Saturday, March 31, 2012

Hello, Sunshine!

Spring is in the air. Can you feel it? The explosion of blooming color, the emerald hues of bright, lush grass, the musical symphony of returning birds as they construct their nested homes for the upcoming summer. The way your skin feels warm and renewed by the sun. Magical.

I love this time of year. One of the things I love about living in Illinois is the seasons. Winter is a bit of a bummer for most Chicagoans, but we take full advantage of warm weather the second it comes around. We're all dusting off our gardening tools, starting up our tractors and pulling out old recipes that contain fresh fruits and vegetables to ring in the season.

When winter finally surrenders to the sun's renewing glow, it's time to celebrate all things sunny. To me, there is no better way to celebrate the season than by using lemons. We are all aware that I am a fan of lemons (see my attempt at trying to grow a lemon tree), and they are usually one of the first things I pull out when I feel like it's time to enjoy something fresh and bright.

Today I decided to pull out a recipe that I used as part of my final exam for Mediterranean Cuisine class when I was in culinary school. It's a bright, clean and satisfyingly crunchy salad with lemon zest and juice as a tangy supporting role. 

Shaved Fennel Salad
1 medium to large bulb of fennel (with fronds)
1 lemon (try to pick one that is heavy for it's size, there's more juice that way)
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese (the real stuff whenever possible please)
2 tsp olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse the fennel in cold water and pat dry. Cut the top fronds off just above the bulb and set aside (we'll use the fronds later). Cut the bulb in half from top to bottom. Inside, you'll see a core right at the base. Use your knife to essentially cut an "A" to remove the core (see image on the left). 

Here's where you need some specialized equipment. I like my fennel to be nice and thin, so I use my mandolin slicer. You can also use a cutting disk from your food processor, or you can do it by hand if you are particularly good. If you're nervous about using a knife to cut super thin slices, don't worry about it. Just cut them as thin as you can. Once the fennel is shaved, add some ice to a bowl and add water. Then toss in the shaved fennel. The idea behind this is first to help remove that really intense fennel flavor (which tastes a lot like anise, or licorice), and second to make this fennel super duper crunchy. Let this sit for about five minutes, or as long as it takes you to do the next steps.

Use your lemon-zester and zest the entire lemon. Don't have one? Use a veggie peeler to remove just the outside zest and then chop super fine with your knife. Be patient, you want it pretty small. Or just go to the freakin' hardware store and get a zester, sheesh. Once the lemon is zested, cut the lemon in half and squeeze into a bowl over your other hand to be sure you catch any seeds. Take the fennel out of the water (discarding any ice that may linger) and give it a spin in a salad spinner. Don't have one (jeeze, what DO you have)? Set the fennel on some paper towels and let drain. Or put it on a kitchen towel, close it up and give it a spin. It's fun! It's not fun, though, really. Just get a salad spinner. Once the fennel is relatively dry, add it to a bowl. Then add the rest of your ingredients. Mix together, sprinkle in some torn fennel fronds and shave on that 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese.

Bright, clean, refreshing, crunchy. This salad has it all. It's definitely a winner winner chicken dinner. Some people like to add parsley to the salad, just to add a different layer of green. Your choice. It's a great side dish or salad for a picnic. It stays crunchy even for long events (no longer than 3-4 hours please, sanitation is important!) as long as you keep the serving bowl over some ice.

Celebrate the season, and enjoy this delicious taste of Spring!

(Thanks to for the fennel picture and for the lemon bowl picture. Nice job! Grazie grazie!)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Going Green

Everyone knows the phrase "Going Green", and I only mean it here in a half "Going Green" way. More on that in a second.

Today, I decided I wanted something bright, light and, well, green! I have been holding onto Alton's Edamame Dip for quite some time now without ever really trying it before. Most of the time when I post about something, I usually give it multiple goes before I actually commit to blogging about it. In this case, I made an exception because it was so simple, and in most cases you already have what you need if you are an edamame fan.

