Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Black Lentil Salad with Fresh Veggies

I think most anyone living in the Pacific Northwest is fluent in the language of Weather (specifically the "rain" dialect) as it somehow infuses most of what we do, without necessarily imposing limitations. In fact, this language or dialect is what underscores much of what makes this region of the country notable for its outstanding farms, wine production and vibrant landscape. And for those of us that are fluent, it also underscores the ability to appreciate and bask (with no baggage of what came before) in the dialects of "sun" and "warmth," as well.

When Feast Portland blew into town over a span of four days this past weekend, I first thought of the weather... and then the foodist element.

As luck would have it this event descended upon Portland on what I immediately realized would be Rose Bowl days. As a kid growing up in Southern California, every Rose Bowl game televised seem to fall on one of those unreal, shirt-sleeve days in the middle of what California calls winter, with spectacular blue skies, a blazing ball of a sun, and the resulting glimmer and sparkle that that combination casts. Knowing the vast audience that would witness this beauty each and every year always made me think... there's another million people that will want to move here. This past weekend in Portland evoked a little of the same feeling... for we had a heady combination of beautiful Northwest Fall weather (my favorite time of year) and the food, celebrity and general hoopla that Feast Portland so brilliantly produced.

Being from the area and already committed to a fairly chaotic weekend, I only attended two events... Mark Bittman's talk at the Arlene Schnitzer Hall and the Speaker Series entitled The Global Local: Reinventing Food Cultures. Walking over to hear Bittman, I parked in an underground lot below Director's Park and came up into the center of a magnificent mob of people enjoying the likes of some of my favorite chefs at the Sandwich Invitational. Though I did feel a slight pang of remorse for not partaking in the revelry of this event, Mark Bittman proved to be an engaging, insightful presenter of some of the more important food topics of today... obesity and its affects beyond belt size; the need to flip the cost factor on fresh versus highly processed foods; the need to address school lunches in a more meaningful way, etc. All topics that should be part of our daily diet of conversation. The Global Local panel of speakers offered another great dialogue with respect to where our "local" food perspective stands today and what the more global perspective looks like with regard to politics, actual implementation, etc. Though intrigued with the topics I do have to admit that my real impetus to attend was the fact that Gabrielle Hamilton, renowned chef-owner of NYC restaurant, Prune, and author of one of my favorite books, Blood, Bones & Butter, would be participating. Missing out on nabbing tickets to the dinner she was hosting, I grabbed tickets to this panel and thoroughly enjoyed hearing her somewhat salty banter with Adam Rapoport (Editor in Chief of Bon Appétit) regarding the realities of incorporating sustainable, local and organic sensibilities in line with running a top restaurant. Though I wish she'd write another book... surely she has more to share... at the very least I hope that someone in her ranks can convince House Beautiful to include a bit of her personal stories along with the monthly recipe she shares in their publication. Fine Cooking published a piece of hers back in 2011 (March, I think) that was such a poignant little writing apéritif... such a shame to waste the opportunity to include her words along with her food. Notables, along with Hamilton and Rapoport, were the Portland duo of Randy Gragg (Editor in Chief, Portland Monthly) and Karen Brooks (Restaurant Critic and Food Editor, Portland Monthly); local farmer Anthony Boutard; rising chef, Sean Brock (McCrady's and Husk restaurants, Charleston, S.C.); the engaging Francis Lim (Features Editor, Gilt Taste... among other credits); the entertaining Chris Ying (Editor of Lucky Peach) ; our own Rep. Earl Blumenauer (US Congressman, Portland); Co-CEO of Whole Foods, Walter Robb; and video features from Boaz Frankel (Filmmaker, "The Un-Road Trip"). I happen to sit next to the brother of Karen Brooks, who I also do not know, who was so enthusiastic in his support of his sister it was heartwarming... giving big thumbs up in her direction on the stage and then turning, ever-so-slightly in my direction and whispering "that's my sister... we're so proud of her." How great is that!

