Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday food, Part 2

I hoped to have my Christmas dinner menu planned out weeks ago, but I only finalized it yesterday. After many lists, several runs to several grocery stores, and way too much time spent watching the Food Network, here's what I will be serving tomorrow:

Pear and Pomegranate Salad with Gorgonzola and Champagne Vinaigrette (from Guy Fieri)

Brined Pork Loin with Molasses-Mustard Glaze (from Bobby Flay)

Brussels Sprouts with Lemon, Mushrooms, and Parmesan Cheese

Good ole' mashed potatoes (no fancy recipe here...just some yukon golds mixed with lots of butter and salt)

Wish me luck! The pork loin looks like it will be challenging, but with almost 40 people giving it 5 stars, and my favorite celebrity chef as the mastermind, I feel like I can't go wrong.

Happy Holidays, Everyone!! Hoping nothing gets burnt, and a good time is had by all.

XOXOXOXO

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Holiday food, Part 1 (Christmas Eve Crab Dip)



Now that the majority of my shopping is finished, and the decorations hung, I get to turn my attention to one of my favorite things about the holidays: food, of course.

I've been known to break the cardinal rule about cooking for the holidays, which is "cook what you know." Instead, I like to use the holidays as a time to experiment a little--usually with fancy cuts of meat or dishes that require long cooking times; things that I wouldn't bother attempting if it weren't a special occasion. Since my holiday guests are my husband, my kids, and my parents, I have a pretty forgiving audience if one of my experiments flops.

Last year I attempted short ribs for the main meal, and while they weren't bad, they weren't amazing either. This year, I'm still up in the air about what I will serve for the main course. But one thing I am absolutely sure about is that my Christmas Eve jalapeno crab dip will be in the oven the night before. OK, so it's not really mine...it's Emeril's. But I've made it so often it feels like mine.

Since this dip is pretty decadent, and pretty expensive to make (especially if you buy lump crabmeat from the seafood counter instead of the canned fish aisle), I only make this on Christmas Eve, which just adds to the specialness. The thing that's a bummer is that my daughter can't eat it, so eventually I'm going to have to come up with a new Christmas Eve tradition that's dairy- and shellfish-free. But for as long as she's perfectly happy with a candy cane and a gingerbread cookie, I will continue serving up this cheesy, spicy deliciousness.


Hot Jalapeno Crab Dip (adapted from Emeril Lagasse, and The Food Network)

Ingredients

1 pound lump crabmeat, picked over for shells and cartilage
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/2 cup chopped pickled jalapenos
1/4 pound Monterey Jack cheese with jalapenos, grated
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon hot sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
Crusty bread

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Combine the crabmeat, garlic, jalapenos, Monterey Jack, Worcestershire, hot sauce, salt, and mayonnaise in a medium-size mixing bowl. Toss gently to mix. Spoon the mixture into a medium-size baking dish. Sprinkle the parmesan cheese evenly on the top of the crabmeat mixture. Bake until golden brown and bubbly, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and let sit for about 5 minutes. Serve atop slices of fresh, crusty bread.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A great gift to give or receive

If you're stumped about what to give for Christmas, or what to put on your own wish list, I have an idea for you: a quality chef's knife.

I got one for my birthday last year, and it really changed the way I approached cooking. Suddenly chopping vegetables was fun instead of tedious. Gone were the days of sawing and hacking my way through meal preparations; now my knife was gliding through onions, peppers, and potatoes with a satisfying whoosh and a crunch. I still could use some help with my technique (and I hear there are great classes available to help with that), but I'm no longer shying away from recipes that require a lot of chopping.

One of the reasons it took me so long to get a great knife was that I felt I would need to invest in a whole chopping block of cutlery. But most great cooks and chefs will tell you that you don't need a whole arsenal of knives - only one great chef's knife, and perhaps a few specialty knives such as a paring knife or serrated bread knife.

A great chef's knife will cost around $100, maybe a little less or a little more. The one I have is a Global 8" chef's knife, and I love it. Any food store like Williams-Sonoma or Sur la Table will have a good selection. It makes a great gift because it's something anyone who likes to cook will appreciate, but most will hesitate to spend money on it for themselves. And it's a worthwhile investment because it should last forever if properly cared for.

Happy chopping everyone!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

My favorite "I really need some greens" salad



I recently had the good fortune of traveling to Costa Rica for a friend's wedding (which is why I've been so neglectful of my poor blog). It was an amazing trip, but I don't think I ate a vegetable for five days, unless you count salsa. Between snickers bars at the airport, breakfast croissants heaped with cheese, bacon and eggs, and mountain-sized piles of rice, beans, and chicken, I wasn't exactly doing my best to eat healthy, well-rounded meals. Hey - that's what vacation's about, right?

So when I returned home, I found myself craving a giant bowl of greens. Enter my favorite salad: the arugula & spinach cobb salad. I love this salad because it contains good healthy greens (arugula and spinach vs. iceberg), as well as some decadent ingredients (bacon and avocado) that make it feel like a meal instead of a side dish. It's a good way to detox from decadent eating without getting too crazy on the healthy stuff.

This cobb salad can take on different forms, depending on what you have on hand. Here is a breakdown of what a typical "I really need some greens" cobb salad consists of:

Must haves:

Lots of baby arugula
Bacon, cooked well-done and crumbled.
Chopped avocado
Chopped hard-boiled eggs

Might haves:

Chopped tomato
Baby spinach
Sliced red onion
Meat/seafood such as turkey, chicken or shrimp

Dressing:

Some champagne vinegar
A few squeezes of fresh lemon juice
A healthy teaspoon of dijon (I always use Grey Poupon)
Some sprinkles of salt
Some dashes of pepper
Good olive oil

*I believe the correct ratio is 1 part vinegar to 2 parts EVOO. Whisk it all together and adjust ingredients to taste. It's OK if it tastes pretty tart - it just means you'll need less of it.

After eating this salad, I feel ready to face the world, and the gym, again. With Christmas approaching, I plan to fit this salad into heavy rotation over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sunday supper: Pasta e fagioli

For some people, "Sunday suppers" are big affairs...lots of boisterous family conversation, potluck dishes lining lace tablecloths in grandparents' houses, and old family recipes being prepared lovingly for the thousandth time.

I admit I love the idea of a traditional Sunday dinner. But since there are only four of us in our house, and most of our relatives are a 5-hour plane ride away, I can't muster up the energy to make it a big thing. Instead I've come up with a new take on Sunday supper. I call it Sunday Supper Soup.

I'm not talking about cracking open a can of Campbell's chicken noodle. I'm talking about a made-from-scratch, simmering-on-the-stove-for-hours, seasoning-and-tasting-until-it's-just-right kind of soup. There's just something about Sunday afternoons that inspires that kind of cooking; especially now that the weather has cooled down.

Last Sunday, I was really excited to try out a recipe for Pasta e Fagioli that I found on The Foodinista's website. When I saw it was her father's recipe and required a lot of pureeing, seasoning, and tasting, I knew it would be perfect for Sunday Supper Soup.

I did spend quite a bit of time laboring over this soup. It requires some TLC, not because the recipe is difficult but because there are a few different steps; it's not the kind of soup that just requires you to dump a bunch of stuff into a pot and bring it to a boil (although those can be great too). The thing is, the TLC pays off. This soup tastes rich and nourishing in a way that none of those "throw stuff in a pot" soups can. My husband actually declared it to be one of the best things I've ever made. And I've made a lot of great stuff, let me tell you.

I've never made pasta e fagioli before, so I can't compare this recipe to any others. But I really can't imagine finding a better one. I do agree with The Foodinista that it can get a little thick, but adding a little more broth or water will fix that right up. And, of course, like any quality soup, this needs to be served alongside a big chunk of crusty bread.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Better late than never

For years I've been reading article after article, blog post after blog post, tip after tip about meal planning. It's the best way to save money! It will eliminate stress from your life! You won't yell at your kids as much during dinner time! It will make you thinner, richer, and more beautiful! (well, maybe not that last one, although it makes a skewed kind of sense if you think about it).

