Celebratory Cooking

Opportunities arise throughout the year to celebrate.  Some of the biggest challenges a vegetarian host faces is developing a menu which will satisfy everyone–the carnivores and vegetarians alike.  Generally speaking, vegetarians are very easy to please.  They tend to be so food-deprived at parties, that when they attend an event where they can trust everything that is served, they are grateful beyond measure.  Sometimes carnivorous attendees who are new to my cooking decide they aren’t going to like anything.  I often hear cracks like “we stopped at McDonald’s on the way over” or “guess my diet will begin tonight.”  I’m proud to say, I never hear those cracks on the return visits!

With every event, I begin to “meditate” on the menu as soon as I know a party is imminent.  This past Christmas dinner is a perfect example to use in understanding my type of planning.  Because of the type of celebration it was, I looked to “tradition.”  In cooking, this translates into looking at where the dish came from and understanding what the original cook(s) intent was.  Over the years, this historical vision became a passion for provenance and a journey to discover vegetarian traditions in every culture I came in touch with.  The obvious Greek influence which came primarily through my grandmother and my aunt Irene, who were both excellent cooks, gave me a taste for the Mediterranean palate.  In my late teens and early twenties, I had the good fortune to visit and spend time in India, where I learned to cook dishes with ancient stories and also where every ingredient was connected to a healthy result.  All of this influences my menu decisions.  Even life changing events can play a part in menu planning.  My father passed away shortly before Christmas this year.  For me, he was a partner in celebration, always engaging and enjoying family gatherings.  I wanted to prepare a few things he would have enjoyed.

Once my menu and schedule for preparation is set, I prepare a shopping list to ensure I am not sending someone out for ingredients constantly, and then the cooking begins.  I began with the bread baking.  I made two different batches and proofed them together.  The first was a four grain loaf with oats, cracked wheat, quinoa and millet.   The second was a Tuscan baguette with home harvested fennel and corn meal which I sliced and used for a canapé base.

The next preparation was Eggplant bharta canapé.  A traditional Indian fire-roasted eggplant dip to which I added chilles, red amaranth leaves and lime. I served it on the sliced Tuscan baguette discs.

The centerpiece entrée was an Eggplant and Zucchini Parmesan with Cavolo Nero (Lacinato Kale) and an almond ricotta.  I made it the previous morning to allow the flavors to meld and make cooking dinner on Christmas day a simple affair.

The other entrée was Asparagus Strudel and was baked just before serving.  Ten layers of phyllo dough were coated with a red pepper oil and maple syrup mixture and enveloped around fresh asparagus with a caramelized shallot and cashew nut puree.  I served it with roasted red pepper sauce.

On the side, I made some choices that would balance the meal through flavor, texture and visual appeal.

Muli Kofta, traditional Indian gram flour cakes made with grated daikon radish and greens.  Garnished with bundi and sweet pepper relish.

Organic Rigatoni pasta salad with pistachio-lacinato pesto.

Swiss Chard horta, Cretan boiled greens with extra virgin olive oil and lemon dressing.

Fresh tomato salad drizzled with balsamic reduction (see first picture).

To add a sweet finish to the meal, Sara baked my vegan Pecan Tart recipe  (She never cooked before last year, when I had to leave her to help take care of my father.).   The tarts were delicious with the right amount of sweetness and without the fatty finish.  When the meal was over, everyone relaxed, shared gifts and spent the evening in a state of joyful satiation—as my father would have liked.

Fast, Furious and Fantastic—A quick lunch solution


As I sat at my computer completely lost in cyberspace, I felt a cold nose on my arm.  Our faithful-to-her-stomach German Shorthaired Pointer Tea-Bird, who tells time better than anyone I know, was letting me know it was time for lunch.  She usually begins the ritual with a long stare, moving into heavy sighs and impatient breathing and finally the “nudge,” making it is clear that I have gone way beyond the acceptable time-frame.  Into the kitchen we go, Tea at my heels, and we confer about what to do.  As I survey the contents of the refrigerator, she takes on the serious task of examining every shelf and together we agree on tofu, onion, carrot, celery, red cabbage, broccoli and red bell pepper. We decided on a stir fry, quick and nourishing.  My wok is in the process of re-seasoning (a 2-day affair) so I break out two 12 inch skillets and a 6 quart sauce pan for the noodles.  I cook the tofu in one skillet, the vegetables in the second and boil water in the sauce pan all at the same time.  The result is a meal-in-one dish finished within 20 minutes.  Everyone is happy, especially Tea-Bird, who can’t get enough of the mugwort Soba noodles!

