A Green Thanksgiving with Sorrel Soup

Green options at Thanksgiving are always a bit less exciting than the orange and brown delectables. I do love brussels sprouts, roasted, or braised in white wine and topped with gorgonzola, but they are not for everyone. And the green salad we always dutifully prep up is usually intact at the end of the meal, faring poorly against the competition.

So why not kick off the meal with a lovely green soup? While sorrel is typically thought of in the spring, when it’s tender and new, autumn sorrel retains a wonderful lemony flavor, and can still be found in the farmer’s markets, at least where we live in Maryland.

This easy soup is adapted from the mistress of gardens, Alice Waters, and her Chez Panisse cookbook. It can be prepared ahead, and finished at the last minute with a quick reheating and immersion (stick) blender. It has great flavor, and would make a remarkable — and elegant — way to open the feast. It goes without saying that this soup would also be wonderful chilled in the high heat of summer.

You will want some really lovely fresh cream, so if you can obtain the grassfed, organic kind from a farm share or market, that’s the way to go.

Ingredients:

1 Tbl (organic, grassfed) butter

1 medium (organic) boiling potato or several smaller ones, diced

1 cup (organic) chicken stock or vegetable stock (do not use plain water, as there will be insufficient flavor, and if using vegetable stock, you may want more cream and salt)

1 medium (organic) yellow onion, diced

1 1/2 large bunches (organic or near-organic) sorrel (about 1.5 lbs.) (I have added sorrel to punch up the flavor a bit)

1 (organic) carrot or 7 small ones, diced

1 1/2 cup (grassfed, organic) cream (I also added a lot more cream than Ms. Waters — up to a pint is just fine with me)

3 sprigs (organic) thyme, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

2 1/3 cup water

2 Tbls crumbled (happy pig) bacon, for garnish (optional)

Directions:

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the thyme, diced potato, onion, and carrot.

Pour in 1/3 cup of the water, cover, and stew gently for 15 minutes, with the lid ajar. Add the rest of the water (2 cups), salt and pepper, and stock, and bring to a simmer. Stew this for another 15 minutes, until the potatoes are soft and easily mashed.

Meanwhile, chop sorrel leaves into thin strips. When the potatoes are finished, add the sorrel, and return soup to a simmer, then turn off and let it stand for 5 minutes. (You can reserve some finely chopped sorrel for garnish. And if you are serving this later, you can let this sit in the fridge or on the back of the stove until ready to serve.)

Purée the soup in a blender (glass is best) or use an immersion blender in the pot, then stir in the cream. Taste (and add more cream). Garnish with bacon and/or chopped sorrel. Serve and enjoy!

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The New (Pay-to-Attend) Food Deserts

I hadn’t had a bite to eat since yesterday, so Jim he got out some corn-dodgers and buttermilk, and pork and cabbage and greens — there ain’t nothing in the world so good when it’s cooked right — and whilst I eat my supper we talked and had a good time. — Huckleberry Finn

And we danced all night
To the fiddle and the banjo.
Their drifting tunes seemed to fill the air.
So long ago, but I can still remember
How we fell in love at the Roseville Fair. — Bill Staines

Over the weekend, we attended the final day of the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair, a sprawling affair of equal parts livestock buildings and carnie rides. Maya loved patting the bunnies, and couldn’t get enough of the cows. And there were these pretty amazing owls.

We enjoyed the day as well — except that we couldn’t find anything even remotely worth eating in the whole durn place. We paid $10 for parking, and another $10 each per adult to get in, so in we were, stuck amongst the barkers and colored balloons.

There were battered and deep-fried oreo cookies, funnel cakes, french fries, pizza and corn dogs, as well as signs touting “fresh squeezed lemonade,” which, it was clear upon sampling, was an utter fiction. I picked at a relatively inoffensive brisket sandwich from the one place selling pit BBQ, and my hubs tried to eat a bit of a “gyro” that sported flabby, texture-less bread, watery, chemical-laden sauces and tubes of mashed meat. Mmm.

