Friday, December 24, 2010


Seeing as this is Christmas week, I decided to do something festive.  Bright orange persimmons have always caught my eye at our regular grocery store, but I have never bought or even tasted one before.  Since my time is limited around the holidays, I decided to forgo the long drive to Assi and just pick up these little gems at the Giant next to my house.

Persimmons originated in China, were brought to the US in the 1880s and are now grown in California.  The Hachiya variety is the most highly available; they are the size of a small apple and shaped like an acorn.  Persimmons are high in vitamin A and C, and must be ripe -- they will feel like a water balloon -- before eating to mellow the tannins.  Tannins dry your mouth out, which is a pleasant experience with a good red wine.  Eat an unripe persimmon, however, and you will feel like you have a mouth full of chalky antacids.  The flavor is good, tropical and reminiscent of papaya with the consistency of a juicy ripe mango.  Persimmons are at their peak in October, but are available September through December and often make an appearance on Thanksgiving tables.  You can eat them raw in a salad with apples, or you can puree them and bake them into bread, cookies, or a pudding. 

Mitchell, Indiana has an Persimmon Pudding Contest as part of their annual Persimmon Festival, complete with accompanying pageants, balls, historic walks, and farm equipment show.  While I dare not compete with the good people of Mitchell, who have been making this dish contest-worthy for the last 74 years,  I did attempt my own persimmon pudding. 

For the past five years at work our traditional British Christmas dinner has ended with a flaming plum pudding.  Plum pudding is a misnomer to our American minds, though, as it is neither a pudding, nor does it contain plums.  It is actually a spiced raisin cake.  In the days of yore, however, any dessert in England was called a pudding, and they called raisins "plums."  I know I sound like Grandpa Simpson, ["I needed a new heel for my shoe so I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time"] but that is why it is called plum pudding.  A persimmon pudding is the same idea as a plum pudding -- not really a pudding at all -- but it is baked rather than steamed.

The recipe I found called for the pulp of 4 persimmons (2 cups), 3 cups of milk, 2 cups of AP flour, 2 cups sugar, 2 eggs, a dash of cinnamon, and 1 tsp each of baking soda, baking powder, and vanilla. Mix all together and bake in a 13 x 9 pan at 350 degrees for 70 minutes.  The result is a gooey cake with the consistency of pecan pie that tastes good but nothing like persimmons.  I expected it to taste like them the way banana bread tastes like bananas, but it is more like zucchini bread where the other ingredients overpower the flavor of the namesake.

Hardly a first prize winner, as surely the bakers in Indiana would attest, but I'll bring it to our Christmas festivities and top it with whipped cream.  Next time I think I'll add nuts to give it a little texture.  It is always nice to do a little baking around the holidays, and the 70 minutes in the oven sure made the house smell good!

Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Fava Beans

Last weekend my kids and I were hit with the stomach flu and the thought of food was nearly unbearable.  My apologies to all three of you who were looking for my post bright and early last Monday morning.  So, without further delay...this week I chose Fava Beans.  I know that these aren't all that strange, but I found them in the pod and since I have never worked with them before I thought I'd give it a try.

Fava beans are native to northern Africa and are also called broad beans or field beans.  They are high in protein, iron, potassium, and the fat-soluable vitamins A and K. They shouldn't be eaten by anyone taking MAO inhibitors for anti-depression or those with the hereditary disease G6PD, but the presence of L-dopa makes fava beans a homeopathic remedy for Parkinson's and hypertension, as well as a natural alternative to Viagra. They are available dried (a process that turns them brown), or raw in the pod where they are green inside and out.

The pod is a little less than a foot long and it opens easily.  Inside, the beans line up in a row and each individual bean is the size and shape of your thumb pad.  Once you have removed them from the fuzzy white interior of the pod, the outer skin of the actual bean has to be removed.  This is easily done with a clean fingernail.  It is a relatively labor intensive process as vegetables go, but my 2 1/2 year old had fun helping shell the beans.

I thought about making the Egyptian national dish Ful Medames, which is usually served for breakfast and consists of mashed fava beans, garlic, cumin and lemon, but all the recipes I found called for dried fava beans.  So, maybe another time.

