Today is Food Day! Time to Cook, and Take Action: Tell the FDA to Label GE Foods

Today is the first time Food Day is being celebrated in the United States in close to 40 years! Food Day is a nationwide grassroots mobilization that encourages Americans to eat healthy, delicious food grown in a sustainable and humane way and to advocate for smarter food policies.

In honor of this event, and because I strongly believe that eating is always a political act, I am asking for your collective support for a new campaign that seeks to address one of the most pressing food and environmental issues of our time. The Just Label It campaign strives to tackle the increasing problem of genetically engineered plants and animals in our food supply. The use of GE crops has profound environmental and health implications. At this time, the public does not know if foods they buy contain genetically engineered ingredients.

We deserve to make informed choices about our food supply from every perspective. If you agree, I ask you to support this petition, which  asks the FDA to make the labeling of foods containing genetically engineered foods mandatory. Let’s help them meet this goal of mobilizing millions of Americans around this issue by the end of the year!

Here’s a great, SUPER SHORT video called “Dining in the Dark,” to watch and share with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Now that you are inspired, sign the petition! Tell the FDA you have a right to know what’s in your food.

Quick Cook Polenta and Our “Three Sisters” Dinner

Summer has finally arrived in San Francisco, but given that it is the middle of October, I find myself instinctually craving cool weather foods. Polenta came to mind immediately, being a hands down favorite. My girls especially love what they call “soupy polenta,” the soft melty version that you make from scratch. I’m sure images of hovering over a stove, stirring endlessly, come to mind immediately. But alas! Let me introduce you to the quick cook polenta technique, which takes nothing more than about a half hour and a working oven.

Before we get to the preparation, a few more words about polenta. It is an incredibly versatile side dish, it compliments almost any dinner, meat-centered, vegetarian, or vegan. Of course it is healthy, not to mention nourishing in that way that only a good porridge can be.

I decided to try something different this week, serving the polenta alongside Rancho Gordo’s Good Mother Stollard Beans that my friend Elizabeth (who writes a stunning blog called Pastry Break) recommended. They had been languishing in the cupboard for months now, but after my recent post about homemade beans I was motivated to put them to good use. Topping things off with the last of the summer squash from our garden, sautéed with lots of garlic, I realized that I created the culinary version of the traditional Native American agricultural trinity known as the Three Sisters: squash, maize and beans.

It was hearty, delicious and simple to pull together quickly on a weeknight if you have the beans prepared in advance (which will just need defrosting and reheating time). Any beans will work. I also recommend drizzling a bit of simple tomato sauce over the polenta if you happen to have some on hand.

Preparation: Quick Cook Polenta

Adapted from the San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook Volume II

Preheat over to 350°

Boil at least 6 cups of water in a kettle or pot. In the meantime, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a medium to large ovenproof pan over medium-high heat. Add 1 cup polenta, and stir to coat with oil. Cook until heated through. Gradually stir in 6 cups of boiling water to the polenta – be very careful of backspray when the first cup of water touches the pot.

Return to a boil (should be almost instant) and add 1-2 teaspoons of salt. Cover the pan and place in the warm oven. Cook undisturbed for 35-40 minutes. Take care as you remove the pan from the oven, as it will be VERY hot. The mixture will look somewhat separated at this point, so whisk the polenta until it is well-blended to determine if it is done.

No stirring until its ready!

Mix in 1-2 tablespoons of butter, and a cheese of your choice (or skip both in favor of more olive oil for a vegan option). Serve immediately to enjoy its softest and creamiest texture. Or, chill to transform into a hard polenta dish.

Boxed Mac’N’Cheese Saves the Day!

Our family has been in sick mode this week, which translates into a lot of triage and late nights working, and not a lot of energy to put toward the evening meal. So I wasn’t at all surprised to find an essentially empty refrigerator at 5:00PM yesterday, as I began to contemplate what’s for dinner. What options did I have before me? Not many, it turned out. I decided to center a quick and healthy meal around an unlikely candidate: boxed macaroni and cheese.

No, it is not an ideal dietary staple.

No, it does not compare to any homemade version (unless you are Ava and dislike melty cheese).

Yes, it is made from organic ingredients.

Yes, we happen to have a secret love for this queen of processed foods.

