Thursday, October 13, 2011

Philly Cheese Steak and Elvis Cookies

One thing I really love doing in the kitchen is taking a basic recipe and making it awesome. This is probably due in part to the fact that I don't really follow recipes, ever. The funny thing about this is that I have to have a recipe before I'll try to make something, even though I rarely follow it exactly.

One of my favorite ways of doing this was tweaking recipes at the restaurant where I worked. Every time I ordered something I added special notes about how I wanted it made (which I'm sure all of the cooks loved): Put pepper jack cheese on my sandwich instead of colby jack. And instead of ranch I want ranch and salsa mixed together. Oh, and throw some onion rings on top for the heck of it! And things like, What would happen if you fried a blintz? Or my personal favorite, Ignore whatever I just rang in, I really want you to make *insert something completely different and not on the menu but with more or less the same ingredients*. While I was being a total pain in the ass, pretty much everything I tweaked came out awesome. I converted my co-workers to order my creations and sometimes I'd even recommend them to a customer (Key Lime Pie with a cup of strawberries, anyone?).

Another thing I often do is try to recreate menu items at home. This is how my awesome Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich was born. Way back when I first started working at the restaurant, we had an amazing Philly sandwich on Parmesan-crusted sourdough bread on the menu and eventually took it off for reasons unbeknown to me. So one day I made it at home and it might be even better than the original:

Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich
Sliced roast beef
Sliced onion
Sliced green pepper
Sourdough bread
Butter
Grated Parmesan cheese
Shredded mozzarella cheese

Butter one side of each slice of bread then sprinkle buttered side with Parmesan cheese. Put roast beef, onion, and green pepper on one side of a skillet at medium-low heat and bread on the other side (butter-side down). Sprinkle mozzarella cheese on top of bread. Stir meat and veggies until warm, then place on half the bread slices. Top with other bread slices with Parmesan cheese on the outside. The whole process should take less than 10 minutes total, with probably 5-6 minutes cook time. It doesn't take long to heat up the meat and veggies and takes even less time to grill the bread, so work quickly!

End result: Awesome-ness
 
So that's a pretty typical conversion to awesome. Today, however, I took things to a new level: Elvis Cookies.
 
As everyone should know, Elvis Presley was known for his peanut butter, banana, honey, and bacon sandwiches. I'm not yet brave enough the throw the bacon in yet, but the combination of the other three is like the supreme trifecta of win in any context. Peanut butter, banana, and honey sandwich—Check. Peanut butter, banana and honey on a bagel—Check. Banana pancakes topped with peanut butter and honey—Check. 
 
So I've known for a while that you can use honey and a substitute for sugar, and recently I learned that you can use a banana (among other things) instead of eggs in certain recipes, so I thought to myself, I could make peanut butter cookies with a banana instead of eggs and honey instead of sugar and they would be Elvis CookiesSo I found a basic peanut butter cookie recipe and went to work:

Elvis Cookies
1/2 cup soft butter
1/2 cup peanut butter (could probably add more, if desired)
2/3 cup honey
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2-1 banana
1 1/4 cup flour
I might just go crazy and add bacon bits next time
Sugar

Mix butter and peanut butter until creamy. Add honey, baking powder, and baking soda. Add vanilla and banana. Add flour. For the riskier bakers, throw in some bacon bits right about now. If it is too sticky (and it probably will be), put it in the fridge for an hour or two. Roll dough into 1-inch balls, coat with sugar and place on baking sheet 2 inches apart from one another. Smash cookie balls down with a fork. Bake at 375°F for about 9 minutes or until golden brown on top.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Elvis Cookies have left the oven!

Voìla! I was pretty impressed that they actually looked just like regular cookies when they came out of the oven. They were soft and chewy and tasted very banana-y, which is kind of weird for a cookie, but still delicious. I think next time I will add more peanut butter and/or less banana because I feel like the peanut butter was a little overshadowed by the banana. Also, I kind of want to go completely crazy and put bacon in a cookie. I was telling my mom about this idea tonight and she told me that once I put bacon in them, they aren't cookies anymore. Instead, she said, they were hors d'oeuvres. I disagree on the basis that I would still serve them for dessert and not as appetizers.

I told my husband about my Elvis Cookie project and he's pretty skeptical of the whole thing, but I think when he comes home tomorrow he'll understand. I think the real issue is that he doesn't like fruit. Because he's a freak of nature. But he likes banana bread, so I think he'll love them once he tries them.

