Because a bare cupboard and an empty fridge are sad sights to behold, the Urban Forager hunts through food & wine shops bringing home tasty morsels that make your kitchen table the best place to eat in town.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Out With The Old, In With The New

The Urban Forager was my very first blog, a site I started as a way to write regularly about food. In this way, it has been a success. However, recently I was beginning to feel its limitations and was itching for something new. I needed a new challenge to inspire my writing and so The (modern) Busy Girls' Cookbook was born. Like all writers, I'm a dreamer, and so for awhile I thought I could keep both blogs going. But the truth is that there is only so much unpaid writing that girl has time for (if she still wants to have a life beyond her computer, that is). And so, Urban Forager is a blog that has reached it's end. I encourage you to visit my new blog, The (modern) Busy Girls' Cookbook.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Fat, Salt and Sugar

A month or two ago former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, David Kessler, was making the rounds of radio shows talking about his new book, "The End of Overeating." His theory, backed by scientific research, is that foods high in fat, salt and sugar turn on a little switch in our brain that says "Eat! Eat more! Keep eating!" This neurological response is what keeps our hand going back into that bag of Cheetos long after we've had our fill.

Of course none of us want to admit that we are weak enough to be trapped in this way. What ever happened to self control? But after a recent visit to Chicago I am here to tell you that David Kessler is right. The magic combination of fat, salt and sugar is truly, unquestionably evil. And also very delicious.

The long line at Garrett's Popcorn Shop is proof of what suckers we all are. What they serve at Garrett's doesn't even taste like popcorn. It doesn't taste like real food at all. Real food doesn't leave a neon yellow stain on you fingers that is difficult to wash off, even with soap. To experience the ultimate fat, salt and sugar triumvirate that David Kessler warns us about, you have to order the Chicago Mix, a blend of caramel and cheese popcorn. I know, I was skeptical too. I was even slightly grossed out by what I was eating the whole time I was eating it, but I couldn't stop. Garrett's Chicago Mix is the ultimate junk food. If you don't believe me, (or if you don't believe David Kessler) next time you're in Chicago get yourself a bag of Chicago Mix and see for yourself how one bite abolishes all self control.

The combination of the sweet caramel corn and salty cheese corn was so tasty I considered re-creating it at home. I imagined making a slightly healthier, more gourmet version of what Garrett's has going on. And then I came to my senses. Trying to make gourmet Chicago Mix is like trying to make gourmet Cheetos. Eating junk food every once in awhile is one of the great things about being human. And, one of the great things about visiting Chicago.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Rogue Lettuce

A few of you may remember last summer when I made my first attempt at planting lettuce. I chose the perfect spot. I lovingly watered the seeds. I sprang out of bed each morning and ran out to the garden, hoping that day would be the day I could finally make a salad. A few of you may also remember that after months of waiting, my lettuce garden looked like this:

I gave up my dreams of growing lettuce. Winter came, then spring. I left town for three months, leaving my yard abandoned and in the clutches of a drought. When I returned from my absence, I arrived late at night. When I woke in the morning I wandered outside and what do you think I found? This beautiful head of lettuce had somehow managed to grow in my absence. Not only was it lush and green, it was growing in a container five feet from the box I had originally planted my lettuce seeds in. This little miracle could mean one of two things. 1. Human intervention is pretty much pointless in the plant world and we're all over estimating how much control we have over our yard. 2. If you have faith, good things will come to you, although rarely at the time or in the form you think they will come to you.

Tonight, I am happy to say, I harvested my lettuce. It deserved nothing but the best, so I dressed it up in my favorite and slightly decadent summer dressing, courtesy of Mom:

Summer Lettuce Salad with Creamy Dill Dressing:

1/2 cup half and half or whole cream
1 1/2 tablespoons apple cider or white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp Sugar
1/4-1/2 tsp Salt
3 tablespoons fresh dill

Monday, July 13, 2009

Mint Therapy

Remember the days when throwing your real or imaginary money around was the newest pastime and people indulged in things like vinotherapy without feeling at all like an idiot? For you sensible folk who missed out on this trend, vinotherapy refers to a multitude of spa treatments that involve soaking or rubbing down your body with red wine and its by-products. Supposedly, your skin soaks all those antioxidants right up and it's like dipping into the fountain of youth. I might be able to handle a body scrub made from "antioxidant-rich crushed grape seeds simmered in red wine" (like the one offered at Calistoga Ranch in Napa Valley) but if I'm going to soak in a bathtub filled with red wine you better believe I'm bringing a straw. I don't know about you but these days if there is a bottle of wine around, it's going into my wine glass, not my bathtub.

