Easing Into Green

Salad ingredients

“Plant-based diet” has become the catchphrase for eating well and living long in contemporary society. Whereas old-school models of eating centered on a now arcane food pyramid, today’s healthy-minded people know the trick to feeling good and maintaining a disease-free body lies in eating green. But how does one forego meat,  cheese, and sweets (mostly) without growing bored of the same old steamed veg or the variations on a tossed salad? The answer lies in finding creative ways to mix the healthy with the craved, in a ratio where the bad stuff lies low and the good stuff looms high, but the taste still remains.

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Non – Lettuce Salads

I like to keep bulk, non-perishable ingredients like dried fruit, nuts, seeds, hemp hearts, and chickpeas in my cabinets so that I always have fun, textural salad adornments at hand. Then, I pluck whatever produce is in the garden, or whatever vegetables are most abundant and cheap in the grocery store, and chop them up and add. Mingle this all with a simple vinaigrette made by shaking two parts oil to one part vinegar in a Mason jar and some small bits of sin for flavor in the form of crumbled feta cheese. Over 50% of the salad is green. A small percentage is fat. The toppings are various forms of superfoods or grains. And the possibilities are endless enough so you could eat a non-lettuce salad every day simply by following the seasons. One of my favorite combinations is below.

Squash and Cucumber Salad

¼ raw zucchini diced
¼ raw cucumber diced
¼ c. dried chickpeas
1/8 c. dried barberries
1 oz. diced feta

Toss all ingredients together.

Dressing:
1 tbls. olive oil
½ tbls. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. dried marjoram

Whisk all together and pour on salad.

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Green Sandwiches

Similarly to the non-lettuce salad concept, is the non-meat sandwich concept. To me, there is nothing better than a great piece of high quality, bakery bread with layers of fresh veggies and a good piece of cheese.

My special trick with these sandwiches is to always have a jar of homemade pesto on hand to use in place of mayonnaise. The richness makes the meal heartier and the herbs and nuts I use pack lots of antioxidant power into lunch.

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Homemade Herbal Pesto

1 large bag cilantro
1 large bag basil
¼ c. pepitas
½ olive oil

Blend herbs in a food processor until minced. Add the pepitas and blend until relatively, uniformly minced. Continue to pulse while adding oil in a slow stream until the mixture reaches your preferred consistency. I tend to like mine chunky and less liquid, but it is a matter of personal taste.

Idea: This pesto is remarkable as a base on a soft piece of Jewish rye, layered with havarti and melted under a broiler, and then topped with ripe, halved, grape or cherry tomatoes.

My Fervid Fig Fetish

IMG_8414 I recently watched the 2012 film The Fruit Hunters which thrillingly documents exotic fruit fanatics and people who are obsessed with planting and growing fruits internationally. The opening scene made me realize how much I can clump myself into this population as the fruit porn montage of luscious cross sections of pears and glorious globes of dew dripping cherries and perfect plump ovals of loquats and grapes had me transfixed to the scene like a twisted fetishist. I blush to admit that just the other day the Cute Gardener had to remind me under his breath in the outdoor aisles of the garden center that I couldn’t just forage the grapefruit on the ground underneath the potted tree that was for sale of the same name. Still earlier I scoured a Granada Hills hike hoping to find citrus in the orchards that weren’t already brown with rot. I’m addicted to fruit like others are to sex.

I only use the sexual metaphor because it is an obvious one. From the Garden of Eden to the liquid-stoked orgies of Dionysis, fruit has been matched up with risk, pleasure, rebellion and sin for centuries and what could be more taboo and sexy than that? Not to mention the way fruit looks as it blooms from the copulation of pollination into a fleshy and juicy adult. In fact, my first memory of eating fruit is a highly sensuous one.

I don’t recall the geographic location I was at nor do I recall who I was with, and I know I was only somewhere near six years old, as I sat in some shady lawn in someone’s front yard and bit into a ripened purple fig. And just like that bittersweet moment of first puppy love or that stomach ache feeling of the first time we are physically attracted to another human being, the butterflies in my guts took flight leaving me halfway filled with anxiety and halfway filled with a pure and astounding bliss. There must have been a tree close by because I have distinct and visceral visions of plucking more and more off of the grass and stuffing my face with glee.

