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The Nonplanner

There are those who make a meal plan at the beginning of each week; make a grocery list for those specific dishes and then proceed through the week accordingly. It works for many, gives structure, reduces stress (for some) and has a certain order.

Soba noodles, bok choi, cilantro and sesame seeds--most of what I need to make this last minute dish.

I’m decidedly not in this camp. I couldn’t begin to tell you what I might make five days from now. As you can tell from this blog, I’m the last-minute gal. I shop to restock my kitchen, not for specific recipes (with a few exceptions). And sometimes, like today, it’s a bunch of bok choi that was gorgeous at the farmers market on Saturday but is already looking a little worse for wear and two handfuls of cilantro that will be slimy by tomorrow that inspired tonight’s dinner. I have soba noodles and sesame seeds in the pantry and those are the other key ingredients for this cold soba salad. It’s a flavorful, good spring salad and with a couple of fried eggs on the side or a frittata will make a fine, light supper.

And I should note that I do some planning, though in a very different, general/ad hoc sort of way.  I cook extra beans and grains to freeze for later use, have veggie bouillon in the freezer, and sometimes have a few hard-boiled eggs in the fridge. And that, along with a well-stocked pantry serves me well since I usually enjoy the last-minute  game of deciding how to use those veggies about to go south or that beautiful bunch of asparagus or  the couscous my son loves. . . . And another note on the pantry and being stocked. It’s lovely having things like sesame seeds on hand, that after a quick toast in a dry pan, add a lot of flavor and texture to many dishes. Much like my last post about herbs, something as simple as a handful of sesame seeds can drive my decision about what to make for dinner. It doesn’t always have to start with the protein or starch or even veggie. Any key element of a dish can be the inspiration.

Cold soba noodle salad with bok choi and sesame seeds

Asian Noodle Salad with Toasted Sesame Dressing

— Adapted from Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair

1 (8-ounce) package soba noodles (or whole wheat spaghetti – Barilla is a brand for this)

¼ cup sesame seeds

¼ cup chopped cilantro

1 bunch bok choi, young mustard greens, chard or most any other green washed and cut into ½ inch ribbons

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

3 tablespoons tamari (or regular soy sauce)

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon maple syrup or honey

pinch or two of chili flakes (or more depending on your taste)

Cook soba noodles according to package directions. About 3 minutes before the noodles are done add the chopped greens to the noodles, bring back to a boil and cook for a few more minutes. Drain and rinse noodles and greens in colander.

Toast sesame seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat. Keep seeds moving until they give off aroma, pop, and begin to brown. This just takes 3-4 minutes. Remove and set aside. They burn easily so watch carefully.

Mix dressing ingredients in large bowl, add noodles, greens and cilantro. Mix well.

You can also add grated carrot, scallions, or choose to cook a different vegetable with the noodles such as broccoli, green beans, peas, etc.

Herbs to the Rescue

Chives and Oregano in my garden. They both come back year after year with total neglect from me (other than cutting back the oregano each winter).

Herbs are always at or near the top of the home gardening lists that tell you what things are most economical to grow yourself, i.e. where your gardening efforts will result in the most savings in your grocery budget. Those bunches of herbs in plastic clamshells are expensive and rarely very fresh.

I started with a few parsley starts about 8 years ago. I let a few go to seed every year (they are biennials though so they have two seasons before the go to seed) which keeps me in new seedlings so I always have plenty of parsley--one of the most versatile herbs.

In addition to saving $$ many any of them grow with the most minimal care and attention and some do well from seed so your up-front costs are truly minimal. They can grow in pots on your window sill, deck, porch, fire escape. . . and of course in any free spot in the ground. And they are delicious, nutritious and can make most any staple, from eggs, to grains, beans, veggies and meats, sing.

Having just returned from a trip my refrigerator was fairly bare this morning and I needed to make lunch for my husband to take to work and for myself at home. And since I am a bit bean-crazed or as a neighbor noted yesterday, the bean queen, I was able to pull together a decent lunch thanks to the parsley and oregano in the backyard. I had thawed a container of white beans when I returned yesterday so I had those. I chopped up a few handfuls of parsley and oregano, added some lemon zest, juice, chili flakes, olive oil, and salt and pepper. I mixed that with the beans and filled some whole wheat tortillas with that on a bed of grated sharp cheddar.