Whenever anyone mentions fava beans I think of Italian food; actually, I think of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector who unforgettably said, "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti."  Not wanting to try his menu, I decided to make a bacon and fava bean risotto.

Risotto is a method of cooking rice, usually arborio rice, in which you add the liquid little by little and stir frequently to produce a creamy, hearty dish.  Here's the quick how to: Saute some minced onion in olive oil, add the rice and toast it for a few minutes, add a cup of white wine and simmer until it is almost dry.  Then add chicken stock (or vegetable stock) cup by cup, sauteing each until almost dry and stirring frequently with a wooden spoon.  You will probably need between three or four cups.  When the rice is tender but still has a slight bite, add a pat of butter, a splash of heavy cream, and some Parmesan cheese.  From here, you can add whatever you want -- sauteed mushrooms, spinach, peas, the sky's the limit.  So, after a quick blanch and shock, I added the fava beans to the risotto, along with the bacon.  Once cooked, they are mild and and delicious and made a nice textural and color addition to the risotto.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Purple Sweet Potatoes

After eating a Thanksgiving meal packed with starches (mashed potatoes, corn, stuffing, and the special German noodles - spaetzle - that my Grandmother always brings), I thought it would be fun to do a starch I had never tried before.  Enter the purple sweet potato:

Also known as the Okinawan sweet potato, as they are native to the Japanese island, these large bumpy spuds are widely eaten in Hawaii.  They have a ton of vitamins and minerals and are low in calories -- about 140 for a cup.  The purple color is caused by the presence of anthocyanin, which is being currently researched for its anti-cancer components.

I found a recipe for mashed purple sweet potatoes that called for coconut milk.  Um, sold!  (If you aren't a fan of coconut, use regular milk.)  Peeling these proved difficult because of the deep grooves, so I tossed them whole into a pot of boiling water.  They were pretty big, and pretty dense, so they took a while to soften, maybe 45 minutes.  After they were fork tender, I took them out to cool before peeling.  This is what they look like inside:

I peeled them and took a taste.  They have a distinctly floral flavor, with a texture that is slightly denser than a yam.  Once mashed with the coconut milk, salt and pepper, they became creamy and the floral aspects mellowed.  I served them with pineapple-ginger marinated grilled chicken and white asparagus.  The color is reminiscent of grape soda, but the purple sweet potato is delicious and I will definitely try them again!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Adventures in Supermarketing

We have a wonderful Asian supermarket nearby called Assi.  It is a fun place to shop because their inventory is very different from my local grocery store.  They have live eels, fluke, and abalone in tanks next to the requisite lobsters, their ice cream flavors include exotic flavors like red bean and corn-and-cheese, and the produce section has whole rows of items I have never seen before.

So, I am starting a new project.  Each week I will buy one unfamiliar thing from Assi's produce section, research it, cook it, and let you know all about it.  This week I bought a bitter melon.

This funky fruit looks a lot like a cucumber that has gone bad.  It is bright green, spongy to the touch with a clean smell.  It is a tropical fruit, but grown mostly in China, India, and Africa, and also eaten in Japan, Pakistan, and Vietnam.  It is supposed to have many homeopathic applications, such as aiding in digestion and helping lower the blood sugar of Type 2 diabetics.  Laboratory research is ongoing about ways it may aid in treating malaria and HIV.

Typically used like a vegetable in savory recipes, we decided to add it to a stir fry.  First you cut the ends off and split it lengthwise in half.  The seeds inside are the size of pumpkin seeds and need to be removed along with most of the pith.  Then, we sliced it in 1/4" strips.

Raw, it is crunchy, tastes slightly herbaceous but mostly bitter, and has an intense drying effect on the mouth.  Although it tastes nothing like beer, that drying sensation reminded me of drinking a very hoppy IPA. 