IMG_8415To this day the fig holds its special reign in my heart as my “first” affair with fruit. I have never bought a fig in the market in all these years. Instead, throughout my life, I have managed to seek out kind friends and neighbors with an overabundance of figs in the summer who gladly donate their overages to my delight. I tend to seek out trees close by and stalk them until they dump their delicious fare onto public spaces of ground. I am a self-proclaimed charity case for any and all fig donors in my environment and no amounts are too big for me.

I was recently granted a beautiful bounty of green figs by a friend who remarked over tapas one night at the sumptuous Racion in Pasadena that her tree was currently in burst. The CG and I ended up following her home after our meal to gratefully receive a bag of the fruits. One was down my throat before we even arrived home. The rest were scattered out over the next 48 hours into a series of my meals as I devoured them heartily.

They were diced into chunks and sprinkled on top of coconut yogurt and Armenian sesame bread and rolled up like a lavosh for breakfast. They were halved and sprinkled with feta and drizzled with honey for lunch. They were sliced in half and stuffed with a hunk of Parmesan and splashed with balsamic vinegar for an afternoon snack. And finally, they were gobbled down with tea (which the CG thinks figs actually taste like) first thing in the morning.

It was a fast and fleeting two days that, like all illicit affairs, still leave me a tad guilty at my loss of control as well as secretly pleased with my ability to indulge in those times when it is absolutely worth it.

End of the Melon Granita

IMG_7384Right as Halloween rears its head each year, we see the dwindling of the summer bounty from the garden. Gone are the green beans and squash. Stocked away are multiple jars of tomato sauce. Whatever is left of berries sit frozen in jars in the freezer as tart purees. All that remains are the last few massive and oblong Crenshaw melons begging to be rescued from their final rot.

Crenshaw melons are the very sweet and juicy bastard children of casaba and Persians which have orange flesh and make their way into cubes at the end of most our dinners throughout summer. But by this time of year, we can’t eat them faster then they spoil so we are always looking for ways to rescue them from imminent death. The last mottled bunch became quite intimate with the chinois a few weeks ago as we first pureed all of the flesh and then squished it through the mesh to extract a gorgeous, rich and brightly colored pure juice. Alone the juice was sublime and spiked with gin or scotch as a cocktail as well. The juice even went perfectly with a homemade bowl of miso, spinach and fish ball stew that I made for dinner one night. Melon and anything Asian are a perfect pair.

But the true pleasant surprise came when we decided to make the juice into a granita for dessert.  I grew up loving the Italian coffee granitas at my local poetry and coffee shop in the desert during long summers when we were constantly craving cool refreshment. I decided to experiment a little with the clean melon juice so that it would keep its integrity, not get too diluted and be sweet enough for a cold nip after dinner. With a little lime zest to brighten it up, it was the perfect soothing way to end a hot and busy day. Because we resisted adding too much sugar and no water at all, we ended up with a texture that got creamier as it melted and avoided many of the ice crystals that normally pop up jarringly on desserts of this nature.

MELON GRANITA
Serves 6
(I am sure any melon would do the same thing if used from it’s strained pure juice form.)

3 cups straight, pure melon juice, pureed and strained from the fruit pulp
1/8 c. sugar
One lime

Place melon juice, one tablespoon of lime juice and sugar in a blender and whip. Pour all into an 11 X 7 glass baking dish. Put into freezer for two hours until a crust starts to form around the edges. Take out and crunch up peripheral crust with a fork and pull towards middle of dish. Then place back into the freezer for two hours and do the same crunching method. At this point you should have a nice slushy yet firm pile of melon shards and rocks. Place into bowls to serve and garnish with grated lime zest. They also go lovely with chocolate or hazelnut rolled up wafer cookies.

Bursting Momotaros Provencal

IMG_6936This is the time of year I take various breaks from my writing during the day to look out my office window and down into the verdant garden where I am blessed with a view of vines bursting with tomatoes. Widely pregnant orange and yellow Cherokees, slim, ovular San Marzanos, perfectly globe-shaped red Momotaros and tiny, thick-skinned grapelettes all waiting to be plucked and transformed into a variety of spreads, salsas, and dishes. The Cute Gardener spends many hours in the kitchen creating jars of sauce to freeze for a year of pastas and enjoys bringing paper bags of the luscious fruits to friends and family when the overflowing bounty grows too much for one household.  Many get sliced at room temperature for avocado and cucumber sandwiches, diced as a cooling accompaniment to hatch green chile soft tacos, added to lazy Sunday BLTs or popped straight into the mouth offering up a beautiful summertime ratio of soft flesh to juice.

