Cali-Mex Feast

Last night, according to my menu plan, I was supposed to make Raw “Pasta” Puttanesca from The 30-Minute Vegan, using zuchinni strips as the “noodles.” But I’d had Salade Nicoise the night before, and Epic Salad the night before that, and I was beginning to feel the early warning signs of vegan, gluten-free crankiness. You know, the unsatisfied feeling you get when you haven’t had anything substantial pass between your lips in a few days? It’s not hard to eat satisfying, filling meals that are vegan and gluten-free, but it’s all too easy not to, as well.

Yesterday morning I went online to find out if Trader Joe’s sells brined olives of any sort (I had to make a Two-Buck Chuck run and figured I’d grab some olives for the Puttanesca at the same time) and came across a curious blog called Cooking with Trader Joe’s. As far as I can tell the women who write it are unaffiliated with Trader Joe’s, although they have also written two cookbooks about cooking using ingredients found at everyone’s favorite food emporium. I started scrolling through their recipes, fascinated, until my attention was arrested by a delicious-looking pile of goodness called Tamale Bake. The recipe for Tamale Bake called for three zucchini… the very zucchini I’d been planning to slice up into fake, raw, cold noodles. The idea of something hot, filling and gooey immediately trumped fake, raw, and cold. I jotted down the ingredients and took my list to TJs.

As promised, I was able to find all of the ingredients for Tamale Bake at Trader Joe’s, though I didn’t need zucchini since of course that was what I was trying to use up from my box. I bought the soy chorizo and the bottled enchilada sauce (WARNING: it contains FLOUR, as does, apparently, most traditional enchilada sauce – wtf?), found two cans of black beans and picked up some sliced mushrooms and a can of sliced black olives. But when it came time to get the two tubes of precooked polenta, I balked. It was FOUR dollars for two tubes. I can’t remember how much bulk polenta costs at Rainbow, but it’s certainly not four dollars for a couple of cups of dry polenta. Before I realized how easy it is to make polenta in the rice cooker, I might have treated myself to the convenience of the tubes, but I have no excuse now for not making it from scratch.

I assembled my Tamale Bake, which was both easy and convenient, and while it was in the oven I pondered proper accompaniments. I’d just received a beautiful little watermelon in my box, as well as some lovely peaches that needed to be eaten right away. I decided to start with the yummy Mexican snack of chile and melon, so I sprinkled slices of the watermelon with chili powder. I also made a gorgeous fruit salad with watermelon, peaches, and grapes from my box and strawberries and blueberries from TJs. I rounded out the meal with a salad of CSA lettuce, Persian cucumbers, green onions, and toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) with an avocado-lime-cilantro dressing. I improvised the dressing based on several others I found online and it ended up way too sweet (curse you, agave nectar!). I liked the concept a lot but I’ll need to keep working on the execution.

Nothing was authentic, of course, but as a native Californian who grew up eating California Mexican food, I do feel I have a certain amount of leeway in improvising “Cali-Mex”-style dishes. And what could be more Cali-Mex than a pseudo-Mexican meal involving locally, sustainably grown veggies and soy chorizo? When the timer went off and I pulled my tamale bake out of the oven, I felt I had a winner on my hands. And I was right – it was delicious, filling, a bit healthy, and very, very satisfying.

Tamale Bake
This recipe is slightly adapted from a recipe from the blog Cooking with Trader Joe’s. It would make a fabulous potluck contribution and makes wonderful leftovers.

