Monday, July 19, 2010

Yep, It's Pesticide Free

I've enjoyed going to the local farmer's market every other Saturday morning even when the offerings are pretty much what I see at the supermarket. After all, the stuff is about as close to homegrown as I'm likely to get. I have a black thumb (I'd be on trial for attempted genocide if plants had legal rights), and if somebody else didn't grow it, I'd probably starve.

The one drawback for a city / suburban wimpy girl like me is that there's a little too much nature in natural. Last week when I washed the locally grown broccoli, I found a few — make that two dozen — locally raised caterpillars or grubs or whatever those green things that live on and eat broccoli are called.

Alrighty. Nobody said it's easy being green. I pulled my chopsticks out of a drawer, and went to work plucking out the little buggers — very gently because I don't know if I can stand the feeling of squishing another living being — as if my grilling a steak or braising a pork shoulder is somehow morally different. Why the heck aren't I vegan?

Being natural apparently means spending 40 minutes cleaning broccoli. Because not only did I pry a dozen juicy green residents of various sizes from my veggie, I also had to pull apart each floret into miniscule pieces, submerging them in a big bowl of water, and discovered an equal number of well-hidden stowaways who would have become the meat component of the dish had I not been so persistent.

What was I thinking? After about an hour total of cleaning and cooking the broccoli with a few crushed cloves of garlic, my three kids devoured the entire bowl, leaving nothing for me and my husband. And that's the reason I don't want poisonous pesticides in our food.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Everything Is Edible ONCE

Lambs quarters are delicious, like spinach, according to descriptions on television and on the Web that I've seen earlier this month. I love, love, love my greens, including spinach and collards, so the idea that a prolific weed could be not only free but also fabu-licious and nutritious got me so excited I was ready to throw on my sneakers and run out the door with a big bag like some hunter-gatherer ancestor tens of thousands of years ago.

At the same time, I'd be oh, so up-to-the-minute in the locavore movement by locally harvesting uncultivated, or foraged, foods (ie. weeds).

"You can use them in gourmet and delicious ways and make really amazing dishes," Iso Rabins, founder of ForageSF, told the San Francisco Chronicle in a story yesterday about the foraged food movement.

But like my hunter-gatherer ancestors, I must have some instinct for danger. I don't know why, but a little voice inside said, "Not so fast," and I decided to do a little digging into the Internet before digging into my yard last week.

Good thing I did. Apparently, many delicious and very healthful weeds have some rather unhealthful -- make that poisonous and potentially deadly -- doppelgangers.

Lambs quarters, which I was ready to run out and grab, apparently look pretty similar to deadly nightshade. At this point, I'm expecting some experienced forager or botanist to write me to say, "Puh-leeze! It's easy to tell the difference." I'm sure -- once I get the chance to learn properly what both look like. But I've never knowingly seen nightshade outside of Internet pictures, and I've read accounts of other people making the mistake.

That got me to to thinking that there must be other green treats that an inexperienced forager or gardener could confuse with a dangerous double -- especially as more people I know seem to be into growing and picking their own food. Some of my findings:

Purslane -- A sprawling succulent that contains good nutrients including omega 3 fatty acids.

Spurge, above, looks like purslane
Hey! I've seen that all over my flower bed, near my lavender.  But looking more closely, I see there are two types of weeds that appeared to be likely candidates. Which was the purslane? Good thing I double, then triple checked -- and checked some more. Mixed in were plenty of specimens of a weed called spurge, which is -- you guessed it -- poisonous. It isn't AS deadly as some things you could ingest, but it's still important to become familiar with the real thing versus the imposter.

Wild carrots, aka Queen Anne's lace -- This pretty and purportedly edible weed has a very evil twin, also in the carrot / parsley family, called poison hemlock. Yep, it's the same thing that killed Socrates. They look enough alike and hemlock is so poisonous that even after I familiarize myself with them, I think I'll steer clear. This spring, a Tacoma, Wash., woman died of apparent hemlock poisoning after putting the plant into a salad, thinking that it was something else, according to a county medical investigator. A Bellingham, Wash., man also was poisoned but survived after picking hemlock from his garden because it looked like one of the vegetables he had planted. Hemlock resembles several members of the same plant group, including parsley and parsnip, and it grows all across the United States.

