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Awake at the Whisk: September 2010

Thursday, September 30, 2010


October Unprocessed

Unprocessed October. Image found here.

Put down that donut! Hands off that frozen entrée! For the month of October, we’re unplugging from the wide world of processed foods here at Awake at the Whisk and beyond.

Why unprocessed?
The evidence is piling up: fresh food is good for you. Who knew?! We Americans are doing everything we can to avoid tainted peanut butter and Mad Cow disease. We’ve become vegetarian. We’ve turned locavore. We’re planting gardens. We’re cooking in our own homes. But you and I both know that when the craving for a big scoop of luscious ice creams calls us, we cave.

Try and try as we might, we’re imperfect in our quest to unplug from the food system as we know it. Whether we’re overworked and rely on the occasional frozen dinner to feed our families, or we just can’t kick the sweet tooth, we’re hooked! Nobody’s perfect.

And frankly, no one should have to be. This isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. We all eat the occasional bowl of proverbial Fruity Pebbles.

Yet, sometimes it requires a grand leap to become aware. When we hyper-focus on an issue, we learn a lot. For instance, there has been a lot of talk lately about the influx of vegetarians starting to eat sustainable meats. Folks think this is odd, but it actually makes perfect sense. No one thinks about meat more than someone who makes the conscious choice every day to eliminate it. Meat is everywhere. You must be very educated about meat in order to avoid eating it.

Well, I wonder what will happen when we hyper-focus on processed foods. How often do we blindly select the best-marketed box of granola bars from the grocery store shelf? The package says “natural,” or “organic,” or “sugar free,” or “whole grain.” We assume we’re participating fully in our diets. But it’s not until you force yourself to turn that package over and scan the small print religiously for forbidden ingredients that you begin to wake up to all the strange stuff that’s been going into your body.

So, for one month, I’m asking you to turn the box over and read the fine print. If you’re craving ice cream, I double dog dare you to try to find the brand at your local supermarket that doesn’t contain corn syrup. It ain’t easy.

We’re in this together, and we’ll learn a lot as we go. I hope you’re as excited about the experiment as I am. I always love a good challenge!

Defining “Unprocessed”
The word “unprocessed” is a loaded term. Since I don’t have a PhD in nutrition, and don’t want to bore my wonderful readers, I encourage every reader to decide for themselves what “unprocessed” looks like. I’m applying my own code of unprocessed, and you’re welcome to follow along.

Code of Unprocessed October:
1)      No corn syrup. Whether you’ve bought in to the industry’s attempts to rename this dietary villain “corn sugar” or not, Dr. Oz tells me it’s bad for me. So darn it, I’m going to listen.

2)      Reduce white flour. I’m a baker, and nearly every beloved recipe from my youth contains this bleached powdery stuff. But it is bleached with chlorine (yuck!); many folks have sensitivities to it; and the man-made vitamins they pump into it in an attempt to replace the ones they previously stripped out of it by over-processing it are ruining our planet. I love whole grains and try to bake with them often. Now, I’m embracing whole grains more than ever before. In fact, I might even try a gluten-free recipe this month.

3)      Ingredients lists I can pronounce and recognize. Enough said.

4)      Fresh food. I’m not even going so far as to say it must be local or must be organic (although, on this blog, you know it will be). But if it’s a fresh head of broccoli rather than a canned soup with broccoli-ness, you can be assured that there’s no added preservative or processing. Stick to clean, fresh food and you leave out the guesswork.

Armed with this short list, I’m off to experience how truly fresh-tasting life can be. I hope you’ll join me! Even if you select just one day this month to commit to eating processed-free, I think you’ll find your eyes widening as you become more fully awake at the whisk.

Credit for this healthful idea goes to Andrew over at Eating Rules. As someone who prides himself on being awake at the whisk, he tries to inspire others to eat nutritiously, too. Needless to say, we bonded. When he came up with the notion of asking the blogosphere to join him in a processed-free month, I gleefully pledged—along with more than 200 others. You can sign a pledge to commit to our experiment on his blog, Eating Rules.

I hope you’ll join us! See you in the produce aisle!—or at the farmers’ market (which is more likely). 

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Sunday, September 26, 2010


Baked Mexican Sopes with Fresh Corn Flour Recipe

Baked Mexican Sopes with Fresh Corn Flour Recipe

That bag of masa harina sat in my cupboard for months. Each time I opened the door I would reach right over the sack and grab instead the baking powder, the sugar, or the beans. But never the masa harina. I bought it with good intentions. I have always wanted to make my own tortillas or tamales. Yet every time I said I would do it, the laundry needed folding or the car needed a smog test. Eventually, I had to throw the bag out.

