feeling saucy

As I write this, the temperature in Central Park is inching toward 50 degrees. But just days ago, we were still deeply mired in this nonsense:

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Not exactly prime conditions for lightening up the old diet, but as the results of some of my recent medical tests begin to trickle in, I realize that the time for me to make these changes could not be better.

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As it turns out, I was able to strike a pretty nice balance of plant-based goodness and familiar, comforting flavor on a cold and snowy winter’s night with this tempeh and mushroom ragú.

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As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been very interested in exploring tempeh as both a plant-based source of protein, and as a gut-healthy fermented food. My initial foray into cooking with tempeh yielded some killer black bean and tempeh tacos, but for round two, I wanted to see if I could achieve the richness and depth of a long-simmered meat sauce, in a meat-free version.

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My secret weapon: mushrooms.

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In both fresh and dried form, they provided the savoriness that I want in a ragú of this type, without any animal protein. A bit of low-sodium tamari and double-concentrated tomato paste provided even more backbone.

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While the texture wasn’t quite where I had hoped it would be, the flavor was right on the money, and as with any good meat sauce, it only improved overnight. I most certainly will tweak this recipe as I make it again, but this was a pretty fine place to start.

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Tempeh and Mushroom Ragú

extra-virgin olive oil
½ medium onion, fine dice (about 1 cup)
1 small rib celery, with leaves, fine dice (about 1/4 cup)
1 small carrot, peeled and grated or finely diced (about 1/2 cup)
Kosher or sea salt
8 oz. crimini mushrooms, trimmed and finely chopped
½ oz. dried porcini mushrooms + 1 cup boiling water
8 oz. tempeh
2 oz. low-sodium tamari
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced or grated
2 tbsp double-concentrated tomato paste
One 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes with juice
½ to 1 cup water or wine

For serving:

1 pound hot cooked pasta (I used rigatoni, but an spaghetti or pappardelle would work as well)
Finely chopped fresh parsley
Grated Parmagiano, or a similar cheese substitute

* * * * *

Add a glug of olive oil to a wide, shallow pan. Add the onion, celery, and carrot with a big pinch of salt, and cook over medium heat until softened. Make space in the pan and add the crimini mushrooms, cooking until they are well-browned.

While the vegetables cook, soak the dried mushrooms in boiling water until soft. Remove the softened mushrooms from their soaking liquid and chop them fine before adding to the pan. Reserve the soaking liquid.

Crumble the tempeh into a bowl, and add the tamari, oregano, and garlic. Toss well to combine, then add to the pan. Add a bit more olive oil, then continue cooking, allowing the tempeh to brown. Add the tomato paste and toss everything well to coat, then slowly add the reserved mushroom soaking liquid, leaving any grit behind.

Stir in the canned tomatoes, and continue to cook uncovered over medium-low heat for 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally, and adding a bit of water or wine to loosen any stuck bits from the bottom of the pan. Toss with hot cooked pasta, and finish with a sprinkle of fresh parsley and your favorite grating cheese or cheese substitute.

toward the light

apples

January is the month when most people who are inclined to, try to jump-start lifestyle changes by way of New Year’s resolutions, gym memberships, “dry January,” or any number of other regimens. But for us, January is a month still jam-packed with celebrations: birthdays, anniversaries, and the accompanying (over)indulgence. By the time February rolls around, we are definitely ready to lighten things up a bit, to take stock of the past 12 (or 13!) months and to think about things we’d like to change or improve in the months ahead.

For the last four Februaries, I have been either pregnant or nursing a baby, and my main dietary focus was on giving those little creatures what they needed to grow healthy and strong. Prior to that… well, let’s just say that at times, I enjoyed my child-free lifestyle a bit too much. Now, at 43 years old, with two small children and a demanding job outside of the home, I’m really feeling the weight of it all.

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When Mike and I first met, I was the heaviest I’ve ever been. By the time we started dating a few months later, I had already begun to lose what would be a fairly substantial amount of weight, by making a few simple changes to my diet and activity level. Twelve years and two kids later, I’ve gained almost all of it back. It was a slow creep at first, but I’ve put on nearly 20 more pounds just since Mira’s birth.

I’m sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, and while I have some underlying health issues to work on too, this week, after coming up with a game plan, I kicked off a new regimen of my own. I’m only a few days in, and while the numbers on the scale haven’t budged, I’ve already noticed a marked improvement in the way I feel.

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Like many people, I’ve never done well on a deprivation diet. What has worked for me in the past (and what I hope will work again) is to focus on adding things – whether more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, oily fish, or fermented foods – and replacing the bad or questionable stuff in my diet with better, more nutrient-dense items.

planning

One of the best and worst things about living in New York is that you can get anything delivered to you. I’ve relied far too heavily on delivery services for breakfast and lunch at the office, and I think we can all agree that eating takeout at your desk while working is not an ideal way to work or to eat a meal.

So one of my goals when planning dinners for the week is to do so in such a way that leftovers can be incorporated into breakfast or lunches later in the week. (This is in no way revolutionary, but we aren’t great about working through leftovers, so having a plan for them is going to be key.) This week, Monday’s dinner was Martha Rose Schulman’s Polenta with Beans and Chard. The bean stew was delicious over polenta, and I used some of the leftover beans and chard to top a grain bowl for my lunch on Tuesday.

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Mornings are just plain hectic at our house, no matter how we try to plan ahead for them. (Have you ever tried to pack a lunch the night before for a 3-year old?) Our current routine is that Mike wakes first, showers and gets ready for the day, and while I shower and dress, he fixes the kids (and himself) breakfast. Then he gets them dressed and ready while I sip something warm and get our lunches together.