2 cups dry polenta
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped (I used a red onion)
4 zucchini, sliced
Sliced mushrooms (I used a “bag’s worth” from TJs)
1 can sliced olives
1 package Trader Joe’s Soy Chorizo (unlike most meat subs, does not contain any gluten!)
2 (15 oz) cans black beans, drained
1 cup Enchilada Sauce (TJ’s contains flour – a nice thin red salsa, which they have at TJs, could be a good substitute)
1/4 cup cilantro (optional)

In a rice cooker, combine 2 cups dry polenta and 1 tsp salt with 6 cups water and cook on “white rice” setting. Test for doneness, and stir thoroughly when finished. (You can also cook polenta with the same proportions in a pot.)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Saute onions for 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and saute until they begin to soften, then add zucchini and cook 5 minutes longer, until zucchini is tender.
Lightly grease a 9″x13″ baking pan with Earth Balance. Spread half the polenta on the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle on half of: the chorizo (remove it from its plastic casing!), black beans, sliced olives, onion/zucchini/mushroom mixture, and enchilada sauce or salsa. Spread another layer of polenta on top and then sprinkle on remaining half of ingredients.
Bake for 30 minutes until casserole is piping hot. Sprinkle cilantro evenly on top.

Back in the day, a Moosewood recipe for Tamale Pie used to be one of my staple recipes. It was great to bring to potlucks because it was vegetarian, filling, and always super popular. I’ve thought about it often over the years. First when I went gluten-free I thought about what a drag it would be to make the cornbread topping GF, and then once I went vegan it seemed impossible – the dish would just be too dry and not nearly gooey enough with no cheese added. But this recipe takes care of all of these dilemmas and more! Which makes it a perfect dish to submit to Slightly Indulgent Tuesdays – all the indulgence of a favorite dish, with none of the ingredients I can’t or don’t want to eat. Check out the other great indulgences this week for more inspiration!

While I’m at it, this is a perfect and pretty submission for Tasty Tuesdays and Tuesdays at the Table! Tuesdays are a big day for food round-ups, it seems!

Eating with the season on a vegan, gluten-free Menu Plan Monday

I’ve just arrived home from a fascinating four days at the Hazon Food Conference in Pacific Grove. The conference explored all kinds of interesting intersections, between environmentalism and food systems, Judaism and food ethics, social justice and foodie culture, personal financial investment and sustainable agriculture, and many more. I learned so much, both from the sessions and panels I attended as well as all the informal conversations I had with fellow conference-goers. You can read more about my time there here and here. I feel deep gratitude to the Joyce and Irving Goldman Family Foundation for sponsoring around 40 young adults, including me, providing full scholarships for all of us to the conference.

The Local Foods Wheel

On Sunday, right before we left for home, the conference had a big marketplace where folks could give out info and sell books they’d written or published, foods they’d made, and so on. At one of the tables I came across one of my favorite things ever, the San Francisco Bay Area Local Foods Wheel, being sold by one of the wheel’s creators. I first encountered the wheel, which is a stunning combination of gorgeous artwork and design with intriguing, well-presented information, on a refrigerator in the Spirit Rock kitchen when I was working back there during a retreat. (You’re not supposed to read anything on retreat, but who could resist those tiny, perfect line drawings with their little cursive labels?) Now it’s the most popular item on our refrigerator; every guest and visitor is magnetically drawn to it and we usually have to pull them away – they just want to stand there spinning it and spinning it and looking at every picture! The wheel shows on its top layer all the foods that are in season year-round in the Bay Area (and we’re lucky – there are so many of them!). Then you spin the top layer around to match up with the current time of year, and the bottom layer reveals the foods in season at this time.

Our CSA keeps us local and seasonal at every meal, but we’re not getting a box this week, so I turned to the wheel to help me plan this week’s menu. (My other goal for the week: use up all the lettuces from our box we’ve been keeping on life support for the past couple of weeks!)

For an assemblage of great, gluten-free menu plans, check out this week’s Gluten-Free Menu Swap over at The GF CF Cookbook. (The theme for this week’s swap is leftover ham, which, as a vegetarian, I can’t contribute to at all. I do have smoky beans and tempeh bacon this week, though, which are kind of the same flavor profile.) And, as always, for a huge round-up of menu plans from all over the web – and the world – check out the giant MPM compendium over at orgjunkie.