A single church-run place sold roasted chicken, and one shack dispensed mostly-naked roasted sweet corn (likely GMO, but still tasty) which at least is actual food. But there was nary a green, orange or rainbow-colored vegetable or fresh fruit to be had, except in the produce tent where the flora was present only to be judged, and not eaten. Cabbages and greens, hah!

Because we were, I dunno, at a county fair, when Maya sensibly asked for “watermelon,” I went searching and turned up zip. Processed dippin’ ice creams? Check. “Premium” ice cream from Turkey Hill loaded with:

HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, NATURAL FLAVORS, CITRIC ACID, MONO & DIGLYCERIDES, GUAR GUM, CARRAGEENAN, RED 40, BLUE 1.

Check. Even the coating on the chocolate covered bananas was chemical-flavored. Though at least the banana couldn’t really be messed with, once you got into it.

Instead of food, stall after stall sold nothing but junk. High-fat, triglyceride-fests on a stick. A poke around the Internet told me the obvious: fairs and festivals have become venues in which vendors compete to see who can deep-fry the most shockingly unhealthy foods– one even sells frozen, battered deep fried sticks of butter. Others hawk fried frozen kool-aid and similarly unnatural feats alongside the fry-battered snickers bars and Oreos.

Now, I’ve been known to appreciate a little key lime pie on a stick sometimes myself. But it was still striking that at a fair bedecked in 4H signs and clearly intended to build our reverence for people who drive tractors, there was no sign of either practitioners of a greener, more sustainable approach to farming — something common now in Maryland — or of any appealing, healthier foodstuffs produced by the aforementioned farmerfolk.

Amidst the cutesy pig races down the “hamstretch” around the Hogway Speedway and tractor pulls designed to stir up nostalgia for our not-so-distant agri-past, something important evidently got lost, which is that people have always best connected to the land by eating its wondrous outputs.

Indeed, the World Fairs, in the mid- and early twentieth century, were places for people to sample international foods that may never have gotten attention from such a broad swath of the population, including a French tent from the 1940 fair that became a popular restaurant in New York, Le Pavilion. Of course, the Fairs were also places for the new industrial processes around food to be debuted and marveled at, such as cotton candy and Wonder Bread.

Fast forward, though, to 2012, and it feels as though the Frankenfood has eaten the fair. Most traces of a home-made past — pickles, preserves, pies — were not for sale. Instead, we got the industrial fryer, loads of sugar, and distracting, hyper-kitschy lights on every surface of the food conveyance truck, as if to say — look here, instead of down at the glistening brown surface of your greasy funnel cake.

At the risk of seeming like I’m not in on the joke, I’m just going to say it: what is so durn “fun” about eating crap served up by fairly miserable people trapped in little metal boxes? We are living in a time in which chemical-laden, highly addictive calories that trip every one of our biological triggers (salt! sugar! fat!) are cheap, and actual food is scarce, despite the ample offerings in every convenience store, every ball park, every amusement park, every beach or public place where the goal is supposed to be entertainment or ease.

But, really, isn’t this just a cheap trick on all of us? A way for us to pony up $5 (which seemed to be the cost of anything at the fair) or more for our own deprivation and illness, gussied up as self-indulgence?

And if we grownups are a lost cause, we should consider that there were thousands of kids at the fair who really had no option except to eat what was given to them. Cass Sunstein, in his book Nudge, described the power of “defaults” in structuring choices — which basically means that we choose from what is in our faces most of the time.

After all, we’re just bodies in space.

And when it comes to things we are biologically predisposed to like, you can bet that the food marketers know exactly how to dangle it in front of us as a form of perilous fun so that we’ll bite. And bite again.

We publicly wring our hands about childhood obesity, and the fact that record and growing numbers of children are acquiring Type 2 diabetes (from somewhere, hmmm), but our public policies allow soda and other sugary junk in our schools, and our public norms are to pay decent money to be admitted to a “fair” that serves our children expensive, dangerous processed swill in place of anything resembling food.

And don’t even get me started on children’s menus at restaurants, which are generally vegetable-free zones made entirely of a newly engineered item known as pizza-hot-dog-pasta-grilled-cheese-chicken-tenders.

