Old- School Italian Tradition Expressed in Fractals

27 02 2011

The Brassica from Outer Space, or Rome

I was rushing through my local supermarket the other day when I was struck by something beautiful. Here in the depths of winter, we are surrounded by grey snow and greyer skies, so the occasional splash of color seems to waken something primal. There on a display table in the produce department were three bright rows of brassicas, one of purple cauliflower, one of white, and one of chartreuse Romanesco.

Broccoli Romanesco, which is sometimes called a broccoli and sometimes a Romanesco Cauliflower, seems to exist outside such earthly classifications. It may have the approximate form of a head of cauliflower, but its as if it were assembled in the food replicator on Star Trek, and the machine put it together digitally. The perfect spirals of tight florets are considered a fractal pattern, a math term for a repeating series of forms, all of which are miniature versions of the larger form. I don’t know exactly what that means, but the geometry of the veggie is stunning.

It might seem like some new hybrid from the lab, but it’s actually an old, Italian veg, whose history goes back at least to the 16th century. It’s being harvested now in California, but its unique structure makes it delicate to ship, so it’s a little hard to find, and costs a little more than cauliflower.

All I know is that it is exciting to behold, and offers a bit of variety to your cruciferous dining life.  It’s a solid player in the nutrition department, and a very good source of fiber, C, B6, Folate, Pantothenic Acid, Potassium and Manganese , and a good source of protein, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, iron, magnesium and zinc. The little surprise is that the protein in such a veggie is actually complete, offering up the prized perfect balance of all the needed amino acids.

So what do you do with such a veggie?

With such a unique look, it’s a veg you want to show off. I’m sure it makes a great puree or creamy soup, but why waste those fractal pyramids? My first choice in using romanesco is to lop it into large sections, keeping the florets intact and creating some flat surfaces. Those flat sides will brown up nicely in a sauté or roasting pan, sizzling in hot olive oil. This can be served simply, or built into a pasta or rice dish.

It’s also gorgeous separated into florets and briefly steamed, so that you can drag it through a tasty sauce or dip. And if you are making up a veggie tray for dipping, adding romesco to the mix will probably spark both conversation and increased interest in vegetable consumption.

Romanesco with Capers and Olives

1 small romanesco

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, slivered

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed

salt and pepper

Cut the romanesco into large (2-3 inch) pieces, trying to get some flat sides. Drop them in boiling water for about 1 minute, just to soften. Drain well.


just a minute


Let it get nice and toasty

Heat the olive oil over med high heat  in a large skillet. Add the romanesco, stirring for about 5 minutes until browned. Add garlic, capers and olives, and cook until the garlic is fragrant and the capers are lightly toasted. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

You can add a pinch of red pepper flakes, or a splash of lemon or vinegar, if the capers didn’t already give it enough kick. You can also throw in some halved cherry tomatoes and cook until they are juicy, then toss with cooked penne.


try not to eat it all with your fingers

Hooked On Sweets? I Have the For Sure Cure

20 02 2011

The hypnotic allure of chocolate?

I’m a food writer. I develop recipes for publication, and I test and taste and teach and in every way immerse myself in food all the time. I know for you civilians, it sounds like a trip to heaven. And really, I can’t complain, I am doing what I love and getting paid for it.

You knew there was a but coming, right?

The risk of doing what you love as a job is that you might fall out of love, or at least need a trial separation.

For most of my life, I loved and craved chocolate like everybody else. I loved it so much that I took up truffle making, and did an annual truffle ritual. Starting in Fall, I would test new flavors and work up new recipes. I would have tubs of my luscious new ganaches tucked into my fridge, where they met and exceeded my every chocolate craving. Then I would teach a few truffle classes and make my holiday gifting truffles. After a long day at work, I would come home and take my truffles through their various stages, either making the ganache, scooping, or dipping. I even had my own tempering machine. Sometimes my shoulders ached, but I had to stay on schedule. This would go on for a couple of weeks, then I would package up all the truffles and organize them, packing some to mail to family and friends, keeping some to give to local friends.

As the years went by, I found that I didn’t really want to eat them anymore. In fact, I only tasted little bits of the fillings and then gave every single one away, not eating a truffle for years at a time. If we had an extra box in the fridge, it sat there until it dried up and I threw it away. Eventually, just smelling melting chocolate made me feel tired. The smell of deep dark chocolate smelled bitter to me, and made my tongue ache as if it were scorched.

I stopped making truffles several years ago, and some day I hope to want one again. I enjoy a little chocolate now and then, but even that has ceased to have that siren song. Chocolate cakes, cookies, all those are fine, but no big whoop. Unlike most women I know, I have no chocolate obsession. I have a whole drawerful of premium chocolate bars, chips and nibs, and sometimes they actually go stale. I need them for recipe work, so I keep it stocked.

Now I am working on a dessert book. It’s packed with recipes that appeal to me, with crunchy, oaty streusels, creamy puddings, tender cakes and big fat cookies, all made with healthy, whole ingredients. I promise you will love it, it’s all really tasty.