While I came away from the events I attended with a bit more insight on the food scene, both here in Portland, across the country, and globally, I boiled it all down to realizing that much of the change (improvement) we want to see needs to begin at home... being better educated with regard to nutrition, eating and meal planning (and those that are more knowledgable reaching out to those that are not); being more vocal in school districts and local government; standing up for promoting fresh ingredients and equal access to them. And, the realization that you can do all of this and still support and enjoy the wares of really interesting and talented chefs, many of whom have proliferated Portland... to our great pleasure.

In what seems to be a fitting cap to the weekend, I stood with a friend at one of the tall bar tables positioned in the lobby of the lovely Gerding Theater to enjoy the nibbles offered during the speakers' break. Huddled along with us were a few other people, happily sharing the same small table. Five of us were from in and around Portland, and the sixth was a woman who had driven all the way from the east coast to attend Feast Portland. Oh... and also move here! Thinking about Portland's unique language, I welcomed her to our city and asked if she had had much exposure to the area (translation: do you know it rains a lot and can sometimes be gray for 30 days straight?) and she immediately smiled a knowing grin and said "yes, I've been here at all times of the year." I think she'll do just fine.

This salad has both everything and nothing to do with Feast Portland. Nothing in the sense that it's not anything that was featured. And, everything in that it was this particular event that got me to thinking more about the really fresh, more plant-based dishes I enjoy making... and this is one. The little black lentils are not only a great source of both protein and fiber, they also have a delicate little bite that, along with the sugar snap peas, lend a wonderful crunch to the salad. Little orange halves of Sungold tomatoes offer a perfect pop of natural sweetness. And a generous chop of marinated artichoke hearts provides a wonderful tang of flavor that melds beautifully with the slight dash of extra-virgin olive oil and splash of fresh lemon juice that finishes the mix. Not only is it great to enjoy on its own, it pairs well as a side dish, and packs beautifully for lunch the next day... or as a carry-on nibble when flying. This is the type of salad that can be made ahead and popped in the fridge for a quick lunch or snack on-the-go... helping to curb or prevent bad snacking habits.

Now... back to the Weather... which was, by the way, another beautiful Fall day.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Layered Black Bean & Corn Salad with Cilantro-Citrus Dressing

There are a variety of potential influencers when it comes to deciding what I might make for dinner. Certainly if I'm cooking for others, then I think of them... what they might like. Sometimes it's a factor of how much energy or time I have. And many days it's simply just a function of what's in the fridge or pantry.

And then... it can be... something entirely random... like the meticulous, artistic, creative abilities of a produce manager I don't even know. I wasn't even at on airy, outdoor farmers market dotted with rough-hewed, whimsical wooden stands billowing with ripe, colorful produce plucked from the soil just hours before. Nope, this display of work was at a brick and mortar market... a supermarket.

This particular market just opened in our neighborhood. Though relatively large and well-stocked, as most supermarkets go, it's kind of a little oasis of a setting. It's managed to present its largess in an aesthetically beautiful manner in what many in this region of the country might define as rustic-modern Northwest architecture. When you approach it doors you are first greeted by a large outdoor patio sprinkled with tables, chairs, and a lounge-y sofa setting area all tucked under a roof canopy and dotted with heaters to keep you cozy against our oft times cool, damp weather. It's an area where you can sit for a bit... enjoy a morning coffee, some lunch fare from the market... or even dinner. The patio is nestled between the market's main door and its floral department... an exquisitely merchandised, European-inspired, stand-alone shop with bountiful bouquets of fresh-cut flowers colorfully spilling out onto the sidewalk and gracefully framing its doors. I kind of feel like I'm on a mini vacation when I visit this place... not at all what you'd expect when your expectation was simply a quick journey for bread and milk.

Whoever planned this market's logistical layout should get special kudos as there is but one way in... through this one set of doors that pretty much guarantees you take note of the inviting patio and bountiful florals as you enter. And yet, while I've gone on and on about this uniquely brilliant welcome, it is what first greets you upon entry into the actual market that is the real piéce de résistance... the produce department.

