After completing the daunting and exhilarating March Daring Bakers Challenge, my first reaction was not to wipe my brow of the sweat of standing over a bubbling pot of ragu for hours, or massage my poor arms after vigorous kneading and rolling of pasta dough. My first reaction was to stare dumbly at the vivid spring green of my lasagne layers and think “Wow, what a beautiful color.”
Just as fashion magazines are shedding dark neutrals for pops of bright color, so too is the cooking world coming alive with new spring color, which adds visual and edible appeal to our kitchens.
Sure, I can toss a box of dried pasta in some boiling water on a Tuesday night, but, while the water boils and the pasta cooks, I can toss together a colorful sauce of diced beets, roots and greens, swirling their magenta-pink into a touch of cream cheese. Or I can sauté up a medley of broccoli, red peppers, carrots, and fresh ginger to make a stunning stir fry.
Brown and tan foods, like chocolate or roasted meat, may take center stage much of the time, but a pop of bright color can bring a dish to a whole new level. And it is not just a visual adornment. Each color brings a different note to the flavor of a dish. Bright green foods, like kale or broccoli, bring a virtuous freshness to a dish. Remember your mother telling you to eat your greens? They taste so healthy and alive, how could they not be good for you.
Reds bring the pop, the burst of sweetness, and sometimes pungency, which rises above the base notes of sauce and starch and protein. Strawberries topping a pound cake make a dessert taste fresh, while red peppers in stir-fry add sweetness and heat. Orange brings a mellow, soft sweetness, the earthy sensation of carrots in a tomato sauce, or a slice of musk melon on a hot day. Yellow is often a surprise, but speaks to the slightly tart bite of a ripe starfruit, or the mild sweetness of summer squash. And, the pale green-white of leeks and celery bring an aromatic cloud to your whole house, while the deep, dark sweetness of purple beets and blackberries sink your taste buds into the experience of your meal.
Color brings life to a meal, just as it brings life to a room or a painting. And while I could talk about the nutritive value of these bright fruits and vegetables, I find no joy in reducing food to its component chemicals. As Michael Pollan explains in his book In Defense of Food, “nutrition” has ruined eating. Food is an experience of the whole, not a vehicle for phytochemicals, micronutrients, and minerals. When you add nutrition to the picture, you start to take the color out. You might be able to subsist on the right balance of chemicals, derived and doled out in powder, pill, shake, or bar form. But who would want to?
Wouldn’t you rather bite into a ripe, juicy strawberry than pop a pill with a measured amount of vitamin A? Or drink a glass of red wine, or rich purple grape juice, rather than pop an antioxidant supplement? Supplement your diet with colorful foods, and you stand to gain more than good health; you gain joy. Anyway, the advice to eat your fruits and vegetables is so boring when doctors could be telling us to eat all the colors of the rainbow.
And vibrant colors do not only come from fruits and vegetables. They can come from fresh, whole, animal foods, too. Crack open an egg from a case of generic-brand supermarket eggs. Now, crack open an egg from a local farm, from a chicken that has been raised outside of a cage, who is mourned in earnest when a local dog might wander into the wrong yard, as happened to the farmers from whom I used to get a box of fruits, vegetables, and eggs each week. The local egg may have a dull brown shell, or speckles, far from the pristine whiteness of factory eggs, but the yolk will be a vibrant yellow-orange, or even just orange, next to the pallid straw color of the supermarket egg.
Or try making your own butter from organic cream. Slathered on home-baked bread, it glows in its golden glory, a fitting crown for a hard-working baker’s efforts. Top that with an amber drizzle of wildflower honey for a delicious treat.
Of course, fresh, vibrant foods may take a little more effort to procure sometimes. It’s sometimes next to impossible to get a decent cart full of beautiful vegetables and fruits at your local supermarket. And homemade butter takes more effort that ripping open a cardboard box. But part of the joy of vibrant food is the satisfaction that comes from shopping a local farmer’s market, or even tending your own garden. And don’t underestimate the potential of butter-making as an activity for your kids. Or even for enthusiastic adults.
I spent a wonderful afternoon making butter with my grandmother, just a year or two ago. She reminisced about her rural childhood, while we shook our jars and separated out the buttermilk. That was as much reward for our labors as the rich, yellow butter that we spread over soft, homemade biscuits later that day.
Rainbow Rice Noodles
This vibrant stir-fry comes together quickly in a large wok or skillet. You can use marinated tofu in place of the shrimp and eggs, and agave nectar in place of the honey for a vegan version. It’s also easily adaptable to a gluten-free diet. For those who don’t like shrimp, try using Chinese barbecue pork slices (char siu), or thinly sliced beef.
1-3 Tbsp. light-flavored oil, like canola
8 oz. medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 fresh eggs
1 red bell pepper, sliced into thin sticks
1 hot pepper, seeded (if desired) and sliced
1 carrot, julienned
1 rib of celery, sliced thin
1 bunch of spring onions, sliced
½ bunch of kale, ribs removed, sliced into strips
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1” piece of ginger root, grated
6 oz. rice noodles, soaked in cold water for one hour
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
1-2 Tbsp. water
1 tsp. rice vinegar
1 tsp. curry powder
1.) First, set out all your ingredients on the counter next to the stove. Beat the eggs lightly with a fork.
Stir together the last four ingredients to form a sauce.
2.) Heat 1/3 of the oil in the wok over medium-high heat until it ripples and shimmers slightly. Add the
shrimp and cook until nearly cooked through. Watch them blush and curl up. Remove and set aside.
3.) Add a little more oil and the eggs, scrambling and turning until set. Remove and set aside. Toss a
little water into the hot pan, and scrape to remove egg bits. Scrape, swirl, and toss. Return the pan to
4.) Add a little more oil and then the spring onion, garlic, and ginger. Fry until they become fragrant (15-
30 seconds) and then add the peppers, celery, and carrots. Stir-fry for a minute, until they start to
soften, and add the kale. Cook until the kale starts to wilt. Remove and set aside.
5.) Add the noodles and toss until they start to soften. Add the sauce, and cook until the noodles become
soft and tangled, probably about a minute. If the sauce evaporates too quickly, add a little more water
to soften the noodles.
6.) Add everything else back into the pan, and toss to combine. Heat until everything is sizzling again, and
serve immediately. 2 servings.
This is the perfect accessory for the fruits of your baking labor. Don’t forget to have fun.
1 cup of heavy cream
Equipment: 1 2-cup jar with tight-fitting lid, a bowl, and a spatula
Pour the cream into a jar and seal on the lid. Shake it like mad. First, the cream will thicken, forming thick whipped cream. If you keep shaking, eventually, the whipped cream will split, and yellow fat will separate from thin, white buttermilk. When it’s split pretty well, you can open the jar and pour off the buttermilk (save it for quick breads) and massage the forming butter to remove as much liquid as possible. When all the liquid has been removed, you can beat in salt, if you want, and either form it into a log or press it into a butter mold. It keeps for at least a week, wrapped, in the fridge. Makes about ½ cup of butter (equivalent of a stick).