To Eat? Or Not To Eat (Meat)? – Black Bean Soup with Canadian Bacon

Right now my loving husband is working on our next post. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will hint at the fact that the love of my life, and our household’s chief engineer, is going to be presenting to you an essay and some technical hints on the preparation of one of our most favorite libations. But for more on that, you will have to wait, at least a teensy while longer.

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And now that I have piqued your interest with a glimpse of things to come I would like to switch gears entirely to discuss the topic that has been “top of mind” for me over the last few months. I have spent a great deal of time lately ruminating on ideas related to the grand theme (and current social buzz word) of “Sustainability.” More specifically, I have been reading, researching and listening to various different sources in hopes of developing some deeper understanding of how my decisions, as a consumer, impact the environment, and, furthermore, how environmental impacts may threaten future generations ability to thrive.

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The modern American Diet, with its focus on meat protein and packaged convenience foods, has taken a toll both on the health of our people and on the environment. I recently completed an eye-opening course on the American Food System on Coursera. The course provided an impactful overview of both historical and modern systems of agriculture and food animal production, as well as the policies, such as the American “Farm Bill”, which drive the complex networks of subsidies as well as the protocol governing food assistance programs and the dissemination of information related to nutrition. But among the many segments was most illuminating to me were the lectures on industrial food animal production systems and their environmental and health costs.

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Not only do Industrial Food Animal Production systems have a stark impact on the ecology of the immediately surrounding area, but the industry’s hunger for resources, from water, to energy, to pharmaceuticals is stripping the nation of many resources and putting us at risk for environmental disaster. And that is to say nothing of the nasty byproducts of the production such as animal waste, methane gas, and potential for diseases that come hand in hand with large scale facilities. It is clear that something needs to change, in terms of our patterns of meat consumption (which, until recently, had been on the sharp rise over the course of the last century) as current trends are simply not sustainable.

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While the facts of food animal production are certainly harrowing and, indeed, a bit off-putting, for me, the solution to lessening the impact of my food choices on the environment is not to simply forgo meat altogether. It is clear to me that meat protein should play a far smaller role in our modern diet. In our home, we have committed to eating less than a single small (3-4oz) serving of meat per day and endeavor to vote with our food dollars to support farmers who use sustainable practices in raising food animals. The recipe for black bean soup featured below was developed around a traditional practice of using a small portion of meat as flavoring for an otherwise plant-based meal. While the amount of meat used may be small, it’s smoky and savory favors make a big impact on the hearty soup, which is a warming treat to share with loved ones on a rainy spring day.

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Before I delve into the recipe, lets take a moment to talk about soaking beans. If you look through our blog history you will note that I have shifted away from using canned beans. Canned beans are a great convenience food and can make a quick addition to a dish in a pinch but what you gain in convenience comes at a nutritional cost. Canned beans are traditionally packed with sodium, while rinsing the beans before using them does make an impact on the amount of sodium that makes its way into the final dish, even proper rinsing techniques are only able to mitigate about 40% of the added sodium. Dried beans are not an ingredient that can be used instantaneously in the way that they canned counterparts may be, but I, personally, find them no less convenient. Not only do I find the home cooked beans to be superior from a textural perspective, but I appreciate the opportunity to soak, rinse, resoak, and rerinse the beans before cooking. Putting the beans through multiple (2-3) changes of water over the course of an 8+ hour soaking process helps to rid the end product of some of the indigestible carbohydrates that give beans the monicker of the “magical fruit.”

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One final note here on using dried beans, the dried nature of the beans used in this dish allows for them to be cooked for a much longer period of time without compromising the texture of the bean. With the longer cooking window the beans absorb a greater deal of flavor from the bacon and aromatics in the soup creating a richer end product. If substituting canned beans the overall cooking time for the soup will need to be much shorter in order to avoid reducing the beans to mush.

Black Bean Soup with Bacon (Serves 8)

500g (2.5c) Dried Black Beans
3 TBSP Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Divided)
About 15 Slices of Thinly Cut Canadian Bacon
1 Large Yellow Onion, Chopped
2 Cubanelle Peppers, Diced
3 Cloves of Garlic, Minced
1 TSP Chipotle Powder (or Hot Smoked Paprika)
1 TSP Ground Cumin
1oz Tequilla (Blanco, or Reposado are OK – I would Avoid Anejo)
1/2 a Bunch of Cilantro, Washed Well and Chopped
1 TBSP Lime Juice
Salt and Pepper to Taste

Start by soaking your beans. I start mine in the evening after dinner and drain them and change out the water just before going to bed. If you are concerned about wasting water – the liquid drained off of the beans can easily be saved to water houseplants.

Once the beans have soaked for at least 8 hours, drain them again and set them aside.

Heat 1 TBSP of the olive oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the canadian bacon and cook until any fat has rendered and the meat is slightly browned. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon to a paper towel lined plate and set aside. Add and onions and sauté until soft, add the Cubanelles and continue to cook until they too soften.  Stir in the canadian bacon, garlic, chipotle, and cumin and sautee for another minute or so before tipping in about 8 cups of water. Add the beans to the pot and stir.

Bring the soup to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. While the soup does not require constant monitoring at this point be sure to periodically check on the pot to ensure that there is still enough liquid present to cover the beans. About every 20 minutes or so, skim off any foam that rises to the surface, and then give the mixture a few slow stirs to ensure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot. Be sure to do this in this order, skimming first and then stirring, as you do not want to stir the foam back into the soup.

The cooking time for dried beans can vary widely depending on the age of the beans and length of soaking time. After the first hour and a half of cooking time test one of the beans to see if it is tender. To do so, remove a bean or two and set it on a plate, as the beans may still be rock hard it might not be the best plan to toss it in your mouth and chomp down – instead test one between your thumb and forefinger to see if there is any give. If the bean is still completely hard keep the pot simmering away and test again after another 30 minutes have elapsed. If the bean has reasonable give you can move on to an actual taste test to better gauge the texture. When Dustin is put in charge of testing the doneness of things he invariably asks me how to know when it is done – here I will offer the same advice I give to him, when you like the way the beans taste, and the texture is to your liking, they are done. Once the beans are cooked to your preference, stir in the tequila, about half of the chopped cilantro, and the lime juice. Taste the soup and determine if more lime, cilantro, or salt is needed and adjust these seasonings until they, too, meet your flavor preferences.

