My BFF Kale

Kale

Wild brassicas! My BFF, kale, goes back a long way and has been intimately connected with many vegetables over the years. There’s photos online, and I even hear there’s video of her mixing it up with some Irish potatoes. Not to mention the hot water she was in over in East Africa. She’s not all bad though. I promise.

Kale is one leaf on the cabbage (brassica) family tree, and she’s been used in traditional dishes as far back as the middle ages. Name any part of the world, and chances are there’s some local stew or soup or drink that requires kale. She’s often referred to as farmer’s cabbage, but that doesn’t mean she’s a common trollop.

In fact, kale is rich in anti-oxidants and a list of vitamins and minerals. As long as you don’t boil kale, you’re good to go. Cook her almost any way you want to, but boiling her reduces her nutritional content exponentially. If you’re feel like a challenge, you can even try her raw. I wouldn’t recommend that. She’s a tough broad sometimes, so you have to warm her up a bit to get her in the mood.

Oh la la… Well the truth is, I was never a big fan of kale. It’s very similar to collar greens, and being a transplant to the South, I was over-exposed to collards, and quickly decided they were not for me. They were tough, soggy, bland, and leaked all over everything else on the plate.The few times I’d been faced with kale, it was just as exciting. Blegh!

But just like I’ve renewed my friendship with brussels sprouts, I have reconciled with kale. Sprouts are less versatile than kale though, so I prefer the curly, leafy lady when I’m looking for a good dose of vegetable nutrition in meals. I just wash them, cut out the main spine of the leaves, slice them up into thin ribbons, and toss them into whatever I’m cooking for dinner–soups, fry-ups, pastas, stir-fries, and steamed veggies. I have a friend who freezes kale and crumbles it into her smoothies. Which is not so far-fetched since kale gets a bit sweeter after being frozen. Try it to see if you like it better that way.

The best thing to remember is to cook it only until it’s soft and turns bright green. It has a strong flavor and needs to be mixed with other strong flavors. I especially love it in a garlicky Italian soup, or a stir-fry with lots of ginger or peanuts. If you look around the world at traditional kale dishes, you can see most people agree with these rambunctious flavor combinations.

Across Europe it’s popular to combine kale, potatoes, and spicy sausage in dozens of different ways. In Japan they juice it. In eastern Africa they cook it down with coconut milk and peanuts. It’s a key ingredient in Brazil’s national dish. And don’t get me started on those wacky Germans. Thanks to the interwebs, I now know all about a region in Germany where they celebrate kale with an ominously named Grünkohlfahrtkale tour. Please note that Grünkohlfahrt does end in fahrt, and it WILL make you do just that. Remember that kale is in the brassica (cabbage) family after all.

[Girl21]

Dom Bertiol Prosecco

Dom Bertiol Prosecco

“Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”

This is a famous [mis]quote attributed to Dom Pérignon, the godfather of champagne. If anyone had hung around long enough, they would have heard another famous quote echoed through the ages as well. “Hold my hair, I’m barfing stars!”

One hard lesson seems to be that champagne is delicious but not a good thing to mix with any other adult beverages in the course of a festive evening. A second hard lesson that the French are hammering home, is that champagne only can be made in the Champagne region of France. It is one of the most waspishly defended PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) foods in Europe. Everything else is merely “sparkling wine”, as far as they’re concerned.

Which is fine by me. Champagne is nice, but there have been a few occasions where I promised god that I would never drink it again. If you’ve ever been on the bad side of champagne, you know what I’m talking about. On the other hand, some events call for a nip of the bubbly. Enter the Italian cousin of champagne–prosecco.

Prosecco is a sparkling, dry Italian white wine made from glera/prosecco grapes. This varietal of grape is thought to have been grown as far back as the Roman times, and is now grown specifically for prosecco wine. Spumante (fully sparkling) has gone through a secondary fermentation, which gives it the bubbles. Frizzante, gentile, calmo, or tranquillo are also prosecco wines but do not have the same bubble as the sparkling spumante. Prosecco is aged in stainless steel vats these days, and can originate outside of Italy now, so flavors vary tremendously from maker to maker. (You can even buy it in a can if you are certifiably insane.) One more thing to know when buying prosecco is that it does not age in the bottle, so you should drink it within three years of its vintage.

