Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Clean 15 and The Dirty Dozen

I'm sure by now most people are familiar with this concept. The concept that while ideally all the food we consume would be organically grown, that is not always the case for multiple reasons. These reasons are varied and include cost/financial considerations, apathy, ignorance, and accessibility to name a few. I would have to think that upfront cost would be the major determining factor. I mean imagine if there were a store that sold both organic and chemically fertilized, pesticide-laden versions of fruits and vegetables side by side for exactly the same price. I would hazard a guess that the organic would out-sell the conventional. Or what if the organic produce actually cost less. Certainly then people would buy it first. But with few exceptions, the cost at the register is usually less (sometimes a little and sometimes a lot) for conventionally grown produce. Of course, as we know, the true costs of buying and eating toxic food are externalized. The environmental damage is difficult to measure and we pay in doctors' bills later as our health suffers.

Each year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) compiles a list of the 12 conventionally grown fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide residue, and also a list of the 15 fruits and veggies with the lowest. I appreciate having this knowledge as I try to balance health and budget and convenience in my life and for my family. There are certain things that I always buy organic. There are certain things that, armed with this knowledge, I buy on the cheap. And some things I don't tend to buy at all because I will not subject my family to their toxicity but I am also unable to justify the high prices of the organic versions. 

Here are their current lists:

Dirty Dozen
Nectarines (imported)
Grapes (imported)
Bell peppers
Blueberries (domestic) 
Kale/collard greens

Clean 15
Sweet corn*
Sweet peas
Cantaloupe (domestic)
Kiwi fruit
Sweet potatoes

I keep this list on my refrigerator as a reminder. As the EWG website states, you can lower your pesticide intake substantially by avoiding the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables and by eating the least contaminated produce. Celery for instance, tests positive for 57 different pesticides!!!!!! That is crazy. So you can typically buy a celery bunch for under a buck at the grocery store. At our co-op it goes for $2.29. Talk about bang for your buck! For an extra dollar or so I am avoiding exposing my family and guests to up to 57 pesticides! I am happy that onions and avocados and mushrooms are on the clean list. I take seriously that apples, celery, and strawberries are the three "dirtiest". I also never, ever buy non-organic greens. I've always done that on instinct. Of course, my dream is that someday organic is conventional and "conventional" is labeled as potentially hazardous to our health and planet.

*Oh, the asterisk next to the sweet corn... I just think there may be other reasons not to buy conventional corn like that it may be genetically modified (Syngenta's GM corn is already available and there is talk of Monsanto's being offered at Walmart by this summer). On another note, if you'd like to see mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods, make sure to sign a petition that is now circulating to get it on the 2012 California ballot for voters to decide. Consumers should clearly be informed so that they can make a choice. For some, it will change their shopping habits, for others not. It's like the Environmental Working Group's Clean 15/Dirty Dozen list. They put the information out there. You can use it as you see fit.  


Friday, February 24, 2012

English Hill Morning, Occidental Breakfast, Bodega Bay Afternoon

I cannot help but celebrate the place I come from. As you know, I am a farm girl at heart and when I return to the farm of my childhood my heart soars. Without even realizing it, I literally run from place to place as I used to do. The feeling of freedom and expansiveness is palpable. In a recent trip requested by our 5-year old son, we enjoyed the farm and the beach, 20 minutes away. It is an absolute joy for me to behold my son as he romps carefree on the land of my own girlhood. His enthusiasm was irresistible as he built a tree fort with his grandpa's help and ran from place to place discovering treasures like paths, rocks, flowers, sticks, and secret hiding spots.

Sonoma County is a sweet Northern California county which boasts wine country and 76 miles of Pacific coastline, rolling hills, and agricultural valleys. I am partial to the more sparsely populated, hilly, and pastoral west county. It's a bit more laid back and retains more authentic funky charm than towns and cities along the busy Hwy. 101 corridor. It also remains more unchanged. Which is nice. Like the ocean. Still there after all these years for me to come home to again and again like the waves cresting and falling to rest momentarily before being swept out to sea once again....  

