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Gardening in New Jersey

It’s been a while!  Last year was very busy for me and involved two big life events.  One – I got married.  Any woman who has ever had a hand in wedding planning can sympathize with me on that one.  Two – my husband and I moved out of New York City into the suburbs of New Jersey.  Big change!  Now that things have settled down a bit we have turned our energy to a big project for this year.  That project started in March with packets of seedlings I ordered online.   These packets included heirloom and organic varieties of various vegetables and herbs good to grow in our region.  We started the seedlings in peat pots of organic potting soil, set them up in our sunny (empty) spare bedroom, and bought a grow light.  Viola!  We had the makings of our very first vegetable garden.

In April we have built two large raised beds in our backyard and filled them with organic garden soil, compost, and aged manure.  The perfect medium for growing vegetables.  This past weekend we transplanted our cold weather seedlings like cabbage, cauliflower, and kale from peat pots to the garden.  We also direct sowed cold weather seeds like carrots, parsnips, radishes, lettuces, snap peas, and some varieties of beans.  Our peppers and tomatoes are still in our “incubation” room where the temperature is warmer and the light is brighter.

I look forward to watching the plants grow and learning about organic gardening.  I may have been over ambitious for a first timer, but I am playing the odds.  I figure the more variety I plant and try to grow, the better the chances are that I will have something to harvest in the next few months.  In addition to the vegetable garden we have a compost pile started in a closed bin in the backyard.  We hope to reap further benefits from all the kitchen, garden, and plant scraps by turning them into organic compost for next years garden.

Of course the best part about this, and my real inspiration, is having my own organic, fresh-from-the-garden produce.  My love of tomatoes lead me to buy 5 varieties.  Words cannot express my excitement thinking of just one successful tomato plant in my own backyard.  I hope to share my success stories (and failures) if I can keep up this season…

Salmon

What can I say about salmon… it is a fish that we hear about all the time.  It is said to be heart healthy, anti-inflammatory, cholesterol-lowering, and I have even heard it said that salmon can slow down aging!  We know this food is healthful when scientific studies prove that the above claims are actually true.  However when it comes to cooking salmon at home, or any fish fillet for that matter, many people are at a loss.

I think I know why.  I subscribe to several food magazines,  and have even more cookbooks than most people can imagine.  The other day I purchased some salmon and decided to look up a new recipe to try out.  I thought it would be easy to find a simple, healthy salmon recipe.  Not so.  Many cookbooks have just one, or maybe no salmon recipes.  The recipes I did find used smoked salmon, not fresh fillets.  Cooking shows?  Beef, pork, chicken… sometimes shrimp.  What happened to wonderful, delicious, healthy salmon?

Returning to my recipe hunt,  I eventually found one in my Bon Appetit December 2008 issue.  Thank goodness that hadn’t gone in the recycle bin.  It had a good amount of mayonnaise in it and therefore was not low-fat, but I could change that.  The fish came out beautifully and I got big thumbs up from my fiance.  He even went back for seconds.  I served it over a quinoa pilaf (also tough to find recipes for) with roasted asparagus.  Yum.  Add of course we felt really good about eating such a nutritiout meal.  Try it out.  If you don’ t have tarragon at home, you can use fresh dill – but I highly recommend the tarragon, it goes great with fish.

Roasted Salmon with Mustard Tarragon Sauce

Here are a few tips to consider when cooking salmon

  1. Salmon is naturally tender, flaky, and moist.  It requires no marinade, pounding or grinding (like meats) to make it tender.
  2. You can leave the skin on, it will easily slide off when the fish is cooked.  Don’t bother with the mess of skinning the fish.
  3. Watch our for pin bones!  Use your fingers to find and kitchen tweezers to pull them out before cooking.
  4. Fish will cook through when the center is at a lower temperatures than chicken, beef or pork.  Too much cooking time and you can really dry it out.
  5. To test doneness, take a fork and gently pull a piece of fish from the edge.  It should pull apart and flake easily, with little or no resistance.  
  6. Keep in mind that carry-over cooking will occur with thick salmon fillets.  The filet should be opaque and appear cooked through all except for a little pink spot in the very center/thickest part of the fillet.  As the fish sits for a few minutes before serving, it will cook a little further as the heat distributes itself.
  7. Citrus!  Salmon can be a bit fishy-smelling or tasting due to its higher fat content.  A few squeezes of fresh sliced lemon or other citrus will help neutralize the odor and taste.

