Tune into the Friday Food Critics on Tuesday 12/22

Tune in on Tuesday to hear the Food Critics, on KCUR’s Walt Bodine Show at 10:00 AM. That’s 89.3 FM, or you can listen on your computer at http://kcur.org/people/walt-bodine.

With Christmas on Friday, we’ll be on earlier in the week. The second half topic will focus on special Christmas and New Year’s Eve dinners around town.  We’ll also try to recall our favorite meals of 2009, a hard task indeed considering all the fine fare to be had in KC.

Call into the show and tell us where you like to ring in the New Year, and where you had your best meal.

The number is 816-235-2888.

Terrene Restaurant in St. Louis

Terrene means “of the earth”, a very apt name for this eco-friendly restaurant in the Central West End of St. Louis. In addition to the menus being printed on recycled paper, the bar tables were fashioned from office paper (don’t ask me how). Look closely and you’ll see embedded staple and paper clip remains.  Terrene Bar-St. Louis

But that only scratches the surface of why the owners named the restaurant Terrene. All meats come from animals that have been treated humanely, the produce comes from local farmers, and there’s a large and inventive selection of vegetarian options. We started with amazing tofu tacos. Tofu Tacos-Terrene-St. LouisThe freshly made corn tortillas had been grilled, the tofu was cut so small that non-tofu eaters could be fooled into thinking they were eating chicken, and the salsa verde dipping sauce was redolent of a green garden.

We also enjoyed a veggie sausage flatbread, which tasted just like authentic Italian sausage with fennel and spices. I was initially skeptical of the provolone cheese, but it had just the right flavor and texture to complement the chewy crust.  The “meat” comes from the St. Louis based Match Meat Company.  I am going to try to get Whole Foods in Kansas City to carry it; it would revolutionize options for the home cook trying to serve healthier meals. Veggie Sausage Flatbread-Terrene-St. LouisAnother creative dish was the pear and goat cheese salad. The pear was cored and stuffed with goat cheese, a preparation I had never seen.

Meat-lovers need not dispair, the menu has a host of non-vegetarian dishes. There are small plates as well as entrees, including chicken, pork and steak dishes, a nightly fish special and bouillabaisse. I had quail, stuffed with a fruit studded couscous and served with greens and a berry sauce. Quail stuffed with couscous-Terrene-St. LouisThe soup of the day was a dark gumbo with chicken, tasso ham and crawfish.

We were there on a Sunday night, and though the bar was quiet, the dining area was full. The terrazzo floors and brick walls made it a bit noisy, but not uncomfortably so. Unfortunately, it was too cold for outside dining, but one peek at the cozy patio explained why it’s voted “best patio dining” year after year in a local magazine.

Terrene on Urbanspoon

Coffee Ice Cream

It’s  no secret that I am a coffee ice cream fiend. With or without chocolate chips, with or with out chocolate sauce.  Except during the holiday season when peppermint ice cream is trotted out, there’s no dessert I’d rather have. But here’s the rub—not many ice cream manufacturers make coffee ice cream, and except for Edy’s recent foray into the market, light coffee ice cream is virtually impossible to find. Despite my love for ice cream, I do try to eat the light variety to avoid the high fat content and calories of the real stuff. 11650350999_ORIG 2

Starbucks is the only premium ice cream maker to feature a myriad of coffee flavors (a no brainer for sure), with light, java chip, and coffee almond fudge, among others. Unilever recently bought the Starbucks brand and revamped the flavors to tie in with the coffee company’s frappuccino and macchiato drinks. In the process, they eliminated Low Fat Latte. What were they thinking?!! In this day and age when obesity rates are skyrocketing, companies should be producing more light ice creams, not eliminating them.  I also maintain, though the company disputes it, that the formula is different. The ice cream itself is not as creamy and smooth as it once was. AAaarrgghh. First my beloved M&M’s and now this.

Farm City by Novella Carpenter

If you would be squeamish to read how pigs or turkeys are slaughtered, this may not be the book for you. But Farm City is a fascinating account of how a woman in an Oakland, CA ghetto turned a vacant lot next door into an urban garden.

Novella Carpenter ordered ducks, chicks and turkeys by catalogue, bought pigs at auction, and planted every fruit and vegetable imaginable in this plot of what started as a sea of weeds.  She used all parts of each vegetable and every section of her farm animals to make incredible meals for herself and neighbors. One month she vowed to live off what she produced or could barter for: she lost 20 lbs and gained profound insight into the cycle of life and the true meaning of the “farm to table” concept.

Carpenter’s mission was all-consuming, but along the way she built unlikely relationships and did unimaginable things (i.e. foraging for food in dumpsters to feed her livestock) in order to live off the land.

