Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Curtis? Are you dead?

Ah, my favorite line from Maximum Overdrive. Anywho, sorry for being absent for a while, work takes precedence over blogging unfortunately. I was in a 9-5, week-long workshop last week so I'm still trying to get caught up with all the other work I have. Hopefully I'll get things sorted by this weekend. But have no fear, I've got at least 3 recipes/posts in my mental pipeline, and the much promised site redesign will be unveiled sometime in April as well (I promise this time).

So, enjoy the rest of your week, and check back sometime this weekend/early next week.

Cheers :)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Are they serious?

I'm rarely given to fads, so as such, the current organic/all-natural movement is something I largely find amusing. Sure, I buy organic foods sometimes, but not because of some false sense that they're somehow magically better than "normal" food, but rather as a judgement of price, quality, etc. The problem is that there are a lot of people out there who are uninformed about the good and bad sides of organic food and believe that they should buy anything labeled organic simply because its better than non-organic. While that doesn't hurt me any (and really helps organic farmers who are cut hard by larger industrial farms), it does lead to some really, really bad products being put out on the market with a big green "USDA Organic" label and the false assurance that its somehow a good thing to buy. The recent peanut recall is a prime example as the processing plants had organic certification, but horrible food safety practices.

But the worst problem with the rush to label everything and anything organic are the "foods" that are so highly processed and ridiculous, it boggles the mind (btw, organic, thats 5 points). While there are lots of things I could direct my foodie scorn towards, I think I've found my all time favorite (for now).
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Everyone, give a warm welcome to Organic Batter Blaster pancake batter in a spray can. As if cheese wasn't bad enough. And yes, thats that green "USDA Organic" logo you see in the bottom right. Now, firstly, this stuff isn't cheap, costing around $6. If it wasn't for getting a free dozen eggs with purchase (~$1.50), and some coupons I had, there's no way I'd ever buy it. But as we can all see, I did, so here's my completely impartial review.

Its total crap

You see, despite being certified organic by the USDA, there are a lot of "non-organicy"ingredients (see picture below). Sure, the filtered water, organic wheat flour, organic cane sugar, and sea salt sound great. But, I'm a scientist, who's worked with actual food scientists, and I have never seen dicalcium phosphate given as an organic ingredient. I'd be even more impressed to learn how propellant can be classified as organic.
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But the ingredients are only half the story. The can says its good for both pancakes AND waffles. So I set my griddle over heat and turned my waffle iron on. I tried making various sized pancakes first, from silver dollar up to dinner plate sizes. The results were immediately disappointing. Pancake batter need a natural source of gas to provide leavening while cooking. Unfortunately, the forced gas from the propellant made overly airy pancakes that became way too dry too quickly. To make matters worse, the propellant caused the pancakes to spread way more than I would have liked, making it hard to control the sizes. The results were slightly better with the waffle iron, but after a minute from being removed, the waffles were hard and certainly not something I would eat, let alone feed to children in an attempt to provide them with a "nutritious breakfast".

Taste and texture (or lack there of) aside, the worst part comes from how how much "food" I actually ended up with. The can says you can make 28 4-inch pancakes. Well, the first one you make ends up a total dud because the nozzle isn't "primed" with batter. I got about 3 more pancakes around 5 inches in size, and 3 8x6 inch waffles before the "batter" ran out. This obviously ruined the last one. Now, if you do the math, they say I should get ~352 sq. inches of pancake or waffle. Being generous and saying I made 6 pancakes (~118 sq. inches) and 3.5 waffles (168 sq. inches) thats still only 286 sq. inches total. Now, you can say that the thickness of the waffles probably makes up for it. Well, you could say that, but unfortunately my waffle iron makes 1/4 inch thick waffles (or if you flip the plates, pizzelles), so where the hell is my missing 66 inches? Either way, what we're left with is a horribly over-priced, in no way worth it "organic" food product that only exists because people will buy it thinking "Organic makes it better!".

