Posted by: A Part of the Solution | February 11, 2014

Bulk Aisle ≠ Locavore

The Bulk Aisle, or shelf set, in your natural foods store lets you buy all manner of dry goods, in the volume which meets your needs, with a minimum of mark-up to support industrial processing, and even less packaging. While most of us understand our carbon footprint is set on ‘splurge’ when we buy spices–whether in the bulk aisle or not, few of us have a concrete idea of where the rest of the goods we regularly buy in bulk may originate.

If your natural foods store is a small chain or a co-op, the wheat flour in your bulk bins may well be quite local. But the other grains, and the more so if they’re organic, are often likely to have quite the travel record, albeit they never crossed an international border to arrive in your kitchen.  All your organic rice comes from Texas or California, unless it’s an organic Jasmine rice, in which case it may well have traveled from India or Thailand.

Most of the nuts in your bulk section are likewise domestic. Of course, your Brazil nuts arrived from South America. Your cashews came from Vietnam or Nigeria. Your hazelnuts originated in that part of Turkey which abuts the Black Sea and Georgia.

Seeds are a multicultural wonderland in the average bulk array. Flax seeds come from Canada. Pumpkin seeds, certified organic and otherwise, almost certainly come from China. India, Ethiopia or Central America likely grows your sesame seeds. Sunflower seeds may be domestically sourced; if not, they came from China or Russia. Quinoa and amaranth (and they are seeds), all iterations, grow above 3000 meters in the Andes, and come to you from South America without exception. Your ultra-hip chia seeds started their life in Australia.

The average selection of a natural foods dried fruit bulk aisle spans the globe many times over. Apricots come from Turkey. Dried pineapple arrives from Sri Lanka or Thailand. Goji berries grow high in the Himalayas–in ‘China’. Banana chips come from the Philippines, other forms of dried banana tend to originate in Ecuador. Dried apples most often comes from China. Cherries, blueberries, cranberries all originate domestically. As do your raisins and your prunes. But your figs and sultanas come from southern Turkey, and your dates do too–though if you’re in Europe, your dates likeliest come from Iran. Most crystallized ginger ships in from China.

Most of your dried beans and lentils originate in North America. Adzuki, mung and red beans, even the organic ones, come from China. If your navy beans don’t come from the US, they grew in China. Some of your garbanzos may come from Turkey, ditto your bulk red lentils.

Canola oil comes from Canada. Olive oil comes from California if it’s organic, and Tunisia-Spain-Turkey in a blend if it isn’t (a three continent special). Coconut oil comes from the Philippines. The maple syrup is domestic, and produced along the East Coast of the US, or it’s Canadian. Don’t buy your honey in the bulk aisle unless it bears a local point-of-origin. Otherwise, regardless of where it says it comes from, it effectively originated in China. Agave comes from Mexico. Bulk sugars come from all over: Malawi, Brazil, Mexico, the US, Nicaragua.

Pay attention to the products in your bulk section. If dates and figs look expensive, there may be trouble in southern Turkey brought on by the Syrian refugee crisis. If dried papaya and pineapple shoot up in cost, the recent unrest in Thailand may be catching up with their commodities pricing. Are dried apples and ginger looking pricey? Is it a retaliative tariff or too much rain causing the price shift on goods originating in China?

I presume you’re committed to buying coffee, chocolate and tea based on lack of pesticide residue, laborer quality of life, and Eco-sustainable practices. Apply the same care and consideration when you purchase anything which doesn’t come directly from the farmer/producer. Ask questions in the store where you shop. Do a little online research yourself to get detailed answers. Use the power of your shopping currency to make the world a better place mouthful by mouthful.

Posted by: A Part of the Solution | February 6, 2014

What’s wrong with Chocolate?

I do not want to rain on this part of the food parade. Chocolate contains all kinds of good-for-you vitamins, minerals and fiber. It lists as high in saturated fat, but the fat in question is mostly stearic acid and lowers LDL cholesterol. Chocolate is a valuable source of non-soy oil Omega 6 EFA. Chocolate is high in flavonals which serve as antioxidants and vascular toners and clot preventers in the blood stream. Consuming measured quantities of dark chocolate daily, listing at 75% cocoa solids and higher,  could bring you closer to a wide spectrum of health goals.

Or not.

I pound the drum for organic food values and production on a regular basis. I am not someone who feels certification protocols are always the best measure of organic practices. With chocolate, however, the bad news about commercial cacao cultivation will convince you ever-after to look for the Certified Organic sticker before you buy–and to know why “the better the chocolate, the more pesticide residue” is always true.