But I'm not one to discard of all ridiculous indulgences just because the economy has changed. Indulging was exactly what was on my mind the other night when I started to fill the tub and then realized I didn't have a drop of bubble bath in the house. But what I did have was a front yard full of spearmint. For weeks I'd been trying to make a dent in the ever-growing cluster of spearmint taking over the garden. I put mint leaves in salads, I put them pasta, I put them in drinks. It made no difference - in terms of over-abundance during the summer, spearmint puts zucchini to shame. But abundance breeds creativity. And that is exactly how dozens of mint sprigs ended up in my tub. The hot water releases a subtle, but invigorating aroma of clean, tingly mint as you bathe. It's like soaking in a giant mug of mint tea. Completely lovely and completely free if you have any spearmint in your yard. Or, in your neighbor's yard. Trust me, they won't mind if you pick some.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Oregon Sparkling Wine

Once a year, I get together with a few girlfriends who are otherwise scattered across the country leading busy lives in different states. These are not outrageous lets-go-dancing-all-night or lets-go-to-vegas weekends.
The Husband has actually started referring to these all-female getaways as "Girls Gone Mild" weekends, ever since he realized (happily, I think) the wildest thing that usually happens is we stumble upon a sea sponge on the beach.

For my girlfriends and I, the weekend is solely about hunkering down, blocking out our regular lives and focusing on the things we really love most: eating, drinking and talking. Since what we talk about is not for public consumption and what we eat is mostly cheese and chocolate (this year, Seastack from Mt. Townsend Creamery and truffles from Fran's Chocolates) I'm going to expand on what we drank: J.Albin sparkling wine from Oregon.

Oregon sparkling wine gets better and better every year - if you've tasted any of the sparkling wines from Argyle Winery you know what I'm talking about. J. Albin is a smaller venture (no website, even) and a little harder to find, but it's out there and incredibly tasty. By now we all know Oregon produces some great Pinot Noir - well, J. Albin's sparkling wine is blanc de noir, meaning it's made with Pinot Noir grapes. In this economy, a bottle of sparkling wine from Oregon might be considered special occasion stuff (prices start around $25/bottle) but it's worth the splurge and still less than Champagne from France. If you buy Champagne frequently or once in blue moon and tend to be drawn to bottles with a bright orange label, for the love of god, put the bottle down and buy sparkling wine that is not only tastier, but will teach you a little bit about what the great winemakers in Oregon are up to.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

God Bless America and Our Lumpy Vegetables

America, at least the one I grew up in, takes great pride in its misshapen fruits and vegetables. You only have to attend one county fair in any small town to know this is true. The large and misshapen vegetable display at the Benton County Fair my family went to every summer was one of my favorite exhibits (less favorite than the pig barn, more favorite than the quilting displays).

I remember walking through the rows of vegetables that people had entered and actually aspiring to enter it myself one day. I really believed that if I worked hard enough, I too could grow a potato that looked like a hippopotamus or a pumpkin that weighed more than my Dad or a zucchini that had naturally taken the shape of a VW bug.

But where one person sees a work of art, another sees a piece of produce that society needs to be protected from. For the last twenty years most of Europe has regulated the shape and size of 36 fruits and vegetables that are sold in supermarkets. Cucumbers, for example, must not be bent by a curve of more than 10mm per 10cm. It is illegal to sell cauliflower that is less than 11cm in diameter. In order for a banana to be a proper banana, "the thickness of a transverse section of the fruit, between the lateral faces and the middle, perpendicular to the longitudinal axis, must be at a minimum of 27 millimeters."


