Archive for the ‘Eating Healthy’ Category

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September 17, 2015: Cucumber Soup

September 17, 2015

Cucumber SoupAs I mentioned in my last article, when my family visited last month we went to the Colonial Inn in Concord, Ma. Cooking for myself like I usually do, I’m very impressed when I go out to eat these days to find almost every restaurant caters to the vegetarian palate to some degree. Sometimes it’s just soup and bread, but I can almost always find something to eat.

Once in a great while I find a restaurant that raises the bar on their vegetarian dishes to the unique and noteworthy. Such was all the dishes we  tried at the Colonial Inn.

My niece ordered the Colonial’s Black Bean Burger. I saw this on the menu as was almost going to order it, but changed my mind at the last second. As she was on the other side of the table, I didn’t hear her order and was very pleased when she offered to share a taste with me.

One problem with black bean burgers, homemade and store-bought, is that they often add just a tad too much cumin in the mix. Cumin is one of those spices that it takes an expert hand (and tasting while tweaking the addition) to keep the balance from interesting that can quickly shift to overwhelming. The Colonial got that balance just perfect. Topped with a tiny corn relish and a fine roll, the taste was easily the best of any black bean burger I’ve ever had. The texture was very close to a meat burger, which shows the skill of the chef, as veggie burgers often fall to pieces when soft like this, but because we’ve never had one with such a delicate texture, both my niece and I agreed that it was rather unfamiliar.

I was pleased to find Truffle Fries on the menu and they were very good at the Colonial and seemed to be fried in truffle oil. But after one taste, I realized the down-side of knowing a master chef like Yoshio. He makes truffle fries and tops them with real grated truffle (which makes the dish far too expensive to make for mass distribution.) Yoshio has forever spoiled me this way, but the Colonial’s fries were a very delicious and welcome second.

I also ordered what the Colonial called their Cucumber Gazpacho Soup. The name was a little confusing (as gazpacho is usually a tomato-based broth and cucumber soup is usually a cream-based broth) so I asked the waitress to describe the soup. She explained that it was a cold, creamy cucumber soup with a topping of salsa. I loved the addition of a tiny bit of heat into the cool, slightly sweet, very smooth, cucumber base and I was inspired to make my version. Again, made for mass-consumption, there was nothing wrong at all with the Colonial’s soup….I just tend to like my soups a bit more on the savory side and I don’t mind a slight amount of texture that the Colonial carefully got rid of.

Cucumber Soup

2 Medium Leeks (washed thoroughly; chopped; green part for stock)

6 Large Cukes (washed; de-skinned (save skins for stock); de-seeded

2C. Baby Kale (washed; chopped)

6 Tblsp. Fresh Dill Weed   2 Bullion Cubes

2 C. Heavy Cream         3 Tblsp. Butter

Make stock of cuke skins, green part of leeks, and baby kale stems. Sauteé veggies in oil until tender. Add 1 Qt. H2O. Add bouillon cubes to fortify. Bring to boil and then reduce to simmer for 20 minutes. Strain.

Sauteé white part of leeks in butter until tender. Add de-seeded cukes (cubed into 2″ pieces) and baby kale. Add stock and H2O to cover veggies. Bring to boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover until veggies are tender. At the end of the simmer, add dillweed, salt & pepper and grind with an immersion blender. Add cream.

Top with a splash of hot sauce, then sour cream and a dab of mild salsa.

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December 10, 2014: Empty Platter

December 11, 2014

Empty Platter LayoutI have volunteered as a chef’s assistant for several months now for an organization that provides home cooked meals and a pantry supplies to needy families in the area.

When I started at my present job, I was still living on scraps as I had so numerous other bills. Food wasn’t as much as a priority as like…keeping my house and paying for gas for the car. The owners of my company suggested I try Open Table (the local food pantry assistance program) and thought I might benefit from their service. I hemmed and hawed for a couple of days when I finally came to the conclusion that my pride was deeply meshed with my stupidity, and it would be foolish to not take assistance from an organization that was specifically there to help people in exactly my condition at the time.

So I registered for the pantry service. One thing about a service like this is that there is always a little waiting around. You are given a random number that groups you in a queue according to that number. While waiting, I took in the whole environment. The first thing I noticed is that most of my fellow patrons seemed very appreciative to have the service, happy even…despite their obvious current setbacks. It was no wonder, as each Open Table volunteer…to a person was charming, sympathetic, and helpful. The volunteers themselves seemed happy to be there as well. I knew how hard it was for individuals like myself, but my heart went out most of all to the families. I wondered and worried about how many nights the parents had nothing to offer but the empty platter of hunger to their children.

