Foodie Pen Pals – the big reveal!

This month I participated for the first time in Foodie Penpals, a food blog event organized by Lindsay of The Lean Green Bean, where folks send boxes of treats to each other all over the country (and the world). I participated a while back in a similar event, a Vegan, Gluten-free Parcel Swap, which was awesome, except who knew it would cost over $85 to ship a box of food to Australia! Wowza! So I was glad Foodie Penpals matches US senders with US recipients. I was super excited to shop for and ship off a box of goodies to my recipient penpal across the country (Courtney at Knits N Bits 4 U), and the very next day I received an intriguingly colorful box from my sender penpal, Dani. (In this swap, you give and receive to/from different people.)

I was writing a paper the day the box arrived, so I decided to wait to open it until I finished. It was a great incentive to get my work done. When I did open it up at last, I was blown away by how beautiful and colorful it was! Dani had wrapped everything in colorful tissue paper and each item had an accompanying note telling me about what it was and why she chose it.

I had been nervous, since this is an omni swap, telling her all my dietary restrictions. I was afraid it would be a drag or cause anxiety and my penpal might feel resentful. But Dani is a true foodie and treated it as an adventure, consulting with gluten-free friends and coworkers and checking labels on the snacks she loves to see if they were suitable to send along to me. From the variety in my package, it’s clear she went to several different stores as well as the farmer’s market. And I don’t think I’ve let the true extent of my mason jar obsession be known on this blog yet, but the little beribboned mason jars she sent with the chia seeds are just about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.

Here’s what came in my beautiful goodie box:

Bobo’s Oat Bars – Lemon Poppyseed and Cranberry Orange – these have a great soft texture and are nice and filling
Roasted Coconut Chips – These are from TJs. Maybe we don’t have them at our TJs? No one I know had ever tried them. They are addictingly good. WOW. Just. Wow.
Rice Pasta – A brand I’ve never tried before, recommended by one of Dani’s GF friends. Looking forward to checking it out!
Hail Merry Nuts & Grawnola – These were super delicious. My favorite was Vanilla Maple Almonds (I was literally licking the crumbs off the inside of the packaging) but Orange Rosemary Pecans, Salt n Black Pepper Sunflower Seeds, and Orange Cranberry Grawnola were all terrific as well. These and the Bobo’s bars have basically been getting me through long days of schoolwork and travel to family holidays.
Persimmon – From the farmer’s market, Mmm, I’ve been making persimmon, apple, and pomegranate fruit salad. So good. So fall.
Chia Seeds – I love chia seeds! And I’ve never tried the white ones. I have seen several recipes that recommend white chia for better color, so it will be great to have a stash on hand.
Brazilian Coffee – Dani warns, “It’s strong 🙂 ”

Altogether I have to say that my first Foodie Penpals experience was fantastic. I don’t which I loved better – planning and shopping for the box I sent, or anticipating, opening, and devouring the one I received. If you’re interested in participating yourself, I highly encourage you to do so, particularly because Lindsay is quite adamant in the event guidelines about people respecting the dietary restrictions of their penpal recipients, so all of us xgfx-ers have a good chance of getting treats we actually can eat! For the month of December, Foodie Penpals will be different – this month those who participate are donating the money we would have spent on putting together and sending a box of goodies to New York Cares, an organization doing both short-term and long-term aid for those affected by Hurricane Sandy. Click the image below to get all the info for participating this month and in future months.

The Lean Green Bean

Spaghetti Squash and Pomegranates ~ Week of October 10th

I didn’t have a chance to “edit” my box contents this week, so this is a box straight from the CSA. I would have held off on more potatoes, I think, but otherwise I’m pretty darn excited about everything that arrived.