Anyway, the point is that meal planning is heavily touted. And for good reason - if you plan out a week's worth of meals, go shopping for all the ingredients you need, and prepare as much as you can ahead of time, you won't have to drive yourself crazy figuring out what to make for dinner, or make last-minute grocery runs at 5:00 when everyone else in their mother is at the store.

Despite completely agreeing with the logic behind meal planning, however, I can never bring myself to do it. What scares me away is that big chunk of time I need to dedicate to planning the meals, writing out the super-long grocery list, and making one big grocery trip. I do have an excuse in that I rarely get the chance to go to the store alone, and buying more than 15 things with the girls in tow causes me endless stress, which would negate the positive effects of meal planning.

So what I've decided to do is meal planning lite. Instead of planning 5 nights worth of dinners, I will plan two fairly nice, elaborate dinners each week (ideally things that can be reheated and eaten as leftovers), and then fly by the seat of my pants for the rest of the nights.

This week I am planning ahead to make Pasta e Fagioli (courtesy of The Foodinista), and Salmon with Lentils.  To prepare, I've pre-chopped all of the ingredients and put them into bowls. Then when it comes time to cook, I can simply dump the ingredients into the saute pan or pot instead of frantically chopping my onion while the garlic burns in the pan.

I feel less stressed already...and I bet by the end of the week my crow's feet will have diminished substantially.

PS - I'll post the results of my two experimental dishes to let you know how they turned out.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Soup to stave off the sickies


As I walked into Whole Foods, filled with self-pity for all the sniffling, sneezing, and phlegm-expelling I'd been doing over the last week, a little pamphlet by the front door caught my eye. I saw the words "COLD, "FLU," then..."Better Than Chicken Soup!" I immediately grabbed the pamphlet and flipped through it--praying for a recipe or a remedy that would help me out. 

Given the sorry state of my health at the time, if they had recommended boiling crocodile chunks and pureeing them with liverwurst I probably would have tried it. But the recipe for a comforting, semi-spicy miso broth soup made from a variety of immunity-boosting ingredients actually sounded good. I grabbed all of the ingredients I needed and headed home to whip up a giant pot of the stuff. Wow, was it good. It wasn't good in the same decadent way that buffalo chicken dip with Tostitos scoops is good. It was good in that homey, nourishing, delicious, "I know this is really good for me, but it actually tastes great too" way. I don't even like two of the ingredients (butternut squash and kale), but I liked them in this soup.

Here's the recipe (courtesy of Whole Foods):

1 small yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, sliced
4 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth (I used chicken)
1 tsp ground turmeric
8 fresh shitake mushrooms, sliced
1 1/2 cups julienned fresh kale
1 cup cubed butternut squash
2 tbsp grated fresh ginger
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)*
6 thin slices astragalus root (optional)**
Juice of 1 fresh lemon
1 tsp miso paste

*Instead of cayenne pepper, I used a few squirts of sriracha, an Asian hot sauce that looks like this:

**I had no idea what astragalus root was, and neither did the guy working in the Whole Foods produce section, so I left it out. 

In a large pot over medium-high heat, cook onion and garlic in 2 tbsp broth, stirring occasionally, until tender and most of the broth has evaporated, about 3 minutes. Add a splash of broth if needed to keep onion from sticking, then stir in turmeric and mushrooms and cook until mushrooms are tender, 2 to 4 minutes. Stir in remaining broth, kale, squash, ginger, cayenne and astragalus. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer until squash is tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool slightly, then add lemon juice and miso (adding more miso when still very hot will diminish it's probiotic benefits). Cover and let sit 5 minutes before serving.



I was so excited when this soup turned out great. It's the type of soup I can imagine making over and over again throughout the years. I can picture my kids away at college in 15 years, telling their roommates "My mom made this AMAZING soup whenever we were sick, and it made us feel a million times better. It was like magic!" 

I should point out, this soup is actually intended to prevent illness, rather than cure it. So even if you're feeling great, you might want to start eating some so you can keep feeling that way. 

Wishing everyone a healthy flu season!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Football food




Despite my husband's best attempts to get me interested in football, I really could not care less about the sport. What I do like, however, is football food. I can't pinpoint exactly what makes a food a football food, but I'm sure you know what I'm talking about...something with a lot of flavor, a healthy amount of fat, that pairs well with beer, and begs to be eaten either outside at a tailgate party or in the company of loud men pumping their fists at the TV screen.

If you're a football fan, or simply love the atmosphere of football, then I have some recipes for you. Unfortunately they're not mine, but they are two of the greatest recipes I've made over the last few years. These are recipes that you print out and laminate for safekeeping. And keep extra copies in your purse because everyone who tastes these dishes will want to know how to make them.

#1: Buffalo Chicken Dip (click for recipe)

This recipe was passed along to me by my good friend Ange. She brought it to a potluck BBQ and everyone stood over the dish like vultures until it was gone. I then took it to a New Year's Eve party, where everyone stood over the dish like vultures until it was gone. This is seriously one of the best things I've ever eaten in my life. And one of the most fattening. So I highly recommend making it for a group function - to be left alone with an entire 9x13 pan of this stuff will surely spell disaster.

The recipe in the link is almost identical to the one Ange sent me except hers called for a full cup of Frank's hot sauce and two cups of cheddar. I also recommend using freshly cooked chicken breast or rotisserie chicken vs. the canned stuff.

And finally, it should definitely be served with Tostitos scoops instead of crackers.

#2: Sloppy Bombay Joes (click for recipe)

If you watched The Next Food Network Star this past season, then you know who Aarti Sequeira is and what her food is about. For those who didn't watch, Aarti is an Indian gal who puts an Indian spin on classic American dishes. I've only made one of her recipes so far, but it is by far the best thing I've made in a while. I knew it had to be after I saw it received a 5 star rating with 571 reviews on the food network site. Originally I wasn't even going to post about it since everyone and their brother already has; but since it was so delicious, I had to jump on the bandwagon and give it its well-deserved 572nd thumbs up. (note: I followed this recipe exactly, but left out the half and half to make it dairy-free. I can't imagine it would be any better with the half and half.)



And I almost forgot - I recently made a beverage that would perfectly complement both of these dishes on a crisp fall evening: The pumpkin bomb (recipe courtesy of Southwest Airlines in-flight magazine). To make this delicious fall-inspired drink, you dip the rim of a pint glass into some honey, and then into a mixture of cinnamon and sugar. Pour 1 ounce of Goldschlager into the glass, then pour in 15 ounces of Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale (or any pumpkin beer you happen to find).

Now if only we had some fall weather around these parts...

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Perfect panini

Preface: As I was writing this post, I kept typing "paninis," which caused a little red line to pop up under the word, indicating it was misspelled. A quick Google search turned up a few debates about the plural of "panini." It turns out the word "panini" IS actually plural. And although it's never used, "panino" is the word that indicates one singular panini. While I can't bring myself to use the word panino, I will oblige the true Italians out there by using "panini" to indicate one or more sandwiches.

Ahhh...panini. So simple, yet so luxurious. For years, I thought of panini as something only to be ordered in restaurants during leisurely weekend lunches with friends. Then, when my days of leisurely weekend lunches with friends no longer existed, I decided to start making them myself.

Two years ago I requested a panini maker for Christmas, and it has become one of my most beloved kitchen gadgets. Panini elevate the sandwich to an art form, transforming it from lunchbox staple into a hot, deeply satisfying meal. They make the perfect weekend lunch, and are also great for entertaining. I love making a variety of different panini at once, and then cutting them into small pieces so that everyone can sample more than one type at a time.

You don't have to have a panini maker to make panini. A George Foreman grill will work, or you can just get a panini press, which is a heavy iron lid with ridges on the bottom. Here's an example. I have the Cuisinart Griddler, which is awesome because it "triples" as a panini maker, griddle, and regular indoor grill.

I've done quite a bit of panini experimenting over the years. I can't say there have been too many failures (what can taste bad sandwiched between hot crusty slabs of artisan bread?), but there have definitely been a few standouts. So today I present to you my top five favorite panini concoctions.

Before I list the ingredients, I've got to talk about the bread. My favorite bread to use is ciabatta bread. But because it's so thick, you should pick the excess bread out of the middle after you slice it. My second favorite panini bread is sourdough. I'm sure there are other breads out there that would work too (focaccia comes to mind), but these two are tried and true.