As I waited, being a foodie, I could not help but be interested in the food they served (I never had the meals at Open Table as the pantry suited me fine, and I did not want to burden them any more than I had to.) I found the meals well-made, clearly geared for popular appeal, nutritious, well presented, and best of all…well received! I decided my first night that as soon as I didn’t need the pantry service I would pay them back a bit by volunteering where I thought I could do the most good…the kitchen.

So it has been for some months. And a more peasant kitchen experience I cannot imagine: there are a group of assistants, a group to clean, a group to serve and a lead chef. Everyone pitches in and does whatever is needed to do, often with being directed, and best of all they help each other, all with a pleasant chatter making the whole experience warm and fun. I was always capable of more, but I was happy prepping and cleaning. After all, to my mind I was paying back a debt. The notions that I was having fun, learning a bit, especially about cooking for a huge group of people, and keeping my knife skills sharp (yes…pun intended) were all bonuses.

I got a surprise the other night, when Jim, the lead chef this week told me, “We’re serving ham for the main course, but there will be a few people who cannot eat ham. I would like you to take these ingredients and make something pleasant for them.”

People tell me all the time about these cooking shows where they have challenges/eliminations like this. I’ve never seen any of them, but I imagine that this was like that…minus the TV cameras and lights…and fame…and money…and restaurant positions. On the plus side, I was doing it for coolest folks doing good works for the needy, and it was fun! I ended up making lightly breaded and fried Chicken Breasts, smothered in sautéed Mediterranean Vegetables. I left pleased. It was not my best dish ever (I usually plan way ahead of time) but I thought I did OK, considering the turn-around time.

I went back to work, but after a couple of minutes I had that “DOH” moment when it occurred to me that this would make a good blog article, so I went back down to try to get a shot of my dish. When I found it, the only thing that was left was the empty platter it was served on. At first I thought with a laugh, “Oh, it went over well” but then I remembered the reality: the staff packages the leftovers from the meal and gives them to people as they are leaving, the idea seeming to be to get every scrap of food into the hands of those that need it.

Looking down at that empty platter…something clicked…a switch was thrown. I don’t know if I can describe it, but I’ll try.

I’ve written before that making food is like another form of an expression of love. If I’ve cooked for you, the chances are pretty good (at least at the time of the meal) that I held you in such high regard as to give you the best of my creative industry. Friends and family…easy…cooking for them is pure joy. On the flip side, working in the French restaurant was not only hard work, but I never even saw a patron. The catering jobs I’ve done were smack down the middle. I enjoyed people I didn’t know…enjoying what I made.

So, I’ve cooked in a lot of different situations. Somehow, cooking at Open Table the other night was very different. I discovered that I had created something that could possibly stave off hunger for a few people, for a little while. Although I would never meet them, or talk to them about their troubles, I had been part of something that could make people’s lives (who need it the most) in the tiniest way…a little less painful. That empty platter of mine made someone else’s platter a bit more full. To me, that empty platter was the symbol of the highest expression of love to our fellow-men.

So. At this time of year we are focused on giving. If you truly want to practice “goodwill towards men” I urge you to donate to your local chapter of food and pantry assistance services like Open Table. There is almost certainly one in your town or close-by. Your money will be well-spent giving comfort to those who need it the most.

But you don’t have to listen to just me. People have been writing about the theme of caring for the poor (particularly at Christmas time) for some time. A popular traditional source is the carol by John Mason Neale (1818-1866) in “Good King Wenceslas”

“Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye, who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.”

If you are looking for another contempory source, here’s what Bill Murray has to say about it all. Trust him. He’s a changed man.

 

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July 11, 2014: Go-To Salad

July 11, 2014

Go To SaladNow that the hot weather is here, I’m more active (running and kayaking more; working in the yard, etc.) and I’m looking for foods that are filling and nutritious, but still light enough to allow me to move without being weighed down. The best food solution (for me) is salad: cool, crunchy, light , satisfying, guilt-free, and infinitely variable. In Summer I practically live on salads. The best is (like now) when local farms introduce the fresh lettuces.

But even during the colder months, good salads are available to us. My perennial favorite is a salad with a base of one of several pre-cut cole slaws mixed with a little taboule. The cole slaw by itself is a bit plain, but the taboule (fresh parsley, chopped tomatoes, cracked wheat germ, olive oil and lemon juice) is just the thing to liven the cole slaw up. I often add a little viniagrette…’tho you don’t need much with the taboule. Tightly sealed,  I find both the cole slaw and taboule last all week-long.

