Up With Spinach

Spinach Today in the food press, another one of the occasional stories noting the enormous growth in the spinach category – 66% from 1992 to 2002. If you’re not a close observer of the produce industry, the reasons for this are 1) bagged salad and 2) flat-leaf/baby spinach.

This is inspirational to everyone I know in produce, I think – it’s real proof that if you make something that’s healthy easy for people to do, they will do it. Until we get everyone’s minds changed about how easy it actually is to eat a healthy, fruit and vegetable-rich diet (we’ll be a while at that), packaged produce is where we can make the most impact to start.

This reminds me of one of my favorite studies I’ve seen, one that replaced the near-crunchy-water-and-nothing-else iceberg lettuce in fast-food sandwiches with spinach and found that consumers couldn’t tell the difference. What a great way to get more nutrients into people. Since then, Subway has added baby spinach to its menu.

Annual per capita consumption of spinach is now 2.4 lbs. per person, according to the USDA. I think my consumption is probably around four times that, hopefully making up for how badly I’m doing on my per capita consumption of soda, hot dogs and pizza.

Danger Sev

I started three little fires while making this.

The rule from now on is that sev is made in the deep fryer ONLY, never in a pan on the stove which can too easily boil over. It’s amazing nobody went to the hospital.

I now have far less baking soda than I did last week.

Sev, fried noodles made from chickpea flour, are an essential part of chaat (Indian street food) dishes like bhel puri, a mix of it, chopped onions, tomatoes, cilantro, puffed rice and spices. I never get around to making bhel puri; I eat sev like potato chips. It’s also great on top of salads to add crunch, or on top of soup, especially very spicy lentil soup.

In order to make this, you really need a sev machine, which is something like the child of a cookie press and a potato ricer, but not entirely like either.

You can also buy sev, but I can’t find that brand (my favorite) here in Fresno, and besides, there’s a far slimmer chance of setting your kitchen ablaze and getting to douse it with a liberal sprinkling of baking soda (it never fails to amaze me how well that works) when opening a bag of snacks.

Here’s someone who has clearly mastered the technique; a wide, deep pot (like the karhai shown) being essential.

(While I was writing this, I found this fascinating antique wooden sev press for sale; if anyone has a spare grand around, I’d love to have it in my home.)

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Vegetarian Rogan Josh

I’ve been flipping through The Foods of India in the last week or so. It’s been sitting unused for a long time.

I have a pile of Indian cookbooks; this is the only one that isn’t vegetarian. I’ve never bothered to buy non-veg Indian cookbooks as a matter of course. It was a gift, though, and I love the look of the book. However, it’s rather amazing that a book could be written about the food of India and end up predominantly devoted to meat dishes. But it’s absolutely beautiful; a coffee-table book, for sure.

Though large, (too tall for my cookbook shelves in its coffee-table sized format) this book isn’t comprehensive, of course, no volume on the food of India could be. It’s mostly focused on Northern Indian dishes, and actually, it’s a pretty good guide to the foods of India that you would usually see in an Indian restaurant in the U.S.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, if you want to learn how to make Butter Chicken, or just look at a phenomenally beautiful photograph of it, why not?

But I’ve always felt bad about not making better use of it, since Indian food is by far my favorite thing to cook, and I always need new ideas to try out. It appeals to the part of me that likes complex problems and well-developed concepts. I find it more rewarding to make an Indian dish than something in which the method is easily revealed, as all the component parts are readily identifiable. Making vegetables on top of pasta just doesn’t light my fire.

I’ll admit, I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to Indian meat dishes. There’s never been any reason for me to learn them. The fortunate thing about them, though, is that unlike dishes in Continental cuisines, which tend to focus strongly on particular cuts of meat that must stand on their own, many Indian meat dishes are sauce-based. This is a boon for vegetarians, as it’s far easier to replace cubed pieces of meat than a rack of lamb. (Replacing the rack of lamb is where we get into the Compensating Vegetarian territory, already discussed.)

The Rogan Josh recipe I ran across in this book was one such. The sauce sounded great. I knew that Rogan Josh was lamb, but I really didn’t know any more about it than that. Reading around, I figured out that it’s a Kashmiri dish. Chunks of boneless lamb, onions, garlic, ginger and yogurt are common to all the recipes. Beyond that, the spices vary, but the closer-to-the-source recipes seem to include cardamom, cinnamon, bay, cloves and paprika. (The original in the book bears a very striking resemblance to Madhur Jaffrey’s Rogan Josh.)

Chunks of boneless lamb could just as well be chunks of boneless tofu, I thought. (Some omnivores may guffaw here, but the herbivores might nod along.)

So I made it, with tofu and cauliflower instead of the lamb. As always, this is an adaptation with significant changes from the original recipe. Chimp thinks this is great – I think it still needs a little work. If I do this again, I’ll probably deep-fry the tofu first instead of roasting it near the end – that would help the texture be more meatlike.

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Barbecubes

I’ve just finished two very productive days of a photoshoot for work. On my way out yesterday morning I grabbed, on impulse, a pile of 1960s-era food-company sponsored recipe pamphlets and booklets that I had out because they had been with something else I pulled down to refer to the other day. These would be fun for us to flip through during the shoot, I thought.

Well. Chalk one up for The Joys of Jell-O, Fourth Edition.

A batch of food professionals can actually talk about food nine hours a day for two days in a row without much trouble, so it’s not as if we needed fodder for conversation. However, one of our number pounced on this book and took a good steady browse through it. We were amused by a number of the photographs of the Jell-O concoctions, but I can hardly do justice to the hysterics on our examination of this recipe for Barbecue Cubes, which was unanimously selected as the winner of Worst Recipe.

