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  • Written by Madelaine Bullwinkel

SEEDS OF CIVILIZATION

Nuts have nourished man and beast since prehistoric times. Their importance is evident in the many metaphors we use to describe everything from human anatomy to our state of mind.  Males are born with “nuts”; a problem can be  “a hard nut to crack”; it could even drive us “nuts”.  

 If we had a real nut for every time we used the word, our nutrition scores would soar.  Unfortunately for us, nuts are too often a culinary afterthought relegated to trail mix and cereal.  Who would guess remnants of walnut shells turn up in Neolithic fire pits more often than animal bones? 

 

Salad of beets, green beans, goat cheese with walnut oil dressing 

Europeans get it.  Walnuts in the shell are prominently displayed with produce in French markets.  They stay fresh and tasty in their original packaging.  We are more likely to see them like this when they are harvested in late November. I remember watching my Hungarian father crack open and pick out the walnut meat between sips of Tokay wine at the end of holiday meals.   Our festive white tablecloth littered with walnut shells was the envy of any squirrel.

It turns out that that the ancient walnut is the one ingredient I can purchase as easily in suburban Chicago as in southwest France, more often as scuffed halves than in the shell.  I’ve made a point of finding more uses for walnuts this summer in preparation for my tour in the Dordogne this September.

     Penne pasta with red onions, chard and walnuts. 

Once walnuts come onto your culinary radar, their addition to salads, casseroles. breads and desserts will quickly multiply.  For starters, I've added links to favorite walnut recipes on my website, or you can add them to your existing repertoire.  Simply chop, scatter or fold pieces into a finished dish.  Drizzle on a little walnut oil for emphasis.  Voila! 

 Here are some tips to get the best results with walnuts.

 Look for unbroken walnut halves.  It’s usually a sign of quality.

 Toast shelled nuts in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes or until they are fragrant.  Their aroma and texture are revived and will remain so even in storage. Walnuts purchased in the shell do not require roasting.

 Store shelled walnuts tightly sealed in the freezer between uses to avoid their oil from becoming rancid.  Keep all nut oils in the refrigerator between uses. 

Add a drizzle of walnut oil to heighten the presence of walnuts in dressings, sauces and as a garnish.

RECIPE LINKS

BEET, GOAT CHEESE AND GREEN BEAN SALAD WITH WALNUT VINAIGRETTE

HARVEST SEASON WALNUT CAKE WITH WALNUT SAUCE

NO-KNEAD CRANBERRY WALNUT BOULE

SALAD WITH CHEESE: MIXED GREENS PEARS AND WALNUTS

TOASTED ROQUEFORT CAKE WITH WALNUTS

  • Written by Madelaine Bullwinkel

A PLAN FOR WEXIT

(MY RETREAT FROM THE WESTERN DIET)

 

Salad Pizza with Chickpea Crust, Cashew Spinach Pesto and Mozzarella

It happens without fail. After a new acquaintance discovers my passion for food, invariably the next question is: "So, what's your favorite restaurant?"  My current 'go to' answer is the one James Beard gave to strangers who recognized him on street: "It's the same as yours!" he'd reply, "The one that loves me the most."

James Beard's enormous girth bore testimony to his love affair with what we've come to call The Western Diet. The  right to eat one's fill has always been implicit in The American Dream.  Our immigrant forefathers found food here was inexpensive and plentiful.  They fed their families a daily diet of meat and dairy protein.  Americans had yet to become as sedentary as they are today.  We had not become addicted to the salt, sugar and fat in fast food, packaged snacks and soft drinks.

 

 

Pappardelle Pasta with Cannellini Beans, Cherry Tomatoes and Spinach

Those of us who have grown up eating The Western Diet now find ourselves battling high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, type 2 diabetes and cancer before we reach retirement.  But how many of us have voluntarily replaced the food that is shortening our life with healthier proteins from plants?  Not I, for one.

 I chose to modify my eating habits only recently as an alternative to taking medication.  My daily dilemma of making healthier food choices feels analogous to England's fumbling attempts to leave the European Union.  My Wexit, as I call it, aims to dramatically reduce animal-based protein in my diet and replace it with beans, grains and green vegetables. To paraphrase James Beard, will this new cuisine love and comfort me or will I feel exiled from my culinary world?