I just can't tell him about the bacon next time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The cost of a meal

I recently read this article about the cost of cooking versus the cost of fast food. The current idea is that cooking costs less than fast food, but in actuality those numbers only take into account the price of labor when it is outsourced (e.g., fast food). When you factor in the potential labor costs for cooking at home, the price more than triples and makes the convenience of fast food seem worth the extra couple bucks.

I have mixed feelings about the idea of introducing the labor costs to home-cooked meals. First off, unless you are a chef, you don't get paid to cook. Secondly, unless you'd otherwise be working every waking minute, you won't be out a portion of your paycheck either. On the other hand, many people do find cooking to be a lot of effort and not a lot of fun, so it may sort of seem like working without getting paid, so it is something to consider.

To that end, the author proposes we place a greater emphasis on the joys of cooking, and I couldn't agree more. I love being able to provide a gift so intimate as nourishment to my friends and family and being able to share that sense of community with them. I also like having total control over the things I put in my body, and I sleep easily knowing so much more about what I ate and where it came from. I like trying new things and seeing if I can make my food even better through little tweaks here and there, and I absolutely love the sense of accomplishment I feel when I've pulled off a truly successful meal. Not enough people know these joys, and it's such a shame.

The problem is, as Michael Pollan also pointed out, nobody really knows how to cook anymore. Who is going to teach us the joys of cooking if no one can cook? Sure, some people know how to cook, but upper-middle-class white people have a bit of an edge over inner-city African-Americans, in that they don't live in food deserts and can afford to take a class or two if they're so inclined.

The author suggested that the public school system take on the task, to which I scoff and say, "Good luck with that!" With the egregious budget cuts the entire education system is taking, there's no way anyone's gonna convince schools to re-instate home economics classes. I was lucky enough to take two sessions of home economics while in middle school and I can tell you right now I learned little to nothing about cooking and barely any more about sewing. This from a predominantly white mid-size town with excellent facilities (5-6 full kitchen work stations and about 30 sewing machines).

While I think utilizing the school system has the potential to be highly effective if done right (with a focus on money management and food preparation), I don't think this is feasible unless we find a magic money tree somewhere. Instead, we need to focus on what we can do and what we can teach. Everyone knows how to cook something, even if it's just a grilled cheese sandwich. Start there. Teach your kids how to make the best grilled cheese sandwich there ever was. Then send them to their aunt or their neighbor or their church to learn something new. Provide opportunities to learn whenever possible and try to learn with them. Help them to associate cooking with their sense of community and to take pride in their endeavors.

On the other side of this, we need to make infrastructure changes to eliminate food deserts and make healthy foods an affordable alternative through subsidies and education.

But a lot of these ideas are long-term goals. What can we do right now to make dining in more affordable? My answer: Cook in bulk. Last Tuesday I made about 12 servings of lasagna and 7 servings of pancakes and put most of them in the freezer. Sure, it was a lot of work on Tuesday, but over a week later I have severely cut down my cooking time and I have something I can grab'n'go when I'm rushing between work and school. If your freezer is big enough, cook a few different things all at once so you have options instead of eating lasagna every day (not that I'm complaining!). Cooking 12 servings of lasagna instead of 2 servings probably took an extra 10 minutes and I got an extra 10 meals out of the work. Same goes for the pancakes: A double batch will take 10 extra minutes but will double your servings at the end. Furthermore, it will save money in addition to time because you can buy food in bulk instead of buying single-serving containers.

Tada! Look at me try and solve the world's problems like I think they're easy. Or at least hand out a couple crutches to get by on.

Urban Gardening

When we first moved to Houston, my husband said we should take our old pantry shelving and grow some plants on them on our patio. I kind of gave him a look of skepticism and we didn't really talk about it again after that. It'll never work, I thought. Between the two of us there wasn't a single green thumb, or even a green toe. Every plant that has come into our home has left it dead faster than you can say, "Hey honey, did you ever water the plants?"

Nonetheless, the old pantry shelves are still out on the patio, waiting for someone to re-assemble them and put them to good use. Then the other day, Whole Foods posted this video about growing your own herbs, and I thought it was pretty cool.


I brought up the video with my husband and he said something to the effect of, "See? I told you you'd want to do it." I'm still not convinced that we can pull it off, but at least now I'm vaguely interested.

My two major concerns are 1) if we can keep anything alive that doesn't whine when it's not fed, and 2) if we have enough sunlight for anything to grow out there.

The video talks about how some herbs need more light than others, but I'm not sure my south-east facing patio gets even 4-6 hours of sunlight per day. I mean, it doesn't get satellite service and barely gets cell phone service, so how could the sun possibly get through, right? I should maybe check that out sometime. When I'm home during the day. Like I was today... Whoops.