A friend brought over this bottle of Dom Bertiol to celebrate a milestone in her college career, and as a bribe so we would break out some of our recent cheese and crusty bread binge at Uppercrust. Just the sight of the glass of bubbly sent me back to a previous New Year’s Eve with ‘house’ champagne at a pub we were celebrating at. Fortunately, my love for most things Italian prevailed and I joined in the prosecco toast.

This was a lovely combination of the fine bubble of real champagne and the subtle flavors of a very dry white wine. The floral notes and fragrances were of the Victorian flowers (tea rose, violet, wisteria) rather than the blaring vulgar scents Bath & Body Works. You laugh, but some of these wines smell like they were poured over a suburban MILF book club before being bottled.

The flavors were clean and crisp, running towards almonds and pears, with a sweet clover high note. I can’t help compare it to my favorite other bubbly drink, Cidre Bouché. I love a wine (or anything) that you can practically taste the soil and the sunlight where it came from. ‘Of the earth’ is the only way I can describe that feeling of standing in the vineyard among the sun-dapple leaves. Prosecco tends to be significantly sweeter than real champagne, but it’s nothing like your average white wine.

As this was a gift, I couldn’t tell you were it came from or what the price was, but it seems to range from $12 to $17 a bottle, depending on where you find it. Worth it, in that price range. When you need a bottle of the bubbly, keep your eye out for this, or any decent prosecco if you can’t bring yourself to choose an authentic champagne.

I did note a complete absence of champagne regret the next day–the sensation of your eyeballs trying to crawl into the back of your eye sockets to escape daylight. And the prosecco played well with others in my stomach, where champagne tends to throw a bit of a temper tantrum if not given undivided attention. Over all we were quite happy with this Dom Bertiol, and were sad to finally stow the empty bottle in the recycle bin as if laying to rest the body of a Viking warrior in a Skuldelev before pushing it out to sea and setting it on fire.

Well, perhaps a bit less melodramatically than that. But it was a decent bottle of sparling Italian wine.

Dom Bertiol Prosecco
Spumante
Italy
(Talking and drinking, so did not note the year, origin, or varietal.)

[Girl21]

Universe Smoothie

Universe's Best Smoothie

When you’re single, there’s that thing that’s just not very fun to do alone on a regular basis. Cook.

There’s something unglamorous about eating black beans from the can while standing over the kitchen sink. You could always invite yourself over to couple-friends houses for meals, but they tend to catch on eventually and move without telling you where. If you’re on a budget, eating out is not an option. And no, anything with a drive-thru is not food. So what to do? I engineered the universe’s best smoothie to combat the drudgery of eating alone while single. It’s simple, nutritious, tastes good, and isn’t very expensive per serving.

Of course, it’s now a stand-by meal on a rushed morning, great for that after-workout protein shot, and ideal for the hot, hot summer months when the stove is the enemy. It’s easy to double up to serve two also. <3 <3 <3 [gratuitous smootchie love hearts to The Man]

Feel free to juggle the ingredients of course (alternatives and additions suggested below), but put these in the blender in this order to prevent a peanut butter mess:

1 cup yogurt (vanilla; or plain and a tablespoon of honey, yum!)
1-2 tablespoons peanut butter (real peanut butter of course)
1 banana
1/3 cup frozen fruit (cherries, or berry mix)
2/3 cup orange juice

Blend until frozens are integrated. Yum!

I sometimes put 1/4 cup of oatmeal into the blender first to chop fine, and then add back into the mix with the OJ. A friend freezes kale and crumbles it into hers for added healthiness. Another friend stealthily adds veggies to her toddler’s. If you are ridiculously organized and creative, you can make your own yoghurt, pick and freeze your own fruit, juice your own oranges, and become an apiarist. Don’t laugh. My dear sweet sister is amazing like this, but it’s sometimes exhausting to watch her get through her day.

For the yogurt, I prefer Stonyfield Farm when I’m feeling super optimistic, or Dannon natural vanilla. When I start reading the ingredients list of simple products and they are more than five items long, it makes me nervous. What is it and why does it need to be in my food? This is becoming one of my tedious rants in my old age, I suppose.

