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Friday, January 28, 2011

Perspective: What Food Means Pt. 2

We spoke earlier in the week about the meaning of food on a global, put-down-your-weapons-and-pick-up-your-baguettes sort of scale, but there's a second side to food that's much more personal. It's no more or less important than the global food crises, which might seem a little ludicrous to say, but please hear me out.

What I'm referring to is the mental and emotional impact of food on a personal level...the way I feel when someone makes a meal for me, or when I can cook for others, the warmth and comfort of soups or curries, the delight of a home made truffle. Yes, it's a small scale and yes, it doesn't immediately appear to change the world, however; food communicates love. And in its own ways large and small, love is the only thing that ever really does change the world for the better, isn't it?

Whenever I cook for people, I imagine that I am, in some way, directly transmitting my love to them. Not "love" in the sense that I consider them my closest friends or akin to family or any of that...it's more of a love for my fellow man. It may seem kind of silly but with just the right soup or curry or with a long-slaved-over risotto or the perfect roasted vegetables, I can feel all that effort as love for whoever I'm cooking for. When they take their first bites and their eyes get big and they tell me it's delicious, I believe they can feel that love.

So what does all this matter? Well, our society continually pushes a solitary and self-reliant existence. We have to actively go beyond the realm of what's considered "normal" to connect to other people, not via keyboards and screens but to actually, legitimately connect, which seems to be a lost art these days. Making food for someone can bridge that gap.

But another use for food - perhaps more important - is a silent affirmation of affection, love, and comfort. When someone close to you needs comfort and you don't know how to give it, baking bread for them or making a meal can be a great start. It shows that you care enough to take the time out off your day to create something specifically for them. We are rarely shown that kind of individual attention anymore and therefore, becoming the recipient of it has a potent effect...not to mention that it can open up the lines of communication.

Beyond being a necessary substance to sustain life, food carries with it all sorts of abilities to elicit emotion, to comfort and nourish and to heal. It's important that we not forget this effect for our own well-being and that of others.

Cook for the ones you love.

The Calm Cook

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Recipe! Turkey with Sweet Potato Dumplings

In the spirit of the articles this week, the recipes I'm posting are also exploring the mental and emotional impact of food. This one in particular is, undoubtedly, a comfort food. Basically a one-pan meal (though I would recommend serving with a salad), this recipe goes together easily and contains all whole foods. It's healthy, warm, delicious and inviting, and it smells fantastic!

I adapted this one from the Whole Foods Market version, which uses white flour and only salt and pepper as spices (for shame!). Here at the Tranquil Kitchen we simply can't accept white flour as an answer and seasoning is a little heavy handed. Feel free to adjust and intuit your seasonings....I'm sure any number of combinations would work!

The taste tester's loved this, and considering the kind of weeks we've had lately...comfort was a welcome guest. We had most of an oven-roasted turkey left over from a previous meal, but you could easily use a rotisserie chicken or a turkey breast. If you don't have any whole wheat pastry flour, I am sure white whole wheat flour or regular whole wheat flour would work just fine.

Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Perspective: What Food Means Pt. 1

"I wished the whole world was dead serious about food instead of silly rockets and machines and explosives using everybody's food money to blow their heads off anyway." -Jack Kerouac


There's something about this quote...in fact, there's always been something about this quote for me. I read it for the first time when I was fourteen years old and I was discovering (and consequently falling in love with) Jack Kerouac. It's from his novel Dharma Bums which is not as iconic as On The Road but is one of his many well-known and loved works. I remember thinking that this concept of food was revolutionary, in a way, despite being so...obvious. 


The thing about food is that, as a culture, we Americans seem to have an almost innate misunderstanding of it.  Every culture approaches food differently...in fact, it's one of those things that defines a society. Take the French, for example; internationally revered for their cuisine, not only because it is time-honored and delicious, but also because they take the time and the effort to enjoy it. By their lifestyles, the French show an appreciation for food and for the power of food, for the emotions that a meal can elicit, a respect for what they choose to imbibe. 