This soup is great on its own but also pairs well with homemade cornbread – I love the cornbread recipe featured on the Anson Mills website. The recipe is as simple as it gets but is remarkably good. If you have not explored Anson Mills’ site before, it is a stunning resource for information on grains such as Oats, Corn, and Rice and their freshly milled ingredients are a world above anything available in even the best grocery stores.

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Springboard – Wheat Free Graham Crackers

It’s hard to believe, but after scouring Whole Foods and the Internet I was unable to find a single box of graham crackers that could be considered “FODMAP friendly.” Even gluten free varieties were chock full of potential IBS trigger foods like honey, garfava flour, inulin, and agave. I cannot claim a childhood fondness for the crackers, or point to any specific source for my hankering for these old-school American classics. But as with so many of the projects I have taken on in the past, I had caught the whiff of a challenge and was determined to see it through.

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For home bakers wanting to try their hand at homemade renditions of supermarket staples, the foreign sounding ingredients listed on the side of the carton may make the product seem impossible to replicate in ones own kitchen. But as with so many grocery store treats, modern graham crackers can find their roots in a simpler historical classic. Graham crackers were the brainchild of 19th century Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham. Perhaps taking inspiration from centuries old beliefs in the power of certain foods to enliven sexual appetite, Graham felt that a diet chock-full of bland grain based biscuits and breads would relieve America’s youth of their “unhealthy” urges and enable them to be better citizens and more diligent contributors to the Great American Society. While no scientific evidence has ever surfaced that upholds Graham’s theory, his crackers certainly caught on and have become an American classic.

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To me, even more interesting than the genesis of Graham’s “crackers” is the special Graham flour from which they are made. Unlike a traditional whole wheat flour, which is made by finely grinding the entire wheat kernel to form a fine flour, Graham Flour is separated into its composite parts and the endosperm is finely ground as though to produce a traditional white flour and the bran and germ are ground separately into a coarser meal. The ground bran and germ is then recombined with the white flour to form a dually textured whole wheat flour. Aside from his eponymous flour, Grahams initial recipe most likely consisted of very few ingredients and was almost assuredly less sweet than Nabisco’s famous modern spinoff. The recipe below was developed with a blend of white and whole wheat spelt flours to create the textural contrast that makes traditional grahams so interesting and irresistible. While the below listed recipe bears closer resemblance to the modern variety then Graham’s bland biscuits, they are not overly sweet, and with a decipherable list of ingredients these biscuits would hopefully be wholesome enough to entice Sylvester, himself.

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Part of the beauty of making your own renditions of grocery store classics is that design and shaping of the cookies is entirely up to you. You can cut the crackers into long rectangles like the traditional variety with an indentation across the centerline so that the crackers can be broken in two halves. Alternatively, if you are planning to use the crackers for s’mores, you may want to cut the mass into ready-made 2″ squares. Smitten Kitchen provided much of the inspiration for this recipe. On her site, Deb gives great direction on the shaping of the grahams and makes a break from the “norm” by using a fluted pastry cutter to create a scalloped edge. Fluted cutters can be found on Amazon, I noted that Ateco also makes a fluted edge square cookie cutter, which would be great for making uniform crackers without the need for any careful measuring.

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The more evenly you are able to cut the crackers, the better. Not only will evenly sized crackers look impressive, but they will bake at a more even pace. To make the pinpoint design in the crackers, snip the end off of a toothpick and lightly press evenly spaced indents into the dough. The cinnamon sugar topping is definitely optional, the dough itself is already a tad sweet (I think it is slightly less sweet than commercially made grahams) and the crackers make a beautiful foil for rich dark chocolate and toasted marshmallows. If you are planning to eat the crackers as cookies on their own you may want to include the topping in order to push them into the decidedly “sweet” category.

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Wheat Free Graham Crackers

180g (1 1/2 C) White Spelt Flour
60g (1/2 C) Whole Spelt Flour
48g (~1/3 C) Buckwheat Flour
48g (~1/3 C) Oat Flour
1 TSP Baking Soda
1/4 TSP Kosher Salt
176g (1 C) Dark Brown Sugar (Lightly Packed)
100g (7 TBSP) Unsalted Butter, Cut Into Small Cubes and Frozen
114g (1/3 C) Maple Syrup
77g (5 TBSP) Whole Milk
27g (2 TBSP) Vanilla Extract

For The Topping
43g (3 TBSP) Granulated Sugar
5g (1 TSP) Ground Cinnamon

To make the dough, place the flours, baking soda, salt, and brown sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse lightly to mix.

In a separate bowl whisk together the maple syrup, milk, and vanilla. Set aside.

Open the lid of the food processor, pull the butter out of the freezer and distribute atop the flour mixture. Return the lid to its upright and locked position and pulse until it resembles a fine gravel. Add the maple mixture to the flour and butter and pulse until the dough just comes together. Gather the dough together into a rough ball, being careful not to overwork it. Place the dough on a piece of plastic film and wrap tightly. Chill the dough for at least two hours or, alternatively, overnight. While the dough chills mix together the sugar and cinnamon for the topping and set aside.

Once the dough has sufficiently chilled and you are ready to begin rolling out the grahams, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a clean work surface (either a cutting board or flat counter space) and set out a pizza cutter, rolling pin, and ruler (the longer the better.) Dust the workspace with a light coating of flour. I typically keep a shaker filled with flour on hand to dust work surfaces when working with cookie and pie doughs, it also comes in handy for lightly coating fish or chicken fillets for pan frying. I personally like to fill a shaker with gluten free flour to minimize any potential FODMAP interaction but if you are not GF feel free to use whatever (white) flour you have on hand. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and separate out 1/3 of the mixture, re-wrap the remaining 2/3 and return it to the fridge.

Lightly dust the rolling pin and roll the dough mass into an evenly shaped rectangle approximately 1/8″ thick. While rolling the dough, periodically flip or turn the rectangle to ensure it is not sticking to the work surface. When you have obtained an even thickness across the entire mass trim off any uneven edges and determine a suitable size for the crackers. (Please see the note above for more insight on determining the right size and shape for your crackers.) Once the grahams have been cut, remove them to parchment lined cookie sheets leaving about 1″ between the squares.

