Thursday, July 21, 2011

Choosing Ingredients: Why This Tomato and That Onion

Farro with zucchini, red onion, red and yellow tomatoes and goat cheese.
Since I like to throw together a quick dinner, I often feel like I cook without really thinking.  But, as I prepared tonight's dish, it occurs to me that I do put a lot of thought into which ingredients I choose, but I just don't articulate that process.  So, I decided to talk about each ingredient in tonight's concoction and why I chose it.

I started by mincing a red onion.  I gravitate towards red onions versus white or yellow for a few reasons.  Mainly, I like the color contrast of purple in my dishes.  I also think it has a more interesting flavor.  Tonight, I chose to mince, rather than slice or dice so that the onion would integrate better into the dish.  If you are looking for quick tips on knife skills for onion, or if you'd like what mincing looks like, this video from is a great resource.

Once my onion was minced, I heated olive oil in a large saute pan.  Sauteing food in a large pot means a quicker cooking time than using the oven, a firmer texture for your veggies, and a cooler kitchen (crucial for when you're in a heat wave like we are!).   Get a big saute pan and cook everything in it - less clean-up than making your veg in separate pots and pans!

When you're sauteing food, it helps to have some sort of oil or butter in the pan to prevent sticking, get your veggies to brown or caramelize and add flavor to the dish.  Cooking spray is fine if you're concerned about calories, but I don't think it does you any favors flavor wise.  Butter can add richness to vegetable dishes, but I prefer olive oil.  Not only is it lighter (and easier on the stomach), but it, in moderation, can help with lowering cholesterol levels and controlling blood sugar.  Also, healthy fats help your body absorb fat soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K.  It also has nice shelf life (though we go through it very quickly!). 

I always like to have something green in my dish.  I like the color contrast the green provides with any sort of grain base.  Kale and spinach are often favorites, but tonight, I was craving something more substantial that I could dice, so I went with zucchini.  In addition to having a nice crunchy texture when sauteed, zucchini has a number of nutritional benefits, including good amounts of folate, potassium and vitamin A.

I almost always cook with fresh tomatoes, which I keep on my counter to preserve their texture and flavor.  For me, I find fresh tomatoes to have more visual appeal and a more interesting texture than canned diced.  Crushed or diced tomatoes make a good sauce in a pinch, but if fresh tomatoes are available, grab 'em!  For cooking, I tend to use grape tomatoes.  The small size of these tomatoes means less chopping, but also additional visual interest for the dish.  I usually halve them or quarter them.  You can also get grape tomatoesin a variety of colors.  Tonight, I used red and yellow, but you can also now find brown, purple and green ones, as well as multi-color assortments, at your local market or farmers' market.  From prior experience, the brown ones tend to turn first, so if you buy an assortment, use the brown ones sooner rather than later.

I talked about the virtues of farro earlier this week.  I gravitate towards whole grains for the health reasons, of course: fiber, less spiking of blood sugar, etc.  But, frankly, they taste more interesting than refined grains like plain pasta and white rice.  There's a chewiness and a nuttiness there that's not present in refined grain products.  If I didn't have farro, I might have gone with an israeli couscous (larger grain than plain couscous),  quinoa, or a wild rice blend.

Seasoning is another thing that's key to me enjoying a dish.  I tend to gravitate towards Italian or Mexican flavors, though you've seen me experimenting with some middle eastern flavors like za'atar.  Tonight, I went with dried oregano and basil.  I prefer fresh basil, but we didn't have any handy.   And, regardless of the flavor direction I'm headed for, I always use salt, pepper and freshly minced garlic in savory dishes.  Salt and pepper help enhance the natural flavors of the vegetables, and fresh garlic adds a nice oomph to foods.  When I want to kick the heat up, my go to is red pepper flakes, which are crushed, dried chilies. Just a few shakes add some good heat that won't overwhelm the rest of your dish.

While I've been trying to cut back on dairy, I do sometimes like to add cheese to my dishes.  Tonight was one of those nights.  Fresh shredded Parmesan (not the powdered kind!), Asiago or Romano cheese are often in my arsenal.  They have a lot of flavor, so you don't need a lot of them to add dimension to a dish. They aren't the moistest of cheeses, however.  Wanting a creamier option for tonight's dish, I used fresh goat cheese.  Goat cheese is creamy and tangy, and can either be stirred into a hot dish a la tonight's concoction, or crumbled on top of a room temp meal.  Tonight's goat cheese came from Vermont Creamery, whose products are all rBST free.

It probably took me longer to write this blog than to make dinner, but there you have it.  In summary, when I cook, I gravitate to meals that involve:
  • Fresh ingredients that taste good and are good for me
  • A variety of colors and textures for visual interest and, for lack of a better phrase, "yummy mouthfeel"
  • A quick cooking technique that doesn't involve a lot of time or pots or baking dishes
  • Seasoning that adds depth and a spicy kick
  • Leftovers that can be easily reheated for lunch or incorporated into a new dish
 So, while I like to experiment with more complex dishes, sometimes it's just as easy to consider the above five bullets, spin through the grocery store and throw together something yummy in about 15-20 minutes.

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