Box contents:
Yukon Gold potatoes – 1.5 pounds
Savoy cabbage – 1 bunch
Spaghetti squash – 1
Yellow onions – 4
Red radishes – 1 bunch
Beefsteak tomatoes – 0.75 pounds
Collard greens – 1 bunch
Red Leaf lettuce – 1 head
Braeburn apples – 3
Bartlett pears – 4
Valencia oranges – 4
Pomegranates – 2

I’m trying to stay on top of the potato influx. This week’s will get used along with the onions in my vegan spin on a Marcella Hazan potato-tomato gratin. So yummy. The Savoy cabbage is exciting. I used to use it in ribollita (Tuscan bread soup), but I haven’t made that since going gluten-free. I do have some slightly stale but still delicious garlic-kale sourdough from Bread Srsly, so maybe I’ll give that recipe a revisit. In the meantime, I’m going to try out a recipe from The Vegan Slow Cooker for Hard Cider and Cabbage Stew. I have a sad little past-its-prime apple that will be very happy to go into stew, I think. The spaghetti squash is intriguing. So many people recommend eating it like pasta, with a sauce on top, but that isn’t super appealing. I’ve found a recipe for spaghetti squash cakes I’m looking forward to trying out. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I love all this fall fruit. Peaches and nectarines and cherries are so decadent and such a treat, but I get equally excited at the arrival of fall fruits like apples and pears and pomegranates. The oranges are very pale – a couple of them are lemon-yellow – so I’m hoping their flavor is more robust than their appearance! I see salad on the horizon as well with lettuce and radishes and tomatoes, which is good because I’ve been having serious salad cravings. The collards may go into green smoothies, I haven’t decided yet what I want to do with them. I appreciate how hardy they are because, unlike something like chard, that means I have a few days to ponder how I want to use them.

I am linking this post to the weekly CSA round-up over at In My Chucks. Go check it out to ogle other people’s boxes and get some great ideas for what to do with our seasonal produce bounty!

Tired of heavy potatoes?

I’ve mentioned several times here that I’m getting overwhelmed by potatoes. They arrive every week in my box and I simply haven’t been able to keep up with them. When it comes to veggies, I am much more drawn to leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, and other produce that has a higher moisture content. Does that make sense, do you know what I mean? Potatoes feel heavy to me, not hydrating or refreshing. And the recipes you can make with them are always dense and rich.

I thought some acid might help to brighten things up, so I searched for recipes involving potatoes and tomatoes. In a Chowhound thread someone mentioned a Marcella Hazan recipe that I thought might be just what I was looking for. I veganized it, cooked it up, and it was fantastic. It tasted best after about two days, so it’s definitely a “let the flavors mingle” kind of thing.

I want to give you guys the recipe, but I was too tired to be doing any photoshoots so I have nothing to illustrate it. I dislike putting up posts with no photo at all, so you get this silly one of me from the hotel we stayed at last weekend on Long Island when my cousin was getting married. We arrived after a long day of traveling and all I wanted was a giant pile of broccoli. (See above re: hydrating vegetables.) So the first thing I did was put on my PJs and call room service and ask them if they could send up a giant pile of broccoli. I was thrilled when they agreed, although I didn’t have high expectations, I never do when I’m eating vegetables on the East Coast. Yet what arrived was indeed a giant pile of broccoli goodness, cooked perfectly crisp-tender and dressed with lemon and olive oil with such a light hand I could barely tell the dressing was there, just that the broccoli was some of the most delicious I’d ever eaten. So now you know, if you’re ever at the Hilton on Long Island, order broccoli!

Without further ado, your potato recipe:

Roasted Potatoes with Tomatoes
Veganized and otherwise adapted from a Marcella Hazan recipe found on a Chowhound forum thread

2 pounds potatoes, sliced 1/4 inch thick
2 C onions, thinly sliced
1 28 oz. can of whole tomatoes, torn into small pieces (just the tomatoes, not the juice)
3/4 t. dried oregano
1/2 C water
1/3 C olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Mix potatoes, onion, tomatoes, oregano, 1/2 cup water, and salt and pepper.

Put 1 T. olive oil in a large casserole dish and spread it around to coat the bottom and sides of the dish. Put potato mixture into dish and pour in the remaining olive oil.

Roast 1 hour or more on the top shelf of the oven until the potatoes are tender and yummy, turning potatoes every 20 minutes while they roast. Let sit to cool a little, serve warm, not hot. Or better yet, let them sit for at least a day. The flavors just get better and better.