In contrast, Americans seem to view food as a necessary evil. We drive through the nearest fast-food joint in an effort to eat something that will leave us feeling "full" for the least amount of money necessary, often paying little attention to the nutritional value of that thing we just ordered, distracted too much by the $0.99 price tag. Do we consider what sort of meat must be in something for it to be only $0.99? Not as often as we should, clearly.


Consider the Kerouac quote...if all the money that was spent making bombs and guns and other things that were meant to hurt and kill people was instead redirected to the food supply...can you imagine how much the world would change? Would anyone ever go hungry? Absolutely not. Animals wouldn't need to be mistreated anymore because we would have the means to encourage sustainable, cruelty-free farming. We could take the scientists who's job it was to research bio-warfare and retrain them to research enriching our food supply. 


Clearly, this is idealistic and I understand that. But is there anything wrong with idealism in the first place? Ghandi was idealistic, Martin Luther King Jr. was idealistic...Many of the world's greatest minds have been dreamers and idealists. Perhaps most importantly, the world will never improve unless a lot of people dream, and unless their ideals are sought. 


There are studies coming out left and right about how many families in the United States aren't stable enough to know that, every day, they will have enough to eat. We are (for now) the richest country in the world and we still have hundreds of thousands of citizens who can't really be sure they will have enough food to last until payday. And yet we are fighting a war that never should have started and building a government in another country while paying them money to establish their own nuclear arms program. It's ludicrous. 


Food is one of our basic needs, in fact, one of the most basic. It's simply Maslow's hierarchy; we can't focus on bigger problems until these basic needs are met. Perhaps the reason why we are having so much trouble with diplomacy and politics and vitriol-spewing public figures and wars and weapons programs and national health and all these crazy things is that, at the heart of it all, there are hundreds of thousands of us that can't eat and hundreds of thousands of us being foreclosed and no one connects to anyone anymore except virtually which leaves the entire spectrum of our basic needs unmet. 


Food gets passed over but it's one of those things we really ought to be dead serious about. 


And in the end, being serious about food would and could change everything. Think about it. Food nourishes people...it gives people life, brings people together, it makes people feel better. Food bridges every gap because we all need it and everybody loves it in some form or another. The lack of it is always negative, but no matter how much food we have, when we share it we are giving more than just nourishment...we are giving warmth and love. Food is unique in that it can inspire so very much, even in very small supply. 


In the end, I can't say this better than Kerouac...but consider that he wrote that book over fifty years ago and that lesson, that dream, that ideal has yet to be realized at all. In fact, we've gone so far the opposite direction that it seems we might never be able to pull back. And yet the power is, and always has been, in the hands of the people. If we take up our dreams and our ideals peacefully, and yet with great conviction, anything can happen. It could begin with making sure that no one in this country went hungry, and extend in ways we can't predict or imagine. 


The Calm Cook

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Recipe! Spicy-Cool dip

This might just be the easiest recipe that I have ever posted. I stumbled across it by accident last week after making black bean enchiladas and then discovering that I had no salsa to top them with. What I did have in my fridge was a big bottle of sriracha and about half a container of light sour cream.

Many people that I know have never cooked with sriracha...they recognize the bottle but have been either too scared to try it, or just didn't find that bright red color very appetizing. But the stuff is addicting, and if you don't watch yourself, you'll start using it for everything. An entire cookbook devoted to the stuff was just released this month, and I've seen it popping up on the blogs more and more often.

What makes sriracha so addictive is the medley of the flavors; the intense heat of the chilis, the savory garlic notes and the tang of vinegar that sets off the other flavors. It's very spicy and unique and good in...well, almost everything. If you aren't a fan of the spicier thins in life, I would use it in extreme moderation...it's hot!

This dip is both spicy and cool, and can be edited, added to, and changed to suit your individual tastes. I've added a few suggestions, but I recommend trying it in it's simplest form first. It is absolutely delicious on enchiladas, quesadillas, tacos, or just with whole grain or blue corn chips. I would also think it would be delicious on eggs, as sriracha alone is delicious on eggs. Without further ado:

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Lifestyle: Prioritizing

It's so easy these days to get...beyond busy. Not just run on the mill, working eight hours a day busy, but the kind of busy where you don't have a spare moment from dawn until midnight and you still haven't finished everything that you need to accomplish. Some people love being busy and others hate it, but I happen to fall into former category. If I'm not busy, I don't know how to handle myself. (How I balance that particular quirk with an anxiety disorder, I have no idea.)

