So Many Greens

So what to do when you have run amok at the Farmers Market or picked up a late-spring share at your local CSA and find yourself in possession of a mountain of crisp, gorgeous greens?  Kale, chard, bok choy, mustard, beet and turnip greens are all abundant and at their peak of flavor right now, and they’re delicious practically any way you cook them.  Faced with yet another refrigerator bursting with bags of greens clamoring to be eaten, here’s what I’ve learned so far:

If refrigerator space is at a premium—which means any day my family is in residence– it only makes sense to reduce the overall size of the greens invasion by the most obvious method .  Cook those suckers!   Once they’re silky, tender and flavored with garlic and salt, they can be stirred into polenta, tossed with pasta, festooned over rice or smashed into potatoes.  They can top a pizza, form a casserole layer or enliven a soup.  They’ll keep for days, and add delicious flavor and intense nutrition to any dish where you can put them.  And if it looks like they won’t get used right away, they can store flat and unobtrusively  in a plastic bag in the freezer until inspiration strikes.  Here’s what works here at Farandwee.

All greens can be prepared in essentially the same way, although cooking time may vary.  If they  have thick, tough stems, it’s best to strip them and cook only the leafy portion; in my experience it’s practical to strip the stems from mustard, kale and collard greens.  I separate the leaves from the stems on chard and bok choy and start them cooking 5 minutes or so ahead of the greens in the same pot, and serve them together.  I cook spinach, turnip and beet greens whole.

Once they’re washed, stripped from their stems if necessary and chopped into any shape and size that appeals, all types of greens are very happy being sautéed in olive oil over medium-high  heat until they’re bright green and tender.  The most fragile greens—spinach, chard and beet—only need to cook for a few seconds before they’re ready to eat.  The more substantial ones, like kale and collards, can take longer to soften; if they do, add a bit of water to the pan and cover to allow the steam to help with the cooking. The liquid, or “pot liquor” packs a delicious flavor punch.   There is absolutely nothing wrong with letting some salt pork, bacon or ham lend some piggy deliciousness to the overall flavor either. Cook right along with the greens or cook until crispy, remove from the pan and then add the greens, adding the meat as a garnish before serving.

When the greens are cooked they either go into the fridge to cool for another day or it’s time to eat them!  I usually add a few drops of olive oil or a small pat of butter to bring out their greens’ natural succulence, and salt and pepper to taste.  Then it’s time to get creative and add some raisins and toasted pine nuts for Sicilian flair or sesame oil and a dash of ginger and soy for an Asian-inspired treat.   If they’re too bitter, a drizzle of honey or the sweetness of an onion cooked at the same time may take the edge off.  A splash of lemon or vinegar will brighten the flavor and a sprinkle of hot sauce adds a touch of heat.   A can of beans and a little chicken stock create a terrific soup or pasta sauce, while a little shredded cheese and a tortilla makes a quick and tasty snack.

All the varieties of greens above are delicious as salad greens too, if you’re lucky enough to have access to them when they’re harvested as leaves only 2-3” long.  Once they get larger, they often become too tough to chew easily, and members of the mustard family can get painfully spicy as they get older, a flavor that is moderated by cooking. If the assertive flavors of baby greens don’t suit your family’s tastes, a handful tossed into a more mellow salad blend can add a touch of pizzazz without being overwhelming.  Dressed with a drizzle of olive oil, a few drops of wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice and a sprinkle of salt and pepper, baby greens are an extraordinarily flavorful way to start or end a meal, and can easily support the added richness of chopped nuts or crumbled cheese, or the sweet undertones of berries or other fruit.

The abundance of fresh greens reflects the general abundance of life as midsummer approaches, the warm days and the long, dreamy evenings when family and friends gather to eat from the farm and the garden, savoring the flavors while the fireflies dance and the music of birds and insects fills the air.  No better time to see the kitchen full of goodness, and know that hungry mouths and hearts will be fed at the same table.

