Wednesday news bites for May 28, 2008

The Last Bite
The collapse of the world's food system.

Cooking with kids
The school lunch revolution. (Serious Eats via KCRW's Good Food)

The Great Sunflower Project
Watch and record behavior of bees in your garden. Help scientists understand the challenges bees are facing.

How to eat your vegetables: Five to seven servings a day?
Tips on how to get more vegetables into your diet.

Seasonal Ingredient Map
A neat little tool from Epicurious.com.

How to Cook Like a Chef?
A little insight into flavor profiles and mix-and-match ingredients. Also, a recipe for beet ravioli.


Liking the Lentil

Simply lentils

This is a reprint of my May column as it appeared in Satellite Magazine

Simplicity. Done right, nothing matches its beauty. And yet time and again we strive for the complicated. The fussy. I turn this month to a kind of proto food: the lentil. The small, disc-shaped bean has long been a staple food for many cultures because it’s packed with fiber, vitamin B1, iron, protein and many other nutrients. They help level blood sugar, and are low in fat and calories--just 230 calories per cup of cooked lentils. They’re cheap, too, an important thing given today’s skyrocketing food prices. But like so many simple things, lentils are incredibly versatile. They can be served plain or used in complex curries as a main dish. Consider this a starting point, a gateway to exploration with this woefully under-used bean.


  • 1 pound dried lentils
  • 6 - 8 cups of water
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 medium shallot (or small onion)
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 1 1/2 cups of fresh spinach, shredded
  • Kosher salt
  • fresh ground pepper

Place your stock pot over medium heat. Add the oil, and while it heats, mince the shallot and garlic cloves. Add them to the pot and let them sweat for about five minutes. Sweating is a technique that extracts flavors from aromatics and other elements without drastically changing their flavor. If you want to impart your lentils with a richer, smokier flavor, you can start the pot over medium-high heat and sautee the shallots and garlic cloves, browning them. Take care not to burn the garlic, though. Burnt garlic is often very bitter.

When the shallots and garlic cloves are done sweating and have gone a bit translucent, it’s time to add the lentils, water, and ½ tablespoon of Kosher salt. Stir all the ingredients together, and bring the mixture to a boil. When they reaching boiling, reduce the heat to a simmer and angle the lid on the pot. The goal is to allow steam to escape and enable the mixture to reduce somewhat, concentrating its flavor. Simmer the lentils for about 20 minutes, stir in the spinach, and then let the mix simmer for an additional five minutes.

Note: Feel free to add other or additional vegetables in the 15 – 20 minute range. While the spinach lends its own richness and brightness to the lentils, other greens, such as turnip or collard would make excellent additions give the lentils a real southern flair. Zucchini or yellow squash could also be added as well as green beans or okra. For tougher vegetables, you’ll want to toss them in after the lentils have cooked about 15 minutes and let the vegetables and lentils cook for a total of 25 minutes. Just be mindful of the standard cooking times for the additional ingredients and adjust accordingly when you add them to lentils.

And that’s it. After about 30 minutes, you’re all done. You can add some additional salt and pepper to taste, but you shouldn’t need to. You can serve the lentils simply, in a bowl as a first course or over rice as a side dish.

But you don’t have to stop there. Lentils’ simplicity enable you to use them in all kinds of different ways. From curry soups to turkey wraps, from dumplings to patties, lentils lend themselves to all kinds of applications. One of the easiest and most delicious is the lentil burger.

Cook the lentils as above, then separate a generous portion for each patty (about 1 cup of cooked lentils) Using a cheese cloth or a clean tea towel, wrap them tightly and squeeze out any excess moisture. Then use a fork to mash the lentils into a paste, add some beaten egg and a couple drops of Worcestershire sauce, and form the lentils into patties. Heat a pan over medium-high heat, add some oil, and cook the lentil patties about 1 minute on each side --just enough to give the patties some color and heat them through. Serve as you would any burger, but they’re especially good with fresh tomato (this will work without the egg, if you want to go vegan. Just know the patties will be a little crumbly).


Out of touch

HOW Conference-18.jpg

On the road for a conference, which means I'm not in the kitchen. Road food so far has included ciabatta bread and brie from Shaw's grocery, sushi to go, Au Bon Pan's multigrain bagel, hummus and pita, and a metric ass-load of coffee.

Dunkin' Donuts' sugary concoction is still my favorite, even though it's barely coffee by the time they're done.


Wednesday news bites for May 14, 2008

Burger King stalls on increasing tomato pickers' salaries
Seems they can't afford an extra penny per pound

Burger King fires 2 after blog controversy
Don't say nasty things about farm labor if you're currently involved in a labor dispute. Especially if it's over a penny

Change we can stomach
Small, diversified farming is the way to a sustainable future.

