Red, White and Collard Greens

Thursday, December 23, 2010

   Happy holidays, everyone! This is without a doubt one of my favorite times of year. It always seems to me that people become a little happier, a little more relaxed, just a touch more tolerant. Suddenly, it doesn't matter so much that you're stuck at work an extra hour or traffic seems slower that usual. After all, the house smells like pine and holiday cheer, there is wine in the kitchen, presents under the tree and a multitude of cookies begging to be made and devoured.

   I know the premise of this blog is food that brings health and wholeness, but as you can see from my previous post, I am no stranger to treats.  I think part of the key to an overall healthy way of life is taking part in those naughty things we sometimes desire. What fun is this life if we can't have that slice of birthday cake or not think twice about that delicious glass of fine red? I guess when you get down to it, I'm a believer in balance. I've never cut entire food groups out or drank vinegar concoctions to cleanse myself, but I also know when my body needs a rest and when I need a meal to bring myself back to a state of wellness.

   That being said, with all the sugar and excitement the holidays inevitably bring, I like to have a restorative recipe tucked in my back pocket. I usually have a different one each year but I've noticed that the theme generally revolves around a vegetable soup of some sort. I find a deep, fragrant bowl of belly soothing soup to be just the antidote to the over indulgence that the holiday season encourages. This year, I am proud to say, it is a dedidedly southern inspired brew!

   Since moving south I become more convinced every day that this is where I was meant to live. Having been born in the height of summer, I've always liked to say that I was simply put on this earth for sun and warmth. Living in the north until less than a year ago was an annual struggle for me. I will die a happy old woman if I never again have to wake up to trudge through knee deep snow, the frigid wind like razors in my face.

   One popular food of the south, which until recently I couldn't understand the hype over, is collard greens. I tried cooking them once when I was living in New York and, after a quick saute (which is how I usually treat my leafy greens) they were tough, stringy, and kind of bitter. Not pleasant.

   Once down south I bravely ordered them in a restaurant and was punished with a limp, over cooked, bacon fat slicked pile of brownish-green sludge... even more unpleasant.

   The third time really must be the charm, because collards are the star of my holiday soup this year. Apparently, gently simmered in a stock pot full of broth and vegetables and perhaps a bean or two, collards give up an earthy tenderness that I can't seem to get enough of. Cooked without animal fat, I was surprised to find that collards naturally have a slightly smoky sweet undertone- and I now see why the natural addition to recipes with collards is bacon fat. It is the only plant I've ever met that tastes a little like, well, smoked pig! I don't often cook with bacon, I find the flavor overwhelming, especially in vegetable dishes, but the subtle, smoky whisper that collards impart is just delightful.

   I hope this soup finds its way to your table this year; after that extra cookie or two, it is just what the doctor ordered.

Holiday Soup
Adapted from Terry Walters' 'Clean Start'

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 soft ball sized yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 medium carrots, sliced 1/8 inch thick (about 2 1/2 cups)
2 large parsnips, peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick (about 2 1/2 cups)
4 cups vegetable stock
1 bunch collard greens, stems sliced out
1 can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

Note: I try to leave vegetables unpeeled whenever possible, but I find the parsnip peel to be rather bitter. Carrots I always wash thoroughly and leave unpeeled- most vegetables concentrate their fiber and nutrients in their rind. 

In a large soup pot or dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and adjust heat to saute them until translucent and slightly browned around the edges- around 5 minutes. During this time, sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Add the garlic and sautee another 2 minutes. Add the stock and one cup water. Add thyme, carrots and parsnips. While that is coming to a simmer, slice the collards into 1 inch ribbons and add to the pot along with the kidney beans. Bring all of this to a simmer and taste the broth. Add salt and pepper to your liking. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Turn the heat off, stir the soup, replace the lid and allow to sit for 10 minutes.
   Enjoy on its own or with a crusty loaf of bread and a medium bodied red wine. Serves 4-6.

Heavenly Chips

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

    Everyone has their favorite hangover food. Most of my friends go the heavy carb and grease route, some people are believers in a variety of shakes and concoctions involving raw eggs and vinegars (shudder). Myself, I am of the carb and grease group, home fries being my hangover weapon of choice.