©Mary Braden 2013

 

Me-ganism on Summer Vacation

Forgive me for lingering between posts, but school is out, the house is blissfully overrun with teenagers and this introvert has been wallowing joyfully in the pleasures of the tribe.   My children both go to school out of state, so summers are family time in the Farandwee household.  Also cooking.  A lot of cooking.  My tightly-reined private dietary habits have given way to a free-for-all of varying schedules, opinionated palates and unpredictable appetites.  I was anxious at first, but I’m here to report that it has gone surprisingly well.  I added milk, eggs and cheese to the refrigerator, but continue to stock soymilk, flax meal and other vegan stand-bys. We’re eating legumes in salads, spreads and soups, demolishing mountains of fresh fruits and roasted veggies, stuffing our faces with salad.  One day I made a broccoli and cheddar quiche, another fateful day I made a wilted spinach salad with hot BACON dressing…5 slices of bacon made a memorable taste sensation for 7 people and delivered only a modest jolt of animal wickedness.  Oatmeal has been cooked in water, soymilk and dairy milk and drizzled with honey or maple syrup.  Friday nights we get vegetarian pizza on whole wheat crust from the local pizza shrine and savor every cheesy delicious bite.  I’ve simmered coconut/soymilk brown rice pudding on the stove until the whole house smelled sweet and delicious and the teenagers clamored to take turns stirring and stealing bites.

Yes, I’m taking in more animal protein than I do when I am alone in the house, but not much more.  I still eat vegan for days on end, and nearly everything I cook myself is free of meat and dairy.  My kids are being exposed to new flavors—Mexican pasta salad, anyone?—and still getting to have their favorite treats on occasion.  Everyone is eating whole foods cooked from scratch, benefiting from their wealth of nutrients and flavors and blithely untouched by the nastinesses of packaged foods.

It’s a balancing act.  I want my whole family to eat a healthy, balanced diet with the best possible effects on their bodies.  But I also want family meals to be a time of joy, of aesthetic delight in flavors, textures and aromas.  I want the kids to savor new foods but also to be comforted and nurtured by their favorites.  So I weigh it out in my mind…what is the optimum balance for my own family in this exact place and time?  Which days need homemade mac and cheese, creamy and savory with the pungent whiff of mustard and cheddar, and which days need homemade pita chips dusted with herbs dipped into luxuriously silky hummus with a salad of grated carrots and parsley on the side?  This is Me-ganism at its finest, expanded to encompass the personalities and inclinations of a whole family.  In this incarnation, it could be called We-ganism.

Food, the second most important necessity that we must voluntarily take into our bodies to survive (h/t to water, the first), is among the most powerful of cultural influences on a person.  Certain foods accompany their prescribed celebrations…ham at Easter, turkey at Thanksgiving, lentils at the New Year in Italy, Hoppin’ John in the American South.  Our palates become accustomed to the flavors our parents give us, as theirs did to our grandparents’ cooking a generation before.  We learn what is too salty, what is too spicy or too sweet, and we take those views into our own kitchens and our own supermarkets in our turn.  So the choices I make with my adolescents are likely to matter sooner rather than later as they head out into the world; if I repel them with too many unfamiliar ingredients or dishes, then I may be steering them away from experimentation and creativity in the kitchen or at the table.  If I continue to feed them the rich, delicious animal-based foods of my childhood, then I am encouraging them to make their dietary choices based solely on flavor rather than on a holistic view of food as a medical, political, and environmental as well as an aesthetic force.  And if I attempt to leverage my own dietary choices into a means of controlling them, then our family meals will devolve into pointless, grinding conflict.   My duty as a parent is to convey my own convictions to my children while remaining mindful of my primary responsibility to them, which is to nurture their bodies and their minds in every way I can.

These summer months are an inspiration to me to seek and practice moderation, to recognize that eating well doesn’t mean the same thing to all people at the same time.  While my house is full, I have the opportunity to share thoughts and recipes and meals with my children as well as to consider and reconsider my own dietary choices in the context of a shared life and shared kitchen.  These are sweet times, these summers of our great content.  They are about the basic principles of Me-ganism: joy, creativity, self-compassion and health.  And this summer I’m rolling up both sleeves and leaping in with both hands.  Eat well, my friends, and wring every last bite of happiness from every plate you meet.

