Pee You Later, Asparagus!

Asparagus

Oh, yes! The jokes about asparagus-scented pee. Why the fascination? And why the historic argument about it? Apparently people have been arguing about asparagus-scented pee for hundreds of years. Whether everyone who ate asparagus has funny smelling pee afterward. Whether everyone could smell it. Whether it was a good smell or a bad smell. Really?

Leave it up to modern scientists to get down and dirty with the most trifling of arguments. They actually did studies about it and published big fancy papers on their results. At least we now know. Yes, everyone who eats asparagus has funny smelling pee. No, not everyone can smell it. Apparently because of genetics, only about 1/5 of the population can positively identify the smell. Some people cannot. And it’s a personal preference if asparagus is an improvement over regular pee or not.

I never thought much about it until I started reading Tom Robbins, and in his book Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas he colors an intimate exchange between characters with the promise of asparagus-scented pee. Very few authors could get away with this.

When buying asparagus, look at the dark tips to make sure they look fresh and not slimy. There are of course many incorrect things you can do when cooking asparagus. To me, the two worst things are overcooking it, and leaving too much stem on it. Asparagus should be just barely past raw. Lightly sauteed to wake it up. I generally like it a simple as possible to let the flavors speak for themselves. A little olive oil in the pan with salt and pepper, and maybe some diced ginger and a splash of lemon juice. Only when the pan is hot and the ginger sizzling, do I toss in the asparagus and cover-turn-cover for just a few minutes. When it shows the first sign of relaxing, long before it goes limp, take it off the heat and out of the pan.

Before you toss it into the pan, you have to take off the fibrous part of the stalk so that you don’t spend half the night chewing, or trying to figure out how to cough up an asparagus hairball with a little more grace than a cat. The simplest method to separate tender from tough is to hold the base of the stalk firmly in one hand pointed away from you, and with the other hand, gently grab the tip and start bending it towards you until you feel the resistance in the stem. It will usually snap itself easily at just the right spot. Try it a few times and you’ll see how easy it is to find the snapping point.

But why waste all of that stem and get only a little of a pricey veggie that makes you pee smell funny? Ultimately, because asparagus is a delicious source of nutrients, including a wide range of vitamins and minerals (significantly folic acid, vitamin K, iron), and fiber. Many different cooking cultures celebrate asparagus, so there’s quite a few ways to prepare it. Yet oddly enough, it’s grown in only a few places around the world (notably Michigan, Washington, California, China, Peru).

We are of course only talking about the typical green asparagus commonly available in most grocery stores. Originally there was only wild asparagus, much thinner than the current favorite, and this was harvested as far back as 3000 B.C. by the Egyptians. Our common green asparagus developed over time as it became a sought-after crop. There is a contemporary demand for white asparagus (shoots are grown under soil) in Europe, as well as a few newer breeds being developed. You can usually find it canned or ‘marinated’ if you can’t find it fresh. The Egyptians once dried it, which is just something those wacky folks seemed to love doing.

Asparagus is another of those veggies that has people worked up. Most people have an opinion about it. Some refuse to eat it. Some make websites devoted to its awesomeness. The possibilities are endless for this delicious, nutritious veggie. And worse comes to worst, you’ll know if you’re in that group of 22% who are genetically capable of accurately sniffing out asparagus pee.

[Girl21]

The Humble Brussels Sprout

Brussels Sprout

Growing up, my mom always tried to make us eat well. No sugar, no preservatives, no junk food, the whole hippie food-style. The positive side of that is that I’ve been a vegetarian all my life, which I value. The down side of it is that I’ve been seriously traumatized by some foods.

For instance, brussels sprouts. Those little brassicas that look like adorable miniature cabbages. Most kids (and adults) would rather fish around in the kitchen sink drain and eat whatever they find there, than eat brussels sprouts. They probably had them prepared like my well-meaning mother did them, so that the final product was a squishy green fart.

I hated them for years, but when I hit 30, I decided to pretend to be a grown-up for a while and face my fears. Among other things, this meant trying brussels sprouts again. After a bit of hunting around, I found a good recipe for them and had a try. It was night and day. Instant convert to a brussels sprout fan in one bite.

The Man had his reservations when I first suggested making these for him. It took a little convincing, and the word ‘garlic’, for him to agree to have a taste. One bite. That’s all he would promise. And that bite was magic because he’s also a convert. I am not exaggerating here, even though I’m known to tell a tall tale or two.

I know you’re curious why they’re so delicious. You’re going to need a big frying pan and olive oil. Heat that up on medium heat with a good thick lake of oil (you can use butter, but it burns faster so watch it). Just salt and pepper, and about four or five cloves of chunky-cut garlic.

