A Little Word on TerraVITA Food & Wine Festival [The Traveling Bite]

A Little Double Dipping, The New Bite, The Traveling Bite
"Eat. Drink. Live. Grow." The motto behind this inspirational, sustainable, local-love North Carolina Food & Wine Festival.

“Eat. Drink. Live. Grow.” The motto behind this inspirational, sustainable, local-love North Carolina Food & Wine Festival.

“The biggest part of TerraVITA,” founder and director Colleen Minton tells me, “is that we focus on being mindful.”

The extensive Food & Wine Festival, built on the foundation of the words for “earth” and “life,”  has been named one of the premier Southern food festivals, both for showcasing high-quality foods and beverages, as well as the event’s overall commitment to supporting local producers, organic and sustainable ingredients, and functioning as a zero-waste festival.

When you first walk onto the green for the TerraVITA Food & Wine Festival Grand Tasting, you are immediately handed a compostable fork and spoon. From the very beginning, Minton’s inspiration is clear.

“I want to give people a podium…to put them on a pedestal,” Minton said of chefs and producers represented at the event, many of which she personally invited to showcase their local and sustainable goods and cuisine.

Perhaps the most popular event, The Grand Tasting, featured more than 30 stations this year. While not exclusively advertised as a vegetarian tasting, or an allergen-free festival, the vast array of options for vegetarians, vegans, and people with nut and gluten allergies was extensive.

Minton personally requested that, whenever possible, chefs prepare allergen and meat-free versions of their offerings.  The importance of being able to eat delicious, healthful food despite dietary restrictions is close to her heart: her son suffers from anaphylaxis to all dairy and eggs, and only recently was cleared for nuts.

“About half of [the chefs] usually have a really strong offering that can accommodate [those] subgroups,” Minton said.

With my compostable spoon and fork in hand, I gladly dug into my first vegetarian bite at TerraVITA, after only three stations of meat-based meals where the pork could not be held, picked out, or eaten around.

A hearty farro risotto with local vegetables from Gravy Kitchen in Raleigh exemplified the connection local North Carolina chefs have with their producers.

A hearty farro risotto with local vegetables from Gravy Kitchen in Raleigh exemplified the connection local North Carolina chefs have with their producers.

Gravy, an American-Italian kitchen, was serving vegetarian farro risotto. I followed this with a taste of butternut squash and pumpkin bisque, and then a potato salad from Foster’s Market.

“We were just there this morning!” I exclaimed, recalling the carrot ginger soup I had sampled only hours before. Foster’s was serving a bacon, apple, and sweet potato salad with a cashew-butter vinaigrette and peppers from their private garden. The vegetarian version was right beside it.

Heather joined me for the tasting, and we compared notes on nuances between each station’s vegetarian and vegan option. She will always advocate for the necessity of bacon. Naturally, I reminded her how delicious the bread was whenever possible. Especially the house-baked Cheddar Poppyseed Bread from Local 22.

We were equally impressed, however, with the improvement Foster’s made to traditional Southern-style mayo-coated potato salad. The light cashew vinaigrette still provided the creaminess this acidic dish needs, without nullifying the seasonal flavors.

The Foster's Market Table: Side-by-side versions of their seasonal potato-salad. Cashew vinaigrette is a fantastic, vegan alternative to mayo.

The Foster’s Market Table: Side-by-side versions of their seasonal potato-salad. Cashew vinaigrette is a fantastic, vegan alternative to mayo.

Next came banh mi lettuce wraps with hydroponic lettuce, which were the last thing I expected to see at the Southern tasting exposition. Chef Timothy Grandinetti, of Spring House, used a Japanese spice mixture to flavor the thinly sliced tofu.

Lettuce wraps instead of rice wraps, tofu instead of pork, and fresh vegetables from the Spring House garden made this one of the lightest bites of the day.

Lettuce wraps instead of rice wraps, tofu instead of pork, and fresh vegetables from the Spring House garden made this one of the lightest bites of the day.

As Heather and I worked our way around the green, we noted how modern and inspired the small plates were. There were no chicken and waffles, only one biscuit (used as a slider with beet jelly and slaw), and the grits were made with aged Parmesan and pickled summer squash, or pumpkin, hickory nuts and sage pesto. The barbecue was pulled pork confit and osso bucco. TerraVITA clearly showcased the best of the best – the chefs working to stake a claim for North Carolina in the foodie’s canon.

With so much attention on nearby Durham, the “Tastiest Town,” and its surrounding neighbors, I couldn’t help but wonder what was changing – and so quickly!

“We have a lot of farmers that are dedicated to sustainable practices…we have clean, local food that is available so that our chefs have the opportunity to rely on a consistent source…[that’s] where Southern food is going,” Minton observed. “[Southern food] is made of ingredients that are native to a universal culture, and it’s comforting. The historic roots go far beyond our own Southern roots – and translates to a broader population.”

This couldn’t have been more strongly represented at TerraVITA, where many of the dishes had squash, apples, winter greens, and other seasonal ingredients. It was as much a tasting of early fall as it was a sample of the South.

Later, Heather and I tasted four levels of spicy relish – an award winning recipe from Green Planet Catering, that paired perfectly with sweet potato bisque (a modified vegetarian version of the soup topped with Crispy Pork Belly).

Pre-plated samples from Green Planet Catering came with crispy pork - but a separate batch of sweet potato bisque was reserved for vegetarian requests!

Pre-plated samples from Green Planet Catering came with crispy pork – but a separate batch of sweet potato bisque was reserved for vegetarian requests!

The vegetable and goat cheese terrine, from The Chef’s Academy, was one of my favorites of the day: a beautiful layering of mustard-marinated eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, bell pepper, and portobello mushroom, all wrapped delicately around a center of herbed goat cheese and grilled asparagus. I was so enamored with this dish that I asked the chefs for the recipe – and am looking forward to sharing it with you in the very near future!

I couldn't wait to chat with Paul Sottile and Mitch Samples of The Chef's Academy - and I can promise a very satisfying vegetarian recipe (with vegan modifications!) in the near future. Hats off to the fantastic students at The Chef's Academy for turning out such an elegant, sophisticated dish.

I couldn’t wait to chat with Paul Sottile and Mitch Samples of The Chef’s Academy – and I can promise a very satisfying vegetarian recipe (with vegan modifications!) in the near future. Hats off to the fantastic students at The Chef’s Academy for turning out such an elegant, sophisticated dish. 

Chef Josh Coburn, of the recently opened Local 22, served two vegetarian dishes – a Greek heirloom vegetable salad and a hearty spanikopita. Most of his produce is pulled from the restaurant owner’s personal garden, which supplies all of his restaurants.

While most people introduced their dishes with the warm twang of a Southern accent, I recognized the distinct inflection of a New Yorker at the North Carolina event – Founder of Uncouth Vermouth, Bianca Miraglia, who is brewing remarkable blends of vermouth RIGHT HERE in Brooklyn. I sampled her Pear Ginger blend, but am eager to get my hands on a bottle of Serrano Chile Lavender and Beet Eucalyptus. She might not be a Southerner, but her commitment to sustainability and transparent business practices made her fit right in with the local crowd.