Tired of the typical beach read or Grisham thriller? This book may be an educational alternative.

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Don’t mess with my M&M’s!

My world has been turned upside down.

M&M’s have been my favorite candy since my childhood. I remember eating them with abandon while at camp in Minnesota. On our days off, my fellow counselors and I would go to the grocery store in town and eat all the junk food we could amass. M&M’s were my pick every time, a staple in my diet that ranked as high as milk or vegetables.

My friends are well aware of my addiction. On my 40th birthday, I received a cookie jar filled to the brim with peanut M&M’s. I kept digging my hand into the jar until they were gone: I must have gained five pounds from that splurge. And I wasn’t good at sharing. (I’m usually generous, but not when M&M’s or coffee-chip ice cream is at stake).

I have watched with selfish interest as the Mars Company, maker of the M&M, has tinkered with the basic concept. Originally distributed to soldiers during World War II, the milk chocolate candies were later joined by peanut (1954), almond (1988), peanut butter (1990) and crisped-rice (1998) candies. Mini, mega and dark chocolate M&M’s were more recently introduced.

And then there are the seasonal varieties. For instance, during the winter holidays, mint chocolate gems make an appearance. Around Easter and Halloween special colors dot the grocery shelves. (By the way, I’m convinced that pastel colors DO taste different than the traditional red, brown, yellow and orange, even though the company says otherwise).

And now this.

Premium M&Ms. Shimmering and translucent, in trendy flavors – mocha, raspberry almond, triple chocolate, mint and chocolate almond. The original chocolate coating, invented by Kansas City’s own Midwest Research Institute, is nowhere to be found. And instead of the familiar colorful plastic bags, these come in fancy boxes with a see-through window on the front. While the hefty price is in line with other premium candies on the market, they are simply too expensive to be used as poker chips or even as filler in living room vases, as some consumers have done for years.

How do they compare in taste? I guess they’re okay … if you’re into wax.

Remember New Coke? The Atlanta-based conglomerate wanted to shake things up so they tinkered with the original formula by sweetening it. The switch was such an abysmal failure that after public outcry, New Coke was replaced by its predecessor.

Though Mars Company is attempting to appeal to a broader constituency by offering a more upscale product, it isn’t likely to replace the M&Ms we all know and can’t live without. I predict that Premium M&Ms will go the way of New Coke—not down the hatch, but into oblivion.

Previously published in the Independent magazine.

Spice it UP!

Need a little heat in the kitchen? There’s a vast array of condiments on grocery store shelves that will spice up any dish, from soups to entrees. Tabasco is the obvious choice, but what about Sriracha sauce, an oriental hot chili sauce, or Sambal Oelek, a ground fresh chili paste? A dab of either works wonders in stir-fries, mixed with a touch of mayonnaise for sushi dipping—or even in chicken noodle soup. A shake or two of red pepper flakes will transform a traditional pasta sauce into something that would make Emeril or Mario Batali rejoice. And, of course, nothing clears the sinuses like an extra-hot Bloody Mary.

Chile peppers, by the way, do have surprising health benefits. Capsacin is the name of the substance in these plants that is known to have important medicinal effects. For example, studies have shown that it can lower blood pressure, relieve headaches and arthritis pain, and even minimize depression.

So do your body and your family a favor by adding a little zing to the dinner table!

Previously published in the Independent magazine.

ABC’s of Pesto

Pesto is one of life’s greatest delights–whether it is made with arugula, basil, or cilantro. Make up a batch and freeze it in ice cube trays so you’ll always have some on hand: try it as a quick fix for a bland soup; to add a layer of complexity to a sauce; or to perk up a pasta. You might also consider filling a canning jar and giving it as a gift–your friends will love you! (Be sure to put a layer of oil on top to keep the air from ruining the vibrant green color).

Arugula–Puree batches of this sharply flavored green with olive oil, garlic and a touch of lemon. Add to just cooked linguine or bocatini tossed with sautéed shallots, garlic, sliced wild mushrooms and spinach. Serve with balsamic vinegar and pecorino romano cheese at the table.

Basil–A traditional pesto calls for basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan and olive oil. Mix with a good quality mayonnaise, in approximately equal proportions, and spread on toasted ciabatta. Make a terrific sandwich with grilled salmon or chicken, roasted red peppers and wild greens.

Cilantro—Combine cilantro in a food processor with garlic, lime juice and olive oil. Cook a shaped pasta, preferably ditale or cavatappi. Put in a big bowl and add corn, chopped scallions, and red pepper, blue cheese and black beans. If you want a heartier dish, chunks of grilled chicken make this a true meal.

Previously published in the Independent magazine.

