Saturday, February 19, 2011

Feta Mac and Cheese with Olives and Artichoke Hearts

My roots are in the Middle East so Feta cheese and Kalamata olives have always done more than just tickle my tastebuds. They have satisfied some inner longing for a culture I've never experienced except in the kitchen. Pairing the earthiness of both these ingredients with macaroni just seems natural to me. I used penne to pay homage to the noodles used in Greek Pastichio.

Feta Mac and Cheese with Olives and Artichoke Hearts (Serves 8)


1 (1-pound) box penne pasta

2 cup 2% milk

1/3 cup all purpose flour

4 tablespoons butter

4 to 7 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon pepper

4 ounces Neufchatel cheese

8 ounces (1 1/3 cups) Wisconsin feta cheese, crumbled

1 medium onion, diced

1/2 red bell pepper, diced

24 Kalamata olives, rinsed and sliced

1 - 15 ounce can artichoke hearts in water, drained and quartered


Feta cheese and Kalamata olives both have a tendency to be salty. So it’s important that you taste your ingredients before you start this recipe. I call for rinsing the olives. This will take away some of the salt.

You can also temper the amount of salt in the feta by soaking it in milk overnight, then discarding the milk.

Heat the oven to 400°F. Cook pasta according to directions on the box. While the pasta is boiling prepare the white sauce.

Pour cold milk into a two-quart saucepan over low heat. Immediately stir in the flour until it disappears. Adding the flour into the still cold milk makes sure it won’t form lumps.

Add the butter and stir until it melts.

I like to use a silicone spatula so I can make sure the sauce doesn’t get scorched on the bottom of the pan.

Now add the garlic.

When I described this recipe to my friend at the local Greek deli, she told me “Use lots of garlic!”

I’m calling for 4 to 7 cloves. It all depends on just how much you love that tasty allium.

Add the oregano and pepper.

Add the Neufchatel and Feta to the sauce. Stir constantly until the Neufchatel is melted. The Feta will stay a bit lumpy.

Drain the pasta. Butter the casserole dish.

Pour the cheese sauce into the pasta.

Add the red pepper, olives and artichoke hearts. Mix well.

Pour the mixture into the buttered casserole.

Feta has a tendency to be dry, so bake the casserole covered for 40-45 minutes or until the edges of the pasta starts to brown.

We wrapped the finished casserole in a thick towel and trundled it off to our friends' football play-off party.

It was a big hit. We got the casserole dish back licked clean!

Find this and other fabulous mac and cheese recipes at 30 Days 30 Ways Mac and Cheese sponsored by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Less salt in Campbell's Healthy Kids Soup

Part of what I cover in my 4th and 5th grade cooking classes is how to read the Nutrition Facts on food labels and boxes. As an introduction to why cooking from scratch is so important, I hand out various types of prepackaged chicken noodle soups from ramen through condensed soups to ready-to-eat designer canned soups and organic chicken stocks.

I pass the cans, packets and boxes out, then ask the students to locate the white rectangle containing the Nutrition Facts. We talk about the different categories and calories. And then I zero in on sodium. Sodium, I explain is one of the components of salt, AKA sodium chloride.

We need salt in our diet. Salt helps animate our muscles. When we cry we can taste the salt in our tears (the kids all nod) and when we sweat we also lose salt. I tell them the next time they break a sweat in gym, to taste their forearms. They will be salty. That's why the Army gives soldiers salt pills when they work in extreme heat.

So if salt is so necessary, why should we be concerned about how much is in our food? I ask how many kids have parents or grandparents with high blood pressure. Lots of hands shoot up. I explain that high blood pressure is related to risk for heart attack and stroke. Eyes get wide.

Then we focus in on the students themselves. Kids their age should have a maximum of 2 grams of sodium in their daily diet. We do a little math and that comes to 2000 mg.

Then I hold up a ramen packet and ask how many kids eat ramen. Almost all the hands shoot up. I raise mine too. I confess, I eat ramen occasionally. I hand the packet to the nearest student and ask them to read the sodium content. They're usually shocked to find out the some ramens have up to 750 mg per serving. That's almost half a day's worth of salt.

Then I get to the scary part. I ask who eats the whole packet when they make ramen. There are a few kids who say they share with a sibling but most eat the whole thing themselves. I ask the student holding the packet to read how many servings each packet contains.

Each packet contains two servings, so we have to double the number. Someone usually blurts out, "That's 1500 milligrams!" Yes, 1500 mg of sodium in one snack. Whoa! They all react strongly.

I tell them that 1500 mg sodium is okay but doesn't leave much room for the other sources of sodium throughout the day like the salt on fries, Cheetos, taco chips or all the other hidden salt in canned and processed food, even some canned drinks.

