07/31/13

Best of the best: picking out your produce

banner-programs-farmersmarketIt’s summer, and our Farmer’s markets are bursting at the seams with ripe, beautiful, delicious veggies!

12654364-largeOne thing I’m constantly reminding our subscribers of is this: when shopping for fresh produce, keep in mind your end goal…you’re wanting to prepare a delicious, nutritious dish…not shoot a magazine ad.

In other words, the best produce isn’t always the sexiest.

Imperfections can be attractive, hinting at surprising sweetness and depth of character. Unfortunately, most supermarkets today sell produce bred as much to withstand shipping, as for flavor, and while it might be pretty…it may not be particularly flavorful.

Use Your Senses

woman-smelling-fruit-400x400The best tasting produce is often irregularly shaped and blemished (because the more ripe the plant, the easier it is to bruise).

The freshest produce should feel solid and sturdy with taut skin. Leaf veggies should feel crisp and firm.

A lot of veggies and fruits can be sniffed for ripeness, and should smell strongly of what they are, without being cloying or overripe.

How to shop for vegetables

Okay, so here are some tips on how to pick good produce while shopping for a few of my favorite veggies…

Artichokes: Compact, plump, heavy, with thick, green, tightly closed leaves. Avoid if leaves are dry, spreading, or hard-tipped.

Asparagus: Straight stalks with closed, compact tips and full green color, except for white ends. Avoid if shriveled or have spreading tips. Thicker stalks should be peeled before cooking.

Avocados: Shiny green or mottled purplish-black (depending upon variety); yield to gentle pressure. Ripen in a paper bag at room temperature.

Beans: Firm, crisp, bright color.

Broccoli: Dark green, firmly clustered buds on firm, but not thick, stalks.

Cabbage: Firm, heavy, with brightly colored (green or red) outer leaves and no black blemishes.

Carrots: Firm, straight, with bright orange color, preferably with fresh green leaves attached. Avoid if limp or cracked.

Cauliflower: Firm heads with tightly packed creamy white clusters and fresh-looking green leaves. Avoid those with black spots.

Cucumbers: Medium to small, with bright green color. Avoid any with soft ends, or wax coatings.

Garlic: Firm heads with tight, compact cloves. Papery skin should be soft, not brittle.

Leeks: Firm, white base with fresh-looking green leaves.

Mushrooms: Firm, plump with tightly closed caps and fresh-looking stems. Select carefully, avoiding mold.

Onions: Clean, dry, firm with papery husks, and no sprouts or soft spots.

Peas: Firm, bright or light green, with well-filled pods. Avoid swollen, wrinkled, or immature dark green pods.

Peppers: Firm, shiny, with bright color, green, red, orange, or yellow. Avoid soft spots, or darkened stem ends.

Potatoes: Firm, smooth skinned, well shaped, with no sprouts.

Spinach: Bright green, fresh, tender leaves with no yellowing or wilted ends.

Squash: (zucchini, yellow, straight neck, patty pan) Smooth, bright skin, bright color, green or yellow, heavy and firm.

Sweet potatoes: Firm, uniform shape with even color. Avoid very large ones (it’s a sign of age).

Tomatoes: Firm, plump with unbroken skin; color and size depends on variety.

Turnips: Firm, unblemished, heavy for their size with fresh-looking tops.

Turnips: Firm, unblemished, heavy for their size with fresh-looking tops.

87469726

Cooking Veggies

Now that you’ve picked out some great veggies…what do you do with them?

We (should) be getting the majority of our daily vitamin content from vegetables, so we need to be sure that how we cook them does not drain away all the vitamins and benefits of eating them in the first place.

Cooking vegetables can be tricky. Over cooking can make vegetables bland and soggy.

Personally, I think that veggies seldom benefit from being boiled. Boiling leeches out vitamin content, and is the main culprit in turning vegetables to a lifeless, tasteless glop.

So, how do we proceed?

SCeB8Depending on the veggies, I prefer steaming, roasting, or sauteing.

All three of these cooking methods leave vegetables full of life. They will be crisp and colorful. It will also not deplete the vegetables of their vitamin content.

By rule of thumb, vegetables will only need a few minutes of heat…ie: take them off BEFORE they look done. If you wait until the looked cooked through, they’re gonna be soft and soggy when you serve them.