What’s in season:

Monday: Winter greens
Wine braised lentils over toast with Tuscan kale and pearl onions (Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Suppers)
Red leaf salad

Wine braised lentils over gluten-free quinoa toast with Tuscan kale and pearl onions

Tuesday: Butternut squash
Vegan “mac and cheese” made with butternut squash “cheese” and Tinkyada brown rice spirals
Romaine lettuce salad with balsamic vinaigrette

Wednesday: Brussel sprouts and wild mushrooms
Brussels sprouts and mushroom ragout with herbed vegan, GF dumplings (Vegetarian Suppers)
Mixed lettuces salad

Brussels sprouts ragout with wild mushrooms and herbed gluten-free dumplings

Thursday: From Duck’s mom’s garden!
Simple oven-roasted butternut squash
Arugula salad with sauteed red onions and toasted walnuts
Tangy red lentils
Quinoa with coconut oil

Friday: Savoy cabbage
Savoy cabbage gratin with tempeh bacon
Baked sweet potato
Homemade smoky pinto beans

Savoy cabbage gratin with tempeh bacon

Saturday: Parsnips, winter radishes, rutabegas
Roasted root vegetables with home-grown rosemary
Chard and walnut yum
Impressionist cauliflower

Sunday: Meyer lemons
Roasted broccoli with meyer lemon zest and pine nuts
“Sloppy” sushi with balsamic-glazed portobello mushrooms

Seasonal extras: Turnips and pomelos
Middle Eastern-style turnip pickles

A fresh batch of turnip pickles (with beet for color)

Candied pomelo peel

Candied Pomelo Rinds Dipped in Bittersweet Chocolate

Strawberry Day!

I am, ever and always, a research queen. I no longer do it for a living (or a degree), but if there’s a decision that needs to be made, whether it be major and life-altering or embarassingly minor and petty, you can bet I’ll come to the table armed with all the facts, opinions, and perspectives I can dig up. So understandably a lot of considerations went into such a significant decision as my choice of CSA.

A field of many lettuces at Eatwell Farm
Lovely lettuces at Eatwell Farm

Because I’m so tired, so often, I wanted food brought to me, rather than having to go to the farmer’s market each week. But I also wanted local food, and to be directly supporting specific, tangible growers, so that eliminated many of the grocery delivery services and produce-box services that box up an amalgamation of produce from all over the country and world. And I also, in my secret heart of hearts, wanted a farm that I could visit, where I could touch the soil my food was grown in and meet the people who nurtured it towards my plate.

Close-up of wheat growing
Nothing says “farm” quite like 40 acres of wheat

During the month I was researching CSA options, there was a medfly quarantine in the town of Dixon, where Eatwell Farm is located. It was late summer, and thousands of ripe tomatoes, waiting on the vine to go into CSA boxes and to farmer’s markets, were suddenly quarantined, forbidden to leave the farm unprocessed. So Eatwell threw a tomato-canning party. I watched with delight through the farm’s blog as hundreds of Eatwell members headed out to the farm for an afternoon of cooking up sauce and drinking bloody marys. Nigel, the farm’s owner, wrote in the blog, “When I got a few moments to myself I looked upon everyone working hard and having a great time and thought ‘this is exactly the farm and community that I have always wanted’. So it took a few Med Fly in Dixon to realize that what we all have here is something very precious.” When I read this, I knew I had found my farm, my box.

Farmer B picking strawberries in the field at Eatwell
Farmer B picking strawberries in the field at Eatwell

I missed the tomato-sauce party, and winter isn’t the best time for farm days, so my first opportunity to take part in this new community I’d bought into with my weekly box didn’t come until May. Earlier this month I headed out to Dixon for the first time, to take part in one of Eatwell’s “Strawberry Days.” We were invited to come and pick strawberries in the fields, welcome to eat as many as we could stuff in right then and there, and then pay just $1/pound for whatever we wanted to take home. I brought my good friend Farmer B with me (so called because, thanks to her interest in and dedication to farming, we are all counting on her to guide us through feeding ourselves post peak-oil apocalypse when there is total collapse of the massive network of trucks and boats and planes that currently shlep our industrially fertilized food around the world) to check out “my” farm.