1) Caprese panini: Spread pesto on the bread, then add thinly sliced tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and fresh basil leaves. You can also add some prosciutto if you'd like.

2) Turkey & sundried tomato panini: Mix mayonnaise with some pesto and spread on bread. Add turkey lunchmeat, provolone cheese, and a few sundried tomatoes. You can also substitute roasted red peppers for the sundried tomatoes.

3) Chicken, brie & sage panini: Pound an uncooked chicken breast until thin, saute in a frying pan until no longer pink, and then slice horizontally to create a thin slice of breast. Cover one half of the bread with slices of brie (or you can slather with the spreadable kind of brie) place the chicken on top of the brie, and lay several fresh sage leaves over the chicken.

4) Fig, manchego, and arugula panini: Spread the bread with a fig spread (it's kind of like a jam). Top with slices of manchego cheese, some prosciutto, and some arugula.

5) Ham & cheddar panini: Spread the bread with a mixture of mayo and dijon mustard. Top with sliced cheddar cheese and smoked ham.

To make the paninis, just brush the top and bottom of the sandwich with olive oil (or you can coat the griddle/pan with olive oil. Press the top of the machine (or panini press) down as hard as you can for about 30 seconds. Then let it cook until you see those golden brown lines in the bread. Slice and enjoy!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Noodles & meatballs!!

The title of this post is exactly what my daughters both scream whenever I ask them what they want to eat for dinner. I have to say, I owe a lot of my sanity to noodles and meatballs. It's not the most creative meal in the world, but it's something that my whole family likes, and it fills everybody up so that nobody's nosing through the snack shelf an hour after dinner ends.

Over the last few months, I have started making my own meatballs from scratch. First, it allows me to ensure that they are dairy-free (many store bought and restaurant meatballs contain parmesan cheese). Second, I like using high quality ground beef in my meatballs since my girls eat them so often and so voraciously. Third, I find it to be kind of satisfying. It just feels good to contribute something rustic and homemade to this standby pantry meal.

My earliest attempts at meatball-making were not 100% successful. Sometimes they were too dry, sometimes too mushy, sometimes bland, sometimes overly salty. But, having recently produced two deliciously tasty, perfectly textured batches of meatballs in a row, I feel like I've mastered the process. Here's how I make them:

Alyssa's Delicious Meatballs 

Ingredients:

1 lb of ground beef
2 eggs
a few spoonfuls of pesto (I use a dairy-free pesto, but any pesto will work fine)
a few generous dashes of salt
a few generous dashes of oregano
just enough breadcrumbs so that you can form the mixture into a ball and it stays that way
1-2 jars of marinara sauce

Cooking process:

Using your hands, mush everything together until it's well-mixed. I liked to start with a small amount of breadcrumbs, and then keep adding until the consistency is just right. You can always add more breadcrumbs, but you can't take them away if you put in too much.

Form the meat mixture into balls as small or large as you want. I've had the best luck with balls about 1.5 inches in diameter. Drizzle some oil in a large skillet until it thinly coats the bottom. Once the oil is starting to get hot, place the meatballs in the skillet, leaving some room between them. (Even if you have a really big skillet, you will probably need to cook these in two batches.) After a few minutes, turn the meatballs with some tongs. Keep flipping/turning them around until they are browned all over.

Transfer all of the meatballs to a pot. Pour the marinara sauce over the meatballs and simmer until the meatballs are cooked all the way through. Serve over the noodles of your choice. For us, that's usually macaroni (girls) and cappellini (adults).

And if you don't have any dairy issues, this recipe can always enhanced by a generous handful of parmesan cheese.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Processed with love

Over the last few years, I've done a pretty good job of cutting down on processed and pre-prepared foods. I can proudly say I haven't had a Lean Pocket in probably three years (I used to eat one for lunch almost every day), and I no longer buy "crack snacks" (Doritos, Cheez-its, Pringles, and the like).

But while it sounds lovely to eat only whole foods and make everything from scratch, I am not cut out for that. Sometimes I don't have time to cook; sometimes I don't have proper ingredients to cook with; and sometimes I just don't feel like cooking. So, I've struck a compromise with myself - I try to seek out prepared foods that are made with excellent, natural ingredients and infused with love. Yes, I do believe processed foods can be made with love.

Take "Full of Life" Flatbread Pizza for example. I discovered these little gems in the frozen pizza section of Whole Foods. There was something about the picture on the front that just drew me in. Then I started reading all the verbiage on the box. I mean, there are words covering the front, sides and back of this box. And the print is small. I finally just threw the thing into my cart and decided to read the rest at home, so that it didn't melt while I stood there reading.

I saved my little individual-sized pizza for a night when my husband wasn't home. I waited until the kids were in bed, poured a nice glass of Cabernet, and commenced my reading while the pizza cooked in the oven. Here are just a few of the things printed on this lovely little box:

"Handcrafted using locally sourced ingredients"

"Each week we shop at farmers markets and talk with growers, farmers, ranchers, and artisan food producers, so that we can offer diners the freshest seasonal ingredients possible."

"All of our Flatbread Pizzas are produced by hand in small batches."

"When people deeply care for what they are doing a nourishing environment exists that benefits us all."

The list of ingredients reads like a recipe, with no artificial substances in sight. They even list the source of many ingredients, such as "Santa Barbara County Red Wine," and "Los Alamos Extra Virgin Olive Oil."

And then there's my favorite part. On the back of the box is an entire paragraph dedicated to McFadden Farm, the farm that grows the organic herbs used on all of their flatbread pizzas. Guinness McFadden is the name of the man who runs this farm, which is described as a "quiet, pastoral place...a feast for the senses and soul." According to the box, Guinness started the farm after ten years as a Naval officer and a stint at Stanford business school. So now I know more about the man who grew the herbs on my pizza than I know about the moms I encounter during preschool drop-off three times a week.

My Full of Life flatbread pizza was not only delicious (I bought the mushroom with caramelized onions & tomatoes), it was healthy. As I ate my pizza, I wasn't thinking about what a slacker I was for making a frozen pizza for dinner. I was savoring each bite of the crispy vita-grain flour crust and Three Sisters Serena Cheese. And wondering what ole' Guinness was up to. Perhaps he was milling through his fields, pausing now and then to sample a bit of marjoram or oregano. I kind of want to hang out with that guy. How can you not want to hang out with someone named Guinness McFadden?

I sometimes get bitter about the greed and corruption of food industry. There are so many companies out there making a fortune off of disgusting "food products," trying to convince us that we're better off eating a bright pink fluffy thing because it's been injected with some omega-3 acids than eating an apple. But then I discover these little companies out there who are doing the right thing in terms of ingredients and preparation, AND producing delicious food in the process. And I feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I will leave you with one more quote from Full of Life:

"This Flatbread Pizza is the direct result of a great desire to feed, nourish, and share the good will, pride, integrity of all of the many people who make baking these breads possible...  ...from our hearth to your table, this Flatbread Pizza is our small reflection that to eat good food is to be Full of Life!"

Now that's love.

Monday, September 13, 2010

One dish fish

You've gotta love one-dish meals. First, clean-up is easy. Second, it's easy on the brain since you're not required to think up a complete meal with complimentary side dishes. Third, you don't have to perfectly time the different components of the meal (how annoying is it when your meat is steaming hot and ready to serve, but the potatoes are still hard as rocks?).

The problem I have with most one-dish recipes is that they almost always contain cheese or cream of some sort, which means I can't serve them to my whole family. And in this same vein, many one-dish meals are also supremely unhealthy (like the zillion casserole recipes that call for "cream of something" soup).

So I thought it was too good to be true when I saw *this* recipe for Tilapia with Hash Browns in my Food Network Magazine. It had the yum factor (hash browns), the healthy factor (fish & veggies), AND it was dairy-free!

I followed the recipe exactly, except for two things. I didn't add the garlic to the hash browns, since I was going to serve it to my semi-garlic-averse kids. And I only used a little bit of chopped olives because I pretty much hate olives. Get this - I really wish I had used more olives because the olives were my favorite part about the dish! I used manzanillo olives, and they were fantastic - they added a nice briny freshness to the dish, and as I was eating it I kept cursing myself for not putting in the full amount. So next time I'll know...