Then we move on to the 5 other varieties or brands of soup. I've found that, the cheaper the soup, the more sodium it contains.

That means that people with the lowest income are more likely to choose the least expensive soup to make their food dollars stretch. In doing so, they are exposed to more sodium than people in higher income brackets who can afford to choose more expensive soups. The long term health and health care implications are pretty clear.

So I was pleasantly surprised the last time I went soup hunting with the Nutrition Facts lesson in mind.

Campbell's Healthy Kids Chicken NoodleO's contained only 480 mg of sodium per serving as compared to Campbell's Homestyle Chicken Noodle Soup at 650 mg of sodium per serving at a comparable price. That's a move in the right direction.

The kids seemed to appreciate that Campbell's was looking out for them. I appreciate that Campbell's is listening to the increasing loud voices of consumers.

Teachers, please feel free to duplicate my sodium in soup demonstration in your science or math class. And let me know how your students reacted to the lesson.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Introducing High School Students to the Wonder of Winter Squash

Meghan Gibbons, head of Nutrition Services, at Evanston Township High School invited Spatulatta to take part in the school's week long "Move and Crunch" campaign. Each day of the week would involve tastings prepared with specific vegetables in the school's four cafeterias. Each cafeteria would have its own chef offering samples made with the day's secret ingredient.

I enlisted the help of Janet Weinberg, who trained at Kendall College's culinary program and has appeared frequently on Spatulatta. Our secret ingredient was butternut squash.

We chose the Harvest Soup recipe from the Spatulatta Cookbook because it would be easy for the students to replicate at home. I decided to kick it up a notch by adding a touch of maple syrup. I've been proofing whole wheat pastry recipes and found that pure maple syrup really adds a complex set of flavors. So why not add it to the soup? I made a batch the week before and the hint of maple was exactly right.

Entering the high school's industrial kitchen was really a trip. We were surrounded by huge cauldrons and massive ovens. This was a big step up from cooking for the Spatulatta videos or even cooking demos. When we found our station, we were confronted with two cases of butternut squash, a pile of onions and carrots.

Cooking along side us were personal Chef Service Chef Tom Leavitt and his wife Laurie from White Oak Gourmet. They were stirring up a savory butternut squash curry with yellow rice.

Later we were joined by Gonzo Fabar of Fox River Foods. Gonzo's offering was butternut squash ravioli with browned butter with crispy sage leaves dusted with cinnamon.

Butternut squash is extremely hard. It has evolved to keep its seeds safe through the long hard winter. Cutting these nearly impregnable curcurbits involved all the force I could apply to the knife. Peeling was equally interesting. Afterwards, I found I had a thin veneer of orange squash starch covering my left hand. I couldn't wash it off. Even a scrub brush didn't make a dent. Two days later, I am still peeling it off.

Here's the recipe. It comes together in about 10 minutes with 40 minutes cooking time.

Saute in a heavy bottomed pan:

3 tablespoons of olive oil
1/2 cup of chopped onions


1 medium butternut squash - cubed
1 large carrot - in 1 inch chunks
2 teaspoons of real maple syrup
1 teaspoon of dried rosemary
1 quart of chicken or vegetable stock

Bring to a boil then simmer until squash and carrots are tender.

Use a slotted spoon to lift the vegetables out of the soup and into a food processor.

Process until smooth. Return pure├ęd vegetables to the soup and mix.

Serve immediate with chopped smoked almonds as garnish.

I was impressed with the ETHS students. The majority of them came right over to take a taste. It was Thursday and they had been doing the drill all week but it still was encouraging. A few had to be cajoled with breaking down the ingredients. Janet would say, "You like carrots don't you? Do you like maple syrup?" The overwhelming majority really liked the soup. While we had a few kids slinking away without comment, we also had students coming up for seconds and a couple who came up for thirds.

We served tastes for the three lunch periods starting at 11 am and going to 1 pm. Isabella Gerasole, one of the hosts of Spatulatta, goes to ETHS and she has the last lunch period. Belle joined us at the table and started filling up tasting cups. One of her friends had never heard of the Spatulatta Cookbook so she was quite surprised to see a younger Belle on the cover. "How cool!"

I did keep an eye on what else was on the student's trays. Lots of nachos with gloppy cheese, spaghetti with red sauce. It's going to take a long time to rework the system but I'm proud that Evanston is taking steps in the right direction.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Micro-crafted Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer

Friends recently brought me a real treat from their trip to Pittsburgh - a bottle of Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer. Jamaica's Finest is produced by the Natrona Bottling Company in Natrona PA.

Natrona Bottling has been around since 1904 and Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer is one of their legacy brands along with Red Ribbon root beer, cherry and grape sodas. They also bottle Bauser Champayno, a non-alcoholic champagne-like beverage and Pennsylvania Punch, a non-carbonated grape-flavored soft-drink that was first formulated during the Roaring 20's.

