Monday, August 31, 2009

Peach Tart

Late year, we attended a wedding in Georgia in which, at both the rehearsal and reception dinners, peaches were incorporated in some form or the other. I remember it well because I liked the idea that the couple (although neither of them was from Georgia) included a memorable aspect of the state in their wedding details: Georgia peaches.

I do not think there is a dish that isn't made better by adding peaches. In this tart recipe, very ripe peaches are used for two main reasons: the sweetness and the texture. Since the pie isn't baked long enough to soften half ripened peaches, soft ripe peaches allow you to cut into it easily and serve immediately after assembling. Of course, other soft fruit can be substituted here, such as raspberries and nectarines.

Peach Tart
Serves 4 to 5

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
5 tbsp unsalted butter (room temperature)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt

1 cup low fat milk
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tbsp corn starch
2 tsp vanilla extract
3 ripe peaches, sliced
2 tbsp peach preserve (or other fruit preserve)

To make the crust:
Combine flour, sugar and salt, then cut in the butter until crumbly. Press unto the bottom and an inch up the sides of an 8 inch spring form pan. Bake at 350 degrees F for 10 to 15 minutes until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack until ready to use.

To make the filling:
1. Add the milk and half of the sugar in a sauce pan, over medium heat, and bring to a boil.
2. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs together with the rest of the sugar and the corn starch until the corn starch completely dissolves.
3. Once the milk begins to boil, remove a third cup and temper the egg mixture. Pour the tempered egg mixture back into the rest of the milk. Continue to whisk over medium heat, bringing the mixture back up to a boil. The cream should begin to thicken very quickly. Once you notice that it's not getting any thicker, remove from heat and transfer to a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap until ready to use; this prevents a skin from forming on the top.

To assemble the pie:
1. Pour the prepared cream unto crust, and arrange the peach slices decoratively on the top.
2. Melt the peach preserve in the microwave to a syrup-like consistency. Using a pastry brush, gently brush onto the peach slices.
3. Using a torch, scorch the tops of the peaches lightly. Alternatively, this can be done under the broiler for no more than three minutes.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What I learned from Michael Pollan (plus a recipe for Corn Mango Salsa)

On Thursdays, the farmer's market extends to Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. Although there are less vendors than the Lyndale location, there is still plenty of variety among the stalls. Last week, corn was on my mind. I figured better pick some up before the season's over.

Whenever I think of corn, I can 't help but be reminded of Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food. Pollan describes in depth how corn rose from a weed to become one of the most successful species in the plant kingdom, with the help of industrial technology. He also provides good support for organic farming, highlighting that depending on the earth and the sun instead of synthetic fertilizers benefits not only our natural biologies but helps improve the condition of so many places on the planet that have been destroyed by industrial farming, or I should say ruthless industrial farming practices.

But the one point that really resonated with me was the comparison between Mexicans and North Americans. According to him, the descendants of the traditional Mayans today still refer to themselves as the corn people because of how dependent their diets were on corn. The startling fact, he pointed out, was that while the North American diet is not corn centric (in the sense that the real corn - kernels and cobs - don't typically play a featuring role on our dinner tables as it still does in Mexican meals) we have a much higher carbon thirteen (C-13) isotope concentration is our bodies which means that we consume more corn that the Mayans.

Let me attempt to paraphrase Pollan's explanation: Scientists are able to determine this by analyzing a small piece of our hair or a fingernail. Humans get carbon from the food we eat. In nature, there are two isotopes (different atoms of the same element having the same number of protons and electrons but a different number of neutrons) of carbon: carbon 12 and carbon 13. Most plants, through photosynthesis, use carbon 12, transforming it into food, in particular compounds that, at the molecular level, contain three carbon atoms. These plants are called C-3 plants. Corn, on the other hand, is a C-4 plant: it creates compounds with four atoms of carbon. While corn does use some C-12, it takes in more of the C-13 isotope. Hence, the higher concentration of c-13 to c-12 in a person's body is indicative of the amount of corn in his/her diet. (Whew! Hope that made sense.)

How can it be that North Americans consume more C-13 than Mexicans whose diets are more reflective of a relationship with corn? Don't we eat more wheat, more potatoes, more meat? The answer lies in corn's industrial role as the basis for most processed foods, as food for livestock, in most cereals, in high fructose corn syrup. While we have mostly moved away from corn in its natural state, we have simply moved towards corn-based products. Traces of corn can be found in the most unlikely of foods. Take crackers for example, the ones advertised as thin, whole grain and comes in a variety of flavors. They contain at least three ingredients derived, through highly complex chemical procedures, from corn. The most notable: high fructose corn syrup (I'll save my wrath on this most harmful of sweeteners for another post.)

While this post might give the impression that I am against the continued propagation of corn, I'm not. I like corn. Especially sweet, boiled, Minnesota corn. But the perception that this grain is so entrenched in the vast majority of foods found on supermarkets shelves makes me nauseated. Of course, corn's new role has much to do with economics and this will not change until there is concerted effort to move away from processed towards whole and natural foods. How about simply learning to enjoy foods in their natural state? In trying to do so, I am finding that some of my best meals are those simple ones.

