In the Green

Saturday, March 19, 2011

   I owe you a superfood. After those glorious tufts of sugar and cream cheese, it really is only fair.

   And I have the perfect one- just imagine: a killer of cancer cells, champion of fiber and flavor, the perfect hero amidst this week of green tinged, root vegetable and shameless fermented grain celebration!

   I give you... the brussel sprout.

   Ok, so perhaps my fervor for the cabbage family is a little on the less than ordinary side, but my love affair with these crinkled heads of tastiness began years ago and will continue for many to come. Today, I want to spread a little of that joy with the world.

   Cabbage has a pretty bad rap, and I feel bad about that. The first time I brought a bag of those shiny headed green beauties into my home as a teenager, grinning with anticipation for the roasted sweetness I was about to bestow upon my family, my own parents recoiled in horror. "When did you start eating brussels sprouts?!" My dad asked, memories of the over boiled, graying and limp vegetable his mother used to force on him dancing in his head.  What can I say? Some kids bring a penchant for pot and inappropriate dates home from college; I brought home brussels sprouts.

   Although impenetrable in appearance, with the right treatment a brussel sprout has an infinite, nutty sweetness and the potential for amazing color and texture. When I first discovered brussels sprouts I exclusively roasted them, burnished and sweet with plenty of olive oil and sea salt. Even today it is one of my favorite ways to eat these little goodies- but over Christmas this year my new brother in law showed me what a true master can do with the lowly brussel sprout. He braised them. Oh, how I cowered in the shadow of his genius.

   The cabbage family- Brassica- is flush with nutrients our bodies crave. They have vitamins A and C in excess and the green ones use their attractive hue to showcase their hidden treasure trove of folic acid. However, I think all of those things are pretty small potatoes compared to the fact that multiple studies have showed that the cabbage family kills cancer cells. That potentially unpleasant sulphorous taste actually comes from several sulphur containing chemicals that are very harsh on cancer cells. A molecule called sinigrin, when exposed to pre canceous cells in the lining of our gut, encourages those dangerous cells to die. And, in a classic one two punch, cabbages of all shapes and sizes have another molecule within them that prompts healthy cells to repair their DNA, further reducing the likelihood of cancer developing.

   But really, all jokes and nerdy science aside, this humble miniaturized cabbage truly embodies what I find so amazing about plants. They have immense healing power and the potential to be a part of some of the most scrumptious meals one can imagine. Whenever I am feeling out of sorts and unhealthy, a big plate of vegetables never fails to calm my mind and my body. They have an almost ephemeral ability to bring us back to ourselves, more grounded and whole than before; go ahead and taste for yourselves.

Braised Brussels Sprouts
Courtesy of my brother in law

 1/2 medium onion cut in half root end to tip, sliced thinly cross wise
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon butter
1.5 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1.5 pounds brussesls sprouts, rinsed and sliced in half through the root bottom (if the bottom looks shriveled and brown you may first want to slice that part off, it will depend on how fresh they are)
1.5 to 2 cups high quality vegetable broth (not Swanson, it isn't thick enough)

   In a heavy bottomed skillet over low heat, warm the butter and olive oil. Add the onion and cook slowly until softened (you don't want them to brown just yet). Add the garlic and stir until slightly softened and fragrant. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Next, add the brussesls sprouts and increase the heat to medium low. Sprinkle the sprouts with salt and freshly ground pepper. Allow the brussels sprouts to cook so that the sides begin to brown and they let off a delicious, nutty fragrance. Stir occasionally during this step to allow as many of them to get brown spots as possible. When most of them are browned a little and it appears that the onions also are browned, add the broth. Add enough to come just to the tops of the brussels sprouts, you don't want them completely submerged. Adjust the heat to get a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally,  until the broth has made a thick gravy and the sprouts are tender. The gravy should cling to the sprouts and pool only slightly in the bottom of the skillet. Taste and add more salt if needed.
   Enjoy as a side or a starter.

Note: this recipe diverges slightly from traditional braises in that the skillet is not covered during the simmering phase. This is because you want to encourage the broth to reduce in order to make the sweet, thick gravy that is so key to this dish. 