While the oil and garlic work their magic, slice the dry ends off the sprouts and cut them in half lengthwise from stem to crown. As soon as the garlic chunks start to get golden brown, scoop them out of the oil (The Man likes to eat these once they’re cool, like little garlic chips). Lay the sprouts in the pan, cut-side down in the oil, and then cover the pan.

In five minutes or so you’ll be able to stick a fork in them but they’ll still be bright green. When you take them out of the pan, you’ll see the cut sides are browned and crispy from the frying but the tops are still crunchy. The garlic oil has soaked up into the leaves like they’re sponges.

Serve as is, or with a sprinkling of grated hard cheese. They have a rich, nutty, cabbage flavor alongside the garlic, so I like to pair the sprouts with a nice plain rice or something fairly neutral. A small amount added to an ordinary dinner is ideal (they are brassicas after all and will make people play the trumpet if they over indulge).

Brussels sprouts have a good amount of protein, iron, B-vitamins, and fiber, and huge amount of vitamin C. Brassicas contain sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol, both of which are proving in tests to actively fight cancer. As long as you don’t boil your brassicas, you usually get the full effect of these nutrient-heavy veggies.

So, remember the secret to Brussels sprouts is garlic and olive oil, a quick trip in the frying pan just to sizzle them, and then a touch of grated hard cheese. Try it. How bad can it be? Just one bite?

[Girl21]

Stuffed Mushrooms, Easy Appetizer

Easy Stuffed Mushrooms

There’s that classic movie moment where a guy is shooting a gun and runs out of bullets. He looks at the gun as it goes ‘click’, and then proceeds to throw it at the guys rushing him. And we all know that is a stupid move. That is me with these stuffed mushrooms.

When The Man gets home from work late and he’s starving, I try to have something for him to snack on if dinner isn’t completely ready. I can hear his stomach rumble as he casually saunters into the kitchen under the guise of seeing what’s for dinner, his eye on the tortilla chips. I usually pull the mushrooms out of the oven and wave them at him with the same unrealistic hope as the guy that throws his gun when he runs out of ammo. It’s more nutritious than chips, and it keeps him busy trying to eat something delicious but super hot.

The fun thing about these mushrooms is that you can get creative and change the stuffing depending on what you have on hand. And you can make as many or as few as you need. And they are super easy to prepare.

I use baby bella mushrooms (immature portobello), but you could get away with any of the small capped mushrooms that have a thicker flesh and cup shape. Clean them and gently remove the stem. Pour a few tablespoons of olive oil into a baking dish, and sprinkle that with garlic powder, Italian seasonings, and black pepper. Carefully set the mushrooms top down in the oil so they are nestled together, then salt and pepper them again. I like to put a few drops of lemon juice into each cap, a sprinkle of more Italian seasonings, then a small chunk or sliver of fresh garlic.

If you have the pre-crumbled blue cheese, you can put a few good size chunks of soft cheese into each cap, or any kind of softer cheese would work nicely. Then on top of each little cup, lay a slice of melty cheese just to generally cover the top. Sharp cheddar is a standard, but if I have a gouda, I like that best. A little more garlic powder and pepper on top of the cheese, and maybe a dusting of parmigiana or pecorino. Pop that into a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes or until the cheese is bubbly and the caps look a bit wrinkled from the moisture baking off. Let them cool before tossing them at the hungry people rushing you for dinner.

Mushrooms are a good source of protein, as well as a few other vitamins and minerals. And then when you add good stuff like garlic, you’re practically a health-food nut when you eat these. (Keep telling yourself that!) Plus these are fast and easy but look great as an appetizer or finger food.

Instead of lemon juice and garlic, try a base of tomato sauce (great if you’re already making pasta for dinner), pesto, or even a touch of ginger and thinly sliced apple (omitting the Italian seasonings and garlic for more pepper and lemon juice). I’ve put in thinly sliced fresh spinach, olives, fresh basil, caramelized onions, or even a few drops of hot sauce or mustard depending on the flavors of the main dinner menu. And of course you can play with the cheese options. Because cheese is always welcome.

They do store and re-heat well but are best served fresh out of the oven to a hungry audience. Have a peak in the package when you’re buying them so you don’t get the huge ones that will cause some poor sod to look like a trout while trying to eat the whole thing though.

[Girl21]

Vegetable Risotto, A Labor of Love

So much of the cooking I do is rushed, at the end of the day, tired, almost in a panic. A mad attempt to get a balanced meal together in the least amount of time. And it can’t taste too bad or be similar to anything else I’ve made in a week or so. This is the curse of two workaholic foodies living together.

It’s a very rare occasion I have the luxury of time and energy to focus on cooking. I fantasize about this while at work or rushing around on errands in the steaming sauna that is Florida. Not a mojito on the beach. Not a massage at an alpine resort. A few hours in my kitchen to actually cook at a normal pace. It is my meditation time. My yoga.

