Let’s Get Pickled!

When Hurricane Sandy was still looming, I checked out the bottom of my veggie drawer and the more dubious corners of the fridge, and decided, then and there, to put up some lovely and super-easy vegetable pickles.

This simple preparation is actually a wonderful way to deal with the stubby tail-ends of veggies that are still hanging around (but not actually spoiled). You can also thinly slice and pickle stems, like those on broccoli or cauliflower, that you would otherwise throw away, which is a nice way to use the whole kaboodle.

As a side-benefit, they are surprisingly (and unduly) impressive to guests. I recently served them at a small brunch with friends, and they made a tasty giardiniera (or, less pompously, chow chow) to accompany our fritatta. Maya will occasionally eat them as well, though sour is still a taste category under acquisition.

Since most jars — including the Ball and Kerr jars (now all made by the same company) — evidently have BPA under the lids, I used wonderful Weck jars, which are nothing but glass with a rubber gasket and metal clamps. These are the 1-liter cylindrical jars, which come in a set of 6 (for $21) that is ideal for other kitchen storage, or even making canned goods into gifts. There are loads of other sizes and shapes available as well.

Sidebar: If you’re really into canning per se, about midway down this page is great information about BPA-free options, including how to source vintage glass lids and gaskets on Ebay. In addition to Weck’s jars, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars, though the shapes are more difficult to work with and the price is generally higher.

There are also reusable canning lids, here, that are BPA-free, but are still plastic, and even contain some formaldehyde that the company claims doesn’t get into the food. Er, no thanks! If you know of other options, please let me know!

Anyhoo, back to pickling. Fermented foods, because they contain digestion-friendly microbes and enzymes, are helpful to the health of the gut. There’s almost no limit to the health claims folks will make these days on behalf of ample gut flora, and it’s sometimes hard to sort it all out. Still, what seems indisputable is that most traditional cultures included pickles as a significant part of meals — think kimchi, sauerkraut, kosher condiments, kefir, even the mighty dill spear — yet pickled and fermented foods have largely now disappeared from the Western diet. It also appears that vinegar, when consumed as part of a meal, helps to lower blood sugar levels.

So, we’ve added probiotics (buy the refrigerated kind that boasts about containing millions of live bugs) to our diets, as well as plain kefir, kombucha, lots of yogurt (sometimes homemade), and, when we really put it together, pickles!

Sorry, but those sugary ball park pickles and relishes don’t count. You need fresh pickles without a ton of sugar or heat pasteurization. The good news is that these live foods are easy to make.

There are obviously many options for recipes, but my stand-by is from the always-incredible Jacques Pepin, whose minimal approach still retains the basics of what’s needed for healthy and delicious pickle-y goodness. As adapted from Pepin’s Simple and Healthy Cooking:

Ingredients:

Assorted vegetables, sliced thin as appropriate: this can include (organic) carrots, green beans, fennel (a favorite of mine), red bell pepper, cauliflower (love), turnips, zucchini, turnips, broccoli, and whole or half cloves of garlic, depending on size. Beets are also lovely of course, but will turn the whole thing pink, and so should really be pickled unto themselves.

Fresh dill is optional. (For my pickles, I just stuck the fennel fronds along the sides while layering the vegetables.)

1 cup distilled white vinegar to 2 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 Tablespoon salt

Generous pinch of sugar (optional)

1 Tablespoon Pickling Spice blend, or as much as you have on hand to make same of: cloves, allspice berries, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, dill seeds, and bay leaves.

Directions:

Figure out how much liquid you will need for your jars and the right ratio based on the above. But note that it’s not picky, really.

Pack the vegetables 1/3 of the way in, layering them in the jar.

Bring water, vinegar, salt, sugar, and spices, to a boil and boil gently for five minutes. Pour liquid to barely cover the vegetables in the jar, and, using a spoon or strainer, add a few of the spices floating about in the liquid. Add 1/3 more vegetables and more spices and liquid, packing it all down with the spoon. Repeat these steps one more time. (This slightly elaborate process is to address the issue I’ve found that if you pour the liquid all at once, the spices just sit on the top.)

Ensure that the vegetables are below the liquid and let the jars cool, and even sit out a bit. You can then store them in the back of the fridge. After a week or so, they will be somewhat pickled, and after two weeks, even more so. You can also reuse the pickling water, which becomes more flavorful with repeated use.

You like? Then here’s another post on pickling from me, and another from Men’s Journal:

And do tell, what do you pickle?

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

Two BPA-free Weekend Breakfasts

Yup, still ticked off about the FDA’s truly egregious decision to allow food companies to continue experimenting on all of us with BPA in our food. A post is a-brewing on that particular bit of ludicrousness.

In the meantime, living well is the best revenge. And so Maya and I hit the kitchen to make a couple breakfasts this weekend worth posting about.

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A Massive FDA Fail Frittata

This recipe delivers a rich mix of vegetables in the morning, and Maya ate it up.

Generous pat of (grass-fed, organic) butter

12 stalks or so of (organic) asparagus, broken into 1 inch sections

2 large handfuls of (organic) cauliflower florets

2 handfuls (organic) baby spinach

Basil, Thyme, Oregano, Rosemary, Salt & Pepper

5 (pasture-raised, organic) eggs

2 Tablespoons (grassfed, organic) whole milk

2 Tablespoons fresh herbs as you may have available (we used chives that survived the neglect in my backyard)

Melt the butter in a frying pan capable of going under the broiler (a non-stick pan is not necessary; nor is it a good idea). Toss the asparagus and cauliflower in the butter on medium high heat and let it sit until roasted on one side. Stir and add the spinach. Cook until wilted and most of the moisture is gone, stirring minimally to get a nice roast.

Add the dried herbs with two generous and firm shakes of each, as well as salt and pepper. Beat the eggs and milk and add to the pan. Lower the heat and let the eggs set on the bottom of the pan, until the sides are cooked but not the top. Add the cheese and fresh herbs, and place under the broiler on low for three minutes until bubbly and browned on top. Serve in wedges with a sense of injustice.

The FDA’s-So-Cheesy Bread

We ate it with some farmer’s market sausage, sliced and boiled beets, and fresh-made chevre. It makes a lot, so this is good for a crowd. I love the easy impressiveness of a quick bread.

3 cups (organic) unbleached all-purpose flour

4 tsps baking powder (ours was aluminum-free and double-acting; I haven’t looked into the aluminum issue, if you have, please tell me if aluminum-free is best and why)

1 tsp sugar

1 Tablespoon (organic, grassfed) butter

2 (organic, pastured) eggs

1/4 tsp sea salt

2 tsps prepared (dry) mustard

1 cup grated cheese (we used old gouda and a “green onion” grassfed cheddar — just keep an eye on the salt, as some cheeses will add a lot)

Preheat over to 425F. Dust a baking sheet (not non-stick if you have one) with flour, and sift flour, sugar, salt, mustard and baking powder. Combine with milk and 2 eggs, as well as 1/2 the cheese, stir until just combined. It may be helpful to use your hands to knead just a bit, which is great fun for a toddler (just clean well after the eggs!).

Shape dough into a circle on the baking pan and use your hands to cup the edges. Run a knife over the surface to create sections if desired. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes, then bake 20 minutes more until risen and golden. Cool slightly.

Modified substantially from a recipe in “The Book of Breakfasts and Brunches,” by Kerenza Harries.