Memories in a Bite

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

   There are a great many things that I love about food and cooking. It is hard to think about food and all the pleasures it brings without things like flavor, texture, aroma and delightful plate arrangements being foremost in mind. But in addition to all of those things, food is near and dear to me for its memory evoking potential.

   One of the most important mentors in my life was a medical professor and specialist in the field of psychiatry. In the middle of my second year of medical school, when it seemed that most of my life had been reduced to medical textbooks and the depressingly cramped, florescent lit classroom the second year students inhabited, in she swept, a beautifully dressed, inspiring and passionate reminder that even doctors can be happy, well adjusted people. She was a breath of fresh air at a time when I was losing steam. I was delighted to no end when, at a dinner she cooked for a group of us interested in the field of psychiatry, I discovered that she was a fellow closet chef! Her kitchen is one I still aspire to one day build for myself, and the magnificent, three tiered carrot cake she served us for dessert is something I think about to this day. Ultimately, I didn't end up going into psychiatry, but whenever I am feeling overwhelmed by my professional choices or think I've lost sight of what it means to be a doctor, she swiftly comes to mind.

   That strangely vegetable filled cake also reminds me of my love, Steve. I made this carrot cake for him on the first birthday of his that we were together.  His birthday falls in the first week of February, and it was during a very sweet and exciting time in our relationship, one where we both realized we were in it for keeps. It is my opinion that this cake is so good, it further convinced him to keep me around! This year, after much debate over whether or not to go with the carrot cake again, he requested a coconut cake. I don't think it's just because he loves the flavor of coconut; it's also because it reminds him of his grandmother and all the lovely, homey things she used to make just for her grandson.

   People like to say that smell is the most closely associated sense with memory. And, being a person with a distinctly keen sense of smell, most of the time I agree with them. But sometimes, like when I take a bit of this carrot cake, I think it is actually taste that reminds us of those perhaps long forgotten memories. Like the way an old friend put us back on the path we had lost, or the way grandma used to direct us in the kitchen from her perch on a chair, now too old to be standing at the stove, our food can be sweet and memory filled too, just like life.

Carrot Cake
   Courtesy of my medical school mentor

 4 cups shredded, peeled carrots
   Note: I use a two pound bag of baby carrots and process them in batches in the food processor- it is much easier than grating larger ones by hand! Just process more or discard any excess to measure 4 cups
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
4 large eggs- room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup sugar
1 cup light brown sugar, packed firmly
1 1/2 cups corn or canola oil
1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts

1. Adjust racks to divide oven into thirds. Preheat to 350.
2. Butter three 9-inch round baking [ans, pine the bottoms with parchment, butter the paper, and dust with flour. Set aside. Alternatively, as I did above, you can make cupcakes; use a standard sized 12 cupcake tin and line each mold with a cupcake foil. 
3. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and cocoa, set aside.
4. In a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat together the eggs. Beat in vanilla, both sugars, and the oil.
5. On low speed, beat in the dry ingredients just until incorporated (don't every beat!). Stir in the carrots and walnuts.
6. Divide the batter among the pans you have chosen.
7. Bake the pans divided among the racks for 25-40 minutes until the tops spring back when you press gently. If using muffin tins, the cupcakes take 25-30 minutes to bake depending on the heat distribution of your oven. 
8. Let stand for 2-3 minutes, then unmold the cakes onto cake racks and let cool. 

Silky Cream Cheese Frosting

1 1/2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups sifted confectioners sugar
optional: 1/2 pound marscapone cheese
 Note: for a richer, softer frosting, use only 1 pound cream cheese and follow the recipe as below. At the end, fold in by hand 1/2 pound marscapone cheese.

1. In a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter until smoother. Beat in the vanilla and sugar and continue beating until smooth. See above for directions if using marscapone. 
2. Frost your cake as you desire using decoration tips or a spatula. I like to use a large star tip to pipe frosting on the cupcakes, but if I am making one large cake, I frost it simply with a spatula. Without piped decorations, the cake is grand enough on its own!