If you wish to decorate the graham crackers with the traditional pinpoint perforated pattern, using a blunted toothpick or wooden skewer lightly indent the cookies in a regular pattern, being careful not to puncture through the bottom of the dough. Lightly dust the tops of the crackers with the cinnamon and sugar mixture and place in the preheated oven to bake for approximately 15 minutes, or until deeply golden. While the first batch bakes, roll, slice, decorate and top the remaining dough and repeat the baking process. Allow the crackers to cool completely on drying racks before packing away in tins or Tupperware.

Memories, Well Preserved – Kumquat Marmalade with Clément Créole Shrubb

With the summer harvest long past, the middle of February may seem, to many, to be an odd time to talk about preserves. But to me, this is the time of year I am most grateful for the stores of jams, jellies, and pickles that pepper our pantry shelves. Not only do homemade canned goods make excellent gifts for friends and family, but there is something so sweet about dipping into a jar of your own homemade fruit preserves. Each time I pry open a jar of jam it offers a small taste of another season, jam making not only preserves peak produce for later seasons but preserves the memories of past seasons as well.  I do not mean to disenfranchise any gentlemen readers by saying this but jam-making is, to me, a beautifully feminine process. The world of jam making has such a long rich history, and like pie-baking, it has traditionally been women who have tirelessly sought to perfect this elusive culinary art form. Perhaps it is the rich sweetness of the fruit, or the glean of brilliantly ripe skins and peels, maybe it is the way the perfume of cooking fruit fills the air, or the quilted jars – daintily labeled but I find myself irresistibly drawn to the jam making process.

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This Kumquat Marmalade is a great starter for anyone hesitant about the traditional rind filled confections. The preserve fits into a category of marmalade commonly referred to as “fine-cut,” meaning that the fruit has been finely sliced to the point where they may, at first glance, resemble a jelly. “Fine-cut” marmalades are time and labor intensive and are more difficult to find on the market as much of the commercially available marmalades are machine made. Marmalades differ from jams and jellies in that water is typically added to the fruit to create the “liquid” or juice needed for processing. The marmalade featured in this post requires three days to make from start to finish. While three days may sound like a ludicrously long time for making a batch of preserves, the three day duration is a critical component in creating a successful marmalade. With its relatively high proportion of fruit solids and water, the citrus needs ample time to rest in the fruit “juice” in order for its natural pectins to permeate the liquid. The presence of these natural pectins is what allows the marmalade to set without the need for any additional powdered pectin.

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When approaching any canning project, cleanliness and thorough sterilization of tools, and not the recipe itself, is truly the key element in success. The boiling water method is the gold-standard when it comes to preserving highly acidic foods like pickles, jams, salsas, and tomatoes. While many other techniques exist, and have been used “successfully” for generations, water bath canning is the only method I advocate using. Even with high-sugar, high-acid jams and marmalades, other methods have a greater potential for failure, and failure, when it comes to canning, can mean botulism. When it comes to canning, botulism is the big 800-lb gorilla lurking in the corner of the room, it is a downright frightening food borne illness that can thrive in improperly canned foods. Botulism spores exist naturally in the air and are not, themselves, harmful. But when botulism spores develop into botulism toxin, you have a literal recipe for disaster. Using proper canning technique and time tested recipes with a pre-established acidity level  can easily prevent botulism toxin from taking root in your canned goods.

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This jam requires a few hours of work over the course of three consecutive days to prepare properly. It may sound like an insurmountable task but the rewards are well worth the time investment. In fact, I actually appreciate that the work is spread over the course of a few days as it make the process easier to fit into a busy schedule. The preparation of the kumquats requires a solid chunk of time. It is a lovely project to take on with a friend or a few family members as the slicing and dicing process is fairly monotonous and quite conducive to conversation and with good company, the task will fly by in no time.

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Kumquat Marmalade – Adapted Slightly from The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook by Rachel Saunders. For anyone not familiar with this cookbook, it is a beautifully written and wonderfully produced resource for truly special and simply stunning jam, jelly, and marmalade recipes.

2 Pounds 10 Ounces Meyer Lemons, Cut into Eighths
1 Pound Kumquats, Halved
1 Pound 3 Ounces Kumquats, Seeded, Cut Crosswise into Halves (so that you have two long halves) Halves Cut into Quarters (you want to create long slivers), and Then Sliced Thinly into Itty-Bitty Pieces
5 1/4 Pounds of Organic White Sugar
5 Ounces Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice, Strained
1 Ounce Clément Créole Shrubb or Other Lightly Spiced Rum

Additional Equipment Needed 1 11-12 Quart Copper Preserving Pan or Wide Non-Reactive Kettle of Similar Volume
2 Large Saucepans
1 Large Canner or Very Deep Stock Pot for Processing Jars
Large Colander or Chinois for Draining the Lemon-Kumquat Juice
Fine Mesh Sieve or Strainer for Straining the Juice
12 Clean 1/2 Pint Mason Jars with Screw Bands and New Lids
1 Canning Insert – Jar Rack
Canning Tongs
Canning Labels

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Day Two – Start by preparing the kumkuat-lemon “juice.” Place the pan with the lemon eighths and kumquat halves over high heat and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to medium and simmer for 2 to 3 hours. As the fruit cooks you will need to press down on it periodically to encourage it to release juices (tread lightly – you don’t want to break up the pulp into the juice), a wooden spoon or spatula works well for this task, alternatively you can use a potato masher. If the water level starts to dip you can add more water in increments to ensure that the fruit remains submerged during the cooking process. You will know the juice is ready when the fruit has become very soft and the liquid takes on a slightly syrupy consistency.

While the lemons and kumquats simmer place the saucepan containing the sliced kumquats over high heat an being to a boil. Decrease the heat to medium and allow it to simmer for about 1/2-hour or until the fruit slices are quite tender. remove the pan from the heat, place a lid on it, and leave to rest overnight at room temperature.

When the lemon -kumquat juice is ready, place a large bowl beneath a fine strainer or chinois and strain the juice into the bowl. Leave the fruit suspended over the bowl to drain overnight at room temperature.