IMG_6908The challenge at this point then becomes the discovery of new ways to enjoy the constant parade. Although a facet of French cuisine lies in the realm of heavy butter, cream and pastry, I oftentimes, especially in the warm season, prefer its more rustic shadows where vegetables are given a pedestal to shine upon in their most simple form. For this reason, I chose a Tomatoes Provencal to use up a batch of Momotaros that were dying for the spotlight. Instead of using this as a traditional side dish, we spooned the roasted tomato halves on top of pasta and as we dug into them with our forks, the juice and pulp that ran from their steaming interiors became a nice, fresh spaghetti sauce perfectly light for the warm weather.

TOMATOES PROVENCAL

Heat an oven to 375 degrees. (We used a toaster oven.)
Grease a nine-inch round baking dish by swirling a tablespoon of olive oil.
Cut six tomatoes in half crosswise through their midsections and place the halves in the baking dish.
Sprinkle a mixture of three to five herbs across the tops of each tomato half. We used a blend of oregano, rosemary and thyme straight from the garden.
Drizzle a thin stream of olive oil lightly across the whole batch.
Cook in the oven for 20 minutes.
Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and serve!

Fig Foraging Fool

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At forty I have become a foraging fool.  I have my reasons.

For one, I try to buy as little as possible from the grocery store. Whereas most people make a grocery list and then go supplement that list by things they find on the shelves; I tend to wait to see what produce the Cute Gardener might give me from his garden in any given week as well as the bounty I might find naturally out in the open before deciding upon what else to spend my money. The CG has been a huge inspiration to me as I have watched him eat seasonally from his garden. Not only does he maintain a healthy body from working the land so to speak, but also, he eats what is fresh, ripe, nutrient rich and literally dirt to table so that there are no chemicals from preservatives or plastic packaging getting into the dinner mix. I am a fan of getting off of the large, consumerist American food products teat; the one that has us constantly buying things that we could probably find better versions of if we looked around the great outdoors or learned to cultivate on our own.

Secondly, in my herbal studies, I have found that we benefit energetically when we eat things that are grown or developed in the same geographic regions that we dwell. If we are all connected energetically (our bodies being the only pseudo-boundaries that make us actually think we are egotistically non-connected to each other and all things), then it makes sense that we would eat the dandelion greens that grow up through the cracks in our backyard sidewalks rather than send for a package of them from another country. Two like energetic things from the same place have less of a problem integrating with each other’s systems thus allowing for better digestion machinations all around. This applies to farm raised cattle just as much as the raspberry clinging to the vine in your public park.

IMG_0316Lastly, it’s super fun to forage; kind of like a treasure hunt. One of my heroes is a Swedish chef named Magnus Nillson who created a restaurant in his town where he serves only a few people a night with things he finds out in the landscape he calls home. Reindeer lichen, trout roe, scallops and juniper berries delight his guests who travel to eat his magnificent creations. I have begged the CG to pull over in Visalia, California so I could pilfer some fallen oranges from the freshly stripped corporate groves abandoned by the pickers. I have enjoyed a plump and juicy orange from the state capitol lawn fallen and cracked open seemingly just for me. I have scoured the beach neighborhoods of my town for loquats and pineapple guava to make jars of jam for all my girlfriends. I have swiped bizarre jelly fruits that taste half of banana and half of apricot off the towering palm tree on the corner in front of a Burbank Bob’s Big Boy. And just last week I traversed the parks near my home to bag up just fallen figs from the ancient and sprawling trees which are currently producing so much that I am sure the homeless who dwell on the grass are enjoying three meals a day.

IMG_6246Fig Jam

11 figs with stems removed
1/2 cup organic sugar
1/2 cup water
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Combine figs, sugar, water, and lemon juice in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the liquid has thickened slightly and has turned a rosy, golden shade, about 6-8 minutes. Turn off the heat. Mush with a fork to desired texture. Keeps in a mason jar in the fridge for about a week.