I am happy to report that I heard on NPR yesterday the EU has rescinded the ban on 26 of the 36 fruits and vegetables that have been regulated. Ugly, misshapen fruits and vegetables are now free to co-mingle with the pretty ones! Hopefully, the last ten will soon be free as well. Although I have to admit, I kind of like the regulation on pears that states, "Pears must not be gritty." In some cases, those Europeans have their priorities straight.

Happy 4th of July everyone.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pea Soup - Not Just for Winter Anymore

When you have a small kitchen, choosing which tools and gadgets deserve a drawer or cupboard or spot on the counter involves ruthless triage. A toaster, coffee maker, food processor and KitchenAid mixer are the only large items that make the cut in my kitchen. The crockpot (I miss it) and microwave (don't miss it at all) had to be banished to the garage. I gave the breadmaker away and the ice-cream maker is in my bedroom closet (which doesn't inspire much hope that I'll suddenly start churning ice-cream every week. Anyone want an ice-cream maker?)

Smaller items I give a little more leeway to. Certain kitchen tools stay in one of my three kitchen drawers not because I use the tools all the time, but because they do one specific job really well. Like a tiny sieve I use to make Summer Pea Soup with Cardamom. Whenever I make this soup I am reminded how much I love this little sieve, even though I honestly don't remember how or when it even ended up in my kitchen. From where does this love spring? From the silky smooth texture of the soup, that's where.

This soup involves three steps: simmer the peas, puree the peas, push the peas through a sieve. This third step traps the chunky insides and skin of the peas and releases their essence, a liquid form of pure flavor. Do not try this soup without a sieve - both a colander and cheese cloth will result in a soup texture that is unappealingly babyfood-like. But when the soup is made right, it's hard to believe such a simple process can yield such a lovely soup.

Summer Pea Soup with Cardamom
3 cups fresh peas or a 16 oz bag of frozen peas
3/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1/8 tsp cardamom or more to taste (but don't overdo it - the cardamom should be very subtle)
Optional garnish: fresh parsley and a swirl of creme fraiche

Simmer the peas in the broth for five minutes or until just soft. Puree in a blender or food processor. Pour a little bit of the puree into the sieve at a time. Hold the sieve over a medium-sized bowl, or the pot you simmered the peas in. Push a spoon against the peas, mashing them so their liquid drips into the bowl. Discard the chunky remains of the peas (or eat them later with salt). Re-warm the pea soup, adding more broth if you want the texture to be thinner. Add the cardamom and a pinch of salt.
Garnish with parsley and/or creme fraiche.

Recipe by J.Meier

Monday, June 22, 2009

Dried vs Canned Beans

I have always felt a little bit guilty when I buy beans in a can. Granted, there are much bigger things in life to feel guilty about. But along with a degree from a culinary school comes a lifetime of guilt whenever you take shortcuts in the kitchen. Cake mixes? No way! Store-bought pie crusts? Never! (except for every time I make a pie...) Pasta sauce in a jar? Why, when I can spend six hours making my own? The same goes for canned beans. Real cooks use dried beans. Real cooks know that the hours of soaking and cooking dried beans result in a flavor that is far, far superior to canned beans. At least this is what always goes through my head when I buy cans of black beans and pinto beans and garbanzo beans each week.

But not this week. I reached for the can of garbanzos on the grocery store shelf, then paused. And right there in the bean aisle I made a decision to change my life. I was going to start buying dried beans.

But change is never easy. I began, of course, by using a shortcut; instead of soaking the dried garbanzos overnight the package said I could boil them for 2 minutes and soak for only 1 hour. After an hour of soaking I transferred the beans into a vessel (a crock pot) where they could slowly and comfortably cook into the amazing beans they were supposed to be. And while I went about my day, those little beans cooked and cooked and cooked. As they filled the house with an amazing aroma I kept thinking, cooking beans in a crock-pot is so easy! Why did I ever buy those pathetic canned beans anyway?

