Monday, February 28, 2011

A Great Honor: On Winning a Chicago Trib Good Eating Award

Photograph Courtesy of the Chicago Tribune

As many of you have already seen, last week I was honored with a Chicago Tribune Good Eating award for my work with Purple Asparagus, a non-profit that I founded six years ago. Each year, the paper's Good Eating section "salutes those people in the Chicago-area food and beverage world who are making a difference through their passion, vision and commitment to quality."

I'm not real comfortable with the look-at-me-I'm-so-great kind of post. Therefore, I've been trying to think of a story to write around my receiving this prestigious honor. I was coming up empty until last night's pinnacle of Hollywood's award season when I realized that receiving this award was a great opportunity to publicly thank all of the wonderful folks who've supported Purple Asparagus, a non-profit that educates children, families, and the community about eating that's good for the body and planet. This post is for everyone whose support has made our success possible.

First, a great big thanks go to our board and committees who help raise money to support our programs and provide strategic direction for our organization.

Of course, I also need to thank our many volunteers who assist with programs large and small. Whether it be an hour or a continued commitment, we couldn't do our work without these dedicated and generous individuals.

I have nothing but gratitude for our many varied partners. Since our founding, we've worked with such venerable organizations as Healthy Schools Campaign, the City's Department of Cultural Affairs, Green City Market, the Notebaert Nature Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, and Share Our Strength. With their support, our little underfunded organization has gone further than I could have ever expected.

And like every Oscar winner, I must thank my friends and family, especially Little Locathor and my incredibly supportive husband, Mike.

Finally, I want to thank all of the teachers, parents, and children who've been willing to join us on our Delicious, Nutritious Adventures™. Without your individual leaps of faith, Purple Asparagus would not exist. I hope you'll continue to join us in new adventures for more delicious, nutritious fun.

With gratitude,

Melissa Graham
Head Spear
Purple Asparagus

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Team Pork Fat: Victory at Kenmore Live

On Friday, I participated in Kenmore Live's Cooking Combat against Beth Aldrich Real Moms Love to Eat, going mano a mano with chili recipes. With a little help from my friends, Tomato Mountain, Three Sisters, the Downtown Farmstand, I emerged victorious. The biggest thanks go to Rob Levitt, butcher extraordinaire and owner of the newly opened The Butcher and Larder, who provided me with the beautiful, sustainably raised piece of piggy. Fatty, rich, and delectable, it was barely a fair fight.


Pork, Black Bean & Sweet Potato Chili
Serves 6-8
Loosely Adapted from The New Basics

3 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½ medium onions, diced
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 serrano chile, seeds removed and finely chopped (if you like your chili hotter, use two or include the seeds)
2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon cumin
1 bottle of beer, not dark
1 ½ cups chicken stock
½ cup sherry vinegar
½ cup mild tomato salsa
2 sweet potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks
3 cups cooked black beans
Juice of ½ lime
½ cup chopped cilantro
1 avocado, sliced
Sour cream and shredded Monterey Jack to taste

Heat the oil in a heavy large pot (I use the insert to my slow cooker) over medium-high heat. Dry the pork cubes with a paper towel. Salt and pepper the cubes and brown in batches, adding more oil if necessary. Remove the browned chunks to a bowl. Pour out all but 1 tablespoon fat from the pan. Reduce the heat to medium, sauté the onions in the fat until golden. Add the garlic, Serrano chile, flour, and cumin and cook for an additional 3 minutes. Pour in beer, chicken stock, sherry vinegar, and salsa. Bring to a boil. Add sweet potatoes and return the pork and any juices that have accumulated in the bowl. Reduce to a simmer and cook over low heat in a slow cooker on high for about 3 hours or in a 300º F oven for 1 ½ hours.

At this point, if your pork was particularly fatty (as mine was), you can strain the liquid from the solids and refrigerate each separately until the fat can be removed easily.

Return the defatted liquid and solids to the pot; add black beans and lime juice. Season with kosher salt to taste. Cook for an additional 1/2 hour to 45 minutes. Serve with chopped cilantro sprinkled on top and the avocado, sour cream, and cheese on the side.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Proud Mama: Little Locathor in Chicago Magazine


If you've gotten your copy of this month's Chicago Magazine, you might have read a little article about kid foodies. And if you did, you probably recognized a name in the first paragaph.