Ramps -- These wild leeks can resemble the toxic lily of the valley. Similarly, you don't want to mistake death camas for wild onion or wild garlic.

Blue violets -- The leaves and flowers are edible, but the rhizome is poisonous. Poisonous  larkspur and monkshood may look similar to violets to some of us city-suburban folk.

Wild grapes -- Don't confuse wild grapes with potentially deadly moonseed.

I could go on and on, but I think I made the point. Don't eat anything unless you are absolutely certain that you know it's safe.

When I was younger, ignorance was bliss, and I didn't know it was potentially dangerous. I used to snack on wild blueberries and strawberries growing in the woods around my home. Where the yard met a bit of open field, I'd chew leaves of sorrel to let the sourness start the juices flowing in my mouth. In the same fields grew beautiful stands of Queen Anne's lace -- aka wild carrot -- or so I thought. Luckily I didn't try it, because I didn't know back then that it could have been hemlock -- aka the last thing I ate.

Nowadays, I highly recommend a bit of education before picking something and popping it into your mouth. Check out the local university extension to find out if there is a plant expert or class you can hook up with to learn about the plants you're interested in before going off on your own to forage.

You may also like:

The Foxfire series of books got me interested in living off the land when I came across them in the late 1970s.

The New York Times' Ava Chin discusses gathering shepherd's purse, a wild member of the mustard family.

New York-based naturalist "Wildman" Steve Brill maintains a web site where readers can forage for more information on wild edibles.

Update added Sept. 26, 2010: A cautionary tale of "The Mistaken Mushroom," by Mark Vonnegut.
Added Oct. 11, 2010: Chef Jonathon Sawyer is sickened by foraged mushroom.

In the following audio report, New York public radio station reports on foodie-foragers Marc Matsumoto and Jonathan Landau, who hunt for such wild goodies as fiddleheads and ramps.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ma Po Tofu

Last night, I was about to scrape the last bite out of my daughter's bowl and into my mouth when she shouted, "NO, NO, NO!"

Whoa. You'd have thought I was swiping the kid's precious ice cream, or her lovey, Yang Yang ("Lambie"). I was simply trying to help her clean up the dregs of her ma po tofu. I couldn't blame her. The recipe is really tasty, and she wanted that last spicy bite herself. But she's only 3 years old, which makes me secretly proud of the little chip off of mommy's block. Her brothers don't love the dish as much as she, but they will eat it without me tying them down and sticking a funnel in their mouths, which is quite an accomplishment when you have picky kids.

I can't remember a time when tofu wasn't on the menu when I was growing up. Tofu stir fried with ground meat in a soy, oyster sauce, garlic, ginger concoction. Or tofu cooked with hard-boiled eggs in the braising liquid from silky soy sauce chicken (or red cooked chicken, similar to Chairman Mao's supposedly favorite pork dish, hong shao rou). When my parents took us to a Chinese restaurant, occasionally we'd get ma po tofu, a spicy, irresistibly savory dish.

Oddly (to me), when I was telling a neighbor friend some years back about how much I liked bean curd, she made a face, wrinkled her nose and looked as though she were going to gag. About 20 years older than I, she'd grown up in a Sicilian-American family and made it her mission to introduce me to lamb, real "gravy" (I was surprised to learn it was a tomato sauce and not some brown, roux-thickened meat juice) and other Italian-American delights. In response, I used to tease her that if all Italians had been intimidated by Chinese food, they wouldn't have learned to make noodles. (No, I don't really think that's true.) If only I'd learned to make ma po tofu back then. She may have discovered how enjoyable and satisfying (for me, addicting) spicy bean curd can be.