If you’re like me, and have a bag of unused masa harina, wait no more! Here’s an easy recipe that’s sure to get you baking with that wonderful, fresh corn flour. Once you try these sopes, you’ll return to them again and again. They taste of earthy corn sweetness and fall.

I discovered this recipe in a delightful new vegan cookbook called Viva Vegan by Terry Hope Romero. I love this book! It makes cooking popular Latin dishes seem easy, and for any vegetarian, puts a traditionally meat-heavy cuisine well within your grasp. If you like corn tortillas, you will love these homemade sopes.

Sopes are traditionally fried, but Viva Vegan offers a baked variation of the little corn tarts. There are only three ingredients: masa harina, water, and salt. You can’t mess it up! Shaping them is also easy, because they are meant to look rustic. No dough cutter required. You need only one tool: your hands.

Stuffing the sopes is equally simple. Choose your favorite Latin toppings, and throw them together. Make it as complicated or as simple as you want. I have stuffed mine with a minimal mixture of pinto beans, cheese, and hot sauce. I have also gone fancy by adding marinated onions and aioli to sautéed, fresh veggies.

Think of these tiny sopes as open-faced tacos. The sky is the limit here. Be creative. Have fun. And, finally, use up that bag of masa harina sitting in your cupboard! (Unless it’s no longer fresh. Then I really recommend throwing it out and buying a new one.)

Baked Mexican Sopes with Fresh Corn Flour Recipe (adapted from Viva Vegan)
1 1/2 cups masa harina
1 1/4 cups warm water
½ teaspoon salt

Mix the above ingredients together to form pliable dough. If it's too crumbly, add more water. If it's too moist, add more masa harina. Knead it for a few minutes until smooth, and then return to bowl and cover with a wet cloth.

To make the sope, pinch off the dough and form a ball about the size of a ping pong ball in the palm of your hand. Flatten it to about 1/4-inch thick and pinch the edges to form a little tart. Using a dry skillet (no oil) that's been heated over medium-high flame, place the sopes in the skillet and heat until they are browned on the bottom.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Once all your sopes are browned, place them in the oven on a baking sheet for about 10 minutes.

Or, if you’re in a hurry, you can skip the skillet step and place them in a 425 degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until they are firm to the touch.

Now you can fill them with anything your heart desires! You can cover your sopes with a dry towel to keep them warm as you are filling them. I recommend the following:

Sope Filling Recipe

Marinated Onions:
1 red onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
Juice of one lime
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar

In a small bowl, squeeze enough lime juice over the onion slices to cover. Stir in the salt and sugar. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour to marinate. These pretty onions will keep for two weeks in the fridge and can be made in advance.

Chili Pepper Aioli:
3 Tablespoons organic mayonnaise
1 teaspoon lime juice
1 teaspoon chili powder

Stir together mayonnaise, lime juice, and chili powder. Cover and set aside in the refrigerator. This will keep for a week in the fridge and can be made in advance.

Sautéed Zucchini & Cactus Garnish:
1 zucchini, diced into 1-inch cubes
1 Tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
3 Tablespoons pickled cactus, drained (optional)
1 generous handful cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
2 Tablespoons cilantro, chopped

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Lightly spray a baking sheet with olive oil. Spread the diced zucchini evenly on the sheet and place in the preheated oven for about 10-15 minutes, or until tender firm when poked with a fork. Remove from oven and sprinkle with chili powder and freshly ground black pepper. If you add salt to your food, you can sprinkle some on the zucchini.

Assembling the Sopes
Working with one sope at a time, spread about ½ teaspoon of the chili powder mayonnaise aioli onto the bottom of the sope. Next, pile in your veggies, using a few pieces each of the baked zucchini, cherry tomatoes, cactus, and marinated onions. Top with cilantro.

Yield: 8-10 sopes 

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale

Lagunitas Little Sumpin' Sumpin' Ale

Nothing goes together quite as swimmingly as summer and beer. They both just make you smile. I recently got a grin out of a limited release brew from Lagunitas called Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale. Sure, the name made me giggle, too. But after one sip, I was beaming ear to ear from the delicious flavor and that happy lull that only a good beer can make you feel.

Upon first glance, the beer invites you in: golden, hazy, bubbling joyfully, and lathered in mustache-yielding foam. When you tilt glass to nose, the hops waft up. Those delicious, bright, mouth-popping hops! Sturdy on the palette, this thirst-quenching ale dances and cajoles, finishing with a hoppy note of tomato vine and of summer.

This unique brew combines three kinds of wheat with “every hop that starts with the letter C,” according to the folks at Lagunitas. I’m no fan of wheat beers, but this one really strikes my fancy. I believe I have all those hops to thank for the upbeat impact of this beer on my taste buds.