With the addition of extras to this salad base, I can have a different salad each day of the week, so this salad never gets old. I often add some combination of fresh veggies, olives, garbanzo beans, cottage cheese, and nuts. The salad pictured above is cole slaw, taboule, red peppers, and pecans. As dressing, I used a few drops each of Blood Orange Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Raspberry Balsamic Vinegar  from the Saratoga Olive Oil Company. A fine collection of salad condiments from Saratoga was given to me by my friends Christopher and Sara, who shortly will fly from the Yankee-land of snow and ice to grace their company on the The Lone Star State.

To Chris and Sara, much luck on your new life. Your intelligence, good company, generosity, guidance and inspiration (not to mention entertainment…both personal and professional) will be sorely missed by all your fans here in the cold, cold, North.

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June 15, 2014: “Green Brain” Sushi

June 15, 2014

%22Green Brain%22 SushiTwo weeks ago I helped Yoshio cook for his daughter’s wedding. Yoshio had a tough job as he had all the responsibilities of a father of the bride plus he was also food designer and had to make sure his creations were made to his specification…all this for close to 100 people! It was also a tough job for the wedding couple, Katrina and Jonah, also to whittle down Yoshio’s immense list of food options to what they wanted. They did a fantastic job choosing dishes that were personal, as well as visually pleasing and delicious!

My job was to help organize the food and do as much prep work as possible. The true star of the food crew, ‘tho was Baba Takashi. A friend of the family, Baba was imported from Japan by Yoshio as a sushi chef for the reception. Yoshio had ordered all the sushi supplies, including the fresh fish, which arrived on ice just before Baba himself arrived from Japan.

Baba and I worked together for almost eight hours, the day before the reception. I can’t tell you how hard it was to work with a master sushi chef in the room! All I wanted to do was to watch every move he made, and it was only my dedication to Yoshio, the wedded couple, and to my obligations, that kept me from doing just that! The great part of working with a sushi-master (and a kind and generous one at that) was being offered a few of his creations as the evening progressed. Every once in a while, Baba would come over with one of his unique (vegetarian) sushi variations. Not only was each piece visually stunning, but absolutely delicious!

One of my favorites of Baba’s sushi I nicknamed “Green Brain” sushi.This was thinly sliced avocado wrapped around sushi rice. Simplicity itself…right?

Not so simple when I tried to make it for myself. Remember what I said about wanting to watch Baba? Well, I never got to see how he created “Green Brain” sushi. It took me several trials to get the thickness of the avocado right. Then, when I formed it, it was a decent effort, but not even in the ballpark of correct.

I got to catch up with Yoshio this weekend. We were so busy working the weekend of the wedding, we never got to visit. Between sips of a very good bourbon, delicious cheeses and  frites  truffe (truffled french fries…made the correct way by Yoshio) he was able tweak what I had done wrong and to shorten the road to my making Baba’s sushi better. My second effort came closer to what I wanted….not perfect, mind you, but better…thanks to Yoshio’s input.

The day of the reception, I was very busy, but I occasionally caught glimpses of Baba’s work: Every one of his creations a masterpiece! The queue of guests waiting to partake of his sushi was wrapped all around the yard! At one point, just about every guest was chanting his name! If any sushi chef ever came close to rock-star status, it was Baba!

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I only wish I was able to flatter Baba more. I only hope that sometime in the future I can get the chance to see Baba (my new rock-star friend) in action again!

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April 17, 2014: Wendy’s Surprising Breakfast

April 17, 2014

Wendy's QuinoaI enjoy the unexpected perk of having the owner of the company I work for, being not only an excellent cook, but very generous with his creations. The other day, he offered his most delicious veggie lasagna and a Hungarian borscht (his addition of paprika and cabbage making it Hungarian) for lunch. I welcomed and enjoyed both, but I was most intrigued with the dish he did not offer. “What’s the quinoa dish?” I asked. Jim made a kind of gagging face and replied, “Oh. That’s Wendy’s breakfast.”

Jim is considered to be quite adventuresome when it comes to food. If you remember, he was the one that once prepared “Boar’s Head.” It seems Jim will try anything once, but he also has specific things, that once tried and disliked, are stricken from his palate forever! Wendy, his wife and the company’s co-owner, is more of a middle-of-the-road culinary adventurer. Knowing not very many people who have even tried quinoa….and never for breakfast, I had to follow-up.