Artichokes and Fennel ~ Week of September 19th

What came in my box this week:
Artichokes – 3
Yukon Gold potatoes – 1.5 pounds
Baby bok choy – 0.75 pounds
Mustard greens – 1 bunch
Fennel – 1 head
Hass avocados – 2
Red beets – 1 bunch
Lacinato kale – 1 bunch
Bartlett pears – 2
Strawberries – 1 pint
Cantaloupe – 1
Red Flame grapes – 0.75 pounds

A lovely Fall box, my contents looked like a still-life when I arranged them for photographing. (I realize that technically that’s what you call any arrangement of non-sentient things that are being interpreted through an artistic medium, but you know what I mean – they looked like an arty still life.) I was especially pleased about the artichokes, for some reason. I haven’t been into them much in the past few years but I was excited to see them in my box.

I made several substitutions to my order this week, mostly prompted by an oversupply of some of the things scheduled to come in my box. I still haven’t used that poor red cabbage from several weeks ago, so I subbed baby bok choy. Red onions were substituted with mustard greens, Bibb lettuce went in favor of beets, and plums were switched out so I could get pears instead. I’m feeling super content with my Full Circle box in terms of the amount and type and quality of what I receive and in terms of how it’s working in my life right now.

I’ve also, now that I’ve switched down a box size, started ordering from Full Circle’s “green grocer” option, which is an à la carte list of additional produce and groceries you can add to your regular box. This week, once I realized I was getting beets and potatoes and that I already had scallions and carrots, I added fresh dill to my order so I could make vinegret, my ultimate Russian comfort food. I also got some locally made tea-infused tofu. I ate that today with rice noodle ramen, the baby bok choy from this week’s box, and some long, tangy chives.

Vinegret (Russian beet salad)

The artichokes are long gone – I boiled all three right away (steaming is better, I just didn’t want to babysit the pot) and ate them as my lunch. The kale and avocado will go into another perennial favorite, raw kale salad, which I think is best with Lacinato kale. I’m curious to see if I can make an appetizing green smoothie with mustard greens (what do you think?). The fennel will become roasted fennel if I’m feeling energetic, and get thinly sliced into salads if I’m not. Pear and fennel salad sounds great, actually. As for the beet greens – the best bonus vegetable ever, if you ask me: buy beets, get chard for free! – I’m thinking of trying out a new recipe, Swiss Chard ‘n’ Lemon Stir-Fry.

Raw Kale Salad with Avocado & Cherry Tomatoes

I’m linking this up to two different link parties this week! In Her Chucks continues to be a delightful – and ever-expanding – place to check out What’s In The Box? for CSA bloggers everywhere. In Her Chucks pointed me towards a blog called Gastronomical Sovereignty (great name!) that does a weekly Wednesday Fresh Food Linkup. (I know it’s Friday now, but my box came on Wednesday, so that’s gotta count for something…) The Fresh Food Linkup is meant to encourage fresh food production, consumption, activism, and awareness and should have some great links to check out.

An old nemesis revisited

So I had this eggplant. One medium-sized eggplant. And these zucchini, a whole bunch of them. And I wasn’t cooking them, and every day I’d poke them to see if they had developed the dreaded soft spots that those veggies get shortly before they turn into produce bags full of mush and slime. (Sorry, that’s a pretty gross way to start a food post.) Eggplant I’d normally make into baba ganoush, but if I’m going to wash the food processor I want to be making more than a spoonful; my usual recipe calls for three eggplants and only one had come in my box. Zucchini I’ve been roasting all summer, and it’s been excellent and easy, but I was starting to get a little bored.

So I went online to see what you could make with eggplant and zucchini. And mushrooms. I had this paper bag of mushrooms that I was also anxious to make use of before they left the edible zone. And the internet told me… ratatouille.

Ah, ratatouille. Years of choking you down at Mediterranean restaurants where you were the only vegetarian option on the menu. And these were the eggplant-hating years, even. I look at ratatouille the way soldiers in the field probably look at their MREs. Pure sustenance, nothing more.

