Monday, January 31, 2011

Ensalada de Chayote

The first time I remember eating chayote, was in a hospital in Mexico City. I was seventeen, and had been in an automobile accident, which I luckily escaped with only a broken nose. I don't know if I'd ever eaten a chayote before that point--I had lived in Mexico since age two, and had eaten a lot of Mexican dishes--who knows? Maybe one of them had a few chunks of the odd little pear-shaped squash in it. Hospitals served only very bland food, and chayote is a staple in the bland world. Apparently it's also highly nutritious, rich in amino acids and vitamin C.

It wasn't until a few years later that I began to notice chayotes secreted in salads, on tostadas, and in side dishes that I had probably been eating all my life without realizing the little stowaways were there. As a cook, I find it intriguing how a vegetable that has such an unassuming flavor profile can hold its own and even stand out in a complex, assertive dish--like this one I invented, for example. Even though chayote comprises only about a fifth at most of the total volume of this salad, it still manages to shine through all the other ingredients: grilled corn, celery, onion, roasted poblano chiles, avocado, garlic, tomatillos, cilantro, lime juice and olive oil.

I've made much simpler dishes with chayotes, some with only three or four ingredients, but I enjoy smothering them with wild, vibrant flavors that logically should overwhelm their blandness, just to see how their understated presence refuses to melt away. On the contrary, everything you throw at them only serves to make their subtle taste more pronounced.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Mediterranean Open-face Sandwich

A couple of days ago, I was going to make a Mexican salsa with avocado--a favorite of my son's--but as it turned out, I had no serrano chilies, and what was left of the cilantro had languished to the yellow point and was unusable. The avocado was perfect, though, so I decided to take it across the pond for a little Med cruise. 

No, those aren't tomatoes. The mélange du jour was composed of avocado, roasted red pepper, red onion, baby cucumber (a current fave à chez moi), and kalamata olive, with a little fresh lime juice, Simple Garlic Udo's Oil, salt, and pepper. It was about lunchtime, so we had it on toasted Ezekiel sesame bread. I had three--which is saying a lot, because I rarely eat any bread at all.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Process Your Own Food!

A friend sent me a link to this video, a short segment on the dishonest health insinuations on the front panels of some foods that pretend to contain blueberries (but don't). Apparently, Kellogg, General Mills, and others have a very nasty habit of tricking the public into buying their products with bogus advertising on their packaging. I vaguely recall a time when this was illegal. The video examines the truth behind the deception, but omits two points which, to me, are glaringly obvious.

One: If you want blueberries, whether because they're supposed to be chock full of antioxidants, fiber, or other health properties, or because you just like the taste of blueberries, then (DUH!) buy and eat blueberries. Same goes for pomegranates, grapes, and every other buzzword food. If you want these to be 100% good for you, buy organic. This way, you won't be poisoning yourself with pesticides and petrochemical residues.

Two: The absence of blueberries in the products making blueberry claims is not the worst offense. Stop and think about the glop surrounding the fake blueberry bits for just a minute. Do you really need highly refined carbs, bad fats and petrochemical food coloring in your diet? The key factor in marketing these products is "value added," a little something that the manufacturers have done to enhance the perception that you're getting something special, when in fact what they've done is to take value out. Food value. Health value. Stripped. Replaced with anti-value.

Question: Why are we allowing manufacturers to essentially pre-digest our food? Why do we spend our money on something that has been chewed up, adulterated, denatured, and polluted with ingredients known to cause diabetes, cardio-vascular disease and cancer? What is it about eating junk that we find so appealing? Is it really all that good, or have we been taken in by advertising and convenience?

Say, for example, that you like the smell, the taste, the texture and the whole ritual that surrounds freshly baked, homemade chocolate chip cookies. I'm not saying that chocolate chip cookies are a health food by any stretch, but at least if you're making them yourself, you know what's in them. And, generally, I'd say that because you've invested about an hour making them, chances are you won't eat a dozen in one sitting; you'll want to savor them, put them in a cookie jar and dole them out sparingly, eating them a couple at a time. This is value added.

