Seasonal Mulled Cider and Wine

One of my favorite holiday drinks is mulled cider or wine.  I love the taste,  but the aromas that permeate the house really appeal to me.  All those spicy smells mingling in the air with the holiday greenery and the excitement of the season.  Apple cider is clearly the choice for sipping throughout the day, something that I like to do while cooking. It’s also a nice choice for a non-alcoholic beverage for a New Year’s Eve celebration. Mulled red wine makes an elegant beverage for wine drinkers.

The following recipe is delicious and can be used to make either mulled cider or mulled wine with equally good results.  I always try to find or choose a cider with some character to it.  As for wine, the best mulled wine I’ve ever made was with a Sterling Vineyards Zinfandel Port, but almost any hearty red wine will do.  (Normally, the idea of “adulterating” a good wine with a bunch of spices might not go down well with the connoisseurs among us, but note that I am very choosy when it comes to wine, and yet I have consistently chosen to use my best for making my annual mulled brew.)

This recipe should be made a day in advance, to let the spices impart the most flavor. Just reheat when ready to serve.

Holiday Mulled Cider or Wine

½ cup sugar

½ cup water

1 stick cinnamon

1 nutmeg seed, smashed

6 allspice berries

6 whole cloves

1 quart apple cider or 1 litre wine

1 cup fresh lemon juice, hot

Place the sugar and water in a saucepan.  Bring to a boil quickly, then simmer until the sugar dissolves completely.

Add the spices and allow the mixture to sit overnight.

In the morning, strain the mixture.

Right before serving, heat the wine or cider until just simmering, then remove from the heat.

Quickly add the spiced sugar syrup and the hot lemon juice and mix together thoroughly.

Enjoy!

Staff of Life

Very little can beat the smell of baking bread, and very little can beat that first bite from a warm loaf. Serve your bread with a hearty bowl of homemade soup for a perfect winter meal, or sit right down and eat it all by itself slathered in whatever-suits-your-fancy-at-the-moment! (I personally float between nut butters, dairy butter, and homemade preserves.)

And yes, I’m talking about whole wheat bread, which has gotten a bad rap of late because it contains gluten, to which so many people believe they are allergic.

But here’s my theory after many years of baking whole grain bread: I suspect that much of what people believe they are allergic to in bread products (whether whole wheat or otherwise) is not so the gluten but the additives, such as dough conditioners, flavor enhancers, and preservatives. Since I’ve been milling my own wheat into flour over the past 15 years, I’ve found that many friends who believed they were allergic to gluten can eat my bread with no consequences other than great enjoyment. I wouldn’t necessarily ask someone with celiac disease (a true reaction to gluten) to test my theory, but I do believe it to be true for many sensitive, health-oriented bread lovers and cooks, including myself.

I first got the idea of milling grain at home from chef Paul Bertolli’s classic cookbook, Chez Panisse Cooking. After reading about his experiences, I went out and bought a small electric grain mill and was so enchanted with the sweet, nutty fragrance and flavor of freshly milled wheat that I have been milling my own grain ever since. (The K-Tech Kitchen Mill is the one I use today, though there are a number of good electric and hand mills available online, most of which are about the size and price of a really good food processor.)

Whether you’re using a good brand of store bought whole wheat flour (I like Arrowhead Mills, King Arthur, or Bob’s Red Mill), or want to jump in and grind your own, here’s my simple recipe for a perfect loaf of fresh, whole wheat bread. You may need to adjust the liquid content depending upon what kind of flour you are using.

3 cups whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons SAF instant yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups water or buttermilk (approximately, you may need a bit more)
2-3 tablespoons oil

optional: honey, nuts, dried fruit, herbs

Place the flour, yeast, and salt in the workbowl of a food processor fitted with a dough blade and pulse a few times to mix.

With the machine running, add the liquid and oil (and optional tablespoon of honey) and let the processor run until the dough forms a clean ball in the processor. If the dough looks too dry or isn’t forming into a ball, try adding another tablespoon of water at a time. (If at first your dough looks too wet and does not easily form a clean ball, turn off the machine for about 10 minutes and give the flour time to absorb some of the liquid. Then turn it back on again and let it run until the dough forms a clean ball in the processor. Cuisinart recommends letting the machine run for 45 seconds after the ball is formed in the processor.)

Remove the dough from the food processor, shape it into a ball or disc, and place it in a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a clean, damp dishtowel. (If adding nuts, dried fruit, or herbs, knead then in by hand before you set the dough to rise.)