Nutrition Breakdown for 6oz (raw) Atlantic, wild salmon fillet:

The Good: Salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and one fillet can provide around 3,996mg of omega-3 fatty acids.  These help reduce inflammation in the body and therefore protect your heart, arteries, brain, and joints.  You also get 100% of your daily needs for selenium – a powerful antioxidant as well as 100% of your daily vitamin B12.  It is also an excellent source of niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, and phosphorus.  It is a good source of copper, potassium, and iron.  Being so high in antioxidants, no wonder this fish has such an excellent reputation among health care professionals.

The Bad:  Is there any?  Mmmm…. well it is technically high in fat, 35-45% of calories in salmon are from fat.  BUT it being so healthy, and much of the fat is unsaturated, that this is not really a bad thing.  It has about 109 mg of cholesterol in one fillet.  But again, the high level of omega-3 fatty acids cancels this out of the equation. 

Bottom Line:  Eat more salmon!  It is truly one of nature’s gifts to us and our bodies.

Grapefruit

If anyone is getting the winter blues due to over consumption of root vegetables, over-ripe apples, and imported fruits and vegetables from Mexico and South America – here is your wake up call.  In the United States we grow the most delicious, ripe and juicy fruits in the dead of winter.  Citrus!  Because citrus is in season right now you can buy it at low prices.  Recession food anyone?  If that isn’t reason enough to buy citrus, it is also packed with Vitamin C that helps your body fight through the cold season by potentially reducing cold symptoms and the severity of colds.

Grapefruit

I am going to discuss a few of the many nutritional and health benefits of ruby red grapefruit as well as provide you with some ymmy recipes.  First off,  for all the dieters out there, grapefruits are a lower-calorie fruit.  Compared to a navel orange – one navel orange about 3 inches in diameter provides 70 calories and 18 grams of carbohydrates while half of one large grapefruit provides only 37 calories and 9 grams of carbohydrates.  Therefore grapefruit can be part of a weight loss diet by helping to reduce calorie intake.

Ruby red grapefruit has lycopene.  Yes, that same nutrient that was found to be beneficial in tomato products.  It helps reduce the risk of prostate cancer in men and for everyone else it helps can protect your heart.  The pectin in grapefruit also helps protect your heart by slowing the progression of atherosclerosis and even lowering LDL cholesterol and triglycerides in human studies.  This effect was more pronounced with ruby red colored grapefruit.

Limonoids are a group of phytonutrients that inhibit tumor formation.  Limonin’s presence in the body has been shown to prevent cancer cells growth and multiplication.  In grapefruit, and other citrus, limonoids are readily absorbed and used by our bodies making them a great source of this compound and potentially cancer-fighting foods!

I have only named a few benefits of ruby red grapefruit – and trust me there are many more.  Grapefruits are also a good source of folate, potassium, and fiber.  One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the taste.  They are the best-tasting grapefruits.  They are slightly sweet and not nearly as bitter as white grapefruits.  At their best you can eat them without adding any sugar, though sometimes s very tiny sprinkle helps.  My favorite thing to do is slice one in half, put it in a bowl, and scoop out the yummy fruit sections with a spoon.  Other nice ways to use a grapefruit and its juice is in salads and to make a wonderful vinaigrette.  Think lemon vinaigrette – only with fresh grapefruit juice instead of lemon juice!

Recipe: Mixed Garden Lettuces with Avocado, Ruby Grapefruit, and Pecans

Recipe: Grapefruit Vinaigrette

The above recipes are from one of my favorite cookbooks – Fields of Greens by Annie Somerville.

Here is the nutrition breakdown for one half of a grapefruit (123 grams):

  • Calories:    37
  • Total Fat:    0
  • Cholesterol:  0
  • Sodium:   0
  • Total Carbohydrate:  9 grams
  • Dietary Fiber:   2 grams
  • Protein:    1 gram
  • Other:  Vitamin C – 76% daily value

I encourage everyone (except those on certain heart medications that need to limit their grapfruit intake) to go out and buy some of these before winter has passed us by.  Eat up!