Foraged Fig and Blue Cheese Sandwich

2 tablespoons fig jam
1/2 oz. of high quality blue cheese, crumbled
1 slice Mestemacher whole grain rye bread

Toast the bread and cut in half. Spread with the fig jam, the crumbled blue cheese and enjoy!

 

 

Lunar Eclipse Loquat Love Jam Quenches My Need to Feed

IMG_5852The idea of wasting food really bothers me on so many levels.

I cringe when I think about all of the food that people throw away from their refrigerators including leftovers they never get around to finishing or produce that’s been forgotten in the bottom bin, turning moldy and rotten. It ties in with my problems with our overreaching societal attitude that more is better therefore we must have more than we can potentially use rather than learning to gauge economically and efficiently what we need to consume. It also makes me reflect on all those people in the world who know what true hunger is and those people in our country who line up at food banks hoping for just a piece of bread and perhaps, if they’re lucky, a piece of fruit on any given day. I also get discouraged when I see gorgeously filled citrus trees overflowing people’s backyards or bounties of fruit in large pastures in the middle of nowhere where the fruit is merely dropping and dying on the ground with no one around to enjoy what nature is so amply providing.

Sometimes this food obsession makes me do funny things. Recently, at the State Capitol I found myself taking a fresh orange that had fallen from a massive lawn tree onto the ground. The drop had split it wide open yet I still carried it in the car cooler until the Cute Gardener and myself could share it on a long drive home from up North. It somehow pleased me that the bright citrus treat, full of syrupy juice, might be a regular staple to all of the homeless who called Sacramento home. The last time I took a trip out of town for a few days, I gathered up a bag of things that would go to waste or turn stale from my kitchen including a box of chocolate halva, a few random sea salt caramels and a box of Ak Mak crackers. I rode my bike along the beach until I found a stranger sitting alone with a backpack on a stray bench on the sand and asked if he wanted some food. He turned out to be a hitchhiking hippie kid from Joshua Tree with a daisy in his ear who told me he was Jewish and missed halva from his youth.

Oftentimes, I dream of becoming a guerilla food rescuer and mapping out a plan to scour the neighborhoods and forage fruit so that I can take it into the schools and provide it (along with a little true food education) to kids for free; the same kids who think cheap and preservative-rich gummy oranges and fruit roll ups are ample sources of vitamin C. Or, I could take it to the local homeless shelters and give it away to all those who need to eat. It seems silly that legalities surrounding feeding people and making food and serving food do stand between the hungry and someone who merely wants to feed. I know why many of these rules are in place, yet it still disheartens me to see such a glaring disconnect between the uneaten food I encounter daily and those who could benefit from it who inhabit the very same streets.

IMG_5856A week ago during the Lunar Eclipse I received a message from a dear friend about the special energies an eclipse brings to our personal sphere of intentions. He told me that instead of working on my normal to do list like any other day, that I should instead go out into the world and do something that brings me pure joy, that is in line with my higher self, and that denotes a bit of my true inner passions. He said that doing so would create a powerful energy around my existence the way prayer does and that I would be fortified with grace for the day along with something a tiny bit magical. That was all I needed to hear to jump on my bike and head off to my friend’s house to raid her loquat tree.

I had been riding the streets of Venice Beach for a week and noticing the trees along the way that were bursting with clusters of the small pale yellow fruits (otherwise known as Japanese plums) that reminded me of overgrown apricots. I was dying to taste them, dying to save them from imminent death and invisibility in the eyes of the people who owned the homes they were connected to; and although they were clearly feeding the birds because I noted so many sidewalks lined with their tiger’s eye hued, golden brown and metallic large seeds, I was hankering for ways to figure out how to use them to feed actual people.

IMG_5860After half an hour on a ladder with a picker, I bicycled home with a bag of about 100 of the luscious fruits. As I was picking, a dozen or so fell to the ground and splattered their better halves across my shoes, so I ended up eating the remains of many of those as a snack and was delighted by the subtle, mellow sweetness of the fruit which oddly enough came embedded with three pits a piece. I spent the rest of the afternoon in a classical music and cooking coma making marmalade – or what I have come to call Lunar Eclipse Loquat Love Jam.

