Help Fight MS! Plus Recipe for Low-Sodium White Bean & Sweet Pepper Soup

Jackie, Val, Chris, Ari, Dee at MS Walk 2008

Jackie, Val, Chris, Ari, Dee at MS Walk 2008

Today’s challenge, which I chose to accept, was to prepare two dishes in my friend Ari’s kitchen using only the sparse ingredients on hand and no added salt!

But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. I was at Ari’s house today to sit with her as she recovered from surgery. We’ve been friends for 21 years so I was perfectly comfortable going through her cabinets and running a blender while she napped on the couch. But cooking for Ari comes with some restrictions, namely that she has to be careful about the amount of sodium she consumes because of her MS medications.

Yes, Ari has multiple sclerosis. She was diagnosed a few years ago and handles the challenges of this horrendous disease with incredible dignity and a positive attitude. I feel inspired by her bravery every time I see her. But she doesn’t accept help easily so there are really only three things I can do for her:

1) Be there for her when she asks (and when she doesn’t).

2) Cook for Ari and her incredible husband.

3) Raise money for her MS Walk team, Turtle Express.

I’m always trying to accomplish #1, I fulfilled #2 today (recipe follows), but I need your help with #3. Please visit my walk page to make a tax-deductible donation to the Illinois MS Chapter where 88% of every dollar raised is used to fund programs and services for families impacted by MS along with vital research into its cause and  cure.

Fridge finds

Fridge finds

As for today’s challenge, I decided to make myself at home in Ari’s kitchen once she fell asleep on the couch. The cabinets were pretty bare although I did find two cans of great northern white beans. But luckily her mom had thought ahead and had gone to the grocery store so there was a nice selection of fresh produce to choose from: baby sweet peppers; cherry tomatoes; a cucumber; zucchini and yellow squash; onions; lettuce and spinach.

The first thing I thought to make was a white bean salad with sweet peppers. I chopped the peppers and sauteed them with half a diced onion. I then rinsed the beans very well to wash away the excess sodium (something like 480 mg/half cup) and added them to the pan. The only problem was that these beans weren’t holding their shape and were quickly turning to mush.

Simmering white beans and sweet peppers

Simmering white beans and sweet peppers

No problem. How about a white bean soup, I thought. I added about 2 1/2 cups water (not broth because of the sodium) to the pot and simmered the beans and vegetables for 10 minutes. The soup then went into the blender, then back into a pot to be reheated and seasoned with paprika, black pepper and lemon juice.

The result: a tasty, nutritious soup with tons of fiber and protein that’s low in sodium.

White Bean & Sweet Pepper Soup

White Bean & Sweet Pepper Soup

Here’s the recipe:

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Grandma’s “Tornado Cookies” Offer Calm

Tornado Cookies

Some recipes have a strong personal history, evoking memories of time or people who have passed. For my sister and I, this recipe for tornado cookies does just that.

As children, every year for Hanukkah our grandmother would prepare individual cookie tins for each of her grandchildren. They were filled with all types of cookies – M&M, chocolate chip, peanut butter and our favorite – tornado cookies (basically button sugar cookies), along with the obligatory pieces of gelt.

Measure flour

But they weren’t called tornado cookies back then. I’m actually not sure what we called them, I just remember the dry, crumbly texture as I popped them into my mouth and how the margarine and powdered sugar came together as I chewed.

Cut in butter with a fork

This is my grandmother’s recipe and, although I’m certain it’s not unique to her, I have no way of knowing where it originated. All it says on the pink index card in my mom’s kitchen is “Mom’s Cookies.” I imagine the recipe came from a Jewish cookbook because it uses margarine instead of butter, making it kosher to eat after having consumed meat. But, then again this was also the early ’80s and margarine was pretty popular back then in general.

Mix dough by hand - literally

The name “tornado cookies” came later, probably around the time my grandmother moved to Florida. My sister and I came up with that name after we made them during a spring tornado. I remember starting the recipe, then having to abandon the dough as we ran to the basement when the sirens sounded. Once they ended, we came back upstairs and finished making the cookies. What can I say? That’s just life in the Midwest.

Tornado cookies baking

We don’t make these cookies often, just during Hanukkah and when we’re in need of a comfort food. That’s why I made these for my sister last week. She was very stressed with the end of tax season and having an overall crappy day, so I made a batch to cheer her up. And I think it worked. At least it helped put the day in perspective and gave her a chance to remember our grandmother who was always so proud of her grandchildren.

Toss cookies in a plastic bag with powdered sugar

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Earth Day Resolutions, What’s Yours?

Everywhere I look today there’s chatter about Earth Day: the new National Green Museum that suddenly appeared on my block, the Green Peace Windmills on the Michigan Avenue bridge, Oprah’s live Earth Day show, the free mini tree I received at Whole Foods, blog Chocolate & Zucchini’s efforts to plant trees in Africa, and finally this article from MSN that scared the crap out of me.