     But this post isn't about that third glass of wine you may regret (yes, I am an incredible lightweight!). It is about a lesser known variety of morning after distress, which is the post call day. In the medical world being post call means you go home around lunch time the day after arriving to work. On a typical call day, I mosey to the hospital at 6am, trying to yawn off the residual pillow creases covering my cheeks, doing my best to gear up for what is to come. Now that it's December, the trek from car to hospital entrance involves me shivering in my thin, blue scrubs, wondering why the balmy southeastern air has forsaken me.

     Around dinner time after the work day, my counterparts on whatever service I'm on will leave and I will take over as the sole overnight doc for the 20 to 30 patients resting in their hospital beds. Through the night, as the on call resident (doctor in training) I am responsible for admitting new patients either from outside hospitals or the ER, answering pages asking me to fix pain, vomiting, fevers, rashes, seizures and a number of other maladies that pop up in the wee hours.

     The following morning the other residents arrive to join the work force and, after rounding with the attendings, post call me goes home around lunch time, roughly 30 hours after arriving for work. It is once scary drive home, let me tell you. Ask any doctor and they will have at least a few horror stories of dozing off at the wheel or mysteriously finding themselves sitting in their driveway, unable to recall the drive home. Because I motor around like an elderly person, I've luckily never had this happen to me, but I fear it every post call drive.

     Oh, there is nothing like a post call hangover! For me, my post call food cravings vary from a lack of appetite to a four course restaurant meal. Today, it was the humble, the chewy, the silky and seductive chocolate chip cookie.

     I must admit, I am a little intimidated here. I've been baking chocolate chip cookies since my mother decided I was old enough to operate the oven, and I have a very particular idea of what makes a superior cookie. But, there are some big guns out there talking about the mighty chocolate chip. This modest circle of dough is regularly featured in magazines like Bon Appetit and some of my favorite food blogs discuss the cookie at length. Every great baking cookbook I own contains an excellent and long researched version. The chocolate chip cookie is as much debated, loved and ubiquitous as the brownie. It's sort of like writing an article about why you have something new to say about Angelina Jolie's famous curves (quite arrogant, no?).

      This year I have come across several articles that insist the key to the perfect chocolate chip cookie crumb is allowing the dough the rest in the refrigerator overnight. This idea of allowing the dough to get some beauty sleep in the crisper has been tickling the back of my mind and finally, before work yesterday, I whipped up a batch and stuck it in the fridge. In the middle of the night, wandering the artificially lit hallways of the sterile and lonely hospital wards, that dough was my security blanket.

     After passing out for a few hours, I awoke, pre heated the oven, and gently, reverently, removed those logs of dough studded with aromatic nuts and luscious hunks of dark chocolate. Unwrapping them was like Christmas morning, three weeks early!

     The verdict is this: if you are a fan of the crisp edged, infinitely chewy centered cookie variety, as I am, this recipe is for you. The over night rest did magical things to the flour, somehow softening the wheat, goading it into offering up all of its pliable, tender parts. There was also an underlying complexity to the cookie itself, a complexity that reminded me of the difference between making bread over three hours versus over 24 hours. Until today I had only one surefire way of making sure a cookie recipe would yield my preferred chewy disk, which was looking for more brown sugar than white sugar. Now I can add resting the dough overnight to my chewy cookie toolbox.

     Of course, none of that did anything to take away from the star: the chocolate. Shaping the dough into logs and slicing them for baking allowed the chocolate to shine like geometric art on the surface of each cookie. They looked like a sultry food shoot, cookies so beautiful I was almost abashed to have them in my kitchen.


     Thanks to those cookies, the night is a distant memory. My heart is salved, my nerves are calmed, my love of the chocolate chip cookie ever stronger. 

Chocolate Chip Cookies
     Courtesy David Lebovitz

     David Lebovitz is one of my favorite food writers and cookbook authors. His food blog is incredibly smart and always entertaining. I highly recommend any one of his cookbooks- in particular, "Ready for Dessert," which contains this recipe.
     I used Ghiradelli semisweet chocolate and walnuts. The recipe made four logs of dough total, two of which are still in the fridge- a treat for next week!

