31 May 2013

Compare and contrast nutritional data resources: USDA vs. Google

A friend of mine is on a diet for science (they're taking part in an investigational weight-loss program through a local university), and so they have to count calories very carefully. So far, they've been using a handbook by "the CalorieKing", provided by the program, as well as internet searches of varying reliability.

When I've wanted to look up nutritional information -- say, after a fitness professional friend suggested that I increase my magnesium consumption -- my go-to resource has been the super-comprehensive but somewhat user-unfriendly USDA National Nutrient Database. Dig it. There are some 8,000 foods in the system, both organized by category and searchable by name. Look at the nutrition packed in that CSA kale we got this week! The only question I'm left with is, what's the percentage of my DRI (formerly known as Recommended Daily Allowance, or RDA) for all those nutrients? I have to cross-reference with another USDA website or a PDF file from the Institute of Medicine, which is too bad.

Google to the rescue, maybe. They've just announced that they're rolling out a nutrition data aggregator. Soon you'll be able to type "how much magnesium in kale" into Google search, and you'll get an honest-to-goodness Nutrition Facts label right there on your computer or handheld screen.

Neato burrito, so to speak.

30 May 2013

CSA asparagus casserole

Our CSA (community-supported agriculture) subscription has been generous with asparagus in its first weeks, so here we go: a very simple casserole to use the asparagus and another item in abundance this early in the season, green "baby" garlic. I love a one-pot recipe!


  • 1 bunch spring asparagus
  • 2-3 spring onions or baby garlic bulbs, sliced small
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 to 1 cup milk
  • 2 ounces shredded hard cheese (Cheddar works well, as does mozzarella)
  • 1 cup seasoned breadcrumbs [1]
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil


    Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees F. Remove and discard the tough lower ends of asparagus spears. Chop the spears to about 2-inch lengths. Toss with the onion or garlic and place into casserole dish. Combine the flour, salt and pepper, and milk, and whisk until no lumps remain. Pour over the asparagus and onion. Cover vegetables with shredded cheese.

    Toss breadcrumbs with olive oil and scatter over the casserole. Cover and bake 35-45 minutes, or until bubbly. Serve hot.

    Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a side dish.

    [1] I keep no-cost breadcrumbs on hand almost all the time. When it looks as though I won't be able to finish a loaf of bread before it starts to grow mold, I slice it into very small cubes and place it in a plastic container in the freezer. For this recipe, I would measure out a cup of breadcrumbs; add some dried oregano, dried garlic powder, salt, and pepper; and toss with olive oil. If the breadcrumbs were still very cold when the casserole went into the oven, I would add maybe 5 more minutes to the cooking time listed.
  • 28 May 2013

    Five-dollar rhubarb pie

    I'm always excited when rhubarb starts showing up at the supermarket and farmers markets. I have a very fond memory of my grandma going out to her front stoop, hacking some leaves off a weedy-looking plant, going into the kitchen, and re-emerging a couple of hours later with a pie in her hands. I don't know where she got the recipe -- to tell the truth, she got most of her recipes out of the newspaper or Chatelaine -- but it's a highlight of my year to make a Mothers Day rhubarb pie for myself or to bring one to a Memorial Day picnic.

    It's even better when I'm patient. When rhubarb first showed up at our farmers market this year, it was priced at an insulting $6.00/lb. Insulting because rhubarb, once established, grows like crazy, returns every year (and in fact prefers a good, hard freezing every winter), and doesn't require a terribly gentle hand to harvest and ship. Don't get me wrong: I want my farmer to get a fair price for what they take the trouble to bring me every weekend. But I'd also appreciate being charged a fair price for what I want to bring home. So I waited two weeks, and this time it was $4.50/lb. Still not ideal, but enough to make a pie for about $5.00.


  • 1 9-inch pie crust (a half recipe of Flaky Pastry Dough from the 1997 Joy of Cooking works well here)
  • 1 1/2 cups white granulated sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 eggs, separated, yolks beaten and whites set aside
  • 3 cups (about 1 pound) chopped rhubarb


    Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Fit the pie crust into a 9-inch pie tin or plate (not a deep-dish pie pan). Sift together the sugar, flour, and salt. Rub in the butter. Mix in the beaten egg yolks. Combine with the chopped rhubarb and fill the pie crust.

    Bake 15 minutes, then reduce temperature to 375 degrees F. Bake 35-40 minutes. Prepare a French meringue with the egg whites and about 2 tablespoons sugar (omitting cream of tartar); top the pie and bake until meringue is browned, about 5 minutes.

    Remove from oven and let cool before serving.
  • 22 May 2013

    The CSA season begins

    Our community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription started delivering last week, so my projects over the next several months will be to post (1) cheap, simple recipes to use up the produce, and (2) notes about canning. The recipes will be mostly about vegetables, and the canning will be mostly about fruit.

    My past experience with CSA's: every week, we'd get a handful of strawberries here, a small sack of green beans there, and six pounds of kale. But that was in the Pacific Northwest, where there's an endemic blight that makes it hard to grow tomatoes. (Man, did I miss Jersey tomatoes while I was living in Seattle. Now that I'm back in Philadelphia, though, I miss getting apples for under $1.00/lb. This mid-Atlantic cheapskate can't win.) Word on the street from a friend who did this particular CSA last year was that the quantity of tomatoes can approach overwhelming levels, and fall can become Carrot Time. So if the same bounty occurs this year, maybe I'll try pressure-canning carrot slices for use in quick winter soups.

    We've paid $640.00 up-front for a half-share of vegetables plus a full share of fruit. This amount is comparable to what we would pay for produce at the local farmers market from May to October -- but we'll be getting a larger quantity of produce. We'll still hit the market, though, for local cheeses and wines, plus occasional gifts. I'll look at the math again at the end of the season and see how we did. But with careful, complete use of the produce through immediate consumption and home-canning, I'm almost certain we'll be ahead, and into the winter as well.

    Here's a recipe to kick off the season: CSA frittata, using what else? Kale.


  • 1 bunch CSA kale
  • 1 bunch (or less) CSA spring onions, chopped
  • 2-3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 ounces shredded Cheddar cheese
  • 6 eggs, well beaten


    Wash kale and chop into bite-sized pieces. In a large skillet, sautée onions in butter over medium heat until tender. Add kale in batches and wilt. Season with salt and pepper and cook until tender. (Add a little water if necessary. If you do so, let the water cook off before proceeding.) Spread the kale evenly over the skillet, and place shredded cheese in an even layer over the kale. Pour beaten eggs over kale, reduce heat to low or medium-low, and cook until done, 10-15 minutes.

    Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a side dish.