Banana Bread

Some people look at a brown-speckled, overripe, soft banana as having only one place in the kitchen – the trash can.  Others, like myself, look at them as treasure!  I ordered a bunch of bananas earlier this week.  Of course when they arrived they were mostly green with very little yellow coloring.  As each day passed I patiently waited until the bananas cycled through their spectrum of colors.  This morning I awoke to a pleasant surprise.  My bunch of bananas had reached the proper stage for baking one of my favorite things – banana bread!

Brown Bananas

 

For those of you who don’t know me, I generally like a slightly spotted banana over a yellow or green .  Reason being the more ripe bananas are sweeter.  During the ripening process the carbohydrates in the banana change.   This gives the banana a different flavor.  A baker’s trick when using bananas in baked products is to wait until the bananas are spotted, brown, and very ripe in order to get the most sweet banana flavor possible.

 

Banana bread can be sinfully good if done right.  Many times I have to prevent myself from slicing a third or fourth piece.  In order to enjoy my guilty pleasure without so much guilt, I have modified a basic banana bread recipe.  Whole wheat flour and wheat germ are used to boost the fiber and add essential vitamins and minerals.  Canola oil and unsweetened applesauce replace the butter to reduce saturated fat, cholesterol and calories.  The raisins or dried cranberries are cut to reduce the sugar.  Walnuts  are used for their omega-3 fatty acids but reduced in quantity to cut calories.  To compensate I toast the walnuts so I get more flavor bang for my buck. 

Recipe Link:  Banana Bread with Whole Wheat Flour

BananaBread

 

Nutrition Facts for Recipe:

One Recipe Yields 12 Servings
  
Amount Per Serving
  Calories 238.8
  Total Fat 9.5 g
      Saturated Fat 1.1 g
      Polyunsaturated Fat 4.1 g
      Monounsaturated Fat 3.5 g
  Cholesterol 35.4 mg
  Sodium 191.0 mg
  Potassium 226.6 mg
  Total Carbohydrate 36.3 g
      Dietary Fiber 3.6 g
      Sugars 6.5 g
  Protein 5.2 g

The Good:  My banana bread is lower in fat than the original recipe which had 12 grams of fat.  The fat is mostly mono and polyunsaturated which make it heart healthy!  The cholesterol is half that of original recipe (due to subing out the butter).  Sugar content  is a mere 40% of the original recipe since we cut the dried fruit.  There is double the fiber and protein from using whole wheat flour and wheat germ.  As for micronutrients – this recipe packs 45% of your daily value of manganese, an important antioxidant.  It is a good source of selenium, phosphorus and vitamin B 6 while also providing a fair amount of thiamine and folate.  The walnuts provide omega-3 fatty acids.

The Bad:  This recipe is not low fat (but almost!).  It provides 35% calories from fat.  But remember – fat helps satiety and good fats protect your heart.  It could be lower in sodium – 140mg is considered a low sodium food.  The other thing I should mention is that it can be hard to eat just one slice!

The verdict:  This is a healthy recipe that provides a good amount of protein, fiber, and micronutrients while also being lower in sugar than many other quick breads!  Have a slice for breakfast with a glass of milk and you will be happy and full until lunch time rolls around.

Tomatoes

Who doesn’t love fresh, richly colored, and vine ripened tomatoes?  They are one of my favorite parts of summertime.  Our farm share has provided us with some wonderful and colorful varieties this summer.

Heirloom Tomatoes
Heirloom Tomatoes

 The varieties clockwise from the top:

  • Light red with green top – Mr. Stripey
  • Orange, round – Persimmon
  • Dark red with green – Cherokee Purple
  • Yellow, round – Limmony
  • Bright red, round, depressed top – Brandywine

New York and New Jersey farmers grow the most wonderful heirloom tomatoes I have ever tasted.  Before moving to the city, heirloom tomatoes were foreign to me.  I was used to the standard grocery store red tomatoes.  Ripened off the vine, white or green on the inside, and devoid of any sweetness or real flavor.  I had never sliced open a tomato to find the interior as deeply colored as the exterior.  My opinion changed instantly after walking through the Union Square farmers market here in NYC one day and tasting the samples of tomatoes.  These tomatoes were deeply colored, some soft enough to melt in your mouth, others a more firm, incredible juicy, and surprisingly flavorful!

Heirloom is a term used to describe any tomato plant that has been cultivated for more than 50 years and is openly pollinated.  Each variety has its own characteristics and best uses.  Heirlooms are best sliced fresh and used in a way to highlight their colors.  On top of a fresh salad, laid on top of pizza dough with basil and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, in a sandwich, or on top of sliced garlic bread.

