Is it edible? Dinner on a bed of kale

When I was in high school, I waited tables at a local diner. By-the-Way family restaurant sat along a bare stretch of single-lane state highway, sharing its parking lot with an auto-body shop; a view of pre-fab log cabin homes, “priced affordably” “come in and check one out today”, ever-present from the front glass windows.

We served all-you-can eat spaghetti on Wednesdays and haddock crunch, battered in corn flakes, on Fridays. We served the food that grandparents and truck drivers wanted to eat, because those were the customers that filled our booths and the stools at the long counter, running the length of By-the-Way family restaurant.

Every plate we served, save for the belgian waffles towering with whipped cream and the slender slices of pie, was served with a garnish: one piece of curly green kale and one thin orange slice. The kale sat rinsed and chopped into aesthetically-appropriate hunks in a white gallon bucket next to the serving line. And every plate of food we served, save for the belgian waffles towering with whipped cream and the slender slices of pie, came back to the dishwasher with one appropriately-sized hunk of raw, green kale. This routine we repeated, on every plate, every day, for years, without ever giving it a second thought.

Until one day, a little boy inquired as I set his plate of chicken fingers and french fries in front of him: “Is this thing edible?”, holding the adornment aloft. “Ummmm, I don’t know. Let me find out.” Back to the kitchen, where I was met with a series of white-coated shoulder shrugs. “I guess you could but I don’t know why you’d want to.” I popped a piece in my mouth for good measure and shook my head in a grimace – not exactly what I’d call “edible”.

And this was everything I knew about kale. Until I got to college and discovered kale lightly sauteed with lemon, balsamic vinegar kale with slivered almonds, and raw massaged kale salad. Until I discovered that the favorite food of yogis and Vermonters was not just a plate garnish, after all. All of this is to say that I just made dinner and it was delicious. And it was cheap. And it had kale in it. So, I thought I’d share it with y’all.

Ravioli, tossed in vodka sauce, on a bed of prosciutto, kale, and pan-roasted cherry tomatoes.

Sounds fancy, right? And expensive. Fortunately, looks can be deceiving. In addition to being delicious, the second and third best parts of this meal were that it took less than 20 minutes and cost about $2. Make this dish when cherry tomatoes are on sale, and vodka sauce, and really – I promise – you only need the tiniest bit of proscuitto.

Recipe (for one, because I’m a single grad-school gal):
A handful of frozen cheese ravioli (6 or 7)
A little less than an ounce of prosciutto, minced
A few leafs of kale, ribs removed, sliced very thin
A small handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
About 1/4c of vodka sauce, enough to coat the ravioli
A dash of italian cheese, if you like

Put your water on to boil and heat a small amount of oil (olive, grapeseed, canola, whatever is on hand) in a skillet. Throw in your minced prosciutto and saute over medium heat for a minute or two. Add your kale, cooking until it starts to become tender and the bright green color comes out. Push to the side of your skillet and throw in your halved cherry tomatoes, sprinkling them with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper, and anything else your heart desires. Once the skin on the tomatoes starts to blister or brown, mix everything together and put it on your plate.

Meanwhile the water has come to boil, and you’ve thrown in the ravioli, which only takes three minutes to cook – because sometimes things are magic like that. The square pockets of pasta will start to rise to the top of the boil, to let you know they’re done. Strain ’em, throw ’em back in the still-hot pot, and toss to coat with vodka sauce. Pour over your kale mixture, top with a sprinkle of parm, and viola — delicious.

What makes this dish so good is its complementary flavors – the saltiness of the prosciutto, the richness of ricotta, the sweet flavor of roasted cherry tomatoes. In the right proportions the flavors complement each other, none overpowering the other.

Cheers, to a little Wednesday night indulgence and a plate full of edible kale. Happy eating!

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Power of the Pork Propaganda

In the state of Indiana, farmers no longer raise pigs, they ‘grow pork’. Lots of it. Enough to meet the ‘pork needs’ of every man, woman, and child in Indiana, plus 20 million more people across the country, and the world. All clever bits of word play from the pork lobby.

Perhaps scenes from Babe flash quickly through your mind: a farmer and his dell, memories of a bygone era. Nope. In farming today most of our pork needs are met by Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which are about as bucolic as they sound. Today’s pigs are raised by the thousands and tens of thousands in buildings that resemble factories more than barns.

To justify this shift, the folks at Indiana Pork have produced a short and shockingly simple propaganda film about the merits of factory farming, available for free to teachers across the state. It’s full of important questions like “Do pigs miss going outside?” and “How do we know when one pig is sick?”. And the answers are probably not what you’d hope. This is what our fourth graders are learning about farming today:

Download the full video here: http://foodforthoughtsite.com/

Space. Food.

Here on planet Earth, it was another bountiful day. On billions of acres of farm and forest, trillions of plants went about their humble business of turning sunlight into food, and food into….more food. Taproots stretched in earthy soil, stalks sprouted determined from the ground, leaves broadened, fruits swelled. Billions of times. On planet Earth. Today.

Not so on the red planet. On the surface of Mars — well, I won’t pretend to be an expert here but — we can safely imagine that gases swirled and time sprawled out immemorial. As far as we know, not a single ray of sunlight was turned into chlorophyll and not a single drop of chlorophyll was turned into roots, stalks, leaves, or fruits. Not a single cow grazed and not a single chicken hatched.