Cacao experiences a vulnerability to a wide range of fungi and pests. 70% of the world’s chocolate comes from a handful of countries along the Gulf of Guinea. In these countries, both DDT and Lindane are regularly sprayed over the cocoa crops. Those farmers too poor to receive the spray, bring smaller yields to market. The fat ratios in the cacao seeds from unsprayed plantations are markedly lower than those which received pesticide treatment. This results in a lower price per tonne to the farmer.

Sooo…. the best chocolate, having the highest fat ratio, comes from regularly sprayed orchards. Those best cacao seeds find their way into exclusive boxes of truffles and chocolate brands like Scharffen Berger, Callebaut, Lindt, and Ghirardelli. If you don’t see a certified organic icon on your chocolate/cocoa/cacao nibs, it ISN’T free of persistent pesticides.

There. I said it.

Let’s talk about ethical health and our chocolate consumption next.

In 2001, the US and UK began pressuring the big chocolate producing nations (Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon) to commit to ending trafficked child labor on the plantations. Of 200,000 child laborers in cacao production on the Gulf of Guinea, only 15,000 are believed to be trafficked. Protocols established in 2002 to phase out slave labor targeted 2005 for implementation. 2008 became the next target. Then 2010. And… 2012.

Hershey’s, Ferrero and Mars have all issued statements declaring their intention to guarantee their chocolate “slave labor-free” by 2020. Realistically, nothing short of direct pressure from Big Chocolate on the producer cooperatives appears likely to effect a real shift in this century old problem.

While Big Chocolate blocked a congressional initiative to create a ‘slave-free’ label for chocolate back in 2001, there’s still a way to buy chocolate which pays farmers and laborers a fair wage, assesses health risks in the workplace, and assures long-term buying contracts. Look for the Fair Trade icon when you go to purchase chocolate. The Fair Trade label is an excellent standard for any of the tropicals in your diet: coffee, bananas, mangoes, coconut oil, dried peppers, cane sugar, tea and tisanes.

Nearly everyone eats chocolate. Therefore, nearly everyone has the choice to seek out organically certified, Fair Trade chocolate and put their expenditures where their values are. Yes, organic and Fair Trade chocolate is more expensive. Equally, you’re not just eating a high quality, health supporting snack. You’re biting into an effort to end slavery and trafficking. You’re enjoying the demise of persistent pesticides with every mouthful.

You chocolate will taste better when you eat it with a clear conscience, I promise.

Posted by: A Part of the Solution | January 20, 2014

Chocolate Almond Torte

Here’s an easy cake to make. It makes up gluten free. This chocolate almond torte uses honey instead of sugar. This torte uses a fair number of eggs, and a good chunk of chocolate. In return, your chocolate almond torte will keep for several days (I don’t know how long it keeps, since I finish it faster than it goes stale). If you’re grain free, this little recipe will keep you happy many and many the day.

Chocolate Almond Torte

5 oz unsweetened baking chocolate, 100% cacao preferred

2 oz butter or coconut oil

5 eggs, carefully separated, at room temperature for 1/2 hour or more

5 oz honey

1 tsp salt

1 1/2 cups, 6 oz, almond meal or flour

2 tsp vanilla extract, or 1 tsp almond extract (optional)

Line an 8 X 8 or 9 X 9 with a piece of aluminum foil large enough to hang over the pan at opposite ends. Grease the foil sling well and set the pan aside. Preheat the oven to 350°F, and position a rack in the upper third of the oven.

Put water in a small sauce pan, and fit a sturdy bowl, larger than the pan, into it’s top. Make sure the water in the pan doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl. Put the fat and the coarsely chopped unsweetened chocolate in the bowl. Bring the water in the pan to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Stir the chocolate and fat mixture occasionally as it melts. Let this mixture cool slightly off the heat.

In a medium bowl, beat the five egg yolks until pale and thick. Add the honey and continue beating the egg yolk mixture until it is very thick and a pale lemon color. Add the extract and stir it in thoroughly, if using. Beat in the cooled, melted chocolate.

With a fork, mix the almond meal and salt together. Stir these into the egg yolk-chocolate mixture, to make a thick, grainy paste with an even chocolate color.