Small, family-run bottlers like Natrona have been steam-rollered as the major bottlers have gobbled up their customer base. The last micro-crafted soda bottler in Chicago, that I can remember, was located on Sheffield Avenue just north of Fullerton. I got to visit it once before it fell victim to gentrification in 1990s.

So it's great to see a small scale bottler like Natrona still alive and kicking. You can watch Natrona's famous Red Ribbon Soda being bottled in this clip from WQED.

Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer is made from a 70-year old, tried and true recipe: carbonated water, ginger and other natural essential oils, citric acid and pure cane sugar. No long unpronounceable names, no mystery ingredients. The folks at Natrona are proud to say they use pure cane sugar, rather than much cheaper high fructose corn syrups like other soda manufacturers.

Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer has a crisp, gingery bite that lingers on the tongue. It awakens the taste buds and the cane sugar gives it a very satisfying, clean finish. The label says Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer is a "Spicy Soft Drink and Mixer." I became very interested in the "mixer" application of the product.

At the 2006 James Beard Awards, we were treated to a cocktail made with ginger beer and rum that I'd always wanted to reproduce.

Here's my experiment:

Fill a tall glass with ice. Pour in 1/2 once of "overproof" rum. Overproof means the rum has a alcohol content of more than 40%. A whole jigger of that potent rum would overpower the ginger flavor. Pour in the Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer. Thread two soft crystallized ginger coins onto a straw and give it a stir.

The original recipe included cayenne pepper but the Jamaica's Finest was spicy enough and didn't need the added kick.

I can't wait to try Natrona's Plantation Style Mint Julep with a shot of bourbon.

You can support Natrona's artisan soda makers by asking for Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer at your local liquor store or specialty grocery. Or call the folks at Natrona at 724-224-9224. They will ship you a 12 pack.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Eating Cleaner Fruit, Veggies and Meat

With the recent lettuce scare and new research that links ADHS in kids to pesticide ingestion, we all might want to take another look at what we're ingesting along with our food.

I recently met Mareya Ibrahim at a conference. Mareya's daughter is a fan of Spatulatta and heard that one of our hosts, Olivia Gerasole had allergies and asthma.

Mareya was kind enough to send a starter kit of Eat Cleaner products for all of us to try with the hope that it might alleviate Livvy's symptoms.

The box contained several Eat Cleaner Fruit and Vegetable wipes, Eat Cleaner Fruit and Vegetable Wash and Eat Cleaner Seafood and Poultry Wash.

Apples are the most pesticide laden fruit. Pesticide-free apples are more likely than not to be dimpled with bug bites. So to produce a nice, smooth skinned fruit, apples are sprayed repeated as they mature.

I love to crunch a crisp apple skin and I'll be the first to admit that more likely than not, I give apples a cursory rinse under cold running water before chomping down. That probably doesn't do a thing to unlock the pesticides caught in the wax on your average store-bought apple.

So I was happy to try out the Eat Cleaner Fruit and Vegetable wipes. Individually packaged, I used the wipe on a Gala apple from my refrigerator and found I could actually feel the difference. The waxy layer was gone. The ingredient list is all natural so you can eat the fruit immediately after using the wipe, which makes it great for lunch boxes. I could smell the tiniest trace of the mixture on the fruit with my first bite though it did not add any flavor.

The Seafood and Poultry Wash comes in an easy to use spray bottle. I sprayed skinless chicken breasts, waited and then ran them under water. The wash immediately took away the slimy feeling that I associate with raw chicken. I couldn't help thinking about all the bacteria on skin and flesh that meat products can pick during the packaging process. Here was a way to make sure that all that was rinsed down the drain leaving no favor or aroma.

Next, I tried the Fruit and Vegetable Wash on broccoli and lettuce, spraying them then waiting a minute before rinsing. There wasn't any noticeable difference to report, though I felt, based on how the other two products worked, that any pesticides were loosened by the wash and rinsed away. And there's also the reality of how many sets of hands our vegetables pass through on the way to our kitchens. This is especially important to consider when it's vegetables like lettuce that we eat raw.

It is sobering to think that because my budget doesn't always allow me to purchase organically grown fruits and veggies, I may be getting multiple servings of pesticides in my daily diet. Eat Cleaner at around $4 per bottle on-line at is a very cost effective alternative for me.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Angel Food Cheese, Garlic Rings and Tomato Mountains

My dear friend Rachel was working the Custer Street Fair in Evanston the other day. Rachel does the farmer's markets all over the Chicago metro area, selling Tomato Mountain Farm organic products. Unfortunately, Evanston isn't her territory. So I walked down to see her at the booth.