Because bananas can be tricky and people have issues of too-ripe or too-green (I think bananas are only edible while still bright yellow with only a few freckles, but people have very strong opinions about this), I suggest waiting until a bunch are the right age for you, peeling them and breaking them into chunks, and freezing them stored loosely in bags so they don’t become a solid lump. That way you can toss them into your smoothie as needed and not end up with bananas that look like a cat snuck up onto your kitchen counter and did its business.

Once again, here is something on our ‘Cooking’ list that has nothing to do with actually cooking. I do cook, believe it or not. But as we hurtle towards summer and all of its steaming glory, I look for ways to avoid sweating like a priest at a Boy Scout convention. So keeping the stove off is a priority. It’s tough to do this and still get all the necessary daily nutritional requirements in a form that is also tasty. I love food, and I love eating yummy food. But I also put a priority (especially as a vegetarian) on eating responsibly.

[Girl21]

Tofu Ball & Peanut Sauce, Chopstix

Tofu Ball w Peanut Sauce

I cannot order this dish with a straight face. Maybe I watched too much Beavis & Butthead as an impressionable youth. Or I’m just perpetually immature. But I’m usually one of the people at the table that’s most likely to say “Hehe, she said balls”.

When the waiter asks what I want, I try very hard to casually tell him I would like the Tofu Ball with Peanut Sauce. And yes, it is on the menu without the ‘s’ (ball vs. balls? hm…), so I feel like I’m mocking an East Asian accent when I say it out loud. Which I am not.

You can opt for the same thing with tempeh or seitan instead of tofu, but I like the tofu here because it’s lighter than the other two. The peanut sauce is delicious but heavy, and needs something to balance it out. You also get big chunks of veggies in with the tofu. Usually carrots, broccoli, mushrooms, snow peas, and whatever else is in season. My only complaint is that the veggies are often quite big, and cooked exactly long enough, so still very crunchy. I have a big mouth only when it comes to the verbal garbage I have been known to let out of my face, but my mouth is not actually that big, so the size of these veggies can be intimidating to try to work around. Especially with chopsticks.

The tofu is dipped in batter and deep fried, giving it a light crispy crust, tossed into a gigantic bowl with veggies, drowned in peanut sauce at the perfect combination of sweet and salty, and then sprinkled with chopped peanuts. Oh, and you get a side of rice (you can switch white rice for brown rice, which I usually recommend, but for this dish, you’ll probably want a lighter version). Be prepared to ask for a to-go box.

When The Man and I go out to Chopstix, we usually order two different dishes and trade back and forth. Especially with this one, because it’s quite filling. It’s great to balance it with a light noodle bowl like Ap Chao Tofu & Veggies. I always start off with the Thai iced tea (sweet and lots of caffeine, so beware), and his usual is a Sapporo because you have to drink that or a Kirin with Asian food. I think it’s a law somewhere.

Chopstix:
www.chopstixcafe.com
Cafe, SW 13th St on Biven’s Arm
Open 7 days
Bistro, NW 43rd St in Thornbrook
Open Mon-Sat

[Girl21]

Carrabba’s Italian Grill

Carrabba's Pizza

Family, friends, and food all belong together. In the perfect world of TV commercials, everything is delightful in such situation. But you and I are real people, and we know that’s complete BS. Of the three, there’s usually at least one that is cringe-worthy.

Perfect example: wedding rehearsal dinner. At Carrabba’s. Two families meeting and mingling. Random friends gossiping. Food and drinks available by pointing at the menu and pretending to be able to pronounce the names of Italian dishes.

So your alarm came on and is telling you that this is a rant about Carrabba’s. Well its not. Nyah!

It’s a rant about the dumbing down of food.

After a long afternoon of standing in the sun for the wedding rehearsal (sweating buckets), and being crowded all up between the merging families (all of them lovely but loud), I was in dire need of a glass of wine and a chair in the air conditioning. I got the chair. And the air conditioning. The wine was of the Welches vintage. I suppose that’s what I get for settling on a glass of house red.