But seven, yes, seven hours later those canned beans weren't seeming so pathetic. I'm not sure if I was disappointed or pleased to find out that dried garbanzo beans, carefully cooked for seven long hours, tasted exactly like the garbanzo beans I'd been buying in cans all these years.

Eventually I'll give dried black beans and pinto beans a fair chance to prove their superiority and I'll let you know how it goes. But garbanzos? I'm back to buying them in a can, without the tiniest bit of guilt.

Curried Garbanzo Beans

1/2 onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced or put through a garlic press
1 can garbanzo beans, with liquid
1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
1/2 cup broth (or water)
2 carrots, sliced thinly (optional)
1 cinnamon stick, broken in half
1 1/2 tsp red curry powder

Saute onion in olive oil until soft. Add garlic. Just as garlic starts to brown add the rest of ingredients. Simmer on low until broth reduces and mixture is somewhat thick, about 25 minutes. Salt to taste. Serve over rice.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Best New Picnic Spot

I love picnics. I can't tell you the last time I went on one, but I love them. I think this stems back to a childhood book - I don't remember the title or most of the plot but what's always stuck with me is a scene involving a red gingham table cloth spread on the grass & a chocolate cake. They brought an entire chocolate cake to their picnic. How can you not fall in love with that?

If you happen to be in New York this summer, I highly recommend picnicking on the newly-opened High Line. I visited this weekend and even in gray, rainy weather I was amazed by this magical park set 30 feet above the ground. An elevated train line, abandoned for almost 30 years, has been transformed into what I think is one of the most impressive and creative new green spaces in a downtown setting. There are only a few tables (which may make it difficult to bring an entire chocolate cake) but there are plenty of benches and seats. I even spotted a City Bakery pastry cart, so if you don't pack in your own picnic, you won't go hungry. You can take in the views of the city, or pretend it doesn't exist. You can gaze at wild flowers or at views of the Hudson River. There are apparently similar projects being created in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Jersey City and Chicago - soon all of you lucky dogs will have no excuse not to go on a picnic in the city.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Dressing Up

My favorite salad dressing for a long portion of my life - ranging from the age when memories first start up until the end of highschool- was Ranch dressing made from the dry mix. It was the official Meier household salad dressing, sworn in by Mom, who said it tasted better than bottled Ranch (she was right.) This was long before olive oil and balsamic vinegar and flax oil made it into our kitchen and long before any of us knew to feel incredibly guilty about eating ingredients like Maltodextrin, Monosodium Glutamate,Modified Food Starch, Casein and Hydroxypropyl MethylCellulose (mixed with mayo and buttermilk, of course).

It pleases me, though, that whenever I go home there is still an orange Tupperware container in the fridge filled with Ranch dressing. With all due respect to the farmer's market shopping-healthy eating-locavore dining-Michael Pollan disciples out there, (I can say this, because I am actually one of them) sometimes modified food starch and maltodextrin mixed with mayonnaise still tastes really good. Standing in the kitchen late at night reading a magazine and eating summer lettuce and a grilled chicken drumstick doused in Ranch dressing is much more fun than doing the same thing while eating micro-greens and sprouts doused in lemon juice. This is an irrefutable fact.

But as they say, you can't go back. Ranch dressing made from a dry mix is no longer the official household dressing at my parent's house; it is an indulgence for meals when the body is so overloaded with healthy omegas from flax oil that it can't take any more. In my own kitchen, I long depended on balsamic vinegar to dress salads then turned to fresh lemon when I moved to a city where lemons grew on trees outside the door. But lately, I have grown salad weary. I simply can't eat another bowl of such plainly dressed greens. I need a salad with a little more style. I want something that tastes good but doesn't make me feel guilty. This search will continue all summer I presume, but for now I have been satiated by a Mango-Avocado dressing that's incredibly easy to make. This recipe makes a few cups of the dressing and after a few days in the fridge it gets a little thick, so eat it sooner rather than later.