Why, last Sunday I had Pumpkin Bread Pudding for breakfast, Plum Tart for Lunch, Coconut Shortcakes with Bananas and Coconut Cream for snacks, and Buckwheat Pancakes with Strawberry Sauce for dinner. I added some yogurt to the dinner for some protein, and I took a few supplements, since this is not a balanced diet.

Folks come by and pick up these extra treats, and my husband takes them to work. But I wonder, could we make a sweets aversion program out of recipe testing?

I promise you, sugarplums no longer dance in my head, and strange cravings for things like salad have replaced them.

Maybe it could work.
Ganache Filling

Artificial Colors, Why Are These Still Here?

13 02 2011

What Price for Visual Appeal?

Bright blue snow cones and psychedelic sprinkles have a big appeal with kids. And yellow lemonade, brown granola bars and beige salad dressings seem natural, but are often artificially colored, too. Unfortunately, there is good reason to believe that amping up the look of foods with artificial colors is a bad thing. Especially for kids.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s 2010 report “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks,” the use of food dyes has increased fivefold since 1955. Most of them are derived from petroleum, although one red, cochineal, is made from ground up beetles, a big no for vegans.

The report makes clear that there is really no benefit to adding these carcinogenic, mutagenic, neurotoxic chemicals to our food supply, especially when there are natural alternatives, like red derived from beets. It also states definitively that artificial colors do promote hyperactivity and ADHD in both children and adults.

In fact, European countries have been requiring warning labels on artificially colored foods since last year, stating:  “consumption may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Many American companies make versions of artificially colored food they sell here with natural alternatives to sell in Europe, so it’s not like they can’t make the switch.

Now I don’t know about you, but it seems like plenty of adults I know are suffering from various levels of ADHD, and can’t pay attention to anything for very long. You can blame twitter and television, but when we know that these additives are promoting this, maybe we are looking at mass brain intoxication.

All those energy drinks aren’t naturally yellow, you know.

On CSPI’s Definitely Avoid list, the top offenders are Blue #2, Green #3, Orange B, Red #3, and Yellows #5 and #6. They all go by aliases, as well, so if you see erythrosine on an ingredient list, that is a red dye.

As a consumer, avoiding artificial colors can be tricky. Citrus Red, a known carcinogen, is used to color the skins of oranges. As a zest user, I find that reprehensible, but since I buy organic, I am avoiding it. Red 40 is implicated in immune system tumors and hyperactivity, and is the most commonly used color in the food supply. Most of the colors are implicated in asthma, rhinitis and hives.

Just skipping the snow cones is no guarantee, believe it or not, Smart Start Cereal and Nature Granola Bars can contain colors, as do almost all Kraft salad dressings. You would think that getting granola to be brown would be a no brainer, but who knows what goes on in the packaging process or while it sits on the shelf.

Read labels, buy all-natural foods and go organic to avoid food dyes. That neon sports drink or baby blue frosted cupcake may seem innocuous, but why add to your toxic load? Just avoiding unnaturally neon foods is not enough, either, as they slip these things into natural looking foods, like canned fruit, that might get a little too pale in the preservation process. Look for foods that use natural food coloring, such as annatto extract, beta-carotene, beet powder, caramel color, fruit or vegetable juice, paprika, saffron and turmeric.

There are enough things that we ingest and breathe that we can’t control, and if we know that these are harmful why put them in our bodies? Maybe if we stop buying this junk they will take a hint.

And if you need to color a frosting, try this natural coloring, I’ve used it and it works just fine.India Tree Natural Decorating Colors 3-Count

Oprah Goes Vegan-ish, Spurs Debate

6 02 2011

Beans, The Final Frontier

Well, if you follow the vegetarian news, you may already have heard that Oprah and her entire staff went vegan for a week, then did a whole show about the experience. While most workplaces going on a diet is not news, when you are Oprah, it’s not just news, it’s time for the Beef Industry to call their lawyers. Her power and influence is such that millions will go where she goes, and if she is going vegan, it will be mainstreamed in no time.

( a link to watch video of the show:)


To be extra careful that she didn’t get into more trouble with Big Beef, the most powerful lady in television invited a representative of Cargill to give a tour of an exemplary slaughterhouse. She also had Michael Pollan on to give his reasoned but non-vegan perspective. Star of the show was Kathy Freston, who guided the staffers in their vegan shopping and dining.

Freston is a 7 year vegan, author of a new book, the Veganist, and the wife of Oprah’s business partner. She is gorgeous, tall, and exactly the kind of person that motivates others to go vegan, in the hope that they can look just a little bit more like her. Her message is inclusive and enthusiastic, and she probably converted a million people through the power of television.

I had forgotten how meat eaters freak out when they get some fiber in their diets. There was a lot of discussion of bowel habits, and jokes about flatulence. There were also some amazing success stories, people who had weight loss and health improvements in just that week. Freston had a bit of an intervention with a staffer who was “addicted ” to fast food, with great success. Junk food does have addictive qualities, and it was a big deal to actually confront this on international TV. ( For a past post on this: https://robincooksveg.wordpress.com/2010/03/)

The internets have been on fire with discussion of the show. Overall, there has been a big debate over the decision to use a lot of convenient meat and cheese substitutes to get people started. As we know, food is nothing if not a subject of debate, and this is a hot issue.