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Day Three – Fill your canner with water, set the insert into the canner, place the jars (without the lids or bands) in the pot, and set over high heat to bring to a boil. This will take a good chunk of time so it is best to start well in advance, you can always lower the heat to keep the water near boiling and at the ready if the water heats well before the marmalade is ready.

Place five teaspoons on a plate on a flat surface in the freezer, you will need to have these well chilled for testing the marmalade.

Strain the lemon-kumquat juice through a fine mesh strainer into the preserving pan. Add the kumquat pieces, lemon juice, and sugar to the juice and stir well to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. During the initial bubbling process leave the mixture alone and resist the temptation to stir it. Once the mixture begins to foam stir it gently, repeating every few minutes to keep it from burning on the bottom of the pan. As the jam nears setting point you may need to lower the heat slightly to keep the mixture from sticking and burning on the bottom of the pan. Allow the marmalade to bubble away over high heat until it reaches the setting point. This process may take anywhere from 1/2-hour to an hour. Certain telltale signs will signal that the mixture is nearly ready, the color will deepen and the bubbles will reduce in size. Once this happens begin testing to avoid over-setting (I like a jam that is set, and spreadable, but

To test the marmalade for doneness, remove the preserving pan from the heat. I typically place a layer or two of kitchen towels on top of a cutting board to act as a buffer between the hot pan and counter and remove the pan to this area while testing. Spoon out a small glob of jam with one of the frozen spoons and place it back on the plate in the freezer for 3-4 minutes. Remove the spoon and feel the underside, if its cool but not cold its ready to test. Tilt the spoon vertically to see if the marmalade runs. If it runs, return the pan to the heat and continue to cook for another 3-5 minutes before retesting. If the marmalade has sufficiently solidified, leave the pan off the heat. With a broad wooden or metal spoon, skim any white foam from the top of the marmalade, being careful not to stir any into the mixture.

See notes above for details on the canning process. This recipe should make enough marmalade to fill 10-12 half pint jars. Even if you only “need” 10, make and process 12, on occasion a jar or two will not seal and you just might have to suck it up, pop it in the fridge and start chipping away at a jar yourself (oh the woes we must endure.) My canning rack holds 7 half pint jars but I typically process 5-6 at a time to give myself a bit of wiggle room in maneuvering the jars in and out of the boiling water. For this recipe I processed the jars for 10 minutes before removing them to a kitchen towel lined jelly roll pan for cooling. Let them really cool, completely, don’t poke at them, or try to remove the screw bands, or try to dry them off, or test the buttons on the top, leave them alone. If you need to, drape them with a kitchen towel to assist you in resisting the temptation to pester them. After a solid 18-24 hours remove the screw bands and check the button to ensure that the lids are solidly sealed. If any are not sealed you can either return the contents to the heat, and then reprocess, or place in the fridge.

Making the Best of It – Spinach and Swiss Chard Gratin

I wont lie, this low FODMAPs diet is hard. In order to stave off tummy trouble I have had to write off some of my favorite fruits and veggies. And since, as you all know, I have a bit of a soft spot for produce, a stroll through the grocery store at this time of the year tends to stir up my yearnings for the peak season crops that are on the “NO” list for low FODMAP dieters like myself. Rather than meandering about the produce section in search of the prettiest produce, I make a bee-line for the produce on my list and avoid making eye-contact with fairytale-like stalks of brussels sprouts and crisp ripe apples.

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But truly, its not all bad. In some ways, having less variety of fruits and veggies to choose from has demanded that I dig deep and dust off old food memories to develop exciting flavor profiles. Without the flash and bang of go-to ingredients like garlic, mushrooms, and onion, without that final sprinkling of breadcrumbs, without the inexplicable umami characteristics of Worcestershire or the exotic intrigue of dried fruit, I have noticed new subtleties in the fruits, vegetables, dairy, and even dried goods that are now staples in our home.

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And for those of you following the FODMAP diet, whose ears may have pricked up at my mention of dairy products, I will let you in on some exciting news: I have passed my dairy trial with flying colors. While dairy might not have topped my wish list for foods to reintegrate into my daily meal plans, it is a relief to have such a diverse category of foods back in my arsenal of ingredients.

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In other good news, Monash University has recently put forth a phenomenal application which provides detailed information on ingredients containing FODMAPs. Not only does the app name which foods may pose trouble for individuals prone to carbohydrate-driven bowel irritation but it even delves deeper than most other lists in analyzing which types of FODMAPs may be present in which foods. Better yet, the app provides guidelines around what serving sizes may be OK to try and what quantities of a food might initiate tummy troubles.

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Perhaps one of the most exciting bits of research published in the new app pertains to Spelt. Spelt is a close relative of wheat and, until recently, I was advised to avoid it along with other gluten-containing flours like Rye and Wheat. The avoidance of these had little to do with the gluten compound itself but the correlation between the two is quite remarkable. Based on recent research from Monash University, which is truly driving the field of FODMAP research, most IBS sufferers are able to tolerate Spelt in reasonable quantities. Breads made from a spelt sourdough culture are even more likely to be tolerated by Low-FODMAPers.

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For those of you currently on a Gluten Free diet, either by dietary necessity or because you are simply creeped out at the mere thought of stringy sticky gluten compounds, please, by all means, continue to avoid all sources of gluten in your diet. But for those of you who long for the airy structure and delectable crust that only gluten can provide, spelt might just be your manna. In upcoming posts I plan to devote more writing space to a more thorough discussion of spelt and gluten. I have been experimenting with a spelt sourdough starter and am working to devise some techniques around creating rustic breads and other baked goods that tame the occasionally bitter spelt flavor and show off the starter’s ability to make magic from little more than flour and water.

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In the recipe below I have provided guidelines for making homemade bread crumbs that can be used to top a variety of gratin or casserole type dishes. Both gluten free and spelt based breads would work well. For those of you with no intolerances to wheats or glutens you can substitute any bread ends or stale bits and pieces you have around. Alternatively, panko works well as an easy substitute for those with no dietary sensitivities. I typically keep a bag of these home made crumbs in the freezer to add crunch and texture to a wide array of foods. Depending on the desired outcome, the bread crumbs can be pulled from the freezer and added directly to the dish or alternatively you can up the ante and toss the frozen crumbs in hot oil or butter along with herbs for a more luxurious topping (this option is great on pasta – if this thought is intriguing seek out recipes for pasta with gremolata.)