Of course, you might say that if I’m going to be this picky, I should always bring along some of my foodie provisions to ensure that we have the uber-organic, sustainably raised squirrel seeds we prefer. And sometimes I do have it together enough to plan ahead and pack snacks. But one of the things about being out in the world is tasting at least some of its flavors, and toting whole meals along for all-day excursions is not a fair expectation for us or other parents, especially when we’ve paid for the privilege of attending some event.

Even when I bring food, that really only takes care of my family. But we need larger solutions to the problem of a lack of nutrition in our public food. And am I really supposed to bring my own grub to a restaurant? Please. In other words, on this one, its really not us, its them.

Unless we start getting ticked off about this pathetic state of affairs, though, I don’t see how things change or how we can get the food marketers’ ugly, deep-fried, doughy fingers off our arteries and those of our kids. I’m working on a friendly but firm letter to the Montgomery County organizers of the fair, asking them for a greater variety of healthier stuff to eat next year. In a pinch, they could set up a green tent as some fairs do, or bring in food trucks with more variety for some of the time, which are options I’ll suggest.

Today’s column by Mark Bittman has more great ideas for how we should really honor farmers and their labors making something essential out of sun, water, and dirt:

  • We need to reduce unemployment and increase the minimum wage (including that for farm and restaurant workers). This (obviously) goes beyond the realm of food, but it’s key to improving the quality of life for many if not most Americans. (Here’s a strong argument for that.)
  • We need to not cut but raise the amount of support we give to recipients of food stamps. A good example is New York City’s Health Bucks program, where food stamps are worth more at farmers’ markets (which don’t, as a rule, sell sugar-sweetened beverages!).
  • We need not only to attack the nonsensical and wasteful system that pays for corn and soybeans to be grown to create junk food and ethanol, but to support local and national legislation that encourages the birth of new small-and-medium farms. We need to encourage both new and established farms to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, to raise animals in sensible ways and, using a combination of modern and time-tested techniques, treat those animals well and use their products sensibly.

Amen, brother.

I’m also thinking about designing a small, polite but clear card, addressed to the chef, that folks could hand to restaurants to raise the issue of improving offerings on kids’ menus. If you think this is something you would possibly print and use, please let me know.

Toddler-Friendly Vegetable Chicken “Magic” Soup

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Like the wonderful children’s book, Stone Soup, this recipe — or rather, technique (such as it is) — makes do with whatever you may have on hand. I’ve probably made it at least once a month since Maya was six months old, because, like magic, veggies disappear!

It also works for babies, pureed in a blender, for a very healthy and fresh baby food.

The basic technique is incredibly simple — boil a whole chicken until done to make a simple broth, sauté vegetables and spices, chop up the chicken and combine. Cook a while, then add fresh lemon and herbs just before serving.

Sometimes when I’ve made it, it turns out better than others, based on the particular vegetables and flavor combinations. Maya doesn’t really seem to notice, either way. She likes the nourishing, mild broth and mix of vegetables softened in the soup.

But if you’re planning to serve it as a meal for everyone, certainly pay attention to the mixture of flavors, and add more salt, pepper and lemon at the table. My husband adds harissa as well, for heat.

It will make a good week of lunches. And it freezes well, so having a good-sized batch is useful. I use stainless steel ice cube trays, the old-fashioned kind.

In addition, you can save the bones and trimmings, as well as any vegetable parings, in a freezer bag for making stock. An excellent set of tips for that is here. The cost savings, in comparison to buying organic vegetable and chicken stock, are considerable.

My latest batch included a lot of fennel, as well as fennel tops at the end. I do not recommend this, as it ended up too fennel-rific. But a smaller amount (i.e., less than a whole large bulb), should be fine.