The lead of "No Kidding" is as follows:

"Sepia and Longman and Eagle are some of my favorite places to eat," says Thor Graham, a Roscoe Village resident whom servers know by name and chefs invite on kitchen tours. "One of my favorite dishes is the cassoulet from Kiki's Bistro; it's something made with duck, and it takes great when it's cold out." When he's not dining around town or discussing sustainable food, Graham likes playing kickball during recess."

This has been a proud week for me as a parent. Not so much because Little Locathor was recognized by as a "koodie" in a glossy magazine, but because of his development as a conscious eater.

Valentine's Day is one of those dreaded holidays. While a number of parents supply their kids with paper valentines to pass out to their classmates, an equal amount enhance their paper ditties with candy. Two years ago, Thor came home with the loot, we inspected it as we do on Halloween, kept the sweets made with real ingredients, and traded in the junk for delicious truffles from our favorite chocolatier. Last year, we read the labels together - an interesting discussion ensued about wax and food after reading the gummie worm ingredients. This year, when I opened his valentine box, there was no candy. Surprised, I asked what happened. His response?

"I knew that they had bad stuff in it, so I got rid of it." Wow.

To reward his discipline and conscious choices, I gave him an extra big piece of the cake pictured above - his birthday cake. Ganache covered chocolate cake layered with freshly ground hazelnut butter. Soo much better than some artificially flavored, high fructose corn syrup sweetened gummies.

Hazelnut-Chocolate Cake
Serves 12-15
Adapted from Death by Chocolate by Marcel Desaulniers

1 pound hazelnuts
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1 cup cake flour
1/4 cup Dutch process cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup plus 4 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup water
3/4 sour cream
1 1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
10 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Toast the hazelnuts on a baking sheet for 10 to 15 minutes until fragrant and only slighted browner. Wrap the nuts in a clean dish towel and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Rub off the off as much as possible by rubbing them together in the towel. Discard the flaky skins and dump the nuts in the bowl of a food processor. Grind them until they form a paste. Add butter and grind until it's the consistency of natural peanut butter.

Grease a 9-inch round baking pan with 4 tablespoons butter and dust with cake flour. Set aside.

Melt unsweetened chocolate in a double boiler. Cool slightly. Sift together dry ingredients. Combine the softened butter and brown sugar in an electric mixer. Beat on low until loosely mixed. Increase to medium high and beat for about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides after the addition of each one. Beat on high for 2 minutes. Heat the 1/2 cup water to boiling. While heating, measure in vanilla and mix for a few seconds. Scrape the melted chocolate into batter and mix. Alternate adding dry ingredients and sour cream mixing for a few seconds after the addition of each one. Pour in the boiling water and beat for 2 minutes on high. Scrape into the prepared pan and bake for 45-50 minutes. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Turn out carefully onto a cardboard circle.

When the cake is fully cool, slice into three equal layers. (Dental floss is a good tool for this purpose).

Bring the heavy cream to a boil in a small sauce pan. Pour over the chopped chocolate and butter in a small bowl. Whisk until smooth.

Set the top layer of the cake on a round platter. Spread half of the hazelnut butter on top. Place the middle layer on top of the butter. Spread remaining hazelnut butter on top and place the bottom layer, flat side down on top. Pour ganache over the cake and spread evenly over the top and the sides. Chill for an hour before serving. Serve in small or large slices depending on how good the guest of honor was.

Posted as part of Fight Back Friday

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

This Is Not a Food Post: Musings on Surrogates and Circuses

Update: A little while after I wrote this, I was happy to read that the grandfather and surrogate's husband told the press that the original Chicago Tribune article was the last and only time that the family would discuss the circumstances of the child's birth in public. It sounded like common sense had prevailed. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. This morning, I learned from my mother that on this Tuesday the whole family will be interviewed on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Here's the link. If you catch it, you'll have to report back because I'm not sure I can watch it.

Unfortunately, since reading Sunday’s Tribune, I’ve been a little fixated about an entirely unrelated subject. And in this post, I’m asking you readers to bear with me while I try to write myself through this preoccupation so that I can back to blogging about what I love best and what matters more.

In the news of the weird, a 61-year old woman gave birth to her own grandchild at Northwestern’s Prentice Hospital last Wednesday. Ordinarily, I would have scanned an article like this, shrugged my shoulders, and moved on. In this instance, however, the surname of the new parents was all too familiar to me. Familiar being that I once shared it. Now, given that I have no siblings, there’s only one answer to this riddle: the new father is the ex-husband to whom I have referred upon on occasion in this blog. If this weren’t cause enough for my morbid interest in the unfolding of this story, I’ll share a little fact about me. I’m an adopted child. I have, thus, been fascinated as this story goes viral, starting in the Chicago Tribune, hitting today’s Time Magazine blog, and circumnavigating the globe in reprints. Oprah can’t be too far behind.