Wendy’s Quinoa Breakfast is simplicity itself: cooked quinoa, chilled, and yoghurt added. Fruit and nuts optional. As easy as oatmeal, yet far more healthy. Wendy says she switched to quinoa, because she wanted a lower glycemic index, higher protein, and lower fat than oatmeal. She realized that a lot of traditional American breakfast is so much “junk food” (eggs, pancakes, processed cereal, etc.) at the same time she  found how important breakfast is to her. She finds this quinoa dish to be filling, but also light. It easily lasts her to lunch, and makes her “more focused” and her day “more complete.” She tries to have this dish 5-6X a week.

Of course, I could not help to make my own version, but this comes very close to what Wendy had made. Wendy adds flax seed to this dish as well (which I did not….but only because I forgot that I had some at the time of cooking.)

Wendy’s Quinoa Breakfast
Wash 1C. Red Quinoa and add to 1.25C. H2O. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork. Chill.

I added 1/4C. crasins half way through the simmering. A greek yoghurt laced with honey seemed right. I topped it with a sprinkling of cardamom and toasted pecans.

I found this dish to be as tasty and rewarding as Wendy had made it out to be. Wendy made the mistake of giving Jim the cooked quinoa before adding the yoghurt, hence his “face.” I know very few people who can take their quinoa straight like this. Wonderful as a side dish or mixed with other foods, quinoa has a distinctly “earthy” flavor. Since making Wendy’s breakfast, I have found other quinoa breakfast dishes. One, by another fellow-food blogger is “Quinoa Grits” which is cooked white quinoa, lightly spiced and fried in oil.

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March 24, 2014: Recipe Errors & Judgments

March 24, 2014

Crepes2

There is something about a recipe that just begs to be trusted.

I always want to trust to that someone writing a recipe has put in the necessary research, experimentation, and documentation that I myself would do (and have done for recipes featured in the blog.) Sadly, this is sometimes not the case. I now look at recipes as a guide only and tend to trust my experience and judgment to freely  amend any recipe I use.

Veggie Bisque

Veggie Bisque

I first started doing this, years ago, while this making biscotti from a recipe in a pretty good cookbook that I had come to trust and had guided me in making a number of delicious dishes. Looking at the quantity of flour required for the recipe, my first reaction was “Wow. That’s looks pretty skimpy.” Sure enough, the recipe called for roughly 1/3rd the amount of flour that made a good biscotti! I wrote a scolding comment in the margins of the cookbook and have now made it correctly many times since.

Ratatouille Nicoise

Ratatouille Nicoise

So, knowing how wrong recipes can sometimes be, I feel particularly burned when I go against my instincts and completely trust a recipe. I tend to do this only with meat recipes, as being a vegetarian for many years I feel as if I don’t always have the proper experience for meat dishes. Such was the case last week when I was asked to make a French dinner to celebrate my young friend Katie’s 11th birthday party. I pulled out all stops and made a meal which I thought might appeal to the palate of her young guests:

Zucchini Crown2Vegetable Bisque (topped with a dollop of sour cream and chives)
Crepes (with choice of grilled chicken and lemon-bechamel sauce OR Beef Bourguignon)
Ratatouille Nicoise
Minted Green-Pea Timbales
Zucchini Crowns
Salad (of lettuces with Spiced Pecans, Blood Orange, Star Fruit, and Raspberry Coulis)
Homemade Eclairs
Kiwi Slices with White Chocolate and Blackberry

Raspberry Coulis

Raspberry Coulis

The recipe slip-up for this meal was the Beef Bourguignon. It called for 3lbs. of beef to feed six people. As 18-20 people were expected at the party, I felt as if I had no choice but to double the amount, although my instinct told me that was too much. Sure enough, my instinct was correct, and I stuck the hosts with double the amount of the most expensive part of the meal. I could juxtapose this faux-pas with my own recipe for raspberry coulis which then, as ever, was just perfect.

So…I guess the general rule is: if your haven’t actually written the recipe, give it the benefit of doubt, and when in doubt….trust your instincts.

Minted Green Pea Timbales: A fine dish, yet nonetheless hated by my entire family and 11-year-old girls.

Minted Green Pea Timbales: A really fine dish, yet nonetheless hated by my entire family and now….11-year-old girls.

My other error is ever thinking that I could please an eleven-year-old with a meal of this caliber. After a weekend of hard work followed by disappointment, now I know that young American adolescents have a preternatural radar for….and aversion to…anything even remotely healthy. If it had carbs and sugars, they were all over those. The refill batch of eclairs never made it to the table, as they were snatched up on route! The dark and milk chocolate towers of Eiffel, the girls swarmed and devoured in the manner of (as one adult  put it) ” a school of piranha!” All veggies were eschewed (as opposed to chewed.) The main course was mainly eaten by grown-ups or (pathetically) went to leftovers.