Quesadilla with white beans, herbs and sharp cheddar, aka impromptu, filling lunch.

I do realize I’ve been emphasizing greens and beans of one sort or another here for a while but in this in-between season of sorts, before the summer squash and tomatoes, beans, peppers and corn surface, they’ve been keeping me good company.

I’ve also been working on an upcoming class on salad rolls that is one of the most fantastic uses of herbs I know. Rather than the sideshow, they are the main attraction in salad rolls, even edging out that peanut sauce. There’s still plenty of room in that class if you’re interested in learning how to make this simple delicacy.

Mint might be the most prolific herb and is best grown in a pot since it can take over any garden. Mint features prominently in the upcoming Salad Roll class on June 25th.

The herbs I grow and love to cook with most are: parsley, chives, thyme, oregano, mint, sage, tarragon and rosemary (actually  my neighbor has the giant rosemary bush) and cilantro, though it bolts easily and has a shorter season than the rest and you have to keep seeding it so it’s actually probably easier to buy.

Happy Cooking and Eating!

Simple Pleasures?

I shop at my neighborhood farmers market (and a few others too). The neighborhood one is small with only a few produce vendors right now. There will be more later in the season. There isn’t a wide variety of produce right now and I like it that way. It simplifies my life. I have fewer choices but all the choices are fresh, delicious and beautiful (and come in more shades of green than you can imagine). I have an easy time deciding what to teach in my classes and feed my family.

Now on to the trickier subject of how simple shopping like this is for the average Joe/Jane. Farmers markets have been popping up all over the country and the recent attention to food deserts (neighborhoods with little or no access to fresh produce and other food supplies) is helping. But many neighborhoods lack farmers markets (or even grocery stores with good produce) and the limited market hours don’t work for everyone. My neighborhood market does accept SNAP cards (formerly known as food stamps) and even gives shoppers using their SNAP card an extra $5 to use at the market.

But we have a long way to go to make the way I shop more prevalent. I’m headed to New York City later this week for a board meeting of Slow Food USA. And we’re going to be talking about just how we continue to build a movement in this country to make access to these simple, but pretty critical pleasures, a reality for many more people.

Spicy Spinach with Toasted Coconut.

One of my green-hued market purchases last week was a lovely bunch of spinach. And thanks to Heidi Swanson, it turned into a perfect lunch. There’s been a lot of love in the food blogosphere for Heidi and her new book Super Natural Everyday lately and I’ll happily add my accolades to the mix. This recipe is not from  her new book but from a recent post of hers. Enjoy!

Spring Meals

We’ve had some sun and warmth, albeit fleeting, here lately in the Pacific Northwest. And while it isn’t really warm enough yet to ditch the socks and shoes I’ve been cooking differently. Against all the weather odds the farmers markets have beautiful produce and we’re eating asparagus and radishes several times a week. Below is a quick review of some of my favorites from the last 10 days.

Salad of avocado (not from the farmers market!), radishes, lots of cilantro, scallions and lime juice.

Asparagus Quinoa "Risotto"

I blogged about this dish last spring and had to make another mention of it. It’s not like risotto in that you don’t slowly add stock and stir as it cooks. In all other ways (excepting the grain itself) it is like risotto. It takes about 18 minute start to finish and is one of the most satisfying one-dish  meals I’ve had in a while. The quinoa is added to sautéed onions and a bit of diced bacon, then hot broth is added–cover the whole thing and cook for 10 minutes then spread the asparagus on top and cover again for a few minutes until tender. Then mix some grated parmesan and butter into the whole thing and voila!

Roasted cauliflower and asparagus, canned Oregon albacore, fried potatoes and salsa verde.

I make so many variations of this sort of meal. Roast or blanch or boil whatever veggies you have. Add some  good canned tuna and drizzle the lot with salsa verde.

Greens, beans, eggs, tuna, and cilantro yogurt sauce.

I guess this is the protein heavy version with home-cooked pinto beans, my favorite Oregon Albacore (from Stonewall Banks Seafood), hard-boiled eggs, greens and cilantro yogurt sauce.