My girls ate at least 1/2 to 3/4 of the serving I gave them, which was more than I was banking on. I don't know if I would label it as kid-friendly for the 4 and under set, but older children should like it for sure. I mean, it has hash browns in it! And I recommend over-browning the hash browns a little bit to make them extra crispy.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Homemade soft pretzels & cinnamon-apple breakfast pizza

As usual, my two most recent cooking adventures were inspired by my never-ending quest to get keep my girls full for more than 30 minutes. I swear they have tapeworms! The other day, they each ate scrambled eggs, two slabs of bacon, half a bagel, and a bowl of fruit for breakfast, and they still claimed they were starving about 45 minutes later. Sigh.

I came up with the idea for breakfast pizza when I was standing in front of my open fridge, a perplexed look on my face, wondering what to do with the pathetic contents of the shelves (which happened to include a few apples and some whole wheat flatbread). I am constantly trying to think up inventive breakfasts that the girls will actually eat, especially now that Sydney has started preschool and can't snack all morning long like she sometimes does at home.

To make the "pizza," I cored, peeled and sliced the apples, then cooked them in a saute pan over low heat, using Earth's Balance Buttery Spread (non-dairy butter alternative). I added a little brown sugar and some cinnamon. Then, when the apples were soft, I threw in some quick-cooking oats and water (I based the measurements on the oat package). Then I cooked the apples and oats for about 5 more minutes, or until the oats were soft.

I spread the apple/oat concoction onto some flatbread, which had been lightly brushed with the Earth's Best Buttery Spread. Then I stuck it into the oven at 350 until the flatbread was crisp.



Verdict: My girls ate it all up and declared it "yummy." Personally, I thought the flatbread was a little dry. If I did it over again, I would probably use actual whole wheat pizza dough instead of the flatbread.

Now onto the soft pretzels. I can't take credit for these - I used Alton Brown's recipe, simply because it was the first one that popped up when I googled "homemade soft pretzels." I don't know why I felt inspired to make soft pretzels. I guess I was thinking it would be a fun "mommy and me" cooking activity with the girls. But, as those things usually go, I basically did everything myself while yelling at the girls not to get raw dough stuck in the carpet.

I followed Alton's recipe exactly, and the pretzels turned out pretty well. They weren't quite as chewy as I like, but I am convinced that has to do with the tap water in Arizona rather than my baking skills. Seriously - I saw a show on the Food Network that explained the reason NY bagels and pizza are so good is because the New York tap water gives the bread that chewy-yet-crisp texture. So that's my excuse from now on when I fail to make amazing bread products.

If I make soft pretzels again, I may try a whole wheat version to make it a little healthier. Or I could really get creative and combine my two endeavors to create apple cinnamon whole wheat breakfast pretzels!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mango and wax bean smoothie (yes, I'm serious)

Almost every time I pick up my bountiful basket, I discover some sort of unique vegetable or fruit that I've never cooked with before. This past week it was wax beans. Wax beans are really just green beans that are yellow; and as far as I can tell, they don't taste much different.

At first, I thought I would steam or saute the wax beans and serve them as a side dish - just like regular old green beans. Then, while whipping up a delicious mango smoothie for an afternoon snack, I got an idea. Given the title of my post, I'm sure it's not hard to figure out what that idea was.

I thought the mango/wax bean combo might work for two reasons: 1) since the wax beans are pale yellow, they wouldn't turn the smoothie a strange color, and 2) the sweetness of the mango and banana would counteract any strange flavoring that the beans added.

Although I was anticipating a decent result, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the wax beans actually made the smoothie...wait for it...better! The beans gave it kind of a fresh, herbal taste and cut some of the super-sweet fruitiness. If you don't believe me when I say it was good, here is a quote from my husband: "I would never guess there were vegetables in here if you hadn't told me." He even described it as "delicious." And my kids loved it too!

I can honestly say I might buy wax beans from now on for the sole purpose of adding them to smoothies. I'm sure plain old green beans would work too, but they would throw off the coloring.

Here's what I threw in the blender:

2 ripe mangos, peeled and chopped
1 banana
2 handfuls of uncooked wax beans, ends trimmed
a few splashes of OJ
enough yogurt to make it creamy*
ice

*To make the smoothie non-dairy, I used So Delicious cultured coconut milk yogurt in strawberry. I am so grateful for the new So Delicious line of non-dairy products because they use coconut milk instead of soy. Coconut milk not only tastes sweeter and creamier than soy milk, but it's safer for people with dairy allergies since many of them are allergic to soy as well.

TIP: Since making smoothies can be a pain (all the peeling, chopping, washing, blending, etc), I've started making up a big batch of smoothie mixture without ice, and storing it in a sealable container in the fridge. Then when I want to make a smoothie later in the week, I can just pour some of the smoothie mix into the blender or Magic Bullet, add some ice, and I'm done!


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Good gazpacho (if you like gazpacho, that is)

I really, really want to like gazpacho. It's full of healthy veggies, cool and refreshing, and pretty to look at. But every time I read a gazpacho recipe, my first and only thought is "yuck." It just seems wrong for soup to be cold.

Then I read a post about gazpacho at the Foodinista blog (you can find the post here), and I just felt I had to make it. The way she spoke about gazpacho was so passionate and inspiring, and when I clicked through to the original recipe by renowned chef Jose Andres (where it's poetically named Andalucian Cold Tomato Soup), I was sold. I pictured a beautiful glass pitcher in my fridge, filled to the brim with fresh gazpacho, and me going back again and again to pour myself delicious bowl after delicious bowl, pumping my body full of antioxidants, lycopene, and other vegetabley goodness.

So I went to Whole Foods and bought all of the ingredients, except for oloroso sherry. I couldn't find it, and figured that regular old sherry would do. Plus since I wasn't sure if I would like it, I didn't want to spring for some expensive bottle of sherry that would rot in my cabinet.

I followed the recipe precisely, but instead of making croutons, I toasted some baguette slices and topped them with a parmesan tapenade (store bought).

The best way I can describe how I felt about it was "eh." I could tell it was good gazpacho, but I think I am just never going to love gazpacho - no matter how good it is. It was kind of like that time my husband and I went to a highly rated Mexican restaurant and waited two hours to try their world famous mole, only to practically gag on it. Apparently what we'd thought was good mole (from our favorite hole-in-the-wall Mexican place that probably poured their mole out of a can), was nothing like true, authentic mole. And I guess we hate true, authentic mole.

The moral of the story is...if you like gazpacho, this recipe is worth trying out. If you don't like it, I don't think this recipe will win you over. Alas, my quest for the perfect cool lunch on a blazing hot day will have to continue.

P.S. The cheesy baguette was really good, though. And the gazpacho makes a nice dip for it. :)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Tuna steaks, heirloom tomato salad, and herbed green beans & potatoes

I have a love/hate relationship with food magazines. I get so excited when I see a new one on the newsstand or in my mailbox, with its glossy cover photos of delectable and artfully arranged dishes, and promises of “easy, fresh meals in under 20 minutes” or “10 spinach dishes you are guaranteed to love.” But inevitably I end up dog-earing maybe one recipe out of 100, and never get around to making that recipe anyway.

That changed when I picked up the August issue of Food & Wine magazine last week. About 90% of the recipes look amazing to me, and while they’re a little fancier than what I might whip up on a typical weeknight, they all use easy-to-find ingredients and simple cooking techniques. The recipes contain a lot of fresh summer produce, and the dishes seem light without being “lite” (ie: healthy, but bland and unsatisfying). I don’t know whether Food & Wine is always this good, or I just happened across a particularly great issue, but I plan on subscribing to find out.

I decided to use three of the recipes in a belated birthday dinner I made for my sis-in-law, Lauren, this past weekend. Usually I hesitate to make untested recipes for a special occasion dinner, but I just had a hunch that these would all turn out great.