So, get out there and pick up some fresh, beautiful (or even not so beautiful) veggies at your local farmer’s or produce market, and enjoy them at their seasonal best!

Chef Perry
hautemealz.com

06/7/13

Look what’s new around here!

Heyya hauties,

Summer’s here and the time is right for…cooking! And, boy oh boy, are we doing a lot of it!

Tons of Outreach stuff over the next few months. We’ve been busy, busy, grilling for the Tualatin VFW’s Memorial Day Picnic; fixin’ a celebration lunch for the Impact NW Mentors Program; and getting auctioned off at the Sparks of Hope 2013 Gala & Auction!

Honored to cook for some WWII heroes! (and about 140 others, lol)

Honored to cook for some WWII heroes! (and about 140 others of our country’s bravest and best!)

Coming up, we’ll be cooking up a bbq spread for the winners of last year’s Amy Roloff Charity Foundation auction; grilling up a mess of burgers and dogs (and maybe a little brisket) for the kids and families the “Bridges of Housing” summer picnic, and get geared up for teaching our youth cooking courses for at-risk kids in the Portland Public Schools this fall!

Banana Pudding Parfaits for the Impact NW Mentors and Kids.

Banana Pudding Parfaits for the Impact NW Mentors and Kids.

Chef Terry and I had a fantastic time at the Tigard Public Library last week, offering our Intro to Meal Planning class. Looking forward to teaming up with them, as well as the Wilsonville Public Library, for several more free classes over the next few months!

Plus, of course, we’re busy creating and testing delicious, nutritious new recipes for your hautemealz.com Meal Plans. Look for more action on the grill, and lots of fresh veggies and salads as the weather warms up.

We have a couple of other new developments around here that we’d like to let you know about, as well…

First, if you’re local to the Portland/Metro area, hautemealz will be hosting cooking demonstrations (with samples!) at the Wilsonville Farmer’s Market every Thursday. The Market opens at 4:00pm, and the demos will typically run at 5:00, 6:00, and 7:00pm.

Kale Slaw at the Wilsonville Farmer's Market

Kale-Bacon Slaw at the Wilsonville Farmer’s Market

We demo’d our Kale & Bacon Slaw at the season opening of the market, last night, and had a blast. Tons of wonderful people, great food, and amazing fresh, local ingredients!

Dana Ramsey, our beautiful booth hostess, at the Market.

Dana Ramsey, our beautiful booth hostess, at the Market.

I’m a hautie… R U?

HautiesTee

We also wanted to let you know that, given the amazing response we’d had to our new “I’m a hautie” logo, we’ve opened a hautemealz CafePress store to offer the logo in a variety of colors and styles on shirts, office items, cases, and all kinds of fun stuff!

FYI…there’s no mark-up on these items (everything’s being sold at Cafepress’s minimum), as we think it’s enough that folks want to advertise us.

Look for some cool contests this summer, featuring gift-certificates to the store, as prizes!

Okay…back to the kitchen!

– Chef Perry

01/16/13

The Problem with Farm to Table

farm to tableOkay, I know that this title is going to bring some folks here lookin’ for a fight, so before you start sharpening your pitchforks and hurling your organic, fair-trade rotten tomatoes…let’s be clear: I love the farm-to-table concept.

I love my local farmer’s markets, and I take every opportunity to support my local artisan food purveyors; in part because I believe it’s the healthy and more socially responsible choice, but also because the food just tastes better!

However, my love and support for the ideal of farm-to-table does not negate that, in practice, the system is flawed.

Maybe a more fitting title would be “Farm to Table…the missing ingredient“, because the farm-to-table model leaves out a critical step…creating a gap that is not just important, but imperative to fill, for the system to work.

Functionally, the equation is actually “farm-to-KITCHEN-to-table” The kitchen is the bridge (or, unfortunately more often the gap) between the farm and the table.

Farmers-Market-foodsWhat good is fresh, organic, sustainable, fair-trade food, if the end-user (the home cook) doesn’t know what it is, or what to do with it, and so won’t buy it?

Side note: my definition of “cooking” is turning raw, unprocessed ingredients into a finished meal with a minimum of pre-made additions.