Celebrating West Sonoma County in photos:
An English Hill Morning:

My parents' rosemary plant which covers approximately 1/4 acre :)

An Occidental Breakfast: Howie's 

"Primo Potatoes"
Bodega Bay Afternoon:

We found a live abalone on the beach. We threw it back into the sea.

And gougeres in the evening for good measure:


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Decidedly Non-Vegan Cheesecake

*Optional title: Simple, Easy, So Good Cheesecake

I've been known to make a cheesecake now and then. Maybe once or twice a year. Since I have been doing that now for 25 years I have made quite a few. My first taste of the dessert came from a Mill Valley restaurant called Ali Baba's in the 1970s when I was a little girl. My parents and their friends would go there especially for the decadent sour cream cheesecake they offered. It was an indulgence that was made special by singling it out and celebrating it with good friends. 

My experimentations with cheesecake have run the gamut from savory to sweet and simple to complex. Crusts have included walnuts, pecans, pistachios, ginger snaps, and parmesan. Fillings have used sweet potatoes and smoked salmon, candied ginger, lemon zest, yogurt, ricotta, and cottage cheese. Some have been baked in a water bath and others haven't been baked at all. Some used multiple packages of cream cheese along with ricotta and seemed to weigh 10 pounds at completion! Some I've only made once and others are favorites that I return to.

The one I want to share today is a classic and very simple sour cream cheesecake recipe that brings to mind that first cheesecake I ever tasted. It isn't overly sweet or over the top. It is simple and divine. For obvious reasons cheesecake can only be enjoyed with impunity on an occasional basis. I've scaled this one down to where it makes a thin pie in a shallow 9 inch pie pan and only uses one 8 oz. package of cream cheese. It will serve 8 if you are having company and is not too big to make for the family on a special occasion (like the first snow of the year or someone losing their first tooth! :) )

Classic Sour Cream Cheesecake
Adapted from the original Joy of Cooking

1 cup graham cracker crumbs (8 full crackers)
3 T. powdered sugar
4.5 T. melted butter

2 medium or 1 extra large egg
1 8 ounce package of full fat cream cheese
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 t. vanilla or lemon juice
1/2 t. salt

1 cup sour cream
1 T. sugar
1/2 t. vanilla
sprinkle of salt

Let the cream cheese come to room temperature before you begin (~2 hrs.). First make the crust. I use a Cuisinart to make quick work of the graham crackers but they could be crushed with a rolling pin in a plastic bag. Add melted butter and sugar to the graham cracker crumbs and stir well to moisten. Press mixture into the bottom of a 9 inch pie pan coming up the sides a little. (Optional: I then give it a quick spray with cooking spray covering the exposed pan so the cheesecake comes away easily. Also, if it is not a non-stick pan you may want to spray the bottom before you press the crust in.) Place in refrigerator to chill (15 or more minutes). 

Beat softened cream cheese in mixer then add hand-beaten eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt. It is okay if it is a bit lumpy. The softer the cream cheese the less lumpy it will be. Pour into chilled crust. Bake for 18-20 minutes at 375 degrees. Let cool to room temperature. Sprinkle a bit of cinnamon over the top if you like. When you are ready, pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees. Stir the sour cream, sugar, vanilla, and pinch of salt together and spread over the cooled pie. Place in hot oven for just 5 minutes to glaze the sour cream topping. Pull from oven and cool. Can be eaten at room temperature or chilled in refrigerator and then brought back close to room temp later.

Enjoy thoroughly!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Vegan Punjabi Chanas

Last week I attended an evening cooking class here in Quincy. It was sponsored by our vibrant co-op and taught by a Feather River College art instructor. She eats vegan and married into an Indian family many years ago. She explained that her sisters-in-law took it upon themselves to "at least" teach her how to cook proper Indian food.