We used pork and black bean sauce because most recipes I found extolled the triumvirate, saying the pork paired well with the bitter melon and the black bean sauce reduced the bitterness.  I am sure you could use chicken or tofu with equal results.  Here's how:

1 lb meat or tofu, cut into strips
1 bitter melon, deseeded and sliced
2 T black bean sauce (I found this in the Asian section of my regular supermarket)
rice to accompany

Heat olive oil in a pan, when it is hot add the meat and bitter melon.
Saute until meat is brown and melon has softened slightly
Add the black bean sauce, mix in thoroughly and cook two more minutes
Serve over rice

Even cooked, the bitter melon was still pretty bitter.  The taste hadn't changed much, just the texture -- after stir-frying it had the consistency of a cooked green pepper.  The black bean sauce, like most bottled Asian sauces, was a salt bomb, but it was delicious and paired well with the pork and the melon.  I don't know how much of the bitterness it removed; I think the rice was a better means to that end.  (Some recipes suggest that blanching it before adding it to the stir fry will further reduce the bitterness.) 

I was nervous about this dish because of all the negative comments on forums about the bitter melon.  One person, in response to "What should I do with a bitter melon?," went as far as saying "Curse the farmer and throw it out!"  Many others said it was an acquired taste, and I can see how that is true.  It isn't my favorite new ingredient in a stir-fry, but it was edible on its own, and pretty good with a big spoonful of rice.  I wont rush out and buy it again, but I found recipes for using it in a curry and, knowing my penchant for curries, I would be willing try it that way some other time.

Next up: Okinawan Purple Sweet Potatoes

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Willow Grove Eats

We live in a suburb of Philadelphia, and with two kids, we usually stick close to home when we want to go out for dinner.  Willow Grove has a lot to offer, and here are my top five neighborhood haunts, in no particular order:

The Willow Inn
210 N York Rd
Willow Grove, PA
This historic building is a staple in the area -- a bar, a restaurant, and a place where you always run into someone you know.  They have great Italian food with affordable prices and attentive staff.  They are kid friendly, and the other patrons don't seem to be bothered by us either.  Try the Eggplant Parmesan or the ravioli.

La Fusion Cafe
3 Easton Road
Willow Grove, PA
This pretty restaurant is in the heart of Willow Grove and BYO.  For those of you who don't live in a state with antiquated liquor laws, BYO means you can bring your own bottle of wine, six pack of beer, or even bottle of vodka, if you wish.  As the name indicates, they serve Asian fusion fare, and they have a full sushi bar in addition to their regular menu.  Try the crispy tofu appetizer, and the chicken curry is amazing.

634 York Road
Willow Grove, PA
Tortillas is a happily decorated Mexican restaurant.  It is BYO also, but you get one complimentary margarita or sangria per person.  The chicken mole is delicious, but the real reason to come here is the salsa.  They make it in house and it is fresh, tangy, and wonderful.

Pasta Fazool
804 S York Road
Hatboro, PA
One would never expect to find such a gem in a tiny strip mall just south of downtown Hatboro.  This authentic Italian restaurant is run by the kind host with a thick Italian accent.  Upon sitting down at your table you get complimentary brushetta and wonderful bread with the most incredible olive oil that I have ever tasted.  This oil actually tastes like olives!  If you don't fill up dipping your bread, try the Pasta Puttanesca, it is garlicky and delicious!

Wayback Burger
2720 Easton Rd
Willow Grove, PA
Yes, this is a chain, and right up the street from another burger chain, Sonic.  The Texas Burger is really spicy, with jalepenos, pepper jack cheese, and chipolte mayo, but absolutely delicious.  They also make their own potato chips in house, and it is worth the trip just for these.

Honorable Mention and fond farewell to Jason's Deli.  We loved this place, but when we tried to go there last weekend it was closed.  They had great sandwiches, baked potatoes, and free soft serve ice cream.  I'm sorry to see it go.

We also absolutely love Gaya, but it is in Blue Bell (about 30 minutes away), so I wouldn't consider it a neighborhood haunt.  Korean food is one of my favorites, so perhaps it deserves its own post anyway.

If I have forgotten any of your favorites, please let me know!  I love trying new places!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween!

Friday was my mom's birthday, and my sister and I created a creepy Halloween menu.  We used all edible ingredients and had a lot of fun.  Here are some pictures of the food. 