So my new chef’s rule: if you aren’t old enough to partake of the wines that go with a fine French meal, it’s boxed mac and cheese all around!

[Much thanks to Teja Arboleda for the snaps taken with his IPhone]

Homemade Eclairs: Nothing but a fancy Boston Cream Donut

Homemade Eclairs: Nothing but a fancy Boston Cream Donut

The two majestic Eiffels. Dark and light chocolate.

The two majestic Eiffels. Dark and light chocolate.

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December 08, 2013: Sushi Class and Flamenco

December 8, 2013

Yoshio Teaches Sushi LCHCEarly this week, it was my honor and pleasure to once again don the uniform of a “Okonomy” sous-chef. “Okonomy” is Master Chef Yoshio Saito’s catering restaurant and is what this blog is named after. This week, it was to assist Chef Saito in teaching a sushi class at the Lowell Community Health Center in an effort to promote healthier options for diet. There were two classes scheduled with an expected 60 people per class, so we had our work cut out for us!

There is a saying in the East: “Give a man a fish, and he will stave off hunger for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he will stave off hunger for a lifetime.” My experience with Yoshio and Okonomy, up to now, has been more of “giving of a fish” (literally and figuratively) to patrons. This time, it was a “teaching to fish” kind of affair. Okonomy was to provide all the materials ready to make temaki roll. This is sushi in a cone wrap of nori (seaweed sheets.) Yoshio would teach history, techniques and procedure to allow the health center administrators to learn the hows and whys of making sushi and then (best of all) teach them to make their own delicious combinations!

Considerable preparation was needed to buy, cut, package, and store all the separate elements of the temaki roll Yoshio was teaching. Those items were:

Nori Wraps             Toasted Sesame Seeds               Trefoil (or Beefsteak) leaves
Cucumber               Brown & White Sushi Rice         Shoyu (soy sauce)
Natto (fermented soybean)      Pickled Ginger         Daikon (Japanese Radish)
Fried Tofu Sheets          Scallions              Wasabi (Japanese Horseradish)
Imitation Crab             Avocado

Yoshios Sushi Rice

Brown Sushi Rice from Rice Cooker Photo: Y. Saito

Most troublesome to Chef Saito was the huge quantity of rice (we ended up with close to eighty pounds, between the white and brown) and most important, to keep such a huge quantity consistently warm until serving. Yoshio came up with  very clever technique of putting the rice batches in huge sealed bags and keeping them in a large thermos with hot water bottles. Yoshio flavored the rice with his special mixture of seasoning, stirring each batch under a fan to cool the rice to the proper temperature.

Chef Saito also made his home-made wasabi, which is much more hot (as well as more flavorful) than store-bought brands. [I observed more than one patron with watery eyes after applying just a tad too much!] Yoshio tempered such heat in the temaki rolls with the cool, bright, and tangy trefoil leaves, as well as the slightly sweet daikon and pickled ginger. He rounded out his temaki with the nutty toasted sesame seeds and salty shoyu.

The most delicious cucumber soup ever!

The most delicious cucumber soup ever! Photo: Y. Saito

Cooking with Yoshio is always such a positive experience in so many ways: not only is the work a lot of fun, but I learn so much every time just by being around a master and asking questions (which Yoshio is always pleased to answer.) It certainly helps to work for a master chef around break time. For dinner, he took the leavings from the cucumbers I was working on and whipped up a wonderful cucumber soup on the fly! He combined the cucumber with stock and milk and topped it of with white truffle oil, finely chopped trefoil, and crumbled feta cheese. I can honestly say it was one of the most spectacular soups I’ve ever had!

During an earlier break, Yoshio played a flamenco piece on his guitar (something I didn’t know he was training for) to perfection, but I was curious, “Why flamenco?” Actually, this style of playing from Southern Spain has more schools in Japan than Spain! It seems the flamenco style is hard on guitars and that guitar makers consider a flamenco guitar as “disposable!” After prepping was all done, Yoshio treated me to my favorite bourbon as we watched “Toast” which I was happy to find that Yoshio and his wife Dorcas liked as well as I.

Temaki by Mark; Photo: M.Raymond

Temaki by Mark; Photo: M.Raymond

As not as many people showed up as expected to both classes, Yoshio sent me home with a few leftovers. As I had lost a day at work, I thought it only fair to share the sushi fixings with those at work. The guys at work were making perfect tamaki rolls by their third go-around and we enjoyed a varied, healthy, tasty lunch, while taking pride in developing our make-it-yourself  skills!

Preparing Sushi; Photo: M.Raymond

Preparing Sushi; Photo: M.Raymond

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