Tofu Stir Fry with Red Miso Sauce

Serves 6
Tofu

1 1/2 teaspoons organic expeller-pressed canola oil

1 fourteen ounce block medium firm tofu, cut into 2 inch wide by 1/2 inch thick triangles

3 teaspoons tamari

In a 12 inch skillet on medium-high heat, cook the oil and tofu until it starts to brown.  Turn the tofu, cook for 45 seconds to a minute and add the tamari tamari.  Turn down to a simmer and cook four to five minutes until the tamari is absorbed.

Sauce

1 cup miso, Kyoto red (low sodium, unpasteurized)
1/4 cup mirin

2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 1/2 tablespoons tamari
2 cups hot water from noodles (see noodles)

Mix sauce ingredients in a bowl and then add to the tofu, allowing it to simmer and thicken for a few minutes.  Turn off heat, cover and reserve.

Vegetables

2 teaspoons canola oil

1 1/2 tablespoons ginger root, peeled and minced

8 cups chopped vegetables: onion, carrot, celery, red cabbage, broccoli and red bell pepper

1 tablespoon tamari

Heat a 12 inch skillet on high heat, add the ginger root and, ten second later, add the vegetables and tamari.  Cook for 10 minutes stirring, turning or flipping until the vegetables have a seared edge and are cooked “al dente.”  Reserve.

Noodles

8 to 10 cups water

1 package Eden Foods mugwort soba noodles

Boil water in the sauce pan and add the entire package of noodles.  Cook for 6 to 7 minutes “al dente,” set aside 2 cups of water for the sauce (see sauce) and drain the noodles.  Toss with the vegetables.  May be served individually in large soup bowls with the tofu-miso sauce on top or, as I did this time, in one large dish with the tofu-miso sauce on top.

Mending With Miso

Date bars 11 192009-25San Diego has seasons and they are often described as wet or dry, cool, warm or hot.  Subtle differences as they may be, if one has a sinus sensitivity, transitional changes in pressure, moisture and airborne particles can alter how one feels significantly.  I am one of those change of season sufferers and I have found a few tricks to lesson the effect after living in the Midwest for many years.  One is to drink hot beverages, such as herbal or green tea and even hot cider.  Another is to prepare a broth-heavy miso soup.  This is the healing soup of Japan and considered a panacea for all that ails in colder months.  The ingredients could be a list one might find at a natural pharmacy:  Kombu or kelp, rich in iodine and minerals.  Shi-itake mushrooms, renowned for healing properties. Fresh ginger root, a stimulating root prized throughout Asia.  Good quality tamari.  Tofu, soft, nutritionally potent protein.  Onions, cleansing.  Carrot, celery, bok choy, kale and napa cabbage, phyto rich and full of anti-oxidants.  Finally, I add a dash of toasted sesame oil and mugi (barley) miso, which is full of healthy enzymes.  By then the flame is turned off and the vegetables wilt while steeping.  Today’s soup has a garnish of slivered red amaranth leaves.  There are many variations to this soup and I usually adjust the recipe according to what I have available.  Fortunately in San Diego, I can pick fresh greens at any given time in my small kitchen garden.

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Often, I will add soba, somen or udon noodles to the miso, but today it is served in a separate side dish of Mugwort-soba noodles with ponzu and toasted sesame seeds.  This is an elegant and classic Japanese dish in its own right.

The lunch was perfect.  Pleasing to eat and equally satisfying after the meal.  My heart was warmed, stomach was calmed and the sinuses were cleared.  A beautiful way to start a week.

Small Cogs

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The world is huge and we are a small part of it, comparable to small cogs on an immense wheel.  Cooking is a natural part of this mechanism.  Beginning with foraging, every aspect of collecting, preparing and serving food connects us to the cycles of regeneration in this world.  Whether we admit to it or not, our lives are defined by this relationship.

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For me, the more I look into the food connection, the greater my sense of fulfillment and nourishment.  Often, many of us search for answers to universal questions in obscure places to discover the secrets of life.  One of the biggest secrets is something we deal with many times a day and is virtually right in front of us:  Our relationship with food is the source of good health and spiritual well being!

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Food Trends

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Is it possible?   An abundance of high quality food is causing fine dining to change?

Over the last two decades, high-end chefs in America established their reputations around dishes created from rare ingredients and items served at the peak of freshness. In recent history, these two areas of food products have not readily been available to the public. Indeed, to their credit, the very chefs who helped to build networks of local farmers, food purveyors and distributors and who, in turn, expanded their offerings to the general public are responsible for the public demand. Chefs were the rock stars of the dinner table and everyone wanted in on their secrets, or to emulate their craft.

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Today, we have an economic downturn, but this as the only cause of the change of economics in the restaurant industry, albeit a predominant factor. The same formerly rare food products are now becoming readily available and markets have started to feature local, up-to-the-minute fresh foods. For example, just over a decade ago mesclun lettuce was only seen in upscale restaurants, now it is everywhere. The same micro-greens and baby vegetables chefs would wow customers with are sold at major grocery store chains. Casual restaurant concepts around the country serve organic food and these formerly exotic ingredients. Why spend $150 for one dinner, when the same food can found at an upscale bistro-style restaurant for $30 to 50 dollars per person. To add to the dilemma, one can eat like a king much cheaper than this by shopping at local farmers markets and cooking at home. Recipes and techniques are readily available in a matter of minutes on the internet. Food is no longer the lone star, now more than ever, the upscale restaurant has to entertain through service, constructed presentation and themes designed to mentally transport the diner away from the locale they sit in.

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While enjoyable, this is often a distraction that competes with the food. High-end restaurants have been the bastions of the well-to-do with an additional peppering of the middle-class. The foods of the rich and noble have always been looked up to and desired by those not as fortunate. Numerous parallels to this can be studied in the history of culinary endeavors. Thus, culinary economics are cyclical as engineering advances in food manufacturing and agriculture offered food products previously only available to the elite, thus making them available to the general public. Grocery store shelves are full of such storied items; White flour, refined sugar, Strawberries out of season, refined oils and frozen foods are a few examples. As a result, products available are determined by what is purchased, not by what is healthy.

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We advanced ourselves into nutritional depletion and are facing the consequences with such issues as obesity and malnutrition in lower income children. Education is the key to transcending this economic wheel of misfortune. The first steps are simple, starting with reading labels and learning what you are eating. Next is to act on it by shopping local and eating organic foods.  Cooking at home and  growing a garden are the most significant things to do that will educate us about the value of food.

It is not a black and white decision, but a gradual commitment to change. There is no time like the present to take charge of our destiny and good health.

About Julia Child

July 2009-28

Julia wanted her viewers to loosen up, get physical, not with controlled substances but with food, not through a glass darkly but at table, with delight. Hers was a civilized sensuality, the integration of the senses that she’d learned in France. This is why her following was legion—Julia’s appetite appealed to young and old alike.
“Americans didn’t come over on the Mayflower trusting food,” says Laura Shapiro. “Julia’s whole thing about food was that you had to trust it. That, to me, is her great message. Getting your hands into it—touch it, breathe it, smell it, live it. If we as Americans have overcome to any degree our fear of food, our weird neurotic thing about the body, it starts with Julia.”

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“I felt very related to her,” says Judith Jones, “because we were both released from very traditional, middle-class American values. And it was France that released us. She wanted to bring this message to America—that we were still steeped in the Puritan attitude towards food, and what the food industry had done to make us feel that food was not for the modern woman. It’s what an artist does: you want to express it so that you awaken sensibility. And she really did that.”

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“Her favorite point in her life was the years in France, that period of discovery and awakening,” says Alex Prud’homme. “As she said, ‘I felt myself opening like a flower.’ It was a lovely phrase. And I think one of the reasons that—this is my personal theory—she wanted to write all these recipes down and transmit them to Americans is it was a form of distilling experience, almost like a short story or a poem. She used the recipe as a way of talking about France and its values, which are so different from ours. You know, doing things correctly and taking the time to get it right, and to work hard and learn your technique, and also to have fun.”

Original article:
http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2009/08/julia-child200908

Walking the Neighborhoods

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Every morning we harness our companion Tea-Bird and walk through the neighborhoods of Mission Hills. It is an area that was laid out in the beginning of the 20th century exemplifying the Southern California lifestyle much in the same way as towns such as Pasadena. The railroad connected San Diego to the rest of the country in the 1880’s sparking a boom in tourism and seekers of fortune. Concurrent with the Belle Epoque in Paris, San Diego had its own renaissance before the sobering effect of The Great War. The founders of Mission Hills included names like Marston, Johnson, Nolen and, of course, Kate Sessions, who had landscaped Balboa Park. Kate Sessions’ original nursery, still in operation since 1911, is just down the street from us and is nestled among an eclectic mixture of Arts and Crafts Bungalows, Spanish Revival homes, swaying eucalyptus, towering palms and rushes of bamboo. Many homes contain architecture elements from the 1915 Pan American Exposition which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal and started the Spanish Revival movement of home building on a national level. The building boom in Mission Hills coincided with the construction of the Exposition which began in 1911. San Diego was a city of 39,000 and the smallest ever to hold a world’s fair style event.

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The streets of Mission Hills follow the original slopes of the terrain as the founders believed in the Arts and Crafts notion that living spaces should harmonize and work with the earth, not define it. This now historic neighborhood retains much of the original charm, which, in addition to the beautiful architecture, is greatly enhanced by wonderful natural landscaping most of the homeowners take pride in. As we walk down the sidewalks, each yard has fragrant flower, fruit trees, cacti and tender perennials. Common are creeping rosemary and bushy lavender which add savory fragrances as we brush by.

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Beauty is not just the view, but how people live as well. Mission Hills is always full of dog walkers, runners, bike riders, kids and strolling couples, making it a friendly and social environment, greatly enhancing the storybook feel to the neighborhood. Here in San Diego, the sunshine and bright, often cloudless blue sky, are backdrops to the movie-set perfection of the neighborhood. I often marvel at the foresight of the small group of visionaries who designed Mission Hills. While the future is difficult to predict, they created a neighborhood that stands out from the crowd of poorly thought out developments and accomplishes much of their original goal. Every walk we take is different and stimulating, very good for creative thinking.

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The Mission Hills Garden Walk is an annual event which offers the opportunity to see beyond the beauty of curb appeal and catch a glimpse of our neighbors’ lifestyles. We also enjoy meeting people who put their hands in the earth and use it as a canvas for organic expressions. Every home on the tour is unique, but one thing in common are outdoor living spaces, often as an extension of a kitchen, or an entertainment area of its own. Similar to the Mediterranean, the residents of Mission Hills frequently create spaces for casual gatherings centered about food. Alfresco dining and the chatter of company intermingling with fluid songs of mockingbirds are frequently part of the soundscape in Mission Hills. The star house on the tour, designed in the 1920s by William Templeton Johnson, even had a loggia-style bar that opened onto a patio overlooking fountains, a patio and a panoramic vista looking past an infinity pool added by subsequent owners. Houses like this help honor the ritual of food in a social setting. Like drinking from crystal making the beverage taste better, dwellings like this help us to savor both food and company. For the rest of us who cannot afford to live this way, the restaurant industry has thrived on the same principle.

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Artichokes!

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My first encounter with fresh artichokes off the bush was a springtime journey 25 years ago to Crete. Walking through the village, we would snap the giant thistle buds right off the bush, eating them raw. Most often, my great aunt Yeorgia would cook them in dishes like Aginara Stefado (artichoke stew) with fennel, carrots, celery, lemon and onions. She accompanied the fragrant stew with rice pilafi and hard crusted bread to sop with, it was a perfect meal for the season.

flowering-artichoke

Over the years, I served artichokes regularly at Inn Season Café. We found a surprising number of people to be unaware of how to eat this most ancient vegetable, therefore causing us to use them inside dishes instead of serving them baked, braised, steamed or stuffed as a full globe. Maybe people were fearful of the aptly named choke, but I still tried, pointing out the sensual nature and satisfying experience of eating them one leaf at a time. By the time the artichoke is finished, one usually feels quite full.

One of my favorite dishes used baby artichokes. Pre-cooking them allowed us to remove some of the outer leaves to reach a completely edible and exquisitely tender heart and choke. Sautéing them with garlic and pine nuts, they would be dressed with a light creamy sauce and served over pasta; either homemade fettuccini or a high quality udon noodle (similar to linguini). We served it in two versions, one vegan and one not. These days, I make it without animal products.

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This week at the Hillcrest Market, Sage Mountain Farms had the beginning of the local crop of organic artichokes.  I also harvested our first artichoke from the large bushes in the back yard. Excited to do a taste test, I cut them in half, removed the chokes and roasted them in the oven Sicilian style with garlic, extra virgin olive oil and oregano. It wasn’t a fair comparison because the Sage Mountain artichokes had already been harvested for over 24 hours, while our home garden grown globes had only been picked 30 minutes before cooking.  They both had an intense artichoke flavor that practically shouted Mediterranean at me, but the home grown was perfect…tender, creamy and sensual. The season has just begun and with a number of chokes developing on the bushes; it promises to be an auspicious beginning to a great summer of freshly harvested food.

At the Market

 

Rain creates some amazing transformations in San Diego.  The trunks of the palm trees turn black when wet and a feeling of cleanliness spreads out over the landscape after prolonged periods of dryness.  Spring blossoms are proliferating in the neighborhoods and the bright green of the season frames this explosion of color. 

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The farmers’ market has responded to the added moisture as well.  This week there were fresh walnuts from the last harvest, organic Red Flame raisins and a plethora of blood oranges.  At La Milpa Organica, the booth was full of greens such Brussell sprout leaves, stinging nettle and at least five varieties of kale.

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I picked up some incredible ripe chermoya and passion fruits from Koral’s Tropical Fruit Farm along with sweet Persian limes, Meyer lemons, Fuerte avocados, kumquats and sweet Cara Cara oranges.  

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