Here’s what was on the menu:

Mustard-Seared Tuna with Shallot Cream
http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/mustard-seared-tuna-with-shallot-cream

Potato Salad with Green Beans and Salsa Verde
http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/potato-salad-with-green-beans-and-salsa-verde

Tomato Salad with Bacon, Blue Cheese and Basil
http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/tomato-salad-with-bacon-blue-cheese-and-basil

I pretty much followed the recipes exactly, and everything was delicious. For the tomato salad I used heirloom tomatoes from a local farmer’s market, just to give it a little more exciting color. I was always scared of heirloom tomatoes until I realized they’re not really any different from regular tomatoes with the exception of their color.

Making all three of these dishes was fairly labor intensive, and it was only possible because I had four people to entertain my wild children while I chopped, pureed, roasted, and sautéed. But each dish on its own would not be overwhelming at all.

So if you come across the August issue of Food & Wine, I highly recommend picking it up. Or just poke around on their website – I think they post almost all of their recipes online.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Farmer's market potato salad

My daughters and I are spending our third consecutive July in Pennsylvania, enjoying visits with grandparents and friends, and indulging in local treats (fresh-from-the-factory Hershey chocolate and Yuengling Lager, just to name a few).

Growing up, I took for granted the abundant fresh summer produce, roadside stands, berry-picking farms, and endless green corn fields in PA. Now, after several years in the land of tumblweeds and cacti, I have renewed appreciation for the lush greenery and farmscapes here.

The other day we went to Roots market, an enormous farmer's market where you can find local baked goods, every type of produce imaginable, local delicacies and meats, and kitchy crafts. Since the girls were with us, I couldn't spend as much time as I wanted scoping everything out, but I did come home with a fair amount of goodies (including some of those ruby red radishes - how could I not buy those?)

I didn't have a plan while I was shopping, but when I got home and sorted everything out, I realized I had the fixins for a nice homemade potato salad. Here's what I used:

Small red-skinned potatoes
celery
fresh dill
green onion
hardboiled egg(s)
dijon mustard (I usually use Grey Poupon, but any dijon will do)
mayo
olive oil
salt and pepper
lemon

I usually boil the potatoes when making potato salad, but this time I decided to roast them. I chopped up the potatoes into bite sized pieces (leaving the skin on), drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper, and baked them in a baking dish at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes, or until they were easily poked with a fork. After they cooled, I put them in a bowl with some chopped green onion, celery, dill, and hardboiled egg. Then I stirred together some mayo and dijon, and added a few squeezes of lemon juice. Depending on how much you salted the potatoes, you might want to add some salt too. Stir together and enjoy! You can add as much or as little dressing as you like - I probably put a little too much on...it would have tasted just as good with less.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Popsicles re-invented

Until a few days ago, I thought of popsicles merely as a kids' summertime treat - basically just colored sugar water that tastes really good when it's hot outside.

Then I came across two popsicle recipes that will forever change the way I look at popsicles. One is basically a cocktail on a stick; the other is an innovative way to get your kids (or yourself) to eat a healthy breakfast or snack.

Considering that it's going to be 110 degrees for the foreseeable future in Arizona, I have a feeling I will be spending a lot of time experimenting with new recipes for popsicles. In the meantime, here are the two I was inspired by:


1)Watermelon vodka popsicles with fresh mint

When I saw Giada DeLaurentis make *these* watermelon vodka popsicles on her show, I just had to try them. Unfortunately I decided to make them for a BBQ we were attending later that day, failing to notice the part of the recipe where it says they need to freeze at least 10 hours or overnight. Oops.

So we didn't have watermelon vodka popsicles that day, but we did have watermelon vodka slush, which was probably just as good. And when I stirred some of the slush into the lemonade/citrus vodka drink my friend had made...heaven! My husband wasn't a fan of the mint, but it probably can be eliminated or maybe replaced with a tamer herb - like basil?? I'm thinking some cucumber could even be thrown in to cut the sweetness.

2) Breakfast popsicles

A few days ago, I stumbled across *this* blog post about serving popsicles for breakfast. After my recent breakfast cookie experiment, I was excited to find another fun way to serve healthy foods for breakfast.

I haven't had a chance to make these yet, but my mind has been swimming with possibilities - especially since I recently discovered an amazing non-dairy beverage that tastes like drinkable strawberry yogurt and would probably be perfect in this recipe.

To further my excitement about popsicles, I saw *this* awesome popsicle mold on the front of the Williams-Sonoma catalog. Basically you keep it in the freezer, and it will freeze a popsicle in 7 minutes. So that would eliminate the whole "oops - I forgot to wait 10 hours" thing. It's a little pricey at $50, but if my popsicle obsession becomes full-blown, I may just have to spring for one.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Food blogs r fun



A few years ago I had what I thought was a brilliant and original idea: What if there was a website where people could post and talk about recipes they had actually made themselves, and give their own take on what worked and what didn't? I dreamt of a website where cooks could learn from and laugh at each other's culinary successes and disasters.

Little did I know that I'm completely unoriginal, as this was already being done by tons of food bloggers. (I blame the kids for making me totally out of date when it comes to technology and modern life). Obviously I'm a little late to the table in terms of the food blogging world, but I'm quickly learning how great it is. Aside from the fun I've had writing my own blog, I've discovered lots of other food blogs that are informative, fun, and give me a new perspective on food and what other people like to cook and eat.

As much as I love the Food Network and other food-focused television shows, magazines, etc, it's hard to identify with a lot of those cooks. Even the so-called "relatable" ones scare me a little. I mean, how is it possible for Melissa D'Arabian to have four pre-schoolers at home and cook meals like she does all.the.time? How is it possible that everything Rachel Ray makes tastes so good that she has to moan orgasmically after every bite?

I love learning and talking about food with non-perfect people who simply love to cook and eat - people who are cooking with kids clinging to their legs and whining, who burn the chicken, scrape off the burnt parts and eat it anyway, and who can find equal amounts of joy in an amazing 5-star restaurant meal, some processed crappy food that tastes really good, childhood favorite comfort foods, and an organic salad made with seasonal, local veggies.

In my effort to keep up with the times, I've created a blogroll on the righthand side with links to some of my favorite newly discovered food blogs. I look forward to updating it as I find more and more.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Fish tacos


While living in LA, I came to really love fish tacos. I can't think of anything better to eat on a warm summer day, washed down with an icy cold margarita. Over the years, I've had many variations of fish tacos using different types of fish, different seasonings, different toppings, and different preparations (usually grilled or battered & fried). To create my own recipe, I combined the things I liked best about every fish taco I'd ever eaten. My favorite part about my version is that it has the crunchy satisfaction of the fried fish without the guilt.

This recipe can easily be used for regular fish tacos, or "deconstructed" fish tacos - a spin I created in honor of Top Chef.

Here's what you'll need:

For the fish:

Firm white fish (I have the best results with mahi mahi)
seasoning (more on that below)
panko bread crumbs
olive oil

For the slaw:

red & green cabbage
mayonnaise (you can sub in light mayo if you're watching calories/fat)
hot sauce
cilantro
fresh lime juice
salt
chipotle pepper (optional)
sour cream (optional)

For the toppings:

diced tomato
diced red onion
chopped cilantro
sliced avocado

For the wrapping:

Fairly large flour tortillas

Directions:

I start out by chopping everything for the slaw and toppings. To make the slaw, I chop the red and green cabbage into thin ribbons. Then I create the "magic white sauce." The magic white sauce doesn't always have to be the same - it's something you can play with based on your own taste preferences.

I start with a base of mayonnaise, then add lime juice until it's a thinner consistency. Then I add a few dashes of hot sauce, some chopped cilantro, and some salt. You can play with it as much as you want until it tastes good to you. If I'm not making it for my dairy-allergic daughter, I sometimes add sour cream for extra bite. And if you love chipotle peppers, you'll love them in this dish...just chop one or two and throw them in. Toss a few spoonfuls of the sauce with the shredded cabbage and set aside.

*Tip: reserve some extra white sauce for topping.

For the toppings, I chop up some tomato, red onion, and cilantro and mix them together in a bowl. Then I slice some avocado.

Now it's time to cook the fish. I cut fillets of mahi mahi into strips and dredge in Simply Organics Fish Taco seasoning. If you can find this at a store (it comes in a paper packet, like taco seasonings), I highly recommend it. If you can't find it, you can substitute regular taco seasoning or other southwestern seasoning. Or if you're really ambitious, you can make your own. Here are the main spices in the Simply Organics seasoning: paprika, garlic, sea salt, red chili flakes, dried onion, cilantro, cumin, black pepper, coriander. I'm sure if you doused the fish in just a few of those seasonings and some salt and pepper, it would still taste great.