First, a brief interlude about the importance of soy protein. I am lactose intolerant, and I swear by soy milk. If you haven't tried it (even if you're not lactose intolerant) give it a go. It's so good for your body. It's one of life's few complete plant proteins with all the essential amino acids your body needs. Amino acids have oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen, all of which are super important building blocks for maintaining your body. Soy also contains Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, which are essential to your diet because your body can't make them! I won't bore you with more detail than that, but bottom line is that you need amino acids and omegas in your diet, and soy has it! 

Alton (and Kristin's) Edamame Dip
14 oz (two 16oz bags in-the-shell) of edamame
1/4 cup roughly diced onion
1/2 cup tightly packed fresh cilantro or parsley leaves
1 large sliced garlic clove
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon of brown miso (optional, really, I don't even taste it in mine)
1 teaspoon (minimum) of kosher salt or to taste
1 teaspoon red chili paste (this just brings heat, so feel free to use red pepper flake if you don't have this)
Freshly ground pepper
A couple drops of sesame oil (optional, don't go overboard! It's strong stuff!)
5 tablespoons (minimum) of olive oil

Our journey begins with two frozen 16 oz (1lb) bags of in-the-shell edamame, which ends up being just over 14 oz of shelled soy beans (we'll get to why we're using in the shell in a minute). Start by following the instructions on the bag for thawing. I put two bags in the microwave for 6 minutes on high, or until they were warm enough to handle without being too hot. Some parts of the bag were still frozen, this is not a big deal.

Put a pot of water on to boil (enough to handle all the deshelled edamame you've got, I used a 2.5 quart saucepan filled 2/3 of the way up with water) and add about a tablespoon or so of salt. De-shell your edamame, and do not discard the shells! (I'm getting to it, I swear!) Once they're de-shelled, drop them into the boiling water and bring back to a boil. Allow to boil for 2-3 minutes, then drain and dump the green gems into a food processor.

Add the rest of the ingredients, except the olive oil, and pulse for several seconds. Scrape down the sides. Then, turn the food processor on and drizzle in the olive oil. Let it go until it's thick and just slightly chunky (but not big chunks). Give it a taste. I added more lime juice and salt to mine, but your's may be good as it is. Its a great recipe for this time of year because I am starting to desperately miss warm weather, and this is a nice, bright reminder that it's not too far off. Plus, it's like, ridiculously healthy for you. 

As for those shells...well, you got a compost pile don'tcha? Don't throw them out, they are gardening gold! Same goes for the papery stuff that came off the onion you just chopped, and those limes! Get them into your compost pile for the upcoming planting season. You'll be rewarded with wormy, composty goodness for your little plants. Its just the nutritional boost they need to get started, and you'll feel better because you're not contributing so much waste to your local landfill, right? Go green! =)

For more information on the nutritional benefits, and warnings (because some people may be allergic to soy products), visit the following websites:
National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine
Mayo Clinic
Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network

Also, here's Alton's original recipe in case you're interested in seeing the difference (there's also a video for how to make the recipe): Edamame Dip

Thanks to for the lovely picture of the soybeans in a bowl! Grazie!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Apple Picking - Edward's Orchard

Ahh fall...what a perfect season. Crisp air, bright beautiful leaves, pumpkins, hayrides, and perfect red orbs of culinary deliciousness known as apples.

Yesterday was the first day of fall, and I thought it would only be right to ring in the season with some apple picking. My close buddies and I drove out to Edward's Orchard in Poplar Grove, Illinois. It was my first time apple picking as every year something else got in the way. This year I was determined, and despite a rather large fire drill from work that forced me to spend some time checking my e-mails and making phone calls, I was able to enjoy myself and the beautiful weather we had yesterday.

The way this orchard works is by driving your car around the orchard following the signs until you get to where you see the bushel baskets. This is where you can pick apples.For those of you who love apples, you will be in apple heaven because they only sell apples by the bushel (unless you buy them in the store, but they are much more expensive). There is a $30.00 minimum (sounds like a lot, but you wouldn't believe how many apples you get for that price), and they make great gifts for family and friends. There were a couple friends of ours who couldn't make it, so I set some apples aside for them to have.