Part of the issue, I believe, is that foodies, farmers, and people who cook are often amazed at the extent to which other people don’t cook. When my wife, who did not grow up cooking, says to me, “I’m afraid to cook meat”, my eyes tend to glaze over…but she’s not alone. In fact, she’s not even in the minority!

farm to tableDon’t believe me? Test it.

Take a friend with you (and no cherry-pickin’ one of your foodie friends!) to large grocery store or farmer’s market, and see how many vegetables they can name without looking at the label. Then, if you need further convincing, ask they how’d they prepare the ones they did recognize.

This isn’t just about foodies loving good food, or hippies wanting to save the planet…this gap effects our country’s health, ecology, finances…the list goes on.

HEALTH

Fresh, unprocessed, (what we at hautemealz.com like to call “real”) food is better for us, and better for the environment. Everyone knows this.

(By the way, if you’re enjoying this article, you may want to subscribe to our free newsletter; we’ll send seven amazing dinner recipes and a shopping list to your inbox each week. Plus, you’ll be helping us teach nutrition, shopping, and hands-on cooking classes to at-risk teens!)

The number one most effective method of battling the proliferation of processed foods, obesity, diabetes, celiac disease, GMOs, corporate farming, yadda yadda yadda…is to shop, cook, and eat with as few steps as possible between the dirt and the plate. True healthcare begins in the kitchen, not the gym. Most of us know this.

It takes 10 minutes to grill a pork chop and some fresh veggies. Some of us know this.

grilled-pork-chops

However, just knowing the truth is only the first step in slowing our society’s descent into further slavery to the boxed, processed, artificially preserved, instant, easy-to-prepare corporate food masters.

groceryaisleconfusion_thumb

We must increase that knowledge and spread it around. Knowledge is power, and we’ve turned much of the power over to the fast-food corporations. If we don’t know how to cook, believe me, they’ll be more than happy to continue to make our lives “easier” by doing the “hard part”.

Why am I picturing Morlocks and Eloi?

These companies, btw, buy from the agri-conglomerates (or own them outright) many of them in other countries, and NOT from your local, small, organic, fair trade farms…perpetuating the spiral.

Which leads us to…

money_burningFINANCES

Where does a pervasive lack of basic cooking skills lead, from an economic standpoint?

Well, at the residential level, it leads to a reliance on instant, processed, or packaged foods or  eating in restaurants, which isn’t financially sustainable for the average family, unless it spirals down to, as it often does, the local drive though dollar menu.

Even then, we’re spending more than we think. The average cost of a “cheap” drive-thru meal here in Oregon, runs between $3-$4 per person. For a family of four “lite-eaters”, we’re looking at $12-$16 dollars. This is 20-30% more then we spend at our house, cooking quick, simple, healthy meals, often with enough left-overs for lunch the next day.

“Value Menu”…really?

fast food garbageOh, and we don’t toss a big bag full of cardboard, paper and plastic in the trash afterwards, either.

On a “broader” scale (pun intended) the nation’s health care tab stood at $2.7 trillion in 2011, the latest year available.

I don’t think I need to say anything more about that.

EDUCATION

This is the crux of this article. Laws, labeling, testing, etc., can all be good things, but they will never,  ever, replace the ability of the educated consumer to “vote with their checkbooks” by knowing what to buy, and how to prepare it for their families.

il_570xN.332591766We’re moving into a third and fourth generation of people raised without a grasp of basic cooking skills or confidence in the kitchen.

In her article, “Bring Back Home Economics in Schools!(Cooking Light, 2012) Hillary Dowdle refers to herself and her generation as “the ‘lost girls and boys’, saying, “Public health experts , nutritionists, and educators are beginning to realize that the lack of basic life skills, like cooking, presents a serious problem: Americans are growing up ignorant about the whats, whys, and hows of eating healthy.”

Basically, if no one cooked at home, today’s young people’s options are to (a) get a job in a “real food” restaurant kitchen (plan 2-3 years, minimum, before you actually cook anything), or spend thousands (or tens of thousands) on culinary school…which is a pretty deep commitment for someone who just wants to feed their kids a healthy dinner.

Where do most folks end up? Right back on the processed foods aisle, or in the drive-thru.

“(Food) is devalued generally in our education system . . . it’s more than just learning how to cook. It’s about food literacy, which means teaching children what foods to eat and why, how to understand food labeling information and how and why we need to prepare and cook food safely.” says Griffith University School of Education and Professional Studies Dean, Donna Pendergast.