Locally brewed coffee and curry roasted peanuts, bourbon caramel truffles from French Broad Chocolates, North Carolina-based hard cider and, at the very end of our grand tasting tour, samples of the unforgettable La Farm bread that had been one of North Carolina’s many lures.

Just as Heather and I were finishing our final bites, the rain – which had been pushing the thick clouds low over the green all day – finally fell. Volunteers hustled to collect all the wine glasses, and to fold up the burlap tablecloths Minton and her husband made out of coffee bags that are reused every year.

Pumpkin grits with smoked brown butter, hickory nuts, pickled apples, and sage pesto was a lovely little bite, well-served by the backdrop of Minton's own coffee-bean-bag tablecloths.

Pumpkin grits with smoked brown butter, hickory nuts, pickled apples, and sage pesto was a lovely little bite, well-served by the backdrop of Minton’s own coffee-bean-bag tablecloths.

While I only made it to the Grand Tasting, a huge part of TerraVITA – and Minton’s personal favorite – is the Sustainable Classroom. On Friday, a series of seminars, workshops, and discussions brought together some of North Carolina’s most renowned culinary and agricultural minds. One class explored the fusion of classic Southern cooking – known for its lard and made infamous by such names as Paula Dean – with sustainable practices and healthful living.

Educating guests on GMO’s, the history of Southern grains, and methods for initiating community food movements were among the weekend’s other topics.

“I believe a lot of food allergies are tied back to GMO’s…” Minton mentioned, reiterating her passion for honest food labeling, organic food, and her hope that more chefs continue to build relationships with the producers of their ingredients. “The classes are the major drivers for me – I think it’s the most interesting piece of the event.”

When TerraVITA returns in 2014 for its fifth consecutive year on the Chapel Hill Green, Minton hopes that classes will be available on both Friday and Saturday, so more people are able to attend.

She had initially asked chefs and speakers if they would be interested in leading seminars on Sunday, but she was met with resistance.

“No, that’s our family day [they told me]. And I don’t want to take that away from them.”

And, as all things usually do, our conversation returned to the very foundation of TerraVITA – the inspiration for it all.

“When you make [choices] for yourself and your family, you have to ask yourself what you want to promote.” For Minton, her energy was fueled into developing one of the South’s most renowned, forward-thinking food events – because it was the food she wanted to be able to feed her family. “You have to ask yourself…what is going to make sense for not only your family, but your neighbor’s family? Your friend’s family?”

And so, even with its modern innovations and vegetarian inspirations, the Southern table is still very much a place where the everyday family can sit around – where good food can be had by all.

The great thing about having Heather with me at the Grand Tasting was having my best friend there to share delicious, comforting food with. The worst thing? Letting her snag cheesy foodie shots of me attacking my vegan banh mi.

The great thing about having Heather with me at the Grand Tasting was having my best friend there to share delicious, comforting food with. The worst thing? Letting her snag cheesy foodie shots of me attacking my vegan banh mi.

While I returned home to the North to digest, Minton continued working on TerraVITA. In the week following, she finalized the proceeds from the live and silent auctions benefiting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

I can’t express how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to meet Minton, to experience TerraVITA, and to have had such a thorough immersion in the food and beverage of the South.

Thank you again to everyone who helped me learn a little about Southern culinary culture – because as Minton said, it’s a historical cuisine with roots that stretch deep into American soil.

As more producers and chefs embrace sustainable, organic goods, and create vegetarian, “light-on-the-lard,” allergen-free interpretations of comforting Southern classics, I have no doubt that the South’s food legacy will continue to gain popularity, and overcome its reputation as a friend-chicken-and-waffles, chicken-friend-chicken region.

Because it is so much more than that. Although, yes, you can still find that too.

Until next time,

-Melanie

A Little Word on Tasting the Tastiest Town [The Traveling Bite]

A Little Double Dipping, The New Bite, The Traveling Bite
Local Seven-Pepper Jelly, Aged Goat Cheese, and a biscuit from Rise, the famous Durham shop serving only biscuits and donuts. In some ways, everything I thought I knew about the South was right. And in some ways, the Carolinian culinary-scene is about to take the local, sustainable, restrictive-diet world by storm. (And no, I didn't eat that biscuit all by myself.)

Local Seven-Pepper Jelly, Aged Goat Cheese, and a biscuit from Rise, the famous Durham shop serving only biscuits and donuts. In some ways, everything I thought I knew about the South was right. And in some ways, the Carolinian culinary-scene is about to take the local, sustainable, restrictive-diet world by storm. (And no, I didn’t eat that biscuit all by myself.)

The South has a reputation for the best vinegar-based barbeque sauces in the country. It’s also known for grits, biscuits, hush puppies, and a variety of other foods that typically come deep-fried and butter-basted.

Last weekend, I dropped below the Mason Dixon line for the first time to visit my best friend, Heather, who recently moved to Durham, North Carolina. Fortunately, I arrived just in time for the third annual TerraVITA Food & Wine Festival. I didn’t know it when I booked my ticket, but the quick weekend jaunt to the South became an inspiring and eye-opening culinary experience that may very well have  shattered my perception of the Southern kitchen.

Maybe.

Heather’s birthday was the day I flew in, and we had scheduled a wine tasting at a local wine shop. My first taste of the South came as a generous sip of wine from Wine Authorities in Durham. The owner, Craig Heffley, has made his mark on the Research Triangle by traveling the globe to find the best undiscovered wineries. Every bottle in his modest shop was hand-selected, and represents a family-owned vineyard, many of which have never before been distributed in the US. Heffley is committed to circumventing the primary problems associated with the corporate wine industry – mainly, the domination of liquor store shelves by a few major companies, and the hundreds of additives present in the wines produced by these leading wine tycoons.

At the same time, Heffley was frustrated by the way many boutique wine shops isolated the average customer with astronomical prices and complicated jargon. From a desire to remedy these serious problems with the wine world, Heffley’s accessible, casual store and lounge was born.

We sampled five exquisite wines, all of which were hand-selected by Heffley. They represent family-run vineyards around the world who are making their US debuts.

We sampled five exquisite wines, all of which were hand-selected by Heffley. They represent family-run vineyards around the world, many of which are making their US debuts. Shoppers can try a wide selection of wines at any given time with the Wine Authorities’ Enomatic “Cellar Door” tasting bar. 

Heffley started us (me, Heather, and her boyfriend, also a Craig), with a Brut Cava he discovered on the final day of a recent trip to Spain. It’s a clean, luxe-tasting bubbly produced on Mas Codina, the estate owned by the Garriga family, and they’ve been making it like this since the 1600’s. We moved on to a pale rosé, and then a nearly-fuschia French red, when Craig encouraged us to cut into the aged local Prodigal Farms goat cheese on the bar so the fat could cut the tannin. We concluded with a dessert Moscato d’Asti Vignot that was so remarkable, I took a bottle back to Heather’s.

The commitment to local goods and producers quickly became the theme of the weekend, and the saving grace to the meat-focused meals and hearty fare I repeatedly encountered.