Can I preface this by saying I prefer Carrabba’s to Olive Garden? The food is less out-of-a-freezer-bag than the OG. The atmosphere, a little less Disney. The menu is smaller, and has significantly fewer vegetarian options, but they are willing to switch around many of the options so you can customize dinner without raising the hackles of the waitstaff.

I grudgingly chose the Quattro Formaggi pizza (fancy way of saying “personal cheese pizza that’ll cost you upwards of $10”), and the aforementioned house red wine that was sugar water with an aftertaste of grape Nehi. It was something to do with my mouth while trying desperately to not say something stupid to the bride’s mother and brothers nearby. The rest of the menu seemed heavy on cheese and this was not something I was willing to risk the night before the wedding.

These chain restaurants cause conflict in my brain. I hate that they dumb down food. They squeeze any originality out of the food. In fact, each and every dish tastes pretty much the same. On the other hand, they provide diversion so that the real restaurants aren’t too crowded for the rest of us. And they usually have clean restrooms.

So I do approve of places like Carrabba’s, Chili’s, Applebee’s, and the OG. They’re great for family events with picky kids, retired grandparents, and those out-of-town relatives that are hard-pressed to name more than three types of cheese (the correct answer is: white, orange, and grated). Just don’t expect to enjoy the food there. Go with something safe and pray you don’t get indigestion.

(Please note that I completely edited out the following phrases:
“…is to food like New Kids on the Block were to the music scene in the ’90s…”
“…texture and flavor of a kitchen sponge…”
“…wine could remove warts and cure cold sores…”)

Oh, and I do have to thank the waitress who was fabulous in the face of the insanity of 25 guests with a wild variety of food issues. I hope someone gave her a martini or a swig of moonshine afterwards.

Carrabba’s Italian Grill
www.carrabbas.com
Gainesville’s is at 34th and Archer Rd (yes, with the trees on it)

[Girl21]

Terra Summa, Red Blend

Terra Summa, Red BlendThanks to all of our nouveau hippie friends, I’ve been keeping my eye out for organic wine that’s actually good to drink. Like regular wine, there’s a vast array of organic wine, and it’s growing. So when I find an organic wine that’s actually good, I pounce like a cat on a lizard sitting in the sun.

The first time I had a bottle of the Terra Summa (red label, I think it was a merlot), the price was somewhere above $10. And I thought it was just about worth that. Not striking, but drinkable and consistent in flavor. And then I saw it on sale 2-for-1 at our local Publix. What the heck. Two extra bottles of a decent wine for the rack would be nice. I noticed the price had dropped other places as well. It seemed like over night, the average price went from about $11 to $6.

Not to be dramatic, but this is a very nice bottle of wine for that price range. Especially if it’s organic.

Not that price determines how good it is. I’d put this on our wine rack next to Our Daily Red as a good weekday dinner wine because it’s tasty, affordable, and fairly mellow. And it’s consistently good. As opposed to some of the wines you buy knowing that every few bottles, you’re going to get one that’s a bit funky.

Another measure for a weekday dinner wine is how long it stays drinkable. The simple truth is that The Man and I are not the roaring young drinkers we once were. Age and responsibility have crept up (oh don’t get me started!). It’s no longer an option to drink a bottle of wine with dinner and another one after dinner. Don’t even try to broach the subject of liquor on a “school night”. Not that I personally ever tried to get as drunk as humanly possible. But there were times in my youth that I had a drink too many and was still able to get up the next day for class or work, and function. Not so much anymore.

So it’s nice to open a bottle of wine while we’re starting to cook dinner, and sip on it through the night until we start falling asleep in front of the TV… oh, I mean, until we decide it’s time for bed. We never fall asleep in front of the TV. Never.

A good bottle of wine for this kind of slow sipping is one that will be drinkable right away instead of requiring decanting to breathe first. And it will tolerate being open for a while without oxidizing badly (that taste it gets that’s like licking a rusty tin can). Terra Summa seems to hold up well to these expectations.

I’ve googled this wine in an attempt to learn more about its origin, but can’t find much about it beyond other people blogging about it and their own suggestions about where it’s from. These tend to conflict. The Terra Summa website is a single page that just lists the red and blue label varieties. Some people say Tree of Life brought this line to the market. The label says it’s imported by Natural Merchants LLC, who admit to Trantas and Air but not Terra Summa. That, combined with the price drop are suspicious to me.