If I could pick one type of restaurant to add to our town's small menagerie of eating establishments it would be an Indian food place. I love the richness, the spiciness, the emphasis on vegetarian dishes, the range of flavors, and the naan. Our town is definitely lacking in the spicy ethnic food department. When we travel we always seek out what we are missing here. We love Thai and Indian especially. If you are ever in Redding, Ca try Priya Indian Cuisine at 2937 Churn Creek Road. If you are in Chico, Priya Indian Cuisine at 2574 Esplanade is not as good as its Redding namesake but still gives us our fix. I think it is just a coincidence that they have the same name but not sure. For Thai in Chico we like Sophia's Thai Cuisine at 305 Nord Avenue.

Dianne, our teacher, made a chickpea (chanascurry, Indian basmati rice, sauteed cabbage, and a coconut yogurt garnish (raita). I especially appreciated seeing how she roasted all of the spices (masala) for the curry along with onion, garlic, ginger, and tomato sauce. It is this slow, stove-top roasting that takes a bit of patience but if done properly really brings out the flavors of the masala. Once the dishes were complete we all got to have a taste.
The bowl in the foreground contains a colorful blend of fragrant spices mixed with sugar crystals that serves as an after-meal digestive aid/mouth freshener.
The chanas dish had depth of flavor and a nice heat to it. Although the coconut yogurt tasted just fine, not being a vegan myself, I think a whole cow's milk yogurt may work better to cool the spiciness and be delicious as well. While the chickpeas and potatoes stood on their own, I also couldn't help but imagine some small hunks of chicken in the curry sauce. Tonight I will make the dish at home, non-vegan style and share the results.

Vegan Punjabi Chanas
1 medium onion
7 large garlic cloves
2" x 1.5" piece of peeled fresh ginger
1 cup tomato sauce
1 t. turmeric
2 T. coriander powder
2 T. cumin powder
1/2 t. cayenne (or a full teaspoon if you like to sweat a bit)
4 1/2 cups of garbanzo beans (1.5 cups soaked overnight or use canned)
3 or 4 medium potatoes peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
coconut oil or peanut oil (can use ghee if non-vegan)

Put onion and ginger (in chunks) and garlic cloves in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped or chop finely by hand. Heat several tablespoons of coconut or peanut oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot. Add onion, garlic, and ginger and saute a few minutes until translucent. Add tomato sauce. Cook, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes. 

Add spices. This is the roasting stage. With pot on low-medium, keep cooking and stirring until the mixture has slowly dried and darkened to a reddish brown. Oil may separate out and this is fine. This process takes about 20 minutes. At this point stop the roasting by adding a half cup of water. Stir to form gravy. Then add 4 cups of water, the chickpeas, the potatoes, and a couple teaspoons of salt. Cover and cook until potatoes and chickpeas are tender. In a pressure cooker this can be as soon as 10 minutes after you come to pressure. In a regular pot on low-medium heat it will take about 40 minutes. 

Remove from heat and let cool slightly. If you like, you can pull a cup or two of the potato chickpea mixture out of the pot and blend it in a blender or food processor and then add it back to the pot to thicken the sauce of the final dish. 

Serve over rice. Garnish with chopped fresh cilantro and raita.*
Serves 6+. Even better the second day.

*To make raita simply stir together plain yogurt, chopped or grated cucumber, a squeeze of lemon, and a couple sprinkles of salt, pepper, and cumin.

Photos of the chanas coming together in my kitchen:
Ginger, garlic, and onion
Ginger, garlic, and onion mixture 
Saute then add tomato sauce 
Saute some more and then add spices
After 20 minutes of roasting
Add water chickpeas and potatoes
Pulling some out to blend to thicken dish
Served over rice with raita and sauteed bok choy
So I quickly browned a chopped chicken breast in butter and added it to the chanas in the last 20 minutes of simmering. The verdict on that was somewhat neutral. Sure, the chicken tasted good because it tasted like the piquant sauce. It added an additional texture but wouldn't be missed if it weren't there. You may as well go vegan!

I thought the bok choy was a good, slightly crunchy counterpoint to the spicy richness of the chanas. To prepare the bok choy: Wash well and chop 3 or 4 heads(?) of bok choy. Heat 1 T. coconut or peanut or olive oil in a skillet. Add 1 t. cumin seeds and 2 chopped garlic cloves to the oil and let toast for a minute or two. Add bok choy and saute until wilted (6 or 7 minutes). Sprinkle with salt and pepper while cooking. Serve immediately.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

Beautiful, Sensual Food!