Salmon gone, fishermen try to adapt to change
Oregon salmon farmers must face a singular, bitter fact: their livelihood has disapeared

How to reduce your food costs in 60 minutes a week
Quick tips on further reducing your food budget

CAFO paper pushing
Our worst fears confirmed - feeding confined animals on an industrial scale breeds bad news

A man of taste
A wonderful piece from The New Yorker about Grant Achatz's drive, love and knowledge of food, and the slow journey back from stage IV mouth cancer

Ramsay's war on out-of-season produce
Clearly crazy, the dude's heart seems in the right place on this one.

Foodie Reading List
I've been on a real food-related reading kick myself. Recommendations? Please let me know in the comment area.


Chickpea and feta salad (Thanks, Gordo)

Chickpea and feta salad (thanks, Gordo)

I've finally jumped on the Gordon Ramsay bandwagon. I'd heard about Hell's Kitchen, but hadn't dared let myself get sucked in. Until this season. Yes, the show is horrible. Yes, Ramsay is a caricature of himself. Yes, the contestants are, for the most part, hopeless saps who care more about fame and rubbing elbows with a star than about food or cooking. But one thing is clear, even through the haze of purple scripting, pointed editing and over production: Gordon Ramsay cares deeply for food, and the guy can cook. So why not seek him out in other venues?

I enjoy Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and The F Word on BBC America. Ramsay does his bit of yelling on each, but nowhere near the amount either coaxed by producers or discovered by editors at the Fox Network. The F Word, especially, is a good show that's filled with simple, excellent recipes and a crew of people who clearly enjoy cooking (full disclaimer: I've only seen one full episode of The F Word, but in my defense, it was the two-hour season finale).

This recipe is inspired by none of those sources. It comes from Ramsay's video series produced by The Times Online and available for download via iTunes. In his latest installments, Ramsay is offering up delicious, low-fat recipes to help people eat and live better. His original recipe calls for chickpeas, red onion, chile, lemon juice and zest, paprika, and fresh parsley. I couldn't find the red chile he'd used, but I wanted the color and slight fruity flavor peppers impart to a dish. I also needed the heat, so I substituted an orange bell pepper and a green bell pepper (the red bells looked well past their prime) and some red pepper flakes.


  • 1 15-oz. can of chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained
  • Half a red onion, thinly sliced
  • Half an orange bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • Half a green bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon salt (or more, to taste)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil + 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Fresh-ground black pepper (to taste)
  • Red pepper flakes (added to taste)
  • Fresh parsley (Though it pains me to say so, you can use dried parsley flakes for this dish. Go on. No one's watching.)
  • A good chunk of Feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1 lime

Other ingredients:
Pita bread

To begin, tear or cut the pita bread in half, and separate the pockets, top from bottom. Each piece of pita bread will yield four pieces of the eventual hard toast. Line the pita pieces on a baking dish, brush them with olive oil, and bake at 400 for about five minutes. You want them to be toasted and slightly crispy. Bring them out of the oven and set aside.

For the main dish:

  • Cook the onions over medium-high heat for about a minute
  • Add the peppers, sprinkle with salt, and reduce the heat to medium. Let the onions and peppers cook together for about four minutes
  • Add the chickpeas and garlic and stir all the ingredients together
  • Squeeze the lime over the pan, stir, and then add the pepper flakes and the parsley
  • Then dump in about half the feta
  • Stir to combine and until the feta just starts to melt
  • Transfer the dish to a large bowl, add the remaining feta and some parsley and serve with the pita chips

This dish is so fast, it comes together in a manner of minutes. It's also incredibly healthy, intensely flavorful, and was a huge hit at my dinner table. Enjoy!


Friday fundamentals: walter, salt and green beans

Friday fundamentals: water, salt and green beans

The importance of solid cooking fundamentals can't be overstated. They are the skills that enable a person to toss cook books and recipes and just be in the kitchen. To start, I thought I'd tackle salt, but salt is such a crucial, complex cooking component, I simply can't do it justice in a single blog post. It would probably take an entire book to even scratch the surface of salt's importance, so I decided to stick with green beans.

Salt. It's lifestuff. Our bodies need it to regulate the water that sustains us. Too much salt and we bloat like Ball Park Franks. Too little, and we feel run down, lethargic. Our blood pressure drops, our heart rate increases. We can feel lightheaded or go into shock. It is also fundamental to cooking and is what we talk about when we talk about seasoning.

Properly seasoned food shouldn't taste salty; it should taste like it's supposed to, only more-so. Salt, used properly, will enhance flavors and make them pop. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than with boiled vegetables.

