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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 07/10/2009

Tasting Life

I have a very special friend named Ethan, and in just a few days, the grownups in his life will be celebrating his first birthday. Plenty of my friends have children, but this is the first time in my adult life that I’ve been so intimate with the day-to-day, inch-by-inch development of a human tadpole.

In the few months that my friend’s diet has expanded beyond the bottled facsimile of breast milk, I’ve had the privilege of observing his experiences with this thing called food, a front-row seat at the high-chair theater, complete with bowl tossing, high-pitched screams and other primal expressions of gustatory joy.

One night, I cooked a small pot of red lentils, suggesting to his mother that it’s baby food as Mother Nature had intended, self-pureeing in about 25 minutes. She agrees to the experiment, eager for variety beyond sweet potatoes and applesauce, but me, I’ve got bigger aspirations. I’m secretly hoping that on some level the kid will intuitively understand that his auntie is trying to expose him to the world, that lentils just aren’t lentils; they’re culture and history and nutrition and agriculture. (I also plan to introduce him to the sounds of Miles Davis before his second birthday – if Mister MA doesn’t beat me to it.)

I wait for his reaction. At first, he grimaces, a sign of cranky uncertainty, but he forges ahead, masticating like a champ. He sings that “num, num, num” song and the chubby legs begin to swing in excitement beneath the counter. He grins wide, with all four teeth, and readily receives a second helping. Folks, I think we’ve got a winner.

As I prepared for today’s final entry, I thought a lot about Ethan and the purity of his experience with food. It’s free of judgment and pre-conceived notions and instead filled with wonder, joy and openness, a sensory interaction of the highest order. And now his tongue knows lentils, something my tongue didn’t experience until I was in my 20s.

Ethan may grow up to hate lentils -- and kamut bulgur and all the other things I’ve got planned for him to taste. But taste is all you can do in this life. My father was insistent that we try everything at least once before deciding we didn’t like something on our plates, and I think that’s a good rule of thumb for many aspects of life.

Try everything once. Be open to the flavors, textures and aromas that life presents you, both smooth and velvety as well as sharp and bitter. Open your mouth and taste something new everyday -- or something familiar in a different way.

When was the last time you bit into a radish? Really tasted mustard from a spoon? Listened to the crunch of a potato chip? Smelled the perfume of sauteed onions?

Life is delicious, every minute of every day. Life is also precious. So let’s get busy.

Thank you for spending three years with me in this space. Stay in touch for news and updates about the next chapter.

Keep the spirit of cooking alive!

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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 07/ 9/2009

Ask Kim: For Old Times' Sake

As some of you may already know, this is my final week in the AMA ‘hood. But before this blog was born, I had another baby called What’s Cooking, the longest-running cooking chat on the Web until she was put to rest in March.

KOD on a very important call.

Since I’ve met so many of you the Q&A way, it seems appropriate to have one last dance together in the kitchen, a chance to reminisce, talk to me or to one another. I will entertain both the practical and philosophical, the elementary and the advanced -- and of course, there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

Consider the kitchen door open at 11 a.m. ET (8 a.m. PT), and we’ll have coffee and crumpets in the comments area. I’ll check in every 30 minutes or so until just before suppertime here on the West Coast (say, around 4 p.m. PT).

The final installment of AMA is Friday, July 10. For details on where to find me next week and beyond, e-mail me.

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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 07/ 8/2009

At the Movies: (Fish) Food for Thought

Back in May, I featured three newly released food documentaries, just a taste of the cinematic smorgasbord on offer this summer. Now there’s another film on the menu, and this one, in my opinion, is worth chewing on.

2048. That’s when scientists predict there’ll be no more fish dinners, because of the going rate of overfishing. As in: No. More. Fish. For. Real.

This is the take-away message of “End of the Line,” an urgent 82-minute plea for the sea, no sugar coating included. Based on the book by British journalist Charles Clover, the doc, narrated by actor Ted Danson, is a collage of interviews with scientists and first-hand reports from fishermen around the world on the impact of overfishing on their livelihoods, their families and their fishing-based cultures. The camera trails Clover on his impassioned mission to “out” high-end restaurants that continue to serve the highly prized (and nearly extinct) blue-fin tuna.

Several years ago, at one of the first sustainable seafood press conferences I had attended, one of the panelists said something that remains etched in my memory: “The oceans belong to all of us, whether or not we eat fish.”

EOTL doesn’t just hint at this sentiment; it screams and shouts and urges you to wake up and smell the plankton.

Check the EOTL screening schedule for your neck of the woods.

KOD’s Sustainable Seafood Hook Up

This week marks the last supper for A Mighty Appetite. My final installment will be Friday, July 10. For details on where to find me next week and beyond, e-mail me.