©Mary Braden 2013

Eating Me-gan

SPOILER ALERT: The following is not a piece of erotic writing about lesbians or contortionists.

It is, however, a description of the way I have been eating for the last several months,as part of an overall shift towards increased mindfulness and simplification in my inner and outer life. I call it “Me-gan,” because it is intensely personal, as I think a person’s relationship with food ought to be. After all, eating is where we meet the world in the most intimate possible way; we take it into ourselves and it becomes us.

The hallmark of Me-ganism is flexibility. There are no absolute rules, no morality of “good” and “bad” foods, no program and no manual. Its guiding principle is that eating should be good for you at every stage of the process: before you eat it, while you eat it, and after you eat it. In other words, you should enjoy planning and preparing it, you should enjoy the sensations and emotions that go along with eating it, and you should benefit both physically and mentally from having eaten it.

This approach to food and eating requires cultivating self-awareness and learning to interpret internal messages with discernment and compassion. It does not require obscure tools, specialized knowledge or an expensive and exotic pantry. There is no guarantee that it will improve health or reduce weight. As of today, Me-ganism has exactly one practitioner, me. I’m not a dietician or a doctor, although I consider myself a well-educated layperson when it comes to nutrition and wellness.

Besides the guiding principle listed above, there are a handful of other ideas that have shaped and continue to shape the way I eat and relate to food:

If it doesn’t taste good, or makes you feel bad, don’t eat it. Life is too short to waste precious time making yourself miserable. You’re way more likely to make and stick with positive changes if they make you feel, well…positive!

Remember your roots. Long before supermarkets, we ate what we could grow, hunt or find. Bring your food home in as close to its natural state as you can, as free from chemicals and as locally-grown as you can comfortably manage. God won’t strike you down if you eat conventionally-grown produce (I do, often) or pop open a can of beans or tomatoes on occasion. Just do the best you can.

Start with vegetables and fruits. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of them in your produce section (or your farmer’s market or maybe even your garden). They cover a huge spectrum of flavors and textures from sweet apples to bitter collards to creamy sweet potatoes. They require only simple cooking like roasting or steaming to bring out their flavors and of course many of them are delicious eaten raw. Many of them contain surprisingly high amounts of protein. Don’t forget mushrooms and fresh herbs, which add richness of flavor wherever they go. And don’t forget the olive oil, the best quality you can muster.  The good stuff really does taste better.

Build a foundation of whole grains and legumes. Our bodies need carbohydrates for fuel, but they need them in a form that’s slow-release and rich in supporting nutrients to regulate metabolism. Enter whole grains and beans. Low in fat, high in protein and fiber, these are the workhorses of Me-ganism. Relatively neutral in flavor by themselves, they form the foundations of glorious breads, scrumptious soups and stews and hearty casseroles. They fill you up for hours and help your body recognize when it’s full, freeing your mind for long periods of focused attention.

Treat animal foods as treats rather than the norm. Our bodies don’t need animal foods every day, so make them a central part of feasts and celebrations rather than an everyday occurrence. Skip buying hamburger for two weeks and splurge on really great steaks at the end of it. Put PB or hummus or leftover grilled vegetables in your weekday sandwiches instead of meat and cheese for a few days, then bake a Brie on the weekend or crank up the blender and binge on Eggs Benedict. Forget your mom saying you need meat and milk and eggs to be healthy. That’s yesterday’s news. These foods are parties in your mouth, worth waiting and saving for and then going all out. These are the ones that provide the most pleasure before and during eating, but can disagree with you afterwards both short-term and long-term if consumed frequently.