Let the fish marinate in the spices for a few minutes, then roll in panko breadcrumbs. Saute the fish sticks in olive oil until they flake with a fork.

To assemble regular tacos: Spread the cabbage slaw on a flour tortilla, top with fish, then with tomato mixture and avocado. Add some hot sauce if you like, and some leftover white sauce.

To create a "deconstructed fish taco:" Instead of cutting the mahi mahi into strips before cooking, leave them as whole filets. Prepare the fish the same way as described above - dredge in seasoning, then coat in panko and saute. After the fish is cooked, mound a bed of the cabbage slaw on a plate, top with the fish filet, and top the filet with the tomato mixture and avocado. Drizzle leftover white sauce over the top and sprinkle crushed tortilla chips over the whole dish.

Pour yourself a margarita or a glass of white wine and prepare to impress all your friends!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Christmas in June...ie: the "Top Chef" premiere

I am scaring myself a little bit with how excited I am that the new season of Top Chef is premiering tonight. I told my husband it that it is my equivalent of the Super Bowl, or the start of a new sports season. Then he was scared too.

I love Top Chef for many reasons, but primarily because it doesn't dumb down the food. When I first started watching it, I had no clue what they were talking about 50% of the time. Sabayon? Buerre Blanc? Sous Vide?

Now I feel much more confident in my foodie-ism; in fact when we went out to dinner at a fancy shmancy restaurant the other night, I impressed myself and my husband by 1: knowing what ramps were (they're kind of like a green onion), and 2: knowing how to pronounce turbot (it's tur-boh, not tur-bot). I had only Top Chef to thank.

Food snobbery aside, the show has taught me some really valuable lessons about cooking. Here are just a few of them:

1) using the right amount of salt is really, really important and can make or break virtually any dish

2) if you use high quality, fresh ingredients, you can keep your cooking super-simple and it will still taste great

3) a simple piece of meat or fish cooked perfectly (not overdone, not too raw), will beat out an elaborately seasoned/marinated dish every time

In honor of Top Chef and their love of "deconstructing" popular dishes, I will soon be posting my Top Chef-inspired recipe: Deconstructed fish tacos. It's so amazing I'm a little leery of posting it, but it's too good not to share.

FYI: Top Chef premieres on Bravo tonight at 9/8 central! If you haven't watched it before, you must give it a try.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cookies for breakfast

Lately I've been having a heck of a time getting my girls to eat breakfast. They turn up their noses at waffles, they're currently in an anti-cereal phase, and they never take more than 5 bites of oatmeal. Sydney loves muffins and pancakes, Brynn doesn't like either one (strange child). They love french toast, but as much as I'd love to be all June Cleaver-y and make homemade french toast every morning, I'm just not cut out for that.

Usually their breakfast consists of a few bites of something grain-y and some fruit. It's annoying when they don't eat a good, substantial breakfast because it means they beg for snacks all morning long.

So the other day I decided to try something new - breakfast cookies. I was inspired by Erin Baker's breakfast cookies, which I saw in a local health food store. My girls looooove cookies, so I thought maybe this would be a way to get them to eat something a little more substantial in the a.m.

There aren't any mystery ingredients that make a cookie a breakfast cookie, as opposed to a regular cookie. I basically just tried to make a cookie that was more nutritious and less sugary & fatty than a regular cookie.

I started with a basic oatmeal-raisin cookie recipe that was on the back of a giant bag of oats I bought at Costco. You could make these same modifications to any tried and true cookie recipes that you have on hand:

1) To reduce the sugar, I swapped out 1/2 cup of sugar for 1/2 cup of applesauce.

2) To add some additional whole grains, I substituted half of the flour with whole wheat flour.

3) To boost the protein, I added sliced almonds.

4) I also threw in a few tablespoons of oat bran since I happened to have some in my pantry.

I wouldn't call these cookies a smashing success, but definitely a success. The first morning, the girls both ate two of them - and they stayed full much longer than normal. I ate two as an afternoon snack, and also felt satisfied until dinner. By day three of the breakfast cookie experiment, however, the cookies were losing their luster. I froze the leftovers and will see what happens when I thaw a few out next week.

I plan to continue experimenting with ingredients to see how much healthy stuff I can get in there while still keeping them tasty. Here are just a few ideas for what could be put into the cookies:

shredded coconut
shredded carrot
pureed banana
pureed apple/applesauce
raisins
dried cranberries
dried blueberries
any type of nut or nut butter
molasses
flax seed
wheat germ
And of course...cooked quinoa

Sunday, June 13, 2010

And the winner is...

Congrats to Jackie for being the lucky winner of the Bittman cookbook...I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! And thanks for all the great suggestions re: other food blogs - I can't wait to check them out.

Monday, June 7, 2010

My favorite summer dish



I know it's not officially summer until the 21st, but I officially declare it summer when the temp has been over 100 degrees for three straight days. Since that milestone was reached in Phoenix this past weekend, I busted out my favorite summer recipe - one I'm sure I'll be making at least twice a month for the foreseeable future.

I can't take credit for the recipe - it belongs to my favorite chef in the universe, Bobby Flay. But it's very unBobbylike in that there are no chipotle peppers or other southwestern flavors. This dish is the perfect summer dish because it's really simple, fresh, mild yet flavorful, and light yet satisfying. It's Chicken Paillard with Arugula (paillard is just a fancy name for chicken breast that's been pounded really thin). And you can find the recipe here.

I promise that once you try it you'll make it over and over again. The great thing about this dish is that it's easy enough for a weeknight meal, but fancy enough for guests.

Although I usually make at least one significant change to recipes I find, this is one of the few recipes that I haven't really modified. The only change I've made is to add some shaved parmesan cheese at the end. You can also substitute the olive oil/vinegar mixture with some balsamic vinaigrette if you're so inclined.

And if you're looking for a carb-y side dish to round out the meal, I would suggest some homemade potato salad, corn on the cob, or crusty bread. It's healthy, fresh, summery perfection on a plate.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Review (and Giveaway!) of Mark Bittman's "Kitchen Express"


About a year ago, I made it a goal to stop relying so heavily on cookbooks and step-by-step recipes, and instead learn to cook a little more intuitively and creatively. It was a little scary at first, but I was surprised by how much I already knew about ingredients and cooking techniques. And it felt SO much nicer to cook without turning around every 2 minutes to look at a recipe, or to have my onions burn while I frantically opened every drawer in the kitchen looking for a tablespoon.

I think that for most of us who've been cooking for a few years or more, recipes have become a crutch - and while it's disconcerting when that crutch is first yanked away, you'll soon be surprised at how well you can do on your own.

The most important lesson for me in this whole process has been learning to actually taste my food as I cook it, instead of blindly following a recipe and then hoping it tastes good at the end. When you're constantly tasting your food and the ingredients you put into it, you'll notice how each ingredient changes the flavor or consistency of the dish, and you'll learn something new with every dish you prepare. (Just beware - the first time you taste fish sauce on its own...yikes!)

Ditching the recipes has helped me feel more confident in the kitchen, and it's also saved me a lot of money since I've become better at using what I already have instead of buying ingredients specifically for a recipe. I still use recipes once in a while - but now I look at them for ideas and inspiration instead of as an instruction guide. So when I discovered Mark Bittman's new book, Kitchen Express (404 Seasonal Recipes You Can Make in 20 Minutes or Less) which is sort of an anti-cookbook cookbook, I thought it was fantastic. Here's what I love about it:

1) It focuses on seasonal foods, and is divided into four sections: winter, spring, summer, and fall.

2) It doesn't include any specific measurements (ie: 1 tbsp of minced ginger). Instead, each recipe is about one paragraph long, written in sentence form, with simple instructions. If you've never cooked before, this probably wouldn't be your cup of tea, but for fairly seasoned cooks who have a concept of how much salt and garlic should be added to a dish, it's great.

