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vegetables outside the box

October 17th, 2011 | 6 Comments »

I spent a significant amount of time this past summer wandering up and down the aisles of our local farmers markets, as many, many people do. But I don’t venture in to the larger markets in Minneapolis or St Paul, instead preferring to go to the small satellite ones in the suburbs. I can always find what I needed, and as was the case this past year, I found a whole lot more than I ever anticipated.

Each summer for the last 5 years it seems some type of theme arises from a particular food I discover and experiment with; it might be a food type, such as the summer of 2007 when I learned a great deal about cooking with whole grains like quinoa, millet, bulgur and a multitude of colorful rice varieties. Or it might be a particular food, like in 2008 when I took the humble burger in different directions, and 2009 found me falling in love with beets and getting my fill of learning about those. In 2010, what I experimented with was a killer job. Cooking went by the wayside last year, but this summer, with a better schedule and actual time off during the week, trips to the Farmers Market were a must, and in those weekly visits, I came across a multitude of vegetables that I’d never tried or even considered prior to this past June.

And what was different about this year was the increase in the need for vegetable based meals, since we walked away from meat consumption in May and never looked back. So stretching the imagination and reaching for foods that were unfamiliar was going to have to stick. I needed to expand my palate, and this was the perfect spot to do so.

If I could pinpoint one item that I really learned a great deal about this year it would be Greens. Kale and chard crossed our plates and made appearances in our kitchen nearly every week. Enormous bunches of chard could be purchased from the market for a dollar a piece and easily could feed us for 2 meals or more, depending on what I did with it. I discovered the joys of making Chard Chips, and fell in love with a simple chard side dish, sauteed with a few cloves of garlic and simmered gently to bring out it’s deeply rich and slightly sweet flavor. I love Rainbow Chard for it’s colorful stems.

Then, in one visit to the market in Maplewood, I came across a giant bunch of greens on a farmers table and asked curiously “What is this?”

“That’s Sweet Potato Leaves.” She said, smiling widely. “They’re like spinach, only a little sweeter.”

Here was yet another enormous bunch of greens, and for a dollar as well. What did I have to lose? I handed over a buck and placed the bunch in my sack and as I turned away, the farmer said with a smile “Those are going to become your favorite green!!” To which I simply smiled and said ‘Thank you!’

She was 100% correct. I stripped the leaves that evening and sauteed them for dinner and with the first bite, I was raving over how tender and amazing they tasted and couldn’t wait to return the following week for more. Also known as Kamote, or Camote leaves, and as other dark leafy greens they are loaded with vitamins and minerals like iron, magnesium and calcium, making them a good choice for healthy eating. Each week I could, I returned to that market, and that farmer and scooped up large bunches of Sweet Potato leaves. While many cultures also eat the stems, I consumed only the leaves, tossing the stems in the garden to compost. Imagine my surprise when I noticed after a few weeks that those stems had taken root and were growing new leaves. I managed to get a small crop of my own Sweet Potato leaves from my garden before the first frost in September. Now that’s a nice bonus.

I’ve been on the fence with Eggplant for a while now, fighting back and forth with it, hoping to fall in love even when I fall on my face, but for some reason I keep trying and I’m really glad as I have discovered more ways this summer to enjoy Eggplant. I came across Rosa Bianca eggplants too, and was immediately drawn to their unique colors.

But I also came across a completely new (to me) eggplant; a tiny orange one with grooved sides that looked a lot like a mini pumpkin.

The farmer told me that they could be roasted like regular eggplant. What she didn’t tell me, and what I discovered a bit too late was that this little orange variety is very bitter and is considered a delicacy in SE Asian cuisine. One bite and I had to admit that I’d found a vegetable I couldn’t eat.

A few more unique vegetables crossed my doorstep this summer, due to a relationship with Ocean Mist Farms. I was contacted by a representative of Ocean Mist back in July and asked if I was interested in some fresh Fennel to try. While Fennel isn’t really anything new, it was not a vegetable I’d done much with and while I did like it, the cost had always been prohibitive. I agreed to the Fennel they would send, and soon a case of it arrived at my house, holding six large, aromatic and superbly fresh bulbs. We had a wonderful time enjoying the light anise flavor, roasting them with potatoes and carrots. Fennel becomes so nicely sweet when roasted. I also added fennel to a slaw salad I made, loving it’s crisp texture and added taste to a favorite summery dish.

Recently, Ocean Mist contacted me again, offering to send me a vegetable I’d never even heard of: Cardones. Curiosity won me over, and I accepted. I had no idea what I was going to receive.

Cardones, or Cardoons, are very popular in Italy, come from the Thistle family and are considered a distant cousin of the Artichoke. They look like mutant celery, but they cannot be eaten raw. The internal part of the plant has slim silvery gray leaves that look like sage. And they are HUGE. Check out those stalks!!!

This was nothing like I’d known before; and I was initially at a loss as to what to do. After some research online, I decided to make a creamy cardone soup out of one of the bunches. They require a long simmering time, and mixed with onion and leek, it offered a warm and fragrant scent to a chilly evening. The finished soup was smooth, mild and creamy, and as we discovered, tasted amazing with some leftover wild rice pilaf stirred in to it.