In a large bowl, absolutely clean and free of grease, beat the egg whites with a hand mixer, a hand blender, a rotary egg beater, a balloon whip or a fork. Beat the egg whites until they are glossy and hold a peak fully upright.

Fold 1/4 of the egg whites into the almond meal mixture. Gently fold the remaining egg whites into the chocolate almond batter. Spread the batter evenly in the prepared cake pan.

Bake this for 35-40 minutes. A toothpick or straw pressed into the middle of the cake will come away clean. The cake will be firm if lightly pressed, and it will begin to come away from the edges of the pan. Allow the cake to cool for 20 minutes on a wire rack. Using the foil sling, lift the cake from the pan and let it cool completely on the rack.

Cut into small pieces to serve, as it is very rich.

Posted by: A Part of the Solution | January 16, 2014

Cast Iron Corn Pone

This corn pone recipe is a mid-winter favorite of mine, going back to my grad school days in London. I love the way corn pone uses up the lovely, beany stew made earlier in the week. And corn pone does this without descending into the dreaded ‘leftovers night’ category of meals we’ve all eaten. Oh, corn pone as I make it has always been gluten free, and with minimal tinkering vegans up nicely. The vegan alternatives are folded into the recipe below

About the pan: An 11″ or 12″ cast iron pan is the vessel in the title. If you want to halve the recipe for your smaller household, use an 8″ or 9″ cast iron pan. If you don’t have one of those, but do have an oven safe dish, 9″ X 13″, you can use that.

Cast Iron Corn Pone

4 cups juicy, flavorful, beany stew (juice it up with beer, wine, cider or stock if it’s too thick–but you still only need 4 cups total)

2 cups, 10 oz, cornmeal

1 fat pinch cayenne pepper (optional)

2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

4 cups buttermilk, OR 3 TBSP vinegar with sweet milk to fill to 4 cups, OR 3 TBSP vinegar with the milk alternative of your choice to fill to 4 cups

2 eggs, slightly beaten, OR 3 TBSP ground flax seed meal whipped in a mini-blender with 1/4 cup water until foamy and goopy

1/4 cup melted, slightly cooled fat (butter, Earth Balance, lard, peanut oil or coconut oil are all better options than olive oil or canola oil)

 

Position a rack at the top of your oven. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Over a medium low flame, heat your juicy bean stew until very hot and bubbling.

Meanwhile mix the cornmeal, baking soda and salt together in a large bowl, stirring well to evenly distribute your ingredients. Mix the wet ingredients together until well amalgamated.

Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until just smooth. Pour the corn mixture over the bubbling beans. If you’re using a 9″X13″ baking dish, grease the dish well and pour the bubbling beans in first and the corn mixture over them.

Turn the oven temperature down to 425°F. Bake the corn pone on the top rack until a rich golden brown and the pone has slightly pulled away from the sides. It will be ready in about 25-30 minutes. Dig in while its still hot.

 

Posted by: A Part of the Solution | January 13, 2014

Spanish Chicken

This Spanish chicken recipe isn’t quick. It does use pantry staples (as per my pantry). This Spanish chicken dish isn’t complicated. And it’s fairly inexpensive, as well as being a great way to stretch your chicken to feed more people in a manner as filling as it is delicious. This Spanish chicken recipe also holds well, and is as delicious warm as hot. So it goes to potlucks with aplomb. You can also double this Spanish chicken recipe, or triple it, and keep on multiplying until you’ve made enough to feed a workshop, a retreat, or an entire summer camp.

If you’re feeding kids, serve the green olives on the side for those who enjoy them to garnish with as they please.

Spanish Chicken with Green Olives

4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, or 3 breasts in the same condition, or 6 whole legs, or 15 wings….

2 TBSP olive oil

2 large or 3 medium or 6 small yellow onions, peeled and chopped

1 large red/yellow/orange bell pepper, or 8 medium spicy peppers, well deveined and seeded, chopped

5 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced

1 1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp smokey paprika

1/2 tsp black pepper

3/4 cup brown rice

1 14 oz can diced or crushed tomatoes

2 TBSP sherry vinegar, or red wine vinegar

1 cup frozen peas

1/3 cup chopped green olives (Cerignola or the kind stuffed with pimientos)

Preheat the oven to 300° F. Heat a cast iron, or heavy bottomed, oven-safe pan over medium flame. Lay the chicken out in a single layer and allow to cook for six minutes once the pan is hot. Turn the chicken to sear on the other side for another five or six minutes. Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside.