Think about this for a moment. You took a few ingredients, most of which were not in themselves good for you (refined flour and sugars, butter), and made something that, although not a healthful product, actually added several dimensions to your experience of joy (which is the whole point of everything, let's face it). There is the immediate sense of accomplishment from having produced something delicious. There is the great pleasure of eating them, and sharing them. Keeping them in a special jar adds to the feeling of owning something precious, something to be preserved and enjoyed at specific moments--not just gobbled up in one sitting--as if they had no real value. Cooking is a labor of love, and you've imbued these pedestrian ingredients with potent intangibles: your time, intention, skill, and love.

Now consider a one-pound bag of commercial chocolate chip cookies, churned out and packaged by machine. None of the intangibles are present; in their place are inferior ingredients (hydrogenated fats, imitation flavors and colors, preservatives and who knows what else). The flavor is flat. The texture is tough and pasty. Even the chocolate is crappy. The real value has been taken away, substituted with harmful counterfeits and only one tawdry, fairly disgraceful benefit: convenience.

Why let some mega-conglomerate take the value out of your food and sell you fake junk to eat? Why not process the food yourself? Why not be your own food manufacturer, so you can choose the best raw materials, exert quality control, and best of all, enjoy the product fresh off the line?

I've said this many times: Save yourself! Learn to cook and eat at home!


Monday, January 24, 2011

Cipolline in Agrodolce

I'm quite fond of the entire Allium family (which includes onions, garlic, scallions, chives and leeks), but certain ways of presenting them are iconic. In my top ten or twelve favorites, a consistent star is an Italian dish called "cipolline in agrodolce." This translates very roughly as "little onions in sweet and sour sauce," but there is more to it than that. "Cipolline" is a diminutive form of "cipolla" (onion), but it refers specifically to a unique Italian variety--a small, flat onion, quite a bit wider than it is tall, like a cartoonishly fat coin somewhere between a quarter and a poker chip in diameter. Sometimes you'll see a little red onion that approximates this description, but leaning a bit in the more-round-than-flat direction, sold under the same name (pictured, above right). Don't quibble at this point, because they will taste just as good (in their own way) as the flat kind.

The only hard part is peeling them. Be patient and remove the skin carefully, so only the dry skin comes off, and none of the flesh is wasted. Cut off the root and the top just flush with the flat of the bulb, and then strip away the skin. Not so hard, really. Then put them in a small pot with a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar, some form of sugar, a bay leaf or two, zest of a lemon, salt and pepper. Add enough vegetable bouillon to cover and simmer gently for about an hour and a half. Uncover from time to time and check on them, swirling the pot to swish them around. When the time is up, there should be a nice thick juicy sauce at the bottom of the pot. Serve them hot, warm, or at room temperature. Don't worry if you're not sure about the ingredient quantities--I'll be sure to put this in my next book, and by then I'll have come up with some specific (non-eyeball) measurements. Stay tuned. You're gonna love this dish, trust me.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Oops! Seems I Owe the Inventor of the Microplane an Apology...

For those of you out there who may have attended my cooking demos, and heard me talk about the origins of the fabulous "Microplane," I have a confession to make. I had read somewhere that the inventor of this device was a carpenter, who had the idea to use one of his tools to grate the zest off a lemon--leading to the invention of one of the most valuable tools in my kitchen (and many other kitchens). Turns out this was not accurate, as I discovered by reading this article in the New York Times.

The Microplane was invented by Richard Grace, a founder of Grace Manufacturing, as a bona fide woodworking tool. He designed it originally to be used in a hacksaw frame (which explains the little holes at either end), and apparently added the rubber handle after he discovered that most of his customers were in fact cooks, who marveled at the smooth, precise cutting action. So it may well be that the culinary application of the Microplane was a carpenter's discovery, but the tool itself came first.