Me picking strawberries
Me picking strawberries in the field

While we were there we picked many strawberries (and took our loot home to freeze for future smoothies – yum!) and also had the opportunity to tour the farm with Nigel, the farm’s owner. He showed us the 40 acre wheat field they are leasing to grow organic wheat for chicken feed, and took us through the rest of the farm, which is about 60 acres. We learned about the particulars of running a farm that must yield a constant variety of produce, to keep our boxes interesting each week. I hadn’t thought about it before, but Eatwell can’t just decide, “We’ll sell lettuce in spring and tomatoes in summer and squash in the fall” or whatever, because they aren’t just taking a bunch of stuff to market and selling it to people who are stopping by many stalls. They need to make sure our boxes have both novelty and variety each and every week.

Nigel giving the tour
Nigel leading the tour in front of the wheat field

On our tour we got to pick sugar snap peas off the vine, which was decadent for me, as sugar snap peas, even more than strawberries, are what I associate with “luxury” produce. We learned about the stands of trees that were the first thing Nigel planted when he got the land, to provide windbreaks for the crazy winds that can get up to 25+ miles an hour and just suck the moisture from plants and soil. We also learned that Eatwell gets their compost from the company that processes San Francisco’s food and yard scraps (we have a city-wide composting program here) which is pretty awesome, on a symbolic level. As Nigel pointed out, every time they pick a truckload of food from the farm, they are hauling nutrients away from the land, and now, because of the composting program, those exact same nutrients (barring, of course, the ones we have absorbed into our own bodies) find their way back.

Eating sugar snap peas off the vine
Eating sugar snap peas off the vine. Decadent!

And then, of course, we met the chickens. They were definitely the celebrities of the hour, with tons of questions asked and long lingering at their enclosure, whereas for the rest of the farm we’d been content to just let Nigel lead us from field to field. I learned that the beautiful green and blue eggs, which I love, come from araucana hens who are being “phased out” (stockpot, here they come) because they take three months off in the winter, producing no eggs but still chowing down on their pricey organic feed. True free-ranging chickens, although they eat plants and insects as they forage about, still need more supplemental feed than factory-farmed chickens. This is because outdoor hens use a lot of energy moving around all day and keeping themselves warm, unlike chickens who are packed in together tightly, keeping each other warm and unable to move.

The chickens with their chicken house

The chickens with their chicken house, one of five houses. The enclosure is an electric fence, turned on at night to keep out the coyotes. The chickens seem to have no problem flying over it when they like the looks of the neighboring pasture!

Altogether, it was amazing to be at the farm. It’s sad how disconnected I have been my whole life, and still mostly am, from my food and its origins, but this was a small and meaningful step in bridging that gap. I didn’t walk away with entirely fuzzy feelings, however. At the end of the day i found myself sitting at a picnic table with Nigel. Most everyone had gone home, and Farmer B was out in the field gathering one last bucket of berries. Nigel, who has a kind of reserve and brusqueness, didn’t seem like the kind of person to whom I could give a real soul-baring expressing of gratitude, so I started with, “You guys are a big part of my life. I write a blog based on my box and what I do with the food you grow.” His response was, “Oh yeah. A lot of [Eatwell customers] have blogs.”