I’ve always been a bit squeamish about surrogacy. So even without the peculiar familial relationship of surrogate to intended mother, this story doesn’t sit right with me. Let me try to explain . . . and please don’t be afraid to tell me why I’m wrong. As I said, I’m working through this.

What’s So Wrong with Adoption?

I know that surrogacy is becoming a more and more common route to parenthood. Not too long ago, a close friend chose to pursue this option after enduring several miscarriages. She would have been perfectly satisfied adopting a child but for her husband. His rationale: “he couldn’t love a child that was not biologically his own.” Personally, I wanted to advise her to ditch the husband, instead of worrying about having kids with him, but as a good friend, I kept that view to myself until they ultimately separated (three kids, two surrogates later).

I don’t have a problem with the science of it all. But still, as an adopted child, I have never understood the cult of biology. I was adopted at 3 months and my parents are my parents. I’ve never known anything different, nor would I want to. I admit that I was blessed to have no problems getting or staying pregnant, and in talking with friends who have and my mom, I know it is heartbreaking. What is even more heartbreaking are the millions of children who need homes. Were I to have had fertility issues, my choice would have been clear given my background. On the subject of understanding, I empathize even less with the concept that a person could love a child less because it did not have shared genes. To me this is akin to the idea that you couldn’t love a child if it didn’t share your hair color. Love is nurture, not nature, at least in my view.

Surrogacy Changes Things

Relationships, no matter how close, are changeable. The friend to whom I referred earlier is no longer married to her husband or friends with her surrogate (her best childhood friend). However, she is currently married to her surrogate’s husband. I have promised to my good friend not to judge her or her situation and I won’t. I am instead stating the facts. It’s a difficult situation for all parties, big and little and I hope for the very best for them. While the folks involved in this former situation don’t hide the provenance of their relationship, they certainly aren’t publicizing it all over the web. I think that this will ultimately serve them well in dealing with society’s judgment.

Judgment and Lack Thereof

Speaking of judgment, I’ve seen two main reactions to this story. The former is rather negative and the latter a suggestion that we not judge. Unfortunately, however, as a good friend of mine who has more disdain that I do for the situation, correctly observed the family has opened itself to society’s judgment by inviting the media into the delivery room and their lives.

Sadly, I think that there’s more Octomom than Mother Theresa in this situation. I can’t imagine in a conventional birth inviting the press, much less in this situation. What’s next? Will society be substituting press releases for baby announcements? Yuck. Call me old fashioned, but I think that perhaps there are some things in life that should be sacred, private, and shouldn’t used as fodder for career advancement.

Ultimately, people should do what they think is right. And if having your 61 year old mother bear your child is right to you, well then so be it. But don’t expect to be justified by the court of public opinion.


This last point really doesn’t have much to do with surrogacy, but the situation in particular. After my divorce, but prior to my ex’s second wedding, I had the unfortunate displeasure of dealing with Chicago’s archdiocese. See, the new mama is catholic and the surrogate mama wanted very much for her daughter to be married by a priest, but to do that the prior marriage had to be annulled. After completing pages of questionnaires and numerous calls with catholic authorities, the dogmatic fiction was complete – my ex and I had never been married in the eyes of the church. What I’m trying to figure out is how the views of Rome are no longer significant when they are inconvenient to the mamas in question. See, as you might imagine, the pope doesn’t view surrogacy with a kind eye. Who was it that said ‘consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’? Oh, well.

Ultimately, I hope that the baby in question, as babies tend to do, will provide some needed balance for this family. Perhaps, by doing so, they’ll end the media circus before it gets out of hand. Because I can’t imagine affixing Time Mag’s blog on the subject entitled “Weird or Wonderful” next to the baby footprint in grandma’s brag book.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Double the Recipe, Double the Dinner


Usually Purple Asparagus runs a single curriculum each month. This makes it easy for supply purposes. So say we've got leftover mint for our Tangerine-Mint Salad, we use it at the next school. It's never an exact science when you have to buy your ingredients in a single size container, so usually we have some yogurt leftover, but it's never an excessive amount.

When we teach a special curriculum, however, we often have leftovers. Not enough to bring to a food bank, but certainly too much to throw out. Since, more often than not, I'm teaching the class, I come home with the excess product. And, thus, I need to figure out what to do with them.