For dinner, we enjoyed Spanish-style tapas with Southern flair at a favorite local haunt, Mateo. Both cuisines are extremely meat-oriented, and the menu at Mateo reflected the joint passion for pork.

The first round of pinchos was entirely vegan, gluten-free, and grain-free. It was a light start to an indulgent meal.

The first round of pinchos was entirely vegan, gluten-free, and grain-free. It was a light start to an indulgent meal, and the Crispy Moorish Chickpeas are one of my top recommendations.

This, of course, was a perfect place to celebrate Heather’s birthday: she practices a grain-free lifestyle, and primarily eats proteins and vegetables. We were started with a selection of smoked barbeque marcona almonds, Spanish olives, and Moorish-spiced crispy garbanzo beans. Each pincho was perfectly flavored to enhance the natural qualities of the focal ingredient. After that, however, the selection of vegetarian dishes was limited.

At one moment in the evening, our table was covered with plates of barbeque pulled pork sliders with piquillo cheese, pepper-jelly spare ribs, paper-thin jamon, and more. I sampled the cheese-stuffed date, but stuck primarily to my personal order: roasted beets and watermelon asada and the chared local vegetables – a plate with enormous wedges of squash, roasted peppers, and an earthy eggplant puree.

The Escalavida is my top recommended plate for vegetarians, vegans, and anyone looking to dine lightly at Mateo. It was one of the few meat and dairy-free dishes, and the vegetables had a wonderful charred flavor.

The Escalavida is my top recommended plate for vegetarians, vegans, and anyone looking to dine lightly at Mateo. It was one of the few meat and dairy-free dishes, and the vegetables had a wonderful charred flavor.

Mateo’s chef/owner Matt Kelly clearly has a vision for the future of Southern cuisine. The menu is smart – the local North Carolinian ingredients are acknowledged throughout the dishes in a refined and modest style. From the evening’s local crispy okra special to the Ensalada Verde with North Carolina peaches, or the Brinkley Farm Snap Pea, and even the Smithfield mangalista ham, there’s no doubt that the fare is fresh and truly of the Carolinas – even with all the mojo verdes and chorizo butter you can slather onto a slice of local baked bread.

Digesting could have taken the entire weekend, but we still concluded the night with so that we could celebrate with a glass of the Wine Authorities exclusive when we returned home.

First thing in the morning, our stomachs still full, Heather and I braved our pre-determined tasting trail. We grabbed coffee at Cocoa Cinnamon, a highly-recommended coffee shop that hand-grinds all of their beans, and creates unforgettable natural flavors from inside a converted garage.

My Iced Middle Eastern Coffee was slow-brewed with rose, cardamom, and vanilla bean. The incredibly aromatic coffee was a shock to my taste buds. There was no added sugar, no artificial flavorings, and no dairy. Yet the beverage was naturally sweet and highly floral – a true treat, and a far cry from Southern sweet tea.

With our brews in hand, we made haste to Foster’s Market. This shop serves Durham as a distributor of specialty goods, a coffee shop, a partial-service restaurant, and is home to award-winning private-label Seven Pepper Jelly.

Despite the TerraVITA Grand Tasting on the Green being only hours away, Heather insisted this was one of her personal favorite eateries, and not-to-be-missed.

I estimate this small cup of dairy-free soup was no more than 100 calories. The coconut flavor was mild, but added sweetness to the bright heat of the ginger.

I estimate this small cup of dairy-free soup was no more than 100 calories. The coconut flavor was mild, but added sweetness to the bright heat of the ginger.

I ordered a vegan Carrot Ginger Soup (made with a splash of coconut milk and a generous helping of green onion) and Heather took their signature breakfast. On the way out, I snagged a sample of Rain Holloway’s “BrittleBits” hand-baked peanut brittle.

Neither Heather nor I worried about making room for the almost 40 chefs and producers presenting at TerraVITA. By the time we arrived in Chapel Hill, our stomachs were empty and ready to go.

Because this was, after all, a grand tasting, I’m saving TerraVITA for a post of its own. How else can I do justice to the extensive range of fall-inspired bisques, the innovative takes on classic grits, the vegetarian terrines and banh mi, and of course, the local Carolina spirits and cider?

After TerraVITA, Heather and I retired for the evening, to dig through our bounty (a few pocketed truffles and a gift bag full of magazines, coffee beans, and local North Carolina Burt’s Bees.)

It wasn’t until the following morning that we resumed our three-day feast. At La Farm Bakery in Cary, Heather, Craig and myself met famed baker and first-time author Lionel Vatinet. I first had the pleasure of meeting Lionel back in New York, in the Food & Wine / Travel + Leisure magazine lobby. There, surrounded by bags and bags of fresh-baked bread, flown in that morning from Cary, was Lionel. That afternoon, the entire office took tears of White Chocolate Baguettes to their desk, tossed sad packaged lunches for slices of North Carolina whole wheat, hand-rolled baguettes, and bite of the enormous wheel of sourdough that was a carb-pocalypse in it of itself.

Naturally, the first thing I did when I booked my flight to Durham was tell Heather we were having brunch at La Farm.

Heather, I’m sorry to say, picked a very bad time to stop eating wheat.

As always, share your breakfast potatoes, hold the hollandaise, and eat only half of whatever bread you're served to make sure you don't overdo it at brunch. Asking for extra fruit is an easy way to take the edge off the tempting mini scone.

As always, share your breakfast potatoes, hold the hollandaise, and eat only half of whatever bread you’re served to make sure you don’t overdo it at brunch. Asking for extra fruit is an easy way to take the edge off the tempting mini scone.

For myself, I enjoyed a healthy, vegetarian breakfast of poached eggs on English muffin-style bread, with asparagus, spinach, and fresh-cut chives. I kept the hollandaise on the side as a final gesture of calorie and health-conscious eating. But the breakfast potatoes were too good no to try, as was the miniature cinnamon and white chocolate scone.

Fortunately, Craig was a happy recipient of our cherished leftovers. Because even on vacation – even in the South – sometimes the scone is just too much.

Nevertheless, I still found myself with an entire White Chocolate Baguette in my carry-on, which I have frozen in my freezer for a day when a slice of light, whole wheat, 35-calorie toast just won’t cut it. It may not be vegan, and it’s most certainly not gluten-free, but it was baked with Vatinet’s intense respect for ingredient-driven breads.

During my stay, I was amazed to see how accommodating all the chefs and bakers, sommeliers and baristas were. My impression of Southern-style food has always been that of a heavy, comfort-food cuisine rooted in traditions which are not meant to be modified, broken, or ignored.

But at every place I ate, while there was no shortage of meat, I was never for want of delicious, local vegetables, hand-prepared goods, and a little more soul than I’m used to seeing in my food. Southern Living recently named Durham the Tastiest Town in the South – and I can see why. What’s more, the Research Triangle is a modern, quickly developing region on everyone’s radar. It’s modern, multi-cultural, and all of that is clearly reflected in the presence of thoughtful events such as TerraVITA, the rapidly increasing vegetarian and vegan options, and the proud commitment to whole, good foods.