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While texture is certainly one of the most important parts of cooking, and is one that I have struggled to re-learn, so to speak, since taking on a Low FODMAP lifestlye, one of the most difficult challenges for me has centered around finding suitable replacements for the unctuous characteristics of garlic and onions. The garlic issue is perhaps a bit easier to remedy. As garlic carbohydrates are not oil soluble, garlic cloves can be lightly crushed and briefly fried in oil to create a garlic oil that carries a great deal of garlic flavor. Simply strain out the garlic for a good deal of garlicky punch with out any of the ill effects that can be contributed to the fructans it contains.

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In the end it all comes back to this theme of discovery. In a process where seemingly so many things are taken away, I have uncovered this amazing opportunity to find new properties in the beautiful bounty that remains. In this dish I actually leverage the chard stems to create a sautee reminiscent of onions. The stems are cooked in garlic oil until soft and ever so slightly caramelized to provide textural variance as well as a lovely savory flavor.  Stems that might otherwise have provided little more than compost fodder are used here to bring an unctuous savory flavor to this gratin. In the end what was unearthed was this amazing potential and distinct flavor that onion could not provide and this gratin shows the amazingly dynamic properties vegetables have to be used in different manners to produce distinctively different but yet harmonious components to a dish.

So my challenge to you is to open your eyes and your mind to the many wondrous possibilities at your fingertips. You may be surprised at what secrets you discover and what amazing qualities you can unlock with a little imagination and a small leap of faith.

Spinach and Swiss Chard Gratin – Serves 8 (as a Side Dish)

To Make the Bread Crumbs – Like other elements in this dish, the homemade breadcrumbs have the ability to turn odds and ends that would otherwise be considered refuse into an amazing component. I typically save bread ends in a bag in the freezer for this exact intent. Especially in the case of costly gluten free breads this helps get the most use out of the full loaf. Additionally any stale bread ends can be sliced or cubed and then frozen. Sliced is perhaps easiest as the slices can be popped out of the freezer and then into the toaster and transitioned to a food processor for pulsing. In the event that you don’t have a food processor don’t fret! The toasted bread pieces can be cooled completely and then sealed within a plastic bag and crushed with a rolling pin. If any large pieces remain you can rub them between your fingers or smash them with the back of a spoon to break them into smaller bits. The bread crumbs can be frozen in a (labeled) airtight freezer bag for a few months.

1 Large Bunch of “Adult” Spinach (about 450g), Washed Well (Don’t Bother to Dry – Same Goes for the Swiss Chard)
2 Bunches of Swiss Chard (about 900g), Washed Well, Stems Separated and Chopped Finely (1/4″ Segments – See Photo Above), Leaves Left Whole
2 TBSP Home Made Garlic Oil or Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Cup Milk
4 TBSP Flour (Most Gluten Free Blends are OK – I Used King Arthur’s Gluten Free Multi-Purpose Blend)
1/2 Cup Home Made or Store Bought Bread Crumbs
1/2 Cup (about 56g) Aged Gruyere Cheese, Grated
Small Sprinkling of Aleppo or other Pepper Flakes (If Desired)

Preheat the oven to 375º. Spray a 12″ × 12″ gratin dish with olive oil spray (or if you are feeling indulgent you can grease it with butter) and set aside.

Wash the greens well, I typically run this procedure in a salad spinner by filling the spinner with water and dunking the greens in and out of the water, if the water starts to look murky dump it and refill it. Both Chard and Spinach have a way of clinging onto little pockets of dirt so make sure to agitate the greens as you dunk them in and out of the water. Drain them but don’t dry them.

Prepare a large ice bath and set it next to the stove (if possible.) Starting with 1/2 of the chard, place the greens in a large pot over high heat. Cook, covered, with just the water clinging to leaves, tossing occasionally with rubberized tongs, until wilted, about 4 to 6 minutes for the chard leaves. When the greens are just done cooking transition them immediately to your prepared ice bath to shock them – the shocking process will not only stop the cooking process but will brighten the greens color and prevent the greens from looking stodgy and muted. Repeat the process with the  spinach.

Once the greens have thoroughly cooled in the ice bath dump them into a large colander. Grab a fist sized bunch and squeeze it between your palms to extract as much water as possible. Place the well drained balls of greens on a cutting board and chop them coarsely.

Heat the oil in a large skillet or sautee pan. Add the chopped chard stems and sautee them over medium heat until soft. Add the greens and sautee or 2-3 minutes to remove any remaining moisture. The minute the spinach starts to stick to the pan add the milk 1/4 Cup at a time stirring until each addition is absorbed. Once all of the milk has been absorbed sprinkle the flour evenly over the greens and stir. Season with pepper and a bit of salt (the cheese will add additional saltiness as will the breadcrumbs so don’t go overboard.) You can also add a tiny pinch of nutmeg for a classic french “Je Ne Sais Quoi.” A tiny bit of Ras El Hanout would also lend some intrigue though you will need to be sure it meets your dietary requirements before adding it.

Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish and top with the bread crumbs, followed by the cheese. Top with a smattering of pepper flakes if using (if using Aleppo you can add about 1/2-1 tsp depending on how dominant you want for that flavor to be, other flakes may be stronger and you should use sparingly.) Place the dish in the center of the preheated oven and bake it until the spinach is steaming and the cheese and crumbs have browned slightly (this should take about 30 minutes.) Serve immediately.

Sweet Serendipity – Gluten-Free Ice Cream Sandwiches

Thanksgiving marks our first major holiday as a married couple. For the first time we will be holding court and hosting Thanksgiving dinner at our house in Tennessee. when it comes to cooking a Thanksgiving Feast, this ain’t my first rodeo. In fact, I would have to think long and hard to remember a time when I wasn’t involved in cooking the family’s holiday dinner. With only a single guest attending our holiday feast this year, this may just be the smallest crowd for whom I have prepared a Turkey day dinner. But, nonetheless, a softly humming worry has been creeping into my mind.