3) There are lots of suggestions for foods, herbs, and seasonings that you can swap in or out depending on what you have available. I think this is perfect for beginning recipe-ditchers, because it shows you that you don't have to have every single ingredient to make a recipe. Obviously if you want to make balsamic glazed chicken and you don't have balsamic vinegar or chicken, that will be problematic. But if you're lacking that little bit of fresh parsley that is tossed in at the end, it's no biggie.

4) The dishes look really tasty, and are really simple - no long lists of ingredients or complex cooking techniques.

5) In the front and back of the book, there are lots of categories and menu suggestions that help you quickly find what you're looking for. An example category is "The Easiest of the Easiest," "Recipes that Barely Disturb the Kitchen," and "Finger Foods for All Occasions." Menu suggestions include "Weeknight Dinner Party" (do people really have those?) and "Kids' Night."

I highly recommend this cookbook for anyone who's interested in breaking away from their slavery to recipes. It's a good jumping off point and will help you feel more confident (and creative) in the kitchen. And it will also help take the guesswork out of which foods are seasonal at any given time.

PS - I'm not being paid by anyone to promote this book...I just bought it myself and thought it was really great.

I'm going to be giving away one copy of this cookbook to a lucky reader.

HOW TO ENTER:

Post a comment below mentioning your favorite food blog. No, it doesn't have to be mine. :) I've been really interested in reading other people's food blogs, but I haven't had the time to browse around lately, so I'd love to get some suggestions.

Be sure to include your email address, or if you're uncomfortable posting your email address, include your first name, last initial, City & State (ie: Alicia M. Salt Lake City, UT) in the comment. I will be either emailing the winner or posting the winner's name (if no email is included)
Sunday, June 13th at 6:00 pm Pacific time.

Bonus entries:

A) If you
subscribe to my blog or become a follower on Google, you can leave an additional entry telling me you've done so.

B) If you
post a link to this giveaway on your own blog or website, you can leave an additional comment as well. Please include the link in the comment field.

On Sunday the 13th, I will go to Random.org and have a random number chosen to select the winner.

Good luck!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Yummy yam muffins (and I hate yams)

Last Saturday I got a 3-lb bag of organic yams in my bountiful basket. I really dislike yams. I don't care if they're made into french fries or covered in marshmallows, I just don't like the taste.

Yet I couldn't bring myself to throw away this big bag of perfectly good yams. So, unable to pawn them off on my friends, I vowed to find a way to use them.

I turned to my favorite pumpkin muffin recipe, figuring that yams could probably be substituted for the pumpkin without changing the flavor too much. Although I knew it could potentially be disastrous, I reasoned that even if the muffins were disgusting, I could learn from the experiment and use my blog to warn others away from making yam muffins.

What I didn't anticipate is that using yams instead of pumpkin would make the muffins 10 times more delicious. I'm not exaggerating when I say that these are probably the best muffins I've ever had.

I have to give Alton Brown a big dose of credit - the basic recipe behind the muffins is his, and it produces super, super moist muffins. Here's the original Alton Brown recipe (courtesy of Foodnetwork.com) along with my notes & yam adaptation:

Ingredients

• 2 cups all-purpose flour

• 2 teaspoons cinnamon

• 1 teaspoon baking soda

• 1/4 teaspoon baking powder

• 1/2 teaspoon salt

• 1 1/2 cups sugar

• 3/4 cup vegetable oil

• 3 large eggs

• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

• 3 cups shredded fresh pumpkin (When I make pumpkin muffins, I substitute one can of pureed pumpkin for the fresh pumpkin. For the yam muffins, I used three cups of cooked, mashed yams....I just nuked the yams in the microwave, cut them in half, and scooped the cooked mushy part out).

Directions

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Sift the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together.

In a separate bowl, mix the sugar, vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla. Combine both mixtures and fold in the pumpkin (or yams). Once the ingredients are all incorporated, pour into two muffin pans.

Bake at 325 degrees F., for 30 minutes.

P.S. - You can freeze these muffins and enjoy them all week (or month) long. I throw them in a freezer bag as soon as they cool to keep them as fresh as possible. To thaw them out just pop one in the microwave for about 15 seconds.

P.P.S - I am heading on vacation for the next week....I will be back in 10 days or so with a new post and an exciting giveaway!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Spicy (or not) soba noodles with shrimp & veggies


One thing I love about Asian cooking is that it brings out the best in veggies. I never eat broccoli with as much enthusiasm as I do when it's doused in black bean or kung pao sauce. I gobble up green and red peppers, snap peas, and bamboo shoots when they're coated in Thai curry. And I have never met a spinach dish I love more than an Indian saag.

I'm sure there are veggie purists who would turn up their noses at this proclamation - arguing that the sauces mask the true vegetable flavors and destroy the natural deliciousness of the vegetables themselves. But as someone who is still working up to loving veggies for veggies' sake, I am doing what I can to make them super-tasty so that I'll actually eat them instead of pushing them around my plate like a 5-year-old.

Last night I impressed myself with my take on Asian soba noodles. We've had Asian noodle dishes often (usually courtesy of P.F. Chang's or Pei Wei Asian Diner), but this was my first attempt at making them at home. And I can't believe it's taken me this long!

The dish I made was really simple, using almost exclusively pantry ingredients with the exception of some shrimp, green onion, veggies and, perhaps, ginger. Here's what I did:

1) Boil some soba noodles until soft, but al dente. Drain.

2) Chop up some green onion (I used mostly the green part), and some veggies of choice. Some thinly sliced or julienned carrots work best in my opinion, but you could also do broccoli, zucchini, mushrooms, or whatever you prefer best in Asian dishes.

3) Create a sauce out of soy sauce, rice vinegar, freshly grated ginger, sesame oil, and hot chili oil. The hot chili oil was something I just picked up for fun at the grocery store the other day. Like all the other ingredients in the sauce (except the ginger), it can be found in the Asian food aisle of almost any grocery store. If you don't like spiciness, or you want to make a kid-friendly version, just leave out the chili oil.

To create the sauce, I started with a few splashes of each ingredient I mentioned, with some extra splashes of soy sauce. From that point, I just tasted it and fiddled with it until it had the right balance of spice/saltiness/acidity.

4) Cook shrimp (or other protein if you prefer), and veggies in frying pan with a little canola oil. Add sauce and let it absorb into the shrimp and veggies. Then add the cooked noodles and stir everything together until it's hot and evenly coated with sauce. Enjoy!

Now that I know how simple this is, I will be making versions of this dish at home much more often. It's just so much better than take-out in that I can control the amount of oil/sodium, make sure I'm using quality meats/seafood, and also add a lot more vegetables than a typical restaurant portion would include.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Semi-homemade restaurant-quality Thai curry

I loooooooooove Thai food. If I could eat it every day, I would. While I've yet to meet a Thai dish I don't like, I am partial to curries, especially the green and yellow curries. They are the ultimate comfort food - warm, spicy and soupy, yet fresh-tasting.

I was always scared off from cooking Thai curries myself because of the quantity and rarity of ingredients involved (how many grocery stores stock galangal?). I've tried a few different store bought sauces, but none of them could compare to the restaurant sauces in terms of spice level and overall flavor.

Then I discovered Thai Kitchen's curry pastes - these cute little 4-inch jars that contain all of those unusual, but amazing Thai chiles and herbs that make curries taste delicious, smashed into a flavorful paste. They come in green and red (sadly there's no yellow), and both are delicious. Each one comes with a recipe on the jar, which just involves mixing the paste with a few ingredients which are readily available in the Asian food section of any major grocery store: fish sauce, coconut milk, canned bamboo shoots, and brown sugar.

Add some cooked chicken or shrimp, some veggies if you like, and steamed rice and you've got an amazing meal. The veggies that pair best with the curries are sliced red or green peppers, cooked onions, peas, and zucchini.

The nice part about making curry this way is that it's simple, but you can adjust the spice/sweet/salt level yourself to make it taste perfect. If it's too salty/spicy, add a little more brown sugar or coconut milk. If it needs more salt/tang, add some more fish sauce. If it needs more heat, add more of the curry paste.

