Monday, March 8, 2010

The Easiest Salad I’ve ever made - and one of the tastiest!

It is still winter in Northern Vermont. The ground is covered with snow, but the days are noticeably longer, sun is stronger and I saw two cardinals in my backyard yesterday. But salad days are still a long way off and salads won’t replace soups anytime soon in our daily meal planning. Except for one, the Avocado Grapefruit Salad that my mother used to make (we are talking well over half a century ago......).

There are only two ingredients in this salad and the name tells all. One ripe avocado, one ruby grapefruit - that’s it. I start with the grapefruit as the acid in its juice will keep the avocado from turning brown when it is cut. I cut the grapefruit in half and using a curved grapefruit knife (one of the few items in my kitchen that has only one use) carefully cut the sections of fruit away from the membrane. Drop them into a bowl large enough to hold both ingredients and squeeze out the remaining juice over the sections. Cut the avocado in half, remove the large pit and score the flesh into “cubes” the size of the grapefruit pieces. With a spoon scrape them away from the skin and drop them into the bowl being sure to cover them with juice. Mix well and admire how the spring green of the avocado sets off the rose of the grapefruit visually just as the smooth creamy avocado sets off the tart grapefruit "explosion." Serve in two small bowls and enjoy. That’s all there is to it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Re: Lentil Soup

It is February and in Vermont that means soup weather, conjuring up images of a pot of soup simmering on a back burner all day. Unfortunately, for most of us with busy lives that has to remain a mental fantasy as we feel we don’t have time to make soup from scratch, and besides, there are all those tasty canned soups out there.

Although the canned soups are convenient, they can’t hold a candle to their homemade counterparts in either flavor, nutrition or cost. And with a little planning, a lot of soups can come together quickly, needing a minimum of time on the stove just before eating. And, when making a recipe that makes more servings than you can use in one meal you have created next day’s portable lunch or the basis for a different soup later
in the week. Using lentil soup, my all time favorite, as a study in flavor, nutrition and economics, I hope to show you how to begin to kick the canned soup habit.

Flavor is a personal matter, but most people respond to the freshness of something that doesn’t come out of a can. Also, when you make your own soup you are in charge of what herbs and spices you use. If you adore soy sauce or hot sauce, you may add them. If you don’t like thyme, don’t put it in. Home cooking is about what you like, not what someone else has put into the can.

Nutrition is a big reason why I cook for myself. There are a lot of things in processed foods that I don’t like and one of them is salt. One of the leading brands of canned lentil soup has three varieties out there with 18, 21 or 34% (443, 500 and 810 mg) of the daily allowance of salt in one cup of soup, according to their labeling. My homemade soup has only the amount of salt I put into it: none while cooking and a slight sprinkle when serving. One quarter teaspoon of salt has 590 mg of sodium, 25% of the daily allowance according to the nutritional information on my salt box; there are more than a dozen “three shake” sprinkles in a quarter teaspoon (I counted and measured). You do the math.

And now to look at the costs. A 16 ounce can (2 one servings) of lentil soup costs anywhere from $1.59 to $2.19 in area supermarkets, and takes just minutes to heat and serve. A standard lentil soup recipe that makes five one cup servings uses a half pound of dried lentils at $1.85 per pound, a carrot, an onion, a stalk of celery and some seasonings for less than $1.60. But it takes a little time: about 20 minutes to bring the water to a boil, chop the vegetables and put everything into the pot to cook; and an hour for the soup to cook. That hour of cooking can be divided up so that the soup has been assembled and half cooked long before it has to be served. The difference in flavor will more than compensate for the added half hour it will take to finish cooking on the stove. You get five cups of homemade soup for the price two cups of canned soup from ingredients always available on a moderately well stocked pantry cupboard. The added bonus for the environment: you don’t have a can to recycle!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Hot Lemonade

Continuing on two themes of my last blog, namely, new uses for common ingredients and making vegetables more fun, I will discuss frozen lemonade, as in, “if life gives you lemons.....”

Although frozen lemonade concentrate is available all year round, most of us think of it strictly as a summertime thirst quencher. It is so much more versatile than that! I use it in so many ways that are “off-label” that I totally forget about lemonade. As a thirst quencher I have two favorite drinks. For an iced tea that is so much better than any mix , bottled or canned drink simply put a tea bag in a cup, pour boiling water over it and let it stand 5 minutes. Take 1 - 2 teaspoons of frozen concentrated lemonade and put it into a tall heatproof glass. Fill the glass with ice. Put one of the ice cubes in the hot tea to cool it down and then pour the tea into the heatproof, plastic or metal glass and you’ll have a perfect glass of iced tea. A quicker drink is made by filling a glass with ice, adding 1 - 2 teaspoons of frozen lemonade concentrate and then mixing in plain seltzer to make a lemony soda. Yum.

But the best uses aren’t beverages at all. When I make a fruit salad I put a tablespoon of the concentrate in a bowl before I cut up the apple, pear, banana, etc. It keeps the fruit from turning brown, creates its own juice for the salad and adds a little tang. Its amazing how a fruit salad can come together with so few pieces of fruit and so little effort. Adding a few frozen strawberries and/or blueberries and some cut up orange sections adds color and texture as well as flavor to a winter fruit salad. And if you are tempted to put a dollop of ice cream or whipped cream on top. try mixing 1/4 cup plain or vanilla yogurt with one tablespoon of concentrate and you have a creamy, healthy, topping. (This lemon sauce is also great on pie, gingerbread, etc.)

It is with the vegetables that the frozen lemonade shines. The absolute simplest way to dress up brussel sprouts, broccoli, cooked green beans or cooked spinach (and any other green) is to to mix a tablespoon of frozen lemonade with a tablespoon of olive oil and mix it in with the cooked greens. For a fancier dressing for vegetables, melt a tablespoon of butter in the microwave in a glass or ceramic bowl. Mix in a tablespoon of frozen lemonade and a tablespoon of water and heat for 20 seconds. Add 1/4 cup chopped walnuts or sliced almonds and pour over the vegetable as you serve them. Vegetables won’t seem boring anymore.

This time of year in the depth of flu and cold season there is a fabulous remedy for that sore, scratchy throat. You guessed it: hot lemonade. Put a tablespoon of frozen lemonade concentrate in a cup; pour boiling water over it and enjoy a soothing drink that will remind you that summer will come again.