Add the olive oil to the pan, and allow to become hot. Put the chopped onion in the pan and let it cook, without stirring, for four minutes. Stir it and let it cook another three or four minutes. Now add the chopped peppers and repeat. Next add the garlic, salt, coriander, paprika and black pepper. Stirring every minute or so, cook these in for three more minutes. Add the rice and stir it around until it looks shiny from the fat and oil in the pan. Let it cook, stirring occasionally, for five to eight minutes, until the tips of the rice look somewhat translucent.

Rough chop the seared chicken if you’re using boneless. Otherwise, place the chicken pieces evenly in the pan. Allow the contents of the pan to heat back up completely. Pour the tomatoes and another can’s worth of water, or stock if you wish, over the Spanish chicken, along with the vinegar. Cover the pan tightly and cook for one hour in the oven.

Remove the pan from the oven, and stir in the frozen peas. Sprinkle the chopped olives on top and re-cover the pan. Set it back in the oven for another 45 minutes.

The brown rice becomes creamy with the low and slow oven baking, but it won’t be mushy as white rice will do with long cooking. So make plenty, as everyone is sure to want another helping.

Posted by: A Part of the Solution | January 10, 2014

What’s Wrong with the Paleo Diet?

I’m not a nutritionist, and I don’t play one on TV. I am a deeply committed whole foods activist. As in, the best diet for humans is one including lots of seasonal fruits and veggies and the remainder of the diet should consist of components recognizable as actual food from actual food sources. If allergies aren’t a concern, please DO eat nuts, dairy, fungi, flesh, grain-like seeds, root veggies, pickled and fermented foods and whole grains, all in moderation. Some of those food categories are ‘allowed’ on the Paleo diet, and some aren’t.

Paleo is sweeping the interweb. The emphasis in that diet on fresh produce, pastured meat and wild-caught sea food is all good. Getting away from processed foods may, and often does, clear up a cornucopia of symptoms characteristic of the fallout from 21st century ‘convenience’ foods: poor digestion, skin problems, irregularity, weight gain, insomnia, mood swings, low immune response, over-production of insulin.

At first glance, the Paleo diet looks a lot like the first stages of the candida elimination diet. Indeed, for one or two months at a stretch, either of these assays at clearing the system and resetting the metabolic clock makes very good sense to me. On the other hand, I’m old enough to have lived through quite a few cycles of ‘miracle’ diets and single-ingredient ‘magic bullets.’ Remember soy? In everything? Or oat bran even in your potato chips? Have you perhaps noticed the way quinoa and kale are the new EVOO and salmon? Remember when eggs and butter were going to kill us all before we turned forty? Oh, you still think that? Well, you’ll have to wait for those to get their own blog post.

The problem with Paleo has to do with down the road. Not this month, or even the month after. But in a while, like six months from now–and further out. This diet requires quite a bit of planning and home preparation to hit all its targets for nutrients and calories. Stop paying attention, and you’ll become a first worlder with a self-inflicted deficiency disease. Seriously.

The premise that humanity hasn’t had time to evolve to eat carb rich food isn’t true. How do I know our systems can manage a more carbohydrate focused diet in health? Dogs.

Dogs have evolved since people began farming ~10,000 years ago. Their enzyme load is distinctively different from that of their wild first cousins, grey wolves. The enzymes common to domesticated dogs allow them to digest the many times more carbohydrate heavy diet consumed with their human companions. If dogs have evolved to digest carbs, is it a stretch to imagine we have as well?

I’m not talking about bleached-out, balloon bread. We didn’t evolve to eat sugar cereal with spray-on vitamins. Humans don’t flourish if their diet consists of mostly denatured, fried white foods. I grant you those simple truths.

But soaked, simmered beans have been a part of our diets for about as long as agriculture has been a livelihood. Starchy root vegetables are key staples all over  the world, and often in places where diets are otherwise Paleo to the core. Taro root in Pacific Rim cultures, potatoes in ancient South American traditions, yams in Africa. Grains and nutrient dense ‘seeds’ are also a hallmark of the earliest farming undertakings: North American corn, South American amaranth and quinoa, African sorghum, Mesopotamian barley, Asian millet and rice.

Next is the Paleo dicta eliminating fermented foods. Functionally, people are scavengers. This is the nature of the omnivorous diet. It allows animals without multiple stomachs, i.e. herbivores, or without apex predator skills, i.e. carnivores, to take a place in the food chain. The most widely and anciently domesticated animals share this trait with their human hosts, e.g. dogs, chickens and pigs.