Nutrition Facts: 1 medium sized tomato (about 123 grams)

  • Calories: 22
  • Fat: 0
  • Cholesterol: 0
  • Sodium: 6 mg
  • Total Carbs: 5 grams
  • Fiber: 1 gram
  • Protein: 1 gram

Bonus:  One tomato provides 25% of your daily vitamin C and 20% of your daily vitamin A needs.  They provide lycopene which may lower the risk of prostate cancer.  Tomatoes are a very good source of Vitamin K, manganese, and potassium.  Other nutrients they provide include folate, niacin, vitamin E, magnesium, copper, and vitamin B 6.

My favorite way to utilize fresh, sweet, wonderful tomatoes is in a sandwich I have discussed before.  The prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, pesto sauce and sliced tomatoes on baguette.  YUM!  The prosciutto is optional.  Fresh baguette bread and mozzarella are essential.  You can add leaves of fresh basil or arugula to add flavor.  This sandwich is perfect in the summer due to the abundance of fresh basil at the market for pesto sauce.  I usually make a large baguette and slice it into 2-bite pieces for an easy finger food at lunch, snack time, or a lite dinner served with an arugula salad.  See my article and sandwich assembly guide at this link – Pesto and Prosciutto.

A note about my culinary career – many things have happened in the past month (which is why I have been unable to write as often).  I graduated from culinary school, turned one year older, and went on a long hiking and camping trip out West.  In four days I begin my internship at a catering company here in NYC.  The Cleaver Company, founded by Mary Cleaver, is dedicated to serving seasonal, local, fresh and organic food.  They are also a green company and actively participate in recycling and composting programs.  The company has been compared to Chez Panisse (on the West coast) and apparently it is the company of choice for Alice Waters whenever she is in NY.  I hope to learn how to utilize the freshest local ingredients in a healthful way.  I am also interested in how a catering company plans and prepares for events.  Stay tuned!

Pickles

Do you know how many things you can make with pickles?  This is a subject I have become keenly interested in lately due to the fact that I have an abundance in my refrigerator.  How did this happen?
 
Earlier this year, in April, Matt and I joined a farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) through NYU’s food and nutrition department.  We decided to purchase a full share of vegetables.  This means that each week for 26 weeks, that began in June and end in November, I go to the pick up location, which is about a 5 minute walk from my apartment, and collect my share of vegetables.  We also purchased half shares of cheese, eggs, and fruit so every other week we are entitled to 8 oz of cheese, a dozen eggs, and fresh fruit.  All of the food is organic and from local farms in upstate New York.

We initially decided this would be a great way to support the local economy and contribute to preserving organic farm land – not to mention the welfare of the farmers and their families who cut out the middle men and therefore reap more profit.  I was also curious about which foods are harvested at what times in this region.  Maybe the farm CSA contributed to my ease with the Market Basket exercise in class.  As a bonus it turned out to be wonderful that we locked into food prices in April, now that they are rising.  The price per week wound up being $25, which given New York City food prices is very reasonable.  Especially considering that all goods are organic.

Back to the pickles.  Every week we receive a variety of different vegetables… but one thing remains steady.  The cucumbers.  Who knew they grew so well in New York?  Sometimes they are the large salad cucumbers, and sometimes they are smaller thin-skinned cucumbers.  I have been able to manage most of the delivered cucumbers with salad and snacks but this last delivery entitled me to nearly 4 pounds of cucumbers.  Can you imagine?  For two people in a week… that is a lot of cucumber.  I selected the small to medium thin-skinned pickle (saves time since you don’t need to peel them).  Little did I know that they were the perfect kind for pickling.

Pickles

My Bread and Butter Pickles

I returned home, washed, dried and packed all my produce in to the refrigerator.  The next thing I did was hit the books… cookbooks.  I was in search of ways to utilize all of these cucumbers.  Unfortunately, this vegetable rarely takes center stage in a recipe and usually plays back up in various cold salads or garnishes.  Due to all the previous deliveries of cucumbers I was tired of the cucumber salads and had already made raita (an Indian garnish with yogurt, cucumber, and cumin).  I reached for my cooking magazines next.  Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, Martha Stewart,  Diet and Nutrition,  Fine Cooking… nothing until I opened my August edition of Cooking Light.  As I turned through the pages I came across an article titled “Curing & Pickling – Preserve seasonal produce that you can enjoy weeks later with these time-honored methods”.  Perfect!

