Saturday, December 31, 2011

Stuffed Collard Greens

"The past is never dead. It's not even past." - William Faulkner

This time of year, I am often overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia. When the very first Christmas Carol falls on my ear, I immediately call to mind fond memories of North Mississippi, the place of myth and mystery that William Faulkner immortalized in his writing. I think on the celebrations, traditions, and superstitions that characterized the holidays in my childhood home.

The New Year's holiday is popularly associated with a number of age-old superstitions. My house was no exception. First of all, my mom would absolutely insist that Christmas decorations (i.e. the tree and outdoor lights) be taken down immediately after Christmas to properly set the stage for the new year. I can hear her now, "If you don't take 'em down befo' the new year, might'a well leave 'em up all year. " Then, she would never wash clothes on the last Friday on the year because, according to superstition, she could accidentally wash someone out of the family (i.e. cause a death in the family). We didn't particularly believe in this one, but no one wants to be blamed for someone's death, especially in a family as large as ours. New Year's Eve was always spent at Watch Night Service, which is associated with the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of slavery. And, on New Year's Day, a man had to be the first person to enter the house and we always ate black-eyed peas, both for good luck. As a rural household, we also had an open door policy and family and friends would stop by, unannounced, all day long for well wishes in the new year. I have faltered on keeping most of these traditions alive. However, as a foodie, I figured the New Year's superstitions were the perfect excuse for me to eat black-eyed peas and collard greens.

I didn't want traditional southern style black-eyed peas and collard greens, though. I was in the mood for something special. I thought about making gumbo, but I wasn't feeling quite up to making a roux. I also thought about a rice dish (a la jambalaya and jollof rice), but I wanted something more. Then, it hit me to make stuffed collard greens. I thought it would be a novel idea, but a quick google search revealed numerous recipes. My recipe is still very different from all of them. The ingredients are mostly southern, but the addition of coconut milk (and lack of smoke flavor) in the rice gives the dish a more international flavor profile.

The technique of stuffing leaves most likely originates in the Mediterranean region, and I benefited from this step-by-step tutorial for making stuffed grape leaves. This recipe is rather labor intensive and requires a good deal of time and patience.

Black-Eyed Pea and Okra Recipe (inspired by Sarina's recipe for Ochro Rice)

3 cups coconut milk
1 cup boiling water
12 okra, chopped into small pieces
1 red onion, coarsely chopped
4 tbsp tomato ketchup
2 tsp Italian seasoning
1 vegetable bouillon cube
1 lb Trader Joe's Basmati Rice Medley
1/4 cup butter, diced
1 cup frozen black-eyed peas
1 teaspoon of hamburger relish

1. Preheat oven to 350°F
2. Combine coconut milk, bouillon cube, water, onions, ketchup, Italian seasoning, hamburger relish and pulse until chunky.
3. Combine mixture in a greased 3-quart casserole dish with okra, black-eyed peas, rice, and butter.
4. Cover tightly (either with lid or aluminum foil) and bake for 1 hour, or until all liquid has been absorbed.
5. Fluff to serve.

Spicy Sweet Potato Sauce

2 cups sweet potato, peeled and diced into small cubes
1/2 cup salsa
1/4 cup Mr. Wonderful's Wonderful Island Hot Sauce*
2 tsp grapefruit juice
1/4 t. allspice
dash of ground ginger
salt, to taste

1. Begin by boiling the sweet potatoes in a pot until soft and tender. Allow to cool for 5 to 10 minutes.
2. Combine ingredients in a blender of food processor and process until smooth and creamy.

Note: Due to the potency of my original sauce, I added 1/2 cup apple juice and 2 tbsp of white wine vinegar to counterbalance the spiciness of the sauce.

* I picked this sauce up while on vacation in St. John, USVI. I underestimated it's potency. Simply substitute your favorite hot sauce.