It’s delicious over brown rice or pasta. By day three, I also usually add cheese on top, to keep Maya’s interest. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

One whole young (organic, pasture-raised) chicken

(organic) Butter or oil

1 large (organic) Onion (white or yellow)

Garlic — 3-4 cloves

2 (organic) Lemons

Dried herbs: I like Rosemary, Basil, Thyme, Oregano, and Savory, 1 Tbl or so of each

Salt and Pepper (minimal if serving to children)

Fresh Herbs: Cilantro, Parsley, Carrot Greens

Vegetables can include: (organic) Peas, Carrots, Broccoli, Spinach, Chard or Kale (de-spined and chopped), Fennel, Celery, Green Beans, Summer Squash, Zucchini, Tomatoes, Parsnips, even Jerusalem Artichoke

Starch and/or Legumes can include: (Eden Organic or another BPA-free brand, if using canned, drained and rinsed) White or Red beans or Chickpeas, (organic) Potatoes, Corn (including frozen)

Directions:

Using a large pot, cover the chicken in (filtered) water and bring to a boil on the stove over medium heat. Simmer for 45 minutes to one hour.

While that is cooking, rough-chop the vegetables as needed.  Saute onions and garlic in the butter or oil in a large pot (this can be done in a series if you only have one pot large enough). Add the dried herbs, salt and pepper, and vegetables and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have started to lose moisture. Then add the beans, potatoes or corn and stir over heat for 10-15 minutes. If using potatoes, cook until done. Let rest until the chicken is ready. (If adding spinach, wait to add that with the fresh herbs, close to the end, as directed below.)

When the chicken is thoroughly cooked and almost falling off the bone, lift it out of the liquid carefully onto a plate and let it cool for a few minutes. Take the meat off the bones, using your hands as needed, and rough chop (in smaller pieces if you plan to freeze it). It may be a bit stringy, so keep an eye on making it small enough for a toddler to grapple with. Scoop any chicken residues out of the broth.

Add the vegetable mixture, chicken and broth together and heat through. Add in generous amounts of fresh lemon juice, to taste, and fresh herbs (and any spinach). Stir until wilted, and serve, with lemon wedges if desired.

Adopted with modifications from “Baby Love: Healthy, Easy, Delicious Meals for Your Baby and Toddler,” by Norah O’Donnell and Chef Geoff Tracy.

This image shows a whole and a cut lemon.

Yummy Veggies for Toddlers 10 Easy Ways

Yup, I said yummy and vegetables. For toddlers.

And I meant it. There’s a myth that children don’t like vegetables and beans. My husband, who’s Indian, finds this amusing: in India, both children and adults eat vegetables and lentils daily.

Maya, luckily for us, most days scarfs up vegetables, and we try to serve a rainbow of them to her over the course of a week. Color in plants is code for the minerals and vitamins inside, so variety is important. I thought this chart from the Greene Hill Coop was fascinating:

Persistence is key. When she refuses something, we basically ignore her little prima donna moment and serve whatever offended to her the next time as though that moment o’ pickiness never happened.

I’m also not a big fan of recent trendiness around disguising vegetables in other foods, as I really want to build Maya’s sense that food is connected to color, texture, etc., and that a variety of these is what we should eat. (But ask me in 3 years whether I’ve managed to stick to my guns on that one! If I had a really difficult kid, I’d do whatever it took to create a healthy relationship with food, including being sneaky. I know I’m not really in charge here.)

Maya has enough difficulty with chewing still that vegetables need to be cooked, but I’m a working mom, and so the preparations have to be fast and easy. Here’s some ideas for super SIMPLE (organic) veggie prep that we’ve had success with:

1) Boiled-soft: Just boiling in water on the stove — works for beets, corn, carrots, potato and broccoli. Maya loves golden beets in particular, which are sweet and dreamy when cooked. I’ll fish the stuff out, add a pat of butter and a few shakes of pepper, cool, slice and serve.

One tip for peas: to keep them bright green and fresh-tasting, even if frozen, “shock” them in ice water when they are done cooking. Conveniently, this cools them down quickly as well for serving. They are delicious served with a little melted butter and thin strips of fresh mint.

2) Microwaved: I had a very good moment sometime a few months back when I realized that I could take frozen vegetables, put them in a glass container in water, and pop that in the microwave for 2 minutes and they would come out the right texture. We do this with peas, green beans, corn, broccoli and other frozen vegetables. (Two health notes: We try to avoid packages of frozen vegetables that have added salt, which is not easy to do, and we look for organic that is not labeled “made in China,” due to concerns over the validity of certification, which I’ll post on in the future.)