Find a warm spot to let the dough rise until it is double in size, which takes about an hour and a half. Note: The operative words here are “double in size.” The amount of time it takes to do this can vary with the temperature of your ingredients and the place you choose to rise the dough. I often use my oven which has a 100° setting that’s perfect for rising bread dough.

Remove the dough from the bowl and gently press the air out of it and shape it into a loaf. Place it in a well-oiled loaf pan, and let it rise again (uncovered) until just over the top of the pan. (You can also “freeform,” or hand-shape the loaf, sprinkle it with cornmeal, and place it on a cookie sheet that’s been covered with parchment paper.)

Bake in a preheated 375° oven for about 35-40 minutes or until the loaf is nice and golden brown. Let cool for about 15 minutes (or longer) before removing it from the pan.

Allow the bread to cool before removing from the pan. Then, share with your favorite people and watch the loaf disappear before your eyes!

Squash Lasagna: A New Holiday Tradition?

photo.JPGThanksgiving is an all American holiday and a big day for most of us, but for some of us, it can often present a dilemma. If you’re a vegetarian, this may be the one day of the year when your resolve weakens and memories of turkey and all the trimmings dance like sugarplums through your head. Maybe you tell yourself you’ll just have a nice salad and some sweet potatoes while other, less resolute family members down the gobbler.

Maybe you’ve been thinking of trying your hand with a nut-loaf-and-sage-dressing recipe you’ve been saving.  (I’ve actually had some very good ones, but it takes a dedicated cook to stick with it.) But just in case you’re at loose ends about it all, why not consider lasagna?

As a child growing up in a community of Italian and Portuguese Americans, lasagne was always on the table for special celebrations. This included both Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. While Mexican neighbors made their ritual Christmas tamales, we went to work in the kitchen on the lasagna.

So in deference to turkeys everywhere, why not consider a vegetarian lasagna for Thanksgiving? A great little family owned Italian restaurant in my neighborhood offers “cappelacci di zucca” or pasta filled with a winter squash stuffing, and below I’ve adapted that recipe for a delicious squash lasagna that I’ll be serving at my family meal.

If you have a pasta shop nearby, think about getting fresh lasagna noodles (or making your own!) If you’re just not that ambitious, look for a good quality domestic or imported dried pasta for your Thanksgiving dinner. You’ll need enough for 3 or 4 layers of noodles.

For the squash filling:
1 medium butternut squash
2 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1teaspoon ground cinnamon
salt to taste
½ cup chopped walnuts

For the ricotta filling: (see vegan version notation below)

1 pound ricotta cheese
½ cup grated Parmesan, mozzarella, or a mixture of the two

For the sauce:

About 4 cups crushed tomatoes or marinara sauce

To make the squash filling, cut the squash in half and lay each half face down on a cookie sheet covered with aluminum foil or a silicone sheet.  Bake at 350° for about an hour or until you can easily stick a fork into the squash through its skin.

Allow the squash to cool until you can easily pick it up, then spoon its contents into a bowl or food processor and add the spices and salt.  (Be generous with the salt!)  Mix thoroughly, then fold in the walnuts.

To make the cheese filling, just mix all of the cheeses together and add the freshly grated nutmeg. Add salt or pepper if desired.

To assemble, spread some tomato sauce in the bottom of a 9″x13″ casserole, then cover with one layer of noodles.  Alternate tablespoons of squash mixture with tablespoons of ricotta cheese mixture until the first noodle layer is dotted all over with plenty of filling. Then sprinkle the layer with about half a cup of tomato sauce. Add another layer of noodles. Repeat the process until you have about three or four layers of filling and noodles, then pour any remaining tomato sauce over the top of the casserole.

Bake the casserole in a preheated 325° oven until top begins to brown, about 35 minutes.  To serve, you can sprinkle the dish with more chopped parsley and freshly grated Parmesan and mozzarella.  Or not.

Note for vegans:  If you’d like to make a vegan version of the dish, leave out the ricotta mixture and double the squash mixture.  And if you are forgoeing the pasta (contains eggs, after all), then why not experiment with thinly sliced eggplant or even layers of spinach in place of the noodles?  Very colorful and very nutritious.

Oh, and in behalf of the world’s turkey population and myself, have a great Thanksgiving!

The Root of It

root_veggies_sm.jpgAt this time of year, root vegetables usually make their appearance in farmers’ markets and grocery stores around the country. And what a long and honorable history they have.

In many parts of northern Europe (think “Ireland” and “potatoes” for instance) root vegetables were often what kept people alive during the cold winter months. In climates too harsh to support plant life above ground, the root veggies buried in a slightly warmer soil, or that had been dug up and brought into cellars and pantries, got people through.