The following recipe owes a huge debt to Jen Yu of I checked out numerous recipes online, but her version is the one that used ingredients that were close to what I could easily get my hands on in central Illinois (unfortunately I haven't found sichuan, aka szechuan, pepper corns). She also includes bamboo shoots (bless her!), which are among my favorite foods, especially when thinly sliced and packed in chili oil. (In the batch pictured above, I used a small can of bamboo strips packed in water that I sliced crosswise. Just add more chili bean sauce or some hot chili oil if you want more heat.) I made some minor adjustments to her recipe based on what was in my kitchen and made sure it wasn't too spicy for my kids to eat. Another good recipe for those who want an authentic flavor is Fuchsia Dunlop's ma po tofu in her book "Land of Plenty." For a peek, take a look at Serious Eats.

Ma Po Tofu
Serves 4

1 Tablespoon peanut or canola oil
1/2 pound ground pork (or beef or turkey)
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/2 cup chopped scallion (white parts only, greens reserved for garnish)
1/2 cup chopped bamboo shoots (I used a small can of bamboo strips)
2 cups chicken or beef broth/stock
1 Tablespoon chili bean sauce (dou ban jiang)
1 Tablespoon black bean garlic sauce
1 rounded teaspoon fermented black beans (optional)
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon soy sauce (optional -- omit if broth is salty)
2 blocks tofu (about 24 to 28 ounces), cut into 3/4-inch to 1-inch cubes
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed into 1/4 cup water (slurry)

1. Place 1 Tablespoon peanut oil in a wok or a deep 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat and stir-fry ground meat just until it is no longer pink.
2. Add chopped scallion whites and grated ginger, and saute with meat about 30 seconds.
3. Lower heat to medium, add remaining ingredients except the cornstarch mixture, and stir until combined. Allow to simmer 10 minutes and add slurry. When sauce thickens, cover ma po tofu and remove from heat.

Serving suggestions: Ladle over white rice, and serve with cooked napa cabbage.

Variation: Stir in 1/2 to 1 cup frozen petite peas at the end.
If you want a meat-free dish, you could use textured soy protein in place of the ground pork (or beef or turkey).

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dip-Snackin' Good Hummus Recipe

I still love dips, even if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned us of the danger potentially lurking in salsa and guacamole, especially in restaurants.

I'll take a homemade salsa of roasted tomatillos, onions and other goodies any day. And don't even ask me about guacamole. I could support the California avocado industry single-handed.

But my new favorite is hummus. It works as a snack (a dip) and as a vegetarian entree (a filling for sandwiches or served with a salad). All three of my picky kids will eat it. I repeat: ALL THREE. KIDS.

I can't say the same for most other foods. My daughter loves avocados as I do. Her two brothers act as though it were slug slime. My hubby loves the tomatillo salsa. Kids, blech. I can't even get all three kids to be happy with grilled cheese sandwiches or macaroni and cheese all at the same time. I usually say, "You get what you get, and you don't get upset."

Occasionally I just want everyone to eat and be happy without my becoming a short order cook or setting up a big buffet or letting someone go hungry. That's when I throw together something they all like, such as Korean-style beef strips or Thai cucumber salad and hummus.

Chickpea Hummus

2 (14 ounce) cans chickpeas (about 3 cups total)
3 tsp chopped garlic (or 5 cloves of roasted garlic)
2 tsp sesame oil*
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 tsp salt (taste and add more, if needed)
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil**

Put chickpeas, garlic, sesame oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper in the bowl of a food processor and start to puree. With machine running, drizzle in olive oil until mixture is smooth. Stop machine and scrape down sides if needed.

Serve hummus with pita wedges, shredded-wheat crackers or chips, or spread hummus on soft, thin flatbread and roll to eat.

