Sunday, October 23, 2011

Recipe of the week: Easy (and filling) vegetarian chili

Now that it's getting cold, hot soups and stews are comforting and delicious. Here's a recipe for easy vegetarian chili that's filling and good for you. You can use the vegetables suggested, or add anything else that is in your fridge, like carrots, corn or celery. Cornbread on the side makes a perfect fall meal.

Vegetarian Chili

2 medium zucchini, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 28-ounce cans Italian stewed tomatoes, cut up
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
1 15-ounce can pinto beans
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, minced
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cumin

1. In a large pot, saute zucchini, onion, peppers and garlic in oil until tender.
2. Stir in all remaining ingredients.
3. Bring to a boil.
4. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Recipe credit:
Photo credit: Bhakti in NYC

Monday, October 17, 2011

How to can tomatoes (it's easier than you think)

So, I used to be afraid of canning because I thought it was way too complicated and required expensive materials. But after our generous neighbors gave us a water bath canner (see one here - it only costs about $20, and it's really just a giant pot), we finally gave it a try. It turned out to be pretty easy, and a lot of fun! It made me feel like an accomplished adult, as if canning was some right of passage to adulthood. But besides that, canning is a great way to preserve food in order to have fresh, flavorful vegetables all year long.

An easy place to start is by canning whole tomatoes. They don't require a lot of preparation, and you can use whole tomatoes in all sorts of recipes. We love to use them for making pizza sauce; just dump the tomatoes, juice and all, into the pan and mash them up to make flavorful sauce.

Here's our method for canning whole tomatoes. We learned by using this website and this book, two great resources for canning all kinds of things.

Step 1: Buy a ton of tomatoes, or use the ones you've grown.

If you're lucky enough to have a garden, this is a great way to use up tomatoes that are becoming too ripe. If you don't have a garden, go to the farmers market in late September. Farmers often sell bulk tomatoes for really cheap, because they're trying to get rid of them. It doesn't really matter how many tomatoes you get. It just depends on how many you want canned. We bought 20 pounds of tomatoes, and it made about 15 pint-size jars of tomatoes.

bulk tomatoes bought at the farmers market

Step 2: Sanitize your jars.

You can just put your jars in the dishwasher on the "sanitize" cycle. If you don't have a dishwasher, put the jars in boiling water. Don't put the lids in the dishwasher. Instead, dip those in boiling water before you are ready to use them. Meanwhile, fill your water bath canner halfway with water, and start bringing it to a boil. 

Step 3: Peel the tomatoes.

The quickest way to do this is to blanch the tomatoes. Get a big pot of water boiling, and drop the tomatoes a few at a time into the boiling water. Once the skins start to break, take the tomatoes out with a slotted spoon and place them in a bowl of ice water. This will stop them from cooking further. Use your hands to slide the skin off the tomato.

the tomatoes after blanching and peeling them
Step 4: Cut the cores out of the tomatoes.

You can actually do this step before peeling the tomatoes, or afterwards. Whatever you think will be easiest. Cut out the cores (which is just the top part, near where the stem was attached) and any bruises or bad spots. You'll probably end up with some squished tomatoes, but we use those anyway.

Step 5: Put the tomatoes in the jars.

We use a slotted spoon that we have dipped in boiling water to put the tomatoes in. You can also use a funnel (which should be sanitized ahead of time). After you fill the jars, take a spoon handle and slide it around the inside edge of the jar. This will get rid of any air bubbles.

Step 6: Add lemon juice and water (if needed).

Add two tablespoons of lemon juice to all the jars. If there is still too much room at the top, add some boiling water. There should only be a half inch of space between the liquid and the top of the jar (this is called "head space").  Put the lids on the jars.

Step 7: Put the jars in the boiling water, and boil for 35 minutes.

Your water bath canner probably came with a rack that you can put the jars on so they don't touch the bottom of the pot. (This can cause the jars to break.) We use one of these fancy jar holders to slide the jars into the boiling water. (And by "fancy," I mean they cost $5 at the hardware store.)

the filled jars in the water bath canner
That's it! Take the jars out, and wait for them to cool. After a few hours, check to make sure the lids have sealed. You'll know because the lid won't pop back up after you push down on it. And voila, you've canned tomatoes!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Hunger in America, represented on Sesame Street

A friend of mine sent me a link to a story that surprised me. Apparently Sesame Street will be debuting a new Muppet character, named Lily, who is food-insecure (which is the government's word for "hungry"). This makes me simultaneously sad and happy. Sad because the number of hungry children in the country is so great that it necessitates a TV character to represent it. Happy because children who are not hungry will learn about those that are, in a gentle and powerful way.

Hunger is a huge and basic issue for so many families in America. 49 million Americans live in food-insecure houses, which includes 16 million children. And evidently, food pantries are struggling to feed people, both because the number of hungry people is increasing, and because their budgets are being cut. Hunger is a problem in big cities, and it's also a problem in the suburbs.

But primarily, hunger is a problem of poverty. Forty percent of families below the poverty line are food insecure. Children who are hungry are more likely to do poorly in school, have developmental problems, and suffer from illness and depression, conditions which presumably increase the likelihood that they will stay poor. With one in six people hungry in the U.S., this might just be the biggest problem that many (including myself) haven't been paying attention to.

To learn how many people are suffering from hunger in your state, click on this map and hover over your state. And click here for ideas on how to help.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Eating unhealthy not necessarily cheaper

There's a myth going around that eating healthy is expensive. People use it as an explanation for why obesity is such a huge problem in this country. This idea, wherever it came from, is a pretty dangerous one. I've worked with both children and parents who think eating healthy is not worth it because it's beyond their financial means. As a result, they don't make the effort to pick out meals that are good for them.

While I agree that organic produce is pricey and your average person can't afford to shop at Whole Foods, that narrow subset of food choices is not the only type of food that fits the definition of "healthy." Healthy foods are simple, unprocessed foods, can be found at any supermarket, and provide a multitude of nutrients that keep you full longer. And, as Mark Bittman explains using the graphic below, healthy foods are often cheaper. By a lot.

Once you realize that choosing healthy foods won't wreak havoc on your budget, the next step is to learn to cook them.
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