The Best Ever Bruschetta - Healthy Summer Tomato Recipe

Summer is not officially here until I make broschetta with real tomatoes.  And when I say real tomatoes, I mean the kind I pick fresh off the vine and are still warm from the sun.  The kind that never, ever get refrigerated.  Fresh tomatoes and basil served over grilled bread might be my favorite meal.  Maybe an ear of sweet corn and a peach for dessert to round things out.  Can it get any better than this?  I love summer.  I love the fresh produce it brings.  And the first tomatoes, before there are so many you don't know what to do, are the best. 

The Best Ever Bruschetta
3 cups of the most local tomatoes you can find, diced
3 tablespoons of garden fresh basil, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
6 slices of bread

Step 1:  Drain the diced tomatoes of any extra juice (save it for stock, sauce or just drink it).  Don't skip this step, if the tomatoes are swimming in juice they will make your bread soggy.  Soggy bread is the worst.

Step 2: In a bowl gently stir together the tomatoes, basil and olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Step 3:  Grill or toast the bread.  I love rye, but you could also use a crusty French or slightly sweet whole wheat. 

Step 4:  Serve the bruschetta over the toasted bread.  Or serve the tomato and bread separately and let folks put together their own little slice of summer heaven. 

Yields: 2 dinner sized servings or 4 appetizer servings

Nutrition: 365 calories, 10 grams of fat, 9 grams of fiber, 10 grams of protein, that's 7 Weight Watcher's Points (calculated for two dinner sized servings served with rye bread - divide by two for appetizer size servings)

Becky is Going to Sierra Leone to Teach Pediatric Nursing - Thanks for Your Votes

Remember Becky who applied for a grant to teach pediatric nursing to Sierra Leone?  Check out the origonal post here

These are the facebook status I woke up to this morning:
6:00am Becky Cridford has half an hour to go: VOOOOOOTTTTTEEEEEE!!!!

6:11am Becky Cridford is waiting by the phone. Thanks everyone - I really think we did it!!

6:30am Becky Cridford just got that call! WE DID IT!!!!! 45000 british pounds on their way to the Welbodi Partnership! Well done everyone!!! Has been one hell of a week and I am beyond grateful that you were here with me!!! xxxxxx

7:00am Becky Cridford Oh yeah - I am going! NEXT WEEK!!! Ok, I'm on it... THANKS THANKS to all of you - I know you did so much more than vote! I have learned a whole lot this weekend but most of all I have learned how GREAT YOU ARE!!!!! feeling the love, people, feeling the love. xxxx
Thanks to everyone who voted.  You made a difference!


Curried Pumpkin Risotto Recipe - Vote for Becky

I met Miss Becky Cridford in Panama.  Jeff and I thought we had one of the most remote, toughest sites in Peace Corps.  Becky was a five hour hike above us.  This hike involved fording the Mamoni River seven times and some of the muddiest trekking we did.  Becky was volunteering with an organization called CREA that was building a demonstration farm way up on the edge of some pristine primary rain forest.  Becky's a nurse and was brought on board to teach basic first aid classes in the nearby community of Las Ziena.  Jeff and I worked with Becky and her co-volunteer Danielle to bring a sex education presentation to the community. 

Becky has since gone back to England, but is ready to go back out and do more good in the world.  She needs your help.  She has applied for a grant to teach pediatric nursing to Sierra Leone.  Check out 30 second video and see for yourself:

Vodafone Foundation is asking for the public to vote on who they think should receive the grant money.  The top two will receive the funding they need to complete their projects.  Currently Becky's in third place. 

Check out those adorable faces.  You would be helping kids like these get medical care. 

Did you vote?  Please go vote before you read on. 

Becky's also a great cook.  In Panama she showed me how to make risotto.  It was kind of a slap-shot recipe as we generally had neither the correct arborio rice or real parmesean.  We'd make it with that powdered Parmesan stuff that is shelf stable and regular white rice.  It was some of the most comforting food we ate in Panama and got reinvented many times over.  This is my favorite Panama reincarnation.  It leaves out the Parmesan all together so I'm not even sure if it counts as Risotto. 