I guess I'm also concerned about the so-called "winter" down here. What happens when it freezes? Will all my plants die? Can I fix that? Am I really responsible enough to check the forecast to preemptively save the plants from their utter demise (I'm pretty sure the answer is a resounding NO to this one)? Why did I think it was a good idea to start thinking about this project in the fall?

So more than likely I'm going to try to make this happen because I think it would be really cool to be able to go out and pluck the herbs I need for my food and use them that day. Plus if you keep them alive long enough you can actually save money! But I have a feeling it won't be until after "winter" is mostly over. In the meantime, I intend to do some research to figure out a logistics plan to keep plants alive. Maybe I'll adopt a house plant for the winter and see if I don't kill it (*insert sarcastic chuckle here*).

More later.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Food Politics

I finally finished reading "Food Politics" by Marion Nestle last month. I'm not gonna lie, it's kind of a tough read, but definitely worth it.

Basically, the whole point of the book is to bring attention to the fact that the FDA basically has no power and every time it tries to assert itself, it loses even more ground. Nestle discusses this from several different angles and also gives a rough time line of what the FDA has done (or been stopped from doing) over the last 40 or so years.

What was especially disparaging was the way food companies began being able to put "health claims" on their packaging and in their advertising, mostly thanks to the supplement industry. The supplement industry helped build a grassroots effort to allow consumers the "right to choose" what is best for them. After the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), the supplement industry was allowed to put health claims on their products, even if those claims had little or no scientific evidence to back them up. Following this was the creation of functional foods, the sole purpose of which is to act as a "healthier" alternative to traditional food. Companies marketing functional foods made the claim that these foods had added supplements and under DSHEA, they had the right to advertise the things that made them so "healthy."And so they did. And now everything in the supermarket seems to have one health claim or another on it.

Furthermore, the FDA seems to be blocked from every possible side. Nestle talked about her time working on the Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health, and how she was explicitly told she would not be allowed to make any recommendations that would suggest that a person eat less of any particular food because the food industry would pull its financial support from the elected officials responsible for its release. As such, Nestle had to resort to attacking specific nutrients rather than types of food. Instead of telling people to eat less red meat, she had to say "Choose a diet low in saturated fat." These types of statements are confusing to consumers and allow other equally unhealthy foods to take advantage of advertising their low-fat status (even though they are full of sugar or high fructose corn syrup). Even more interestingly, the FDA has no control over what gets put in advertising that is not on the package, because that has to go through the FCC.

What's worse is that the FDA has 120 days from when a food company petitions to put a health claim on its product to determine if the claim is accurate and must prove it is inaccurate within that time frame in order to prohibit its use. If the 120 days expires, the claim is automatically approved. And should the FDA later determine the product is unsafe, the FDA can't actually do anything about it. They can only "request" that a food company recall the product. As you can imagine, the FDA is totally underfunded for such a task and so most of these petitions go through without so much as an eyelash batted at them.

Nestle's book is very technical, so it's a slow read. But the information is invaluable and really makes me think carefully about the health claims I hear, where I hear them, and who is paying for them. As Michael Pollan said, if a food makes a health claim, it probably isn't real food. Words to live by right there.

In other book news, I'm currently working on "The Story of Sushi" by Trevor Corson, which is mostly a bookumentary on a group of aspiring sushi chefs. Most of it is sort of funny stories about their time at sushi school, but there are a lot of interesting bits about how sushi is made traditionally and how sushi has changed over time and since its arrival in the United States. I don't have much time for it now that school is started, but I'm slowly working my way through it. I also bought a fun book called "Insanewiches" by Adrian Fiorino, which is basically a picture/cook book of crazy sandwiches. Not all of them are healthy (Most notably the Quadruple Down, featuring four fried chicken breasts, bacon, cheese, mayo, etc. I'm having a heart attack just looking at the picture), but there are many that are at least reasonably good for you. And they're cute. So I will probably make some and post them on here at some point.

Leftovers

Let me just preface this whole post with something. Generally speaking, I hate leftovers. There are a few exceptions to this rule (lasagna), but for the most part, I'm pretty sick of eating something after one or two days in a row. Furthermore, my husband is not really any better, which is apparently weird.

One time, a few years back, I was at my (male) friend's parents' house and I was trying to make room for the food that was going to be dinner that night, and with three teenage boys living at home, there wasn't much room left. So I threw away my friend's leftovers from the day before thinking, Who's gonna eat these leftovers when we have all this fresh food that needs to be eaten? And that's when I found out that you're apparently not supposed to touch a man's leftovers. Ever. Unless they're my husband's leftovers. You can throw those away because he's not gonna eat them unless I make it happen.