This leads me to a personal soap box…

100years-HomeEc1949

In an article titled, “Compulsory home economics essential to fight childhood obesity“, the home economics advocate blog, HomeEcConnect, states: “We are losing basic survival skills.  Home Economics is essential for learning about the basics of growing, transporting, purchasing, preparing, nutritional values, cooking, presenting, enjoying, cleaning up and storage of food.  ‘Food literacy” is about learning food skills as a holistic concept.”

aubergines-etc-european-cooking-school-princeton-nj

Dr. Arya Sharma (Director of the Canadian Obesity Network) says “time to bring back home economics” because “the art of basic food preparation and meal planning may be a very real part of the obesity solution”.

Our kid’s need to learn to cook good food. Period.

Budget’s are tight, and school days are long, we know. Frankly, I don’t mind a computer doing my math, or my science, but I don’t want one cooking my food. If we’re going to cut something from the curriculum, let’s not make it the one thing that is at the core of our survival and well-being as a species, shall we?

If my daughter’s lack of proficiency in trigonometry means she might live longer than her parents…I’m okay with that.

Speaking of which daughter started learning to cook at three, now, at five, she is an adept omelet, salad, and sandwich maker, a savvy produce shopper, and could give Chef Gordon Ramsey a run for “kitchen tyrant.” She loves to cook, and is more adventurous and open in her eating than most adults I know.

But, not every child has the (sometimes) good fortune of having a father who’s a chef, who’s father was a chef, who’s father was a chef.

What do we do? We fill the gap!

While, in this author’s opinion, mandatory home economics classes, for both genders, are vital…what do we do to help those who are already out of school; folks who have jobs, and families, and bills, and budgets?

We started hautemealz.com, in part, to help fill this gap. We believe that to help people make responsible changes in planning, shopping and cooking, that those changes, to be effective and lasting, must SIMPLIFY their already too-busy lives, instead of further complicating them.

As our subscribers cook their way through their weekly menus, they learn basic cooking and nutrition techniques and skills, sometimes directly from short video clips, blogs posts, and Q & A, but mostly passively, though the hands-on process of actually preparing easy, non-threatening, nutritious recipes. They are introduced to new vegetables, healthier cuts of meat, etc, and soon have a grasp of what’s available, and what to do with it.

We believe that folks who are already spinning a lot of plates need to love it before they learn it, in other words, they need to prepare themselves a simple, delicious meal, before they need to learn why it’s good for them, and we hear this happening time after time from our subscribers.

We prepare a weekly shopping list of ingredients, organized by aisle, which saves them hours of planning and organizing, and we provide a color photo of each dish, so they know what they’re shooting for.

Mother and Daughter Making a Salad

We also encourage our readers to cook with their families, offering simple steps in the recipes that children of various ages can help with, and, hopefully, educating the next generation.

Lastly, we’re here for them. Professional and home cooks ready to answer their questions, provide options, and give tips and advice for exactly what they’re cooking.

That’s what we’re doing at SimplySmartDinnerPlans.com

Here are four things you can do to bridge the gap:

  • Learn to cook, and to cook healthier
  • Teach you kids, grandkids, or any kids to do the same
  • Become a regular customer of your local farmer’s market and independent food purveyor
  • Fight for mandatory food science classes in our public schools, and volunteer at an after-school program. (Those are your tax-dollars, you should have a say in how they’re spent!)

Bottom line: if we can help home-cooks prepare simple, affordable, healthy meals, in the time they have…we capture their attention, and can lead them towards a healthier, more responsible food lifestyle, one they will be explore with a sense of excitement, not guilt or frustration.

Become an advocate for people knowing their way around the kitchen, and you help bridge the gap between farm and table.

Let’s cook!

– Chef Perry

08/24/12

Why we like organic

Here at hautemealz.com, we’re fans of fresh, locally grown, organic foods.

We love roadside vegetable stands, food fairs, and the farmer’s market.  There are a lot of opinions (some informed, some not so), on organic foods, on how they are more sustainable and better for the environment, how they are more naturally produced and safer from potentially dangerous chemicals and processes, and how they effect the local community…there are many, many arguments. So, why do we stress the importance of eating these foods?

Continue reading