*Traditional hummus recipes use sesame tahini (paste), but I don't typically keep on hand a container of tahini, and I never want to run out to get it just for a small batch of hummus. I find that the sesame oil is a substitute that I really like.
**You could use water or chicken stock/broth instead of oil, if you want to lower the fat content the way my husband does, but I always use olive oil.
***Other things I frequently like to add to the recipe include a Tablespoon of chopped flat leaf parsley and a half teaspoon to a teaspoon of cumin. Another tasty addition would be some pureed roasted red bell pepper.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Danger in Dips

Drop that tortilla and step away from the dip! You might want to beware the nasty stuff waiting to get scooped up.

In a report released yesterday at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to salsa and guacamole accounted for 1 in 25 restaurant-associated outbreaks from 1998 to 2008, or double the rate of the preceding decade.

According to the CDC's announcement, "Fresh salsa and guacamole, especially those served in retail food establishments, may be important vehicles of foodborne infection," says Magdalena Kendall, an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) researcher who collaborated on the CDC study. "Salsa and guacamole often contain diced raw produce including hot peppers, tomatoes and cilantro, each of which has been implicated in past outbreaks."

In 20 percent of the restaurant outbreaks in the study, food workers were reported as the source of the contamination, and in 30 percent of the cases, inappropriate storage times and temperatures were cited. The majority of outbreaks involved salmonella, norovirus and shigella, according to an abstract of the report.

Keep in mind that bacteria love other foods and home kitchens too, and the little bugs are dangerous. According to the Food and Drug Administration, about 13 people die every day because of foodborne pathogens. The important thing is to practice safe food handling. First off, wash hands well (dirt in the crevices around fingernails contains germs too). Wash those fruits and veggies, especially if they won't be cooked to kill pathogens. Use clean kitchen equipment. Keep foods at safe temperatures. And throw out any old food that you are unsure of. Check out for all sorts of information on food handling and illness.

Related topics: The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service is concerned that people may still have bison meat potentially contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 in their freezers following a recall of products from Rocky Mountain Natural Meats of Henderson, Colo.

A Las Vegas woman is still in rehab fighting to regain her life more than a year after her E. coli infection tied to recalled cookie dough.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Grilled Beef Strips

I'm always looking for ways to make a little go a long way, especially when it comes to red meat. For one thing, satisfying a family of five with steak can get expensive. For another, too much red meat isn't healthful.

One way we get a lot of enjoyment out of a modest amount of meat is to either stir fry or grill strips with a highly flavorful marinade. Today being the 4th of July, we're in the mood to fire up the Weber.

I like doing a marinade inspired by the slightly sweet and salty Korean bulgogi (grilled strips of meat, often thinly sliced ribeye) using the best steak deal I can find. We've used sirloin, but to be economical, I keep an eye out for what my supermarket calls "tip sizzler steak" (shown in photos). It's a boneless steak that I can often pick up for less than $4 a pound. I've also used something the supermarket calls "tip steak cap off."
We serve it with some Thai-style cucumber salad, a napa slaw-salad with a very mild dressing barely hinting of kimchi, some Japanese-style radish and carrot quick sweet pickles and white rice.

Korean Style Beef Strips Recipe
Serves 4 to 6


1 pound sirloin or tip steak (an economy cut)

3 Tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1 Tablespoon rice wine
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons sesame seeds, toasted preferred
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 large clove garlic (or 2 small cloves), chopped
1/4 medium onion or 1 shallot, chopped or grated
1/4 pear, grated
1 teaspoon sriracha or gochujang chili sauce


1. Place beef in freezer for half an hour to an hour to get firm before slicing into thin strips, across the grain as much as possible. (In my freezer, the steak needed about an hour to firm up.)

2. Combine rest of ingredients and pour over beef in baking dish or in a gallon size zip-close plastic bag. Make sure all slices are well coated. Let marinate 1 hour.

3. Beef strips can be seared/grilled in a pan atop the stove over medium-high heat or skewered and cooked on an outdoor grill to desired doneness. When I seared them indoors in a pan, they took less than 1 minute per side and were slightly pink in the middle. When my husband cooked them on our Weber grill, they took about 2 to 3 minutes per side and had just a barest hint of pink inside. They remain tender if not overdone.
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