For some, it’s seen as a great step for first timers to get off fast food and industrial meat and switch to tofurkey and faux cheese. For others, it was disappointing that the message was not more about using unprocessed food, and learning to cook with whole foods like beans and grains.

To me, every step made in the direction of eating more mindfully and having a better impact on the body and the planet is good. As long as it leads toward real food in the end. Getting off the Golden Arches and onto some cleaner processed food is certainly a better place to be, as the producer who dropped 11 pounds and stopped having terrible acid reflux discovered.

I don’t think that Freston or anyone on the show intended for people to build a diet on convenience vegan foods for the rest of their lives, it was more of a way to get people through the week. Then, once they survived and felt better, they would have to broaden their horizons. It was just such a radical change for these people that they had to have a stepping stone, in this case, Gardein chicken scallopine and Daiya mozzarella shreds. Some folks like subs like that, others just can’t stop wishing they were real meat and cheese, and will do better to eat other vegan foods. It’s very personal.

In the end, Oprah and many of her peeps felt that it would do them some good to go “vegan-ish,” a term that they used to refer to eating vegan alot but not giving up occasional animal foods. The power of the juggernaut that is Oprah may just have converted more people to healthy eating than I could hope to in my entire career, so more power to her.

How To Cook Dry Beans

Great Chefs Cook Vegan, Linda Long’s Labor of Love

2 02 2011

There are those books that arrive one day, and you think, “it’s about time.” Somehow it just captures the zeitgeist of the moment and pushes past to change the way we see something.

In this case, a book appeared that changed the face of Vegan Cuisine.

Great Chefs Cook Vegan

That book is Great Chefs Cook Vegan, by Linda Long.  The day I pulled it from the shelf and started leafing through its glossy pages, I thought, this is like the French Laundry Cookbook, for vegans. With its sexy photos and enticing recipes, it magically elevated the whole vegan book section to the status of gourmet, food porn worthy delicacies. Great Chefs Cook Vegan unequivocally says: plant based food has arrived, get used to it. And get a fork.

Linda Long, Author, Food Photographer and Vegan

Long is a 30 year vegan who lives in New York City, so her idea for the book sprang organically from her experiences dining there. “I was at Jean-George Vonderichten’s restaurant, enjoying a delicious vegan dish that he had made for me of pumpkin dumplings. I said to myself, I should do a book and call it Great Chefs Cook Vegan. When I told Jean-Georges, he immediately said, “I’ll be in it!” Then I went to eat at David Burke’s restaurant, and he said the same thing, really quickly.”

Living in one of the great dining cities in the world, Long is surrounded by talented chefs, and had been taking full advantage of their abilities by requesting vegan menus in their restaurants. Her meals, custom made just for her, were always creatively prepared and exciting. But they were not available to the rest of the world, often improvised in the moment, never to be made again. Long saw the gap between public perception of plant-based dining and the reality of what was happening on her plate. “My idea was to connect the mainstream with the vegan culinary world. I wanted to publish the stamp of approval of some of the most respected chefs in the world for Vegan.”

And if the response of the chefs is any indication, vegan is the next Big Thing. Some chefs feel lost without their standard proteins, but not these folks. “These chefs are the cream of the crop, they have no problem working vegan. Their minds go crazy with all the things they can do. When Jean Georges agreed to do it, he asked “you mean, I can use everything in the plant kingdom?” and I said yes, and he got so excited and said, “there’s so much to choose from!'”

Long traveled the country, shooting all the photos herself with no crew, save an occasional busboy or friend to hold a reflector. “We did all the photo shoots in two hours. They all used white plates and tablecloths, and sent the food out in courses, and I set the lights and used reflectors to light each individual dish. I didn’t need to style the food, since the Chefs all had composed it how they wanted it. ” If you have ever tried to shoot food, you will hopefully appreciate what an amazing feat this was. Most food shoots take hours just to compose a dish, and hours more to light and shoot each one. Long was a one woman guerilla photo crew-shooting the Chef’s portraits, as well.

She had no problem enlisting the top chefs in the country, from Cat Cora and Marcus Samuelson to Daniel Boulud and Charlie Trotter. They all wanted to play in the plant food garden, and strut their skills with no meat, cheese, eggs or honey. Dan Barber’s recipe for Cauliflower Steaks (on page 70) was reprinted in many magazines, and remains one of the most requested ones in the book.

Her project has had an influence beyond her readers, as many of the chefs involved realized that they should work in a little more vegan food in their menus. “Eric Blauberg, former Chef at 21 Club, is now a restaurant consultant. He told me that the first thing he tells a restaurant is to put a vegan appetizer, entree and dessert on the menu, and don’t say it’s vegan. In every case they sell 150 a week of all of these things.” She’s also heard back from Steve Wynn, owner of 20 restaurants in Las Vegas. He has ordered all his chefs to put something vegan on the menu. “He said that when I shot the book there two years before, I had the vision and now he is trying to catch up.”


Linda also produces videos for http://www.veganhotspot.com, where you can find an insiders guide to the vegan dining in the top restaurants. http://veganhotspot.com/about.html