This recipe was created out on desperation. How to cook yet another pumpkin? I bought an auyama (pumpkin-like winter squash) at the fruit stand in Chepo. I pitched the skin and innards in the compost pile. Soon we had little pumpkin seedlings coming up in the resting side of our compost bin. We let them grow. A month or two later there were five huge pumpkins. Luckily, auyamas store well. This recipe is a hybrid of pumpkin pie, curry and Italian risotto. It's entirely different than its sources and entirely delicious!

Curried Pumpkin Risotto
2 liters of water
1 cube bullion (chicken, beef or veggie)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, chunked
6 cloves garlic, chunked
1 1/2 cups dry rice
5 cups squash, pealed and cubed
1 thumb sized piece of ginger, grated
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
2 tablespoons curry powder
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup Soya Chunk, re-hydrated (Textured Soy Protein)

Step 1: In a pot, heat water with the bullion to make stock. Keep the stock simmering for the whole recipe. If you have real stock it will make this recipe all the better.  We used bullion because it was easy to backpack in. 

Step 2:  In a separate large pot, saute the onions and garlic in the oil until translucent.

Step 3:  Add the rice, squash, ginger and the rest of the spices. Ladle in enough stock to cover all the ingredients with about a half inch of liquid.

Step 4: "Stand by your risotto!"  Now imagine that said with a British accent.  That's how Becky would say it.  Add a cup of stock every couple of minutes to the rice mixture. Stir continuously, scraping the bottom of the pot, between cups of stock. If you don't stir it will burn to the bottom. The stock should always just cover the ingredients, but not by more than an inch and the mixture should stay just below a simmer. The constant stirring will break down the rice as it cooks, transforming it into a sticky-risotto texture. It will also break down the squash into a creamy puree. You may or may not use all the stock, that's okay.

Step 5: When the rice and pumpkin are cooked and the mixture is thick, add the pre-hydrated Soya. Take the risotto off the heat. (Stir in an extra cup of stock, if it is really thick because it will thicken as it cools.) Let it set for ten minutes covered.

Step 6: Serve and enjoy! This is a giant pot of risotto, share with your neighbors, save for left overs, or cut the recipe in half. To mix up the flavor, at the end, try adding a cap full of vinegar and some honey to make it more sweet and sour. For a little something crunchy, serve with finely diced onions on top.

Now that you have read this delicious recipe and you believe in the culinary and nursing skills of Becky.  Help her get the votes she needs.  Cut and paste this request for votes to your blog or facebook status.  Your help is much appreciated!
There are is only one pediatric doctor and no pediatric nurses in Sierra Leone.  Becky is a dedicated nurse who want to teach nurses.  With your vote you can help her recieve the funding she needs to get training to a country that needs it.  Please take five minutes and vote for Rebecca Cridford.  Thanks  http://www.facebook.com/worldofdifference?v=app_10531514314
Good Luck Becky!


Taltree Fundraising Gala - Four Seasons

Taltree Arboretum and Gardens had its annual fundraising gala last weekend.  I got to put my florist skillz to work and create some floral arrangements for the seasons.  Spring and winter to be exact. 

I love the fireplace at the pavilion.  Since it was a hot evening no fire was needed and a soft pink and lavender arrangement fit the bill.  It was my first gala at Taltree so I don't know how it went compared to previous years, but there were lots of people and I had a good time.  It always feels good to see people enjoying the gardens. 


Our Crazy Cat Eats Corn Cobs

This is our cat.  His name is Zeus.  He's an odd cat.  He won't eat pork tips but he loves vegetarian refried beans and, butternut squash. And as I recently discovered, corn cobs.  I didn't capture a good picture, so I decided to put four bad pictures into an animated gif.  Four bad photos = one good gif?  I question my math. 

Does your pet eat strange things?


Also note Zeus's new water bowl it has a ring that snaps on so he can't splash water out.  He still sticks his paws in and pushes the bowl around, but he can't slosh the water out.  Our hardwood floors with survive another season. 


Baked Sweet Potato Fries with a Sour Cream Salsa Dip

I love sweet potato fries, but I don't own a deep fat fryer and that's probably good because this is surely the conversation I would have with Jeff, "Hey honey, do you think you can deep fry corn on the cob?  What about green beans?  We could bread them first."  And then we would try it and then I would have to donate all my clothes because they would no longer fit.  And I'd have to shop for new ones and I really want a new camera so I can't spend money on clothes right now.  So you see I had to figure out to make sweet potato fries with out a frier. 

