Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Farmers' Market Love Affair Continues

I've talked about how farmers' markets are to me what shoes are to Carrie Bradshaw: it's fundamentally an intense love affair and a scary proposition all at the same time.

I've taken the love a step further; my friend Katie introduced Greg and me to Newleaf Grocery in Rogers Park, and it is now officially all over. Newleaf delivers weekly, organic produce boxes that include almost entirely local produce with some an additional surprises thrown in. For example, I was thrilled to see mangoes this week; I popped it in the blender with the raw ice cream recipe, and a wonderful concoction was born - and devoured. Even better - Newleaf delivers year round, which means my madness can continue well into the winter months. Oh happy day!

Of course, adding Newleaf into my farmers' market mix means that I am really setting myself up for produce overpurchasing. Don't get me wrong; the boxes from Newleaf are plentiful and a great deal, especially considering the contents. Unfortunately, because I have no willpower when it comes to fruits and veggies, each time I walk past any kind of farmers' stand (which are all over Chicago now), I end up taking something home.

I've talked before about herding those veggies together and making soup, but sometimes I want to change it up a bit. Greg loves stir fries; I think they're fine, but I don't necessarily seek them out. Thank you Shape magazine for featuring a recipe for Indian Vegetarian Curried Fried Rice. It gave me the best idea for putting together a base recipe to help me clean out some vegetables - and some grains, too! Yes, sometimes I have a variety of leftover grains lurking around my house, from rice to quinoa to millet, and this stir fry is a great way to make those disappear as well. Depending on the grain you pick, you can also make this dish gluten free as well.

Finally, if all of my talking about farmers' markets leaves you wanting more local fresh produce, but you don't know where to turn, check out Local Harvest. It's a tremendous resource for finding anything you could possibly want, from stands to CSAs.

Clean Out the Pantry Stir Fry (adapted from Shape magazine)
Yields: 4 servings

Grain of your choice (be creative, or just clean out what you have! Our favorite is quinoa)
Vegetable oil (use something with a higher burn temperature, like vegetable, canola, or grapeseed) or spray
Onion, diced, if you're using it
1 tsp. powdered ginger (or 1 Tbsp. minced fresh, if you have it)
1 1/2 -3 cups vegetables (favorites include garlic, green beans, carrots, celery, peppers, corn, broccoli, but seriously anything would work)
1 Tbsp. curry powder
1 -2 c. beans (take your pick; I usually use ones I'm cleaning out of the fridge. I've used chickpeas, black beans, red beans, and pinto beans)
1 - 1 1/2 c. tomatoes, if you're using them (fresh, sliced, or canned; even crushed works)
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
A couple cracks of black pepper

1) Prepare grain according to package directions. When you are within 10 minutes of finishing the grain, start the stir fry in a separate pan or wok.
2) Heat oil or spray in pan; add onion, if using it, and ginger. Stir fry for about 30 seconds; add your vegetable mix. Stir fry for about 2-3 minutes, until vegetables are crisp tender but cooked.
3) Add in curry powder; cook with other ingredients for about 10 seconds.
4) Add beans and tomatoes; cook for 2-3 minutes, or until all liquid is reduced (whichever happens second).
5) Mix in soy sauce and pepper; cook for one minute.
6) Serve over grain.

Let 7-11 Cater Your Road Trip

August has officially started, which means you may be trying to squeeze in that last road trip. If you need a snack on the go, put faith in the local 7-11 to come to your aid - no joke! Huffington Post has an article on the vegan offerings at these convenience stores. Although my first reaction was to laugh, I think it's actually pretty great there are more options on the road than I assumed (and that there are apparently vegan versions of Girl Scout cookies...).

Click here to check it out!

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Call to Arms: Help Popeye Win $10,000 and Raise Awareness about Disabled Pets

It's no secret how strongly I feel about shelter dogs and cats. One special spot in my heart will always be for the paraplegic animals, though; they make astounding pets just like any other dog or cat you may find, but sadly, they tend to be overlooked.

Let's change that! One of my favorites is Popeye, from Walkin' the Bark Rescue. Popeye was rescued from Taiwan and is now a spunky, adorable foster dog living the good life in Northern California; please read his amazing story here, and think about adopting him! And seriously, who wouldn't want that face?