I fret that I have neglected some monumental detail in my meal plan, that the bird will never defrost, or that it will be done hours before the other dishes have come together. I worry that I will forget that the turkey needs to be brined, or that I will neglect to set a timer and my side dishes will burn to a crisp. I stress over thoughts that my cranberries will be impossibly tart, that the parsley will be acrid and bitter. The mind, when left to its own devices, has this amazing ability to wander off, beyond the edge of reason – instilling in us an irrational fear of the virtually impossible and entirely improbable events we are sure will befall us.

You see, ladies and gents, the Turkey wasn’t frozen to begin with. Cranberries are cranberries and will be sour when they want to be, it is part of their bitter-sweet charm. Like all dinner parties, the secret to success, lies, not in planning for the worst, or even for the best, but simply in the planning itself. Picking dishes, that can be made entirely or partially ahead takes the pressure off of the big event. This year we made a rosewater scented nougat the Monday before the event. Green vegetables can easily be blanched for casseroles a day or two before your scheduled feast. Vinaigrettes can likely be made a day in advance.

Know yourself and the way you work. Do you fret over a dry bird? Brining will give you some extra wiggle room between cooked and overcooked and will allow you to focus a bit of extra attention to the details of your side dishes. Do you wake up worrying over how you will get it all done on time? Print out all of your recipes and schedule the steps on an agenda. If any elements can be made in the days prior, note that and knock those out in advance. Check, double check, and triple check your ingredients list, physically crossing items off of your list as they make their way into your shopping cart so that nothing is overlooked or forgotten prior to check out. And if you are like me and feel short on air when you contemplate baking, have something stashed away in the event of an epic cake disaster. The recipe that follows for almond butter ice cream sandwiches may seem out of place in a thanksgiving post, but they are truly life savers in the event of a baking disaster. These little gems can be made a week or two in advance and are there to save the day if, in the heat of culinary battle, you accidentally mistake salt for sugar and your pie tastes like a salt lick. They also make a wonderful no worry dessert for impromptu guests, or for visitors with children.

The truth is, that aside from forgetting to post my pre-Thanksgiving post, the holiday went off without a hitch. Yes, the bird was done about an hour too early, and the sweet potato fries has not crisped in the oven quite the way I wanted them to. My cranberries were in fact a bit too tart, mais, C’est La Vie. I feel lucky that my my desserts turned out, period. I am sure that The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller could do better, but thankfully he wasn’t here to judge. And, just in case he happened to be in the neighborhood, I had an ace in the hole waiting on standby.

Almond Butter Chocolate Chip Ice Cream Sandwiches, Adapted from the Sprouted Kitchen Cookbook

Yield – 15 Sandwiches

113g (1/2 C) Unsalted Butter, At Room Temperature
62g (1/4 C) Turbinado Sugar
48g (1/4 C) Granulated Sugar
1 Large Egg, At Room Temperature
40g (2 TBSP) Light Corn Syrup
256g (1 C) Creamy Natural Almond Butter (Store Bought or Homemade)
160g (1 1/3 C) Oat Flour
1/2 TSP Baking Soda
1/2 TSP Sea Salt
127g Dark Chocolate Roughly Chopped
1 Pint of Your Favorite Vanilla Ice Cream


In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the oat flour, baking soda, and salt. Set aside until needed.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugars on medium speed until the mixture turns light and fluffy. Reduce the speed to medium low and add the egg, mix until incorporated. Scrape down the side of the bowl, add honey and the nut butter and mix again until well combined. Once again scrape the bowl after this addition.

Lower the speed to the lowest setting, add the dry ingredients, mixing until barely combined (only a few seconds.) With a spatula, fold in the chocolate chunks. Turn the dough out onto a piece of plastic film and wrap tightly. Chill the dough for at least 1 hour (this can be done a day in advance.)

Once the dough has chilled, preheat the oven to 350°. Line two cookie sheets with silpat mats or parchment paper. With a spoon or small ice cream scoop roll the cookies into 1.5 inch balls and place on the prepared cookie sheets. These don’t flatten too much so after placing the ball on the tray use your palm to flatten them slightly. Space the cookie dough discs out with at least 1.5 inches between them. Bake the cookies in the preheated oven for 8 to 10 minutes, rotating the sheets half way through to ensure the cookies bake evenly.

Once the cookies have baked transfer the silpat or parchment sheets to a wire rack to cool. Cool the cookies completely. Once chilled to room temperature transfer the cookies to the freezer for 20 minutes so that the ice cream, when added, wont melt.

At the 20 minute mark, remove the ice cream from the freezer and allow to soften for about 5 minutes. Using a small ice cream scoop, place rounds of ice cream on a cookie and sandwich with a similarly sized cookie pair. Place the cookies on a plate in the freezer to firm them up before wrapping them in waxed paper. The cookie parcels look particularly cute when tied with kitchen twine. These will keep in the freezer for up to one month, if they even last that long.

Caution – Curves Ahead – Allergy Free Carrot and Oat Muffins

In the last month so much has changed. After months of eating so well and yet feeling progressively worse, I was told that I have IBS and am likely having trouble digesting certain carbohydrates. This temporary fix of avoiding the ferment-able carbohydrates that have been wrecking havoc on my digestive system is simple enough on paper, but in actuality it involves avoiding many ingredients that I have long held near and dear. In a matter of weeks, I have gone from embracing essentially the entire world of whole and wonderful foods (in moderation of course) to working every cell of creativity in my brain to make something delicious and nourishing from of a very limited list of ingredients.

For the next two weeks I will be on the full-blown version of the Low Fodmap diet. Following that begins the challenge phase where small and then larger amounts of a specific type of carbohydrates can be added to see if they are the culprit responsible for irritating my poor tummy. For example, if large onslaughts of high fiber cereal, whole wheat pasta, breads, beets, and broccoli don’t make my stomach churn, it is safe to assume I don’t have problems with Fructans. If, however, a slice or 2 of bread lands me in pain, we can surmise that I do, in fact, have difficulty digesting Fructans and I can work to determine my threshold or tolerance for different Fructan containing foods.