The repertoire of ways to prepare roots vegetables in northern Europe were pretty simple. Soups. Purees. Mashed. Roasted. And subsequent variations on the theme.

These preperation still work today, adding warmth and heartiness to these colder nights. Just the other night I went to an event at the yoga studio where I practice. When the “Six Tastes of Ayurveda” appetizer buffet rolled around, there was a pan of roasted root vegetables with a honey mustard sauce to drizzle over the top for the “pungent” taste.

According to ayurvedic principles, root vegetables help us to stay grounded and heal, support, and nurture the root chakra energies. Roots are also full of complex carbohydrates and phytonutrients. In general, the more color a root veggie has, the more vitamins it possesses.

Here are a couple of my favorite root vegetable recipes. The first is Roasted Root Vegetables in Apple Cider. (This can be done either in a roasting pan in the oven or in a slow cooker.)  I suggest you consider using some of those tiny root veggies such as spuds, turnips, beets, and rutabagas, but if you can’t find those, then by all means, use conventional-sized veggies and cut them into bite-sized pieces.  If you are using tiny veggies, peel them but leave the stubs of tops in tact.

1 pound carrots, peeled
1 pound parsnips, peeled
1 pound rutabagas or turnips, peeled
1 cup apple cider
4 tablespoons butter or ghee

Place the veggies in the pan and add the butter and pour the apple cider over them. Cook on HIGH for 3-4 hours or until the veggies are very tender.  If you are roasting in the oven, preheat the oven to 425 degrees, then cover the veggies with the butter and apple cider, and cook for about an hour.  Add salt to taste, then serve.

This next recipe for Celery Root Soup, is from my new book, 50 Simple Soup Recipes for the Slow Cooker. But you don’t need a slow cooker; the soup can also be made on the stove top.

The celery root (also known as celeriac or the turnip-rooted celery), though not as widely known, is a versatile and flavorful winter root.  I find it easy to clean (peel it like you would a potato), and offering the same pleasant flavor and aroma of its stalky, leafy cousin.

2 tablespoons butter or ghee
3 medium leeks, sliced, white and pale green parts only
1 1/2 lb celery root, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
5 cups water
1 tsp salt, or to taste
1 cup half and half or soy cream (optional)

topping:
1 granny smith apple, matchsticks or chopped
1 celery rib, thinly sliced
1/3 cup inner celery leaves

In a pan, sauté the leeks in butter for about 10 minutes. (If cooking soup on the stove, cook the leeks in the pot that you’ll be using.)

Add the leeks, celery root, and water to the slow cooker and cook on LOW for about 4-6 hours or until the root is tender.

If cooking on the stove, add the celery root and water to the sauted leeks in the pot, turn down the heat to medium low, and simmer uncovered for 30-40 minutes, until the root is tender.

Add the cream or soy cream if you are using it, then using a hand held immersion blender, puree the soup, then add salt to taste.  Let the soup cook until all ingredients are hot.

Top each serving with a bit of apple, sliced celery stalk, and some celery leaves.
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Is Your Wine Organic?

wine.jpgAs a health-seeking yogi, you likely are already eating organic, and trying in large or small ways to reduce your impact on the Earth.

But what about your wine?  

Considering that grapes are among the most pesticide-laden agricultural commodities out there, organic is a smart way to go for all of us who imbibe, and for the planet. The good news is that there are more options than ever for organic wine, with wineries in all the major grape-growing regions of the world diving into this sector of the industry.

The tricky part is determining exactly what “organic” means when it comes to wine among a confusing array of labeling regulations.

Here’s the long and short of it:

For a wine to be labeled “100% organic,” it must carry the USDA organic seal and the wine must be made from only certified organic grapes; and the wine may not contain any added sulfites.  (Sulfites are a natural by-product of fermentation; so all wines do have some. However, in most conventional wines, minute amounts of sulfur dioxide are added as a preservative.)

For a wine to be labeled simply “organic,” 95 percent of its grapes must be certified organic, and cannot have added sulfites.

If a wine is labeled “made with organic grapes,” it contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients and may have added sulfites.

Some people have sensitivities to sulfites; others just don’t want anything added to their wine. However, wines without added sulfites are typically not as stable and can’t be shelved as long.