Yep... it's vegetables, herbs, fruits... what you'd pretty much expect. And yet, it is so beautifully arranged that you immediately think who is the little leprechaun that produced this magic? There are all the regulars you'd expect yet they are brilliantly positioned, color-blocked and nestled like an intricate mosaic wall... heady colors of cauliflower in white, purple and orange boldly stacked next to vibrant, green leafy lettuce, positioned with its leaves flowered out and partnered against heads of romaine that have been tucked with their bulbous, white-tinged ends facing out to provide a perfect contrast of hue and texture. It's nothing short of an incredibly thoughtful, artistic display of produce.

And... it was this particular display that got me to thinking about this salad. It's really just a play on a bean and corn salad that I've made before but thought would look quite lovely stacked in a clear vessel with each colorful layer defined... engaging in its bit of precision... a little like the magical land of produce I witnessed. There's a kaleidoscope of ingredients... romaine, peppers, olives, corn, black beans, avocado, cilantro... that play wonderfully together with a drizzle of cilantro-citrus dressing. Depending on what's in your fridge (or at your market), the layers can be few or many. Add cheese, marinated artichokes, fresh tomatoes, the last of summer's bounty. Apart from great, fresh flavor, it's a satisfying little salad that allows for a much welcomed element of artistic expression.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

PB&G Apple Wafers {and other kid-friendly recipes}

For many families across the country, this week marks the start of a new school year. Having personally welcomed this poignant passage of time 18 years in a row with our own daughters, I know there's lots of excitement (and, perhaps, even a little trepidation) involved... no matter the age or grade.

Beyond the peripheral minutia that needs to be assembled and readied anew each September, there are also lunches and after-school snacks to again consider. Though maintaining a healthy way of eating should be a year-round commitment, the added demands that come with the onset of a new school year can often leave families searching for easy solutions. Thinking it might require far too much effort to plan healthy, fresh options for breakfast, lunch or snacks, many folks turn to pre-packaged goods... instead of, say, the fruit bowl.

With no more effort than is required to cut up some fresh fruit... breakfast fare can go from bland to brilliant... lunches can pack a little punch... and after-school snacks can deliver flavor and fun. There are just so many healthy, fresh, easy solutions for families on the go... all with fruit.

This is why I was excited when Stemilt Growers approached me this summer to work on creating a few kid-friendly preparations for breakfast, lunch and snack time using their Lil Snappers fruits... beautiful, naturally delicious petite-size apples and pears that tuck into a child's hand with ease and are pretty perfect for a fruit snacker like me, as well. These miniature fruits are nature's perfect treat for kids... and busy moms, dads and caregivers, too. They're small enough to consume whole, or dice up to add to a host of different preparations.

These simple little PB&G Apple Wafers are a perfect example of an easy, tasty (and healthy) after-school treat...

With just a bit of peanut butter tucked between slices of fresh apple, then rolled in some cinnamon granola (or, perhaps, some toffee bits... or some nuts), these little wafers make having a treat a healthy option. You simply cut three slices from each side of one of Stemilt's Lil Snappers apples; match up each slice from side one of the apple with its partner from side two (this keeps wafer size uniform); top one slice from each pairing with a little dab of peanut butter; sandwich the peanut-buttered slice with its apple slice mate; press the slices firmly together to allow the peanut butter to ooze out the sides; then roll side of each wafer in a little granola (toffee bits  or nuts)... and voilá!

Boring cereals, bland sandwiches and uninspired snacks can be easily transformed into creative, healthy, fresh options that require little to no effort...

For a look at these preparations and others using Stemilt's Lil Snappers fruits, simply visit Stemilt's website for more information.

Disclosure: I was compensated by Stemilt Growers for recipe development and photography work associated with Stemilt's Lil Snappers campaign. However, the views and opinions expressed in this post are my own. All images, and recipe content, are the property of Stemilt Growers and may not be copied or reproduced.