My guilt was instantly assuaged by the suite of accompaniments I decided to pull together to round out the meal. There was zucchini-cilantro soup awaiting in the freezer (reminder: freeze everything you can for a rainy day!). A lonely but gorgeous head of purple cauliflower was roasted with garlic, olive oil, capers and secret ingredient anchovies. A “crisper bin special” green salad was quickly thrown together, saving one orphan kale leaf, half a carrot, a head of fennel and a little lettuce from their compost bin fate).

It all came together in about 40 minutes, and most importantly, allowed us to enjoy a family meal during a tough stretch.

Easy, Delicious From Scratch Beans (Yes). Bisphenol A (No).

I’ve wanted to do a post on beans for a while now, because they are such a wonderful healthy food that seems to appeal to even the pickiest of palettes. In our house, beans satisfy both the carnivore and the omnivores, and are a perfect hot school lunch option when paired with rice or polenta.

Over the past two years, I have slowly weaned our household away from canned foods. I came to this decision out of concern that canned foods are contaminated with a chemical called bisphenol-A (BPA for short). BPA is hormone disruptor that can interfere with normal development and function of the body. Recent tests by the Centers for Disease Control show that exposure is fairly ubiquitous, and human evidence of harm is emerging. Since canned foods are a primary source of exposure, and one that we generally have control over, reducing our family’s reliance on canned food seemed like a good strategy.

Figuring out how to efficiently make beans from scratch was key to this effort (that, and canning my own tomato sauce, which I’ll leave for another post). The great thing I discovered is that making beans at home is actually very easy; it inspires exploration of different bean varieties (we were stuck on pintos for years but tried heirloom black beans this summer that wowed us with their flavor and texture); and most importantly, it is far cheaper than canned.

The key to making this work? Don’t plan around a bean dinner to make beans. Make them anytime you’ll be around the house for at least an hour and have the capacity to stir a pot every so often. Or, better yet, rely on that slow cooker that may just be collecting dust in your small appliance cemetery. If you’ve got one, all you need is an outlet and a few hours of passive (ie no involvement from you) cooking time, no soaking required. Make lots of cooked beans and use some, then freeze the rest in small to mid-size containers. They defrost beautifully.

Stovetop Technique

Note: 1 cup of dry beans = about 3 cups cooked beans

Rinse and sort dried beans of your choice, discarding any blemished ones and stones/grit. Place in a medium-large pot and cover beans with cool water by about two inches. Soak overnight or for 8-10 hours. I usually set this up in the evening and if I don’t have time to cook the beans the following morning, I’ll place the soaked beans in the fridge until I carve out a more convenient cooking time.

Once the beans are soaked, it is time to cook. Start with a medium to large pot, depending on how many cups of beans you are preparing ( I would recommend at least 2 cups of dried beans to make it worth the time). Cover with three times their volume of fresh water. I like to add 1-2 tbsp. coarse sea salt to the cooking water, along with some aromatics.

Bay leaves, whole garlic cloves and onions are great options, especially for Mexican-style black and pinto beans. Bring beans to a rapid boil, then lower heat to a simmer and cook, partially covered, for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Check occasionally to be sure there is enough cooking water. You’ll know the beans are done when they are cooked through but not falling apart.

See below for use/storage info.

Slow Cooker Technique

This is my favorite method because no soaking is required! Wash your beans thoroughly, and place into slow cooker. Cover beans by about an inch of water, a little more is fine too. Add 1-2 tbsp. coarse sea salt. If using a fine salt, use less. You can always add more salt later but you don’t want to overdo it. Toss in the aromatics of your choice (see above) and cover. Set the timer for 3 hours. If you are home, check the slow cooker to be sure the beans are covered with enough water. If they begin to look dry, add some more. They should be ready in 3-4 hours depending on the beans.

Storage and Use

I recommend holding on to a least a can’s worth (a 14 oz. can of beans is about 1 ½ cups) in the fridge for school lunches; to serve alongside quesadillas for a quick lunch or dinner; to accompany chicken tacos; to sprinkle with nutritional yeast for a quick snack; and to make into proper vegetarian dishes of various sorts. The possibilities are endless.

Freeze the rest, and be sure to cover the beans with cooking water when freezing them. Now you have beans at your disposal anytime, after a quick defrost.

Final note: For those of you who eat beans frequently, a pressure-cooker may be a useful tool. I had to put the kibosh on further appliance purchases for our household but my vegetarian friends swear by it. Unsoaked beans can be cooked in a pressure cooker in 20-45 minutes, depending on the variety.