Be compassionate with yourself about food. We all have issues about food and eating, and most of us judge our own eating habits harshly and negatively. Enough of that already. Me-ganism is about starting over, about building a new relationship with food and eating and ourselves based on what we really like and want. It’s about experimenting and evaluating, not judging. It’s about learning and comparing and observing how our bodies and our hearts respond to what we eat, and then using our new knowledge to nurture and respect ourselves. Everyone’s Me-ganism is going to look different, not only from other people’s but from his or her own from year to year.

Here’s what works for me, today. I don’t eat animal foods at home, because I’ve found I have more energy and feel healthier when my daily diet is animal-free. I drink wine and beer, one daily and occasionally two. I eat fast food on road trips and when I eat out I sometimes have meat and fish and usually cheese. I take a cheap daily multi-vitamin and mineral supplement with extra calcium and Vitamin D, and I make my own soymilk so I can eat my beloved oatmeal and bake. I use an app/website called MyFitnessPal (www.myfitnesspal.com) to track my eating (both the eating I’m proud of and the eating I’m not) so that I have real data to learn from as well as my subjective responses.

I wouldn’t expect my version of Me-ganism to work for everyone. It works for me because it was built that way. You can build your own for you. Food is supposed to be a pleasure and a fulfillment as well as a necessity, a gift to yourself from yourself. Give it a whirl and see what happens.

©Mary Braden 2013

Food for Thought

Let’s think about food. Yum. Good stuff, isn’t it? Gives us energy, rebuilds our tissues, fuels the myriad of chemical and electrical processes that we call life. Not only that, it plays to our sensorium, pleasing not only our tongues but our nostrils, our eyes and even our ears…sizzling fajitas, anyone? Our cultural identity is intimately entwined with food, our memories of childhood and family resonate with aromas and flavors from the table. Food is our favorite symbol of comfort, abundance and safety; is it surprising that we eat too much or too little when we feel uncomfortable, deprived or afraid?

We’re riding the crazy train with food in this country, and it’s because we have convinced ourselves that our emotional satisfaction depends on food. Instead of selecting our meals the way we select our cars—for value, performance and elegance—we stuff our bodies with the tastes and flavors that soothed or cheered us when we were babies: bland, soft sweets and salty, greasy savories. Instead of eating to satisfy our bodies’ needs for nutrients and energy, we use food like a mood-altering drug to make us happier, calmer, more relaxed.

These emotional needs are very real, more immediately pressing to us than our own physical requirements. And the urge to meet them with food is legitimate, to a point. Sweets elevate our moods, fat carries delicious, distracting flavors over our tastebuds and into our nostrils. In an earlier time when food was more scarce and the ability to overindulge rarely presented itself, these impulses did not interfere with healthy eating patterns, and drove us to supply the body with vital nutrients.

In our current environment, however, food is available at every turn, and the cheapest and easiest to prepare is the least nutritious. Our environment no longer limits what we eat or how much, and our instincts—to gorge ourselves blindly when we encounter comfort foods because we don’t know where or when we’ll find more—are leading us astray. With due respect to instinct, we need to make our relationship with food a conscious one, based on real understanding of our needs.

Food can meet certain needs perfectly. It gives us fuel for brain, muscles and metabolism. It provides nutrients for building tissues, driving chemical reactions and responding to injury or disease. It can arouse memories by triggering senses of smell and taste, and can evoke pleasure through every sense. Food can even catalyze social and political change, as it is the primary economic necessity for every group of humans on the planet.

What food can’t do is make us happy, and we need to realize that right now. We are the victims of cellular biology that took millennia to develop, which tells us that our sorrow or fatigue or crankiness are the result of perennial semi-starvation and that if we could just eat until we were sated we’d feel better. Let’s not be fooled! In reality, while our bodies may very well be signaling us to provide more of what they need, we must be canny in assessing those messages. What are the odds that we are really starving? And if we are, isn’t it more likely that we’re deficient in healthy nutrients than in sugar, fat, starch and salt? We need to learn to listen to our bodies in light of what we know is healthy for us, and to decode those messages wisely.
Our bodies are designed to eat whole foods: fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, meats, fish, eggs, dairy. They have no idea what to do with chemical preservatives and additives, or with foods that have had essential components removed, like white flour and sugar. So we can start by filling our kitchens with the stuff our bodies recognize and thrive on. Grains should be whole (whole wheat, stone-ground cornmeal, oats, brown rice) and fruits and veggies bright-colored and fresh or frozen (canned has too much salt and too few nutrients). We can cook without meat a couple of days a week, or even with no animal products at all. We can make a big pot of bean/split pea/lentil soup in the crock pot and try flavoring it with garlic, wine and herbs instead of ham. Or go Latin with roasted chile and lots of cumin and oregano.