My friends have had to talk me off the ledge multiple times when it comes to Popeye (and by the ledge, I mean hopping on the next plane to San Fran to bring him home. If only we didn't have a million stairs and if only I knew whether or not he wouldn't mind being tormented by three dog sisters...).

Anyway, if you can't adopt a guy like Popeye, let's raise his profile to help him find a home! His foster mom, Judy, has been nominated as an outstanding foster parent on Petfinder, and if she wins, Walkin' the Bark gets $10,000! It's very easy to do, and you are allowed to vote multiple times. The link is here:

So let's get down to business and raise money for Judy and her work while helping more people learn about Popeye, and hopefully, speeding up his chances to get a forever home!

Ask Veg Baker, J.D.: Why Does Making Eggplant Scare the Pants Off of Me?

Okay, perhaps my title is a little goofy, but it's supposed to cut to the chase about a series of questions and misconceptions that people tend to have about eggplant. So, I thought I would just systematically attack the myths and fearmongering that accompany eggplant prep so everyone will be more likely to enjoy this wonderful farmers' market staple.

Question One: How do I pick a good eggplant?

As with most produce, knowing how to select the proper eggplant can really make or break your cooking experience. This isn't meant to be scary, though; picking a good eggplant is actually quite easy to do. It simply requires that you ignore marketing and confidently follow the proper steps to picking the right one.

I feel that most people gravitate towards the largest, most purple-y eggplant they can find, because whenever they see pictures of this pretty bulbous beast, that's what it looks like. Resist my friends - these eggplants actually tend to taste the worst. The bigger an eggplant, the more likely it is to be bitter. Instead, I recommend you buy smaller (or several smaller, depending on your cooking agenda) eggplant instead; it is far less likely to be bitter or brown inside.

You also want an eggplant that is firm to the touch and that has smooth, non-blemished skin. If it feels even the slightest bit soft when you touch it, put it back. Yes, I realize most eggplant at the grocery store feels soft to the touch. That doesn't mean you should buy it! Eggplant has a very short shelf life, so if you can find it fresher, like at a farmers' market or your local CSA, I'd go that route. Also, don't buy an eggplant unless you are going to make it that night or no later than the next day. Yes, they really do go south that quickly.

Finally, don't let the color throw you too much. There are many different varieties of eggplant that all taste great but that are different colors. I just made eggplant last night that was purple and white speckled, and it was fantastic. Just follow common sense - does the color look like it could just be a different variety of eggplant? Then grab it. Is it brown and moldy and gross looking? Then keep walking. Trust me, this is very easy to do in practice.

Question Two: Do I need to salt my eggplant, or, how do I get rid of the bitterness of an eggplant?

This question is actually more controversial than you might think. Intellectual minds differ on whether salting is required.

For those who have no clue what I'm talking about, salting an eggplant is thought to pull the bitterness out of an eggplant. You cut the eggplant into slices, sprinkle salt on the pieces, and lay them in a sieve for 30 minutes. Rinse, and you've got workable eggplant.

The short answer: salting will never hurt an eggplant, so if you're nervous about it or treat salting as a security blanket, go nuts. Personally, I never salt, for a number of reasons. First, I'm lazy. Second, as addressed in Question One, if you buy a fresh, smaller eggplant, bitterness is likely not an issue. Third, a lot of the bitterness of an eggplant is actually in the outer skin. As a result, I tend to just slice off the skin and cook the goodness that is inside.

So short answer: there is no real wrong answer. If you follow the basic steps in selecting an eggplant, salting is likely not necessary, but it will never wreck your final product.

Question Three: Why bother with eggplant if there is no nutritional value?

Sigh. This stereotype is perpetuated by eggplant haters, and I'll never understand it. It is true that, in the scheme of fruits and vegetables, eggplant is probably the most nutritionally lacking, in the literal sense - it's pretty much just water. That said, that doesn't mean that eating eggplant is like eating donuts or something. Quite the opposite; it barely has any calories and I believe it is really high in one of the vitamins...I just can't recall which one. Maybe A? Regardless, worst case scenario, eating eggplant is like drinking a glass of water, so don't let it throw you.

