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.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Cooking with 4th Graders

It's been my privilege to be the Culinary Artist-in-Residence at a local elementary school for the past few weeks. It's the first time the school has tried a program like this.

Each week I would teach an hour of cooking to 4 fourth grade classes of about 20 students each. It was a little scary at first to think I'd be walking into a room full of 9- and 10-year olds who I had no time to get to know and handing them sharp knives and giving them control of hot pots.

Luckily, the first class was actually not cooking but putting in a kitchen garden at school. While most of the class was arranging arugula, spinach, kale and chard seedlings in a grid we'd plotted out, I enlisted the aid of two students to take surveys.

One survey was about their skills in the kitchen, how often they cooked with their families and how often the family sat down to eat together. The second survey was which vegetables they recognized and which they would actually eat.

I was pleasantly surprised by the survey results. Unlike Jamie Oliver's experience, all of the kids knew their vegetables and an amazing number said they actually loved some of the more "challenging" vegetables.

Ninety percent of the students said they knew how to handle peelers, graters and knives. There were of course a few kids who only sat down to eat with their families at holidays but for most cooking and eating together happened at least 3 times a week.

I still had trepidations about the first day of cooking in the classroom. In the five years of producing, shooting and behind the scenes guiding the recipes for Spatulatta I have never soloed in the kitchen with such and overwhelming child to adult ratio.

The first challenge was using the observations I'd made while putting in the garden to pick out the students who had the eye-hand coordination and concentration to get us through the first recipe - Italian Wedding Soup with homemade chicken fennel meatballs and arugula salad with dried cranberries and almonds.

One teacher commented that I had chosen well, picking the natural leader in the group to man the heating unit and putting the least coordinated boys making salads. This was all done on the fly while confronted by a sea of raised hands and a chorus of voices going "Me! Me!" I was going on instincts because there was no time to think.

I was so relieved when we got the first class got the soup and salad to the table. Although the arugula was a challenging flavor that some of the students had never had, they gave it a try because it was something they had planted in their garden.

We had one girl say that the whole grain bread tasted disgusting which prompted a discussion about how one should comment on cooking. I actually didn't start the discussion. One of the other students told her it wasn't nice to say the bread was disgusting because someone had baked that bread and it was disrespectful because of their hard work.

Wow! What a teaching moment. I jumped in and offered alternatives. You could say "it's not to my taste," or "It's not my favorite thing." Some of the other girls chimed in with other, kinder ways to express one's distaste. Later as the students were lining up to change classes I heard the girl telling her friends that she didn't find the bread to her taste.

The next week's menu was more to her taste. We made Fettuccini Alfredo with diced sweet red pepper and spinach from the garden.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Smoked Salmon and Dill Macaroni and Cheese

Cedar Grove Smoked Salmon and Dill Macaroni and Cheese

Yields 6-8 servings

I first met Bob Wills from Cedar Grove while working on the documentary “Living on the Wedge: Wisconsin’s Artisan Cheesemakers.” I bumped into Bob at the Splash! Great Lakes Water Conservation Conference reception in November and had a chance to try the new addition to the Cedar Grove line: Artisan Cheddar with Smoke Salmon and Dill.

It inspired me to create this “adult” version of Mac and Cheese for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing's 30 Days 30 Ways Macaroni and Cheese initiative. It's quick but very elegant. The chunks of smoked salmon and minced dill in the cheese give you a head start in the flavor department. This Mac and Cheese makes a great weekend main dish accompanied by a dark green salad and a glass of Prosecco. (See the wine pairing notes below.)

This dish will make everyone think you’ve been slaving away in the kitchen for hours, when it really came together in less than 20 minutes from draining the pasta to putting in the casserole into the oven.


A dash of salt

A drizzle of olive oil

1 pound Campanelle* or other macaroni

1 pound (16 ounces) Wisconsin Cedar Grove Smoked Salmon & Dill Cheddar

3 tablespoons butter

1 1/2 tablespoon flour

1 1/2 cups milk

2 cloves garlic, finely diced

1/8 teaspoon of cayenne pepper

1/2 cup of moist sun-dried tomatoes**, cut into 1/4-inch pieces

Fresh parsley for garnish


Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add salt and olive oil. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Add the pasta to the boiling, salted water. Campanelle are little bell shapes that usually take 10-11 minutes to cook. Check package directions.

While the pasta cooks, cube the cheese and cut the sun-dried tomatoes into 1/4 inch bits.

When the pasta is ready, drain it and set aside in a different bowl. Using the same pan melt the butter over medium-low heat.

Briskly whisk in the flour and make a quick blonde roux. Keep the roux moving as the flour toasts: about 5 minutes.

Stir in the milk, garlic, and cayenne into the roux. Simmer on low.

Next, add the Cedar Grove Smoked Salmon and Dill Cheddar to the sauce and allow it to melt.

Stir often, don’t allow the sauce to stick.

Add the sun-dried tomatoes to the sauce and stir well.

Meanwhile, butter a 9 by 13 inch casserole dish.*** Add the drained pasta to the dish. Pour the sauce over the pasta. Toss gently.

Bake for 20 minutes. Switch the oven to broil for the last 5 minutes to brown the top.

Garnish with fresh parsley and serve with a dark green salad.