Corn Mango Salsa
Serves 3 to 4

2 boiled ears of corn
1 large mango
1 large cucumber
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp ground chilies
salt to taste

1. Carefully cut the corn kernels off the cob. Peel the mango and carefully slice off the flesh into cubes. Discard the seed. Peel and cube the cucumber. Place corn, mango, and cucumber in a large bowl along with the chopped onion, and cilantro.
2. Mix the lime juice, sugar, ground chilies, and salt. Pour unto the corn mixture. Toss well and serve.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fresh Mango Cheesecake

We received two cases of mangoes last week. A generous gesture from family in New York, except most of them were bruised. Not bruised to the point that they were completely ruined but bruised to the point where it was impossible to just sink your teeth into it the way a mango is meant to be eaten. But I just could not bare to throw them away; even the thought felt wrong. So I decided to extract the pulp and save it for cooking and baking. Here's the best of it.

Fresh Mango Cheesecake
Serves 6 to 8

3 large, very ripe mangoes (or a cup of store-bought puree)
2 tsp cornstarch
8 oz low fat or fat free cream cheese
1 egg plus 1 egg white
2 tbsp plus 3/4 cup confectioner's sugar

Flaxseed Crust
1/4 cup ground flaxseed
3/4 cup all purpose flour
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp light brown sugar

1. Peel the mangoes and slice off the flesh (discard seed) and transfer to a blender. Puree until smooth. Pour the puree in a saucepan over medium heat, whisk in cornstarch and 2 tablespoon of confectioner's sugar. Allow to thicken, about 10 to 12 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and set aside.
2. Blend the remaining ingredients plus half of the puree until smooth.
3. Pour into the prepared crust, followed by the remainder of the mango puree. Run a table knife vertically down, through both the cheesecake and mango layers, to create a swirl pattern on the top.
4. Bake in a water bath at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven, bring to room temperature and refrigerate for at least five hours or overnight before serving.

To make the crust:
Combine all the crust ingredients in a food processor until crumby. Evenly press along the bottom of an 8" spring form pan. Bake at 350 degrees F for 10 to 2 minutes until lightly golden brown. Remove and set on wire rack to cool before adding filling.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Farmers Market Yellow Bean Coconut Soup

There are may aspects of the Minneapolis farmer's market that I enjoy. The variety, of course. Stall after stall of fresh sweet corn, juicy heirloom tomatoes, and all manner and shades of greens and herbs. My first experience in an American farmers market was not here but in St Joseph, Minnesota where I attended college. A little background: this was a small college town with a couple bars, couple churches, one coffee shop and one grocery so you can guess that the options for fresh produce were minimal. Until summer came around and the farmers came out. It was as though I was tasting fresh food again for the first time. The Minneapolis version is like that for me but on a much larger scale. There is always something new and interesting to try and, consequently, some new inspiration. Last weekend, it was yellow string beans. (See recipe below for Yellow Bean Coconut Soup.)

Oddly enough, it is the size of the market that also attracts me. The sheer volume of people who throng the Lyndale location is unlike much of the city during the rest of the year, with the exception of the State Fair. Saturday morning crowds turn that part of town into a scene more characteristic to uber metropolises like New York City and Los Angeles. Maybe it's the fact that for most of the year nothing comes close to the the noise and outdoor energy that I just savor the congestion while it's here. Or the the notion that everyone there, at that one moment, is connected by the same purpose: searching our wholesome food, for themselves or to feed their families.

There are many more reasons we should try to eat locally, especially during the summer when it's more convenient. My feeling is that, more than anything, it bridges the gap between producers and consumers by allowing for direct contact between the two. These farmers bring high quality, wholesome, fresh foods to an area or population that otherwise would have had to pay more than almost twice the price in conventional grocery stores. Of course for many people, including myself, it is not always convenient to shop locally but when there's all of that fresh food and endless variety just a quick three and a half miles away, I just can't help myself.

Jennifer Wilkins of Cornell University makes a good case for eating locally. Click here to read her opinion piece. And here to find a farmers market close to you.

Yellow Bean and Coconut Soup
Serves 4

2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup diced onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 dried red chillies (optional)
4 basil leaves
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 lb fresh yellow string beans
3 cup low sodium vegetable stock
1 1/2 coconut milk (reduced fat)
salt and pepper

1. Heat a large stock pot over medium heat. Add olive oil, onion, and garlic. Saute for ten minutes until onions soften then add basil, turmeric and two thirds of the beans (chopped). Saute an additional eight to ten minutes to slightly soften the beans.
2. Add the vegetable broth and coconut milk, cover and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for eight to ten minutes.
3. Meanwhile, toss the remaining beans with two tablespoon olive oil, season with salt and pepper and roast in a 500 degree F oven until brown on the edges, about six to eight minutes Set aside until ready to serve soup.
4. To serve: puree the coconut-yellow bean soup base to desired consistency (I like it almost smooth and silky) and serve over a handful of the roasted beans.