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups coarsely chopped nuts, such as walnuts or pecans
14 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped into 1/2 inch chunks

     In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt.
     In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a bowl by hand), beat together the butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar and vanilla extract until it just comes together smoothly. Beat in eggs one at a time to thoroughly incorporate. By hand, stir in flour mixture then nuts and chocolate.
     Form the dough into a total of four logs, wrapped in parchment paper if you have it, or plastic wrap. They should be around 2 inches in diameter and 9 inches long each. Refrigerate 24 hours or overnight. (I sealed my logs in gallon sized freezer bags to make double sure no fridge smells sneaked into the dough).
     Position oven rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat to 350 degrees.
     Slice the logs into 3/4 inch slices and place 2 inches apart on your baking sheet (I found a serrated bread knife worked best). If any chocolate or nuts fall out, just press them back into the dough surface. Bake, rotating the sheet halfway through, until the edges are browned, around 10 minutes. Cool a few minutes then spatula to a flat surface to firm up and cool while you bake however many more batches you like. Or, like I did, just leave some logs in the fridge for later on.


Winter Bounty

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

            For me, one of the best things about childhood was the snack. I was never much of a full on meal kind of kid and, in fact, I remember more than one occasion in which my mother would stand in frustration over my full plate and me; my mouth resolutely shut. While playing with friends, or simply meandering for hours on end outside our tiny Massachusetts home, I would come in with a hankering for crackers and my grandma’s rhubarb jam, celery with cream cheese or a fat carrot fresh from my grandma’s garden, calling my name from the crisper drawer.
            However, the king of all snacks for this girl was mashed butternut squash. Rich, orange, creamy, sweet, delicious squash, one delightful forkful after another. I never wanted anything in it- not a dab of butter or a pinch of salt. My mother would butcher the impenetrable looking plant on our counter, hacking it into squares, slicing off its creamy thick armor. She would put it in her space ship looking vegetable steamer and lower it into a pan of boiling water where it slowly relaxed into mashable goodness. Because I so frequently asked for a little cereal bowl containing a pillow of my favorite friend of the pumpkin, mom would often steam and mash huge batches of the stuff and parcel out portions into freezer bags. I could then go to the freezer when I felt the orange calling my name, defrost it in our microwave and enjoy at will. 
            Butternut squash, a relative of the famous pumpkin, is common in Australian and African fare. You can often find Moroccan style butternut squash recipes in which the pulp is flavored with nutmeg and cinnamon and stewed to soft, palatable textures. Although as a child I was staunchly in the camp of steaming, as an adult I have discovered that, much like a sweet potato, butternut squash’s flavor and sweetness can be enhanced by roasting it, either chopped into chunks or simply cleaved in half.
            I had no idea at the time, but my younger self was craving one of the most nutrient rich winter foods out there. This squash is absolutely laden with magnesium, potassium, and of course, as indicated by its lovely fall color, vitamins A and C galore. Mother nature is genius in her web of edible delights, and in the dead of winter when we need an immune system booster the most, out of the root cellar comes this beauty.
            As an adult I have carried my love of the humble butternut through the years and now, when I’m feeling fancy, I break it out for the following recipe. The risotto grains echo the butternut’s creaminess, the rich stock compliments its earthy origins and the tangy cheese elevates it to a complex, Italian influenced dish strong enough to be a main or a scene stealing side.

Butternut Squash Risotto
            When I make this at home, my boyfriend will easily tuck away two plates worth while I am still happily walking down memory lane with my first helping, hunting for the orange gold nuggets hidden in the creamy risotto. 
            I recommend using the highest quality vegetable stock you can find; I like the Imagine brand but not all stores carry this. As always, don’t forget to look at the label; if you see anything bizarre just put it back on the shelf. Store bought or homemade, your stock should be dark, rich and fragrant, not a broth by any stretch.
            In order to find a perfectly ripe butternut, look for one with a uniformly creamy eggshell colored rind. The end with the stem should not be cracked or wrinkled. The stem should still have just a few veins of green running through it. When you spot one like this and pick it up to find it heavier than you anticipated, you’ve struck butternut gold.