To say that this has had an impact on my cooking would be a severe understatement. I realize now just how much I rely on handful of go to ingredients to build flavor in recipes. Without onions, garlic, or dairy, without the ability to combine nuts and fruits in the same meal, without bread, whole wheat and homey options are limited and I have to get pretty darn creative in order to produce wholesome meals for Dustin and I that comply with the “rules” of the low fodmap diet. Gluten-free recipes are a good place to start, especially for anything baking related. Low FODMAPers can also look to many paleo sites for ideas as there is substantial overlap between the ingredients not allowed in the two diets. I will caution that many Paleo baking recipes rely heavily on nut fours which, while technically allowed, can be a concentrated source of Galactans if eaten in large quantities. Also worth noting, paleo recipes typically incorporate agave and honey, both of which should be avoided on a Low FODMAP diet, maple syrup and regular sugar can be substituted, but, again, when combined with nut flours the recipe may in fact turn out an end product that is HIGH in FODMAPs.

This recipe was adapted from one I found in La Tartine Gourmande’s lovely cookbook. If you have not had a chance to peruse the book (or her fantastic blog) I highly recommend doing so. Her blog is full of sweet wistful recipes and beautiful photos and her book is a fantastic resource for anyone looking to reduce or avoid gluten sources in their diet. The original recipe called for apples, tahini, and muscovado sugar all of which I replaced with alternatives in my version. I am certain that the apples would be lovely and if you are not on a low FODMAP diet feel free to substitute these in equal amounts for the grated carrots listed below (the apples would also need to be grated.) As I am currently on the strictest part of the elimination diet I am working diligently to stick to the list of approved foods, I could not find information on Muscovado sugar so I substituted brown sugar for the Light Muscovado, again I am sure the Muscovado would work amazingly well but for the Low FODMAP dieters, light brown sugar is a safer bet.

As for why I use almond butter in my recipe instead of the tahini called for, it was simply what I had on hand. Even low Fodmappers should be safe to use the tahini paste called for provided that it is either home-made or there are no unapproved additives.  I recently whipped up a batch of almond butter in our Vitamix blender. If you have a vitamix and have never tried making your own nut butter it is so amazingly simple. Any nuts will work, I used almonds but feel free to experiment with whatever you have on hand, or create your own custom blend from a variety of different nuts. I highly suggest toasting/roasting and then slightly cooling the nuts before processing as it will result in a much richer flavor. Simply place about 2 cups of roasted/toasted nuts in the blender and turn the speed to variable 1. Slowly increase the speed, using the plunger to push the nuts down into the blades as you go, until you reach variable 10. Process until you come out with a smooth and creamy butter. If you like your nut butter on the chunky side pulse the nuts until they are fine but not paste-y and then remove some to stir back into the final product. You can also add some sea salt at the beginning of the process for a slightly saltier nut butter.

I list weights below in grams. If you don’t have a kitchen scale I have provided approximate measurements for the ingredients but I cannot recommend enough buying a scale, it is way more precise and conveniently negates the need to clean gooey sticky substances from the corners of all of your measuring cups after each baking procedure (and who likes more dishes?) I use an OXO scale with a pull out display that is available at Target stores. The pull out display is particularly nice when you are trying to measure ingredients onto a large plate or bowl that would otherwise tower over and completely cover the display.

Another handy feature of this scale is that the g/oz conversion button is on the top. My old kitchen scale had the switch on the bottom so to convert you would have to remove whatever you were weighing, press the button, and hope not to lose the weight you were measuring in the process by accidentally turning off the machine and clearing the display. I think there are two similar OXO models, both of which are carried by Target, one has a ~5lb max weight threshold and the other goes to ~11lb. I suggest pony-ing up a few extra bucks for the larger weight capacity as it makes it easier to put large/heavy items on the scale for measurement. This is particularly useful if you bake bread and have to measure 1 KG of flour, plus water into a large kitchen aid mixing bowl. With the lower capacity scale, it is quite easy to exceed the weight limit and they you have to set about using, and dirtying, separate bowls to weigh out your ingredients.

Allergy Free Carrot and Oat Muffins – Adapted, Slightly from La Tartine Gourmande’s Millet, Oat, and Apple Muffins

Yield – 10 Muffins

175g Coarsely Grated Carrots
2 Large Eggs at Room Temperature
80g (~1/2 C Packed) Light Brown Sugar
60 g (1/2 C) Millet Flour
30g (1/4 C) Quinoa Flour
50g (1/2 C) Thick Rolled Oats (Really, Any Kind are OK, Just Like the Toothsome Bite that Thicker Oats Bring to These)
Pinch of Sea Salt  (~ 1/8 TSP)
1 TSP Baking Powder
1/2 TSP Baking Soda
32g (2 TBSP) Almond Butter
50g (3 1/2 TBSP) Unsalted Butter, Melted and Slightly Cooled
1 TSP Pure Vanilla Extract

Preheat the oven to 350°. This recipe barely ekes out 10 standard (from a 12 muffin sheet pan) sized muffins. Gluten free muffins have a habit of sticking to paper muffin liners. I would advocate against using these if possible as you will likely end up losing a large portion of the muffin when you attempt to peel off the paper liner. Many gluten free bakers swear by using silicone muffin liners, I have not used them but imagine they would take care of the problem I just mentioned with the muffin batter adhering to the paper liners. I did not have silicone liners and could not find them anywhere so I sprayed the tins with organic canola oil spray and hoped for the best. For the Low FODMAP-ers out there, do not use baking spray as it has flour and other additives that may produce a reaction. Chose from the above listed options (spray, silicone liners, or paper liners) and prepare 10 out of the 12 muffin molds for filling. Set the tray aside.

Combine the eggs and sugar in the bowl of a large stand mixer (or, if you don’t have a standing mixer, place the eggs and sugar in a large bowl and grab and get an electric hand mixer suited up and at the ready – I would not really recommend doing this by hand with just a whisk, your arm may fall off and I cannot claim liability for lost limbs.) Get your stand mixer all fitted with the paddle attachment. Bring the machine up to medium speed, about a 5 on a kitchen-aid, and whisk until the mixture has significantly lightened in color and has at least doubled in volume. This should take a few minutes, so while it whisks away pull out a medium sized bowl and your handy kitchen scale (see note above) and measure out your dry ingredients. Whisk them together. Add the grated carrots and toss them with the flour, separating clumps of carrot shreds as you go until the carrots are evenly coated in the flour mixture.