Microwaving also works well for sweet potatoes, which Maya loves with butter, or even dreamier, mixed up with peanut or cashew butter, which tastes like orange heaven. Plain potatoes are good as well, which we’ll mix with green onion, sour cream and other classic toppings.

3) Cooked in milk: Cauliflower boiled in whole (organic, grassfed) milk is a treat even for adults. Carrots work nicely too, as do turnips and fennel. Add a pat of butter and some pepper as you like.

These can be cooked together or alone — for extra deliciousness, put it in a blender when cooked, including the milk. It whips into a truly delicious puree, which we like with steak and tastes like it’s from a fancy-pants restaurant.

4) Roasted:  Red peppers are a big hit this way — we put on toast with goat cheese underneath, inside quesadillas with cheddar cheese, or on pasta.

To quick-roast peppers, slice them in half and de-seed, smooth on some oil and place cut side down on a baking sheet. Roast under the broiler until black, put in a bowl and cover with a plate to steam off the skin. Remove the skin. They will be soft, sweet and delicious.

Butternut squash is also great roasted. Just peel a squash and slice into chunks, toss with cinnamon, nutmeg, onions, raisins, apples and a touch of brown sugar, and roast for 45 minutes at 375 degrees.

And sweet potato fries are easy, with a touch of salt, rosemary and oil, cut into matchsticks and baked until soft. Green beans and asparagus are also both terrific tossed in a little salt, garlic and roasted. I’ll squeeze a lemon over them and call it a day.

5) Chopped into eggs: We find spinach, in particular, goes down well when chopped into scrambled eggs or an omelette. Peppers also work well, of course, and Maya will eat smoked salmon this way too (which is great for the Omega-3s — we use wild-caught, not farmed). We serve the eggs over rounds of fried polenta for extra interest, and add some cheese if she’s short on protein.

6) Cooked in “soup:” Saute onion and garlic with thyme, basil, oregano, salt and pepper, add whatever vegetables are in the fridge, rough chopped, and some (organic, low sodium) chicken or vegetable stock and simmer. Voila, it’s kid-friendly veg soup. For creaminess, you can throw in some milk or cream as well.

7) Stir-fried: Carrots, onions, mushrooms, broccoli, snap peas and others are all classic stir-fry options. We use a little soy sauce, add grated ginger and garlic, tofu, and serve over brown rice or noodles. Yum.

Kale and chard also fry up well, into chip-like flakes if you use enough oil. Just wash, carve out the spines, sprinkle with a tiny bit of salt and a good amount of brown mustard seeds, and fry in generous amounts of grassfed, pastured butter (kids need good fats).

8) Covered in cheese or sauce: On the rare times when Maya does get all up on her high horse about some food, I’ll cover whatever it is in some pasta sauce and cheese and microwave for a few seconds, and then she’ll usually like it again. Cheese on broccoli is a big hit as well. Eggplant is best with tomato sauce, parmesan optional.

9) Steamed: Pretty self-explanatory. Works well with spinach, broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes, beets and most other veggies, and helps to preserve all the nutrients, unlike boiling.

10) Raw (duh): Raw veggies she can eat, even at this stage, include jicama (cut in matchsticks), cucumbers, and “fruit” like tomato and avocado (which she loves generally, except for, I dunno, tonight and last night). We are not big salad people, but Maya will go for chunky ones like greek salad with gobs of onions, tomatoes and feta.

None of this is rocket science. But since I have been spotted more than once standing in front of the fridge dumbfounded, having a simple repertoire that covers breakfast, lunch and dinner means that Maya might get more of the vegetable kingdom. At least some of the time, she eats them up cluelessly, almost like she’s from a different country altogether.

Whenever I’m really desperate, I consult Mark Bittman’s jaw-droppingly helpful “101 Simple Meals Ready in 10 Minutes or Less,” printed out and stuck on my fridge.

Do you have other preparations you’ve used for veggies that are delicious and easy?

More Resources:

Onions on a neutral, mostly white background