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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 07/ 7/2009

Old-School Cooking Whizdom

"A recipe is like a road map," writes chef Lauren Braun Costello. "A road map shows you where to go and how to get there, but does not teach you how to drive."

(Photo courtesy of RCR Creative Press)

This is how Costello and her writing partner Russell Reich kick off their new book, "Notes on Cooking: A Short Guide to an Essential Craft."

And this is why I'm devoting today's space to an itty-bitty book that can fit inside a purse.

A graduate of the French Culinary Institute and a veteran of several high-profile kitchens, Costello abstains from the same ol' recipe show-and-tell. Instead, she and Reich dish up a stick-to-your-ribs collection of kitchen aphorisms -- 217, to be exact -- that reveal the hows, whys, whens, whats and heart and soul of cooking.

A mix of the pithy ("Preside happily over accidents") and the practical ("Use wet measures for liquids, dry measures for solids"), "Notes on Cooking" is a laundry list of kitchen dos and don'ts organized into 19 chapters that represent the multi-faceted aspects of playing with food. I wouldn't call it a CliffsNotes version of cooking school or a restaurant apprenticeship -- as nothing replaces practical experience -- but what a boon this little volume would have been when I donned my chef's whites for a living.

Beginning home cooks: This is your lucky day. Old kitchen dogs: We all can learn new tricks -- or stand for some brushing up. This is one book we all can chew on for the rest of our cooking lives.

My favorite of the 217?

26. Eat. Just as a good writer must read, a good cook must eat. Know the experience of receiving and consuming food at least as well as you know the experience of preparing and serving it.

P.S. Costello and Reich have just started a blog.

This week marks the last supper for A Mighty Appetite. My final installment will be Friday, July 10. For details on where to find me next week and beyond, e-mail me.

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Posted at 9:30 AM ET, 07/ 6/2009

Meatless Monday: Trini Spini

I was the proud owner of an oversized bag of just-picked spinach, one of the many locally harvested treats I picked up on Thursday at a Seattle farm market. While driving home, though, I experienced a bit of buyer's remorse, wondering if my schedule over the next few days would allow for spinach time. After all, Fourth of July was already spoken for, and I worried if my beautiful bag of leafy greens would hold out until Sunday. (Thankfully, she did.)

(Kim O'Donnel)

I was in the mood for a new take (or at least new to me) on America's beloved green veg, but as I thought about you and our weekly meatless meeting, I knew it needed to be simple -- in both preparation and personality. It needed to be quick, too, even if cooked, and it needed to be flexible enough to pair up with a variety of grains and other sides.

Like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, the answer to my kitchen prayer fell into my lap, as I turned onto page 230 of "World Vegetarian" by cookbook maven Madhur Jaffrey. The far eastern Caribbean island of Trinidad is the inspiration for Spinach Bhaji, possibly the best wilted spinach that has ever passed my lips.

I love the efficiency of this dish. Onions, garlic and chiles fry up in oil and serve as the flavor foundation. The greens come next, with plenty of salt, which wilt (and steam) under cover. No extra liquid is needed, and as the spinach water is released, it creates its own stock with the aromatics. When the lid comes off, the cooking liquid is forced to evaporate, which of course, transforms the spinach into the most magnificent flavor-sucker-upper.

Pairing possibilities are many -- rice, red lentils (which cook in about 25 minutes), quinoa, a fried egg or all by its lonesome. Mister MA and I lapped up every last morsel.

"Can we make this one part of our regular repertoire?" he asked, while working on his second helping. (How's that for an endorsement?)

Run, don’t walk, and make this one tonight!

This week marks the last supper for A Mighty Appetite. My final installment will be Friday, July 10. For details on where to find me next week and beyond, e-mail me.

Spinach Bhaji
Adapted from "World Vegetarian" by Madhur Jaffrey

1/4 cup vegetable oil
1-2 hot red or green chiles, seeded and very finely chopped
2 medium onions, peeled and very finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and very finely chopped
3 pounds spinach, stemmed and chopped (KOD: I had about 1.5 pounds on hand)
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste (KOD: For 1.5 pounds spinach, I used a scant teaspoon salt)

In a large, wide skillet or pot (KOD: I used my wok), add oil over medium-high heat. When very hot, add chile, onions and garlic. Saute until onions are soft and slightly golden, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes.

Add spinach and salt. With a pair of tongs, coat spinach with sauteed aromatics, turn down heat to medium and cover, allowing spinach to wilt. Cook for at least 15 minutes. Uncover and stir. Cook, uncovered, until almost no liquid is left at bottom of pan, up to 10 minutes. Turn up head if necessary to help water evaporate.

Makes about 6 servings.