Until tomorrow, when I take a giant bite out of the Third Annual TerraVITA Grand Tasting.

Melanie

Where To Bite Mushrooms [New York, New York]

A Little Double Dipping, Where to Bite
A bowl of Sauteed Portobello Mushrooms from Tapeo in Boston demonstrates how even the most simple mushroom dishes can be earthy, savory sensations.

A bowl of Sauteed Portobello Mushrooms from Tapeo in Boston demonstrates how even the most simple mushroom dishes can be earthy, savory sensations.

For me, there is almost nothing more sensational than a well-prepared mushroom. Pureed into a creamy soup or pate, grilled like a burger, roasted until crispy, or straight up raw and dipped in hummus – I have yet to meet a mushroom I didn’t like. These earthy, hearty growths have a long, rich culinary history. From the prized morel to the humble button mushroom, no other fungus (that I can think of, anyway) has been so celebrated.

From a nutritional standpoint, mushrooms are a knockout. They’re dense and filling, yet extremely low in calories. They are low in sodium, cholesterol free, fat free, and packed with potassium, niacin, Vitamin D, and Vitamin B. Best of all, the profoundly rich umami flavor makes them intensely more satisfying than other competing vegetables (although mushrooms aren’t technically vegetables). Sure, eating an entire bowl of lettuce will fill you up, and sure, you won’t be packing in any extra calories or fat, but does a head of romaine really satisfy the palate, and the stomach, the way a bowl of grilled mushrooms does?

No. The answer is no.

Since moving to New York, three restaurants in particular have impressed me with their mushroom masterpieces. So much so, I couldn’t pick just one to write about, or just one dish to recommend. Here’s my round-up of the best spots in New York to order up this mouth-watering morsel.

Saxon + Parole 

316 Bowery, New York, NY [NoHo]

Truffle Oil Burrata with Shaved Truffles - $$$

Truffle Oil Burrata with Shaved Truffles – $$$

Truth be told, my first bite from this restaurant was actually on the rooftop of the JetBlue headquarters in Long Island City. They were serving up Mushroom Pate with pickled mushrooms and whiskey jelly on their housemade sourdough bread. It was unseasonably warm, beautiful, and I was enjoying an early taste of what the JetBlue Mint Experience would be offering on their tapas-style menu. Chef Brad Farmerie, of Saxon + Parole, has been largely responsible for designing this upscale, in-flight menu. And so, after dipping into the pot for seconds, I immediately made a reservation to try his restaurant.

Truffled Portobello Mushroom Mousse with PAROLE Whiskey Jelly and Pickled Mushrooms - $12 (Pictured Above is the Sample from JetBlue - Not nearly the size of the "pot" meant for sharing on the menu)

Truffled Portobello Mushroom Mousse with PAROLE Whiskey Jelly and Pickled Mushrooms – $12 (Above is the JetBlue Sample – Not nearly the size of the “Pot” meant for sharing)

On Friday night, Saxon + Parole was offering a special appetizer: a housemade burrata with truffles and truffle oil. The dish came with the added treat of tableside presentation. Our waiter came with a truffle, one of the most-prized of all fungi, and a truffle shaver. For audience participation, we simply told him when to stop.

A Little Note: Under no other circumstance could I have included this dish as as LWB-recommendation. It wasn’t vegan, it wasn’t gluten-free, and it certainly wasn’t low-fat, low-cal, or light. But honestly, when you’re sharing an appetizer with four of your most voracious family members, and there is a ball of cheese covered in coveted truffle shavings and truffle oil, how can you say no? You can’t. And you should not.

Creamy Polenta with Wild Mushrooms, Corn, and Parmesan - $8

Polenta with Wild Mushrooms, Corn, and Parmesan – $8

In addition to the pot of mushroom pate I had first sampled at the JetBlue Mint event, my family and I also ordered a side of the creamy polenta, which came in a rustic, cast-iron pot and was filled through with wild mushrooms and corn.

Petrarca Cucina E Vino

34 White St., New York, NY [TriBeCa]

Scrambled Egg Whites with Mushrooms, Caramelized Onions, and Zucchini - $14.50

Scrambled Egg Whites with Portobello Mushrooms, Caramelized Onions, and Zucchini – $14.50

The following day, my parents and I met in TriBeCa for lunch, and the mushroom-madness continued.

It should come as no surprise that I’m a pretty tremendous fan of mushroom soup. And yet I can’t recall having ever in my life ordered a bowl or purchased a can. Instead, I’ve reserved myself to stealing bites from my unfortunate dining-companions.

Cream of mushroom soup has more or less taken one of nature’s most unique, earthy flavors – one of the most naturally healthy, low-calorie substances – and covered it with cream and butter until it is almost unrecognizable.

That’s why when my father ordered Petrarca‘s Zuppa Del Giorno, a mushroom soup, I was skeptical. But when the large, shallow bowl arrived at the table, it was all I could do to keep from eating the entire dish. Unlike any mushroom soup I have ever seen before, this one was made with a clear broth, and was thick with large slices of mushrooms – porcini, cremini, and white (to name a few). After chatting with our waiter, coincidentally the son of Petrarca‘s chef-owner, we confirmed that the soup was entirely cream-free. Mushroom soup the way it should be.

Zuppa Del Giorno - $9.00

Zuppa Del Giorno – $9.00

For myself, I ordered an egg-white scramble with zucchini, onion, and mushroom. The dish was perfectly prepared, and the sweetness of the onion and zucchini was just the right balance to the earthy mushrooms. Already full on my father’s soup, I was thrilled to take half of the large entree home for breakfast the following morning.

31 Cornelia St., New York, NY [West Village]

 

Grilled Portobello with Arugula and Parmigiano Reggiano - $13

Grilled Portobello Insalata with Arugula and Parmigiano Reggiano – $13

In general, I avoid returning to the same restaurant more than once, because it’s not as if New York City has any shortage of places to dine.

And yet after only living here for just over three months, I have already returned to Pó twice. On both occasions, I ordered the Grilled Portobello Insalata. This dish gives you two thick, grilled portobello mushroom caps on a bed of arugula with shaved parmesan.  And because one mushroom cap has approximately 30 calories, there’s no reason not to eat both if your appetite is large enough (even grilled with butter or oil, this dish is still incredibly light for a main course.)

That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed a number of mushroom-centric dishes in New York. At The Coffee Shop, a Brazilian diner in Union Square, the kitchen transformed their portobello sandwich special, with bell pepper and onions, into a salad not unlike the one I love from Pó. 

Coffee Shop Taco of the Day - $$

Coffee Shop Taco of the Day – $$

My friend and I also split their taco special, with portobello and enoki mushrooms, caramelized onions, and zucchini. Yet because neither of these are consistently available, and because both had much less-healthy preparations than the previously mentioned dishes (think, a little-too-greasy and a little-too-much-queso-blanca) The Coffee Shop just didn’t make the mushroom-mark.