But whether you are happily busy or about to tear your hair out with frustration, the most important part of balancing your busy life is by choosing your priorities. Even though it can feel like life is running you, you still have the right and the ability to choose how you are going to run your life, what you will prioritize and what you will put above everything else. It's necessary for your health, mental and physical, to make those distinctions

There's something to be said for knowing when to start and when to stop, when to set something aside for later and when to go for it full tilt, not letting anyone or anything get in your way. Sometimes its as simple as knowing when to let yourself take a break.

This week, I'm afraid I have to make that distinction. I've had several tumultuous occurrences in the past week, and this week upcoming is the final week of my current day job, which is closing. I have four big projects I'm working on and meals to cook for my family, a very intense last-week's schedule and, this past weekend, an unexpected trip out of town. I think I just need a few days off and next week I will be able to come back, good as new. Until then, try a recipe and tell me what you think!

I wish you all the very best and I will return next Tuesday with a brand new recipe, tried and true as always.

The Calm Cook

Friday, January 14, 2011

Recipe! Gyro-Style Chicken Over Quinoa

Photo by Carole Liston


This is one of those great dinners that can (mostly) be prepared ahead of time, ready to throw together at the last second on a busy weekday night. The flavors are fresh and delicious, the ingredients are whole and healthy, and the dish is highly nutritious and low in calories. A great dinner for those watching their caloric intake or just wanting some great flavors.

Gyro's have been popular street food for some time...though they are often made with white-flour pitas and lamb meat. Personally, I love lamb...but it's expensive in this part of the country, and not overly easy to come by. So I took a recipe from the Whole Foods website and adapted it to fit our budget (and easily accessible pantry items). Quinoa provides a whole grain, unprocessed alternative to that pita, and the spices and flavors meld together deliciously in the end results.

I will say, when it comes to thinly slicing chicken, you will have a MUCH easier time if it is at least partially frozen. Your fingers will be cold, but trust me...it's so worth it.

The original recipe calls for red peppers, which would be an excellent addition (along with the onions...I think the onions are totally necessary!) Just chop them small. I put the cucumber sauce through a food processor to make it creamier as well...it was delicious, but a little thin. I might grate the cucumber with a fine grater next time instead. The taste-testers loved this, although one of them said that he wanted the whole thing, quinoa and all, on a pita. I don't know if that's a good thing or not.

Anyway, enjoy!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Recipe! Basic Quinoa

Quinoa is one of those foods that's so delicious and so simple to make, it's hard to believe all of the benefits of eating it. Not only is it a gluten-free whole grain, but quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) actually contains all eight essential amino acids. It's filling and can be incorporated into lots of recipes, makes a great vegan dish but also goes well with meats of various sorts, and is generally versatile and useful.

Quinoa has been making a stir for the last year or so, becoming very popular among the vegan, health conscious, and gluten-free circles for all it's benefits. It's a great addition to your pantry and can be used in place of rice. Best of all, it's insanely simple to make!

Most basic recipes call for water, but I find it to be more flavorful to use vegetable broth. You can use either, but if you use water, make sure to add some salt!

Basic Quinoa


1 cup quinoa
2 cups vegetable broth (or water)

1. Rinse quinoa in a very fine strainer (some varieties come pre-rinsed, making this step unnecessary, though it's probably still a good idea). When water runs clear, transfer to a pot and add vegetable broth or water/salt.

2. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to medium-low and cover. Simmer for 15-20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Set aside for 5-10 minutes, then fluff with a fork and serve!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Shopping Smart: "Healthy" vs. Healthy

It's one of those perplexing conundrums of our every day lives: the health industry in America is...almost terrifyingly enormous and in many cases, lucrative, and yet, our country is one of the most unhealthy in the First World. We are bombarded with "healthy" new products, "healthy" new diets, and "healthy" new foods left and right, but there's a disconnect, because upon inspection of the ingredient list, these foods aren't very healthy at all.