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In the past, I’d drink coffee, but since caffeine doesn’t really agree with me anymore, these days it’s a mug of warm lemon water. As far as my own breakfast, I’ve been packing a travel mug of miso soup to heat and sip when I get to my desk. It sounds weird, but it’s actually quite satisfying, and the miso is good for my gut – which needs all the help it can get these days.

Once I arrive at the office, I’m setting reminders to do two things: get up and stretch/move regularly, and drink more water. I always thought I drank a lot of water during the day, but I recently realized that when I get super busy and involved in a project, hours can pass before I get out of my chair or refill my bottle.

bean bowls

As for lunch, I still won’t always be able to get away from my desk to eat, but I want to work on at least eating better – whether it’s a meal that I brought from home (preferable), or better delivery choices (in a pinch). Those choices include the ubiquitous grain bowl, with beans or another lean protein, a ton of vegetables (I like a mix of fresh + roasted + fermented/pickled), and a zesty or spicy dressing; or a big crunchy salad (again, with lean protein). If we’re flush and I’m feeling splurgy, I’ll order my favorite sushi lunch from time to time.

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And that brings us back to dinner.

For eight years now, I’ve been blogging about our dinners here, and over those eight years, we’ve definitely seen some changes in both what we eat and how we cook. Having kids has made a huge difference; having less time and money to spend on shopping and preparing meals has certainly had an impact on our choices and menus. And while I think Mike and I have shown that we’re pretty adventurous cooks, and the kids fairly decent eaters, we have definitely fallen into a food rut of late.

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So my final food-related goal for this year is to move away from meat-focused fare, away from rich and starchy “comfort food” dishes, and to incorporate more plant-based foods into our dinners. There have been so many inspiring vegetarian and and “meat-lite” cookbooks released recently, and cuisines and ingredients I’ve been curious about – the time is ripe to explore them. After all, we love vegetables and beans and all sorts of grains – why not move them to the center of our plates?

market fresh sauce

Dinner: August 27, 2014

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This meal was inspired by this Farmers’ Market Pappardelle recipe from Gourmet, and the farmers’ market goodies Mike and the kids brought home from the Bartel-Pritchard Square Greenmarket yesterday.

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We had a box of wonderful spinach and cheese ravioli (from United Meat Market) in our freezer, and I thought they would work well with a sauce of barely cooked market vegetables.

I tipped some olive oil into a pan, added a bunch of sliced scallions, some sweet corn stripped off the cob, and some thin half-moons of zucchini. That all got a pinch of salt, and once the zucchini and scallions had softened a bit, a hit of Sherry vinegar. I wanted to add just a tiny bit of richness to the sauce, so I swirled in a spoonful of Marcella’s Sauce. Off the heat, I added some halved Sungolds and chunked Black Krims, stirring them gently through, then tossed in a big handful of small whole basil leaves.

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I drained the ravioli and tossed it into the sauce, stirring it gently, then finished it with a generous amount of grated Pecorino Romano. A little red chile flake, or thinly sliced fresh chile, would have been a nice addition, too.

braised escarole white beans olives

bouncing back

toasts

We are finally… finally beginning to emerge from nearly two weeks of fierce battle against The Crud. Despite our best efforts at staying healthy, trying to strengthen our immunity by frequent hand-washing, liberal doses of homemade chicken stock, and, for two of the three of us anyway, getting flu shots, we were stricken, and hit hard. I suspect our recent trip to DC had something to do with it – it seems whenever we’ve traveled anywhere in the winter months, we always come down with something afterward.

cousins at play

As sick as we’ve been since, that trip was so worth it. We got to spend some long-overdue time with my parents, as well as my brother, his lovely wife, and their two adorable little ones. This was the first time Julian got to meet his cousins, and they got along famously.

escarole, wilted

On our first night in town, the entire clan ate dinner at a little Italian restaurant near our hotel, a mostly unremarkable place with checkered vinyl tablecloths and an encyclopedic menu. But one dish we ordered stood out in my memory – a side of white beans and escarole which we actually ordered for Julian, but which we adults ended up polishing off.

Dinner: January 23, 2013

White beans and escarole is a pretty classic combination, probably most familiar served in soup form, but this take was different: the escarole was braised with a bit of tomato, and the whole thing was studded with plump little black olives. They were an unexpected addition, and we loved how their brininess mellowed in the cooking, rendering them lush and fruity, a wonderful complement to the bitter greens and creamy beans.

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As soon as my appetite started coming back post-Crud, I began to crave this dish, and last night, I tried my hand at recreating it at home. With some toasted, crusty bread and a hearty red wine, this was a simple but satisfying meal I suspect we’ll come back to again and again.

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Braised Escarole with White Beans and Olives

one large head of escarole
1-2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus additional for serving
Kosher or sea salt
one cup basic tomato sauce
two large cloves garlic
1.5 cups of cooked white beans
1/2 cup pitted black olives
a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)

Trim the escarole, removing the stem end and any wilted outer leaves. Rinse it well and set aside. Add a glug of olive oil to a wide, shallow pan, and warm it over medium heat. Add the escarole and a big pinch of salt (it’s fine if a bit of water is still clinging to its leaves), and turn to coat with the oil. Cover the pan and let cook over medium heat until the escarole is mostly wilted and a bit browned in spots, about 15 minutes. Add the tomato and garlic, stir through, lower the heat, and continue cooking partially covered for another 10-15 minutes, until the liquid in the pan has reduced and thickened and the escarole is very soft. Stir in the beans and olives, add the red pepper flakes if using, and cook an additional 10 minutes or so, until everything is warmed through. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Spoon into shallow bowls, with a generous drizzle of olive oil on top, and toasted bread alongside.