Finally, I’d like to note three Boston mushroom dishes that have not yet met a NY match. The Crispy Wild Mushroom side dish from Deuxave was worth every dollar (all thirteen) and has lingered with me since I first wrote about Deuxave a little over a year ago.

Crispy Wild Mushrooms - $13

Crispy Wild Mushrooms – $13

The Seasonal Mushroom Timbale with fontina and baby spinach, from my old neighborhood favorite, Bricco Ristorante, is still the most beautifully-plated mushroom meal I have seen to date.

Seasonal Funghi Timbale with Organic Baby Spinach and Imported Fontina - $14

Seasonal Funghi Timbale with Organic Baby Spinach and Imported Fontina – $14

And finally, the Setas Al Ajillo, (pictured at top) or Sauteed Portobello Mushroom tapas from Tapeo, also a past LWB feature, is everything a mushroom should be. A straight up, giant bowl of honest-to-mushroom-goodness.

Because I clearly can’t contain my mushroom madness, this week, LWB gets a bonus post. It’s been a little too long since a double dip, don’t you think? Check back soon for my healthy interpretation of one of these spectacular “champignons” of the mushroom.

Until then,

Melanie

Reduced Guilt Cinco De Mayo [A Double-Dip Day]

A Little Double Dipping, Create Your Own Bite, Where to Bite
Mortar-crushed avocado, tomato, onion, and cilantro make for a great appetizer to share.

Mortar-crushed avocado, tomato, onion, and cilantro form a thick, chunky guacamole, perfect for sharing as an appetizer at Ole Mexican Grill.

Friends, it’s been too long. I sincerely apologize for the unannounced, extended hiatus. The past few weeks have been jampacked, and I was caught off guard by how little time I’d have between my final theses projects, senior week activities, literary magazine launch parties, award ceremonies and farewell dinners, and finally – my college graduation.  Last Sunday, I received my degree from Emerson College in Writing, Literature and Publishing. Now, I have plenty of time to update you on the past few weeks, which have been full of delicious little bites.

I thought I’d start by taking you back to the fifth of the month. This year, Cinco de Mayo coincided with the day I pressed “send” on an e-mail containing the final assignments of my undergraduate career. I began to celebrate, immediately, with my parents and my roommate. We began with drinks at a nearby bar, before catching a cab to Olé Mexican Grill.

Located in Inman Square in Camridge, this acclaimed Mexican restaurant serves upscale, contemporary versions of Mexican classics. Their menu features corn tamales, tortilla soup, enchiladas and tacos, as well as less conventional items – chilaquiles vegetarianos with layers of salsa-simmered tortillas filled with mushrooms, poblanos, corn and spinach, and a vegetable stew with pumpkin seed sauce.

Until we arrived at the restaurant, we didn’t know we’d be limited to a Cinqo De Mayo menu. While the menu itself contained a fine assortment of items, it was disappointing that we weren’t able to try some of the less common options. Nonetheless, we feasted in a celebratory fashion, splitting mushroom and poblano quesedillas to start, as well as chips, guacamole, and salsa.

I ordered a Jicama Salad, which was a bright, crisp complement to the rich chile relenos that followed. Crunchy carrot and cucumber balanced the orange, pineapple, and tang from the pickled red onions and honey vinaigrette.

Even with the dressing on the side, the Jicama Salad at Ole was a perfect balance of citrus and earthy vegetable.

Even with the dressing on the side, the Jicama Salad at Ole was a perfect balance of citrus and earthy vegetable.

Because today is not only about doing a double-take, but also a little double-dipping, I’m sharing one of my all-time favorite guiltless bites. Try this quick little snack as a party favor at next year’s Cinco De Mayo celebration, or enjoy it all year round as I do. These “mushroom ‘chos” can satisfy a craving for melted cheese and spicy Mexican without the added sodium and fat from the typical order of Nachos Grande.

Recently, I happened upon Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt Chunky Guacamole. This low-fat, low-calorie alternative to tradtional guac is achieved by mixing all the standard ingredients – tomato, jalapeno, red onion and cilantro, avocado – with a generous heping of Greek yogurt. Trader Joe’s creative recipe has half the calories and fat as a version with a pure avocado base; only 30 calories in a two-tablespoon serving, and 2 grams of healthy fat.

To create this dish, simply slice a few large button mushrooms horizontally, creating flat wedges perfect for topping. Evenly spread two tablespoons of the guilt-free guac across the mushrooms. Top mushroom with your favorite salsa, and cover them all with a serving of fat free cheese – I prefer Kraft’s Shredded Fat Free Cheddar, Trader Joes Fat Free Crumbled Feta, or a combination of the two. Each cheese contains only 45 calories in a quarter cup, making them extra-light options.

Depending on the size of the mushrooms, this dish makes about ten super-chunky mushroom nachos, piled high with protein, amino acids, healthy oils and calcium. Share this dish with friends at any fiesta, or enjoy the entire plate as a satisfying, spicy meal, all for less than 100 calories.

Pop you rmushroom 'chos into the microwave for 15-30 seconds for hot, melted cheese and guacamole, just like what you'd find on top of salted, oily tortilla chips at a Mexican restaurant.

Pop you rmushroom ‘chos into the microwave for 15-30 seconds for hot, melted cheese and guacamole, just like what you’d find on top of salted, oily tortilla chips at a Mexican restaurant.

Cutting out the tortilla chips, high-calorie guacamole, and rich queso fresco or manchego, allows you to enjoy the mouthwatering flavors of Mexico without needing a celebration as an excuse.

Of course, the celebrating isn’t over on the Little Word Bites front. Tonight, I’m off to toast my roommate and her college graduation. But rest assured, I’m back with more little bites and mouthful morsels than I know what to do with. I’m looking forward to making up for lost time with bonus posts, and extra updates. So check back here, and like my page on Facebook, to catch every little word, and share with me every little bite.

Until next time,

Melanie

A Little Word on Vegetarian Thanksgivings – Leftovers [A Double-Dip Day Day]

A Little Double Dipping, A Sweet Little Treat, Create Your Own Bite

No matter how you make it, stuffing is always one of the highest-calorie dishes at the Thanksgiving table. Keep your leftovers proportionate – and vegan – by filling miniature sweet poblano peppers with your stuffing remnants.

Thanksgiving weekend may be coming to a close, but our fridge is still stuffed with traditional Thanksgiving leftovers. My father’s vegan stuffing and my aunt’s cranberry sauce are among the dishes taking up the most room on the leftover-shelf.

Instead of making dozens of Tofurk’y sandwiches or recreating Thanksgiving dinner again and again, I tried to dig up some healthy, refreshing alternatives to the usual Thanksgiving Stuffing Bread Pudding or Cranberry Sauce Sandwich Spread.

For dinner, I was inspired by a New York Times article, “A Radical Rethinking of Thanksgiving Leftovers,” which offered inventive ways to transform the remains of Turkey Day Dinner.

I took their Stuffing-Stuffed Bell Pepper suggestion and made it the perfect Little Bite, using an assortment of red, orange, and yellow sweet miniature poblano peppers.

These two-bite peppers have the perfect level of sweetness to balance the crisp and earthy Mushroom Apple Kale stuffing.