Scavengers evolve to eat a deal of food which isn’t fresh. If you don’t own a dog, go on a walk with a dog owner, you’ll see just what I mean. Or visit a farm and watch the chickens work-over the compost heap. Food past its prime is no barrier to omnivorous fitness-for-consumption. Without active intestinal fauna, omnivores cannot be said to be in peak health.

Our cave dwelling ancestors did not have mason jars. Using minor research skills and access to the information super-highway, you might easily discover ‘pickling processes which do not depend on glass jars with screw-top lids. Or just go ask any authentic granny from Greece, or Mexico, or West Africa, or Cambodia, or Finland about how her family puts up pickles. Please do not try to represent that kim chi didn’t exist before the screw-top, or miso, or giardiniera. They’re all pickled/fermented foods. And the balance they add to our intestinal tracts is fortuitous.

Yogurt and cheese are soured milk, and they both have a rack of phytonutrients which help moderate digestion and sleep cycles alike. Fruit juices first ferment and then become vinegar. That vinegar is wholesome and a good tonic for blood functions and digestive functions alike.

The salt added to processed foods in the modern diet and used in modern pickling methods makes a mockery of early pickling. Our ancestors used whey (or cultured rice bran in Asia) to stabilize and preserve foods. These fermentations increase calcium bio-availability. They also preserve vitamin C, a necessity for the ancients lest they suffer from recurring scurvy every long, ice age winter.

Clean yourself out with the Paleo diet. Heck, go hog wild and hit up the candida elimination diet for thirty days. It makes Paleo look like an orgy of no-holds-barred self-indulgence. Once you’ve done your ninety on the Paleo, add legumes to your diet. I won’t say ‘add them back.’ Unless you converted from old school vegetarianism to Paleo (not too likely in my extremely humble opinion), you weren’t eating many beans excepting in your Taco Bell drive through and your tubs of boughten hummus.

If you find after a week or so of regular legume consumption your sleep patterns, energy levels and digestive dispatch are all humming along, go ahead and add back the sinister ‘starchy root vegetables': beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, potatoes, yucca and more. And please, get thee to an Asian grocers to pick up some kim chi. Make your own yogurt, and use it in moderation (like meat in the Mediterranean diet, so is dairy in the well-balanced post-Paleo diet: a condiment to add flavor and sparkle to a meal).

Should you yearn for grains after six to nine successful Paleo-ish months, soak them 19-24 hours at room temperature in water spiked with whey(readily found as that cloudy, watery stuff on top of non-Greek yogurt).  This soaking turns phytic acid (nutrient blocking, digestively disastrous) into phytase, the very enzyme you need in processing these now-controversial foods through your gut. Go slowly with adding grains back into your regular consumption cycle. Hold off on the gluten bearing grains until you’re comfortable with rice, millet, sorghum and buckwheat.

Need it be said, as you add back legumes and ferments and dairies and root veg and even–gasp–grains in moderation, you can cut back on those Brobdingnagian volumes of flesh you’ve been eating. Our Paleolithic forebears were never Hunter-Gatherers. They were Gatherer-Scavengers.

Paleo feels like the new Ornish: effective at distancing one’s body from old destructive dining practices, but not a diet to turn into a full-on lifestyle. Trust me, food fads come and go. We can learn from them, but only if we don’t fall for the rhetoric inherent in the sale of even the best grades of snake oil.

Posted by: A Part of the Solution | January 4, 2014

High Iron, High Fiber Breakfast

Anemia has plagued me most of my life. Latterly, I’ve got my tendency to short iron under control. In the past, I ate very little red meat and didn’t find that ‘Iron Supplements’ worked well with my body. So I studied up, using the nutritional tables in Laurel’s Kitchen. Her essays on essential minerals, and lists of foods high in the specific mineral about which she wrote, helped me craft the ultimate bio-available high-iron breakfast. Coincidentally, this same meal is insanely high in fiber as well.

Nowadays, I apply what I learned from Nourishing Traditions about phytic acids, naturally present in grains and flours, locking up key minerals and preventing their absorption. So this recipe begins 24 hours before you want to eat it. In addition, you’ll take in more of the bio-available nutrients if you 1) have your coffee or tea before/after eating, 2) add fresh fruit high in vitamin C to your breakfast bowl (melon, strawberries/bramble berries, citrus). Non-heme iron, the kind which is plant based, also absorbs better if you consume a little heme iron at the same time. So bring on a strip of bacon, breakfast sausage, or what you choose (if your diet allows) to get that extra punch-up.