Posted by Kim ODonnel | Permalink | Comments (4)
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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 07/ 3/2009

Help Fill My Vintage Picnic Basket

(Kim O'Donnel)

A bluesy/gospel concert on the grounds of Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo last week was the inspiration to dust off my vintage picnic basket and actually put it to good use (please don't tell my mother it's been hiding in the basement). Unfortunately, last week’s last-minute event left little time to plan a menu, which means said basket did little but look pretty on the lawn.

I love the idea of a picnic but never can seem to get my al fresco act together. That’s where you -- -- the savvy bunch that you are -- can lend a hand as we gear up for the long holiday weekend. Should I keep things simple and make cheese sandwiches on artisan bread, pack a few pieces of summer fruit and call it lunch-for-dinner or should I get more elaborate, with a three-course feast of cold fried chicken, a couscous salad and Szechuan-style green beans?

And then I fret about keeping things cold -- and safe to eat. In that case, should all dairy items (including cheese) stay at home? Maybe raw food is better than cooked? ( And more importantly: Have I gone completely bonkers?)

But humor me, if you don't mind; If you were the owner of a vintage picnic basket that was crying for an edible outing, what would you pack this weekend? Is there one go-to nibble or nosh that makes all the picnicking worthwhile (or should I take a chill pill and let Mister MA take over)? Help this damsel in distress, pretty please.

P.S. Have a delicious and safe Fourth of July weekend!

Posted by Kim ODonnel | Permalink | Comments (11)
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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 07/ 2/2009

Wanted: Your Best Potato Salad

It’s rare of me to make generalizations, but doesn’t everyone in America make potato (pronounced ‘puh-tate-uh” if you’re from Philly) salad for the Fourth of July? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve got a hunch that no matter where you live or how you celebrate Independence Day, there’ll be a bowl of boiled spuds on this weekend’s picnic table. It’s kind of like Thanksgiving stuffing that way; Fourth of July wouldn’t be the same otherwise.

From a cook’s point of view, boiled potatoes are like a blank canvas, an open invitation to play with color, texture and creativity. The possibilities are endless-- curry, anchovies, scallions, bacon, capers, yogurt, rosemary, roasted garlic, cider vinegar, hard-boiled eggs -- and yes, even mayonnaise. And as long as you season the spuds with plenty of salt, potato salad is difficult to screw up.

As many of you already know, I live a mayo-free life, which means my potato salad is usually vinaigrette based, with lots of herbs, a bit of Dijon mustard and a member of the allium family. (My trick -- season while potatoes are still warm and add 1 teaspoon salt to the cooking water for every 1.25 pounds.)

But enough about me and my mayo issues; I want to know how you do your potato salad. Let’s pretend we’re at the county fair and you’ve entered the potato salad-off. I want to know the kinds of spuds, the technique, the flavor profiles, the secret ingredients-- anything and everything that makes your potato salad a zinger and a keeper. Come on; gimme your best spud stylistics!

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Posted at 12:15 PM ET, 07/ 1/2009

For the Fourth, Color-Coordinated Sweets

I’m hardly a matchy-match kind of cook or party hostess; in fact, I prefer a motley assortment of colors and styles on my table than a uniform set of dishes and cutlery (after all, I did grow up with a pink piano in the dining room).

(Kim O'Donnel)

That said, when it comes to Fourth of July, I’m all about a red, white and blue menu. Not only is it a kick in the pants to put together a color-coordinated Fourth feast, there’s a ton of seasonal options in all the right shades.

Today, we’ll start planning backwards, with dessert. Is there anyone else who thinks there’s something wrong about eating chocolate on the Fourth of July? I dug up a bunch of red, white and blue sweet endings from the recipe vault that kick chocolate to the curb -- at least until the fifth. Taste the possibilities:

In the buckle department, we’ve got blueberry and rhubarb with candied ginger rockin' the ramparts.

In Mister MA’s opinion, you can never go wrong with cobbler; my favorite version gets topped with cream biscuits, which are a breeze to make by hand (seriously, no machinery required).

Who’s up for a homemade Pop-Tart? This is the best one you’ll ever have -- a freelance fruit tart, made with a sweet pastry dough, folded over and stuffed with berries of your choice. I’m a sucker for blackberry filling here, but shucks, blueberries are a superb stand-in.

Not quite a cake or a pudding but a delightful platform for cherries is clafoutis, a homey French treat baked in a cast-iron skillet. You also get to run around talking about your cla-foo-tee.

But if it’s cake that you must have, how about a one-layer upside down cake? Over the years, I’ve become fond of the rhubarb-strawberry combo, but there’s no reason to stop the creative juices from getting into the cake batter. Ooh. What about plums and blackberries?

Fourth of July wouldn’t be the same without some kind of frozen component. Don’t forget about that purty-in-pink strawberry frozen yogurt that I made earlier this month. Dairy-free, I see? Try on this blueberry sorbet for size. If it were up to Mister MA, bourbon vanilla ice cream would be on the menu (and served at breakfast, lunch and dinner), which of course would be a stellar companion for cobbler, grown-up Pop-Tart or with a few antioxidant-rich berries on top.