And I also would like to mention that Martha Stewart and others who refer to it as a "rasp," are giving a highly refined cutting tool an undeserved, rather brutish name. A rasp is a very coarse steel file, usually flat on one side and curved on the other, with large raised points that gouge and scrape off layer after layer of wood in a very crude manner (think of a raspy voice). This is not a finishing tool, by any means; it leaves rough, rutted marks that must then be sanded away. The closest relative to a rasp in the kitchen is the old grater that looks like someone poked a series of holes in sheet metal with a nail. While this was the go-to device for grating citrus zest and Parmesan cheese for many years, it cannot compare with the smooth operation and beautiful results afforded by the Microplane. Many times have my fingers slipped and been abraded while working with the venerable old box grater; never once on the new guy. The issue here is control. As the saying goes, "the most dangerous knife is a dull one." Whereas a scraping/gouging rasp is erratic and imprecise, a cutting/planing tool is reliable and exact. A final note: I still recommend the curved old-fashioned nutmeg grater (only for nutmeg), because it always worked well and because nutmeg is so small, the risk of cutting a finger is unacceptably high. Your call.

Full disclosure: No one is paying me a cent for this glowing appraisal of the Microplane (although a generous check from Grace Manufacturing would not be spurned). Like Martha and Oprah (and many others), I'm just stating the obvious. I would make a good spokesperson, though, don't you think?


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Quinoa, Corn & Spinach

When I cook quinoa, I almost always turn it into something, like "Quinoa Pilaf," featured in my first cookbook, "Omega 3 Cuisine." Sometimes I'll be in a hurry, so I'll just make it simple--adding some corn and carrot juice, for example. Then I'll use the leftovers the next day, altering the mix to make something new. Yesterday I reheated said quinoa, corn and carrot juice--with a little more carrot juice to help it bubble (versus stick and burn). When it was nice and hot, I stirred in about half a pound of baby spinach and tossed it with a silicone spatula until it had just wilted.Then I drizzled it with a little garlic-infused Udo's Oil (off the heat, of course!).

For such a simple thrown-together dish, it was a pretty impressive, but I still wanted some punch, so I topped it with a drizzle of my homemade sriracha sauce--also in Omega 3 Cuisine (recipe follows). That did it. The result was an unexpectedly spectacular mashup of color, texture, cooked/near-raw, flavor and heat. That was my lunch--in less than ten!

Sriracha Sauce 
Although it may be more convenient to buy a commercial Sriracha sauce, this could involve an unacceptable compromise, as the ingredients often include refined sugar and preservatives, and the bottle is usually plastic. Here is a home-made alternative.

15 dried red chilies, seeds and stems removed
½ teaspoon salt
4 ounces palm sugar (about ½ cup)
1 cup water
7 fresh red Jalapeno chilies
1 cup garlic cloves, peeled and root end removed
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Place the dried red chilies, salt, palm sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Set the heat to maintain a gentle rolling simmer, cover and cook about 15 minutes, or until chilies are very tender and the liquid has reduced to a syrup. Remove from the heat and add the remaining ingredients. Let the mixture cool slightly. Puree in a blender to a smooth consistency. Store in a clean glass container, refrigerated. If you like, pour into a small squeeze bottle to enable dispensing just like the commercial brand. I highly recommend returning any unused sauce to the glass container, to avoid the leaching of petrochemicals from the plastic.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Squashes and Alpha-Carotene

I've never met a fruit or vegetable I didn't love--or one I couldn't find a way to prepare it so I would love it--and squashes are among my absolute favorites. I know some people dislike squashes (my son among them), but after reading an article on, I think they may want to consider getting past their aversion. Apparently, pumpkins and yellow-orange squashes are rich in alpha-carotene, an antioxidant with properties similar to beta-carotene, only better!  According to a 14-year study, people who consume high levels of alpha-carotene have a considerable chance of living longer, with lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

In the picture are three of my best-loved: pumpkin, acorn, and kabocha (butternut is another, but it didn't look right in the arrangement, and aesthetics are paramount in my world). Most Americans think of pumpkin in only two guises: Jack'o lanterns and pumpkin pie, but in many other cultures, pumpkin and similar squashes are a staple--especially in late fall and winter. Just look how gorgeous they are!