A lot of this happens with food that caters to an "alternative" diet. For example, if you choose to become vegetarian or vegan for environmental or health reasons, don't replace your meat with any of the most popular or readily available meat substitutes...they often contain chemicals for taste, for preservation, for color, and a number of other uses...combine that with the processes that have to be used to make the products and suddenly they aren't so 'green' or so 'healthy' anymore.

Meat substitutes are only one example. A great number of the products generally marketed to the public as being health foods simply aren't...and companies can put all kinds of things on the labels of their products without answering for them at all. What's important to watch out for is the ingredients list. You can be as careful with this as you'd like; depending on your personality an lifestyle it might be easier to practice "clean Eating" (For a fabulous Clean Eating resource, see The Gracious Pantry) or just try to incorporate more whole foods and less processed. What matters most is using a method that works for you.

Incorporating less "healthy" food and more healthy food into your diet can seem confusing at first, but there are a few key principles that can help you choose the best foods for yourself and/or your family.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Recipe! Taco Stew AND bonus: Taco Seasoning

Taco stew is one of those delicious comfort foods that is usually chock full of sodium and other processed foods, mainly due to the seasoning in it. However, it's winter, it's cold, and there's nothing in the world like a hot stew to take the winter's edge off. Whether you're in one of the areas that's in a cold snap or one of those that is unseasonably warm, using available winter vegetables and home-made seasoning mixes can result in a delicious and healthy version of this well-loved stew.

Not to mention, having a container of home-made taco seasoning can come in handy for all sorts of last-minute, budget friendly dinners.

I used the same concept for this stew that I used for Black Bean and Sweet Potato Enchiladas, since the flavors go so well together. Add in some seasonings, salsa, and frozen corn, and this is an easy weeknight recipe with enough nutrition to make any health-conscious cook happy. It's also easily adaptable for vegan and vegetarian households!

Try this recipe tonight, and your stomach (and family) will thank you. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Damaging Inconsistencies in the American Mindset

I've mentioned before that America's current problem with obesity and anxiety can be attributed to the inconsistencies in our culture, but it appears to be something that's becoming more accepted and challenged by popular culture. Food News Daily is back from their Holiday break (and thank god, too...I missed them!) and in their January 3rd newsletter they linked this article from slate.com.

The struggle that Ms. Tarlin talks about in this article is one that I believe we all can relate to, but I also believe that it extends far beyond the issue of food. Yes, we face the difficulty of trying to reconcile knowing what we aught to eat with what we actually eat...but we are also bombarded with "cures" and reliefs for stress and anxiety and yet we most likely pass them by. Sure, if their effects are dubious then it's a good idea to ignore their claims. However, certain best practices are passed over again and again, simply because we don't believe that we have the time or don't enjoy the activity.

Take yoga, for example. Personally, I hate yoga. I know that it's very good for you, I know that it increases circulation, that it eases the mind and body, that it limbers up muscles and joints, that those who practice yoga regularly look and feel much better for it...and yet, I can't make myself do it. As a chronic multi-tasker with an anxiety disorder the slow, methodical movements and periods of focused breathing drive me insane. And asking me to "clear my mind" is just basically a joke. I dream in fast-forward, so sitting still and focusing on nothing simply...isn't going to happen.

Fortunately, my hatred for yoga made me realize something.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Recipe! Peruvian Roasted Chicken

It's not often that I take a recipe as it is written and make it exactly to specifications...honestly, I like intense flavor combinations and unexpected spices, and even if I don't throw a huge spin on things, I usually try to enhance what's there. Cooking intuitively is one of the best skills to develop in the kitchen, and I often use it to create new recipes or put a twist on what's already there.

But every once and while, I find a recipe that needs no major improvement or change, and when I find those...well, I pass them along to you! This particular recipe came from the Whole Foods Recipe website. Generally speaking, the recipes on that site are a good place to start...but rarely delicious as-written. This chicken recipe is an exception.

Because my family dislikes bone-in chicken (and I'm no fan either, truth be told) we used boneless, skinless chicken thighs. The only other change that I would make would be to add a few tablespoons of brown sugar to the spice mix...but only if you like a little sweet with your spice! This recipe is easy, simple, fairly quick, and most of all, absolutely delicious. Enjoy!