I recently committed to learning how to make risotto well and properly. The Man had been talking about it for weeks on end, and I his craving set off my craving. The style I am most drawn too includes a lot of ingredients and is filled with vegetables. It appeals to my fascination with one-pot meals. It’s not difficult, but it’s time consuming.

There are three stages of this, and it took me about two and a half hours last time I made it (two and a half lovely hours of peaceful meditation in my kitchen). Stage one is the broth. Stage two is the cutting and prepping of the ingredients. And stage three is cooking the rice.

Broth

You’re going to need about 4 cups of broth. If you don’t feel up to something fancy, you’re welcome to simply start with the prepackaged veggie bullion cubes. I usually add veggies to this broth, in a small pot on a back burner (it will simmer gently until you start making the rice, so keep it low and active).

Chop into big chunks an add to the broth: 1 big carrot, 3-4 stalks of celery, 1/2 onion, 3 cloves of minced or pressed garlic. I also add 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, black pepper, a touch of dried red pepper flakes, and a tablespoon of olive oil. Let this simmer for 30 minutes. Strain out the large veggie chunks and leave on very low heat while you start on the rice.

Prepping Ingredients

There’s a lot of cutting, peeling, and dicing involved here. I like to do this all at once and then separate the ingredients by when they’ll be needed so I don’t get my timing off. The Man says this is my German side coming out–the need to be organized and punctual in the kitchen. I hate when I’m still dicing something while something on the stove is swiftly overcooking. So I’m listing the ingredients here and grouping them by when they need to go into your big sauce pan.

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup rice (tradition calls for arborio, but valencia is much more affordable)
8 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/3 cup vermouth
2 stalks celery, chopped fine
1 cup mushrooms (baby bella preferred)

4 cups broth (from above)

1 cup kale, finely chopped into ribbons (about three big leaves, spine removed)
2 cup broccoli florets
1 large carrot, chopped small

1/3 cup parsley, chopped fine
1/3 cup grated hard cheese (pecarino romano suggested)
1/3 cup feta cheese, crumbled

Cooking the Risotto

It seems so much more complicated than it actually is. I find it very relaxing if I’ve prepared all of the ingredients already, since it’s just a long process of being here now. Keep your eye on how it looks and you’ll be fine. Once you’ve done it the first time, you won’t even need the instructions to the recipe. Just the list of ingredients.

You’ll need a large sauce pan with a heavy bottom, or a wide, deep frying pan. (I adore my 12″ Green Pan for this. We got our single pan at Target to try out the new greener non-stick surface, and it’s been great to work with.) Heat up the oil, and toss in the onions and salt over a medium heat. Cover and stir occasionally until the onions are glassy but not browning yet. Then you’ll add in the rice, garlic and pepper. Stir this occasionally also until it is well mixed up and starts to get a little toasty brown color on the garlic and onions, but not the rice.

Pour in the vermouth (yes, you can use regular white wine if you like, but vermouth has a slightly earthier flavor to it usually), and the celery and mushrooms. You’ll want to stir this up until the moisture is evenly blended throughout. Lower the heat to a medium-low heat, and keep the rice stirring every few minutes until the liquid is cooked off. You’ll see the rice is starting to get a bit gummy.

Once your vermouth has cooked off, you’re going to pour a little more than 1 cup of the broth you made into your pan and stir it into the rice. Cover it and stir every few minutes until the liquid is absorbed. It’s going to be sticky now. Pour in another cup or more of the broth, and repeat the cover/stir treatment until the liquid has been absorbed again. This should take about 15 or 20 minutes each time.

Now one last time, pour the last of the broth (should be about a cup and a half) into the rice and stir. But before you cover it this time, cover the rice with the kale, broccoli and carrot. Now put the lid on and the veggies steam for a few minutes before stirring them into the rice and broth. You could use practically any veggies for this as long as they aren’t too soggy (like tomatoes), and are cut so they cook uniformly. There’s nothing like raw potatoes mixed with mushy broccoli, so chop your veggies with cooking speed in mind.

As soon as the last of the broth is being absorbed, and your green veggies look bright and just perfectly crunchy/cooked, turn off the burner and add in the finely chopped parsley and the cheese. Stir it all up and cover to give the cheese a minute to get friendly with the rice. Usually you would just use a hard cheese for this, like parmigiana or romano. (We used some Spanish roncal sheeps cheese, which is strong and delicious in risotto.) I think using just a little softer cheese adds a touch of richness and flavor, so I like to include feta or gorganzola as well. But you can easily leave this off. I don’t know why you would, but you could.