Mango-Avocado Dressing

In a blender mix:
1 peeled mango
1/2 of an avocado
1 tsp dijon mustard
1/2 of a jalapeno pepper, minced
1 Tbsp cilantro (or parsley)
1 Tbsp lime juice
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

Monday, June 1, 2009

Eat Yur Bitter Greens

Bitter gets a bad rap. The dictionary doesn't do the word any favors (having a harsh, disagreeably acrid taste; grievous; distressful; piercing; get the picture).Neither does life (usually used to describe exes we never want to see again.) But bitter happens to be a flavor I often enjoy (talk amongst yourselves about what this says about my personality) and I wish for the word that its definition was a little kinder.

Because it isn't, though, wine sellers stoop to using words like "pleasing astringency" instead of bitter, as writer Evan Spingarn explains in his piece about Wine for Adult Tastes. The world "sweet" is often tagged on to "bitter" when describing chocolate to make it more palatable. And when it comes to bitter greens they're often simmered for hours and drenched in fat to smooth out the very thing that makes them great: bitterness.

It is because of this long tradition of cooking bitter greens beyond recognition that greens such as mustard, collard and kale are often thought of as winter food. But when cooked with a lighter hand - a quick saute, a drizzle of olive oil, a paper-thin slice of prosciutto - greens are as summery as any salad out there.

Mustard greens are for the hardcore. Kale is for a more-sensitive palate. Collards are somewhere in between. I'm willing to bet you've passed over kale every time you're in the produce section. This week, don't. Grab one bunch (it wilts down to serve 3 people), chop it roughly and give it a rinse and dry in the salad spinner. Heat some olive oil (add mushrooms, onions or garlic if you like. Add a little prosciutto or bacon if the dish looks a little too green for your liking) and throw the kale in. Saute until the moment the greens wilt and the bright green color fades to a darker hue.

In the summer months, I like serving sauteed greens with fish (salmon is especially good) and white beans warmed right out of the can with fresh herbs sprinkled on top.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Beauty over Practicality in the Kitchen

I'm really into glass jars these days. I was forced into it, as I'm living with an interior decorator right now who loves everything beautiful and banishes all ugliness (which includes despicable things like plastic tupperware containers and toilet paper holders. She said if she could, she wouldn't even have toilets in her house). I don't have anything against toilets, but I can see her point about the Tupperware. Practical, yes. Aesthetically pleasing, not so much. I had to send The Husband to work last week with a glass jar of oatmeal and strawberries for breakfast. Not the easiest container to carry to work, perhaps, but there was something really nice and old fashioned about it. I've always been a fan of Crate & Barrel's glass storage bowls but now I'm hooked on regular canning jars as well. Try bringing a salad to a BBQ this weekend in a tall glass jar (like the thai chicken salad below that I'm totally in love with right now).

Or at the very least, use a glass jar to make and shake-up your dressing.
1 jalepeno pepper, seeded and diced
3 Tbsp fresh lime juice
2 Tbsp Asian fish sauce
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 tsp sugar or honey
1/4 tsp salt

1 lb. chicken breast
1/2 head napa cabbage (or regular cabbage) sliced into thin strips
3 carrots, peeled and cut into rounds (or grated)
1 cucumber, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1/2 cup roughly chopped cilantro
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh mint

Whisk dressing ingredients together or put in a glass jar and shake. Saute chicken breasts in a pan with olive oil, salt and pepper, or grill it outside. Let chicken cool and then cut into small, bite-sized pieces. Toss vegetables and herbs together in a large bowl. Add chicken and dressing. Toss well.

This chicken salad is also really good as a sandwich, on a baguette with a little mayo

Friday, May 8, 2009

Fiddlehead Ferns

I've always been a little bit afraid of Fiddlehead Ferns. Being an urban forager who roams through cute gourmet shops is quite a different thing than being a forager forager who actually goes into the woods and picks things. But I've been wanting to cook fiddleheads for years - so when I was hiking near Seattle on Whidbey Island and saw them growing wild, then soon after saw them in a grocery store in Connecticut, I knew it was a sign. Suddenly, Fiddlehead Ferns were showing up everywhere in my life. I had to eat them.