The serving volume as given provides about 7 mg of iron and 17 g dietary fiber. Combine this across the arc of a day with a serving of dark, leafy greens and one or two servings of beans or lentils, let alone a serving of red meat, and you’ll be over the fence with your iron requirements.

Oh, and there are a whopping pile of calories in this breakfast bowl–with the strawberries suggested above, you’ll be close to 700 calories. Add a small serving of animal protein, and you’ll be at 750 calories. But you can eat this from first thing through lunch (that was my methodology) and then you’re good for the day with a nice snack in the early p.m. and a reasonable dinner.

Power Oatmeal Porridge

For the soaked grain:

2/3 cup, 2 oz, 55 g, rolled oats

1 TBSP, .25 oz, 8 g, rye, spelt or buckwheat flour

1.5 cup, 350 ml, hot water–but not boiling

2 tsp, 10 ml, apple cider vinegar OR 2 TBSP, 1 oz, 30 ml whey

For the Porridge:

pinch of salt

1 TBSP, .4 oz, 11 g, raisins

3 dried peach halves, chopped

1 1/2 TBSP, .5 oz, 14 g, pumpkin seeds pulsed in a small electric grinder

1 1/2 TBSP, .5 oz, 14 g, sunflower seeds pulsed in a small electric grinder

2 TBSP, .5 oz, 14 g, sesame meal (made from ‘unhulled’ sesame if possible, as this quintuples the calcium)

3-4 TBSP, .75 oz, 20 g, toasted wheat germ

1 TBSP, .75 oz, 20 g, blackstrap molasses–and don’t try to use a lighter molasses since the iron and calcium are present in the unrefined version only

Accompaniment:

a handful of strawberries or bramble berries, a piece of citrus/mango/guava/papaya, a serving of melon

Combine the ‘soak’ ingredients in a bowl and cover tightly the morning before you want your Power Porridge. Set the bowl aside at room temperature until the next morning. In a mesh sieve, rinse the soaked oats well.

Bring 1 1/3 cups water, 325 ml, to a boil in a suitable pan. Add the oats, dried fruit and salt, cover the pan and reduce the heat to very low. Simmer covered 7 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the oats sit another 5 minutes. Stir in the nuts, seeds, wheat germ and blackstrap molasses. Eat the fruit with the porridge–in it or on the side, to aid in absorption of iron and calcium alike. If you’re worried your selenium intake isn’t what it should be, add a tablespoon of pastured butter.

Posted by: A Part of the Solution | December 24, 2013

Gingerbread Cookies, Filled or Flat

Usually, I just take Smitten Kitchen‘s word for it. Making gingerbread this holiday season, I chose that path. And I have now adjusted the recipe so it will accomplish my objectives more clearly. Here’s the thing, the SK gingerbread cookie is really Martha Stewart‘s gingerbread cookie. Both ladies are excellent sources of reliable baked goods. But I do believe there’s just too much cinnamon in that there cookie dough.

Without all the cinnamon, one may readily rein in the powdered clove–since there’s a balance one wishes to achieve. Not that I have anything, anything at all, against flavorful gingerbread. Yet I don’t want my mouth numb and tasting like a pack of classic Trident set up shop after eating a holiday cookie.

This gingerbread is very workable, and even prone to ‘crispness’. Since I have a fetish for filling things with things, the drier dough is very much to my specifications. If you only want to cut out simple shapes (ie not snowflakes or articulated reindeer), go ahead and add another stick of butter. Really.

If you have modest holiday cookie needs, you can cut this recipe in half. You’ll still have quite a few cookies, however thickly you may roll them. For a chewy centered cookie, roll these nearly 1/4″ thick. For the filled cookies, roll the dough as thinly as your nerves and work surfaces will support.

The vegan version is folded into the main recipe.

Gingerbread Cookies

2 sticks butter or Earth Balance or Spectrum Shortening (if you use a ‘shortening’ style fat, you can cut your fat usage back by 1 oz, 8 oz, room temperature

1 cup, 7 oz, brown sugar

2 eggs, room temperature OR 3 tablespoons flax seed meal beaten until thick and foamy (an immersion or mini-blender is good here) with 5 tablespoons water

1 cup unsulphured molasses, or 1/4 cup honey + 3/4 cup blackstrap, British protectorate types might enjoy Treacle instead

6 cups,29 oz, unbleached flour

1 1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp baking powder

4 tsp powdered ginger

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp finely ground black or white pepper

1/2 tsp powdered clove

Cream the fat and sugar together. Add the eggs, one at a time (or the flax seed meal goop in two parts), and beat well-in until smooth and glossy. Add the molasses and beat until your mass is thick and uniform. Stir together the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Pour the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and stir until fully combined.