Here are the problems I have with ratatouille: 1) It’s bland. It’s basically just a bunch of vegetables, cooked for a long time. Back in Provence in the 19th century or whenever it was invented, I bet that tasted amazing. But modern vegetables just don’t pack that kind of flavor wallop anymore, especially not tomatoes. 2) It’s usually served over couscous or, occasionally, rice. Because it’s bland, it doesn’t sauce up the grain, rather the grain pulls it even further into tastelessness. 3) The eggplant is ALWAYS undercooked, and therefore spongy, bitter, and unpalatable. Undercooked eggplant is the reason I hated eggplant. Now that I understand this I mostly only eat eggplant in three culinary situations: at home, where I control the cook time; in Chinese food, where they fry the heck out of tiny tender eggplants; in Indian food, where they cook the eggplant so long it’s barely recognizable as such by the end (mmm baingan bharta!).

But that got me to thinking. Here I was with eggplant, zucchini, tomato, onion, and mushrooms (I wouldn’t have thought of mushrooms in ratatouille ’til I came across a yummy-looking variant online). I’ve loved eggplant now in many forms when I’ve cooked it at home (click the eggplant tag at the end of this post to see) so who’s to say that being the author of the experience couldn’t transform ratatouille the same way?

Making the ratatouille took a long time because the each of the vegetables was first cooked separately so it could brown rather than steam. I believe the extra time is worthwhile in this case since that’s the very process that is going to transform your vegetables from bland, stewed mush to something more transcendent. It’s also important to me to make the distinction with recipes between difficult and time-consuming. This recipe is incredibly easy, just throw on an apron, turn on an audiobook, and chop and sauté and simmer your way to ratatouille bliss in a few hours.

And bliss it was indeed. This ratatouille was delicious. Deep rich caramelized flavors and a heartbreaking melting texture. I ate it for three meals straight and then I put the last remaining bit into tacos for a some fusion fun. I could go either way on the mushrooms – if I had them on hand I would include them again, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to get them for this recipe, which I think would be excellent without them as well.

I’m linking this recipe up to the weekly What’s In the Box linkup hosted by CSA blogger In Her Chucks. I love contributing my weekly CSA box-contents post to the linkup, but I also love when people post recipes they’ve made using their CSA veggies, so I thought I’d try out doing the same. Do check out the links – there are some seriously yummy things being made out there.

Non-Disgusting, Totally Not Bland Ratatouille (vegan, gluten-free eggplant, tomato, zucchini, onion, mushroom stew)
This is a lightly adapted version of a recipe from The Kitchn, which is definitely worth checking out since it’s a real recipe from a genuine Frenchman, as opposed to my perhaps inauthentic – but delicious! – version. I originally made half a recipe because I only had one eggplant, and it worked out fine, but if I was planning on sharing this yumminess with anyone else I would make a whole recipe’s worth.

2 eggplants
2 yellow onions
6-8 zucchini
1 pound cremini mushrooms
4 large tomatoes
1 1/2 – 2 tablespoons olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
1 T. herbes de Provence, or more to taste
Red wine suitable for cooking, about 1 cup
Chopped fresh parsley (optional)
Salt and pepper

Begin by peeling the eggplants and chopping them into bite-sized cubes. Put them in a strainer set over a bowl (or in the sink) and toss with a tablespoon of salt. Let the eggplant sit while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Dice the onions. Warm a teaspoon of olive oil in a large (at least 5 1/2 quart) Dutch oven or pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and a generous pinch of salt. Sauté until the onions have softened and are just beginning to brown, about 10 minutes.

While the onions are cooking, you can cut up the rest of your vegetables. Keep them separate because you’ll be cooking in batches. chop the zucchini and tomato into bite-sized pieces, slice the mushrooms, and mince (or press) the garlic.
When they have softened and begun to brown, transfer the onions to a large bowl.

At this point The Kitchn offers some helpful advice which I followed liberally, using much red wine: During cooking, a brown glaze will gradually build on the bottom of the pan. If it looks like this glaze is beginning to turn black and burn, turn down the heat to medium. You can also dissolve the glaze between batches by pouring 1/4 cup of water or wine into the pan and scraping up the glaze. Pour the deglazing liquid into the bowl with the vegetables.