After cutting off the peppers’ stems, I cored them, removing the seeds and the bitter membranes. Each pepper held about two tablespoons of stuffing, making a serving of two peppers with a quarter cup of stuffing.

Once the peppers were full, I cut two narrow slits on either side to allow them to ventilate, and spritzed them with a tiny spray of olive oil. They were baked at 475 for 15 minutes, or until the skin began to pucker and soften.

Served as is, these stuffed peppers make a delicious vegan dinner, utilizing the stuffing in a way that moderates the caloric level. For those not adhering to a vegan lifestyle, a grating of fresh parmesan on top adds an additional layer of flavor.

For dessert, I searched for a way to incorporate the Orange Apple Cranberry Sauce. A healthy cornbread recipe, with a few important tweaks, made the perfect vehicle for this side dish.

A loaf of Cranberry-Sauce Cornbread, meant to serve 10, contained:

1/2 Cup Flour

1/2 Cup Cornmeal

2 Tablespoons Sugar Substitute

1/2 Tsp Baking Soda

1/4 Tsp Salt

1/2 Cup Nonfat Milk

1/2 Cup Cranberry Sauce

1/4 Cup Egg Beaters

After whisking together the dry ingredients, and slowly incorporating the wet, the thick, pancake-like batter was poured into a 9×11 baking dish. Cooked at 400 degrees for 25 minutes, the cornbread turned a pale puple color, and was a delicious combination of sweet corn and tart cranberry sauce.

Using egg beaters instead of eggs, nonfat milk [we keep Calorie Countdown in the house, which has only 35 calories in a cup), and a sugar substitute such as Truvia or Stevia, each slice of cornbread was less than 100 calories.

Unfortunately, this cranberry sauce didn’t make it into a vegan dessert. However, I was inspired by loads of vegan pies that would have been perfect options for this Thanksgiving leftover.

Other enticing options for reimagining Thanksgiving leftovers included a Savory Gruyere Bread Pudding with stuffing, or Cranberry-Glazed Brussel Sprouts.

No matter how many leftovers you have, there are always healthy alternatives to the Thanksgiving-Pot Pie or panini that will have you looking forward to the Day After Thanksgiving – and maybe even the day after that.

Now that all the cranberry sauce has been baked into cornbread and the stuffing has been turned into a major main-dish component for the lingering  family members, I’m putting away the Thanksgiving dishes.

Until next year, I’m off to find another little bite.

Melanie

A Little Word on Vegetarian Thanksgivings [A Double-Dip Day]

A Little Double Dipping, A Sweet Little Treat, Create Your Own Bite, The New Bite

My plate at Thanksgiving Dinner, loaded with vegetarian and vegan options. From left to right, Housemade Cranberry Sauce, Harvest Cider Vegetables, Green Bean and Fennel Salad, Vegan Mushroom Apple Stuffing, Cinnamon Sweet Potatoes, Sour Cream Mashed Potatoes, Maple Sage Roasted Root Vegetables, and Baked Green and Purple Asparagus.

After hours of preparation and cooking, Thanksgiving came, and brought with it a dozen varieties of vegetables, including delicious housemade sauces and glazes, and more vegetarian and vegan options than I’m used to seeing in one sitting.

Here are some of the highlights from the spread, and a few quick recipes to consider for future Thanksgivings.

Despite my family’s carnivorous preferences, there was enormous support for my endeavor at a vegan Thanksgiving, and aside from the turkey, every dish was either vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free.

The evening started with a series of light appetizers, including my raw crudite platter with fat-free dill dip.
My Aunt Gail arrived with a selection of steaming button mushrooms stuffed with mushroom, onion, and parmesan.

Stuffed button mushrooms with onion, panko, mushroom, and parmesan stuffing. Without the parmesan shaved on top at the last minute, these too would be vegan.

When my Aunt Hedy and Uncle Frank arrived, they carried along multiple pies, housemade Orange-Apple Cranberry Sauce and a Green Bean and Fennel Salad with onion, goat cheese, and dill.

Later in the evening, my Maple Sage Roasted Root Vegetables came out of the refrigerator for their second round of roasting. My dish, meant to serve 16, contained:

1 Celery Root, Peeled and Diced

9 Medium Carrots, Peeled and Diced

3 Parsnips, Peeled and Diced

15 Ounces of Pearl Onions, Skinned

3 Turnips, Diced

I tossed the vegetables with one tablespoon of Olive Oil, fresh cracked pepper and salt to taste. After spreading the mixed vegetables on a baking pan, the vegetables had been baked for 20 minutes at 400 degrees, mixed, and baked for an additional 20 minutes.

Half an hour before dinner was served, I took the vegetables out of the fridge and began preparing the sauce. I melted one tablespoon of Earth Balance Natural Buttery Spread (a great vegan butter substitute) and mixed in 3 Tablespoons of fresh-chopped sage. After the butter had begun to brown, I added in half a cup of Maple Grove Farms Sugar-Free Maple Syrup. I drizzled this over the vegetables, and had them bake at 400 for an additional 15 minutes.

Just when the syrup started to bubble, my vegetables came out and in went the Sour Cream Mashed Potatoes, the Cider Roasted Harvest Vegetables,  and the Cinnamon Sweet Potatoes.

This is a naturally sweet dish, as roasting vegetables allows the natural sugars to be released. Feel free to cut back on the maple syrup, and be wary of adding too much. There are only approximately 75 calories in a half cup serving.

To add one more vegetable dish to the offerings, I picked up an assortment of green and purple asparagus, which my mother baked with just a little bit of salt and pepper, and a modest drizzle of olive oil.

Taking traditional Thanksgiving dishes to the next level is all about letting the true ingredients show through. Instead of breaking all of your vegetables down into cheesy casseroles or sweet purees, keep vegetables whole or thick-cut whenever possible.

My Aunt Hedy’s cranberry sauce was a beautiful example of preserving the natural form of the ingredients, with whole berries and thick slices of apple.  Whole or large-cut ingredients are typically more psychologically-satisfying.

I love tasting a little bit of everything, and it was great to finally have so many choices.  After sampling all of the different dishes, I stuck primarily with the vegan options, including my roasted root vegetables, my father’s Cider Roasted Harvest Vegetables, with halved brussel sprouts, carrots, and pearl onions, and the asparagus. While the mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes were delicious, these were some of the most high-calorie dishes brought to the table. Potatoes are also high in starch, and sweet potatoes in particular are loaded with sugar.

This crisp, Green Bean and Fennel Salad was a refreshing side to the hearty roasted vegetables. Without the goat cheese, which garnished the top of the salad, this too would be a vegan option.

Admittedly, I did indulge in my aunt’s Green Bean and Fennel Dish, despite the goat cheese, which I did my best to work around.

With big celebratory meals, sometimes one little serving isn’t enough. But it’s important to try and double up on the choices that won’t infringe on your desire to sample a bit of dessert later in the evening.

Along with the typical smorgasboard of pecan and apple pie, my mother whipped together a Sugar-Free Pumpkin Chiffon “Pie,” and I baked Vegan Cranberry Carrot Cake Bars.