Divide the dough into two equal portions. Flatten each portion of the dough into a rectangle and wrap it very tightly. Let it rest in the fridge at least two hours, and up to four weeks (in the case of longer storage, make the second layer of wrapping around your dough an air-tight aluminum foil arrangement).

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Sprinkle a little flour on a length of kitchen parchment. Lightly flour your portion of unwrapped dough on both sides. Lay another length of kitchen parchment over your gingerbread dough. Using a rolling pin, or a straighter sided wine bottle, roll your dough from the center to the edges, and around the edges to even the depth of the dough without any of that characteristic, but utterly *wrong*, back-and-forth rolling pin motion beloved of commercials and comedy skits.

For filled cookies, the dough should be 1/8″. For regular, try 1/4″. If you’re filling the cookies, simple shapes (circles, hearts, diamonds, gingerbread girls) are the best.

To fill the cookies, put a small teaspoon of filling at the center of the cookie. Wet the edges of the base cookie with a fingertip dipped in water. Give the top cookie a final pass with the rolling pin to stretch it slightly. Arrange the top cookie over the filling and base cookie carefully to line the two cookies up as closely as possible. Using the tips of a fork’s tines, press the two cookies together around their circumference.

Bake these, and the fatter roll of cookies, about 14 minutes. For thin, wafery cookies, bake them only 8 minutes. Allow them to cool 3 minutes on the pan before transferring to a wire rack.

Easy Royal Icing

1 egg white, beaten ’til foamy

1-2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 3/4 cup, 6.5 oz, sifted confectioners sugar.

Beat the egg white with the lemon juice and stir in the confectioners. This is thick enough to pipe onto fully cooled cookies. It also takes color beautifully. You might substitute ginger juice squeezed from freshly grated ginger for the lemon juice.

Dragées, jimmies, sprinkles, red hots, chopped holiday fruit and sugar-of-color all do best to go on the cookies before baking.

These stay fresh five days in a cookie tin with a tightly fitting lid.

Sugarplum Filling

1 20 oz can crushed pineapple

2 oz dried tart cherries

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 cup apple cider

1 pinch salt

3 TBSP, 1 1/2 oz, unsalted butter

In a heavy bottomed, 2 to 3 quart saucepan, bring the first five ingredients to the boil. Boil on medium high for 5 minutes. Boil on medium for 10 minutes. Continue boiling on medium low for 5 minutes more.

Stir in the butter, cut into chunks, off the heat. Let the mixture cool completely before storing in the fridge to use as cookie filling, or topping for ice cream or frozen yogurt. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Posted by: A Part of the Solution | December 23, 2013

Olive Tapenade

If you like olives, this is the tapenade for you. If you don’t really like olives, but feel you should, this is the tapenade for you. If you already have a couple kinds of olives on hand, but not very many of any one sort, this is most definitely the tapenade for you.

Olive Tapenade

1 pint pitted olives, well drained, mixed is preferable to one sort, well chopped–but not too evenly

1 small shallot, minced

1 small stalk celery, leafy tops included, minced

3/4 oz sun dried tomatoes, rehydrated in hot water for 6 minutes, then drained (reserve the soaking liquid) and chopped

1/4 cup minced flat leaf parsley

2 tsp minced fresh rosemary

zest of 1/2 lemon

1 1/2 TBSP balsamic vinegar

3/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1/4 tsp cayenne powder (optional)

2 TBSP extra virgin olive oil

Combine everything in a medium work bowl. Taste the tapenade carefully. Does it want the sweetness and moisture from some of the reserved tomato soaking liquid? Does it need a few drops of lemon juice? A shake of Worcestershire sauce to deepen the umami? Do you want it more cohesive? In which case, pulse the tapenade several times in a food processor to achieve the desired consistency.

Let your tapenade ‘marry’ for 4-6 hours at room temperature, or refrigerated overnight. Taste and correct it again, as necessary. This will keep, stored in an air-tight container, for about two weeks.