It’s still a good wine at a very comfortable price. The one we had the other night was the Classic Spanish Red Blend, 2008. And I have a merlot on the rack. In the Classic red label line, there is also a chard, a white blend, and a cab. The blue label Premium line has an Italian red blend, a pinot, and a tempranillo. There’s a rumor on the wind about a third line that is “no sulfites added”.

This 2008 Red Blend was nice and mellow, with an even balance of fruit and chocolate notes. There is more complexity to the finish of the wine than the rest of the flavor curve. The chocolate ends as a nice coffee flavor, and the fruity notes fade out to a low, dark berry blend. It goes very well with Mediterranean cooking as well as some of the more mild Mexican dishes, but it probably wouldn’t hold up well against something too spicy. It’s definitely not the most talkative person at the table, but it’s intriguing enough that people would stop to listen when it had something to say.

Terra Summa
Classic Spanish Red Blend, 2008
Organic, 75% Spanish Tempranillo / 25% Cabernet Savingon
$5-7 per bottle (red label varieties)

[Girl21]

Calphalon Katana Knives

Calphalon Katana knivesWhen The Man and I first started dating, I had no proper knives to speak of. I had a collection of sharp-ish objects collected from yard sales and bargain bins. They were sort of knife-shaped. They would often cut butter and bread. My actual veggie chopping knife had also been used as a home improvement tool over the years.

Suffice it to say, The Man was shocked down to his cotton socks when he first opened my utensil drawer and surveyed my stock of handy dandy cooking tools. I had the complete set of OXO Good Grips kitchen utensils. And I do mean the FULL set. I don’t even know what some of these do. I suspect one is for subduing unruly Jehovah’s Witnesses.

But nary a sharp cutting utensil to be found. He was still reeling from this shock when he discovered I had no cutting boards either. I nearly had to pick him up off my tile floor and offer him a stiff drink. This was one of our first ‘issues’ that was quickly fixed by an impromptu trip to a big box store for emergency knives and cutting boards. I asked him to marry me that night in the Kitchen Goods department. This is not a joke.

After quite a few months of domestic bliss, he confessed he was just not satisfied anymore and he had to speak up. He’d been having fantasies about a real knife set. With a knife block and everything. The old knives just weren’t doing it for him anymore.

He found this new set in one of those name-brand clearance stores for only $200 and agonized over the decision for a few days before breaking down and buying them. He did research online. He paced and ran his fingers through his hair in the small hours of the night. It was not a pretty sight.

The Calphalon Katana series won his heart. This set has five knives, utility scissors, a roomy block, and one of those blade straightener things (I’ve never figured them out, but that’s okay since apparently that’s the man’s job). These are real steel blades–33 layers of steel, so they say. You can see the way the metal is folded and worked in the blade faces. The resin handles have a nice shape and balance the blade. And the block has room for our older knives, too, which is comforting to my sentimental heart.

Sharp knives make all the difference in the world, especially at the end of the day when you’re trying to prepare dinner quickly and you’re tired. It’s recommended that you gently wash and carefully dry these knives right after you use them to avoid pits and stains. This is my greatest failing in the kitchen, and a source of great anxiety to The Man. I am one of those cooks that constantly washes and cleans as they are cooking, but the knives always remain in the dish drainer, wet. The Man always sighs hugely when he sees them left like that. My favorite blade has sadly developed a pit or two.

So take it from me–awesome knives–take care of them!

When this series was new, this 8-piece set retailed for upward of $600, but now you can find them online from $200 to $700 for 8-piece to 18-piece sets. (Read the reviews when shopping because any moron with a keyboard thinks they know what they’re talking about and end up showing their ignorance after their three page wah-session about the sponge catching on the inside angle of the blade when they clean them. This is not a joke either.)

I gave you this whole story so you could see that I am no knife expert, but I clock a lot of real-life hours in the kitchen, and if something greatly improves my efficiency and proficiency in a daily task, I can only give it the credit it deserves. Shop around. Handle the knives. Read reviews. And find a good set of sharp knives.

Calphalon.com
Katana, 8-piece Set

[Girl21]