When I got there Rachel was handing out mini-cups of Tomato Mountain Bloody Mary Mix, sans vodka of course. I watched with glee as a mother and her 14-year old son gave it a try. Rachel cautioned, "It's a little spicy." The kid was unimpressed with the amount of capucin in the mix, "that's not hot at all!"

Tomato Mountain products are all organic and come in good old fashion recyclable jars. My favorite is the Tomato Mountain Tomato and Shallot soup. The consistency is great and the flavor is lovingly roasted shallot wrapped around big tomato.

The Tomato Mountain booth was located in the "Eco-Village," sponsored by Whole Foods. Then neighboring booths housed a wind generator company and The Enterprising Kitchen - where I bought a fragrant bar for Orchard Pear soap, autographed by the woman who made it, Chauna.

Suddenly, there was a fanfare and everyone stepped aside for the Custer Street Fair paraders. First came Custer himself, or at least a huge-headed puppet version, with bright yellow yarn hair. Custer was flanked by men dressed in blue Union uniforms. Next came a couple of corseted ladies in period dresses, sporting bonnets (Talk about dedication to cause. It was 90 degrees!), a magician, a juggler and a number of other fanciful characters.

The fair was started in 1972, on a single block of Custer Street south of Main. It has now spread out onto Main, from Sherman on the West to Chicago Avenue on the East, then South along Chicago Ave. for two blocks to Washington. The best spots for vendors are under the "L" because it's cool if it's hot, and dry if it's rainy.

After the event, Rachel packed up her tent and came to our house for dinner. She brought with her two insanely yummy things - a round of Prairie Fruits Farm's Angel Food Farmstead Goat Cheese and a Red Hen Bread's Garlic Ring. Oh, were they worth the calories!

The cheese isn't called Angel Food for nothing. It spread out over the bread like chiffon. Sinking my teeth into the bread, I would find pockets of sweet, carmelized garlic. I'm so glad that Red Hen Bread doesn't have a location in Evanston, Lincoln Park is close enough. I'll have to trot down to the Green City Market because writing this has started me fantasizing about a repeat engagement for my tastebuds!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

10,000 Steps

For 12 weeks I've been part of the City of Evanston's Women Out Walking Program. Twelve-hundred women pledged to change their exercise routines. My goal was 10,000 steps a day, the minimum number of steps one needs to stay healthy.

During the course of the WOW program I only made that goal 6 times. Pathetic, I know. One time I actually started running up and down the stairs in the house at 9:30 PM because I was just shy of my goal by 400 steps.

Sunday was the last day of the program which included seminars on healthy eating, introductions to tai chi and incentives for walkers to upped their steps by 10% each week.

So now it's week 13 and I need to go it on my own.

I usually wake up around 5:30 AM in the summer. Up until 2 years ago, I used to get up and walk or bike first thing in the morning. I switched my routine so I could write while the house was still quiet or clean while no one was underfoot.

Somehow I'd never find the time to walk. Once the day got started I'd be glued to my chair in front of the computer. Net effect? I gained 25 pounds and I had to go on statins.

Throughout the whole WOW program, I was struggling to get over 5,000 steps a day. One time racking up only 3,445 when I had a deadline.

This morning I decided I would switch the routine because the weatherman says today is going to be sweltering after the rain and the warm front moved in over night. So I had a cup of tea and put my walking shoes on.

I started by walking to the post box, then up the street through downtown Evanston, then turned toward the lake. I said hello to construction workers and commiserated about the rising humidity. A dog walker and I exchanged some observations about a baby bunny who was hiding under the viaduct. Before I knew it, I was at the park and joined in with the other walkers and runners.

I watched one woman move from a walk to a trot as runners past her by, as if she was being pulled along in their slip stream. I used to do that, giving my walking routine a little boost. There was also another woman who passed me. She probably outweighed me by 60 pounds and I could see the effort it took to carry that extra weight at a jog. But she was undaunted. I wanted to yell, "You go, girl," but I didn't want her to think I was mocking rather than encouraging her.

All in all it was a relaxed and fulfilling time. I thought. I planned. Then I stopped thinking and planning and just enjoyed the morning. It was kind of like meditation. It took awhile for the chatter in my head to die down but when it did my mood became expansive.

When I got back home I realized we had no milk. So I got my granny cart and hustled over to the local Whole Foods. When the milk was safely in the refrigerator, I finally checked the pedometer. 10,145 steps before 8 AM!

Switching the schedule was all that I needed. The added bonus, if you can call it that, is I'll have to wash the floors tonight, instead of parking myself on the couch to watch TV.

My take away? Exercise first thing in the morning. But don't just get it out of the way. Breath in and enjoy every moment.