 

 

French Lentil Salad with Avocado, Hazelnuts and Parsley

My first step toward healthier eating is an embrace of the The Mediterranean Diet with its reliance on olive oil along with more fruits and vegetables.  The next step is adding a foreign high protein plant - quinoa from Peru, cranberry beans from Columbia, jasmine rice from Thailand - to a pasta or vegetable dish that I've made before.  Finally, swapping out meat for a plant protein creates an entirely new kind of culinary experience.  This transition will take more time than the other two.

The good news is that cooking plants takes less time than preparing a meat dish.  There's more knife work involved for cooks who enjoy working with their hands.  I do rely on organic canned beans when they are background ingredients and on frozen vegetables when the fresh version is out of season.  Vegetarian dishes are usually a vivid green or a multicolored mixture that are more pleasing to the eye than the traditional separated mounds of meat, potatoes and vegetable.  I find it satisfying to eat these meals slowly, savoring the interplay of flavors and textures.  Here's a Wexit confession: I'm curious to taste Burger King's vegetarian Impossible Burger when it enters the Chicago market. I think James Beard would approve.

  • Written by Madelaine Bullwinkel

HOW LIBERATING ARE DINNER KITS?

 CRISPY CHICKPEA SALAD

The popularity of the the Dinner Kit reminds me of the highly successful ad campaign for cigarettes in the nineteen-sixties. At the height of the women’s liberation movement the Leo Burnett agency created a slogan to sell spindle-thin, candle-length Virginia Slims to women  The catchy phrase went, “You’ve come a long way” (they added "baby" later).  It was just tobacco, but in a new package, and the scheme worked.

Frozen dinners had already begun to liberate women working during the war in the nineteen-forties. C.A..Swanson and Son’s popularized the prepared meal in 1954 with it’s Thanksgiving dinner portion in sectioned trays.  2.5 million dinners were sold that year.  The company received hate mail from from husbands who wanted their wives to cook from scratch (to no avail). 

The newest dinner solution for the working woman is a kit containing fresh ingredients in exactly the right amounts, home delivered.  Assembly time is under 30 minutes.  Is this another “you’ve come a long way” moment?  I decided to find out for myself.

DINNER KIT INGREDIENTS

Fierce competition among more than 150 businesses that offer kits online by subscription has led to alliances between leading brands and grocery chains. I purchased a Plated brand Crispy Chickpea Salad kit at my neighborhood Jewel/Osco.  A salad had to show proof of concept, right?

To my surprise, the information on the nutrition label was almost a deal-breaker.  The contents consisting of red quinoa, canned chickpeas, feta cheese, black olives and half a cucumber contained 97% of the USDA’s daily recommended allowance for salt, 54% for fat and 900 calories per serving!   Okay, I’ll just eat less I told myself and dropped the kit into my shopping cart. 

 Once home, I unwrapped layers of plastic packaging to reach each fresh ingredient.  As the pile of plastic waste mounted, I thought about the expense of portioning, wrapping, assembling, packaging and delivering thousands of kits daily.  A business model that does not lend itself to economies of scale, seems unsustainable.   

 LEFT: RED QUINOA. BLACK OLIVES, CUCUMBER, BASIL AND PARSLEY LEAVES
RIGHT: TOASTED FETA CHEESE WITH HARISSA PASTE; ROASTED CHERRY TOMATOES AND CHICKPEAS

Back on task, I dutifully followed the illustrated recipe card and my meal was ready in twenty-five minutes as promised.  Why did I feel I’d just hosted a Food Network show?  Following a script takes all the messiness, uncertainty and decision making out of cooking.  The salad was tasty but not much fun for someone who likes to cook.

 Thus far only 9% of Americans have purchased a dinner kit.  On the other hand, everyone has frozen food items in their freezer.  Dinner kits cost between $10 to $14 per serving which is less than a fresh entree at a restaurant but triple the cost of a frozen dinner.  The process of flash freezing fresh food was developed a century ago, and frozen dinners have evolved to reflect current consumer tastes.  That includes healthful portions, reasonable pricing and recyclable packaging.  They microwave in much less time than a kit and require no assembly before or afterward.  

I look forward to coming home in the evening to a delicious dinner that requires very little prep.   Nothing fancy mind you, just fresh and healthful.  How far will we have come when a Whole Foods dinner delivered by Amazon Prime is waiting on the doorstep?  I prefer to microwave something I’ve already prepared that’s waiting in the refrigerator.

PLASTIC WASTE FROM PLATED'S CHICKEN PESTO PASTA
WITH EXCESS CREAM, BUTTER AND FLAKED PARMESAN