian with the meat-eaters still willing to eat it. Because it's that good. Quiche is really versatile. I've had some really great asparagus, mushroom, and tomato quiches and I've also had quiches made with various cheeses, from cheddar to feta to Swiss. Also, fresh herbs like parsley, chives, and basil are wonderful additions.
This particular quiche is made with spinach, onions, and Gruyere cheese. Gruyere is an aged French cheese that has a wonderful flavor and is perfect in a dish like this. When making quiche, I like to make sure I use the best quality ingredients and that includes good quality dairy, local if at all possible, including organic cream (or milk), organic eggs, organic butter, and good quality cheese. The dairy industry in this country is absolutely horrible, with cows living in crowded, filthy, and unhealthy living conditions. They're given growth hormones and antibiotics, and are fed corn, when they naturally should be eating grass. I feel better supporting sound farming practices because the result is healthier food and a healthier environment.
 This quiche is sure to be a hit. It's something I like to make when I want something a little extra special, and everyone I've made it for seems to really like it. Like I said, it's so easily adaptable. Just always use the same cream (or milk) to egg ratio and then add whatever you want to it. This one is even made with 100% whole wheat crust. I definitely want to try making my own whole wheat crust someday, when I have a bit more time on my hands. But just look at that crispy cheesy top. How can anyone say no to that?

I recommend serving this quiche with a nice fresh green salad filled with seasonal vegetables and a light dressing  to balance the richness of the quiche.

Spinach and Gruyere Quiche
4 organic eggs
organic cream or milk (see recipe for how to measure)
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cups baby spinach
3/4 cup freshly shredded Gruyere cheese (or Swiss)
1/2 tbs butter
100% whole wheat pie crust
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large frying pan, cook chopped onion in butter and a pinch of salt until onions are really soft. Add the spinach and cook until the spinach is just wilted. Remove from heat.

2 Add half of the shredded cheese to the bottom of the pie crust. Put the spinach and onion mixture on top of the cheese.

3. Crack 4 eggs into a 2-cup measuring cup and beat well. Now add cream or milk to the beaten eggs in the cup until it reaches the 1 1/2 cup line. Add 1/2 tsp of sea salt and some freshly ground black pepper.

4. Pour this custard over the spinach, onions, and cheese in the pie crust. Don't overfill the crust, or else it will spill over. On the other hand, of you find that you don't have enough custard, just pour some more cream into the quiche. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.

5. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until the top is lightly golden. Let it sit for about 10 minutes after removing it from the oven (if you can look at it for that long before devouring it) to make sure it sets. Slice and enjoy.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Broccoli Cheddar Soup

I know that broccoli cheddar soup doesn't exactly have the reputation for being the healthiest. It's a creamy comfort food that tastes delicious, but usually contains too much cheddar and not enough broccoli. But when I discovered this here soup on Heidi's beautiful blog, I realized that you don't need to sacrifice flavor for nutrition when it comes to good old broccoli cheddar soup.

The only dairy in this soup is less than a cup of freshly grated sharp cheddar cheese. The rest is vegetables. The creaminess comes from pureed potato, onions and lots of broccoli. Added flavor comes from some dijon or whole grain mustard, which really brings this soup to a whole other level. I've made this soup numerous times and I love how easy it is. It's perfect with a salad, a slice of quiche, or a sandwich. Or just by itself.
Since there isn't a lot of cheese in the soup, it's important to use the sharpest cheddar you can find. The longer it has aged, the better it will be. Try to use an organic potato, since the skin is left on (for extra nutrients) and potatoes are one of the vegetables that have a lot of pesticides, as discussed here.

Broccoli Cheddar Soup
(adapted from Heidi at 101cookbooks)
1 large organic russet potato, unpeeled, cut into thin chunks
1 very large head of broccoli, cut into small florets (I also cut up the stem...I don't waste any part of it)
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 1/2 cups organic vegetable broth
2 tbs olive oil
3/4 cup freshly grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 1/2 tbs dijon or whole grain mustard
sea salt

In a soup pot, cook the onions in olive oil and a pinch of sea salt over low heat until they soften nicely. Add the garlic and the potatoes. Cook for about 3 minutes and then add the vegetable stock. Let simmer until the potatoes are cooked through, about 15 minutes (your potatoes will cook faster if you cut them thin and small). Turn off the heat. Add the broccoli florets and chopped broccoli stems and submerge them in the hot broth. The heat will lightly cook the broccoli. When the broccoli turns bright green, (which only takes 3-4 minutes), transfer the soup to a blender. Add the cheddar cheese and mustard and blend until nice and creamy. Serve with extra cheddar on top.