Less than 130 calories in a bar, these dairy-free treats contained:

10 Pitted Dates, Pureed into a Paste

2 Cups Carrots, Shredded

3/4 Cup Unsweetened Applesauce

1/2 Cup Dried Cranberries

2 Tsp Vanilla Extract

3/4 Cup Whole Wheat Flour

1 Tsp Baking Powder

And a mixture of Cinnamon, Ginger, Pumpkin Pie Spice, Allspice, and Cloves.

After mixing together all of the ingredients, the batter is poured into a 8×8 baking pan and baked for 30 minutes at 375 degrees.

These chewy bars are a healthy way to end a Thanksgiving dinner, with all of the traditional flavors and seasonal spices you’d expect to find. The whole wheat flour can easily be exchanged for rice flour to produce a gluten-free version.

I used to dread Thanksgiving dinner – it was a meal defined by whole stuffed turkey with sausage stuffing, thick turkey gravy, and vegetables baked in cheese or the turkey drippings.

But this year, my plate was bright, and my family seemed equally happy to partake in a lighter, greener meal.

Until tomorrow, when I’m tackling inventive and healthy ways to transform all of the holiday leftovers.

Melanie

Crispy Polenta with Zesty Peach Corn Salsa – CYOB [A Double-Dip Day]

A Little Double Dipping, Create Your Own Bite

The sweet, creamy texture of the polenta in this dish is in perfect contrast to the zesty, crunchy salsa. The bright flavors on this plate can make it feel like summer any time of year.

Create Your Own Bite #12

Crispy Polenta with Zesty Peach Salsa

For the Polenta: 

1/4 Cup of Polenta-Style or Fine Cornmeal

3/4 – 1 Cup of Water

1/4 Teaspoon Salt

1/4 Teaspoon Canola Oil

For the Salsa:

2 Medium Peaches, Peeled, Pitted and Chopped

1 1/2 Medium Beefsteak Tomatoes, Seeded and Chopped

1/2 Red Onion, Chopped

2 Tablespoons Green Chiles, Chopped

3 Tablespoons Fresh Corn Kernals

1/4 Cup Fresh Cilantro Leaves, Chopped

1/8 Teaspoon Cumin

1/4 Lime, Squeezed

2 Teaspoons Apple Cider Vinegar

1/8 Teaspoon Pepper

Salt, to taste

This recipe makes 1 serving of polenta [2 polenta cakes] and 6 servings of salsa [1/2 Cup]

Estimated Calories: 180

Yesterday, I left my apartment to buy a few ears of corn for today’s Little Word Bite, when I realized two very sad things: One, the weather is finally reflecting the season, and I need to dig up my scarves and sweaters. Two, because it’s no longer summer, it’s not easy to find fresh corn.

While it was more difficult than I was hoping it would be to gather my ingredients, I finally got all the components for my Crispy Polenta and Zesty Peach Corn Salsa – a true summer dish with which I will say sayonara to the season.

Get this dish ready by preparing all the ingredients for the salsa – because it’s such a small portion of cornmeal, the polenta will be a fairly quick process. Peel the peaches, seed the tomatoes, and chop them into very fine pieces. Then add the chopped onion, parsley, green chiles and whole kernal corn. Combine these ingredients in a bowl and let them rest while you ready the polenta. My salsa is very chunky – for a saucier, thinner salsa, feel free to bring out the food processor.

Meanwhile, start 3/4 cup of water boiling with the salt on the stove in a shallow saucepot. Once it comes to a boil, lower the heat slightly and slowly add the cornmeal, stirring the whole time.

Polenta can be very tempermental – make sure to stir very frequently as the polenta cooks down.

Once most of the water has been absorbed, you can gauge whether or not you need the additional 1/4 cup of water. Stir the polenta until it begins to pull away from the side of the pot, approximately 5 minutes. For other polenta dishes, it would be here that you could add in a tablespoon or two of grated parmesan, butter, or milk. This will make the polenta creamier, and impart more flavor. But tonight, I’m keeping things vegan, and the flavor profile simple.

Pour the polenta into a shallow baking pan, and form it into a rectangle. This single portion will not fill an entire pan, but polenta cools quickly and can retain a shape. Make sure your polenta is about 1/2 inch thick all the way around. Pre-heat the oven and then let the polenta set for about ten minutes while you finish off the salsa.

Combine the cumin, salt, pepper, and apple cider vinegar in with the salsa mixture. Stir until they have been fully incorporated. Finish off the salsa by squeezing 1/4 of a lime for the freshest juice. Make sure to squeeze flesh-side up, so that no seeds slip into the mix.

For a sweeter salsa, use Spanish onion instead of red, or green bell pepper instead of chiles. Ginger, garlic, and mint are other herbs that you can substitute for those listed. Feel free to play around, and always taste as you go!

Set aside the salsa to finish your polenta. Cut the block, which should now be firm and cool, into two equal squares. Brush the oil onto both sides of each block, and then put the polenta in the oven for 10 minutes, flipping the cakes halfway through. In about ten minutes, the polenta should have a crispy outer-layer and still be smooth and creamy inside.

Baking the polenta is a healthy way to add texture. If you have a mini George Foreman grill, or a grill plan, that’s another great way to crisp up the dish.

To plate, top your polenta-squares with half a cup of salsa. If you’re craving something a little richer, feel free to add a tablespoon or two of feta cheese or goat cheese – both work really well with the sweeter notes of the salsa, and add a creamy element to the dish.

This meal is crisp, bright, sweet, and zesty – all the notes of summer in one perfect bite. Now that I’ve had my fill, I’m finally ready to embrace fall. I’m taking the air conditioner out of my window, and packing away my sandals.

Until next summer, I’m off to find healthy, ambrosial autumn bites.

Melanie

A Little Word on Corn [A Double-Dip Day]

A Little Double Dipping, The New Bite

This sweet grain, when enjoyed in moderation, is a versatile way to add variety to a healthy diet.

As it has always been an abundant, cheap crop, corn has a legacy of sustenance throughout the history of civilization. “That which sustains life,” as it is known by Native Americans, has been a staple ingredient in many cultures.

After dining at Deuxave last week, I decided I wanted to learn more about corn, that sweet summertime grain with a vibrant history that’s had a tough time defending its reputation due to products like high fructose corn syrup.

Corn, when consumed in moderation and via healthy preparations, comes packed with fiber, potassium, and even protein. In fact, the levels of insoluble fiber are high enough to help aid with common digestive problems. The vibrant, yellow color of corn is also an indicator of the high levels of Vitamin A and C, as well as folic acid and carotenoids – powerful antioxidants linked to cancer prevention.

One concern with corn is that it is often mistaken for a vegetable, and thus indulged in as one. As a grain, corn is high in starch, calories, and carbohydrates – so be discerning when you’re consuming this product. It makes a wonderful meal-base because of these properties, but when it is mistaken for a sweet, buttery side (think creamed corn, or corn on the cob), it can have disastrous diet effects.