Turns out fried fries are about twice as many calories and four times the fat of baked fries.  After researching through my cookbooks I found a sure fire way to make crispy sweet potato fries in the oven.  This recipe is adapted the Baked French Fry recipe in the New Best Recipe Cookbook from Cook's Illustrated. It creates a delicious, soft on the inside, crispy on the outside sweet potato fry.  Serve them up with the sour cream and salsa Mexican influenced dip and call 'em dinner.  Or if you must, serve them as a side dish, but be aware they may just steal the show. 

Sour Cream Salsa Dip

1/2 cup low fat sour cream (or plain yogurt)
2 tablespoons salsa
1 teaspoon lime juice

Step 1:  Mix the sour cream, salsa and lime juice together.
Step 2: Chill and serve topped with diced green onion. 
Baked Sweet Potatoes

3 medium sized sweet potatoes
5 tablespoons canola oil or peanut oil
Salt and Pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper if you wish to heat things up a bit

Step 1:  Peel the sweet potatoes and cut them into long strips.  Make sure to cut them into evenly thick slices so they all bake the same. 

Step 2:  Soak the sweet potato strips in hot tap water for 10 minutes.  According to Cook's Illustrated, "The water introduced during soaking improves the creaminess and smoothness by working its way between the strands of gelatin and starch.  The final result is a fry that has a good surface crunch married to a smooth interior." 

Step 3:  Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F.  Meanwhile coat a heavy baking sheet with 3 tablespoons of oil and sprinkle evenly with salt and pepper.  Set aside.

Step 4:  Drain the sweet potatoes and using a clean towel, pat them dry.  Toss the sweet potatoes with the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil until coated.  (Add a little cayenne here if you like.)   Arrange the fries on the cookies sheet in a single layer.   

Step 5:  Cover the baking sheet tightly with foil and bake for 5 minutes.  Remove the foil and continue to bake until the bottoms of the sweet potatoes are golden brown, about 15 minutes.  Flip the sweet potatoes over and brown the other side for an additional 10 minutes so both sides are evenly brown. 

Step 6:  Remove from the oven and place on a plate with a paper towel underneath to absorb the excess grease.  Serve immediately with ketchup or the sour cream salsa dip above.   

Yields: 3 servings (about 8 oz each)

Nutrition:  This is calculated assuming all the oil is part of the dish, which it isn't.  A lot of the oil is left on the pan or absorbed by the paper towels. So consider this a worst case senerio:  200 calories, 5 grams of fat, 4 grams fiber and 4 grams of protein. 

That's 4 Weight Watcher's Points per serving.


One Year Peace Corps Anniversary

Jeff and I left our Peace Corps site in Panama one year ago today.  We said goodbye to our neighbors and friends and fellow Peace Corps Volunteers boarded a plane and in eight hours were driving down interstate 35 back to Ames, Iowa. 

It was easy to slip back into electricity, hot water, Internet, and driving again.  I had a brief foray of riding the bus and brewing coffee on the stove.  It only took a couple months to stop talking to all animals and children in Spanish.  (Click here to read the essay I wrote about coming home.)
View from our Porch in Panama
Sometimes I miss it.  I miss sipping coffee on the front porch watching the mist rise off the hills.  I miss the men salamaring after the rain.  I miss my little gas stove and oven where I learned how to cook everything from scratch.  I miss checking on my auyama squash to see how big it has gotten.  I miss having a waterfall within a twenty minute walk.   I miss the jungle. I miss the sense of knowing I was accomplishing something every day just by being there. 

Our Kitchen in Panama.
Peace Corps provided an instant camaraderie with all the other volunteers.  We all went through the same training and lived with the same problems such as poor water quality, unreliable public transport, untrained teachers.  We fought many of the same fights working with our communities. 

There was also a security in knowing our health care was covered and we'd get our ten dollars a day no matter what.  That stipend covered all our day to day expenses and all our travels around Panama and Columbia.  We even came home with an excess thousand dollars.  We lived well off so little. It was nice not to worry about finances.  That will never happen again in our lives.

Rosa and Me
I miss my Panamanian friends.  Well, I must confess I didn't make that many.  The language gap combined with the lack of education and the machismo that made interacting with any male have sexual over tones was hard.  There were two Panamanians I do consider my friends:  Rosa and Romero.  Rosa had the most beautiful garden protected by a chicken fence and her broom.  She had a wry sense of humor and a get it done attitude that I appreciated.  Romero was our host dad and his love of learning and desire to live the simple country life was unique in our community.  Anyone who got an education went to the city and those who were left behind were the farmers that either never had the opportunity or didn't want to learn.  Thank goodness for Rosa and Romero, I don't know how I would have kept going with out them.