So after you move the onions, go ahead and deglaze with 1/4 cup of red wine and then pour that off into the bowl with the onions.

Add another teaspoon of oil to the pot and sauté the zucchini with a generous pinch of salt until the zucchini has softened and is beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer the zucchini to the bowl with the onions. Deglaze!

Add another teaspoon of oil to the pot and sauté the mushrooms with a generous pinch of salt until they have softened and released their juices, about 10 minutes. Put them in your big veggie bowl. You know the drill – it’s probably time to deglaze!

While the mushrooms are cooking, rinse the eggplant under running water and squeeze the cubes gently with your hands to remove as much moisture as possible.

Warm two teaspoons of oil in the pan and sauté the eggplant until it has softened and has begun to turn translucent, about 10-15 minutes. Don’t skimp on time here. A cube of eggplant should taste edible – maybe not scrumptious, but cooked enough to be edible – before you transfer the eggplant to the bowl with the other vegetables. (You’re about to add the tomatoes, which are acidic, like wine, so they will take care of the deglazing on this step.)

Warm another teaspoon of olive oil in the pan and sauté the garlic until it is fragrant and just starting to turn golden, which will only take a few seconds or a minute at most. Add the tomatoes, bay leaf, and herbes de Provence. As the tomato juices begin to bubble, scrape up the brown glaze on the bottom of the pan.

Add all of the vegetables back into the pan and stir until everything is evenly mixed. Bring the stew to a simmer, then turn down the heat to low. Stirring occasionally, simmer for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 1/2 hours. Shorter cooking time will leave the vegetables in larger, more distinct pieces; longer cooking times will break the vegetables down into a silky stew.

Remove the bay leaf. Stir in some chopped parsley if you like, or sprinkle some over each bowl when you serve it. Enjoy ratatouille alone, as a stew – not as a topping for something else.

The Kitchn says: Leftovers can be refrigerated for a week or frozen for up to three months. Ratatouille is often better the second day, and it can be eaten cold, room temperature, or warmed.

Baby Spinach and Hass Avocadoes ~ Week of September 12th

Here’s what came in my box this week:
Hass avocadoes – 2
Zucchini – 1 pound
Beefsteak tomatoes – 2
Cremini mushrooms – 0.4 pound
Green kale – 1 bunch
Red chard – 1 bunch
Green leaf lettuce – 2 small heads
Baby spinach – 0.5 pound
Thompson grapes – 0.75 pound
Strawberries – 1 pint
Cantaloupe – 1
Gingergold apples – 2

A fair bit of substituting this week. I’m still not caught up to the potato backlog, so I subbed out Yukon Golds for Cremini mushrooms. Same with onions – it seems like I’ve got bushels of them – so I replaced red onions with green kale. I’m trying to get back into the green smoothie habit, so I’ll hopefully be going through a lot of greens. I just bought a giant bag of oranges at Trader Joe’s, so Valencia oranges were replaced by Gingergold apples. Angeleno plums were switched out for Thompson grapes, because I’m pretty sick of plums, plus the last round weren’t even that good.

I still have a red cabbage and an eggplant left from my previous box and I’m not sure what I want to make with them. I do find that veggies I have to make more complex dishes with – as opposed to kale, say, which I can just steam and eat plain – tend to linger longer in the fridge. If I get the energy I may make some baba ganoush, though it’ll be a tiny amount with just one eggplant. Searching the internet, all anyone seems to make with red cabbage, besides slaw, occasionally, is sweet and sour red cabbage. I do have a recipe I’ve been making for years but it’s lost a lot of its luster now that I can’t eat it with cottage cheese, which was my favorite combo, with the fat richness of the cheese cutting through the acidity of the cabbage dish.

I’m adding this post to the CSA “What’s In My Box” roundup over at In My Chucks. She’s hinted at the possibility of other red cabbage recipes, so I’m eager to see what she ends up doing with hers this week!