That’s a lot, I know. But it’s just a small glimpse of peoples’ efforts all over the world to improve this planet.

These people have inspired me to look at my own actions. I try to be mindful of the environment by doing things like turning off lights, not letting the water run, unplugging appliances when I go out of town, and using plastic shopping bags. But there is so much more I can do, and I’m sure there are many things you can do, too.

In that vein, I’m going to make an Earth Day Resolution by choosing one thing to do differently from this point forward. And I hope you will join me. This isn’t about changing your all your habits overnight, it’s about starting small and then slowly adding more.

My resolution is to give up plastic water bottles. It’s a habit I’ve been holding on to, but no more! From today on, I vow to use only environmentally-friendly, reusable water bottles.

Please share your Earth Day Resolution in the comments section below!

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Crispy Roast Chicken & Fingerling Potatoes

Crispy Roasted Chicken & Fingerling Potatoes

Crispy Roast Chicken & Fingerling Potatoes

After years of cooking professionally, I recently became puzzled by one of the most basic cooking techniques: how to roast a chicken. I’ve always used what I considered the “traditional” method: seasoned with salt, pepper, lemon juice, fresh herbs, and fat (olive oil or butter) and roasted at a moderate temperature of 350F.

Sliced fingerling potatoes

Sliced fingerling potatoes

But suddenly it seems like every famous chef/restaurant has a signature technique that is “so much better than your mother’s roast chicken.” There’s the Zuni Cafe roast chicken, the Chez Panisse roast chicken, the River Cottage roast chicken, and so many more. Just Google “roast chicken” and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of recipes for this incredibly simple dish.

The version that caught my eye was the Thomas Keller method. I first read about it on LTH Forum where everyone who had made it raved about it. I just had to try this one for myself.

Seasoned trussed chicken

Seasoned trussed chicken

Keller, the much acclaimed chef of The French Laundry in Yountville, CA, calls for roasting a dry chicken (wash it and then pat dry with paper towels) seasoned with salt and pepper at a high temperature of 450F. The result is an incredibly flavorful and juicy chicken with crispy skin. And the best part is that this method is very low-maintenance – there’s no basting or even a reason to open the oven door, and you don’t even have to make a jus or a pan sauce!

Roasted potatoes tossed with herbs

Roasted potatoes with ramp greens

To make dinner even more simple, I decided to roast some sliced fingerling potatoes along with the chicken. Wow! These were the most amazing potatoes I’d ever eaten. Flavored by the chicken and a bit of salt, the potatoes were incredibly rich with a crisp bite that somehow seemed to melt in my mouth.

This meal turned into a true one-pot wonder in my cast-iron pan (and by now you should know how much I love using my cast-iron pan for rustic dishes), but you can easily use a roasting pan instead.

Crispy roasted chicken breast with fingerling potatoes

Crispy roast chicken breast and fingerling potatoes

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Ramptastic Excitement, Plus Recipe for Scrambled Eggs with Ramps

Just look at the pretty ramps!

Just look at the pretty ramps!

It’s been one year plus one month of sheer agony as I’ve been trying to get my hands on a vegetable that’s never available. Of course, I’m referring to the elusive and strongly scented, yet much-demanded spring vegetable: ramps.

Ramps, or wild leeks as they’re also known, are native to Chicago but have a very short growing season (usually mid-March to mid-April). They’re also in great demand amongst chefs, so much so that it’s virtually impossible to get them outside a restaurant without paying a small fortune.

Cleaned and trimmed ramps are ready to go!

Cleaned and trimmed ramps are ready to go!

But my luck was about to change.

Despite the dreary cloudy sky yesterday, the sun suddenly shone bright for me as soon as I opened my email to find this message: “I went ramp picking this weekend and harvested a ton – do you want some? – E”

Sweeter words have never been typed. I hesitated for oh, a nanosecond, before hitting reply and typing “YES!!!”

Bag O' Ramps

Bag O' Ramps

Later that day I was handed a clear plastic bag with just my name written on it. Inside it was stuffed full of ramps, beautiful leafy green tops, slender pink stalks leading to perfectly white bulbs. And the smell – such strong aromas of garlic and onion, both pungent and sweet, that the scent from cooking just three is still lingering in my kitchen.

E won’t tell me where she found the ramps, only that she gathered about three pounds! Her reasons for keeping the secret location are that she’s a conservationist and doesn’t want them to be over-picked, but I have a feeling her foraging may not have been on the up-and-up, if you know what I mean. Ah, to have friends like this…

I have great plans for these ramps – risotto, roasted chicken, soup, etc. But I’m leaving town tomorrow and have dinner plans tonight, so those dreams will have to wait until I return.

Scrambled Eggs with Ramps

Scrambled Eggs with Ramps

But I had to try them at least once before I could get on with my life. So, today for breakfast I enjoyed scrambled eggs with ramps. This sure is living the good life.

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