What’s your color-coordinated pleasure this Fourth? Share with the class. Thursday, we'll talk sides and salads with color-coded potential.

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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 06/30/2009

A Plea for Red, White, Blue -- and Local

Last September, I wrote about Roger Doiron’s grassroots campaign for a White House garden. Now Doiron, who’s based in Scarborough, Maine, is taking his home-grown ideas to another level -- one of stars, stripes and all things patriotic.

(Photo courtesy of

Founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, Doiron has launched (in partnership with IATP Food and Society Fellows and the Mother Nature Network) Food Independence Day, a campaign to make your Fourth of July cookout local and sustainable.

Remember last summer’s Eat Local Challenge? The same idea applies: Try sourcing as many of your feast fixins within 100 or 200 miles of where you work or live. In doing so, you’re doing your part to stimulate the local economy, a highly patriotic act, says Doiron.

It’s not just the voting public Doiron’s after; he’s circulating an online petition asking for participation from America’s 50 governors, “to lead and eat by example this July 4th by sourcing the ingredients of your Independence Day meal as locally and sustainably as possible.” The petition, available here and on Facebook, has garnered nearly 6,000 signatures, Doiron told me on the phone yesterday. He’s also requesting holiday menus from First Families around the country; so far, he’s heard from just seven states, including Maryland (Governor Malley and family will be feasting on crab cakes and a mixed green salad from the first lady’s vegetable garden). Doiron promises to send updates as menus from additional states trickle in. The word on Fourth Fixins remains mum from the White House; we'll keep you posted.

As for Doiron, here's how his menu his shaping up: “We’ll look to our garden for lunch that day," he said. "Strawberries, salad greens and baby red-skinned potatoes. We’ll boil 'em up and serve them with butter and dill from the garden. I live on the coast of Maine, and I’ve got a recreational clamming license, so I’ll probably take my boys out that morning and get us a peck of clams.”

What’s local on your Independence Day menu this year?

Posted by Kim ODonnel | Permalink | Comments (6)
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Posted at 11:03 AM ET, 06/29/2009

Meatless Monday: Moo Shu, Hold the Oink

Moo shu veg fixins. (Kim O'Donnel)

I’ve become a regular at Real Food Has Curves, the latest Web venture for cookbook duo Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein. Last week, the guys threw something together that I knew would be perfect for this meatless space, something they’re calling Moo Shu Vegetables, a slimmed down version of the Mandarin pork, egg & pancakes classic, but with no less flavor or zing.

What makes this dish a league beyond the same-ole stir fry are a few key components: the sauce, the aromatics and the crunch. Hoisin sauce, often referred to as Chinese barbecue sauce, gets an extra boost with sesame oil and black pepper, plus an aromatics trio of scallions, garlic and fresh ginger. Nothing fancy here, but the combination is truly tongue popping.

The vegetables in question are all crispers -- stuff that doesn’t wilt easily and needs just a short stint in the hot wok to soften and sweeten but without losing their crunchy personalities. The list of veggies below is a guideline, but I highly recommend the cabbage, which bulks up the dish and makes it feel quite substantial, even without rice.

Total cooking time is 25-30 minutes, most of which is spent chopping, which means this dish is a no-brainer for last-minute supper at the end of a crazy day. It is totally delicious – and oh, by the way, you’re getting those five-a-day servings of vegetables right in one bowl. Score!

P.S. The add-on possibilities are many – diced tofu, toasted cashews, a scoop of rice or quinoa, cellophane noodles. Add what you like, keep me posted on what you create.

Moo Shu Vegetables
Adapted from Mark Scarborough and Bruce Weinstein

4 scallions, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon fresh, peeled ginger, minced
3 medium carrots, cut into matchsticks
½ pound green beans (I substituted sugar snap peas), sliced into ¼-inch pieces
1 small bell pepper, diced
½ Napa or Chinese cabbage, shredded

3 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon Asian chile oil (optional, in my opinion; you could substitute vegetable oil or chili garlic paste)
½ teaspoon ground black pepper

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

Get everything together in advance -- this means all chopping, measuring and grouping into bowls. Place aromatics -- scallions, garlic and ginger -- in one bowl; veggies in the second bowl; and all sauce ingredients in a third, smaller bowl.

Heat a wok over high heat. When it begins to smoke, add oil and aromatics. With a wooden spoon, stir fry for a quick 20 seconds. Then add veggies and stir frequently, cooking for about 2 minutes. You want to reduce moisture (you’ll begin to see some shrinkage) but you also want to maintain a certain degree of crunch. Add sauce and stir quickly to thoroughly coat veggies, cooking for an additional 30 seconds or so.

Eat immediately, by itself, with rice or another side companion.

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