I experience so much joy from food! I just love looking at fresh, healthy, unadulterated ingredients. Having lovely fruit and vegetables adorning my counters makes me happy! I get as much pleasure from looking at it as from eating it. 

We buy our eggs from a local couple who raise chickens here in Quincy. The eggs are beautiful in and out of the shell. As the days grew shorter and colder in late November the hens stopped laying. For 2 months we were without their gifts. We missed our farm-fresh eggs. We bought free-range organic from our co-op and the much cheaper regional-conventional from the grocery store. The yolks of both were similarly pale yellow and their flavor bland. Our egg consumption went way down while we waited out the dry spell. Now that the days are lengthening appreciably and the sun has been shining the hens are back in business and so are we. These gems were delivered to our house last week. Each one is unique but perfect in its own right. The shells' colors are earthy, their shapes voluptuous. The yolks are sunset orange, their taste rich and wholesome.

A feast for the eyes, right? Well, here is some more eye candy. Our co-op has been carrying broccoli Romanesco of late. It always takes me by surprise and delights me when I see it, which is not often. Of course, I had to buy some to photograph, blog about.... oh, and eat. When I bought it, Dave, my checker, said, "Ahhh, some fractal broccoli, eh?". Yeah, I couldn't resist. It brings to mind coral reefs and shells from under the sea and galaxy formation up in the heavens. It is a wild and miraculous world we live in and this vegetable is one of its manifestations.

I ended up roasting it as I do cauliflower. I tossed it with garlic olive oil, sea salt, pepper, and kalamata olives (375 degrees for 35-40 minutes). It is denser than cauliflower with less water so it was not as tender (could steam instead) but it was tasty.
Alright here is one last sensual food photo of a persimmon slice dried and given to me by a friend. It is like the sun, a star, a snowflake, a flower. As I bite into its chewy sweetness, I smile, happy to be a part of it all.  

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Barn Quilts - A Photo Journey

About a year and a half ago an article appeared in our local weekly paper about barn quilts. A few local women, some of them actual quilters, had painted quilt patterns on plywood and hung them in their yards and gardens. At the time I had no idea that barn quilts were all the rage east of the Mississippi. To me they were novel and esthetically pleasing. I seized on the idea as I had been envisioning a mandala of sorts to decorate our outbuilding known as "the shop". Painting a barn quilt seemed like a fun project to take on. I ended up painting five of them. The first two in 2010 and the next three in the summer of 2011. 

You begin by primering a square of plywood in the size of your choice. If you have a good sense of geometry, they are fairly easy to lay out. You just look at a picture of the pattern you want to use, grab a pencil and a straight edge and a measuring tape, and figure it out. Iowa is big on barn quilts, and barns for that matter. You can view scores of different patterns on some amazing old barns at Once you have laid out your pattern, you tape off the segments that you are ready to paint. Choosing the colors is an opportunity for your creativity. After applying a few coats and letting it dry, you pull the tape and move on to different segments. The whole process from start to finish is quite lengthy but the actual time spent working on it is more reasonable. The first two I painted are the same. The colors coordinate with our house and outbuildings. 
"The Shop" yesterday
"The Barn"/woodshed yesterday
Last summer I painted a large (4' x 4') quilt that is meant to help cheer me up in the dead of winter. It is working!
Here is our fence in the fall.
Here is our fence yesterday.
Well, it turns out that I wasn't the only one inspired by the barn quilt idea. All over our rural valley (American Valley) and throughout our mountain town, these colorful artistic expressions have popped up. Within a year or so, our community went from no barn quilts to dozens of barn quilts. Our local arts commission, Plumas Arts, put together a map of barn quilt locations for an auto tour last September. 

Last week I picked my son and his friend up from kindergarten and we did a 10-mile driving excursion around our mountain valley in search of barn quilts to photograph. Below is what we saw.

I take pleasure in the colorful and artistic dimension they add to Quincy. Just thought I'd try to capture their charm for y'all.