*I used Barilla Campanelle because it has a texture that is close to handmade pasta.

** I used Tuchten Moist Sun-dried Tomatoes because they are so meaty and don't need to be soaked.

*** I used two round baking dishes because they photograph better.

Wine Pairing Notes by Damien from Candid Wines:

“Maybe its the time of year, or maybe its the richness of the dish, but your recipe screams out for bubbles. Well made prosecco, with good acidity and bright fruit will complement the dish without breaking the bank, and for a comfort-food meal, I think that is important.

We work with the Spinazze family who make Santome extra dry Prosecco from 100% prosecco grapes that would be perfect. With a touch less heat, you could also use a Brut rose. The richness of the cheese needs some acidity and the smoked salmon will likely disagree with tannins of a dry red, but pink is perfect.

If you can't find a pink sparkler that works, look to a dry rose. The key with Rose to me is often finding a winemaker who loves pink wine as opposed to a wine made as a brand. in our lineup, Fred Scherrer and Joey Tensley are two such wine makers. In wine, as in food, it pays to know your producers!

At the same time salmon and cheddar make me think of red fruits so why not use a sparkling pink wine? I would let the amount of heat dictate the sweetness in the wine; the more peppers used, the more residual sugar I'd look for.”

Monday, January 25, 2010

On Men and Culture

I didn't grow up in the Armenian Orthodox Church but my friend Gary and his wife Sona have opened their arms to me and made me welcome into the community. You may not think that's such a big thing. Christian churches are supposed to be welcoming to new members. But I'm ges-hye, only half Armenian.

Remember Cher's big hit "Half Breed"? She wasn't singing about being half Native American. She was signing about being half Armenian.

The Armenians, like the Japanese and Amish, have been, by necessity, are an insular culture. Like the Jews, they have been scattered to the far corners of the earth. Holding onto cultural identity has been key to the Armenians survival. And marrying outside any ethnic group is definitely the way to dilute culture.

What holds a culture together?

I often say that food is the last thing that disappears in a culture. The first thing is dress, for sure. I hate to think there may be a day when everyone on the face of the earth will be wearing dull-colored, baggy workout clothes and Nike shower slippers on the street.

Yesterday, I witnessed a big part of what holds the Armenian culture together, the church. Armenians pride themselves as the first country that converted as a whole to Christianity. They say their Bible is the "Queen of Translations."

So the 65th anniversary of St. James Armenian Church paired with the ordination of sub-deacons was a big event. Sona and Gary's son Nicky was one of the three young men being ordained so I had to go.

The ceremony began with a service that looks very much like a Catholic high mass. Lots of candles and incense burning. The choir signing. This is something I could relate to being brought up Catholic.

Gary and Sona's 9-year old son, dressed in a sharp suit, assumed the role of usher, helping people find empty seats. And the church was packed.

When the ordination began, one of the young men was taken to the back of the church. Surrounded by the bishop, the pastor, the several deacons and sub-deacons, he knelt down. We were told that he would be tonsured to show his submission to the church.

Tonsured monks have a circle about 3 inches in diameter shaved on the crown of their heads. A woman behind me, obviously a non-church goer like myself, gasped and said, "Are they really going to cut his hair?" She voiced my thoughts exactly.

Scissors were produced and a tiny bit of hair was cut. The young man then walked forward on his knees about 6 feet and was given a whisk broom. We were all told that this signified that he was now worthy of sweeping out the church.

He walked forward another six feet. This time he was given a candlestick to signify that he was worthy of lighting the candles on the alter. He proceeded forward being stopped again and again to accept the symbols of his new station in the church.

I looked around at the others watching the ceremony. The elders, the middle-aged, the parents with babies in their arms, the young marrieds, the teenagers. All of us focused on this young man. All of us bearing witness to the threshold he was crossing over. All of us recognizing his new status in the community.

After the ordination, the Sunday School students entered the church holding candles, sometimes rather precariously. They approached the altar for a special requiem ceremony to honor those "who have gone before us to their eternal rest."

Here was the whole of the church's history laid out before me. From birth to death and beyond we were all included. We were all part of the fabric of this life.

And what stood out for me was the men in the gathering. I usually am so woman-centric but this time I focused on the men. Here on the altar were men I knew, men I had joked with, men who just a few short years ago were boys.

I thought about how the church had been supported for nearly 2 thousand years by the men like these and how important it was to have a new generation of men be invited, generation after generation to take up responsibilities, to make vows to the community.

Men are early adopters of alien culture. Men switch from sarongs to blue jeans first. In Tanzania, they will wear traditional garb plus a Yankees baseball cap. In a very short time, as men emulate a more profitable or invading culture, essential things get lost.

How does a culture keep their men hooked in?

What I saw in that church definitely said it's not just role-models, but being included, inducted into the group.

It works for the military. It works for street gangs. It works for terrorist organizations.

The challenge is providing a positive structure for young men. Because the way young men go the rest of us follow. That's why television programmers are so desperate to attract that group.

And so I am going to follow. I'm going to follow the young man with the tonsured hair. Witnessing his induction as sub-deacon of the church, I became closer to the community. I've been dancing on the edge of this culture all my life.

It's time to take a step into the circle.