September 20th, 2011
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Summer ends when the season ends, some time in the midst of every September. The 22nd? 21st? The sun crosses a time line and the word ‘summer’ is an afterthought, yet for most people, Labor Day signals the official end of the best season Minnesota has to offer. I’m more optimistic. I like to step outside the box, and while others are saying ‘Fall’ when school buses roll down the streets again, I’m still crowing ‘Summer’. I will gracefully extend my white flag of surrender to that mentality, that a season can be marked by milestones instead of days on a calendar, while I straddle the seasons, try to push summer to extend just a bit farther.
It’s not hard to do when a plate of this Roasted Ratatouille is staring back at you, loaded with late summer tomatoes softened to a deeply flavorful mass, chunks of hearty zucchini and eggplants so perfectly round and unblemished that they look false and plastic, yet yield to a tender flesh so delicious it makes your eyes roll back. I can have my face in Summer, my cheeks enjoying the warmth of the days, while my head and heart charge towards Fall, cool air, a warm humming oven and a comforting meal when the air chills and sweatshirts come out.
This dish, once again as is the case with so many in my adult years, was not something I’ve loved forever, and maybe that’s part of it’s appeal. My Mom used to make Ratatouille when I was young, and my sisters ate it but it always turned me off completely. That which held ruby red tomato and a vegetable with the word ‘egg’ in it just sounded like it would be horrible. I was a picky child mostly due to texture issues, as I have learned; foods like mushrooms, tomato, squashes of all kinds and especially eggplant (an egg? a plant?) are now foods that sweep themselves across my plate on a regular basis, bursting with flavor when once they would make me shudder. I’m so glad to have grown up to learn of their wonder.
Roasting vegetables is quite possibly my most favorite way to eat them, except for right off the vine. With an enormous bounty of fresh from the Farmers Market zucchini and onions, and the aforementioned eggplants, along with the fattest and juiciest Black Krim heirloom tomatoes to come out of my tiny postage stamp garden, this dish was so loaded with flavor that it made my eyes water in joy. Tomato flavor intensified from the heat of the oven, while the eggplant and zucchini became tender-crisp and then just to make it more interesting, I mix everything together and let it sit overnight in the fridge, just to tease a bit more flavor out, a deeper marriage of September’s taste of the vine. The bowl needed nothing else; no salt or pepper, no added oil or seasoning. Topped with the amazing find of crisp strips of chive thrown on top of the vegetables on a whim, it was a dish that slowly spread a Cheshire grin over my face with each bite.
What a personality too. There’s no stodginess involved here, no set way to consume such a meal; we ate this mixed with pearl couscous (because I am, truly, having a love affair with those tiny grains of pasta) and we ate it atop heady and aromatic polenta studded with corn kernels and flecks of fresh herbs. It would be just at home too, stuffed inside a crisp and warm baguette, layered with provolone cheese for an incredible, messy delicious sandwich. Serve it on rice, or with a simple risotto. Warm it slightly and place it on garlicky crostini for a hearty appetizer or light meal. Or toss it, chilled, with greens and a shower of fresh grated asiago cheese for a salad unlike any other. Mix it with pasta, please; make sure you add a good turn of hard cheese. And if you find yourself late at night, in the kitchen with a fork in hand, a few dips in to the bowl while no one is watching is ok too.
And are you like every other gardener in the state- a pile of chives growing in your garden that you don’t know what to do with? I foolishly planted chives many years ago, which went to seed without me doing anything about it (big, BIG mistake) and now, well now I am fighting off chives with a blowtorch practically, and did you know that if you pluck them they just grow faster? Neither did I, but I’m learning that the hard way. Another thing I learned about chives is that you can blast them to kingdom come with Round-Up, but the little buggers just come back, shiny green and taunting. I’ve learned to hate chives, but a handful of them tossed atop these roasting vegetables made for a crispy and delicious garnish that just might make me a bit softer towards this evil relentless herb. Surprise awaits in the strangest places, doesn’t it?
Roasted Ratatouille with Crispy Chives
2-3 medium tomatoes
1 large eggplant
3-4 small zucchini or yellow squash (2 if they’re larger)
1 large red onion
3 garlic cloves
A generous handful of fresh chives
Olive oil, sea salt and fresh ground pepper
Preheat your oven to 400°. Slice the tomatoes into quarters and place on a baking sheet. Drizzle with about a tablespoon of good olive oil, sprinkle with a bit of salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper. Place pan in hot oven and roast, watching carefully, until the tomatoes begin to soften and the skins wrinkle. You want them to retain much of their shape, but release some of their luscious juices. I don’t roast them for more than 10-15 minutes at that temp. Remove the pan and allow them to cool, then slip the skins off.
Dice the zucchini and eggplant, slice the onion and crush the garlic, placing all of these on two baking sheets. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil, add salt and pepper and roast until the vegetables begin to soften, about 15 minutes. Stir carefully, then return pan to oven for about 10 more minutes. Scatter chives over the top of the vegetables, then roast about 10 minutes more, or until the chives are crisp and toasty, but not black and charred. Remove pans and allow vegetables to cool.
In a large bowl, combine tomato (with any juice from the roasting pan), eggplant, zucchini, onion, garlic and about a third of the crispy chives, reserving the rest for garnish. Gently mix together (I like to use my hands to avoid breaking everything down), taste and season with more salt and pepper if desired. The ratatouille can be eaten as is, warm or at room temp. For deeper flavor, chill the mixture overnight, and allow to warm to room temp the next day before serving.
January 24th, 2011
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It’s January, and there are a million resolves to make healthier changes; to exercise more, to eat better, to get more sleep, to connect deeper, to make the 180° change that’s going to revolutionize our lives.