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Not a problem, you might say, because lucky for us it was another bountiful day on planet Earth. Chances are good that the startling lack of food on our great neighbor planet didn’t even cross your mind today. Unless, of course, you are one of the fortunate few planning the first manned mission to Mars. Then, you have probably been thinking about it a lot.

Today researchers ended a mock space mission, in which they spent several months isolated in a space dome on the big island of Hawaii. Their goal: subsist on freeze-dried, pre-packaged, and shelf-stable for 118 days, creating recipes, tracking moods, and monitoring health status. Because somehow, with all we know, we don’t know what happens to us when we go months without fresh food, let alone years. We’ve never had to know.

Explorers of the New Age will not be able to set forth with a pocket full of seeds or a hunting spear, like those past. They will need to gather their ingenuity, spices, and Spam if they hope to survive. For the first time, we need to figure out what will happen to those who leave Earth’s bounty in the rearview mirror. What an exciting and terrifying proposition.

You can read more at: http://news.discovery.com/space/mars-food-scientists-end-mock-space-mission-130814.htm or by using the incredible powers of Google.

Polenta with Mushrooms & Onions

Also known as divine polenta. Also known as holy crap, could this really, possibly be so good polenta. This is one of those meals that seems like magic — a potion concocted in the stainless steel cauldron perched over the flame of my stove. And like most good food potions, it begins with a magical combination: butter and onions.

Once upon a time, when I cooked for the Redhouse Cafe, I developed a sort of morning ritual. Arriving before the cafe and theater were showing any signs of life, I’d move seamlessly through the quiet and empty space. After flicking on lights and unlocking doors, I headed straight for the cutting board, dicing the onions which inevitably formed the base of our every homemade soup. And when I sauteed those onions in butter, people would gravitate toward the kitchen as they streamed in, as though pulled by a magnet; remarking every time, “What is that delicious smell?!” Onions and butter. They are magic.

And so it’s not surprising that they are the base of divine polenta. Here is exactly what you need for two bowls of deliciousness:

1/2 white onion
1 pat butter
1/2c coarse ground polenta
2 cups liquid (use any combo of milk, water, or broth to suit your tastes)
{I used 1/3c half-n-half and the rest water}
1 large portabella, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 splash balsamic vinegar

That is it! Magic. Here’s how to concoct your potion, err, meal:

Boil the liquids in a small saucepan and then add the polenta, whisking as you do. Add one clove of minced garlic (essential!). The polenta will need to cook at a low simmer for the next 30 minutes or so. Whisk it every few minutes to keep lumps from forming. You don’t need to dote but you do need to linger.

While your polenta cooks, start your onions — slice ’em in skinny half moons and add to a pan with melted butter. Cover and let them cook, low and slow, for awhile, stirring occasionally to keep them from sticking. Once they start to caramelize, they’ll be the best stuff on Earth. When they’re almost done, push them to the side and saute your mushroom slices. At the last minute, deglaze the pan with a splash of balsamic vinegar.

Pour your creamy polenta in a bowl, top with mushrooms and onions, add a dash of thyme, and enjoy. Divine!

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Growing the Urban Harvest

Urban agriculture is without a doubt an expanding phenomenon, or you might even say (pardon the pun) — a growing field. While the abundance of available land in post-industrial cities is great so to are the barriers to an urban harvest. Issues such as lead contamination and mitigation, property rights, and garden ownership can limit the harvests of projects with grand ambitions.

Luckily, the quantity of food produced is one of many benefits of community gardening, seen in tandem with community building and neighborhood beautification. It is perhaps, however, the defining aspect of urban agriculture. As urban projects scale up from garden to farm, production becomes increasingly important. A recent BBC article asks the question, Can City Farms Feed a Hungry World?. Citing vertical farming and hydroponic innovations, the article concludes optimistically that, “Urban agriculture has the potential to become so pervasive within our cities that by the year 2050 they may be able to provide its citizens with up to 50% of the food they consume.”

No one knows what the future will hold, but another recent, well-written article in Next City also caught my eye. Beyond Adorable, Creating An Urban Ag System Smart Enough to Matter does a great job of bridging potential and reality in it’s assessment of Cleveland’s urban agriculture system. The learning curve is steep but little by little we are learning to grow food in our human-made ecosystems.

A view of the Ohio City Farm. Credit: MMW Horticulture Group.

Big-Business Organic: At Grocery Stores Everywhere

Phillip Howard, a professor and food systems researcher at Michigan State University, is creating information graphics that illustrate some of the complexities of our food system. For example, who really owns all those organic brands we’re picking up at the grocery store:

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For a closer look: https://www.msu.edu/~howardp/organicindustryzoom.html

Whether or not the explosive growth of mainstream organics is a good thing is a matter that could, and should, be the subject of much debate. Looking at this graphic raises so many questions, not the least of which is: Why is Pepsi this country’s #1 food producer?To me, this exemplifies the beauty of infographics — with all the information laid out so clearly in front of us, we can put the speculations and assumptions aside, and let the real conversation begin.

To see more of Professor Howard’s work, check out his website at: https://www.msu.edu/~howardp/index.html