 Cheese Ball appetizer

Plate of eyeballs for the eyeball soup

Eyeball soup

Crabcake swamp monsters

Mummy Gingerbread cake

There were also severed bandaged fingers, but the pictures didn't come out very well.  Recipes upon request!
Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ode to Ranch Dressing

Phew!  Things on this blog started off kinda heavy -- children are starving, my sister is sick, beans are good for you!  Here's a less serious post, just for kicks.

Dear Ranch Dressing:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight...

I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light...

I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith...

I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! 

Poor Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  She is probably rolling over, shocked and appalled, not only that I abridged her beautiful timeless words, but that I am using them to talk about a processed concoction of mayonnaise, buttermilk and spices.  I, however, am not ashamed.

My son is 2 1/2 and from the moment he was born he has never stopped moving.  Or eating.  He loves a good hot dog, will devour pasta, and can eat an apple faster than you can say Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  Like a lot of other kids, though, he is picky about vegetables.  Enter Ranch Dressing.  Now, the kid will eat anything: carrots, celery, cucumbers, green beans, broccoli, and yes, folks, even asparagus! 

And for this reason, Ranch Dressing, I love you!  I am willing to overlook your high fat content, your MSG, and your lack of nutritional density.  I don't care that my son says you are the favorite part of his meal.  I accept that you are the means to my desired end, and am thankful that your presence makes it so simple to get him to eat vegetables.  I don't have to buy a celebrity cookbook to bake veggies into brownies because my trickery is as quick as a squeeze.  He will taste the vegetables, albeit through a creamy tangy veil, and I hope eventually learn to like them.

As a mom, I learned quickly to pick my battles, and if loosing to ranch dressing helps me win the vegetable war, I'm ok with that.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Juvenile Diabetes

This Sunday is the annual JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes.  It will be my family's fourth time participating and supporting this cause.  I didn't solicit money this year, opting to make a donation myself, but if you're feeling charitable and have some extra money to throw around, toss it towards the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

At the age of 23, my younger sister was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and, in order to stay healthy, had to drastically change her lifestyle and diet. Type 1, or Juvenile, diabetes occurs when the body stops producing insulin, the hormone needed to move sugars from the blood in to cells where it can be used and stored.  There is no cure, yet, so this lifelong illness requires constant blood sugar monitoring and insulin injections.  Without vigilance, long term complications include blindness and foot or leg amputation. 

Type 1 diabetics need to watch their carbohydrate intake, so my sister's diet consists of mostly salads, fruit, and lean meats.  The more carbohydrates she eats, the more insulin she needs to take.  Over time, the body builds up a resistance to synthetic insulin, like any other drug, so it is important for her to not over do it in the carb department.

Sunday morning our family will gather on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, along with thousands of other people whose lives have been affected by Type 1 diabetes, to walk in hopes of finding a cure.  As we always do, we'll get lunch afterwards.  I'll order according to what looks good on the menu, while my sister will sit beside me silently calculating how much insulin she'll need to take if she orders this sandwich or that salad.  We'll order iced tea and I'll use sugar.  She'll choose Splenda or Sweet n Low.  After lunch I'll probably order dessert, feeling that I deserve it after walking 3 miles carrying one or both of my kids, and my sister will look at it longingly, maybe sneaking a bite or two after injecting more insulin into her thigh.  While I relax, my healthy pancreas will release the right amount of insulin to process whatever I choose.  For my sister, though, the simple act of eating a meal becomes a complicated math problem of carbs versus insulin units, a dance of choices and consequences.  Every meal, every day, for the rest of her life.   