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The recipe is super simple. You take however many loquats it is that you have and wash them. Then cut the ends off, pop out the three seeds from within and put the remains in a pan. Cover the loquats just to their tops with water and bring to a boil. Once boiling, turn down the heat and simmer for about fifteen minutes, mashing up the loquats with a potato masher every few minutes. If you are a purist and want smooth jam you can then immersion blender the liquid before the next step but I prefer my marmalade chunky so I skip that step. Measure how much liquid and fruit you have at this point and add one half of that amount in organic sugar. I had six cups from about 50 loquats and therefore added three cups of organic sugar. Stir all together and bring to a boil again. Once boiling, turn down to simmer again and do so for one to two hours, stirring every so often, until the color is tawny and the texture is rich and sticky. It took me two hours to get there. Then put into sealed mason jars and refrigerate. Because of the purity of the recipe, the jam needs to be eaten within a week.

I came away from my afternoon jam session with five solid jars full and immediately started divvying up the sweetness into tiny Tupperware for my friends. I got back on my bicycle and started riding the streets of Venice delivering them to random people in an inspirational way. One of my closest friends who is pregnant received some to please herself and the growing spirit inside her. My loquat donor received a package of her own upon her doorstep. Another friend currently in the throes of heartache received one to take on an outdoor sleepover. And I reserved a jar for the Cute Gardener along with some special cocktail syrup I had made for him from the few remaining fruits in my kitchen after returning home that evening spent from the outpouring of love on my own very special lunar eclipse.

I may not be able to feed the world or save all of the ignored and abandoned fruit of the land, but I can do my own little part from my heart when the urge of the wild moon calls.

P.S. While writing this, I came across an amazing website called Neighborhood Fruit that connects people who want to find fruit with people who want to share fruit. I will be exploring this intensely over the next few weeks.

Taming the Chard Shrew

IMG_5751I never understood while growing up how people could possibly hate Brussels sprouts. Nor could I fathom why some people couldn’t stomach greens – especially the more pungent varieties such as mustard, dandelion and chard. For me, the world of bitter plants and multiflavored vegetables was like a constant paradise to explore – not just a required nutritional additive.  But I also think this is because I was interested in food early on and inquired through books and learning on how to prepare, cook and eat these things within a generation of kids whose parents made huge technical errors in the cooking of said things. I recall many dinners at the homes of my peers where all the life was boiled out of vegetables in a pot of salted water before they ever hit the supper plate. Or where greens were steamed into lifeless piles of mush to pour over intensely mashed potatoes like some hot puree that would mingle enough to lose its identity completely. We also learn early on, perhaps erroneously, that all things that taste bitter are too good for you to be tasty. We even call an herbal preparation that triggers a cascade of healing properties to the system a “bitter vetch”. But the truth is, in the real world, grown ups like their greens, especially when prepared properly.

IMG_5742The latest object of my obsession from the garden is the fuchsia-stalked Swiss chard that grows abundantly this time of year with wide and smooth, curly-edged forest green leaves. Yes, it carries a bitter flavor. But I have discovered some new ways to incorporate this into dishes that not only disguise its sometimes off-putting flavor without sucking the vitamins or life out of it but also make it taste mighty good.

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Swiss chard is excellent for making small side salads for dinner but the trick to taming the astringent taste (which is the very thing that equates with the fact that you are getting a myriad of amazing nutrients for your body) is four fold. One, you need to cut the leaves off the stalks and use only the green parts. Two, you need to chop the green leaves into a fine shred which creates more open breathing of the pores that release the tightly condensed bitter accents. Three, you need to marinate the leaves for at least twenty minutes in a lightly applied dressing that counteracts the bitter and blends all the flavors together into a nice mesh. A spritz of fresh lemon does the trick remarkably mixed with a bit of buttery and mellow oil like avocado or pistachio, rather than olive. Once that foundation is laid you can have fun finding things to throw in that are also opposing to the bitter flavor or accentuating of, such as dried cranberries and/or crushed wasabi-encrusted almonds.