Makes about 4 servings

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Vegetable Sushi

Have you ever watched a sushi chef? Like really watched them delicately but swiftly spread the sticky rice onto the nori, then place the perfectly sliced fish or vegetables over the bed of rice? And the best part is when they roll it all up and slice it into beautiful circles. It's an art form, really. And it's absolutely delicious.
I've had Japan in my heart and mind ever since the horrible earthquake and tsunami that struck that beautiful country. The Japanese have such a long road ahead of them and sadness for those people and all who were lost is such a real thing for me right now. So I figured to honor the wonderful Japanese people, I would make some sushi. Let us all keep the Japanese in our prayers.
Making sushi is quite the endeavor. It's pretty time consuming, but the end results are more than worth it. I recommend making it with someone, to share the prep work, but also share the deliciousness when it's complete. I've made sushi a few times for myself, and it tastes wonderful, but I have to admit, it's a little sad eating it by myself.

I will do my best here with explaining the whole process, but I learned to make sushi the first time by reading my beautifully photographed sushi cookbook given to me by someone really special. Also, YouTube has some great step-by-step videos about how to roll the sushi. Now, according to my pretty sushi cookbook, the traditional way to make sushi is very methodical and kind of technical at times. I'm just showing you the easiest way that I've learned how to do it. It's really not as hard as it looks, it just takes time, a really sharp knife, and patience. I find that making sushi relaxes me. There's something totally Zen about it. Sounds weird? Try it.
I use short grain brown rice when I make my sushi. It's not traditional, nor is it as sticky as white sushi rice, but it works totally fine and it's so much healthier because the entire rice grain is preserved. Nori, and any other type of seaweed for that matter, is incredibly healthy and high in various minerals. Feel free to add other vegetables to this (I've used asparagus and sweet potatoes before) and also fish. If using fish, make sure it's sustainably sourced, super fresh (it should have no fishy odor), and preferably wild caught.

You will need a sushi mat for this. They're really inexpensive and are sold at grocery stores in the Asian section.

Vegetable Sushi
For the sushi rice:
1 1/2 cups uncooked short grain brown rice (it needs to be short grain, not long grain)
3 cups water
4 tbs rice vinegar
2 tbs sugar
1 tsp salt

For the roll filling
1 large carrot, cut into matchsticks (see photo)
1 cucumber, cut into strips
1 avocado, sliced
nori seaweed sheets

Wasabi powder
Soy sauce

1. Start by adding the rice and the water to a rice cooker and cook until the rice is done. It takes awhile to cook, so you can get all of your prep done during this time.

2. While the rice cooks, cut up all of the vegetables and set aside.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together the rice vinegar, sugar, and salt until the sugar and salt is dissolved (or almost dissolved). When your rice is done cooking, add it to the large bowl with the vinegar mixture and stir thoroughly. The rice will absorb the mixture and taste divine. Put the bowl with the hot flavored rice into the freezer for about 10 minutes to cool it down a bit. You don't want to put hot rice onto the nori sheets, believe me.

4. After the rice is adequately cooled (it can still be a little warm), lay a sheet of nori on your sushi mat. Place about 2/3 cup of cooked rice onto the nori sheet and spread it gently with a spoon so it's evenly distributed across the nori. Leave about 1 1/2 inches across the top of the nori sheet with no rice.

5. Now, add some vegetables in a line across the bottom of the now rice covered nori (Well, it's almost covered. Remember, you still have that 1 1/2 inch strip of bare nori acoss the top). See the above photo for a guide to the amount of vegetables to use.

6. Next is the fun part. Start from the bottom where the vegetables are. Place your fingers over the vegetables to hold them in place, then use your thumbs to lift the edge of the rolling mat closest to you over the filling, forming it into a roll. Roll the mat up, pressing it all around the nori to keep the roll firm. Lift up the top of the mat and turn the roll until the edges of nori touch and seal the roll. When the edges of nori come in contact, they seal themselves. Roll the entire roll once more with the mat and exert gentle pressure to make sure the roll is firm. You now have a sushi roll! You're almost there!