At first, all the nuances of this disease were quite daunting, but with courage and strength she now gracefully keeps her blood sugar under control.  (She recently started a blog, and you can check her out here.)  She is a woman who loves hard, laughs easily and often, and, despite the challenges diabetes poses, is determined and committed enough to remain healthy for the rest of her life.  I'm very lucky to call her my sister and my friend, and I hope that in her lifetime there will be a real way to cure this disease rather than merely controlling it.  And then maybe then she'll order her own dessert! 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Red Beans and Rice

Tonight: Red Beans and Rice.
By far the most economical meal of this week's menu, I will cook 1 lb of dried red beans ($1.19) and 3 cups of rice (probably about $0.75 worth of my 5 pound bag) and we will have enough food for three filling meals.
The beauty of red beans and rice, besides the economy of them, is the nutrition.  Meats, fish, and eggs are complete proteins, which means they provide all the amino acids the body needs.  Plant products are considered incomplete proteins since they have a low concentration of essential amino acids.  However, if you eat certain incomplete proteins together their concentrations add up to make a complete protein.  These wonderful food pairings are called complimentary proteins.  An example of this is wheat bread with peanut butter, and -- wait for it -- red beans and rice!  This makes eating tonight's meal just as beneficial as last night's pork curry, but without the additional saturated fat.  And, beans have iron, potassium, calcium, and fiber.
Americans only get about 30% of their protein from plants, while the rest of the world gets 65% of their proteins from non-animal sources.  In 2008, my mother spent some time in Tanzania and reports that the bulk of their diet comes from red beans and rice.  It is delicious, filling -- with about 475 calories per serving (or more if you devour cups and cups of cooked rice like my guys do) -- and nutrient-dense, all for about $2.00.
Using dried beans is much more economical, but it takes extra time.  As they say in Tanzania, "You Americans may have the watches, but we have the time."  Here's how to make red beans and rice:

1 lb dried red beans
water to cover
3 cups rice
6 cups water

Things you could add if you weren't on a budget:
A few soup bones, for flavor
A chopped onion or 1 T dried minced onion
1 t celery seed
hot sauce

Sort through beans to make sure there aren't any rocks and then soak overnight, or at least 4 hours.
Drain soaking water, place beans in a pot and put enough fresh water in to cover by 2 inches.
Add soup bones and onion, if using.
Simmer uncovered two hours.
Partially mash the beans and season with salt, pepper, and hot sauce if desired.
Cook rice according to package directions, serve with beans on top.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pork Curry

Tonight we are having Pork Curry, Rice, and Green Beans.  This takes some time, but is actually very simple.  Here's how you can enjoy this meal too:

3/4 to 1lb (or more) stew meat, can be pork, beef, chicken cubes or even sweet potatoes for a vegetarian meal
3 to 6 T curry powder (like I said, I wasn't discounting the existing staples in my house.  And yes, curry powder is absolutely a staple in my house!)
1 chopped onion -- I couldn't actually afford an onion this week, so I used about 1 T dried minced onion
Water to cover
2 T flour
Salt and pepper to taste

Here are some additional things to add if you aren't on a budget:
1 cup applesauce
1 cup shredded coconut
1 chopped tomato

Brown the meat in 1 T cooking oil in a large pot
Pour water in to cover by a few inches
Add onion and curry powder (and applesauce, tomato, and coconut if using)
Bring to a simmer and then cook covered two hours [or transfer into a slow cooker and cook 4 hours on high setting or 8 hours on low setting]
Twenty minutes before serving, cook the rice.
Ten minutes before serving, scoop out about a cup of the sauce and whisk in the 2 T flour into it
Pour the mixture back into the remaining liquid and bring to a boil to thicken.
Season with salt and pepper and serve with the rice and green beans

I don't have the nutrition facts on this meal, but it seems pretty balanced.  Now, I know that this probably isn't the most kid-friendly menu.  Tonight I am sure my son will only eat the rice and green beans, so I will make him a nitrate-free hot dog we had leftover from last week.  By leaving out the curry powder, this meal will be bland but just as nutritious and maybe more acceptable to a child's palate.  If you had BBQ sauce, you could shred the meat, drain most of the cooking liquid, and then mix BBQ sauce in.
Tomorrow: Red Beans and Rice

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Shopping Trip

So I went to the grocery store with $25 to spend, and I think I did pretty well!