Your egg/sugar mixture should be nice and fluffy at this point. Add the nut butter, melted butter, and vanilla and mix for another 30 seconds – one minute or until well combined. Scrape the bowl well and mix once more to ensure that all of the wet ingredients are well incorporated. Remove the mixer bowl from the stand and add the dry ingredients. Use a slightly flexible spatula and trace semi circles down and around the outside of the bowl folding gently towards the center as you go. You want to mix the ingredients without adding a lot of air or over mixing. As soon as there are no more visible clumps of dry ingredients in the mixture stop stirring and use a large spoon or ice-cream scoop to evenly distribute the batter into the 10 prepared muffin wells.

Sprinkle a few rolled oats onto the top of the muffins and place them in the center of the preheated oven. Bake for about 12 Minutes, rotate the pan so that the back is in the front and continue cooking for another 12-15 minutes. When the muffins are fully cooked (a toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean) remove them from the oven. Allow to cook for about 3 minutes before turning them out onto a wire cooling rack to cool. Enjoy the muffins as is or smear with your favorite spread (I recommend trying butter, peanut butter, and/or jam.)

Nutty Inspiration – Kale, Radish, and Bean Sautee with Nuts

In a world of so much variety it is still somehow easy to get stuck in a rut. Whether to save time or reduce the risk that comes from experimenting many of us have a certain leaning towards the familiar. To some extent, these likes and dislikes are what form the etchings of our identity. My certain love of vegetables, a penchant for puns and wordplay, my unending quest to develop and redevelop a methodology for composing the world’s most organized grocery list, a distinct urge to fill my closet with clothing in varying shades of grey and brown – these may be some of the things that come to mind when friends and family think of me.

These interests, likes, and dislikes piece together to form about a kindergarten level understanding of who we are. And its strange to think but we still so often rely on these identifiers to build bridges with new people. We may bond over a shared love of blues music, rock climbing, wood oven pizzas, vintage clothing, or old trucks and develop relationships with newcomers that largely revolve around these shared interests and activities. All of this is good and well, and really perfectly normal, but the problem is that as we change, and our likes and dislikes shift and morph and we evolve as individuals we experience a good deal of churn. There is often a turning over of acquaintances as we give up old hobbies and shed bits and bobs of our face value identity.

About 6 months ago Dustin and I stopped climbing. It was less of a conscious decision and more of a natural shift, we moved to a new house, took on new hobbies and found new athletic pursuits. And just like that our new identities formed adding new badges to our identities sort of “Brownie” style, an iron on patch for distance running, a sticker for gardening, pins for milestone achievements in weight lifting, a new sash for woodworking. These pursuits became our new topics of discussion, our new bonding points with passersby, something to talk about while standing in the grocery line or while waiting for a bench at the gym.

On the grand cosmic scheme of things, stopping climbing really changed nothing at all about Dustin and myself. We so quickly found new activities to fill our time, new ways to self identify, the old badges were put aside – maybe to be revisited, maybe not. But for larger, shape shifting changes these voids are not so easily filled. For all of my friends and family who have struggled to overcome addiction, to put the pieces back together after an illness, or job loss, who have suffered through depression – to pull through these crises of identity takes an enormous amount of soul searching. Pulling through each dreary day, each setback requires that you get real with yourself and search for that deeper kernel of identity that many never have the will or need to reach for.

This weeks dish is made up from some truly simple ingredients. The earthy radish, the humble bean, peasant greens and a scant smattering of nuts, cheese, and lemon pull together to create a nourishing meal. Lemon, Parmesan and garlic are flavors that I love, that can elevate even the humblest ingredient, and that bring me comfort. Like us, strong, basic ingredients need little embellishment to shine, at their core, simple, “whole” ingredients have the integrity to stand alone. This simple meal is a great staple to turn to for a rainy day. If you are willing to take on the time taking project of soaking, rinsing, cooking and rerinsing your own beans, I suggest you do yourself a favor and cook a double batch, the remaining beans can be frozen for a later use. Alternatively this dish can be made with cooked beans, I suggest buying the largest ones you can find, the giant limas are nice as they are about the same size as the halved radishes and make for a really attractive plate of food, but smaller white beans like navy, cannellini or even chickpeas would work well here.

Kale, Radish, and Giant Lima Sautee with Almonds

This dish was inspired by “Pan-Fried Corona Beans & Kale” from one of my all time favorite bloggers, Heidi Swenson, you can find the original here at 101cookbooks.com.
1 1/4 Cup Large Lima Beans (Dried) Soaked Overnight in Water
2 TBSP Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3 Cloves of Garlic, Minced
2 Bunches of Kale, Washed Well (about 400g) Stems Separated and Chopped Finely (1/2″ Segments), Leaves Chopped (1″ Pieces, Strips are OK.)
1/2 lb (226g) Radishes, Washed (May Need to Be Gently Scrubbed If Very Dirty) and Halved
1/4 Cup (about 30g) Walnuts, Chopped and Toasted
1/4 Cup (about 28g) Parmesan Cheese, Grated
Zest of One Lemon, Minced
2 TBSP Lemon Juice
Salt and Pepper to Taste

Start the recipe the night before (actually, for all of the advance planners out there – this step can be done 2 or 3 days before, in fact, you can easily double the amount of beans you prepare here and do your future-self a favor by freezing one half of the beans for later use.) Place the beans in a medium sized bowl and cover with about 6 cups of water. Cover the bowl with a towel (I typically slip a rubber band around the rim of the bowl to secure the towel lest any of our insect friends get curious about the bowls contents.) Leave the beans overnight to soak. Drain the beans and rinse well. Place in a saucepan  and cover with water, the beans should be covered by about 1 – 1 1/2 inch of water. Put the pot over medium high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the water to a simmer and cook for about 40-45 minutes or until just tender. Be careful not to overcook the beans or they will disintegrate when they are pan fried later. Drain the beans, rinse again and set aside to dry.

Once the beans have dried place a large (preferably non-stick) pan over medium high heat. Add the oil and heat till shimmering. Add beans to the heated oil and sautee, tossing every 2 minutes for about 6 minutes or until lightly golden, add the radishes and sautee for another 4-5 minutes, tossing regularly. Add the garlic and sautee another minute. Add the kale and sautee until just wilted. Remove the pan from the heat and add the walnuts, parmesan, and lemon (zest and juice.) Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed and serve.

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