Potato and leek gratin

So. Many. Potatoes. Normally this would be a good thing, but because I can’t seem to find a place in my house to store the darn things without them going bad asap, I need to keep them (along with my onions and garlic) in my fridge. And those babies take up a lot of room. So I’ve been struggling to keep up with the constant summer influx of potatoes. As much as I like potatoes, they differ from other overabundant CSA veggies in one critical way. I can eat an entire bunch of kale or two pounds of zucchini or head of lettuce on my own in a single sitting and feel quite smug about how many servings of my daily vegetable requirement I’ve just downed.

But eating a couple of pounds of potatoes on my own feels over the top. I’m not a huge subscriber to the empty-carbs-evil-carbs perspective, but that many potatoes feels like a giant wallop of glycemic-spiking starchy calories. Much as I learned during my cauliflower revelations, potatoes are probably actually incredibly healthy, especially with the skins still on, but I still prefer to eat them in moderation.

Another thing taking up an absurd amount of room in my fridge was a leek from a few weeks back. This single leek was so long it fit across almost the entire width of my refrigerator! I’m doing a slow-cooker cookbook exploration this week and came across a recipe for a vegan gratin of potatoes. That sounded interesting because it’s a way to use up a ton of potatoes at once but then dole them out slowly as a small side dish, but doing it in a slow cooker seemed unnecessary when I could just make them in the oven. (Making them in the slow cooker does eliminate the need to precook the potatoes, but this recipe is so delicious I think it’s worth the extra step, though I can’t say for sure having never tried the crock pot version.)

So, using the “cheese” sauce from The Vegan Slow Cooker and a Gruyere-filled potato and leek gratin recipe from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone for inspiration, I whipped up something pretty delicious. It’s a bit bland and quite rich, but I think that’s just what a gratin is intended to be. There are some lovely garlicky notes and thyme is the standout seasoning, which is something I really enjoy.

Vegan Potato and Leek Gratin
With inspiration from The Vegan Slow Cooker and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Cheese sauce:
1 C. cashews, soaked
1 C. nutritional yeast
5 cloves garlic
1 t. sea salt
1.5 C. almond milk

3 lb red potatoes, unpeeled, thinly sliced
1 giant leek or 2 regular leeks, white parts only, thinly sliced into half moons
1 quart almond milk (or more if needed)
2 t. dried thyme or 3 sprigs fresh thyme
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 t. salt
Fresh grated nutmeg
Fresh ground black pepper
Garlic and vegan butter for the dish

Heat oven to 375. Run a cut clove of garlic thoroughly over the inside of a large gratin dish (this usually refers to an oval casserole dish – you’ll need either a deep one like I used in the photos above or a very large one, 9×12-ish, or you can just use a regular casserole pan – but if you do, beware of spillage in the oven!). Butter generously.

In a large pot combine potatoes, leeks, milk, thyme, garlic, and salt. Make sure potatoes are at least barely covered by the milk. Bring slowly to a boil, then simmer gently until potatoes are barely tender but not falling apart.

While potatoes are simmering, blend sauce ingredients in a blender until smooth.

Drain potatoes RESERVING THE MILK or you can use a slotted spoon to lift out as many as you need at a time.

Put a single layer (roughly, doesn’t have to be perfect) of potatoes in the bottom of the dish. Sprinkle with nutmeg and pepper. Top with some of the cheese sauce. The way I did this was to pour a thick line of cheese sauce from the blender down the middle of the dish and then use a fork to gently push it across all the potatoes. It’s a very thick sauce and easy to spread. Continue layering potatoes, nutmeg & pepper, and cheese sauce until there are no more potatoes. Top with cheese sauce. Take the reserved milk and, carefully pushing the potato mixture away from the wall of the dish, pour in a little bit so it runs down through all the layers. Repeat this on all four sides of the dish. You want the milk to come up to the level of the potatoes, but they will probably be quite wet and saturated already so add in your milk carefully.

(Any leftover milk can be saved as a base for soup. Or you can do what I did – I poured my leftover milk, with potato and leek bits, into the blender that still had residue of my cheese sauce and blended it all together. It turned into a pretty amazing cream of potato soup.)

Bake the gratin in the oven, an hour or more, until a bubbly brown crust forms on top. Let sit for ten minutes and serve warm.