Now not to leave you all without a recipe, I include my general Pancake batter:
1.5 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
good pinch salt
1 tbsp. brown sugar
1 egg
10 oz. milk
3 tbsp. melted butter
1/2 tsp. ground cardamon

  1. Combine and sift the dry ingredients with the exception of the sugar in a workbowl.
  2. Whisk together the egg, butter, and sugar till combined.
  3. Add the wet to the dry and whisk just enough to combine. Lightly spray some non-stick spray onto your griddle and place over medium/medium-high heat.
  4. Pour 1/4 cup of batter onto griddle and wait for bubbles to set. When they do, flip, lightly brown the other side, then consume.
  5. Repeat as often as desired.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Red lentil and tomato soup with lamb

So, after my last post, where I purposely went as vegetarian/vegan as possible, this recipe poses somewhat of a quandary. Its a great recipe, the result is flavorful, and its nearly dead simple. But it uses meat. And not just any meat, lamb, those cute and fluffy creatures you see in almost every petting zoo on earth (side note, lamb are definitely NOT cute and cuddly, they're annoying and difficult). To make matters worse, the "cut" of lamb I'm proposing you use isn't your standard loin chop, or even a boneless leg or shoulder (which while making great roasts, are the generally preferred lamb stew meat). No, I'm proposing you use the neck.

Yup... the neck. Its really not as crazy as it sounds. Firstly, the NYT did an article (read it here) about the use of "unconventional cuts" of meat to add the rich flavor usually obtained only from stock. Second, despite the premium that usually applies to cuts of lamb, the neck is literally thrown away by most butchers, so its about the cheapest thing you can find, although finding it can be a bit of a problem. Many local supermarkets no longer employ an on site butcher and instead receive their meat pre-cut from a central distributor. Independent and higher end butchers at places like Whole Foods should be able to help you out, but you'll probably have to pay more. It seems odd, but Sam's club and Costco might work as well since they process some carcasses on site. So just what should you be expecting? See below.

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That is a freshly cut lamb neck. The "head end" is on top where you see the darker areas (yes, its coagulated blood, one of the very few times you'll actually see blood on your meat). The base of the neck, where it connects to the body, is at the bottom. It looks like a rather substantial piece, and it indeed does weigh about 2 lbs., but you only end up with about 1/4-1/2 lb of useable meat in the end. But the meat isn't the goal, its the flavor that it provides. And the flavor is rich. Its not quick though. From beginning to end is a good 2 hours, but its so worth it. And if the thought of asking for a lamb neck makes you queasy, then substitute some bone on loin chops, although you've drastically raised the price.

Red lentil and tomato soup with lamb:
1 meaty lamb neck
3 cups red lentils
1/2 onion, chopped
4 carrots, chopped into bite size pieces
2 28oz. cans whole peeled tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp. oilve oil
3 bay leaves
1 tbsp ground coriander
10 cups water

  1. Place your soup pot over medium high heat, add the oil, onion, carrots, and garlic and saute till the onion is translucent. Depending on how much trimming your butcher did, you may need to remove the back fat and some other large chunks while the vegetables are sauteing. Add the neck (or other meat) and brown on all sides for ~5 minutes.
  2. Roughly quarter the tomatoes, and add them and all the liquid to your pot. Pour in enough water to cover the neck, which was about 10 cups for me, and add the bay leaves and coriander.
  3. Bring the soup to a boil and hold for 5 minutes (this step is important flavor and food safety wise. After the five, drop the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 1.5 hours, giving things a stir every once and a while. Add the lentils for the final 30 minutes.
  4. After the 1.5 hours shut off the hear, remove the neck from the pot and remove as much of the meat from the bones as possible. It won't be easy, there will be a lot of connective tissues to trim out, but your fingers and a sharp boning knife work well here. Once you've removed all the gristle, add the meat back to the pot, stir, then dish out to bowls.

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The meat I was able to get off the neck.

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I added a handful of stale bread cubes just before serving.

So, its a little creepy, but I'm a new fan of the lamb neck for soup flavoring. The price is pretty much unbeatable, ranging from free to at most $5, and the flavor is better than stock. There's also a bit of eco-cache as you're using more of the carcass and thus contributing to less waste. And if the neck really is just too creepy for you, then you can easily substitute some other bone in meat, or even replace the water with stock and go meatless (the lentils actually provide more protein in this dish than the lamb). But I do highly recommend that you take this as an opportunity to expand your horizons to the non-traditional cuts of meat that your grandparents probably enjoyed.