Sure, time is short, we’re all stressed, and it takes more time to cook real food than to eat from a box. But step back a minute and think what’s at stake…who has time for diabetes, heart disease, obesity? Isn’t it better to make these changes now and enjoy the rewards for years to come? So let’s keep it simple and start with small changes. Ditching soda in favor of water or unsweetened tea? Yes! Replacing chips, cookies and candy in the pantry with fresh fruit, nuts and yogurt? Absolutely! buying a loaf of wholegrain bread for toast and sandwiches? Hooray! Our bodies crave this stuff, let’s deliver it!

A word to the politically-minded and the frugal: by filling your kitchen with whole, plant-based foods, you are keeping money in your own pocket and out of the hands of the gigantic business conglomerates that control so much of this nation’s wealth. You’re taking back your freedom to feed yourself and your family what nature intended for them, and not what the TV advertisers and marketing focus groups have decided would be most profitable. You’re casting your vote at the cash register for the kind of food you want available for your children’s future. Buy organic, or at your local farmer’s market or community farm, and you’re supporting a vision of affordable, independently-produced local food. Every step counts.

A glance at the headlines reveals that we are a nation of tired, frightened, often unhealthy people who could use a lot more TLC than we’re getting. We need to stop throwing food at our anxiety and stress, and start comforting ourselves in ways that heal. Feeding ourselves well is the most profound self-nurturing we can do, the most fundamental way of affirming our worth in the world. We all deserve that, and it’s within our reach.

©Mary Braden 2013

Comfort Food

Today, though productive and cheerful, felt very long by the end of it. Went to bed at 1 a.m. the night before and woke at 4:48, just before the alarm. Dressed for the gym and left the house at 6:05, drove 30 minutes to the office fitness center.  Put in 60 minutes of walk-running on the treadmill, showered, changed into work clothes and worked a full day including a lunch with my boss that was pretty healthy, but not exactly relaxing. Had to detour on the way home to avoid construction, then stopped at the store for ant traps. coffee filters, trash bags and tea. Arrived home, let the dog out, changed into soft comfy clothes, and warmed up the flavorful, nutritious meal I had been looking forward to all day-leftover braised kale with onions and a bowl of black bean and sweet potato stew.

I posted the soup recipe a couple days ago, check it out if you want something outrageously healthy, flavorful and easy to make.  I used a slow cooker, it works brilliantly on the stovetop too.

The kale preparation is too simple even to be called a recipe: saute half an onion in a tablespoon or two of olive oil until translucent, add a bunch of fresh kale (or collard or mustard or other greens) that has been washed, tough stems stripped away and roughly chopped. Add two teaspoons each of cider vinegar and brown sugar, a couple healthy pinches of salt, plenty of your favorite hot sauce, a muscular grind of black pepper and stir to combine. Add up to a cup of water to the pan, depending on how much pot liquor you want in the end, cover the pot tightly and cook at a slow simmer for 45-60 minutes. The result? Tender, deeply flavorful greens with a luxuriously silky mouthfeel and a spicy, tangy brightness of flavor.  Ham or bacon? By all means. Garlic and white wine instead of vinegar and sugar? Yum. You get the idea.