It's this nature of eggplant that makes it so popular and a favorite of mine, frankly. I feel like it is the tofu of the vegetable world; you can prepare it pretty much anyway you like and it will take on the fabulous flavors of whatever you mix with it. This provides an almost zero calorie way to bulk up your meals to fill you up without adding anything horrible.

In fairness, this sponge-like quality of eggplant means that it also has a tendency to absorb a lot of oil, too. Although delicious, that could quickly convert eggplant into a high fat food, so be careful. I tend to head this off at the pass by using spray if I saute eggplant, or I broil or grill it instead.

Question Four: Why is preparing eggplant so complicated?

Making eggplant in and of itself isn't complicated. Like most any other food, it is as easy or hard to cook as you make it. I think when most people think of eggplant, they think of eggplant parmesan. Don't mistake me, I love eggplant parmesan. Greg and I had it served at our wedding! That said, I never make it at home. I find that it is very expensive and labor intensive to do, and I just don't think mine tastes as good as the wonderful dish the fine people at Maggiano's prepared for our reception. In fact, eggplant parmesan is one of those rare dishes that, if I want to serve it, I have it catered - it's just better taste-wise and more cost effective.

Eggplant parm isn't the only way to make eggplant, though. There are a number of ways to make it, including cutting it into slices and grilling it or broiling it, frying it or sauteing it on the stovetop, adding it to a stew or Moroccan tangine, or tossing it in a stir-fry.

The recipe that follows is one of my new favorite ways to make eggplant; it is so easy and quick to do, you can't mess it up. I wouldn't recommend eating the final product of the eggplant from this recipe. It will, frankly, be kind of bland. Rather, I use this method to prep the eggplant for use in another dinner recipe, like adding it to a sauce or a curry, or even just cooking it up with other vegetables to go over rice, or to spice it up and put it in a salad. The point is: this recipe is a great first step to help you get the eggplant ready so you can feel free to be creative with eggplant in other recipes while knowing that you have properly cooked the eggplant in the first place. Enjoy!

Versatile Steamed Eggplant (adapted from The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet)
Yields: 4 servings

1 medium onion, quartered and thinly sliced
Approx. one pound of eggplant, skin removed, cut into matchsticks
Salt and pepper

1) Combine onion and 1/4 c. water in a wok or deeper pan on high heat; reduce to simmer, cover, and steam for 3 minutes.
2) Mix in eggplant with another 1/2 c. water. Cover and steam, stirring every 90 seconds or so, until the eggplant is tender but not mushy or falling apart. This could take anywhere from 5-8 minutes. If there is any extra water in the wok, drain through a sieve and reserve onion and eggplants.
3) Sprinkle scant amounts of salt and pepper. It's ready to move on to its recipe du jour!

Note: The onions are also quite tasty in this, so I tend to keep the eggplant and onions together and omit or reduce any onions that might be in the final dish.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Face of the Month - August 2010

It's that time - Face of the Month! For those who are new to this feature, each month I shine the spotlight on a wonderful adoptable pet from PAWS Chicago. If you adopt the dog or cat, let me know by email. I'll follow up with you in two weeks, and if you are still the proud owner of your new family member, I will send you two dozen cookies as a thank you.

This month's face is Charlotte:

Charlotte is a gorgeous 2-year-old medium haired kitty. Charlotte loves to have her long, soft fur brushed. She can be a bit shy at first but quickly comes around. Charlotte likes to curl up on a nice warm lap. She enjoys companionship and would make a great pet.

Although I don't talk about it much, I have an incredible soft spot for cats. I always had cats growing up, and they are just wonderful. I love that they have personalities like dogs, but they are so unbelievably distinct and definitely their own beings. Charlotte in particular is special to me because she reminds me of my first cat, Kitty. I have such sweet memories of Kitty cuddling with my mom; those two had such a sweet, close relationship, and I swear Kitty and Charlotte are kindred spirits.

Charlotte is currently living in a foster home. For more information or to set up a visit with her, please contact Melissa Dragovan at or (773) 687-4716, or you can always email me directly at

And of course, please continue to consider Red, one of the most awesome dogs you'll ever meet!

Guilt Free Ice Cream and Easy Homemade Milk

This post is a two-for-one: it allows Greg to indulge in his love for ice cream while I can avoid grodiferous milk.