A few weeks back, I taught a healthy, seasonal cooking class to seven divisions of high school students. As any parent of a teenager can likely attest, this is a tough bunch to preach the values of healthy eating. They just don't care - they think that they'll live forever. They also hate being told what to do, and this includes what to eat.

So, I was pretty proud when this group of 200 plus students loved what we made. I demonstrated two dishes: Sweet Potato and Black Bean Quesadillas with Lime Sour Cream and Spinach, Avocado and Blood Orange Salad. While they all ate and enjoyed, I still had leftovers: a single sweet potato and five plus cups of black beans. On the day of the snowpocalypse, filled with shovelling, playing, and puppy walking, I made a big pot of black bean soup and on the side a batch of sweet potato biscuits.

Sweet Potato and Black Bean Quesadillas
Serves 6

This recipe was inspired by one that my friend Elena Marre makes over at The Kids' Table. I just gussied up the beans a bit.

6 whole wheat tortillas
1 sweet potato, roasted
1 tablespoon 2 % milk
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups cooked beans or 1 14-ounce can black beans
2 scallions, chopped
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon cumin
½ Serrano chile, minced
1 1/2 cup Monterey jack
1/2 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon lime juice

Mash the sweet potato with the milk and salt. Rinse black beans in a strainer if using canned (it reduces the sodium content). In a large bowl, combine the lime juice, cumin and Serrano chile. Drizzle in the olive oil while whisking to combine. Add black beans and scallions and mix to combine.

Spread a layer of sweet potato on a tortilla. Layer a 1/4 cup of black beans on top. Sprinkle 1/4 cup cheese on top of the beans. Fold over and cook in a hot non-stick saute pan. In the meantime, whisk together the sour cream and lime in a small bowl. Serve the quesadillas with lime sour cream.

Any excess seasoned black beans can be served as a side dish.

Black Bean Soup
Serves 6

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 small red onions, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 stalk of celery, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/8 teaspoon paprika
5 cups cooked black beans
4 cups chicken stock
1 cup tomato puree
1/2 cup water
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon cumin

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan. Cook the onion, garlic, celery, and carrot until softened. Add cumin and paprika and cook until fragrant, just a few seconds. Add black beans, chicken stock, tomato puree, water, bay leaf, and cumin. Cook for 45 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and puree. Serve warm with a touch of sour cream and a lime wedge on top.

For the sweet potato biscuits, I used a recipe from Cheryl Alter Jamison and Bill Jamison's A Real American Breakfast.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

When an Orange Isn't Orange: Food Dyes in Fruit

Update: Since many people don't read the comments, I'd like to point out that the Florida Department of Citrus confirmed that Red Dye No. 2 is allowed and used early in the citrus season when the fall nights aren't as cold as necessary to develop the desired orange color. Therefore, I want to give you all three suggestions on how to avoid Red Dye No. 2 in your oranges:

• Buy organic oranges - the USDA certification process does not allow food dyes.
• Don't buy conventional Florida oranges early in the season. In practice, Citrus Red No. 2 is rarely used and only in the beginning of the season before the nights have turned cold. If your conventional orange is bright orange in the fall, it's probably been dyed.
• Buy California or Arizona citrus, these states prohibit the use of Citrus Red No. 2.

Photograph Courtesy of David Hammond

I’ve had oranges on the brain these days.

In Purple Asparagus’ school programs, we teach parents and children about delicious, nutritious, local and sustainable foods; a task that becomes a bit more complicated during these cold winter months. While we have several root vegetable curriculums that we pull out in the dark days of February, I like to start the year out with the sparkly seasonal flavors of citrus. Throughout January, I’m hauling blood oranges, Meyer lemons, satsumas, and kumquats for students to taste from the far north community of Rogers Park to the south side neighborhood of Englewood.

Each of our lesson plans start with a tasting. Our citrus curriculum is a popular one among our students. Kids love to learn that what they’ve always seen as the fruit bowl perennial actually has a season. They also are intrigued to discover that the standard naval orange (named for its resemblance to our belly) is only one kind of orange. We talk about the long strange trip of oranges, originating in China, brought by Arab traders to Europe, and then travelling as a seed with Christopher Columbus on a second journey to the Americas in 1493. We highlight the differences in color, cutting into the delicate pink fleshed Cara Cara and the brilliantly hued Moro. I also talk about the external differences in color. I recently learned that Florida oranges can be greenish on the exterior. Because the Sunshine State has a subtropical climate where nighttime temperatures are warmer, oranges often retain some green or yellow color, even though the fruit inside is fully ripe.

