Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Multi-Layered Challenge--Overcoming Fears in the Kitchen

When I was growing up in Memphis, TN, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, no one I knew had a vegetable garden or even cooked with many fresh vegetables.

The exception being my mother—yes, my mother the non-cook—who couldn’t resist cooking up a “mess” of grocery-store turnip greens a couple of times a year. (This was a throwback to her childhood on a cotton farm in North Mississippi during The Depression, where everything she ate was local and organic).

Home gardening and local produce were so rare in my Memphis childhood; in fact,  it was an unspoken but definitely prevalent stereotype that people who grew their own food were either poor, or hillbillies. “City folk” which my mother became when she married my city-bred, white-collar father, shopped at the grocery for vegetables that came in cans or freezer bags.

Is it any wonder that I grew up having no clue about how to cook vegetables? And that I didn’t eat many of them for years because I didn’t like canned or frozen?

Fast forward to January 2006 (yes, that recently). I was in graduate school, and Chicago Man and I were on a months-long house sitting gig in Franklin, TN, so we had a huge kitchen and plenty of time on our hands.

I don’t remember exactly what prompted us, but we went on a vegan diet for about six weeks. We purchased a lot of organic fresh vegetables at Wild Oats (now Whole Foods), and I prepared them very simply, mostly sautéing and roasting, and we started losing weight naturally and feeling well. It was the first time I really connected good food with wellness, and processed food with ill health. Because prior to that, I had nothing to compare and contrast.

Then we moved my elderly mother to Middle Tennessee from Memphis, and for several months due to the hectic schedule, we went back to eating junk. Then May 2006 came, and the fledgling Franklin Farmer’s Market opened for the summer season. We went nearly every week even though it was an hour from our new home.

I experimented more and more with cooking fresh organic produce, but we still continued our dives into the cesspool of  junk and/or convenience foods.

Finally, in September 2009 I made the commitment to eat only fresh vegetables, organic when possible, and local when possible not only for our health but to support local farmers, and the environment. And not just veggies but meat, cheese, and eggs whenever possible. (We decided not to continue a vegan path at this time, but it's a possibility for the future).

The 2-hour round trip to Franklin got old quickly (and it’s not good for the environment), but fortunately in the past 12 months several new farmer’s markets have sprung up in Nashville. The one we most often go to is the West Nashville Farmer’s Market, operated by Good Food for Good People. And Yeah! This year they have a winter market in the old Tennessee Cheesecake factory on Alabama Street. It’s only about 20-25 minutes from our home.

This past Saturday, before a rare December snow set in, CM and I headed over to the market’s new digs to pick up a few items for the Dark Days Challenge. What we came away with was some tatsoi from Green Market Farm, and some Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese. (

I had tried tatsoi a few weeks earlier (see previous post at my other blog, and since we enjoyed it so much, and it’s so nutritious, I was eager to try it again.

The Kenny’s Cheese I purchased was Norwood, which their brochure describes as “Our version of Gruyere. It has a nutty, slightly sweet taste with complex musty and mushrooms notes.”

I describe it as yummy!

Kenny’s is just across the state line in Kentucky, and is a real asset to the greater Nashville area, being one of the few artisanal cheese makers in this region.

I decided to combine these two ingredients into a dish adapted from Ezra Pound Cake ( The keeper of Ezra Pound Cake, Rebecca Crump, also happens to be from Nashville and I’d love to have coffee and visit with her one day.

Rebecca’s recipe is titled, Baked Ziti with Spinach and Gorgonzola; mine is re-titled Baked Brown Rice Ziti with Tatsoi and Kenny’s Norwood Cheese.

To make this recipe, I had to make a Classic Bechamel Sauce. I have never made a Bechamel Sauce before for two reasons: 1) my perception that it’s too fattening, and 2) I was too scared to try to make it.

So, this challenge became a multi-layered challenge for me, not only to use local food but to overcome my cooking fears and fears of eating “fattening”, i.e., rich, food.