In the fairness of full disclosure, I should mention that I have never liked milk. Granted, there are extremely compelling vegan and health reasons for not drinking dairy, and I agree with those wholeheartedly. Since I try to avoid the preachy on this blog, though, I'll just front with another fact of life. I have always disliked milk, even when I used to eat 5-inch thick steaks. Seriously. My mom used to add chocolate to my milk when I was a kid and simultaneously pay me a dollar or so (which was truly a fortune to a 5 year old!), and I wouldn't do it. I hated the taste; it made me gag. My parents used to order chocolate milk for me to drink at lunch each day, and I just gave it to whatever kid had forgotten his or her lunch that day. I finally confessed after third grade I never drank it, and my parents kindly stopped ordering it for me. I always did - and still do - eat cereal totally dry. You get the picture.

Now in a drastic shift from my sour feelings towards milk is Greg's adoration of ice cream. It's kind of funny, actually, because Greg is by far the healthiest eater I know. We just signed up for a CSA, and although it's no shock I'm all for it, Greg is really excited about it, too, and all of the things we can do with our weekly allotment of fruits and vegetables. Truth be told, we may need to buy a bigger share because Greg will likely polish off today's box in the next two days. So needless to say, it's always a surprise to people how much he adores ice cream. But Greg being healthy Greg, he always feels bad about it. Even though I certainly think he deserves a treat and is in tremendous shape, he feels bad about this particular indulgence of his.

How do we reconcile these things? Raw almond milk! I was reading Ani Phyo's Ani's Raw Food Kitchen when I sort of saw her recipe for Vanilla Mylk but didn't really think about it. (Remember, my relationship with milk is long and torturous.) But then, I noticed her suggestion that her mylk can be run through an ice cream maker and turned into "ice cream." She had my attention.

As my previous posts have indicated, I love using our ice cream maker, but there is a drawback: when making ice cream, the recipes I use have to boil the ingredients on the stove top, and then I have to wait 3 or 4 hours for the mixture to cool before I make ice cream. Since I have no patience for these things when my sweet tooth is calling, I tend not to make it much. With raw ice cream, though, you can go straight from blender to ice cream maker, no waiting. Hooray!

After making mylk for the first time, I also realized that the recipe for vanilla mylk is a perfect base for making other flavors of ice cream. Want mint chocolate chip? Add a small amount of peppermint extract to the blender and dump in chocolate chips during the last 5 minutes of churning in the ice cream maker. Have a ton of seasonal fruit? Blend it directly into the mylk or cut it into chunks and add it towards the end of the churning - or both! Basically, this can't go wrong. And, bonus - the mylk tastes good as milk and can live in the fridge for a few days. Woo hoo! Maybe there is hope for me!

As for Greg, he loves the raw ice cream experiments. First, it's vegan, so no guilt. Second, he's even more impatient than me when it comes to ice cream, so there's only a half hour wait for his treat to go from blender to maker to spoon. Third, this stuff is definitely nutritionally better than what you would get at the store. The only "sugar"? Dates. The only fat? Almonds, and there's protein, too. No cholesterol. And a bonus: cheap to make!

Ani also has a recipe for chocolate mylk, which would probably make another great ice cream base. Once I make that, I'll report back with a recipe update.

Vanilla Mylk, adapted from Ani Phyo/Raw Ice Cream Base
Yields: Pitcher of mylk/3.5-4 quarts of ice cream (my 3.5 quart ice cream maker can hold this recipe)

1/2 c. almonds
1/2 c. pitted dates
1 tsp. vanilla
Pinch of salt
4-5 c. water
Other ice cream favorites (fruit, peanut butter, cookie dough, chocolate chips, nuts - be creative!)

1) To make mylk, combine first five ingredients until smooth in a blender. There will be some almond bits floating around at the end; you can either strain them out or leave them in, it doesn't matter.
2) For ice cream: before combining ice cream ingredients, add any fruit or flavored extracts you'd like to try, and then blend. If you like slushier ice cream, add closer to 5 cups of water. If you like a stiffer ice cream, then go closer to 4 cups. Again, for a smoother ice cream, strain out any extra bits, but you can leave them in if you like.
3) Freeze mylk mixture according to ice cream maker instructions. If you are adding mix-ins (nuts, fruit chunks, peanut butter), add them during the last five minutes of the churning process.