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The fibrous center stalks of the chard can be treated like celery. Inspired by the Cute Gardener, I have learned to cut them up finely and throw into a pan with some butter and garlic, onion or shallots until they soften. This then can become a base for a myriad of things from sauces to stocks. I have been using this application recently for a bevy of vegetable medleys that I then throw on top of pasta for a quick meal. In my most recent version, I mixed the tender sautéed stalks with roasted butternut squash hot from the oven, sunflower seeds, butter and mascarpone cheese before piling it all on top a bowl of spiral noodles.

I think next I may get a little ambitious with the abundant and overflowing chard and try to make my own version of the famous New Orleans dish Gumbo Z’Herbes.

 

 

 

Fava and Chard Tie the Knot

IMG_5693Over the weekend, the wind was whipping so hard in the dark hours of night that I was shocked when Sunday morning the garden still existed in the back of the Cute Gardener’s house. Almost as shocked that we, and the house, were all still standing in his neighborhood way up high on a hill. I had seriously envisioned being part of some nightmarish Dorothy dream from Wizard of Oz as I was awakened all night by banshee-like howls.

IMG_5697But like most days post-chaos and storm, Sunday was a peaceful calm and by the end of the day we were in the garden trying to decide what to make for dinner of all that had survived the winds and was ready for picking. Our answer arrived in glorious red stalked leaves of Swiss chard and a bounty of voluptuous fava beans that had seemed to multiply by the dozens merely overnight. Presented with these two vegetables that are very different in personality, the Cute Gardener set about on a mission to prove that opposites can attract.

IMG_5700(Looking at us, we know this can be true. I am kind of like the fava – voluptuous, curvy, tough exterior with a mushy inside. He is kind of like the chard – long, lean, sturdy, fibrous and bitter).

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In the spirit of marrying multiple personalities, he got busy in the kitchen preparing a new dish in his perpetual and encyclopedic repertoire of pastas.

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The party began with a dicing of the chard stalks and leaves. The CG uses chard stalks much like celery, to provide a base of flavor, and in pastas to act like a shallot or an onion foundation. In a whirlwind, I watched as an odd assortment of guest ingredients started to arrive. Shrimps were thawed and cooked. Pork belly was diced and sumptuously fried. The fava were thrown in at the end with the wilting chard leaves and tenderized centers. Chives were diced into a million splinters. Pecorino was grated to weave it all together.

IMG_5712It seemed absolutely fitting that, for this special marriage of such widely juxtaposing flavors, a bowtie farfalle was chosen to escort dinner to the table. Not only was the eccentric bowl of pasta interestingly hearty but also it allowed two current and overflowing vegetables produced naturally a chance to dance together. In the end that is what I like best – picking and eating what the earth naturally and seasonally provides.

Yin and Yang with Anaheim Chili Peppers

IMG_5090It all started with a bag of vibrant green Anaheim chilies from the Cute Gardener that had been calling my name from the refrigerator all week. Bountiful this year, these particular chilies were fickle and had a sense of humor in that they never hinted at how hot they were until they ended up chopped raw in a salad or cooked into a dish on your plate. Sometimes they were mellow and other times biting and it has been a fun season trying to figure out how to incorporate them without knowing their fate in taste. I was waiting for a dish that I could throw them in for heat and spice as a blistered and chopped, full skin and seed mix.

I have always been inclined to follow the medicine of the natural world rather than rely on the convoluted chemical compounds of the Western medical and pharmaceutical industries. Because of this, I have been perpetually attracted to the garden where herbs and plants are plentiful and food grows when it should to provide the most conducive vitamins in the moment. This year I finally decided to make my passion a pursuit and am currently enrolled in an extensive course in herbology. One of the most interesting things I am learning right off the bat is how to simply balance the meal plates to create an optimum way of eating that supports a healthy system and how far off whack we’ve come in this world of preservatives and packaging from the most basic ways to bring nutrients in and out of the flesh.

IMG_5099I am really inspired by the way of the Chinese and East Indian culinary traditions wherein this basic premise for a daily diet is found: 20-30% whole grains, 20-30% protein with a heavy emphasis on beans and legumes, 30-40% seasonal vegetables geographically available and abundant, 10-20% dairy, fruit and eggs and 2-5% fat in the form of olive and sesame oil or ghee. Using this guideline to come up with my meals in a normal week has already improved many things within my body from circulation to digestion to energy.