I give Peace Corps a gold star.  I'll tell anyone who asks that they should consider becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Living in rural Panama made Jeff and me more interesting and gave us confidence. We enriched the lives of those in our community in the valley of the Momoni River as well as the one hundred plus American college students we worked with on their service trips to Panama.  


Recipes, Ideas and Inspiration for Beets

Beets.  I bought three beets at the roadside stand. Only one of them was photogenic. I have no idea what to do with them.  What's a good recipe for beets?

I have an aversion to beets.  Something about their odd gelatinous appearance when cooked and the bloody pink color have kept me away.  But I'm going to do it.  I'm going to make something out of these beets and it's going to taste good. 

First I looked through my favorite foodie photo sites for some inspiring beet recipes. 

From chimeraobscura's post B is for Borscht
Borsch is one of the first things that comes up.  Borscht is a traditional Russian soup made from beets, eggs and cucumbers flavored with onion and dill.  Maybe it's good?

There is an assortment of Mediterranean salads made with beets, mint, lentils or couscous and yogurt.  Feta and goat cheese seem to be a common pairing.

And then there are the shockingly colored vegetarian beet burgers.

Roasting seems to be popular as well.  But these two options are my favorite so far:

So what do you do with beets?  Do you boil them, mash them, stick them in a stew?  Have you found a beet recipe everyone loves? Let me know what dishes you recommend making with beets.  And I'll let you know what I decide to do with them tomorrow. 


Baigan Bharta (Indian Eggplant Curry) - Healthy Vegetarian Recipe

Baigan Bharta is a curry dish from India. The main ingredient in roasted eggplant. It's a light and healthy meal but yet filling and delicious. That's a combination doesn't come along very often.  Oh, and it's easy to make. You do need to allot some time for roasting the eggplant, but even that doesn't take very long. 

Gharam Masala is a spice blend found in Indian cooking that generally includes coriander, cumin, black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves, mace, fenugreek and nutmeg.  You can often find this spice blend in the ethnic section of the grocery store or in with the bulk spices.  Or if you are so lucky to have an Indian grocery in town, they will surely carry this staple of Indian cooking.  There is some variation in the spices and proportions used.  And if you are really hard up you can substitute curry powder. 

Gharam Masala is usually not a hot spicy mixture.  We are going to add a green chili to the Baigan Bharta to bring in the heat and then temper by serving with a dollop of plain yogurt.  The green peas add a burst of brightness and the lime and coriander leaves (which by the way are simply cilantro) keep the flavors clean.  Served over a half cup of brown rice, delicious!

Baigan Bharta Curried Indian Eggplant

1 eggplant, medium
1 cup green peas
1 onions, chopped
1 14 oz can of chopped tomatoes
1 green chili, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
1-2 teaspoons Garam Masala powder (or curry powder)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
Salt to taste

To Garnish:
Chopped green coriander leaves (cilantro)
Sour cream or plain yogurt
Lime wedges

2 cups cooked brown rice

Step One: Brush eggplant with oil and roast it on a gas burner over medium heat. Frequently turn the eggplant, until fully roasted. You could also broil it in the oven.  Once done, hold it under cold running water or in a bowl full of water. Cool it and peel off the blackened skin. Mash the flesh.

Step Two: Heat oil in a pan or skillet . Add green chili and onion and fry over medium heat until light golden brown.

Step Three:  Add red chili powder, turmeric powder, garam masala and salt and stir. Add tomatoes and cook until tender.

Step Four:  Add green peas and mashed eggplant. Stir well. Fry for 5-7 minutes over medium heat.

Serve: over half cup brown rice, garnish with a lime wedge a dollop of yogurt, coriander leaves and serve hot.

Baigan bharta makes excellent leftovers, I might even argue it is better the second day. 

Yields four servings 

Nutrition:  (Calculated with 1 tablespoon low-fat yogurt and half cup brown rice) 290 calories, 12 grams fat, 7 grams fiber, and 7 grams protein.  That's 6 Weight Watcher's Points per serving.