After Hours: Summer Sampler

Kathy Biehl is the food writer for Diversion magazine and the longtime former dining critic for the Houston Business Journal. She has reviewed restaurants as well for the Houston Press, Time Out New York, My Table and the TONY guide Eating & Drinking 2000. Her food writing has received awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Houston Press Club. She is also the author of the LLRX.com Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, co-author of The Lawyer's Guide to Internet Research, and an attorney admitted to practice in Texas and New Jersey.

A summer breeze has me in its spell. Seals and Crofts are playing on my internal radio, my seasonal drink of choice is at my side (iced tea, brewed from Luzianne, whenever I can find it), and indolence is in the air. There’ll be time aplenty next month to return to thoughts of hearty eating. For now, set yourself up with your own refreshing beverage and join me in a breezy summer sampler.

Book It!

While I prefer to cook with organic ingredients, they are not always within my budget — or available where I shop. Addressing my plight is the mission of Fresh Choices by David Joachim and Rochelle Davis. Subtitled “More than 100 Easy Recipes for Pure Food When You Can’t Buy 100% Organic,” this Rodale Books release is more than a cookbook. It walks through eight major food groups, charts the comparative risks of pesticide contamination among items in each group (watermelon is lower than apples, cantaloupe, peaches and pears, for example) and suggests lower-risk alternatives for specific nutrients. The issues of genetically modified food receive substantial treatment, including recommendations for prepared products that are safer to buy if not genetically modified. The book also includes page after page of eco-friendly food sources, organized by chapter.

Product Alert

Thai Kitchen has introduced organic coconut milk in both a regular and lite version, which has less than one-half the fat. Both types are free of preservatives and additives and have a clean, rich taste.

I generally approach convenience foods with low expectations. My main goal, when I resort to them for non-research purposes, is usually only fighting off hunger, and fast. Not so with the three new product lines -- burgers, chili and Indian meals -- from Amy’s Kitchen. Any of these I choose to eat willingly, for their culinary merits. Ease and speed of preparation are only a bonus.

Amy’s organic veggie burgers come in four varieties with geographic names, and the differences in taste are as distinct as the personalities of the namesakes (which is to say, the flavor variations are more dramatic than most veggie burgers accomplish). The California Burger hints of vegetables and mushrooms, while the richness of cheddar pervades the Chicago Burger. The Texas Burger has a barbecue tang, whereas the All American Burger is hearty enough to stand up to a grill. All the burgers come frozen and more than acceptably survive microwaving.

Amy’s has also released canned organic vegetarian chilis that stand on their own as centerpiece of a light meal. Organic red beans are the mainstay of Spicy Chili, Medium Chili and Medium Chili with Vegetables, which have tingly Mexican-style sauces. (The first two also contain tofu with a texture that simulates ground meat.) Black Bean Chili provides the same seasonings with a different bean. The Mexican sauce works well with all the combinations. Yogurt took the heat off the spicy version for me (I may have lived in Texas most of my life, but my taste buds are still in training when it comes to hot peppers); sour cream would offset it nicely as well.

Best of all are Amy’s organic homestyle vegetarian Indian meals, which are based on recipes that the company’s owners had while visiting friends in that country. Mattar Paneer, curried peas and cubed white cheese, comes with spicy garbanzo beans and rice, while Palak Paneer (akin to creamed spinach, and also with cubed cheese) has rice and unforgettable ginger-garlic kidney beans. Both have a complexity of flavorings that I have never before encountered in a frozen dinner. In fact, the label “frozen dinner” seems inadequate. Also an injustice.

ã Kathy Biehl 2004