1 butternut squash, about 3 pounds in size
4-6 cups high quality vegetable stock
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium Vidalia or other sweet onion, cut to approximately 1 cm dice
salt, coarse kosher is preferable
1 cup risotto rice
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese

Note on salt: if you are using table salt, which is harsher than coarse kosher, cut the quantity of salt used in half

   Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Cut the ends from your butternut squash then cut it crosswise into 2 inch circles. Set the circles on their flat sides and use your knife to slice away the thick rind. Scoop the seeds out of the bottom. Cut each circle in half and place them in a glass casserole dish. Cover with tin foil and place in the oven (you don’t need any liquid or oil in the pan).  This will cook for about 30 minutes while you move on with the rest of the recipe.
   Pour your stock into a saucepan and set over medium heat. It needs to be just simmering as you add it to the rice later on in the recipe. In a heavy bottomed dutch oven or other pot, gently heat the butter and olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion and stir. Sprinkle with salt (about a teaspoon). Allow to cook gently until the onion is fragrant and starting to become translucent, but NOT starting to color- about 5-7 minutes. Add the rice and stir constantly, allowing the rice to heat through- about 3 minutes. Add the cooking wine and cook constantly while the wine cooks off. Once the liquid has been absorbed, add a half cup of your stock at a time, stirring all the while. When you add each half cup, stir gently and allow the rice to cook at a simmer until the stock is absorbed, then add your next half cup. The rice should be simmering in the liquid, not at a full boil.
After you’ve added 4 cups, test the rice. It should be al dente- not crunchy in the middle but with a nice tooth quality to it. When it doubt, add more stock!
After about 30 minutes test your squash with a fork, it should be fork tender. Remove from the oven and set aside.
When you’ve reached al dente with the rice, add a half cup more stock and the parmesan cheese. Stir to incorporate. Add about 3 cups of butternut squash- you may have excess. Stir in the squash, but don’t completely mash it in. There should be small chunks of it hidden throughout the risotto.Taste and season with salt to your liking.
Serve on its own or accompanied by your favorite protein and a dry white wine such as a French white Bordeaux. 4-6 servings.

From My Kitchen to Yours

Sunday, December 5, 2010

            Once upon a time, as a destiny confused youth, I had a choice between pursuing a career in the culinary arts or medicine. It was not an easy choice and even to this day I wonder if I took the right turn. As a sophomore biology major the compass ultimately pointed to medicine when I read ‘Ultraprevention’ by Mark Hyman and Mark Liponis, two preventative medicine minded physicians.  The book focused on the healing nature of food and lifestyle and how, depending on how we chose to live, it can truly be the difference between making and taking longevity and wellbeing from ourselves. I had some tacit knowledge of this philosophy, having grown up on a farm where organic, local meat and food were champion. Our farm rested a solid hour from any fast food establishment, making it cumbersome even if we had been the type to eat fast food.  My father and mother were clear in their opinions on the matter- processed food is not food, and they did their best to keep their children away from it. As a result, even as a college student living away from home with a meal card that granted me access to all manner of salt and sugar infused concoctions, I had no taste for it. Finding fresh, delicious foods to prepare in ways that satisfy and delight has become one of my most pleasurable pursuits in life.

            When I was handed my newly minted medical doctorate this spring, I thought it would open a magical door to patients who wanted to hear my message: put down the soft drink and Big Mac, stop abusing yourself! Alas, this was not so. Although I come in contact with at least a few dozen patients a day, precious few of them have even a passing interest in food and lifestyle. People turn to doctors for pills, not guidance to a healthier life. This realization was a harsh one for me to face. And I have decided that I don’t accept it. If I don’t yet have the ability to attract groups of people seeking true health and a way to genuinely enjoy this word and the bounty it has to offer, I will find a way to put my message into the void where such people can find it on their own.

            I would like to create a space where I take foods we all enjoy eating and provide you with easily recreatable versions of them. They will always be comprised of the freshest and tastiest ingredients. These ingredients not only are delicious, but they are whole and recognizable. A brownie should not last months at a time on a shelf or in a box. Your chicken noodle soup should not have 25 ingredients mysteriously swimming about in it. This is not coming from a place of judgment. It comes from my love and respect for humankind and a passion for good food and health. I am not a vegan or a vegetarian, I don’t shun sugar (the real kind!); I will never tell you to deny yourself.  I simply believe in taste, wholeness and nutrition.  Even if you have time only once in a while, chose a few recipes and take your time with them, delight your palate, and nourish your body.

            Above all, enjoy.