Within the article I found a recipe for bread and butter pickles.  I knew these were designed to be sweet (which I do not particularly like) and therefore I reduced the sugar to 1/4 of the amount asked for.  I found that these pickles were not very salty, like many store-bought pickles can be, and were delicious!  It was super easy to do and I was able to utilize about 2 pounds of my cucumbers.  In the end I had a container with about 4 cups of pickles.  Since I do not can or jar foods – I had about 2 weeks to use them before going bad.

Back to the original question – what can you do with pickles?  I made my own tartar sauce – I combined homemade mayonnaise, chopped pickles, pickle juice, and chopped scallion – and served it with grilled fish sandwiches.  I made a tuna salad with lots of chopped pickles, a few tablespoons of pickle juice, and homemade mayonnaise.  A side dish of German-style red potato salad with string beans and dressed it with an oil and vinegar dressing that had chopped pickles and pickle juice and lots of fresh ground pepper.  A bulgar wheat salad with fresh chopped corn, tomato, scallion, fava beans and what else but pickles!  Tonight we are having a few friends over for dinner and as an appetizer I plan on serving pickles with a grain mustard, sharp cheddar, and crackers as an appetizer.  Who knew there were so many possibilities with pickles?  Before this week, I don’t remember the last time I even purchased pickles.  Let me say this… when farmer’s caught onto the idea of preserving vegetables this way after an abundant harvest to enhance the flavor and extend shelf life, they were onto something good.

FInd my recipe for pickles (without the extra sugar) in the recipe section or click the following link:

Bread and Butter Pickles

Final Challenge Results

Rules: One mystery protein is selected by head Chef.  Each person, individually, must envision and then creat a main course.  Presentation of entre to the head chef is timed for 2 hours after each person’s start time.  Your score is determined by technique, flavor, originality, and presentation.

Mystery Protein: Veal breast

Dish:  Pan-fried crisp veal cutlet with a creamy tarragon mustard sauce served over a bed of sauteed greens.

Results:  My scores were great for presentation, originality and flavor.  I lost a few for technique simply because by breading pulled away from the cutlet a bit upon cutting (apparently this can be overcome by breading the protein 30-40 minutes before pan-frying to allow the mixture to fully adhere – which I didn’t know). 

Thoughts:  The best part was that working with only one mandatory ingredient and only one dish to prepare seemed like a cinch compared to the previous challenges.  It was interesting to see all the various preparations that people did.  I saw a few rolled/stuffed veal presentations that looked promising.  There were a number of veal stews or ragus served on their own or with a form of cooked potato.  One very ambitious student decided to do his veal ragu with handmade pasta!  Given our time constraints, I thought this was very aggressive.  He was not the only one who rolled pasta.  Another student made a free form type of veal lasagna layered with a bright green herb sauce.  Overall our class performed well and of all the practical exams, I actually found this one the easiest and least stressful… perhaps going through mock challenges AND the previous 4 practicals all helped prepare me.

As you can tell by the description I wasn’t going for a health-consious dish.  My goal was flavor, color and varying textures.  The star was a crispy pan-fried, golden brown, large butterflied veal cutlet.  I drizzled the top with a creamy pale yellow mustard sauce that had flicks of bright green from the tarragon.  I also placed a teaspoon of finely diced tomatoes in the center/top of the cutlet for a shot of color.  The veal cutlet was perfectly framed by the bed of bright greens peaking out from beneath.  I sauteed spinach and mesclun with some shallots and extra virgin olive oil, then seasoned with a pinch of salt and fresh ground pepper.  Yum!  Of course Matt sampled my leftovers for dinner that night and cleaned the plate.

What did I learn from these challeneges?  That there are a lot of things to consider when putting together a plated entree.  Besides just picking your protein and sides.  You have to think about all the colors on the plate… if there aren’t any you’re in for boring brown or yellows that don’t get the same wows as bright greens and reds, for example.  You have to think about the textures… this is a component of taste and varying textures cause you to percieve each food in a different way.  You also gain more satisfaction from a meal with different textures and flavors than one that has just one.  Also to be considered is how the flavors and ingredients in each part of the dish play on each other.  Food for thought!

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