All of these meals were fairly quick, last-minute kind of  meals and if you already have cooked beans and/or eggs all you have to do is make your sauce, dressing of choice or cook the quinoa and you’re set.

As much as I love to cook, this time of year I’d rather spend more time in the garden or have a beer at the neighbors watching all the kids in the neighborhood chase each other down the slide in the early evening sun!

Bake With What You Have – Part I

Apple Oat Muffins . . . not the most photogenic muffins in the world but satisfying nevertheless.

I have a private client at the moment who has three sons; 11, 14 and 16. I grew up with three brothers so I know how much they can eat, but for years now I’ve lived in a household of two and more recently three and I’m just not accustomed to those quantities anymore. This client wants ideas and recipes for hearty, healthy snacks for the boys. So I’ve been testing and making a variety of things including lots of muffins. Muffins are in many ways ideal: they are baked in individual portions; they freeze well; they are portable; and they are adaptable to many different tastes/styles/ingredients. I have a feeling my client’s boys could eat a whole batch of these in one sitting but for those with smaller families, freezing part of the batch is a great idea.

I have always loved to bake and made more than my fair share of layer cakes out of the Joy of Cooking as a teenager. My tastes have changed over the years and I like things a bit less sweet now but until a few years ago, I carefully followed dessert recipes. Not anymore. The cook-with-what-you-have mindset has wormed its way into my baking (and other desserts) as well and I substitute and tinker to my heart’s content. There are still some recipes I strictly follow and certain chefs whose recipes I know better than to change because they are always perfect (David Lebovitz among others). . . .However, muffins are the perfect foil for tinkering and I want to convey that freedom to adapt baked goods like this to my client(s) so that good, home-made snacks like the below muffins become part of people’s regular routines.

I’ve been playing with these Apple Oat Muffins this week and they are a perfect example of a quick-to-make snack (dessert, breakfast, picnic treat) using items you might already have in your pantry or you can substitute with ingredients you do have on hand. They are just barely sweet but the combination of the fruit, the texture of the oats and the spices works well.

These muffins call for as much oats (by volume) as flour.

Muffin (and waffle, pancake, biscuit. etc.) recipes often call for buttermilk. I hardly ever have buttermilk on hand so I substitute either whole milk with 1 tsp of lemon juice per cup of milk or yogurt or a combination. Both work really well. I use whole milk in all my baking/cooking and think it gives the best results but 2% is workable too.

These muffins would also be delicious with the addition of raisins, chopped walnuts or almonds, shredded coconut, other dried fruit or fresh blueberries or raspberries. You could substitute mashed bananas for the apple sauce though you might reduce the sweetener a bit since bananas are sweeter than apples. And speaking of sweeteners, you could substitute maple syrup for the honey or use brown sugar or granulated sugar though honey is a bit sweeter than sugar so reduce the sugar amount by 1/4 or so.

You could also play with different kinds of flour or combinations of flour. You might use half spelt flour and half all-purpose, etc. Kim Boyce’s wonderful book Good to the Grain is a wonderful resource on whole grain flours of all kinds.

Apple Oat Muffins

When tinkering with baked goods you do want to keep the proportion of dry and wet ingredients the same. There are a few other rules (which I will explore in Bake With What You Have – Part II) but muffins are pretty forgiving so go ahead and play around and see what you like.

These muffins are not very sweet. If you like things a bit sweeter by all means add a few more tablespoons of honey.

12- 15 muffins

1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour (or other flours-see note above)

1 1/4 cups oats

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 cup unsweetened applesauce

1/2 cup whole milk or plain yogurt (if using milk, add 1 tsp lemon juice or white wine vinegar)

1/3 cup honey (or other sweeteners-see note above)

2 tbsp olive oil or sunflower oil (or other vegetable or nut oil)

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 large apple, peeled, cored and roughly chopped

grated zest of half a lemon (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Lightly oil or butter a 12 cup muffin tin.

In a large bowl combine flour, oats, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. In another bowl combine applesauce, milk (or yogurt), honey, oil, egg and lemon zest, if using. Combine wet and dry ingredients and stir quickly until just combined. Add the chopped apple and fill muffin cups.

Bake for 16-18 minutes.

Ellis loves muffin-testing days.