This is a brew worth repeating. Yet, like summer, all good things must come to an end. I stumbled upon one of the last six-packs of this limited release ale available for the season. I sure hope Lagunitas revives this ale next summer. In the meantime, if you happen across any, let me know where it’s being sold. I’ll be eternally grateful.


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Monday, September 6, 2010


Seasonal Finds at Farmers Market: Pickles, Cactus, & Cutting Celery

Dill pickles, a new seasonal treat at the Sacramento market.

If you don’t slow down, you can miss a lot at the downtown Sacramento farmers market. It’s a bustling market where many hands often reach for the same ripe peach, and if you’re not careful, overflowing hand carts sometimes wheel over toes. Eager buyers thrust bulging plastic bags of produce at lone farmers, hoping theirs will be the first on the scale to be weighed. Yet, below the hum of hands and traffic, row upon row of glorious produce awaits in strips of orange, clusters of pale green, and bursts of shining purple. It calls.

For those patient shoppers willing to watch and listen, this week’s market offered a wealth of new harvests. Pickles, cactus, and cutting celery were among them.

The pickles cried out the loudest, “Pick me! Pick me!” Glashoff Farms put on quite the country display to showcase these crisp, juicy, dill and garlic spears, complete with hand painted signage and chubby, round single deli-style pickles for only $1.

Cutting celery from Woodsong Herbs
The cutting celery stood at attention under signs that shouted, “New! New! New!” A keen gardener’s eye could spot these leafy friends from across the aisle. They waved in invitation with the wind. It’s been a while since the last taste of celery died away under the warmth of spring. This cool-season vegetable is a reminder of fall’s approaching arrival. “Welcome back,” I think as I cup the peat pot gently in my hands and bring the baby plant to eye level in admiration. For $2, I take it home with me to plant in the garden. I’ll buy another one in a few weeks (Woodsong Herbs will have them through the end of the month) and stagger my planting.

Satiety Vineyards cactus, or nopales
Tucked quietly in the corner at Satiety Vineyards stand, an older man peels spikes from cactus paddles with his knife. At $1 for two paddles, these crisp, sticky paddles will add tang and nutrition to Mexican salsas. You can find cactus, or nopales, canned in jars at the supermarket during the off season. Yet, like most seasonal produce, nothing can compare to the flavor of a fresh cactus paddle. This fleeting season is one to relish—quite literally. 

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Thursday, September 2, 2010


The Urban Hunt for Food Trucks

Molly Moon's Seattle Food Truck at IFBC

Somewhere in our caveman instincts, we humans long for the hunt. We want to forage for wild berries, catch a fish on a pole, or plant a seed in the dirt that turns into a tomato. Today, we urbanites might handle things differently than our caveman ancestors, but we’re still honing those instincts, hunting. Nowhere is the urban hunt more apparent than the chase for the ultimate food truck.

Across the nation, the hunt for food trucks takes place in cities from Seattle to New York. City dwellers who long to feel alive, that rush of adrenaline upon tracking their target, have taken to hunting down food trucks. Always on the move, the prey is elusive. The urbanite must rely on legends shared by community elders to surmise the best spot for the hunt. If one hunter located a large beast of a truck stuffed with delicious, life-sustaining morsels, he might pass along word of this lucky hunting ground. A young urbanite, eager to feed himself and his brood might heed the elder’s advice, only to appear at the spot and find it empty, no food truck to be seen. Was the food truck real? Or simply urban legend?

Fellow food blogger on the hunt.
This is the joy and the adventure of dining from food trucks. In many cities, urban hunters must rely on word-of-mouth and Twitter to locate these constantly moving targets. One wrong move, one missed Tweet, and you’ve missed your catch.

Lucky for me, at the recent International Food Bloggers Conference (IFBC), the hunt was easy. The conference organizers took down the proverbial wildebeest for us, laying the raw meat like a feast before us. They invited several of Seattle’s finest food trucks to park right outside our conference doors: for free. We didn’t even require a wooden club to obtain our meal: just a smile and a thank you.

Luscious urban fare oozed from every orifice of our prey. We dashed madly from one truck to the next, shooting pictures, licking fingers, greedily pushing hunks of flesh onto our tongues, and tearing through meat with our teeth. But instead of snarls, there were laughter and delight. Juicy fish tacos from El Camion, chewy soft pizza from Rolling Fire Pizza, crisply sugared dough from Anita’s crepes, and thickly rich ice cream from Molly Moon’s.

The elation we felt surely resembles the utter fascination the cavemen experienced when they first discovered fire. The culinary world burst open in a splatter of spicy, smooth, and decadent. Who knew such indulgences could come on red and white checked cardboard rather than china served at a white cloth covered table?

Now, if only Sacramento would get in on the hunt. In the meantime, I suppose our only hope is to forage for berries.

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