This spread makes a great foil for polenta hors d’oeuvres. Make your own polenta half moons, or buy those convenient prepared rolls and slice into rounds 1/4″ thick, then in half. On a pre-heated, oiled baking sheet, cook the polentas at 400°F for 10-12 minutes, then turn and cook them for another 8-10. You want them well browned and shrunken. Otherwise, they’ll get floppy when you apply the tapenade to one end–and you don’t want that.

This makes about two cups, which goes a long way as the flavors are concentrated and only ripen over time. One double batch will see you right through the holidays. Unless you’re as greedy as I am for a good tapenade.

Posted by: A Part of the Solution | December 18, 2013

Barley Stuffed Mushrooms

While barley is low in gluten, it is not gluten-free. So if you’re having G/F guests (or if you or your household members are G/F), you could do this with quinoa, millet or rice–a wild rice blend would be very nice indeed. On the other hand, barley is not wheat or even one of the close cousins of wheat like kamut, faro, emmer-wheat and the like. So this dish is suitable for those who eschew wheat but tolerate small amounts of gluten just fine.

Don’t fall into the fallacy of getting lots of very tiny mushrooms. Even if they’re on the menu as an appetizer. They shrink when you cook them, and you’ll be frustrated trying to get a 1/2 teaspoon of filling into all those tiny, little apertures. Do consider these as a great vegetarian main dish, especially if you use portobello mushrooms, or very large cremini say. They also make a lovely side dish for omnivore plates.

The volumes given below will fill about 6 dozen appetizer sized mushrooms, or 15-20 portobellos–depending on how big they are and how high you pack the stuffing.

Barley Stuffed Mushrooms

For the barley:

5 oz barley, hulled is special here

12 oz water

1/2 tsp salt

For the mushrooms:

6 dozen good sized fresh button or cremini mushrooms, stemmed (save the stems for another project) and wiped of their dirt

OR

15-20 firm fresh portobellos

salt for sprinkling

For the stuffing:

1 1/2 oz hazelnuts, toasted, rubbed (to remove their skins), and chopped

3 TBSP olive oil, or butter

1 small apple, peeled if you like, cored and chopped quite small

1 shallot, minced

1 small stalk of celery, leafy tops included, minced

1/2 tsp powdered fennel

1/2 tsp dried thyme, or a TBSP of fresh

1/2 tsp rubbed sage

1/4 grated nutmeg

1/2 tsp black pepper

1/4 cup minced (Italian flat leaf) parsley, volume after mincing

The cooked barley from above

[optional] 3 oz blue cheese or vegan blue cheese, crumbled

Put the barley, water and 1/2 tsp salt in a small saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook about 50 minutes. You want the barley VERY done. If you chose hulled barley, cook about 10 minutes longer. Leave the barley sitting off the heat in the covered saucepan about 15 minutes. Then drain it thoroughly, about ten minutes in a colander or strainer.

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Set your mushrooms, aperture side up on an edged baking sheet. Sprinkle them lightly with salt. Cook for 10-15 minutes, they should have liquid sitting in their ‘wells’ when they’re ready. Take them from the oven and turn them over. Set them back in the oven for another ten minutes. This drying process prevents them becoming soggy when filled and finished.

In a heavy bottomed frying pan, get your fat hot over medium heat. Add the apple and cook for several minutes. Then add the shallot and celery. Let this cook for several minutes more, stirring occasionally. You want the apple to begin to caramelize, and the celery to soften, but you don’t want the shallot to caramelize–since it only becomes bitter instead of sweet like its cousin the onion.

Now and the fennel, thyme, sage, nutmeg and black pepper. Stir these well in and cook for another minute or two. Remove from the heat and stir in the chopped hazelnuts, the parsley, the barley and the blue cheese/cheeze (if using). Check the seasoning on the stuffing and correct if necessary.

Hold the mushrooms over the bowl of stuffing as you stuff them, that way the ‘crumbs’ will fall back into the mixture instead of gumming up your rimmed baking sheet. Pack them fairly full and very tightly. Set them on your baking sheet as they’re filled. The mushrooms can be very close together, as they shrink while cooking.

Bake at 375°F for 15 to 20 minutes, for the little ones and 20-25 minutes for the big ones. Serve immediately.

You can make the stuffing several days ahead of when you hope to serve it. You can prep the mushrooms up to a day and a half ahead. Do refrigerate these components in tightly lidded containers if you’re not going to finish them at once.

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