Portrait of farmer with wind break and cell
Portrait of farmer with windbreak, sprinklers, and cell phone

Oh, okay. So much for my conversational opener. That was too bad, but a good reminder that this isn’t all a fantasy farm fairytale. What’s a food blog, in comparison to twelve hour days of actually growing the food? I mean, I want the people who grow my food to see what I create with it and how much it touches my life, but maybe that’s not why they grow it or what gives the work meaning for them. I can sense a kind of forced resolution in my desire for things to come “full circle,” an uneven equation in which I want my end of things – the consumer end – to have the same weight as the producer end. I’m not really sure what I’m trying to express here, just the sense that this may be one of those situations where the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. I still feel essentially naive about the origins of food, and the little bit of knowledge and understanding that I’m acquiring is like lifting the lid off a deep well and peering inside, totally unable to fathom the bottom.

Rooster
There are something like five roosters for 1600 chickens. Those are some busy birds! (I mean busy protecting the flock, get your mind out of the gutter!)

For what it’s worth, I’ll say it here, and hopefully find a way to say it more personally some day. Anna, Agustin, Arturo, Daisy, Fernando, Jesus, Jose, Molly, Nigel, Nikko, Ricardo, Roberto, Sadie (RIP), Yvette, and anyone else whose name I don’t know, Thank You. Every time I open a new, thrilling box, I thank you. Every time my body gets that tingly “healthy!” feeling from eating a whole bunch of kale in one sitting, I thank you. Every time I smile with delight to see another stranger has found my blog by googling “spinach for breakfast,” I thank you. When I read Omnivore’s Dilemma or Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and, instead of feeling panicked and overwhelmed, I feel secure and even slightly smug, knowing the majority of my food comes from my local, sustainable foodshed, I thank you. Even when I’m finding out I don’t like turnips, or having a strange allergic reaction to radish greens, I thank you, because this is what it means to eat what’s local and in season and not live in a bubble of banana-scented safety and routine. For all your work, for the tremendous investments of time and energy and money you make and the risk you assume so that I can have safe, healthy, delicious food delivered to me week after week, I thank you, and I cannot thank you enough.

Farm Princess with wheat

Foiled again!

I report to you live from the salad front, your brave investigator into the perverse and often baffling world of salad dressing. It saddens me to have to report that, once again, and despite a rousing attempt involving lettuce, fennel, sugar snap peas, Point Reyes Farmstead blue cheese, and strawberries, for goodness sake, we can add another strike to the list. This time the no-go concoction was a balsamic-shallot vinaigrette from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

Strawberry salad, before the unfortunate dressing

Is it possible that I just don’t like dressing? The way it turns out I don’t like turnips? No, I like salad. And I often like salads in restaurants. And those generally have dressing on them. I just never seem to be satisfied with the dressings I make, no matter what I do. Whether I wing it or carefully follow a recipe, they are invariably too oily or too vinegary or too bland or too seasoned.

I feel like a salad idiot. It seems like one of those things you would joke about someone not being able to cook. “She can’t even boil an egg! Or make pasta! Or salad! Ha, ha! She can’t even cook salad!” Well, I can’t. And I am feeling quite disgruntled at this point, let me tell you. But my box continues to bring lettuce upon lettuce. And so we soldier on.

Spinach for breakfast, the sequel

I’m totally enjoying the feature on wordpress that lets me see what google search phrases have led people here, to my box. I get a lot of visitors on “aphid” related searches, and surprisingly few on “community supported agriculture” related ones. (Although I get a lot of CSA-specific visitors clicking over from the Eatwell list of member blogs and from the post on Chowhound about choosing a CSA.)

Frittata with spinach and Humboldt Fog cheese with salad

Super Easy Pan-Cooked Spinach Fritatta with Humboldt Fog cheese, green garlic, spring onion, and thyme (medium-pan sized, cut in half) with a salad of lettuce, red cabbage, cauliflower, carrot, and sugar snap peas

One surprising search phrase that shows up almost every day, sometimes in multiple versions, is some variation of “spinach for breakfast.” Which is, of course, the title of a post I made back in February extolling the pleasures of spinach as a breakfast food. My first thought of course is, “Wow, there sure are a lot of people who want to know about eating spinach for breakfast. Huh.” My next thought every time I see that someone’s search for breakfast-spinach information led them here is a bit of guilt. Because my first Spinach for Breakfast post is more about my personal, heartwarming journey to spinach acceptance than it is a helpful guide on how to use spinach in one’s morning meal. Which I assume is what all these googlers are googling for.