It's sort of a magical place there. Everything feels like it moves a lot slower, the area is just so beautiful, and the air is so fragrant with the smell of perfect fruit. It's amazing. The store is very country and they carry some pretty unique items. I found organic chili spiced pumpkin seeds which were total heaven (sprinkle them on your salad sometime), delicious squeaky cheese curds, pumpkin fudge (oh yes I did) and pure, unfiltered honey. Oh. Em. Gee. You could spend hours looking around that shop and you still wouldn't see everything in it.

Now, I am pretty sure that you don't need any culinary suggestions from me as far as what to make with apples (Dutch Apple Pie with Oatmeal Streusel, 10 Minute Apple Sauce, Apple Cider Doughnuts, Apple Cobbler...), however, I am going to suggest one snacky-style dish that I can't get enough of:

Cut up apple into slices, removing the core. Cut thin slices of brie cheese. Lay the brie on top of the sliced apple and drizzle with honey. At this point you can bake it (or nuke it, but I'd nuke it before putting on the honey) if you'd like it to be slightly warm and the cheese to be gorgeously runny, or you can eat it as is, nice and cold and crisp. Your call, but my only suggestion is that you should slice the brie when it's cold, you'll find the going is much easier. Also, if you're planning on making this for a party, squeeze a little lemon juice on the apple slices to keep them from turning brown. Oooh, you could also pile the goodness on top of some pre-toasted crostini for a little bit more crunch. Either way, it's a big hit, and I honestly can't imagine a better snack. So freakin' good.

As they have particular seasons, not every apple at Edward's Orchard is available for picking at the same time. So, if you're looking to pick a certain variety give the nice folks at the orchard a call (815.765.2234) to find out the pick of the day. They also have blackberry and raspberry bushes you can pick yourself too. YUM!!!

P.S. I planned to take a picture of the snack I made, but I ate it too fast...sorry...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sneaky Sneaky

I didn't see it coming.

It snuck up on me, creeping in with ninja-esque skill. Last time I checked I hadn't quite decided, but now I am sure. This jedi-mind trick quietly changed my subconscious before leaking slowly into regular consciousness.

I don't think I can tell you exactly when it happened. One minute I have my night all planned out, and the next...I'm autotuning Bitchin' Kitchen.

Yeah. I know. If you are a fan of this blog, you will remember that I had touched on this subject before (Not Sure How I Feel About That...). Tonight, I actually scoured the program guide specifically for Bitchin' Kitchen.

Yes, it totally weirded me out at first, and I still think that sometimes it sounds like Nadia is trying to talk around a brick in her throat. But for some reason, this has become one of the most entertaining food shows on TV today.

While I am terrified of putting this in writing because I fear this will come back to haunt me someday...I will say that I am currently enjoying this show more than Good Eats.

Wait, do you hear that? Must be the sound of hell freezing over.

We all know of my ridiculous crush on Alton Brown, but the trouble is...he's not as entertaining as he was when he was still, you know...fluffy.

Anyway, I said currently, because CURRENTLY, I am enjoying B.K. more. AB's shows just don't have that Monty Pythonish humor that I so adored when I first began watching him. If you look at my favorite tv chef personalities, they are mostly people who haven't changed styles over the years. Take Jamie Oliver. His show has been earthy and rustic from the get go. Something I absolutely loved about him. No fussing around, just great simple stuff. But Alton...I'm beginning to fear that all the weight you lost was in that brilliant brain of yours...

So, Nadia is sorta filling in that need for now. Her ridiculous sets, psychotic cast of characters, questionable wardrobe choices (like some of her shoes...o.m.g), and her break-the-mold approach to a cooking show, she's got something going on. Not sure that I can put my finger on what it is, but I like it. Don't get me wrong, I am still holding out hope that Alton will pack on a few pounds and return to being that lovable dork complete with puppets, quick dry humor and visual aids that made me swoon my swooners off. He better get off this tangent he's on quickly, because Nadia is a chick, and frankly, this is weirding me out.

If you haven't watched her show yet, give her a gander. She's on most nights at 9:00 central. I haven't tried her recipes yet, but dadgummit, sometimes I just want to be entertained! Sheesh!