7. With a sharp knife, gently slice the roll into one inch discs. This takes practice. Don't be down on yourself if they don't look too pretty or fall apart. You have to make more rolls to finish the rice, so you get to practice.
Continue this process until you finish all the rice. This makes about 5 or 6 rolls, enough for two hungry people or one person with lots of leftovers. Serve with prepared wasabi (equal parts water and wasabi powder, mixed into a paste) and soy sauce and enjoy it. Savor it. You deserve it after all that work.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Goji Berry and Blueberry Oatmeal

I always welcome new exciting ways to liven up my bowl of oatmeal in the morning. I'll be honest, sometimes I get pretty bored with it. I happened to pick up some dried blueberries and dried goji berries recently in the bulk section of an amazing food co-op. These little berries are quite expensive normally, but such a treat when I can get a small amount in bulk. Goji berries are said to have tons of antioxidants in them, which is great, but their chewy texture, pretty color, and sweet-sour taste are other reasons why I like them. And blueberries rate pretty high on the antioxidant scale, as well, but I prefer them freshly picked in the summer over dried any day. Although, these dried blueberries really made my oatmeal extra interesting this week.

The addition of the walnuts and raw green pumpkin seeds just made this oatmeal so colorful and exciting to eat, as well.  Pumpkin seeds are a very good source of the minerals phosphorus, magnesium and manganese. They are also a good source of other minerals including zinc, iron and copper. In addition, pumpkin seeds are a good source of protein and vitamin K. I'm not a huge fan of the flavor of raw pumpkin seeds, but when mixed with berries and nuts, I can usually handle them. Walnuts are incredible nuts, high in Omega 3's and they also have anti-cancer, anti-oxidant, and cardiovascular health benefits. So much research has been done on these nuts and they are totally worth adding them to the diet regularly.

So basically this is a beautiful superfood-laden bowl of oatmeal. Even trying just one of its components can provide health benefits. And it sure makes a boring bowl of oatmeal much more interesting.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Southern Italian Broccoli Rabe with Wheat Berries

 Broccoli Rabe, also known as rapini, is such a great vegetable. It's used primarily in Italian cooking, namely southern Italy. It's a pungent and bitter green with tough sweet stems, giving it so much character. It doesn't taste like broccoli at all really, even though it resembles it with its small florets. As with all leafy greens, it's incredibly high in vitamins, especially vitamin C.

I also wanted to say a quick word on cooking broccoli rabe. Since the stems are tough and cook much slower than the delicate leaves, I find that blanching it is the way to go to get perfectly cooked broccoli rabe. I hardly ever blanch my vegetables because I'm worried about nutrients I'm losing in that boiling water, but in this case, quickly blanching the broccoli rabe really makes it have the perfect texture. First, cut off about two inches of the tough fibrous stems off. To blanch, all you need to do is bring a pot full of water to a boil. Turn the heat off and immediately add the greens. Submerge the greens in the boiling water for literally 10 seconds (sometimes I do it for less). The greens will magically turn a beautiful vibrant green color. Then, submerge the greens in a bowl of cold water, or sometimes I even strain the greens and rinse them under super cold water briefly. Basically, you're "shocking" the greens, stopping the cooking process, and preserving the green color and texture. For extra flavor, I briefly saute the blanched greens in olive oil and garlic. Perfection right there.

The measurements in this particular recipe are not exact. I just used what I had on hand, like olives, roasted red peppers, and roasted tomatoes to make a nice southern Italian nourishing meal. You can certainly make this with whole wheat pasta instead of the wheat berries and I suspect chickpeas would be great in this, as well. And I'm sure Parmesan cheese shavings would be wonderful, too.

Broccoli Rabe with Wheat Berries
2 cups cooked wheat berries (for instructions on how to cook them, check out the bottom of this recipe)
1 cup cooked white beans
1/2 lb broccoli rabe, blanched (see above for instructions)
2 cloves garlic, minced
olives, chopped
roasted or sun dried tomatoes, chopped
small roasted red pepper, chopped
crushed red pepper flakes
fresh basil (if you have it)
sea salt
olive oil

Start by sauteeing the blanched broccoli rabe very briefly in garlic and oil. Add some crushed red pepper flakes, sea salt, chopped olives, tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and some torn basil leaves. Add the wheat berries and beans and stir to combine. May be served warm or cold, as a salad.