We ate this for lunch on a cold, snowy day and it was simply delicious and comforting, with the added comfort of knowing that the tatsoi added some nutrition and fiber. The finished dish reminded me of my grandmother’s macaroni and cheese in that the sauce/cheese combo kind of makes a baked custard. I think the Kenny’s cheese added a layer of nutty flavor, depth, and richness that I would not have achieved with “grocery store cheese”.

We had some leftover so I had some for breakfast this morning, and then went for a run in the 26 degree weather. It was the best run I’ve had in months. Maybe this dish takes carb loading to a new level, and using it as running fuel alleviates any lingering "fat fears".

 Chopped tatsoi--it's so pretty--all purply and spring green-ish. Oh, and it turned some of the pasta purple!

The finished dish, in all its creamy deliciousness

My first Bechamel sauce; I feel like the proud parent of an overachieving child!

2 ½ tablespoons of unsalted butter

2 cups Classic Bechamel Sauce (recipe to follow)

4 ounces of Kenny’s Norwood cheese, grated (or same amount of Gorgonzola or any other white cheese)

1 pound of tatsoi (tatsoi cooks down like spinach, but is more dense and chewy than spinach and has a slight bitter taste that I think enhances the dish).

1 medium onion, minced (I omitted this ingredient since CM and I are unable to eat onions—wah! Just had to say that.)


Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste

1 pound of ziti (I used gluten-free brown rice ziti from Trader Joe’s. I sometimes feel guilty about shopping at Trader Joe’s because it could hardly be called local; however, they have absolutely hands-down the best gluten-free brown rice pasta I’ve ever tasted. It makes all the difference to use a gluten-free pasta that is not gummy when cooked.)

¼ cup freshly grated Romano (or other Italian cheese)

Grease a 9x13 baking dish with butter, preheat oven to 375 degrees, and prepare pasta.

Wash, lightly dry, and chop the tatsoi, then set aside.

Into a large bowl (that will eventually hold the pasta and greens), pour the hot Bechamel and then add the Kenny’s cheese.

Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter in a deep pan, and add onion if using. Saute the onion over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until translucent. Stir in the tatsoi and add salt to taste. Cook until tatsoi has “cooked down”, around 5 minutes.

Add the tatsoi mixture to the bowl with the Bechamel and cheese and stir.

Add nutmeg to taste, and more salt to taste if necessary.

Stir in the cooked pasta and toss to coat.

Transfer the mixture to the greased baking dish and sprinkle the Romano (or other Italian) cheese on top.

Bake in the 375 degree oven for about 25 minutes. Stir a couple of times to ensure that the pasta has absorbed the liquid. The mixture will begin to turn brown on the top when it is ready.

Recipe for Classic Bechamel Sauce from Rebecca of

3 cups of whole milk (I used 2% because that’s all we buy at our house)

¾ stick (6 tablespoons) of unsalted butter

4 ½ tablespoons of unbleached all-purpose flour (I used the exact same amount of Betty Crocker gluten-free baking mix and it worked perfectly. I know, I know…it’s a convenience food, and definitely not local. More on that for another post).

½ teaspoon of salt, or to taste

In a small saucepan heat the milk till scalded (not boiling). This is always the part that scared me—I just had to rely on my intuition as to when it was hot enough, but not too hot. I find cooking on an electric stove challenging to begin with, but it will have to do until we move into our new home.

In a separate saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When butter is foamy, whisk in the flour. Do not let the flour brown.

Add the milk in small amounts and continue whisking until you have added all the milk.

Add salt and stir over medium-low heat until the consistency of heavy cream, 3-5 minutes. Use immediately, or store up to two days in the refrigerator.

This sauce came out perfectly, even using the GF baking mix! Woohoo!

What’s your favorite local dish? Are you challenged by fears in the kitchen? I invite you to share your local food journey, your experiences overcoming cooking fears, or whatever else strikes your fancy!

No comments:

Post a Comment