(Side story, I love my blog's spellcheck. I went with "dadgummit" because I wanted to tone down the swearing, but it doesn't like the spelling. So I right click to check how it wanted me to spell it, and it came up with "dammit". So, I laughed to my literary self, knowing that truthfully there is no escape from swearing, as in the effort to not swear, I found it important enough to tell this little anecdote which involved me putting the swear in anyway. Insert heavy sigh.)

Check out Bitchin' Kitchen on Cooking Channel!

Thanks to for the picture of Nadia and the voodoo doll. I think this sums her up, don't you?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

I Heart Bees

Yep. Bees.

That's all. What? Yes, bees! It's not enough to just love bees because they're awesome? There has to be some reason I'm writing this blog other than the fact that I just love them? Oh, you want an explanation? Ok, fine, I'll give you an explanation:

Let's start with facts, shall we?

1. The U.S Forest Service Website ( states that "bees, beetles, and butterflies POLLINATE our gardens and crops, making possible such foods as chocolate, nuts, and most fruits."

2. "Almost 80% of the 1,400 crop plants grown around the world that produce all of our food and plant-based industrial products require pollination by animals." (

3. Flowering plants provide oxygen, and help to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ( No pollination, no flowering plants, no oxygen. 

4. "Today 1,000 of the 1,330 plants grown for food, beverages, fibers, condiments, [spices], and medicines depend on pollinators to help them reproduce and develop healthy, viable seeds and fruits" (

5. More than 150 food crops in the U.S. depend on pollinators, including almost all fruit and grain crops (

Should I keep going? Fine!

6. "The abundance of four common species of bumblebee in the US has dropped by 96% in just the past few decades, according to the most comprehensive national census of the insects." (

7. "Factors which could contribute to declines include: improper use of pesticides and herbicides; habitat fragmentation, loss, and degradation causing a reduction of food sources and sites for mating, nesting, roosting, and migration; aggressive competition from non-native species; disease, predators, and parasites; climate change; and lack of floral diversity." (

8. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about one-third of the human diet is derived from insect-pollinated plants and that the honey bee is responsible for 80 percent of this pollination." (

9. When two different species coexist in a mutually beneficial way (such as plants providing fruits that give animals vitamins in exchange for an animal brushing up against it, gathering pollen, and transferring it to another plant to fertilize), this is called mutualism. This harmonized relationship has existed for centuries, and is one we should be nurturing.

10. Honey helps burns heal faster, helps suppress a cough from that cold that just won't go away, local honey has been proven to help with local allergies, and "Manuka honey is surprisingly adept at killing the [Methicillin-resistant Staph aureus] bug." (

So why am I pointing them out? Because they aren't doing so hot. Several of the factors listed in 7. are causing bees to die out in rapid fashion. This is bad news Bears. Can you imaging what would happen to the U.S. food crops without a strong pollinator like bees? What about the Staph bug running amok in major cities? Not. Cool.

I love them. And you should too if you know what's good for ya. Whether it's related to our food supply, fighting disease, or just plain enjoying the honey they produce, bees are as important to our ecosystem as oxygen.

So the next time you decide to spray Raid into the nearest hive or call a pest control specialist, contact your local beekeeper and ask whether or not these bees are essential to our ecosystem.

Charlie Wenk and Clyde Eggett are local beekeepers in the Chicago suburbs. Charlie harvests honey from his back yard and from several locations in the suburbs, and knows a thing or two about the benefits of bees. He is friends with my parents and has told them whenever they need help with bees he'd come out and give it a gander. Get yourself a Charlie or a Clyde to help you figure out whether or not your little buzzer buddies are friends or foes before you decide to run them out.

For more about Charlie and Clyde, check out this article from
Check out this list of beekeepers in Illinois: Illinois beekeepers

Or if you REALLY want to make a difference:
Get acquainted with the folks over at 2 Let It Bee, the Honey Bee Revitalization Project. This has got to be one of the coolest things I've ever seen. If you have extra land that you're not doing much with, contact these guys. They will use your land to play host to some honey bees. It's a small way to help do your part in revitalizing the worrisome drop of the bee population.


"Sensitive to Bees" - Marzipan

Thanks to and for the bee pictures! Thanks to for the walnut photo. Thanks to for the spice shot. And thanks to for the gorgeous honey shot! Grazie mille!