Now remember, we were taking food shots during this session, which are style-dependent, and it is entirely possible that someone might look at the work we did this week and laugh at it forty years hence, but this photograph has a spatula with a brownie-sized Barbecue Cube (Barbecube to its friends) descending into a salad of ingredients unidentifiable except for the picture’s caption, and do any of you want to eat that, knowing that it’s described as a Barbecue Cube, not knowing yet what its constituent parts are?

It turns out that it’s basically very stiff tomato aspic – for those of you who aren’t old enough to remember or are not collectors of old cookbooks, think of tomato-sauce based Jell-O Jigglers with vinegar and perhaps onion juice, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, or prepared horseradish.

Then try to put that thought out of your head as quickly as possible, before you accidentally taste it in your mind’s eye.

The barbecue cubes are made with Jell-O Salad Gelatin (any flavor). We were able to discover, through close reading of the salad section, that Jell-O Salad Gelatin was available in celery, mixed vegetable, and Italian flavors. For some reason, none of us could recall seeing that product on store shelves.

Click through for the big version, with the recipe for Barbecue Cubes, as well as Barbecue Cheese Cracker Pie (Serve as an appetizer with sea food, if desired) and Chicken Salad Surprise. (What’s the surprise? I’m not sure, but it must be one of these listed ingredients: lemon Jell-O, garlic salt, onion, mayo, pecans, chicken, celery, olives, pineapple…should I stop? I should probably stop.)

A tip of the hat to James Lileks, of course.

Asparagus & Edamame Salad with Green Garlic

Edit 2/26/07: Hi Readers! If you’re visiting from the Bariatric Eating forums, please check out my post about the use of this recipe. Thanks, and enjoy your visit!

This is another dish from a what’s good in the produce section? moment. There was green garlic on offer, and that happens so infrequently that I cannot pass it up. It’s a springtime-only item.

Those of you who eschew soy, take heart; you could make this with lima or fava beans and achieve a lovely result as well. I had this all on its own for a light dinner. It would also work well over pasta or with a risotto.

I only used one stalk of green garlic in this – it came in a bunch of five. Green garlic looks like an overgrown scallion or a 98-pound weakling leek, but it is orders of magnitude stronger than either. Be sure to taste a thin slice before adding it to anything so you get a sense of how to harness its power rather than be overwhelmed by it.

The mustard in the dressing might seem a little incongruous. It does something to the lemon juice, though – it provides a mediating factor so that you don’t just taste the sharp acid note.

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Sorites Paradox Pesto

I had to ask my husband the professional philosopher tonight, “What’s the name of the idea about how much of something you have to take away before it ceases to be that thing?”

“The Sorites Paradox.”

“May I call this Sorites Paradox Pesto?”

“It’ll be clear that you’re married to a philosopher. It’s also called the Paradox of the Heap.”

“That’s okay. ‘Sorites Paradox Pesto’ sounds better than ‘Paradox of the Heap Pesto’ anway. ‘Heap’ isn’t really a good word for a recipe title.”

Classic pesto: Basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, salt. This shares only the last two ingredients and the method, and is by dint of that vegan and still interpretable as pesto. The method is what’s really important.

We put big dollops of this on top of an otherwise very plain-Jane white bean soup, a place I sometimes put gremolata. It would be good applied to just about anything that would hold still long enough – broiled on bread, tossed with pasta, incorporated into an oil-and-vinegar dressing, heated and mixed with wilted greens.

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Trees in Training

Coming into the produce business with plenty of food knowledge but no agriculture background to speak of, I’ve learned a bit on the job. There’s not much agriculture knowledge required for what I do, but it’s nice not to be completely ignorant when you spend at least some time talking to farmers, so I’ve been on a few field tours and I try to ask good questions on occasion. I love to observe, and I learn a lot from just noticing practices and then asking an expert if what I think I’m seeing is correct. Here’s a recent one like that.

These trees are tied down. It’s not to keep them from blowing or washing away (although with the sixth-wettest March since record-keeping began in 1878 – 4.73 in., with normal being 2.2 in. – this would be the point at which you’d start to worry about things washing away, even in the basketball-court-flat San Joaquin Valley).

This is an orchard of plum trees that are tied to stakes in the ground for training. Plum trees have a strongly upright growing habit. (Peaches and nectarines have a spreading habit.) Training plums this way helps them grow a little more spread out, in what’s called an “open vase” or an “open center” style.

These trees, planted last year and now on their “second leaf,” have four or five branches (technically called “primary scaffolds”) that will eventually support the weight of the tree’s fruit. These long branches will probably be cut back this year to between two and three feet, and two secondary scaffolds will be allowed to grow from each primary scaffold.

As with just about every agricultural practice, there are other ways to accomplish this. One other I’ve seen, and haven’t had a chance to take a picture of yet, is the use of lengths of wood – sometimes prunings taken straight from the same orchard – in the center of the small tree to prop the future scaffolds apart. This takes less time than staking, but is also less secure.

Either method achieves the same result: it makes the trees easier to manage as they grow and need to be thinned, harvested and pruned. However, training is not simply for the sake of convenience. Having a tree with an open center allows more sunlight to reach the fruit, which helps the plums gain color better as they mature. Additionally, an open tree enjoys better air circulation, reducing the risk of fungal diseases taking hold.

Though if left to their own devices they might produce a small crop of plums, these trees will likely not be harvested this year. The fruit will probably be knocked off the tree – in order to allow it to put more energy toward growing the structural framework that will make it a strong bearer in its third leaf.