To add extra flavor or flair, I also recommend adding some chopped cilantro at the end, or some Thai basil (which I love, but have a really hard time finding). I also think it's worth the extra step to serve it with Jasmine rice versus plain old Uncle Ben's. So yummy!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Fancy French scallop dish that's really, really easy

Any dish that requires me to speak in a foreign accent scares me. So when Ina Garten (ie: The Barefoot Contessa) said she was going to be making scallops provencal on her Food Network show, I almost changed the channel. But that would have required me to remove my butt from the couch and fetch the remote during my vegetation period (ie: the 30-45 minutes when the girls are both napping at the same time); thus I decided to just lie still and watch it. And I'm so glad I did.

After watching her make this elegant scallop dish in a matter of minutes, without any complicated techniques or ingredients, I thought "Heck, I could do that!" And that I did...in fact, it was so easy & good, I made it twice in two weeks.

The thing that appealed to me about this recipe was that it uses really simple ingredients, most of which I already had on hand: scallops, butter, white wine, shallots, garlic, flour, a lemon, and some fresh parsley.

And the only kitchen gadgets required were a pan and some tongs. See - I told you it was easy! You can find the recipe by clicking here.

The more I learn about cooking, the more I discover that truly good food can be really, really simple. I've also learned that you can never go wrong mixing butter, white wine, garlic and lemon...so many great seafood dishes start with these basic ingredients!

P.S. For a side dish I made parmesan smashed potatoes, which are also extremely easy. You boil some red-skinned potatoes until they're soft. Then smash them with a fork (keep the skins on) and add some extra-virgin olive oil, parmesan cheese, and salt. Just keep smashing and tasting until it seems right.

It would also taste amazing over pasta!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The perfect piece of toast

Most of the time, I end up cringing when I read the list of ingredients in prepared and/or processed foods - sometimes even the "healthy" and organic ones. But as much as I love to cook, it's just not feasible for me to make everything from scratch all the time. Plus, I still haven't developed a taste for all of the foods I *should* be eating (white rice is still a staple in my life).

So when I do come across a food that's super-convenient, healthy, all-natural, and (most importantly) tasty, I do a little happy dance. My most recent discovery was Food for Life's Ezekiel Cinnamon Raisin bread, which is made from 100% sprouted whole grains. Here's what's in it:

Organic sprouted wheat
Filtered water
Organic raisins
Organic sprouted barley
Organic sprouted millet
Organic malted barley
Organic sprouted lentils
Organic sprouted soybeans
Organic sprouted spelt
Fresh yeast
Organic wheat gluten
Sea salt
Organic cinnamon

That's it!

I've shied away from using totally 100% whole grain breads for sandwiches because I find them a little too dry and dense. But for some toast to go with a little butter and my a.m. coffee, this bread is perfect. If you're looking for a little extra protein, you could spread it with peanut butter or cream cheese. I also think it would taste delicious made into french toast.

Since this bread isn't filled with preservatives like normal breads, I keep it in the freezer and just pull off a slice and pop it in the toaster without even thawing it out first...it works great!

I know that Ezekiel breads might not be available everywhere, but probably just about any grocery store will have a form of 100% whole grain cinnamon raisin bread. Mainstream stores usually have a "natural foods" section that carries different breads than you'd find in the typical bread aisle. This bread is also often sold frozen since it doesn't have the shelf-life of other breads. The Food for Life website has a "where to buy" feature where you can type in a zip code and find any local retailers near you. You can access their website by clicking here.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Ways to save money on healthy foods, Part 3


I recently read an article about a group of people who call themselves "preppers." They are dedicated to being prepared for just about anything. I'm not talking about having a few Costco-size cases of toilet paper and soup in the garage...I'm talking about dedicating entire rooms, basements and sheds to stockpiling a year or more's worth of food and other goods in case of emergency, natural disaster, etc.

Based on what I read, I guess I could call myself an anti-prepper. Not because I dislike preppers (although the gun-toting ones scare me a little), but because I've recently made it a goal to keep my refrigerator and my pantry as bare as possible. Why? Because because it keeps me from wasting food, and consequently saves me a lot of money.

I do buy food regularly and my family eats a LOT. But I've made it a point to try and use up what I have before buying more - and I think it's really helped cut costs. Before I adopted the "bare is better" approach, I was constantly discovering food that I'd forgotten about until it had wilted or grown fuzz; or noticing that I had 7 jars of mustard, but no ketchup; or opening a brand new jar of pasta sauce when I had already had a 3/4 full one in the fridge. Out of frustration with my disorganization, and a desire to stretch my food dollars, I decided to get organized. As a result, I no longer waste money on products I already have, or throw away perfectly good food that I would have eaten if only I'd noticed it in time.

Here are some of the steps I've taken to de-clutter my fridge and pantry.

1) Cut down on condiments and/or relocate them.

It's amazing how full a refrigerator can look without having any "real" food in it. For some reason, people have a really hard time parting with something in a jar - even if it's some strange sauce they bought ages ago and didn't like that much. Go through the fridge and take a tough love approach with all those bottles of salad dressing, sauces, and other assorted things. Even better - if you happen to have a second fridge in the garage or basement, move all of your lesser-used condiments to that fridge to free up your main fridge for fresh foods.

2) Take frequent inventory.

Once the fridge and pantry are organized and de-cluttered, it's easy to look in and quickly assess what you have a lot of and what you need more of. And when you can plan meals around the foods you already have in abundance, it means less things you'll need to buy at the store (and consequently less money you'll need to spend). Right now I happen to have a lot of parmesan cheese and eggs. So maybe I'll make some sort of cheesy frittata for brunch over Easter weekend.

3) Use up what you have before you buy more.

Instead of making lots of little trips to the grocery store throughout the week, I've started making one or two really big trips once every 1-2 weeks. Then I try to be as creative as I can with the stuff I bought in order to make it last as long as possible. This sometimes gets frustrating, but most of the time it's kind of fun. It forces me to think outside the box.

One way I've been able to get innovative is by making lots of what I call "blank canvas" foods. These are dishes that can be changed up easily, so you can add in whatever ingredients or leftovers you happen to have on hand. Here are my favorite blank canvas foods:

Pancakes -

Almost anything sweet and/or nutty can be thrown into pancake batter. Smash up some overripe bananas, use up the last bits of applesauce, or toss in too-soft blueberries or crushed nuts. The other day, I even crushed up some stale gingersnaps in a batch of pancakes and they turned out great! Now I'm contemplating using our leftover peanut butter girl scout cookies to make some peanut butter banana pancakes...yum!

Eggs -

Just about any cooked veggie, meat or cheese can be added to eggs and made into frittatas, omelets, scrambled eggs, or breakfast burritos.

Pizza -

Since Sydney can't have cheese, we often make our own pizzas at home using store bought frozen or refrigerated dough. For toppings, I'll chop up leftover meatballs, sausage, veggies, or even deli meats.

Pasta -

Leftover broccoli and sliced up deli meats can be mixed into pasta salad...leftover noodles can be tossed with tuna salad. Or a simple cappellini can be mixed with some steamed shrimp, olive oil, white wine, lemon, salt, and parmesan for an easy dinner that tastes elegant.

4) Plan weekly meals around "families" of ingredients.

For me, one key to saving money has been focusing less on following exact recipes and instead creating my own simplistic (but tasty) meals. The problem with using recipes is that you often end up buying ingredients specific to that recipe, and then only using a portion of those ingredients and wasting the rest. I have bottles of spices in my pantry that probably cost $5 and that I only ever used in one dish.

To avoid this, I try to buy ingredients that go together and then use them in several different dishes throughout the week. For instance: if I buy tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, garlic and onions, I can use those ingredients in homemade pizzas, a caprese salad, bruschetta, pasta, or pasta salad.

If I buy tomatoes, cilantro, onions, garlic, peppers, and shredded cheddar cheese, I can use that in a variety of mexican-themed meals throughout the week.

I still waste food from time to time - it's inevitable. But I've definitely limited my wastefulness quite a bit. Now I rarely throw out food unless it's one of my cooking experiments gone bad, or an overabundance of red beets from one of my bountiful baskets. Being less wasteful feels good on three counts: I get to be creative, I'm saving money, and I'm being "green." I just won't be the one to turn to if disaster strikes...hopefully one of my neighbors is a prepper!