There are numerous ways to eat squashes--aside from the very easy, straightforward baked, which perhaps only a lover of squash would enjoy. I've had them stuffed with a variety of fillings, in curries, tamales, ravioli, gratins, stews, and of course soups. They are so flavorful they need virtually nothing but a little salt to fully express themselves, yet they also provide a rich base for combination with other ingredients. In a pureed soup, they assertively take center stage; as one of many items in a minestrone, they both stand out and blend in beautifully.

Now, as if the sheer pleasure of eating squashes were not enough, at least one study shows they help prevent disease and extend life--am I lucky, or what?


Friday, January 14, 2011

Got Milk?

I just read a very interesting article/interview about a woman in New York City who's experimenting with artisanal cheese made from human milk. Did you just think (or say out loud) a word like "yuck?" Think about it. If you had to drink milk directly from a living creature, any creature, which one would be most appealing to you?

To my knowledge, humans are the only mammals that continue consuming milk after they've been weaned. The only reason this is even possible is because humans have domesticated animals, and so they can freely milk them. So here's another question: when you think in terms of milk that is "local, natural, free-range, organic, fair-trade, fresh and raw," which creature are you most likely to get this kind of milk from? Add to that, the fact that only human milk is naturally formulated for human consumption, with all the right enzymes, hormones and nutrients.

If after considering these undeniable factors, you still balk at the idea of drinking human milk--from some woman (or women) you don't even know, or (perhaps even more of a turn-off) from a woman you do know--imagine how much of a turn-off it would be if the humans your milk came from were confined, hooked up to breast-pumping machines, fed things humans are not genetically designed to digest, shot up with antibiotics and hormones, artificially inseminated to keep them in a constant state of pregnancy, their newborns torn from them almost immediately after birth, and used for meat when they're too old and worn out to produce. Sound freaky? Wouldn't it be a rather disturbing sign if anyone didn't think this was sick and wrong?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Rendang Rising

I had never even eaten Rendang before, let alone made it. I always feel slightly disadvantaged when I try to cook something that I've never seen or tasted before (how would I ever know if I'd gotten it right?). But my good friend Michael Pang-Larsen (he added his wife's surname to his--how cool is that?) sent me a sample of one of his new products, a "sambal" (from his mother-in-law's special recipe), so I had to try it right away. It wasn't just the fact that I had a new, intriguing food product to try out (which would have been enough); or that my friend had spent  300 Danish kroner (about $54!) to send it to me-- it was, more than anything, the wild-man infectious enthusiasm Michael has for food, cooking, and life itself (on his LinkedIn profile, he lists his education as "School of Love - not yet graduated"). I just had to honor it all, immediately!

The recipe for preparing rendang he sent along with the package was simple: "approx. 200 grams paste, 1/2 liter coconut milk, for 1/2 kilo tempeh," with just a few notes on cooking and serving. The sambal itself (a wet paste made from all fresh roots and herbs) is brilliant--an Indonesian-Malay-Singaporean blast of flavor, fragrance and pungent heat. Enriched by a creamy reduction of coconut milk, this sauce is a freaking knockout. I live up a dirt road in a little town in Colorado, so I had no kaffir lime leaves (damn!), but I got a great effect by adding a splash of fresh lime juice at the end. I garnished the dish with shredded cilantro and slow-roasted grated young coconut. Ooh baby.

Lucky for me, I have a bunch of sambal left over. Michael thinks like a serious chef, so he doesn't bother with cutesy little "gourmet" jars. His sambal comes in a no-nonsense 1-kilo bag, for people who want to get in there and do some real cooking. My kind of guy.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mustard Greens with Golden Beets and Daikon

For such a simple dish, this has amazing flavor and texture contrasts. The root vegetables are cooked together first, with a little sesame oil, salt, mirin, and sriracha. The white daikon radish turns yellow from the juices that bleed out of the beets, which fools the eye, because their flavors are quite distinct. The mustard greens are added toward the end, and cooked until just tender-crunchy. The result is a spicy, sweet, slightly bitter, pungent, tender, chewy altogether delicious bowl of vegetables. Highly nutritious, too!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

From Fringe to Cutting Edge

A recent article in the Washington Post trumpets the rise of veganism in America as a mainstream phenomenon. Apparently 1% of the population is now on the veganwagon--including high-profile folk, like Bill Clinton and Mike Tyson. This is good news for someone who has one vegan cookbook out, and another in the works for 2012 (that would be me), but it should be even better news for anyone concerned about the rising cost of "healthcare" (read: "medical intervention"). All this should come as no real surprise, considering the growing body of anecdotal evidence as well as scientific studies indicating that dropping animal food is a healthful act.

One glaring omission in the discussion on the merits of the vegan diet is very often the improved sense of well-being. We hear about weight loss, and of plummeting cholesterol. We hear a lot about the sick, heartless treatment of animals in factory farms, and about the pollution and greenhouse gases associated with these unconscionable, disgusting death camps. We read how much energy, food and water is wasted producing a pound of meat. And all of this is important information that no sane person would ignore. But what doesn't seem to really make news is how freaking fantastic it feels when you make the switch. It hasn't been that long for me (a mere 16 months), so even on a bad day, I still marvel at how much better my body is functioning without the (literally) deadweight of animal food in my system. By the third day, I felt like a new man--seriously!

To me, this has nothing whatsoever to do with ideology. Sure, I like the fact that I'm not participating in the mistreatment and slaughter of animals when I sit down to eat. But I don't even call myself a "vegan." My diet is vegan, and my sympathies are vegan, but I'm all about what works. Which brings me to the next point, the food.

Although it's not entirely true that "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach," food quality is certainly a decisive factor in winning someone over to a new way of eating. As a dedicated hedonist, I would never have even contemplated the switch if I had not been confident that I could bring enjoyment with me. By this, I don't mean I favor meat-imitative products (I don't go for self-deception in any form). I mean food itself can be made delicious, regardless of what restrictions anyone might place on its ingredients. I know this because I've had a long career feeding people on one one kind of diet or another. This is crucial information.

If we're going to move in the direction of a plant-based diet as a culture, we'll have to do two things: 1) lose the notion that eating meat is good (why would you want a faux-burger if you aren't still craving a real one?) but more importantly, 2) raise the quality of vegan fare from the erstwhile hippie fodder to truly excellent food in its own right. Bottom line for any eater: if you're really enjoying it, you're not on some kind of forced diet--you're having the time of your life (as well you should)!

I'm here to help make this happen.

Friday, January 7, 2011


This is a bit unfair of me, I know--it's well past the season for these majestic citrus fruits, so it'll be pretty much impossible to find any until next fall. But I took some pictures around the first of December, and there is a way to preserve some of their unique flavor that's worth sharing. If you don't mind waiting a year to try it...

Satsumas have a flavor and sweetness akin to (but much better than) a tangerine or mandarin, a skin that comes off very easily, and no seeds! For some reason, I forget to look for them in the late fall, so it's always a sudden thrill when I see them in the market somewhere--it's like finding wild raspberries on a summer hike in the mountains (Wow! Look! Rip. Slurp. Yum!). The guys in the produce section always forgive my unbridled brigandage, partly because they know me by now, but also because I invariably end up buying a ton of them on the spot.

Satsuma season is very brief; they show up toward the middle of November, and in two or three weeks they're gone. Sometimes you can get them as late as Christmastime, but their flavor will have slipped from bright and miraculous to well, much better than nothing.

Once in a while, I'll go off the deep end and buy a case right when they first appear, thinking I'll have them for a while (yeah, right). Two problems with this idea: 1) they're so easy to peel and eat, you go through them like mad, and 2) even at a furious devouring rate, you still can't keep pace with their ripening speed, even with help, so the flavor will decline by the time you're eating the last ones.

A couple of  years ago, I decided to dry some of them when they were at their peak to see what would happen. This was before I bought a dehydrator, so it took them over a week to sun-dry completely. Also, the first time around, I sliced them a little too thick, which made them take even longer. Live and learn, right? Ultimately it doesn't matter how thick or thin you slice them--once they're dry, they taste equally fabulous (although nothing like the fresh ones, let's face it). They're like citrus chips that start as a crunch and then begin to reconstitute in your mouth, releasing both the sweet juice flavor and the very slightly bitter oils in the skin. Freaking spectacular, frankly.

Then I had the idea to grind them to a powder and use them throughout the year as a spice. This turned out to be a brilliant move (except that it reduced my stash of satsuma chips to about an afternoon's worth).  A mere teaspoon of the powder can hurl a salad dressing or dessert sauce into another world of taste sensation with one whirl of the whisk. I had saved some of those quaint little old-world bottles of Sanbitter  (a non-alcoholic version of Campari by San Pellegrino) because I couldn't bear to throw them away, so I filled them with the satsuma powder and used them as gifts for special people. Sorry, no picture; they're gone like a satsuma in winter.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Check this out:

Looks like a terrific film. I can attest that simply by cutting animal products from my diet, and reducing my intake of refined products to almost nothing, I've experienced dramatic health benefits (and I was already in pretty good shape!).

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What? Chicken-philia is supporting homophobia?

Petitions by|Start a Petition »

 I'd say the factory farming of animals (chickens in particular) is a far greater threat to civilization than gay marriage could ever be--to ANYTHING! A little tolerance, Y'all, please!

Everyone Eats Vegan

During my very brief stint in sales, I learned a little bit about getting past people's objections, and since my book Speed Vegan came out, I've had ample cause to use this technique. It's not that I need people to approve of what I eat or don't eat (it works for me, so why would I care what anyone thinks?). No, this is all about selling the book, and the title gives some potential buyers an easy out.

Most vegans get it, of course: Speed Vegan. Duh! It's fast food for people who don't want to compromise their values or their health. I say most vegans, because I've encountered some who are more concerned about the well-being of animals than their own health. People who eat animals often see a kind of challenge in the word "vegan," an affront to their diet, their culture, and sometimes even their religion. So they state an objection, by way of summarily dismissing the issue--and the book, and its author. "Oh, I'm not into that," they'll say, or "I'm not a vegan." Maybe they'll add a look of benign disdain--a face you might expect them to make if you had just passed some obnoxious gas.

I have my theories about the underlying issues driving these objections--not the least of which is the possibility that some may feel morally inferior when faced with someone who doesn't eat animals (as if they intuitively suspect that there is something not quite right about their own diet). I don't know, of course, this is all conjecture on my part. But whatever the reason, I don't like the feeling I get when people need to separate themselves from me (and from buying my book), so I usually try to bridge the gap by addressing their objections. Here is my favorite response, which works most of the time:

"Well, you know, everybody eats vegan food; it's only vegans who don't eat everyone else's food." They usually get it right away (smiles, nodding heads). For the ones who still look dubious, I have the follow-up, "Regardless of whether people eat meat or not, everyone needs to eat plants, especially green plants, if they want to be healthy." Who could argue with every article ever written on diet and health?

That's my wedge. It gets people to at least open the book, begin salivating over the photos, and (often enough) go through the cost/benefit analysis and (hopefully) buy the book. It also has the deeper effect of re-humanizing a group of fellow humans they may have written off as way too extreme to be normal. Any time I can help remove a barrier for someone, I feel like I've really done something.