The beauty of both these dishes is that they keep beautifully. I made the soup 3 days ago, the kale day before yesterday when I had time to chop and assemble ingredients. The flavors had a chance to mellow and marry, the textures to nestle together without losing their identity. I knew they’d be delicious. A couple minutes each in the microwave and they’re filling the room with savory, inviting fragrance. The anxiety of the day falls away, and a wave of relaxation lifts my spoon happily to my waiting lips.

This is what food is supposed to be: made at leisure to be eaten by weary, hungry folk, full of nutrients that feed the body, flavors to soothe the soul, texture and color to delight the eye. Making food like this for myself, by myself, is still a new joy, but one I hope never to take for granted. I love to feed other people, but there is a special satisfaction in being my own benefactor, in nurturing myself. This has been a very long day, but the end of it is full of peace and promise.

Slow-Cooked Black Bean/Sweet Potato Stew

I went off my normal vegan routine for a week and went to Annapolis to get married.  Oh, did I feast!  Softshell crabs, curried chicken salad, perfectly rare roast lamb, decadent deli sandwiches, crab and Provolone omelets and something called Crab Eggs Benedict, which looked like this but tasted even better.

image

The final hurrah of the trip was a second visit to the Café Normandie (that served the lamb), where we split a grilled artichoke stuffed with—you guessed it—crab, and I had sea bass for the first time, served over sautéed spinach with toasted pine nuts.  Like this:

image

So then I drove from Annapolis back to Ohio and it was time to get back into the groove of real food, the kind that sounds good, tastes good and best of all makes me feel  good.  Eased into it with a plate of roasted cabbage, a banana and a whole-wheat tortilla for lunch.  And while I ate it, I was smelling this, my newest experiment into comfort food:

 ************************************************************

Slow-Cooked Black Bean and Sweet Potato Stew (feeds 8-ish, depending on starvation levels and if there are any teenagers in the house)

Soak 3 cups of dry black beans overnight (I have super-hard water so I boil them for 2 minutes before soaking overnight and add a generous pinch of baking soda to the soaking water).

In the morning, drain beans and pop them into the slow cooker.  Add two large sweet potatoes, chopped into half-bite-size chunks or so, and two onions chopped a bit smaller than that.  Add a lot of chopped garlic.  I put in around a quarter-cup, but I cheat and use the kind that comes in a jar.  Any garlic is better than none, so chop until just before it stops being fun if you’re chopping by hand.  Festoon the pile with a tablespoon or even more of each of these:  chili powder, smoked paprika, cumin and Italian seasoning.  I put in about 2 teaspoons of Vietnamese chile-garlic sauce for heat, but you can use hot sauce, cayenne or red pepper flakes, whatever floats your boat. Add 1 ½ teaspoons of salt and some black pepper to taste.  You can always salt it more after it’s cooked for a while.  Cover with enough water to allow all the ingredients to move freely, and cook on Low for 8-10 hours.  If you start late, cook it on High until it starts to boil and then turn it back.  At which point it will look much like this:

image

Italian seasoning, you say? In a dish overflowing with Southwestern sensibilities?  The ingredients in my enormous but cheap plastic container are oregano, thyme, marjoram, rosemary and sage.  What I really wanted was oregano (but I was out), so I substitututed this and it was yummy.  And the heresy only gets worse.  After the beans are fully tender, add a cup of drinkable red wine and a can of Ro-tel  or other canned tomatoes with chiles.  The theory behind adding acidic ingredients last is that it helps the beans soften in the hard water.  Chemically-minded readers will immediately associate this with the pinch of baking soda added during soaking.  Bingo!

This soup benefits from an occasional stir during cooking, if you happen to be home; the stirring helps some of the sweet potato chunks fall apart and thicken the soup.  But it really does just fine left to its own devices.  A well-placed couple of strokes with a potato masher (possibly an immersion blender although I’ve never tested it) will have the same effect.  Like this:

image

Make sure to taste for salt before serving, and if you’ve left out tomatoes or wine, consider a splash of vinegar or lime juice to brighten the flavors. This soup, like all its beany relatives, will improve in flavor for several days after making it, so make sure to get maximum mileage out of the leftovers!