So I decided to revisit the topic of spinach for breakfast. It gives me an excuse to share a recipe I’ve been wanting to share. The other morning I was cooking breakfast (it involved spinach, of course) and thinking about how much this one recipe, which isn’t even a recipe but more of a technique, completely changed my breakfast life. I used to think I was “not a breakfast person” and “not an egg cooker” because fried eggs bored me, scrambled eggs eluded me, and frittatas were special occasion food involving all kinds of fancy cooking and flipping using plates or pans with heat-proof handles so you could finish them in the oven.

Frittata with thyme and Carmody cheese, tempeh bacon, pomelo fruit salad

Super Easy Pan-Cooked Frittata with Carmody cheese and thyme (small-pan sized, whole), tempeh bacon, and fruit salad with pomelo, kiwi, apple, and mint

This technique is usually how spinach ends up in my breakfast, but it’s also a great, simple way to incorporate most any kind of leftover into a hot, pleasing morning meal. It’s so obvious that I feel a little silly even writing it down, but I so distinctly remember the change in breakfast, from before I practiced this to after, that it seems worth taking the time to share it.

Recipe below… Continue reading

Spring! Spring! Spring!

Part of why I have struggled so much with a constant excess of lettuce since I started getting my box is that, well, I just don’t like lettuce that much. I’m still not very good at making salad dressing (it’s always too oily or too vinegary or too flowery or too something), and, without some kind of interesting accessories, plain lettuce just doesn’t get me all that excited. But there haven’t been very many things in my box this winter that lend themselves to salad fixin’ – radishes occasionally, and carrots, of course, and apples and oranges if I want to get creative, but that’s been about it, besides the lettuce that arrives relentlessly each week, whether I have something to toss it with or not.

Which is why I am just so indescribably excited about spring. Spring means asparagus and sugar snap peas and fennel, just to name a few things with the power to turn a bowl of lettuce into a tasty meal. So many colors and textures and so much sweetness and crunch. Today’s salad looked like an Easter basket with asparagus, sugar snap peas, red cabbage, carrots, purple spring onions, and radishes marinated in rice vinegar, sesame oil, and black sesame seeds, with a light, sweet, rice vinegar and sesame oil dressing. I think that weekly bag of lettuce just got a whole lot more exciting…

Sweet Potatoes, Snack-style

The last few boxes of sweet potatoes have come with newsletter entries urging me to eat them as soon as possible. As usual, I have quite the backlog of vegetables piling up, and the sweet potatoes, as warned, are not exhibiting the kind of hardiness that I generally use as an excuse to leave my potatoes in the back of the cupboard for a month or more. I knew the smartest means to total sweet potato consumption would not be to transform them into a healthy and filling stew or casserole. No, if I was to save these fellows fromSpicy Sweet Potato Fries withering in upon themselves as they seemed inclined to do, they must become snack food as quickly as possible.

I found a delicious sounding recipe for Spicy Sweet Potato Fries online at an attractive food blog called Kalyn’s Kitchen and decided to give it a try. I usually fiddle at least a little with every recipe I try, but this one seemed to need no improvement, and I made it exactly as written. And YUM! was I glad I did. Those potatoes were gone in record time. I now have a little baggie of premixed seasoning in my spice drawer, waiting happily for the next round of sweet-potato-into-snack.

Having fries around even inspired me to do something I haven’t done in a long time: make a good old-fashioned all-American cheeseburger. The vegetarian, gluten-free version, of course, but it was still a kind of nostalgic treat. In addition to my spicy sweet potato fries my burger deluxe included daikon pickles and lettuce from my box.

Cheeseburger and Fries