This past weekend I spent two blissful days in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, mostly obsessed by the Fuk Yin Tong Herbs Trading Co. where jars of every herb and root lined shelves absent of the English language and patrons walked in complaining of ailments and then out again with curious bags full of things to combine and ingest. Shark cartilage for the skin, lotus tea for the mind, astragulus for the liver – you name it, they had it. For a dollar a minute, I also received the best fifteen-minute chi flushing massage of my life by a 60-year-old man who was more spry than a 15-year-old.

IMG_5062I was thrilled when I stumbled upon bags of mung and azuki beans so that I could practice some of my new herbal recipes at home as those two varieties were apparently king of the proteins and could be used in a variety of healing ways.

IMG_5063I chose the azuki bean first as it is a small and sweet red bean that would be a nice contrast to the hot chilies that laid in wait. After soaking the beans for a day, I then boiled them in chicken broth to cover and then simmered for one hour. The nice musky and rich soup that ensued was an ideal base for the chopped up roasted chilies to accompany a plate of short beef and fresh grilled vegetable leftovers. Washed down with a glass of iced cold tea made with fresh sprigs of thyme, it was the perfect example of the food percentages on a plate that I am learning not only nourishes our physicality but makes sure all the parts are working at their highest potential.

The Muse Worthy Butternut

GARDEN CROUPIEsmallThere is a reason the butternut squash is used in the photograph for the Garden Groupie section of this blog. Out of all the luscious and delicious produce that the green-thumbed Cute Gardener cultivates year round in his garden, this beautiful beige voluptuous food, which when split open bursts with the most glorious hue of orange, is my single most favorite thing to eat. Butternut has become one of my top ten flavors in fact. The buttery, sweet and firm flesh when roasted is divine thrown into just about any earthy, harvest dish from noodle to medley or as a hearty accompaniment to meat.

When I first met the Cute Gardener, a bountiful still life of a dozen squash sat waiting on his kitchen counter for the slice of a knife and was one of the hundred or so reasons I fell head over heels. I am on the tail end of my second season with the beauties, and although they grow in July and August and come to maturity in September and October, they are so plentiful that we are just seeing the end of them now as we scurry to come up with more recipes with which to enjoy them.

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I tend to use mine in an assortment of pastas that hint at Fall with various butter sauces and toasted seeds that I envision Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest, serving at a grand dinner party to her minions. As a matter of fact, I have fed many of my own muses with a particular dish I have come to call Muse Fettucine. Last month, I needed a photo of reference for a painting in my series-in-progress The Fool. I called upon a friend of twenty years to come over, dress up, collaborate with me in capturing the essence of an Empress, and then fed her for her time.

MUSE FETTUCINE
Serves 2-4

8 ounces fettucine (or linguine)
*1 c. lemon butter sauce
1 medium sized butternut squash
¼ c. shelled sunflower seeds, freshly toasted

IMG_4459Peel a medium-sized butternut squash with a vegetable peeler. Cut it in half length-wise and scrape out the seeds and pulp. Dice the rest into one-inch cubes and toss in a bowl with one-tablespoon olive oil and one-teaspoon salt. Roast in a 400-degree oven for 30-40 minutes until fork tender but still firm. You don’t want the pieces too mushy so they still have tooth in the pasta.

Cook your pasta and make your lemon sauce.

*What makes this dish extra special is the lemon butter sauce borrowed from Emeril Lagasse’s Fish en Croute recipe. I use the same recipe but don’t go through the trouble of pushing the sauce through a sieve at the end. You can start this sauce as you put on the water to boil for the pasta and it will be done around the same time the pasta comes to al dente.

I like to toast my sunflower seeds in a toaster oven right before everything else is done. It only takes about four minutes and they are still hot and add a crisp crunch by the time they are tossed into the rest of the dish.  Watch carefully so they don’t burn, it’s easy to do as I know from experience.

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When the pasta is done, transfer it with tongs into the same pan you’ve cooked your sauce in and twirl it around to coat nicely. Add in your squash and seeds and toss well. Add salt and pepper and serve! This makes a full meal in itself but could also go with a simple side salad of greens and carrots.