In addition to the many choices for organic wine we now enjoy, there’s also more “biodynamic” wine avaialable.  Biodynamic agriculture is based on the philosophy of an early 20th century Austrian philosopher, Rudolph Steiner, who believed that it was imperative for man to incorporate spiritual principles into the physical world. Steiner’s ultimate aim was to bring nature back into balance, and man into greater harmony with nature. Planting, harvesting, and winemaking procedures that follow biodynamic principles are governed by natural forces, such as the phases of the moon.

Biodynamic vineyards are self-sustaining, with native plants grown alongside the vines to provide the habitat that gives the best insect-control (thus eliminating the need for pesticides) and to prevent soil erosion. Steiner taught that a farm should house both plants and animals, so horses are used for plowing and manure used for compost. But biodynamic wines may not be for the strict vegetarian or vegan, as a number of fertilization and growing techniques involve the use of animal products, such as manure packed into the cow horns and buried over the winter, or yarrow or chamomile blossoms packed in deer bladders or cow intestines.

“Organic” wines are no sure bet for veggies, either.  Both conventional and organic wines are commonly “fined” or cleared using products such as eggs whites, casein (milk protein), gelatin, and isinglass (derived from fish bladders).  While contact with the finished wine is minimal, there is some contact. “Vegan” wine would be fined by bentonite clay or kaolin, instead.  (See www.theorganicwinecompany.com for a good discussion of the subject.)

Is there a difference in quality and flavor between organic and biodynamic and conventional wines? Depends upon whom you ask. Some claim that without pesticides and additives, these “natural” wines are more vibrant, demonstrate a greater sense of terroir, and yes, taste better. Others will say there’s no noticeable difference, and the reduced shelf life of biodynamic and organic wines is a mark against them.

For my money, to compare organic and biodynamic wines to conventionally produced wines misses the point. I’d venture to say that a more important question might be, “Are they made with the intention to support the life and health of the planet, its people, and its ecosystems?”    
As I mentioned, there are a slew of wineries from around the globe now producing organic and biodynamic wines, but I’m particularly fond of two wineries that pioneered the trends in California, Benziger and Ceago (owned by the Fetzer family).  For your Thanksgiving or holiday meals, Benziger’s Sonoma Mountain Red, or for a special treat (and a flush pocketbook), its Tribute, are both terrific.  I also always enjoy Ceago Sauvignon Blanc, Kathleen’s Vineyard.

For a fairly comprehensive list of European and American producers of biodynamic and organic wines, check the following:
http://forkandbottle.com/wine/biodynamic_producers.htm

Spice is Nice

 spices_sm.jpgAs I was leaving yoga the other day, a guy behind me called out, “Hey, Lynn, where do you get your spices?”  No, this wasn’t some weird pickup line. Most everyone in the class knows I write cookbooks for a living, so it’s a legitimate question I get often, and one that I can always answer without missing a beat.
 
While most of us buy our herbs fresh from the farmers’ market or supermarket, or better yet, grow our own, when it comes to spices, with the exception of a few (such as paprika and some peppercorns), they don’t grow here. Most spices come from the dried bark or fruit of tropical plants.
 
Now, most of us have a shelf or cabinet in our kitchen stocked with jars of spices we’ve collected through holiday cookie-baking bonanzas, experimental forays into Indian cooking, and the like. But if they are more than a few years old, you might as well toss them. Ground spices, which begin to release their essential oils immediately, lose most of their umph after a year or two. Whole spices may last a few years longer. Dried herbs should be used with a year.
 
You may be thinking, “But that jar of cinnamon that I bought back in 1995 still seems fine!” And it probably is fine, meaning that unlike other foods, old spices aren’t harmful. But I can guarantee you that that old cinnamon doesn’t taste anything close to what the freshly ground spice does. And if the point of using spice is to add flavor, why wouldn’t you want to get the most flavor you can?
 
If you’re serious about getting the best and most true flavor from your spices, you’ll want to start fresh. And that means finding the right purveyor and identifying exactly what you need. Here are some spice-purchasing rules I’ve gleaned over years:
 
1.  Rapid turnover rate.  When shopping for spices, seek out a purveyor with a rapid turnover rate, whether this is the owner of your local market or an online source. Rapid turnover means the spices don’t have time to sit on the shelf and lose flavor and color.
 
2.  Great quality.  The purveyor should know the source of the spices; select those grown with a minimum of chemical intervention and processing; and source products from the best locations, such as vanilla from Madagascar, Turkish bay leaves, Sri Lankan cinnamon. You get the idea.

3.  Sells whole spices.  I always buy spices whole then grind them myself with a spice grinder, Japanese suribachi, or electric coffee mill just before use. It’s sort of like buying whole coffee beans. You get much more flavor when you’ve liberated a spice’s essentials oils just before sprinkling it into your food.
 
