Tuesday, November 16, 2010

To Each His (or Her) Own Thanksgiving

This month’s issue of Real Simple features a number of essays on memories around Thanksgiving. As I read them on the elliptical machine this morning I was struck by how different each memory. There are a million different nuances to celebrating this “traditional” holiday.

It seemed like the perfect read this morning because I had eaten my own Thanksgiving meal last night and needed to burn off a few extra calories. As we do every year, my cooking group holds our own Thanksgiving dinner in weeks leading up to the holiday. It gives us a chance to try out the recipes we may later make for our families or to bring a dish that might not be accepted at our home feast.

For my contribution I made Buttercup Squash and Apple Bake. I had been saving the buttercup squash I received in one of my fall CSA boxes. These squash, which look like something like miniature green-striped pumpkins, were new to me. I love squash and was excited to try out a new variety to my usual acorn, butternut and spaghetti.

Because our dinner was planned for after work on a Monday, I planned to make them in the slow cooker, doing all my prep on Sunday night. As I chopped the buttercup open I noticed the cavity inside was smaller than an acorn squash and the meat itself was more similar in consistency to a sweet potato. I worked up quite a sweat paring the thick green peel off with my butcher knife and was lucky I didn’t lose a finger in the process. By the time I was done my hands were stained yellow, I assume from all the healthy vitamins inside.

The recipe was simple, calling for two apples, butter, brown sugar and mace, besides two squash. I didn’t have mace, so I used nutmeg instead, which seemed to be a worthy substitute. After a day of cooking on low, everything had blended into a perfect side dish that I felt was worthy of serving to others.

As for the rest of the meal, everything else was perfect too. We had turkey breast, wild rice stuffing, cauliflower gratin, mashed potatoes, spicy Moroccan chickpeas, sweet potato rolls, and chocolate walnut torte.

It may not have been a traditional meal, but like every group that gets together to share a version of this feast, we created a flavor all our own. And, as with any good Thanksgiving dinner, it was just as tasty when I ate the leftovers today.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bree’s Soup, My Tomatoes

As I mentioned in a previous post, Learning to Be Flexible, my cooking club has been meeting for 10 years now. The general idea of our group is that meet monthly around a specific theme, each bringing a dish to share. That’s 120 get-togethers and a whole lot of recipes over the past decade. A few recipes have made more than one appearance, and many have made my list of go-to choices.

Bree’s Lentil-Tomato Soup is one of those. To someone like me who tends to eat a mostly a vegetarian diet (my recent over-consumption of bacon notwithstanding) lentils are an important food. They are a main ingredient in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food, which happens to be my favorite, and are super-healthy. I even learned from Wikipedia that lentils are the third highest source of protein after soybeans and hemp. They are also high in fiber, folate, vitamin B1, and iron.

All are really good reasons to love lentils, but that’s not why I keep returning to Bree’s Lentil-Tomato Soup. It actually tastes really good. It also is very easy to make, and because lentils are inexpensive, it’s very economical. And, since I usually have lentils in my pantry I can make it whenever I get the urge.

I got the urge this week and in just a few minutes I was mixing the ingredients together in my slow cooker. When I got to the tomatoes in the recipe I reached for my freezer handle instead of the pantry door. The moment I had been waiting for was finally here. It was time to dip into my stash of oven dried tomatoes (10 Pounds of Tomatoes).

It felt so satisfying to drop those tomatoes in with the rest of the ingredients and not just because it was easier than opening up a can. It felt good to know that I had planned ahead for this moment and that the tomatoes had been nurtured under the same sun I had enjoyed this summer.

And the taste? I could tell the difference. It may have been the same recipe I’d been served by others and made myself many times before, but this time the tomatoes made the recipe.

Monday, November 8, 2010

One Month Since My Last Delivery, Still Cooking

It’s been almost a month since I picked up my last delivery of CSA vegetables and I’m still working my way through the box. It’s surprising how much easier it is to keep vegetables in the fall than it is in the summer. I’m using the same refrigerator to store them, but they seem to last forever without the heat outside the door. Even the spinach I was sure to use first in the summer has become indestructible. The leaves of winter spinach are much thicker and remain crisp almost a month later.

Last week I set my sights on the head broccoli, which was as fresh as it was when I received it four weeks ago. I decided to make a recipe with only what I had in the house. I had a lot of things in the house, including the makings for vegetable stir fry, but instead I decided to use the rice to make yet another cheesy casserole.

I had in my mind a recipe for Broccoli Cheese and Rice from Cooking Light that I had made before, but that required Velveeta. I wanted to see if I could make something as good without that famous cheese. The ingredients I chose for my Iron Chef challenge included the broccoli, rice, milk, fat-free cream cheese, reduced-fat cheddar cheese, and of course the bacon that seems to be showing up in all my recipes lately.

I steamed the broccoli, cooked the bacon and rice (separately) and made a cheesy, creamy sauce with the milk, cream cheese and cheddar. Then I combined it all together and let it meld into one in the oven. As you can probably guess from the ingredients, it was as comforting as a casserole can be.

Which made me wonder, after I had eaten a very large serving, just how many calories I had ingested. I put the recipe through the recipe analyzer at Calorie Count and at Fit Watch and came up with two answers within a hundred calories of each other. Calorie Count told me that it was about 300 calories and 13 grams of fat. Fit Watch told me it was a more diet-friendly 216 calories and 8 grams of fat. My guess, even though I’m not sure Calorie Count figured the bacon in, is that that site is closer to right.

Comparing it to the Broccoli Cheese and Rice, a side dish, which comes in at 137 calories for 8 servings and 4 grams of fat, the estimates I received don’t seem too far off, since I calculated for 6 servings. In any case, like the Cheesy Chicken Casserole I made a few weeks ago, this won’t be a regular in the rotation for health reasons, but it’s good for every once in a while.

I have lots more healthy options waiting in my crisper, including beets, carrots and more Brussels sprouts. I don’t think any of those go too well with cheese sauce and the bacon is nearly gone. I promise to make something healthy again soon.