Monday, March 2, 2009

High-Fibre Veggie Muffins

A few weeks ago I got an email from Diann, the lovely author of Eat'n Veg'n, that I was the lucky winner of the Lexen Juicer that she was giving away. Well, much to my delight, it arrived last Thursday, and while I've had it less than a week, and only used it 4 times, I'm already growing quite fond of it. The manufacturer bills it as a wheatgrass juicer, but to get technical its simply a masticating type juicer. This means that much like how a cow slowly grinds and chews its cud, the juicer slowly grinds whatever you put in it to get the "juice" out. Again, just like a cow, this works great on fibrous and leafy plants such as (wheat)grass or spinach, but not so much on oranges (ok, it does work on them, just inefficiently).

My new juicer, as supplied by 877MyJuicer thru Eat'n Veg'n

Problem is, after juicing some lovely greens, what are you to do with the "waste" fibre? Sure you could throw it in your smoothie along with the juice, but that would pretty much defeat the purpose of the juicer in the first place. You could make some lovely vermicompost, but unless you have some know-how, it could easily end up stinking up your house. Throwing it in the garbage is simply wasteful. Alas, including it in a recipe is the only solution. But what recipe calls for undigestible plant fibres in the ingredient list? Well, very few in all honesty, but that doesn't mean there aren't any.

There are a number of baked goods that call for vegetables in one form or other. The squashes (both summer and winter) are well known for their breads. And everyone and their mother (pretty much) has had carrot cake before. They're both simply a simple batter with a bunch of shredded veggie. Simple, homey, delicious, even without the near requisite cream cheese icing in the case of carrot cake. Well, carrots and squashes are vegetables, and pretty fibrous too boot, so try to guess where I'm going with this...

High-Fibre Veggie Muffins:
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg (can be substituted to make vegan)
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup juiced spinach and/or carrot fibre*
1.5 cups cake flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 cup chopped almonds

*I juiced a 1lb. bunch of spinach, leaves, stems, and all, and 3 medium carrots (the carrots where shaved into thin strips with the peeler prior to juicing) which yielded the above 1 cup, you could just use frozen spinach and squeeze as much liquid as possible out and grate some carrot but your batter may need more flour because of the excess liquid.

1. Set the oven to 350F. Cream the shortening and the sugar till thoroughly incorportated. Beat in the egg until creamy.
2. Add the vanilla and fibre and mix by hand. You want to get the fibres as broken up as possible so they're not in big clumps (no one likes clumpy muffins... no one). Sift the dry ingredients together, withholding the nuts.
3. When the fibre is evenly distributed, slowly add in the flour, mixing till near fully incorporated into the batter. At this time add the nuts and mix just enough to distribute evenly.
4. Distribute the batter into muffin tins and bake for between 30-45 minutes (I made mini- and regular muffins, the minis were done ~30 mins, the regulars near 45). You know they're done when the tops begin to brown a little and a toothpick comes out clean.

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Ok, so I'll be honest, that doesn't look like the most appetizing thing on earth. In fact, with the little bits of plant fibre sticking out, and the unnaturally natural bright greenness of it all, it almost looks like something only a cow would eat. But as most people know, its what comes out of the oven that matters...

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Mmmmmm. Still spinach green with dots of orange, but totally delicious. I'm too lazy to do a dietary fibre/muffin calculation, but you can trust me when I say that one of these in the morning with your fruit and vegetable juice smoothie will certainly get you close to your daily requirement (thats ~30g/day FYI). And to cop a line from Fiber-One, they don't taste like cardboard. In fact, because of the sugar and spices, you'd never know how good for you these babies actually are. Now yes, if you wanted to make them even healthier you could replace the sugar with Splenda or some other non-nutritive sweetener, but in reality the soluble and insoluble fibres in the muffin actually drastically slow the absorption of the sugar into your blood stream in the first place. The only good case I can make for not using sugar at all is to make these less appetizing so you don't eat more than one at a time, which can lead to, shall we say, unpleasantness in some situations.

So, a final shout-out and thank you to Diann for the juicer, I hope you enjoy my thank you recipe, even if its not vegan (I'm sure those who are know good egg substitutes). As for everyone else, just because its veggies in a muffin doesn't mean you should be afraid, heck, you can always un-healthify if by adding cream cheese frosting.