4. Reasonable prices. Have you ever noticed that sometimes the prices commanded by even small jars of spices in the grocery store seem inordinately high? Good value for the dollar is generally not the rule of thumb in the world of in-demand herbs and spices. Look for a vendor who does a large volume of business and who can afford to offer products at reasonable prices. Good online vendors may save on the overhead expenses involved in marketing, shipping, and stocking product with a third party, and will hopefully pass some of those savings on to you.
 
5. Buy only what you need. One of the problems with buying spices in jars is that you usually end up with way more than you need. If your recipe only calls for a teaspoon of star anise, and you don’t often use this spice, an entire jar is going to be hanging around for a while. I recommend getting realistic amounts of those spices you use often and smaller amounts of less common spices. You can save on space by keeping them in the plastic bags in the freezer.
 
My two favorite online spice and herb purveyors are Penzeys.com and Wholespice.com. Both companies offer lots of good information about spices and dried herbs on their websites, high quality, carefully sourced product and reasonable prices.

Now, spice it up!

An Apple a Day

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This time of year, thoughts and appetites are turning to apples. Fresh, crunchy whole apples. Apple cider. Apple pies, crisps, and dumplings.

According to the U.S. Apple Association, the average
American eats about 16.4 pounds of fresh apples a year, and 33 pounds of
processed apples. Imagine. Though there are about 2,500 varieties of apples
grown in the U.S., there are 100 varieties grown commercially, just a handful
of which have cornered the market: Granny Smith, Gala, Red and Golden Delicious,
Pink Lady, McIntosh and Fuji, to name some.

Apples are sometimes categorized by their suitability for baking or eating out of hand, but to my way of thinking, (and I like my apples crisp and tart), the Granny Smith, McIntosh, and Pink Lady have a pleasing balance of acidity and sweetness, and therefor work well for most purposes. (I’ve always thought that whomever named the Golden and Red apples “delicious” must have had too much hard cider to drink.)

Apples are grown in every state, meaning that most of us have access to fresh grown native apples, and possibly have a small orchard or two nearby. And did I mention apple festivals? Chances are there’s an apple festival somewhere close enough for you to enjoy visiting for a fall outing.

In my area, for instance, the tiny Gold Rush town of Julian lies tucked away in the mountains of eastern San Diego County. Although its main street looks like a
Western movie set, at this time of year you may have to push aside hordes of tourists in order to see it. That’s because at this time of year, Julian is trafficking in a different kind of gold: apples.

Not that you or I have to travel all the way to the next state to enjoy the many wonderful dishes that can be made from apples. I have a dwarf apple tree in my back
yard, as a matter of fact, and every year, I eat as many apples as I can right off the tree, but those that escape my greedy clutches have another fate in store for them: apple crisp. Since apples thrive in so many places, you probably have orchards somewhere near your home. You might even be able to make a day of apple picking. A trip to the country and a bag or two of freshly picked apples to take home.

Crisp is easier to make than apple pie. And requiring less gluten, for those in the gluten sensitive crowd. (I should add a note that I believe freshly milled whole wheat seems to sit far better with many gluten-sensitive friends than does the store bought whole
wheat flour. But that may be a subject for another blog. A delicious apple crisp can be made with apples, a minimal amount of sugar (I use organic brown sugar), some spices
(freshly ground, if possible), and some rolled oats. At times, I like to double the amount of crumbly topping for a lavish, almost cookie like crust. Try this recipe, from my book, The Gourmet Toaster Oven, out and see what you think.

The following recipe serves two people. Just double up or even triple up for more.

Apple Crisp

Apple Filling:

2 organic apples, cored and thinly sliced

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

1-2 tablespoons sugar

dash of lemon juice

Topping:

¼ cup organic all purpose or whole wheat flour

¼ cup dark brown sugar

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

¼ cup rolled oats

½ cup walnuts

To make the filling:

Toss the apple slices, spices and sugar in a bowl. Add a dash of lemon juice if needed.

Spread the apples evenly in your baking dish.

To make the topping:

Add the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves and butter to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the butter is in pea-size pieces. If you do not have a food
processor, cut all the ingredients together in a bowl.

Add the oats and walnuts and pulse just until thoroughly combined.

Spread the oat mixture evenly over the top of the apples and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 20-30 minutes, until the topping is crispy and brown and the apple slices are tender when pierced with a fork. Spoon the crisp into bowls or onto plates and top with ice cream or whipped cream or a non-dairy topping, if you prefer.