Most people consider boiled vegetables an anathema to good cooking. Boiling, they argue, leeches out the vegetables' essential vitamins and nutrients and leaves nothing but a pale green mush. That may be, for improperly boiled vegetables. Properly boiled, however, will give you delicious, well-seasoned vegetables whose color comes straight out of some MGM musical. The secret is in the ratio:

"For pasta, grains and legumes, enough salt should be added so that the water tastes pleasantly seasoned, between 2 and 3 tablespoons of Morton's kosher salt (or between 1 and 1.5 ounces of any noniodized salt) per gallon; evaluate it just as you would evaluate a soup for proper seasoning level; the salt level of the water will mirror the salt concentration absorbed by the food. For cooking green vegetables, heavily salted water is recommended: between 3/4 and 1 cup Morton's kosher salt (or between 6 and 8 ounces) per gallon of water."
- "Salted Water," Elements of Cooking by Michael Ruhlman

  • To begin, select enough green beans for two side servings (I ended with two large handfuls--approximately 50 beans)
  • Set 2 quarts of water with six tablespoons of kosher salt added on to boil in a very large pot (4 qt at least)
    • Note: People often don't use enough water when boiling vegetables. When the vegetables hit the water, especially if they've come straight from the fridge, they're going to rob the water of its heat. When this happens, the water stops boiling and suddenly your vegetables aren't cooking as quickly or in the manner they should. When boiling vegetables, feel free to use as much water as you can handle. Just remember the ratio: 3/4 cup per gallon.
  • While the water comes to a boil, snap the ends off the green beans (like asparagus, they should break where they need to)
  • When you're ready, place the green beans into the water and let them boil for about four minutes (as boiling temperatures differ based on proximity to sea level and other factors, your cooking time might be slightly different)
  • When the green beans are done, you can toss them with a small dash of very good olive oil, and serve immediately

Note: If you're going to serve the green beans later, you'll want to shock them in an ice water bath to prevent them overcooking. Let them come up to room temperature before you serve them.

Salt is, of course, a subject too complex to handle in a single blog post. In fact, I feel like I'm doing a disservice to the stuff by relegating its use to boiled vegetables, but it's a start. The thing is, you should never be without salt. And not that lame, iodized stuff. It can lend a weird, metallic taste to foods. Get some good kosher salt and learn to season your food. Your food and you family will thank you for it.


Recipe tweak: an update on earthy, crunchy granola bars

Earthy Crunchy Granola

Some readers wrote to me with questions about the granola bar recipe, concerned there wasn't enough binding material to hold the mixture together. They were right, and I thank each one from the bottom of my heart for showing up, reading, and being an active participant in this food blog.

I'm not a cook. Not really. I'm just a dad who likes making food and eating it with my wife and daughter. I'm still learning, experimenting. And sometimes failing (I'm working on a post about chicken stock. Epic FAIL). Luckily, the lack of binding material didn't ruin the ingredients and readers were able to mix the resulting granola (kind of moist, kind of chewy) with yogurt or serve it for breakfast with milk (that's actually one of the best things about cooking, I think. When you can take something that's not quite working and adapt it to suit a different set of needs? Awesome).

Anyway, I had some time this weekend to think about the recipe, mess with the ratio of sugar to honey, and I think I came up with a suitable fix:

1/2 cup honey to 1/3 cup sugar

I'll say right now this might need some tweaking, but it seems to work rather well. If anything, I would advise adding a little more honey. Too much sugar, and the bars end up too hard and brittle for my taste.

So that's the recipe tweak. If you try a recipe here and have suggestions for improvements, tweaks, or just want to tell me it didn't work at all, I'd love to hear from you! And for those who have written, left comments or given me words of encouragement? I thank you, thank you, thank you.


Wednesday news bites for May 7, 2008

The agony of the food snob
Being snobby about food isn't the mark of kitchen quality. Doing great work with the scraps at hand is what kitchen quality is really all about.

Weekend cooking that's pleasurable -- and practical
I like to cook on Saturday mornings, too.

In Taco Truck Battle, Mild Angelenos Turn Hot
A city rallies around a cultural icon--the taco truck. Mess with a city's food, and you mess with its culture, its identity. No one likes to have that taken away.

Almost a Farm Bill
President Bush looks to veto a bill that would encourage local production, and an end to giant-farm subsidies. The way he talked, however, it sounded like he meant his version for other countries.


Michael Pollan lectures on food vs. nutrition

Another in the wonderful At Google lecture series.

Michael Pollan is one of the preeminent thinkers on food today and has earned accolades for his books, including The Omnivore's Dilemma and his latest, In Defense of Food.