Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2012: the year you (and i) learned to cook

Hello, friends! It's been a long time since I've posted, but that's about to change, as one of my New Year's resolutions is to start blogging again. And, as University of Maryland psychiatrists say, one of the keys to being successful past January 5th is to "share your goals with friends," as they hold you accountable. So I figured the best motivation would be to share this goal with all my readers! But then I went a step further and thought, why not make a resolution that ALL of us can share and hold each other accountable to! Hence was born the inspiration for my second resolution and hopefully one you will adopt as well:

It is my goal to learn how to cook this year. Sure, I can already "cook" in the sense that I can follow most recipes, make a few tweaks if need be, and make something tasty as a result. But I still don't feel like I can say that I truly know how to cook. Why? Because I always cook the same things. I stick to what I know works, what I can do, what I know will taste good because I've already made it. My pantry and fridge have held the same things in them all semester: beans, rice, pasta, pasta sauce, olive oil, soy milk, salsa, tortilla chips, cheese, bread, frozen pizza, butter, flour, sugar, an occasional package of ground beef or chicken, and the typical herbs and spices. I can eat well and pretty healthfully with different combinations of these ingredients, of course. But I also have an ARSENAL of cookbooks and a passion for trying new foods, both of which have been neglected over the busy fall semester. And my guess is that many of you feel similarly. So here's my plan: let's "learn to cook" together! Let's try new things, share stories and recipes, and encourage each other to make time for thinking more about our food than just the number of minutes it takes to microwave it or the vitamins and minerals it can provide. Trying new recipes is a great way to learn about (and appreciate) other cultures, improve the variety and quality of your diet, and spend time with family and friends (or have some fun alone-time if that's what you need).

Now, being the goal-making nerd that I am, want to make sure we do this right. Therefore I went ahead and made myself a "SMART" (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely) goal to help me make sure I stick to this resolution. So here goes:

2012 Cooking Goal: I will try a new recipe, with at at least one new ingredient, once every week, from January 1 until the end of spring semester (January 1 - May 15). I will then share my recipe on my blog. This should amount to 20 new recipes (and blog posts)! 

But here's the thing: this will be WAY more fun if you join in! I'd love for you to share your own cooking resolutions here and then, as I post my recipes each week, for you to share your recipes and cooking stories as well. The social aspects of cooking and eating can be just as important as the nutrients in the food, so let's share our experiences with each other here!

Now if you need a little more motivation than just improving your cooking skills and trying new things, here are a few more reasons to make "learning to cook" one of your New Year's resolutions:

1. Save money: Cooking at home costs less than eating out!
2. Save time: Make big batches and use the leftovers throughout the week.
3. Be healthier: Cooking from scratch is way healthier than relying on preservative-packed frozen or canned meals and ingredients. And trying new things adds more variety to your diet, ensuring that you're getting all the vitamins and minerals you need!
4. De-stress: Many people find cooking a great way to de-stress. Put on some soothing music and put all of your stress into beating those eggs!

If you're on board, comment here! Your goal doesn't have to look anything like mine. For example, you might be more interested in "spicing up" your standard recipes rather than finding new ones, or maybe your goal is to cook and eat more meals with family and friends. Another variation you might find fun is cooking a recipe from a different ethnic cuisine each week. Whatever your cooking goal is, share it below!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

buon giorno, firenze!

Course 2 of our 4-course lunch today: Pasta alla Bolognese.
I am ending my second day here in Florence, Italy, and feel like I am living in a fairy tale. I am with a group of 24 other students on a May seminar called “Sustainable Food Systems of Italy.” Yep, I’m pretty sure this trip was made for me. Food, sustainability, and Italy. Three of my passions all in one! I am going to try to blog daily while I am here, minus the weekends when I’m traveling away from Firenze (that’s “Florence” in Italian). But forgive me if I don’t, I want to do everything I possibly can when I’m here, which should mean minimal time on the internet!

Quick recap of what I’ve done so far:
Days 1-2: Crossing the Ocean
1.      I left Minneapolis for Atlanta at 11:30 AM on Tuesday, May 17. Thanks for driving me to the airport, Dad!
2.       After a short layover in Atlanta, we took off on our 9-hour flight to Rome. I did not sleep one minute on the plane. I did, however, watch three movies. This was my first international flight, so I was a bit overly excited about the awesome perk of having my own personal movie screen (In case you’re curious, I watched Country Star, Convicted, and The Tourist. All quality.)
3.       We landed in Roma at 8:15 AM local time (1:15 AM Central-Standard time). Hopped on a coach bus and drove through the beautiful countryside for the four-hour trip to Firenze.
4.       Got to Florence a little after 1 PM, met two of the staff people from the ACCENT Center, our study abroad program facilitator, and hopped in taxis to head to our apartments.
5.       My roommates (Megan, Jaime, and Molly) and I live in a lovely apartment at 4 Via Guicciardini, which is only a block away from the River Arno and the Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Vecchio  (which directly translates to “old bridge”) is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Firenze. It was built in 1345 and is unique in that it is lined with shops on both sides, most whichsell jewelry or art.
6.       After settling in, the four of us ventured out for dinner, wandering until we decided on OK Bar, a little coffee/gelato/pastry/lunch/dinner place. We ordered a liter of vino bianco (white wine) to share and I chose spaghetti alla pomarola (spaghetti with tomato sauce). I thought I should start my Italian gastronomic tour with one of the foundations of Italian cooking. And it was wonderful. We then bought gelato at Perche No (Why Not?); I had coffee crunch and pistachio. Delicioso!
7.       On our evening excursion we crossed paths with the cast of Jersey Shore (they’re filming in Firenze) no less than three times. I’ve never watched the show, but members of our program were talking about it all the way across the ocean, so we had to stop and gawk.
8.       Having not slept for 37 hours (minus an hour or two on the bus to Firenze), I completely crashed as soon as we got home.