The next two stalks I roasted, and this method was the best tasting. I tossed the slices with a bit of olive oil and a splash of an asiago caesar salad dressing I had on hand and after a nice long turn in a 425° oven, they were tender and flavorful enough to toss with pasta. The experience with Cardones was really interesting; I kept expecting celery flavor, but instead got something so unusual. It was like artichokes but richer. Cardones are similar to Artichokes in that they will discolor when cut apart, and should be soaked in acidulated water to prevent brown spots from forming. I did discover too, that they will change color even after cooking, and the roasted pieces I had in the refrigerator turned a strange shade of greenish gray after a day. The taste does not change though, even when they look just a bit unappetizing. I’m sure they have a lot more use in the kitchen, and maybe I’ll come across them again so I can experiment more.


Ocean Mist Farms provided me with both the case of Fennel and the Cardones free of charge.
I have no obligation to post any feedback or information on them, and all opinions are my own. 

The Engine 2 Challenge review

May 31st, 2011 | 9 Comments »

The E2 challenge is over, at least in theory. To celebrate, I had a thick hearty beef sandwich, ice cream, frozen yogurt and half a dozen slices of wonderful bread spread with sweet butter. Then I had a serious tummy ache.

We had 28 days of consuming a plant-based eating plan, which went far, far smoother than I ever anticipated. In fact, it went so smoothly and I saw such amazing results that I am committed to continuing this regularly. This type of eating, this nutrient dense, delicious way of life is just what this lady needs. I expected that tummy ache from going back to some of my past ways of eating and it was a way of reminding myself what this challenge has really shown me.

So, did I learn anything from this challenge? Besides what I already has taken away from it?

I sure did.

~~ Even being as good in the kitchen as I am, changing my focus from a meat oriented meal to a non-meat option proved to be a bit challenging, mostly because I simply default to meat as the main item and then filled in around that. Changing it to a plant based option requires a complete 180° switch. And it’s a learning process for all of us. I found a terrific cookbook at Half Price Books that is helping me with plenty of ideas but I need a few more books and resources to stimulate my thinking. Thankfully, this won’t be hard at all. I’ve revamped my eating habits before and know that new habits sometimes take a bit of time to stick. The best part is that it’s been such fun to experiment and stretch the focus of what we eat.

~~ The near complete cessation of menopausal hot flashes and tummy troubles solidly affirmed in me that this is a much, much better option for my body. I do like meat, and with it being grilling season, the temptation of eating meat will always be there so I don’t plan to deprive myself completely. I simply won’t be cooking much, if any at home, and won’t make it the focus of any meal in other situations.

~~It’s made me even more aware of what I am putting in my body and what it does for me. I had no clue that the daily digestive issues had anything to do with what I was eating. I just thought it was the way it was going to be as I got older. It was really eye-opening for me to think I had simply settled for feeling less than 100% all the time and got me thinking how many other people just sit back on vague and unexplainable symptoms without one thought to finding out if they can be cured. This challenge has gotten me to really examine the foods I eat, even more than I did. The choices I make for what I consume sometimes are completely automatic, self-ingrained habits that can begin before I even know what’s happening. Every time my hand goes to my mouth, I force myself to stop and think about what I’m doing and I’ve caught myself in situations where I am eating without one thought to what it is. That mindless consumption had thrown me off many times, forcing me to be a lot more conscious of it and of learning to avoid the pitfalls and traps.

~~ I am in complete control. I knew this before going in to this challenge but it’s really made me aware in the last month that everything I need for my health and my well-being is within my ability to manage. And no one is helpless; we ALL have the ability to better ourselves through our eating habits. We all can make wiser choices. I’m committed to a healthier lifestyle, plain and simple. I feel better. I don’t need anything more than that. No one is forcing me to pick up and eat any type of food except me.

~~The most important thing I’ve taken away from this challenge is that there is nothing…. and I repeat, nothing lacking in a plant-based eating plan. Absolutely nothing at all. There’s this odd mentality that you can’t be satisfied from your food if you don’t eat meat, or that those who consume only plant-based foods are sadly noshing on tofu and plain brown rice, remorsefully dreaming of a sizzling steak and nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve had some amazing, delicious and truly satisfying meals this past month, with a dizzying array of color, texture, flavor and most of all, ease. Since you’re eating nutrient dense, low calorie foods, you can consume larger amounts when you eat, yet you’re taking in far less calories and I’ve never gotten to that point of being so full that I’m really uncomfortable. I calculated out a large chopped salad I ate for lunch recently, with red and green cabbage, apple, carrot, cucumber, radishes, red pepper, garbanzo beans, a little brown rice and some almonds and although it was a huge amount, the overall calories of it came in just around 500. And talk about flavor!!

So overall I’m sold, 100% sold on this, and I was so ready to take my eating to another level. I’m very grateful to Whole Foods for asking me to participate in this as it was just what I needed to kick me over the edge.

What do you think of this challenge? Would you ever consider stepping up to a healthier way of eating? Have you ever been troubled by vague physical symptoms that you can’t explain?

Like those photos above? Here’s where you’ll find them on the blog:
Top to bottom:
Farro Pilaf with Gold Beets
Roasted Apricots with Cardamom Brown Sugar Glaze
Grilled Guacamole