Sold for an affordable $6.99/lb, I bought a half pound plus some angel hair pasta and prosciutto. I still felt a little bit of unease - I'm mean, look at these things in my sink! - but I got passed it when I realized how easy they are to cook. Simply give the ferns a quick swim in boiling water (3 minutes or so) and then saute them into whatever dish you like. The flavor is a lot like asparagus and the texture is similar as well but crunchier.

The recipe below serves 2. The prosciutto can be subbed out for mushrooms. This pasta would be delish with a Sauvignon Blanc or Albarino wine.

Fiddlehead Ferns with Pasta and Prosciutto
1/2 lb. Fiddlehead Ferns
1/3 box of angel hair pasta
6 pieces of prosciutto, sliced thin and torn into shreds by hand
2 Tbsp olive oil
Grated Parmigiano or Pecorino cheese for garnish
Salt and Pepper to taste

Boil enough water to cook the pasta. Add Fiddlehead ferns first, boiling for 3 minutes. Remove the ferns from the boiling water and then put in the pasta to cook. Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in a pan. Add ferns and a pinch of salt and pepper. Saute ferns 4-5 minutes, then add prosciutto and another Tbsp olive oil. Turn off the heat, add the cooked noodles and cover the pan. Let sit 1-2 minutes, then serve pasta garnished with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino.
Recipe by Jennifer Meier

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Behold, the Humble Vegetable Peeler

We all have that kitchen utensil that we dread using. It's the one that never works right and causes us to swear and grumble and not have as much fun in the kitchen as we should be having. And yet, we never throw this utensil away. We never buy a new one. For no reason other than human laziness (and sometimes cheap-ness) we just keep using the crappy utensil we hate. In my case, this is a vegetable peeler. The Husband swears that if you press down with one finger and hold it at just the right angle it works just fine. This is also the man, however, who thought the vacuum worked fine even though to make it work he had to push down on the top of it with one foot and hop around the room on the other foot while he vacuumed.

I hate our vegetable peeler. It was not until yesterday however, when I used a friend's OXO Swivel Peeler that I finally saw the light. The peels practically flew off the carrot! I was done peeling in record time! Suddenly, I loved peeling vegetables!

This week, go through your drawers. Take out that peeler or knife or spatula or pan that you've always hated and throw it away without a bit of guilt. Cooking is hard enough without unnecessary irritations slowing us down.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Old Mother Hubbard . . .

. . . went the cupboard to get her poor dog a bone. When she got there, the cupboard was bare and so the poor dog had none.

I've been reaching deep into the bowels of my cupboard this week, opening cans and boiling noodles and grains that have been in there for who knows how long. Yes, it is good to keep a well-stocked pantry, but it is also good to flush out the pantry now then. Spring is the perfect time to do this sort of cleaning and so is the week before you leave on extended time away from your apartment, which happens to be my motivation. I vowed to buy as few new groceries this week as possible and to shop only from my own cupboards and refrigerator. I've had some admittedly bad meals (the night of sardines and quinoa was rough) and some good ones, like this easy salad of cabbage, carrots and garbanzo beans in sesame-soy dressing.

This recipe can be adapted for whatever vegetables you have in your fridge. The egg can be left out if you like; I just happened to have one lonely egg sitting in my fridge that needed to be used. The garbanzos can also be subbed out for other forms of protein: chicken, salmon or tofu would be good.

Vegetable Salad with Sesame-Soy Dressing
1/4 of a cabbage, finely chopped or grated
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1 egg, either scrambled or hard boiled.
1/2 cup roughly chopped cilantro
1/4 cup sesame seeds
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp sesame oil
1 scallion, finely chopped
1 tsp brown sugar
dash of red pepper flakes

Combine the cabbage, carrots, garbanzos and cooked egg in a large bowl. In a pan over medium heat, toast the sesame seeds for 3-5 minutes until very lightly browned. Sprinkle the sesame seeds and cilantro over the vegetables. In a small bowl, whisk together soy sauce, sesame oil, scallion, brown sugar and red pepper flakes. Pour the dressing over the salad, toss well.