Besides simply preparing and eating the kernals, cornmeal is a wonderful byproduct of corn, made by grinding the kernals and removing the germ. Depending on the courseness or fineness of the grain, it can be used to make cornbread, pancakes, and a variety of other dishes, making it particularly useful for people leading a gluten-free lifestyle.

Bob’s Red Mill fine grain corn meal is perfect for polenta, and just one example of how corn can be more than a filler.

Polenta is one of those foods that I love to order, but have never wanted to take the time to make. Typically, when you order this cornmeal dish at a restaurant, it’s loaded with cheese or cream, sometimes even oil, and suddenly that tempting “healthy” side has a higher calorie and fat content than the main meal. That’s why I’ve decided to stay in and make this dish myself, forgoing the creamy extras and getting that extra flavor, instead, from a Zesty Peach and Corn Salsa.

Join me later when I say so-long to summer with these delicious corn recipes, all combined into one little bite.

Until then, I’m off to prepare another little bite!

Melanie

Spinach-Stuffed Mushrooms with Bulgur Wheat – CYOB [A Double-Dip Day]

A Little Double Dipping, Create Your Own Bite

This dish is perfect for a quiet date or a big party – the stuffing is great served in baked portobello mushrooms, or divided into small stemmed mushrooms as a passed hors d’oeuvre.

Create Your Own Bite #9

Spinach-Stuffed Mushrooms served over Bulgur Wheat

Adapted from a Veg Lite recipe first printed in the October 2011 issue of Vegetarian Times.

3 Medium-sized White Mushrooms, Stemmed

1/2 White Onion, Finely Chopped

2 Cups Baby Spinach

2 Ounces Goat Cheese

2 Teaspoons Olive Oil

3 Clove Garlic, Minced

1 Cup Bulgur Wheat, dry

1 Teaspoon Basil

Add Salt and Fresh Cracked Pepper, To Taste.

This recipe makes 3 servings, with approximately 1/2 cup of bulgur per person.

Estimated Calories: 200

A last minute dinner plan meant a number of adaptations and substitutions for the recipe that initially called for leeks instead of onions, portobello instead of white mushrooms, thyme instead of basil, and farro instead of bulgur.

With the original recipe from Vegetarian Times in mind, my good friends and I set about preparing our veg-friendly dinner.

After heating the oven to 400 degrees, start by dusting the “gill sides” of the mushrooms with salt, pepper, and a little drizzle of olive oil. Bake “gill sides” down on a baking sheet for approximately 10 minutes. The mushrooms will begin to soften and darken as they cook.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a pan and sautee the onion, garlic, and basil. When the onions begin to turn transluscent, add the spinach, cooking until it has wilted down. At this point, incorporate the goat cheese. The original Vegetarian Times recipe calls here for 1 tablespoon of pine nuts; we didn’t have any on hand, but this additional ingredient would add a contrasting crunch and extra nuttiness to the dish.

Spinach, onion, garlic, and seasonings come together with the creaminess of the goat cheese as the perfect stuffing for mushrooms of all varieties.

Once the goat cheese has melted into the spinach mixture, stuff the mushrooms and heap the excess on top. At this point, start cooking the bulgur wheat – it will take about the same amount of time to prepare as the mushrooms will take to finish in the oven. Bake the stuffed mushrooms for an additional 15 minutes – thicker mushrooms, like the portobellos the original recipe called for, may take longer. Just watch until the mixture on top begins to brown and carmelize. The bulgur wheat will have absorbed the water after simmering for the duration of the baking.

The Vegetarian Times recipe, which initially called for farro, suggests mixing the cooked grain with a teaspoon of olive oil, a teaspoon of lemon juice, and a teaspoon of grated lemon zest. Quite by accident, we overlooked this last step, as the mushrooms had come out of the oven and smelled delicious, and the bulgur was nutty and sweet on its own. The lemon we picked up at the market sat forgotten on the counter – but feel free to try this step, as the folks at Vegetarian Times do know what they’re talking about.

Serve one third of the bulgur with one of the mushroom, and dig in. This low calorie dish is savory and earthy, and is a fun dish to prepare with friends. My father took his own spin on the dish a week later, breaking the recipe down even more and dividing the mixture into many small button mushrooms to serve as an appetizer at a party.

Adapting recipes, and putting your own spin on them, is always fun to try, too. Make due with what you have, create a healthier version, or adapt a recipe to your dietary lifestyle. Make this recipe gluten-free by serving with rice instead of bulgur, grain-free by reviving the Cauliflower Couscous recipe I shared with you in May, or vegan by holding off on the goat cheese. In our case, the bulgur wheat may have been an accident, but it was a healthy, delicious surprise.

Until next time, I’m off to find another surprising bite.

Melanie

A Little Word on Bulgur Wheat [A Double-Dip Day]

A Little Double Dipping, The New Bite

This light, nutty grain is a wonderful low-cal option, popular in Middle Eastern dishes such as tabouleh.

Last Sunday was one of those days that got swept up and disappeared. I moved back to Boston, and now that I’m settled back, I’m ready to get back on track, with my little bites and healthy life.

In this double-dip, I’m featuring a product you have to bring into your pantry immediately – bulgur wheat – and later, showing you how to turn this into a delicious feast with someone special, friends, or family.

Bulgur wheat is a miracle product for those looking to keep meals high in nutrition and low in fat. My first motivation for picking up a bag of Bob’s Red Mill Bulgur was it’s quick-cook time, as I’m notorious for eating al dente pasta and raw oats just to add a few extra minutes to my day. Simply bring a pot of water to a boil and allow the grain to simmer for 12-15 minutes; a much more manageable cooking committment than the 40 minutes needed for properly cooked brown rice.

Bob’s Red Mill products are worth the extra buck – organic, whole wheat products from an employee-owned are natural, healthy, and make you feel better about every meal.

The big selling points, however, are the various nutritional benefits. While slightly lower in calories than rice, it’s more than double the amount of fiber. It’s also low in fat, and has a substantial amount of protein per serving.

When cooking with this Middle Eastern grain, the only thing to keep in mind is the distinct nuttiness of the flavor. It’s one of my favorite foundations for meals because of this, but unlike rice, it is not neutral enough to serve as a substitute in every dish.

Unfortunately, bulgur wheat isn’t gluten-free; but for those subsisting on vegetarian, vegan, or low-fat diets, this product will keep the dishes coming off your stove from looking the same night after night. Often, bulgur wheat is used to make tabouleh or pilaf, but try using bulgur in place of more traditional grains the next time you start cooking.

In a recipe I adapted from Vegetarian Times Magazine, I used bulgur wheat instead of farro; while the Italian farro has more protein than bulgur, it’s also more dense, making its serving size smaller. Bulgur is also lower in calories per serving, and significantly lower in carbohydrates. However, both grains share a similar nutty flavor, making bulgur a great substitute if you’re looking to keep the calorie count low, the dish more psychologically filling, or simply seeking to try a new product.

Find this recipe in part deux of my double dip; Spinach-Stuffed Mushrooms with Bulgur.

Or, join me next week for another little bite you can’t miss.

Melanie