Freezer Tips

My son Jason’s housemate in Boston unwittingly gave me the topic for this article. When my husband and I visited Jason over the holidays, Joseph remarked that he had never seen anyone use the freezer as much as Jason does. He agreed that the concept made sense until he saw Jason munch on a homemade cookie right from a Ziploc bag without defrosting it; and that was beyond his comprehension. It made me realize that there are a myriad of options for the freezer that many people have never contemplated. Reserve judgment, throw caution to the wind, and give some of these ideas a try. I promise they’ll make your life easier.

1. Cookies really do freeze well. They last for weeks and will taste almost fresh once you defrost them. Instead of delaying the gratification, place one in a microwave for twenty seconds and it will have that just-baked taste. Or eat them frozen. Chocolate chip cookies straight from the freezer taste like a candy bar, and brownies are wonderfully chewy. A perfect way to salvage an over-baked cookie is to freeze it; they’ll have a crisp taste, not a dry one.

2. I usually double the recipe for soup when making it, insuring that I’ll have plenty left over for nights when I either don’t feel like cooking or need a dish to quickly appear on my dinner table. Using Tupperware or Glad plastic containers allow me to freeze the exact portion I’ll want to serve, whether it’s for one or six. Using a permanent marker, write on a piece of masking tape, the date, variety of soup and number of servings. If your memory has suffered the same fate as mine, this quick labeling will save you from having to remember how long each container has been in the freezer and, more importantly, its contents.

What’s the best way to defrost your frozen soup? If you can plan ahead, the easiest method is to transfer the container from the freezer to the refrigerator the night before you plan to serve it and, in the morning, leave it on the kitchen counter to finish thawing. If you’re not a Type A personality, no worries, all is not lost. Stick the container in a microwave (it’s always a good idea to pop the lid to allow a bit of air to escape) and defrost until the soup is no longer a frozen block. Once it’s partially thawed, the soup can be heated in a saucepan on the stove.

3. Any sauces, including pasta sauces, can be prepared in advance and stored in the freezer, ready for your next dinner party or family gathering. If the recipe calls for milk or cream, freeze the sauce without the diary product and then add it when you are ready to serve the dish.

4. It’s okay to buy that huge bag of walnuts or pecans at Costco. Nuts seemingly last forever in the freezer.

5. Surprisingly, breads will last a week or two in the freezer without ruining that heavenly, fresh taste. It’s easy to carve up a pain de compagne or boule into hunks, wrap each one in tin foil and freeze separately, and then defrost as needed to serve with some of that soup you’ve already prepared. The crisp crust will be revived by heating it in a medium hot oven for 10 minutes. Or freeze a whole loaf of bread and then defrost slices to make toast or a sandwich. Fashioning croutons from leftover hard rolls or artisan breads will greatly enhance your Caesar salad. Just place them in a Ziploc bag and grab a handful from the freezer; they’ll defrost quickly.

6. Would you rather be on the golf course or tennis court instead of cooking for your weekend guests? Prepare a hefty pan of lasagna or other pasta casserole during the week and you’ll be able to pull it out of the freezer whenever you need it. Just defrost, bake and serve!

7. Do you have any of those old-fashioned plastic ice trays lying around gathering dust? Put them to good use by freezing chicken stock or pesto in each cube, popping them out as needed. Add a bit of stock to sauces, or pesto to soups and pastas for a surge of flavor.

8. Millions of people are addicted to their morning cup of joe. Buying coffee beans in bulk can be a real money saver. Freeze them and defrost in small quantities to grind and brew. The beans will maintain their freshness for months.

9. I always like to have cooked chicken on hand for a sandwich or salad. Buy a large package of chicken breasts (at Costco again), and grill them with a touch of olive oil, salt and pepper. When cooled, wrap each one in individual packets of tin foil. Remember to mark the date and number of pieces on the package. Hungry for a sandwich or a Cobb or Chinese chicken salad? You’ve got the main ingredient all set to go.

10. If you’re really ambitious, next summer grow (or buy) tomatoes, roast them with whole garlic cloves and a touch of olive oil in a 350 degree oven for about forty minutes. Cool and then store them in a Ziploc bag in the freezer for six to nine months. In the dead of winter, they can be used in pasta sauces, to make bruschetta or even pureed into soup.

There are some for whom the freezer is an enigma. Just keep in mind that food can be frozen once in each state of cooking. After defrosting soup, you can’t freeze it again. But meat can be frozen when it is raw and then again after it has been cooked. Likewise, that lasagna you froze before baking can be frozen again after you’ve cooking it.

A freezer is a cook’s best friend. It makes preparing meals easier, it’s a time saver, and it can also be a money saver. But don’t send me the bill if you decide you need to purchase a bigger one!