Stuffed Collard Greens

Roughly 1/2 lb Black-Eyed Pea and Okra Rice
Spicy Sweet Potato Sauce
1 bunch of collard greens
Trader Joe's Chicken-Less Strips

1. Preheat oven to 375°F
2. Cook the chicken-less strips according to package directions.
3. Wash the collard leaves and trim steams along the bottom surface of the collards. For visual aid, see Susan's technique on the Fat Free Vegan Kitchen.
4. Blanch the collard greens, 6 at a time, in a large pot for about 6 minutes.
5. Cool the collard greens in a cold water bath to stop the cooking process.
6. Working with one green at a time, squeeze excess liquid from the green and lay flat on a clean surface, trimmed side up and stem closest to you.
7. Place the Spicy Sweet Potato Sauce in a 3-quart casserole dish
8. To assemble stuffed greens, scoop approximately 1/4 cup of black-eyed pea and okra rice onto the base of the collard green (for smaller leaves, use less). Add two pieces of the chicken-less strips. Roll the leaf, starting at the stem end and first roll up to encase the rice stuffing. Tuck the stem end under the stuffing. Then, fold over the leaf on both the right and leaf sides. Roll up tight. Place in prepared casserole dish. Repeat with remaining collard greens.
9. Bake the rolls, covered, in the middle of the preheated oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling and the rolls are cooked through.
10. Serve the stuffed collard green on a plate with the spicy sweet potato sauce.

Note: My stuffed collard greens turned out to be extremely spicy so I ate them with yogurt. I will likely purchase some mint today to make a bona fide yogurt sauce.

Friday, December 30, 2011

20,000 Grams of Sugar on my Stomach Wall

I'm BACK!!!

I last posted at the beginning of the year and I have finally returned now that the year is coming to a close. By no means was this intentional. I just happened to have an extremely busy year. In the past 12 months, I graduated from my MPH program, completed a fellowship, moved to a new city, and started a new job. The smoke is finally starting to clear and I'm back, with nutrition on my mind.

I purport to live a relatively healthy life. I'm pescetarian. I eat fruits and vegetables. I am fairly active. I don't drink sodas. I shop at stores like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods that tend to stock healthier food options. I hardly ever eat candy or fast food. I cook most of my meals at home. That's all great, some people would say, but what about nutrient intake?

Now that I have a community nutrition job, I have been spending lots of time thinking about micronutrients and the USDA's new MyPlate diet diagram. First of all, I realize I need to eat even more fruits and vegetables. In fact, half of your plate at every meal should be fruits and vegetables, and I'm working hard to accomplish that. I've been eating string cheese with my meals to achieve the recommended dairy intake. I am also reading nutrition labels with a new level of understanding and scrutiny. In the past, I might have seen a food item with 15 grams of sugar and thought nothing of it since I wasn't making the appropriate conversions. After learning that 4 grams is equal to 1 teaspoon, I am royally freaking out. I'm losing all my epicurean delights in the name of nutrition. Just last night, I polished off the last bottle of hard cider--a personal favorite--from a 6 pack I purchased. I glanced at the nutrition label as I was taking the last sip and realized it contained 16 grams of sugar. Really??? I just drank 4 TEASPOONS of sugar? No thanks! This morning, I realized one serving of my favorite cereals--Kashi Go Lean Honey Almond Crunch and Cracklin' Oat Bran--both have roughly 3 teaspoons of sugar. Hmmm, not exactly comforting. As a rare treat, I had a Sonic Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Blast last week. I looked up the nutrition information and it has about 54 grams of sugar if I remember correctly. That's about 13 teaspoons of sugar.

The way I see it, what's for me is for me. I don't expect everyone to share my concerns. I know my body and I know I have to eat extra carefully in order to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. I am well equipped to handle changes (and some people are complacent aren't) and I am already revamping my diet plan. I recently lost 10 - 12 pounds and I want to keep the momentum going!

How exactly do you measure up? Is your daily food intake in line with the USDA's MyPlate recommendations? Are you satisfied with your intake of sodium and sugar?

Photo Retrieved at: