Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sugar-Free, (Almost) Fat-Free Summer Pops

We're all familiar with the old saw that you want what you can't have. As a food writer with Type 2 diabetes I come across that a lot. And I give in. Sometimes. But usually I try to stick with a healthy diet and daily exercise.

As the weather gets warmer and frozen treats are increasingly more beguiling, I've been trying to figure out a better coping strategy. It's just too frustrating to pick up boxes of fruit popsicles or ices or containers of ice cream, read the labels and see serving sizes with 32 grams of carbohydrates. That, after all, is about as much as I can have in an entire meal, let alone a snack. For people in weight loss mode, it's also the fat in these treats that makes them return the box to the shelf. And don't tell us to just have fruit. Fruit is high in carbs and I can't have that many at a given meal.

Now I'm fully expecting a heaping serving of scorn for touting this, but someone gave me the idea of not only freezing fruit, like bananas, but also freezing instant Jell-o pudding--and I loved it! I mean really loved it.

On a recent weekend afternoon I picked up a small 1.4-ounce box of chocolate fudge sugar free, fat free instant Jell-o pudding at the market. I also bought a four-pack of 1/2 cup plastic containers. At home I had a banana that I chopped into bite-sized pieces. Then I followed the directions on the box, using 1 percent organic milk, which I blended with the powdered mix. I stirred in the banana pieces, then quickly (before it set) poured the mix into the containers, topped them off with the lid and sent them off to the freezer. By evening I tried one. I know it's not culinarily correct (CC?) to admit it, but the result hit the spot. Rich chocolate flavor, creamy banana bites, and all long lasting since it took forever to lick it gone.

The molds I bought were Tovolo Star Ice Molds--a set of six that fit on a stand for freezing. Each mold holds 3 ounces and the set cost about $12 on Amazon.

The problem was that it actually irritated my tongue (go for the jokes; I fully expect them). So, I found some sturdy plastic popsicle molds online and bought them. The result was much better. Just remember that you have to run the filled, frozen mold under warm water for a couple of minutes to loosen it from the popsicle. And, instead of filling four, 1/2-cup containers, the small box will fill six popsicle molds (at least this brand). That means one serving is even less carb laden. With the cups, a serving was 8 grams (plus a little more with some pieces of banana and the milk). With the popsicle molds, it's a little more than 5 grams.

This can work with all sorts of ingredients--non-fat yogurt mixed with honey and berries--or a smattering of chocolate chips (You'll probably use all of a tablespoon for one popsicle). I gave it a try with Bellwether Farms vanilla sheeps milk yogurt and fresh, organic blueberries. Try chopped mango, cherries, papaya, peaches--name the summer fruit and you can probably work it in to great effect. If you're carb-challenged this is terrific because you'll get only a fraction of a full serving of fruit in each pop.

So, yes, I get it--I'm advocating packaged foods filled with all sorts of unpronounceable chemicals (actually, it's modified cornstarch, cocoa, salt, soy lecithin, and aspartame, among others). But for someone with dietary limitations who wants to splurge, what the hell... There's no such thing as perfection on a sultry day.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Food in San Diego: The Roots of Our Future

When we talk about food in San Diego, the conversation can go in so many directions--the burgeoning restaurant culture and farm-to-table cred so many restaurants and chefs strive for, the impressively expanding farmers market scene, ever-present nutrition and obesity concerns, the issue of food justice. Some of these topics overlap, some tend to sit far apart on the discussion spectrum but all will be the focus of the upcoming Breakfast Dialogue hosted by Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, or C3, a group founded in 1961 that advocates growth management "by encouraging open space, high standards of urban design, and coordination between public and private sectors so that San Diego's continuing development will complement its natural setting." The Breakfast Dialogue will take place on Thursday, June 27 from 7 to 9 a.m. at the Wyndham San Diego Bayside on N. Harbor Dr. downtown.

The list of panel participants includes farmers Noel Stehly of Stehly Farms and the new Stehly Farms Market and Lucila de Alejandro of Suzie's Farm, Priya Reddy of the New Roots Community Farm in City Heights, Trish Watlington of The Red Door and The Wellington restaurants in Mission Hills, and Julianna Arnett of the San Diego County Obesity Initiative/Community Health Improvement Partners. I'll serve as the moderator.

Noel Stehly

Lucila de Alejandro

Trish Watlington with Chef Miguel Valdez
According to organizer Diego Velasco, principal with architecture and planning firm MW Steele Group, this dialogue will be C3's broader first discussion of several that will later drill down to more specific concerns within our food economy. If you're in San Diego, interested in where your food comes from, and in discussing the issues that surround local food production, food security, public health, and even land planning--this is the place to be.

Some of the topics we'll discuss include:
  • The challenges of food access in low-income and immigrant communities
  • The barriers to food production, including the soaring costs of energy and water, and some of the creative solutions farmers are employing
  • How our food planning addresses the health and nutrition needs of lower income communities--can we even tackle issues of social and economic justice, food security, ethnicity, and culture with food?
  • The state of the farm-to-table movement in San Diego--is it a fad, an upper class foodie trend, or, more importantly, about public health and quality of life?
  • How does planning ensure that we reserve land for agricultural uses? We have more than 6,000 family farms in San Diego County, but is there still room for agriculture in San Diego's future?
Tickets are $25 for C3 members and $35 for non-members. For reservations, go to the C3 website or call 858-277-0900.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

French Sorrel and Mint Granita

Taking a look around my garden, I guess I'd have to say I have a light green thumb. I try hard and have a certain amount of success. The roses are blooming. I'm just about to harvest the first Japanese eggplant of the season. The cherry peppers and serrano chiles are flowering. But then there are the tomato and tomatillo plants. Not gonna happen this year, I guess.

One plant that has been my garden star is the French sorrel. This perennial clearly doesn't give a damn about the dastardly clay soil it lives in. I work and work that horrid soil with compost, but the moment I turn my back it immediately compacts to the point that it must squeeze the life out of any roots that try to wend their way through. The sorrel, however, seems to have made its peace with its lousy living conditions and year after year keeps giving me gorgeous sour green leaves. I make pesto with it, sauces, salads--and, this week, granita.

Granitas are one of those go-to dishes in the spring and summer because they pack so much flavor into an icy refreshing form--and are so ridiculously easy to make. Too intimidated to make ice cream (which you shouldn't be)? Opt for the granita. You just make a simple syrup with two parts water to one part granulated sugar. Add your flavor--be it fresh berries or vanilla or coffee or something else you come up with. Puree it in a blender. Then pour the mixture into a casserole dish or baking sheet and put in the freezer. Every couple of hours, scrape it up with a fork and refreeze until you have frozen little granules of flavor.

So, when I saw all those sorrel leaves begging to be harvested, and a pot full of chocolate mint, I thought granita.

Now the issue with sorrel granita is that you want the leaf color to stay vibrant. So you have to let the syrup cool down before blending. I took advantage of that by adding sprigs of the mint to the hot syrup to pull the oils and resulting flavor from the mint, then I removed them when the mixture was blended.

The granita has a grassy, tangy flavor, punctuated by undertones of chocolate mint. I enjoyed it on its own but plan to serve it as part of a savory dish--think cold poached salmon--or dessert, with lemon cake. It's truly refreshing and something a bit unusual for a dinner party.

French Sorrel and Mint Granita
Makes 1 quart
(printable recipe)

2 cups cold water
1 cup granulated sugar
Juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
2 sprigs or more of fresh mint
2 cups fresh French sorrel leaves

1. Combine the water, sugar, and half the lemon juice in a non-reactive saucepan. Bring to the boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and transfer to a glass container. Add the mint and let cool to remove temperature.
2. Wash the sorrel leaves, remove the tough spine, and coarsely chop the leaves. You'll want two well-packed cups.
3. When the sugar syrup has cooled, remove the mint and discard. Add the syrup, the rest of the lemon juice, and the sorrel leaves to the bowl of a blender. Puree until smooth.
4. Pour the mixture into a large shallow pan or casserole dish. Freeze until icy--about 3 hours. Then using a fork, scrape through the mixture to break it up. Refreeze another 2 hours and repeat. Do this once more and it should be ready to serve. You can store it in a container for up to a month.

Here's the granita after a couple of scrapings. It's ready.

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Stone Fruit Salsa

Back in the early 90s, KPBS aired a Saturday cooking show called Cooking at the Academy, referring to the California Cooking Academy. I guess I really enjoyed the show because I bought the cookbook, which I still have. This was one of those books many of us have that have a single recipe we fall in love with and work into our repertoire. Mine was a simple tomato relish made with a couple of juicy tomatoes, garlic, a jalapeño pepper, basil leaves sliced into a chiffonade, and balsamic vinegar. To that I came up with adding diced red onion.

Anyway, I discovered I adored it as an accompaniment to another favorite recipe from yet another cookbook, an eggplant souffle from the wonderful ancient tome, The Vegetarian Epicure. I still make both, although not always paired.

Fast forward decades and I found myself a couple of weeks ago at Specialty Produce marveling at the new delivery of stone fruit from the Santa Monica Farmers Market. I ended up writing a piece on four types of cherries for my Local Bounty post for San Diego Magazine, but I also had picked up some lovely peaches, plus I had a couple of plums already at home. What to do with this bounty?

And my mind somehow went to that tomato relish. So, how about a savory stone fruit salsa loosely modeled on that relish?

I had a serrano chile, basil growing in my garden, a lime and white balsamic vinegar from Temecula Olive Oil Company, which I thought would work better with fruit. Plus, a slew of cherries and other stone fruit.

But, how would this be used? Well, that was easy. All those flavors could go sort of AC/DC, complementing fish or carnitas tacos, grilled salmon, black cod, pork tenderloin, duck, or--what I had the first night--grilled flank steak. Or it could be served as a savory component in a dessert, over a rich vanilla ice cream, lemon cake, or even a decadent chocolate brownie.

Or a souffle.

Stone Fruit Salsa
(printable recipe)

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

2 dozen cherries, pitted
2 plums
1 large, firm peach
1/2 serrano or whole jalapeño pepper
1/4 medium red onion, diced
1 1/2 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
juice of 1 lime
pinch of salt
freshly ground pepper to taste

Chop the fruit and the pepper (removing the seeds if you want to reduce the heat intensity). Add to a bowl with the rest of the ingredients. Mix well and refrigerate for an hour. Adjust the seasonings. If you want it sweeter, add a little honey to taste.

If you don't have a cherry pitter, find one. It might also be labeled an olive pitter. It's wonderfully handy.

Stone fruit salsa

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