I probably didn’t know this interesting fact about oranges because it’s one that’s been hidden from us by orange producers for many years now. Consummate foodie, intrepid investigator, and friend, David Hammond, recently posted the above picture on LTHForum, a website for the food obsessed. A lively discussion that led to the conclusion that this particular orange had been dyed with Citrus Red #2, an FDA-approved colorant solely for dyeing the skins of Florida oranges that will be sold whole, not those intended for processing. This particular dye has been classified in Group 2B ("possibly carcinogenic to humans"), and so is recommended that it not be used as a food additive. One participant brought his concerns about the use of Citrus Red #2 to the FDA who did provide a quick, yet woefully, unsatisfying result. He specifically asked about the common use of orange rind by home cooks. As a former lawyer, I can tell you that the FDA’s response was chock full of legalese and devoid of common sense.

There’s been a lot of discussion on the blogosphere recently about food dyes. I referenced my friend Christina Le Beau’s widely distributed post on natural food dyes in my recent post on artificial colors in sports drinks. Another friend Gina Rau also wrote about avoiding these ubiquitous chemicals on her blog Feed Our Families. Finally, I learned about the fruit in question from Michele Hays’ excellent, yet underappreciated, blog. When we see a brightly colored cupcake strewn with sprinkles, we know that we’re consuming food dyes. Even when we give our kids Children’s’ Tylenol and its ilk, we can probably guess given its bright hue that it’s not colored naturally. But an orange? A natural, supposedly healthy snack. Why?

It’s because the industrial food system has managed our expectations and our perceptions on how our food should appear. Apples should be shiny, red and heart shaped; tomatoes, unblemished and ruby in shade (pay no attention to their lack of flavor). How many kids (and adults for that matter) are more familiar with the flavor grape than the actual flavor of a grape? How sad.

Recently a fellow food educator questioned my use of a blood orange in one of our school recipes. I got a little defensive at first until I realized that she was actually just curious. My defensiveness is a result of answering more than a few directed questions about why we introduce green zebra tomatoes or purple carrots to kids whose neighborhood corner store stocks more varieties of Cheetos than fresh vegetables. Why do we do it? First and foremost to get the kids excited. Imagine their horror and delight when introduced face to face with the red flesh of a blood orange. (Eww, blood, ooh, blood!). I also feel that it’s akin to a music teacher introducing children to opera or classical music. While many children may not hear it at home, that doesn’t mean that they won’t find inspiration in it. But now, I’ve found another justification. We need to show children what real food looks like, not what the industrial food system has spawned. If they do, perhaps they’ll do what older generations have not, embrace the beautiful and delicious imperfection of real food. Because if our kids understand that an orange may not always be orange, perhaps we won’t need Citrus Red # 2.


Cranberry-Orange Muffins with Chocolate Chips and Streusel Topping

Here’s a terrific use for orange zest. I use organic oranges from California thus avoiding Citrus Red #2.

Muffin Batter
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 large eggs
½ cup buttermilk
½ stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries
½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 teaspoon orange zest

Streusel Topping
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon orange zest
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

Preheat the oven to 400° F. Fill 12 regular muffin cups with silicone or paper liners. Combine the flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, butter, and lemon juice in another bowl. Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ones. Stir to combine. Gently mix in the cranberries, chocolate chips and orange zest. Scoop the batter equally into the lined cups.

Stir together the sugar, flour, cinnamon, and orange zest in a small bowl. Rub the butter into the flour with your fingers. Sprinkle the streusel topping over the muffins.

Bake for 20 minutes in the center of the oven or until a tester comes out clean. Cool on a rack. The muffins are best eaten the day that they’re made.

Posted as part of Real Food Fridays

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Kitchen Project for the Snowpocalypse

Book Photos 015
Photograph Courtesy of Stronghold Photography

With the blizzard of the century bearing down on Chicago, it looks like we might actually get a snow day. Hooray! And hooray for kitchen projects that don't require a trip to the grocery store - I'm afraid to go anywhere near one. Even at Whole Foods, I was a bit scared that I would be trampled in the rampage for canned goods.

Making pasta requires nothing that's not ordinarily in our pantry and our fridge and it's a lot easier to make than you think. Plus, when you're stuck in house with antsy kids, a great way to release the beans is to make a big ol' mess in the kitchen.

Over at Kiwi Magazine's Kiwilog, I shared my recipe for homemade pasta. Sauce it how you like it.
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