And by now, heading towards the end of the month, how’s everyone doing? Still holding on? Going strong? Let’s put our collective fingers on this a moment. We all think about it each year, come January. We’re determined, striving ahead. And somewhere along the way, there comes a realization that change is hard. As a species, we don’t handle change all that well. If you don’t agree, look at the amount of griping that occurs any time Facebook makes changes, or what happened when Twitter recently went through it’s re-design. (for the record, I like BOTH new sites much better) and you realize that it doesn’t take much to make us feel like the earth is being yanked out from underneath us. And inevitably, a lot of those changes we want end up falling by the wayside because if we’re truly honest with ourselves, we will admit that change is very, very hard.
I’ve been there. Done that. It is really hard to make positive and lasting changes, and these will take time, regardless of what they are. In August of 2007, I realized that I needed to lose some weight. What I saw in a photograph made me cringe. It was NOT pretty. Still, I didn’t actively embark on making those changes, much less following through until November of 2008, well over a year later. But by the time I did implement what I needed, I stuck with it, and in the Spring of 2009 I was 25# lighter and down two pants sizes. So the bottom line for me was to get both my head and my heart around what needed to get done. Once that happened, there was little to stop me.
Changes take time. Habits don’t form overnight. If you really want the success of integrating new habits into your life, give it time and give yourself a break. Berating failure only pushes us backwards, and we all have off days. There’s no goal you can reach for that has to have a set time limit, nor any that isn’t amendable along the way. If it’s weight loss you seek, take baby steps and celebrate the first 5 pounds, then the next. Pay attention to how your clothes fit because sometimes that’s a better indication of what your body is achieving than the number on the scale.
And please, please, please…… don’t use the word “DIET”.
For every person alive, “diet” rings with deprivation. A wonderful friend of mine admits she needs to make some big changes in her eating habits, but laments “I don’t want to be eating oatmeal and plain chicken breasts for the rest of my life.” So instead of considering it as a “diet” I suggested she think of it more as a permanent lifestyle change, because that’s what it boils down to in the long run. And it won’t happen overnight. Do the baby steps and celebrate each one instead of dumping the contents of your refrigerator and pantry in the trash and then thinking “What now?” The habits we’re ingrained with didn’t occur in a few days, they took months, and sometimes years to build up. And to reverse them, they could feasibly take months, or maybe even years to become something new, something better for you and wiser, overall.
And food habits are hard to change. Long ago I used to be addicted to Burger King french fries, and Wendy’s Chicken Nuggets. I would see their signs as I drove and get an undeniable craving, so bad that I almost broke out in a sweat. I know! It was awful! And on one occasion as I stuffed those first hot golden french fries in my mouth, I was hit with the realization that they tasted simply awful. But guess what I did? Yep. I ate the entire order anyway. My mouth felt like it had been assaulted; it was coated with this horrible aftertaste, heavy and greasy. And my stomach hurt. I was appalled at myself because even when I clearly realized that I didn’t even like the product, I kept eating it anyway. It was the same with Wendy’s; I could consume two orders of their Chicken Nuggets without a single hesitation despite knowing I didn’t even like them, yet the one day that my brain equated those nuggets with warm rubbery sponges was the last time I ever put one in my mouth. Still, I couldn’t tell you how long it took me to get there. It was an embarrassment to me, and I really struggled to kick those habits, as well as many other unhealthy ones I used to have.
I’ve made drastic changes to my eating in the last 5 years, and have noticed immeasurable improvement to my health in the process. It’s no cliche that when you eat better, you feel better. I know through personal experience. Just recently I drank Diet Coke- with fresh squeezed lime wedges in it!- for the first time in ages, and man what a stomachache! It tasted all right, in fact, it tasted really good but I seriously wanted to cry because my stomach was so twisted up in knots. As uncomfortable as I was, I rejoiced also, as it instilled in me the same resolve that the french fries and chicken nugget revelation did; this isn’t good for me, and I shouldn’t be consuming it. But still, it took time for me to get there. And it will take time for you too. Take the baby steps, celebrate the small victories and be kind to yourself in the process.
If there’s one meal you want to change this week, you could try out this nutritional powerhouse of a salad. It requires no special ingredients, and is really inexpensive to make.
This garlicky White Bean Salad with Tuna and Avocado is a super-bomb of good food to put in your body. It’s full of fiber to keep you satiated and operating at open throttle all afternoon, with the very important Omega-3, and monounsaturated fats that our bodies need. It’s also quick, and works equally well as a warm main dish with a few good sides, or a quick cold salad for your lunch. And the garlic is cooked, so your family and co-workers are safe. I had a small bowl of this for lunch, along with some fruit and by dinnertime I wasn’t even hungry. I love meals like that.
Garlicky White Bean Salad with Tuna and Avocado
2 15-oz cans Great Northern Beans, rinsed well
1 3-oz can tuna in olive oil, drained
2-3 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 T. fresh thyme (use 1 t. of dried)
1 medium avocado, diced
Drain tuna well and place in a large bowl. Flake with fork until shredded.
Heat a skillet on the stove and add about a tablespoon of olive oil and the garlic. Heat gently over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally until the garlic is translucent and fragrant, 3-5 minutes. Be careful not to burn the garlic!! Stir in herbs and great northern beans. Heat through, stirring, for about 5 minutes more, drizzling in a bit more olive oil to coat. Remove from heat and add to bowl with tuna, mixing well. Stir in avocado, season with salt and pepper and serve warm. Can be chilled as well.
Canned salmon can be subbed for the tuna, or chopped sardines if it’s your thing. You can add finely chopped veggies as well, like celery or red pepper or cucumber. Rosemary is really flavorful in this too. If you want to get creative with it, the entire dish can be put through a food processor and used as a spread for a wrap, on top of toasted baguette slices or thinned a little with milk or water and used as a dip for fresh vegetables.