Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Make your own muesli

For years and years and years I ate granola with yogurt for breakfast, and it never occurred to me to use anything other than pre-mixed granola. But all that changed about a year and a half ago, and since then I've been waking up nearly every morning and eating this:

What happened a year and a half ago that was so thunderously life-changing? I read Michael Pollan's essay (now a book) in the New York Times - "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto". That essay completely changed the way I thought about food. Actually, 'changed' may not be the best word here, because I simply hadn't thought about food, at least not in depth, before.

It's shocking - I mean, we eat food every day, it's all around us, and yet in American culture at least, nobody actually wants to think about food. We don't ask ourselves "What is it? Where did it come from? How did it end up in front of me? How many hands have touched this? How many machines have manipulated it?" But once you do start asking those questions, once you look at a package of cookies and no longer see them as "Chips Ahoy!" or "Oreos" or whatever they've been branded as, but as a mixture of flour, sugar, chemically treated oil from something - supposedly vegetables?, additives with names too long to pronounce or understand... once you think about how these things were made (what is a corporate cookie factory like anyway?) and how their production is affecting the economy, the environment, the general health of the population, your own health, etc., etc., welllll, it's enough to put you off processed food permanently! At least, it was enough to put me off processed food in the sense of corporation-generated, has ingredients I would never use even if I had access to them, and really doesn't even taste that great - sort of processed food.

Which brings me back to my muesli. I actually don't think pre-prepared granola is all that bad in the grand scheme of things. It generally doesn't have a lot of weird ingredients, it tastes pretty good, and you never really hear about "Big Granola" ruining the industries of small-time oat farmers.

But still. After I read the article, I decided to really clean up my act, and go completely un-processed wherever possible. To be fair, this wasn't all that difficult for me, since at that time I was living in Milan where I had access to a fantastic open-air market and delicious fresh ingredients year-round. But I did make whatever changes I could. Instead of having crackers as a before-dinner snack when I got hungry, I switched to carrots; when possible I made my own tomato sauce instead of using the bottled kind; and I stopped buying pre-packaged granola and flavored yogurt and started making my own muesli mixes with plain and simple whole-milk yogurt.

The best part about making your own muesli is that you can change it every single day. Buy a bunch of stock items (nuts, seeds, dried & fresh fruits), and then just put in whatever you feel like each morning. After extensive experimentation, I have pretty much settled on a favorite mixture, which I'll give below, but I encourage you to play around with your muesli and see what you like best. Admittedly, it's slightly more time-consuming than just dumping a package of granola into a bowl in the morning, but it's also more fun, and it gives you just a little bit more control.

About 100 g. of plain yogurt
A generous handful of oats
A small handful of linseeds (also called flaxseeds)
A small handful of sunflower seeds
A few almonds
1 banana
In summer: a handful of fresh blueberries and/or raspberries
In winter: a handful of raisins or dried cherries or dried strawberries
In any season: a couple dried apricots or other dried fruit of your choosing

Slice the banana, wash the berries if applicable, and cut up any dried fruit that's bigger than a button (dried apricots, peaches, apples, kiwis, mangos...). Combine all ingredients together, mix well, and eat!

A few notes:
1. I don't generally put in all the fruits I mentioned here - usually I just pick one or two, but I wanted to mention all my favorites!
2. To make this more like granola, you could toast the oats with some honey, brown sugar, canola oil, etc. beforehand. I actually like them plain, but if you prefer yours a bit sweeter, then you can prepare a big batch of oats like this and then just use those each morning.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Casarecce alla maltese

Though I'm just at the start of my Maltese culinary adventures, one thing I have learned about very quickly is the ftira maltija - basically the Maltese sandwich. It's made with ftira, a crusty round bread unique to Malta (as far as I can tell), tomatoes, tuna, olives, and of course capers, which grow wild on the islands. I decided to turn the sandwich into a pasta dish, and the result was quite good, maybe even better than the sandwich!

I used casarecce because I happened to have a bunch on hand, but you could probably substitute almost any type of pasta here. I think both long and short types would work, so spaghetti, farfalle, maccheroni, whatever. The casarecce I used were whole wheat, which I think goes well in this dish, as there are a lot of strong, salty flavors.

Ingredients (per person):
75 g. whole wheat casarecce
1 small yellow onion
1 large clove of garlic
1 small can good-quality tuna
4 large green olives
A handful of fairly fresh capers
Crushed tomatoes/tomato pulp
Extra-virgin olive oil

First, bring a large pot of water to a boil. While it's heating up, prepare the other ingredients. Peel and chop the onion; crush the garlic, peel it, and then chop it up a bit into even smaller bits; and rinse the olives and capers. Crush the olives with the flat side of a knife to remove the pits and then chop them up. Drain the olive oil from the tuna and break it up a bit with a fork.

When the water is boiling, salt it, and add the casarecce, stirring them every so often to keep them from sticking. After a few minutes, heat the olive oil in a frying pan and when it's hot, add the garlic. After about 15 seconds, add the onion too. Once the onion has turned soft, add the olives, capers, tuna, and tomato pulp, and turn the heat down to low.

When the casarecce are al dente, drain them and add them to the sauce. Sprinkle with oregano and pepper, stir up, and serve warm. Especially serve warm if it's a gray, rainy day like it was here today - in Malta, there don't seem to be gutters, so just a bit of rain makes the streets get crazy flooded!!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Spaghetti with tuna and fresh tomatoes

A simple meal for complicated times...

I haven't updated much recently because, well, I haven't been cooking much recently. Instead, I've been moving to Malta (after a brief stop in New York)! Briefly, I'll be studying at the University of Malta for a year as part of a master's program - not something I would have even suspected one year ago!

Life has been pretty hectic these past few weeks, what with seeing all my friends before leaving the country, moving to a new land, looking for an apartment, etc. It was strange to go for two whole weeks without so much as preparing a sandwich, but now that I'm finally settled into an apartment, I've started cooking again, and it definitely feels good!

Whenever I move to a new place or am dealing with a lot of complicated stuff in my life, I tend to fall back to cooking what I know and love best. This has meant I've been eating lots of spaghetti with tomato sauce and vegetables, but I've also been alternating that with this dish, which is even easier to prepare, and is of course, delicious. If you want to make it, definitely do it soon, before all the good tomatoes vanish!

Ingredients (per person):
75 g. spaghetti
1 small can of tuna, or half a larger can
A couple handfuls (about 10) cherry tomatoes or one large tomato
Extra-virgin olive oil

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt it, and add the spaghetti. While the spaghetti are cooking, wash the tomatoes and chop them in halves, or into small chunks if you're using a large tomato. Drain any olive oil from the tuna can, mash it up with a fork, and add to the tomatoes.

Note that I like to drain the olive oil from the can and add my own because the olive oil used to preserve tuna is generally of a lower quality, and if there's one thing I adore besides really good bread, it's really good olive oil! If you don't care about this, then of course you can just use the same olive oil the tuna came in.

When the spaghetti are al dente, drain them, and add them to the tuna and tomatoes. Add a spoonful or two of olive oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and oregano, mix up well, and serve!

I've also tried this with sun-dried tomatoes, and it was great, although rather salty. Adding some fresh mozzarella might help even things out a bit - I'll hopefully try that one out soon!