My first glass of red wine in Italia. Bravissimo!
Day 3: Exploring Florence
We started our day by meeting our group at the Duomo (the main cathedral in Florence; gigantic and gorgeous) and then walking to the ACCENT Center for our orientation. I had envisioned a plain white office-like space, but no: our classrooms are in a Renaissance building, complete with portraits of the original family members. During a break from our orientation I had my first Italian cappuccino and panino (made with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes). After we went on a walking tour that went through all the practicals of living in Florence, like buying groceries and using the train, we went out for a lunch with our entire group, a four-course meal that was covered in our program. Except for the bicchiere di vino casa (glass of house wine) that many of us chose to accompany our meal. We had the following four traditional courses:
Antipasti = Appetizer. We were served thin slices of salami embedded with fennel. And pane (bread) of course.
Primi = Pasta. Bolognese.
Contorni = Meat/Main Course. A funky chicken and potato dish in a rich cream/potato sauce. This was a lot richer than traditional Tuscan contorni, which is usually just lightly seasoned meat with a side of vegetables. And much too much meat after having a meat-rich primi. But still fantastico, of course.
Dolci = Dessert. We had panna cotta with raspberry jam. 

Lunch was over two hours long, and so much food! If you know me you know how strongly averse I am to waste, but I could not finish even half of the cotorni. Before we left, though, our waiter took us downstairs into what was the Firenze Amphitheater over 2000 years ago. So cool. After our very long lunch, we went to the apartment, where I again crashed. Later we went back to the train station (Santa Maria Novella) to purchase our tickets to Roma, buy a few groceries, and get our daily gelato (caffe and vanilla this time). Winding down now, getting ready for class tomorrow morning (olive oil tasting and a guest speaker from Slow Food) and our trip to Roma. Buona notte, amici!

Fun Fact: I’m drinking juice box of vino bianco right now. Oh, Italia.

Monday, April 11, 2011

very pinteresting.

Screen shot of my "things i want to cook" pinboard.
I've always been bookmark-happy; I keep a couple-dozen folders in my "Favorites" tab and am continually adding new things to read, do, and see to these folders. There's just one problem: I almost never actually return to those bookmarks. It's as if the fact that they have been filed away means I no longer have to remember them. I don't need to tell you how that completely defeats the purpose of bookmarking in the first place.
But thanks to an incredibly innovative new website called Pinterest, my poor bookmarks no longer need to be shoved into a dark corner of my hard drive. Pinterest is the 21st-century version of the fetish of clipping out pictures from magazine and pinning them onto a corkboard. Except instead of being limited to magazine pictures, Pinterest lets you pin any image from the entire Internet. And rather than having only a finite amount of corkboard, your Pinterest pinboards can be of any size and you can make as many boards with as many themes as your heart desires. I am absolutely addicted.

One of the coolest uses I've discovered for Pinterest is the ability to create a visual "to cook" list. My "things i want to cook" pinboard is currently made up of 175 beautiful photos of delectable concoctions that I plan on trying to recreate this summer when I move into my first apartment. The beauty of this board is that, to retrieve a recipe for a dish all I have to do is click on the picture and I am immediately transported to the original site where the photo was pinned from.
No matter how mouth-watering a recipe may seem, it is too easy to forget about it once it becomes one of many links in a bookmark folder hidden from view. Actually being able to see the rich colors and textures of the final product of this recipe, however, makes it almost impossible NOT to add the ingredients to your next grocery list. So if you want to get inspired, join Pinterest! But be warned: you will become an addict. Do with this information what you must.

P.S. Pinterest is still in Beta mode so requires a personal invitation from a current member. If you'd like to join Pinterest, just leave a comment or shoot me an email and I'll send you an invite!

Monday, January 3, 2011

flax: ancient superfood.

Photo Credit: Michelle Shefveland

Nutrition legislation is a relatively new phenomenon; the U.S. Department of Agriculture wasn't established until 1862, the Food and Drugs Act wasn't passed until 1906, the first food standards weren't passed until 1939, and the National School Lunch Program wasn't instituted until 1946 ( Oh wait, that's if you don't count King Charlemagne, ruler of the Franks and the Romans from 768-814. That's right, Charlemagne (as advised by Hippocrates) believed that flax seed was so essential to health that he passed laws requiring his subjects to consume a mandated amount each year. While we don't encourage every ancient health practice (I think bloodletting has been abandoned by most physicians), current research strongly backs up this 1200 year old law.

Both ground flax seeds and their oil are used for their health benefits; flax's biggest claim to fame is its high content of omega-3 fatty acids, but this tiny seed is also packed with soluble fiber and lignans (lignans are a type of insoluble fiber that are also antioxidants).  Adding flax to muffins, breads, cookies, and even smoothies and soups is a super-easy way to boost nutrition. One of my newest favorite whole wheat treats to bake are Pumpkin Flax Muffins, which I adapted from a recipe at They make a great breakfast-on-the-go or afternoon snack. Enjoy!

Pumpkin Flax Muffins
- 2 cups whole wheat flour
- 1/4 cup white flour
- 1/2 cup flax seed meal
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ginger
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 1/4 cup pureed pumpkin
- 3/4 cup plain yogurt
- 1/3 cup milk
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 tsp vanilla

1. Combine first nine ingredients in a medium bowl, and make a well in the center.
2. Combine next six ingredients, add to flour mixture, and stir until just moist.
3. Spray muffin tin with cooking spray and spoon in batter.
4. Bake at 375 degrees for 15-18 minutes. Makes between 18 and 24 muffins.

Vitamin Wheel