Risotto is a great side dish, but adding the veggies like this makes it a meal in itself. You could bring this to a pot luck dinner. Reheat it for leftovers. Or just stand there with a few friends and forks and eat the whole thing while talking in the kitchen. It pairs perfectly with wine, but choose a simple table red rather than something with a big flavor that will compete for attention. We also like to make a delicious spritzer of limeade, ginger ale, fresh mint, and muddled berries (from frozen) that goes well with this at dinner parties. With or without vodka, of course.

[Girl21]

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]

Finger Meals Fast

Only Martha Stewart and other aliens are always prepared for guests. The rest of us get get caught off guard by last minute guests or find ourselves feeling inadequate in the kitchen. If you live close to a decent grocery store, you can always come up with a classy spread after a ten minute dash around the deli and produce sections.

I have to say I’m quite practiced at this by now. I host a book club at my house (much to The Man’s amusement on those nights he’s home to witness the ladies’ gathering) and twice a month have to rush through the store on the way home from the office. A couple sorts of cheese, some savory crunchy things, some seasonal fruits and veggies, and some sweet tidbits… you’re gold.

Keep in mind the crowd you’re entertaining when choosing you yummy little bits and pieces. People used to potato chips and orange cheddar cheese are just not going to be game to try the Roaring Forties blue cheese. On the other hand, fresh fruit is usually a good option for just about any group. And of course you’re limited by your local grocery store.

We’re lucky enough to live near a Publix and Ward’s. We went to Upstate New York last summer and I was introduced to Wegmans, so my world has never been quite the same. Never the less, I shop at Publix happily because you can get a decent selection of fresh deli and bakery things. Plus the added Greenwise sections mean some good healthfood options. And of course I like Ward’s because it’s a locally owned business that has great local produce, super-healthfood sections, and a fun selection of wine and beer (that I can spend too much time perusing). And they stock the best coffee in town, Sweetwater Organic Coffee.

Anyhow, two things to keep in mind in these situations, SIMPLE and FRESH. Wait … three things… YUMMY! For a base, try getting a loaf of herb bread or a whole grain baton (yes, the long bread), which you can slice up and pop in the oven. Try a jar of pre-made pesto to slather on the bread first, topped with some deli sliced gouda and crumbled gorganzola. Or just sprinkle the slices with salt, pepper, italian herbs, and garlic powered, then cheese. Just toast them in the oven long enough to melt the cheese and let some corners get a bit golden. A box of Triscuits or some other whole grain crackers are also good if you’re in a hurry or want a variety.

For savories, if you have an olive bar, absolutely go a little wild. Even toss in some garlic stuffed and blue cheese stuffed options with the usual oil cured and kalamata. If you can find some Castelvetrano Sicilian olives, these bright green beauties are delish. Or splash out on a few nice jars of olives off the shelf. Try a jar of asparagus and artichoke hearts for a little texture.

Fruits and veggies are great balance, and besides a little cutting and arranging, are very little work. I usually go for some Granny Smith apples and whatever is in season… peaches, cherries, grapes, or pears. And for veggies it’s a no-brainer to grab some carrots (always organic carrots!), celery, cauliflower, broccoli, and maybe a pretty sweet pepper or two. I’m biased against tomatoes, but feel free to get some little cherry or grape tomatoes if you see some nice ones.

I left cheese for last because it’s the best place to go completely berserk. I could go on and on about cheese, but there are some safe bets to please the most people. Cheddar–no not the orange variety–is possibly the most obvious choice because you can easily chop it into chunks, it has a good texture, and its sharp but not overpowering flavor can pair with just about anything on the table (go for the sharpest version you can find… we like the Racer’s Edge Cabot since you can find it easily). I also usually grab a block of swiss if I can find it (I like Amish swiss) or even some Mexican queso fresco.

If you’re feeling adventursome, try a round of brie (or even goat brie). Keep the brie simple by unwrapping it, slicing the rind off the top and putting it in a shallow glass or ceramic oven-safe dish, drizzling it with olive oil and baking it at 350 for ten minutes. [In the above picture we had some cheese curds, and a super yum Humbolt Fog goat cheese.]

Notice I didn’t go on about wine or other drinks here. That’s pages of rambling. For my book club ladies I usually go for a mild red wine, maybe a chard if I’m looking to change it up a bit. I love a nice tempranillo in the $7-10 range. Or my standard seems to be a bottle of Our Daily Red (fantastic at about $7 a bottle). Basically you want to go for something the most people will be comfortable drinking, and something you like.

A little chopping and slicing, and some attention to arranging the goodies, and you can set up a nice little spread in less than 30 minutes. It’s fresh food that’s also kind of healthy, and it’s fun and easy to eat while talking and drinking. And of course it’s tasty!

[Girl21]