Here's what I bought:
1 lb box of Oat O's - the generic Cheerio - $2.19
1 gallon of whole milk - $3.75
Wonder Bread - $2.00
Generic peanut butter - $1.59
Generic grape jam - $1.15
1 lb box of pasta - $0.89
1 can of Hunts meat tomato sauce - $0.99
1 lb frozen green beans - $1.09
5 lbs white rice - $2.99
1 lb red kidney beans - $1.19
Perdue breaded chicken cutlets - $3.00
3/4 lb pork stew meat - $2.10
2 generic yogurts - $0.40 each

Here's what I usually buy but could not afford (and chose not to buy):
Fresh produce, juice, hot dogs, waffles, cookies, chips, and lunch meat.

The week's menu:
Breakfast - Oat O's with milk or a yogurt (twice)
Lunch - PB & J sandwiches
Dinners - Pork Curry with Rice and Green Beans, Pasta with Meat Sauce (twice), Red Beans and Rice (three times), Chicken Cutlets with Rice and Green Beans.

What I learned:
- Grape jelly is significantly less expensive than raspberry or strawberry.
- Wonder bread is more nutritionally-dense than I thought it would be since it is fortified.
- Oatmeal may be filling because of all the fiber, but it isn't nutritionally dense.  So even though it was less expensive than the Oat O's, I chose them because they were fortified.
- I would be in big trouble if I needed to buy things other than food; I would quickly run out of money if I needed household products like toilet paper, lightbulbs, or laundry detergent.

Tonight we are having pasta with the Hunts meat sauce.  I cooked half the box and half the can respectively.  One serving has 480 calories, 3g fat, 16g protein, 28% of your daily fiber, 35% of your daily iron, plus 20 - 50% of some vitamins.  Not great, but not bad either.  Tomorrow: Pork curry!

$100 per month

This weekend I was moved by a very sad article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about how many people struggle with hunger in Philadelphia.  You can read it here.  I was most distressed by the children in these impoverished situations who are suffering from "Failure to Thrive."  This means they aren't getting enough nutrition and calories for brain and body growth.  One woman in the article with a young daughter 20 pounds underweight doesn't qualify for food stamps, but budgets $100 a month for groceries.

As a family, we usually spend about $50 per week for our groceries, and as a private chef I sometimes spend upwards of $200 per week for my clients.  Having had a little training in nutrition, though, I am challenging myself to create one weeks worth of meals for my family for only $25, while ensuring that they are filling and nutrient-dense.  I am trying to better understand the choices the people in the article are forced to make, and make good choices myself with the budgeted money.  By sharing this experience, maybe I can put some meal ideas out there and fewer children will be diagnosed with "Failure to Thrive."

However, I know this experiment is flawed from the start for the following obvious reasons:

1) There aren't exactly four weeks in a month, so $25 for a week is slightly too much to spend.

2) Here in the suburbs, I have access to a big grocery store with great sales and lots of options, while many urban families need to shop somewhere close to them.  These little corner grocery stores are, by nature and necessity, more expensive with less options than their larger chain counterparts.

3) I am not going to discount existing basics in my house (such as salt, flour, and spices) but will only use them to enhance flavor or texture.  Flavor is not the goal here -- nutrition is, so this isn't cheating too much.

4) I dont believe that it is morally acceptable to subject my 2 year old son to this experiment (my 5 month old is still nursing so she wont be affected), especially because the article says it is detrimental for kids under 3 years old to experience a dearth of calories and nutrients even for a week.  I am going to let him eat the cheese and salami we have left over from last week, and snack on leftovers at work like always.  I will make sure to buy things that kids will eat (like PB & J, bread, Cheerios and pasta) so that I am sure to factor in the children in this experiment.  Some kids get meals at school too, so that may even things out??

So here's the goal: spend $25 for one weeks worth of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for a family of three, making sure each meal provides nutrition and sustenance, and hopefully giving new ideas to those in need of a cheap meal.

Off to the grocery store!


As a chef, I'm starting this blog to have a place to talk about one of my greatest passions -- food.  I'll be posting about current events and social issues related to food, dishes I am particularly proud of creating, the ups and downs of getting my kids to eat, and great places to grab a bite in the Philadelphia area.
Stay tuned!