That being said, I'm trying to do three things in regards to leftovers:

1. Figure out how to make things in smaller portions.

2. Re-invent my leftovers to take on a new form.

3. Freeze everything else.


I've successfully made a few things with smaller portions. My best accomplishment to date, is making mini-lasagna. My original recipe is for a 9x13 pan, but my husband and I could barely finish it. I would usually eat three or four big pieces and make him eat at least three (He is not as big of a fan of these leftovers as I am). So we cut it down to a 9x9 pan, which makes about 5 servings, which is just enough for the two of us. More recently though, I made lasagna for myself is an 8x6 which was just right with about three servings. I've also made a single serving eggplant burger, chicken, and a few other things. My biggest problem tends to be anything with eggs or yeast, because you can't really include half an egg or half a yeast packet, can you?

Going along with making smaller portions, I've also been working on purchasing smaller portions. Sometimes when I'm at the farmer's market, I'll see these huge baskets of tomatoes or okra or strawberries or whatever, and I know there's no way I'd be able to finish the whole basket. Some of the farmers have been kind enough to offer me a half-portion or allow me to buy the amount I need. I had a really nice farmer at one market that was selling a big basket of tomatoes for $4. I told him I really only needed one or two, so he gave me two "ugly" tomatoes for $1. Another farmer was selling quarts of strawberries and I didn't think I could use that much, so she offered me a pint for half the price.

My other problem area is meats. I feel silly asking for only half a pound of ground beef, but when I'm only making food for one or two, that's really all I need. So I've been brave and asked for the amount I need.

My other other problem area is restaurant leftovers. I never seem to eat them after we leave the restaurant. Why I ask them to box them up is beyond me, but I do it. In order to prevent this whole predicament, I usually try to get my husband to share something with me. Unfortunately, we often have different tastes or he's "really hungry" and won't want to share. Last time we compromised and I got a small dish (quesadilla appetizer) and he got a big dish that I also wanted (burrito) and we split them.

Reinventing has been my most successful endeavor, I think. It is especially good with leftover meat dishes from restaurants. My leftover steak from Benjy's? I put it in my omelet the next day. My leftovers from the Vietnamese place? Omelet. My leftovers from my fajitas? Stir-fry, though they might've made a nice omelet too, I don't know. I put leftover chicken on salads. Leftover ribs can become pulled pork sandwiches. The list goes on. My biggest problem is just not knowing how to make it different from what I was already eating, but throwing stuff in my omelets seems to work pretty well as a fallback plan for now.

Freezing things has also worked pretty well. I already freeze my pizza dough because it makes enough for two large pizzas, but now I've started freezing it in smaller portions and I make mini-pizzas. I've also been making batches of pancakes and freezing whatever I don't eat. This has been the best thing ever because it makes making breakfast so easy. I just pop a couple in the microwave and BAM! Breakfast is served.

I added banana slices one time but I don't think they froze as well. They were excellent fresh though!

Whole Wheat Pancakes (From Better Homes and Gardens, p. 137)
1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 1/2 cups milk
3 tablespoons cooking oil

1. In a large bowl stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. In another bowl use a fork to combine egg, milk, and oil. Add egg mixture all at once to flour mixture. Stir just until moistened (batter should be slightly lumpy). If desired, stir in desired fruit.

2. For each standard-size pancake, pour about 1/4 cup batter onto a hot, lightly greased griddle or heavy skillet, spreading batter if necessary. For dollar-size pancakes, use about 1 tablespoon batter. Cook over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes on each side or until pancakes are golden brown, turning to second side when pancakes have bubbly surfaces and edges are slightly dry. Serve warm. If desired, top with syrup.

Meatballs was another very freezable meal. I can add a few to spaghetti, make meatball subs, or just eat them by themselves. What I really like is that I can put all of them in one freezer bag and pull out just what I need.

 Open-Faced Meatball Sandwich

Meatballs (from The Newlywed Cookbook, p. 72)

1 pound lean ground beef
1 small onion, diced (about 1/2 cup)
1/4 cup Italian-style dry bread crumbs
1 egg
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley (or just regular, dried parsley, or Italian seasoning)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 teaspoons olive oil

1. In a large bowl, combine beef, onion, bread crumbs, egg, parsley, salt, and pepper. Mix well with your hands and form mixture into 16 2-inch meatballs.
2. Heat oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add meatballs and sauté 5-7 minutes, or until browned on sides.

Top with marinara, cheese, etc. Same goes for the leftovers. Just dump whatever you want on them and throw them in the microwave.

Houston Restaurant Week/Month/Something

My new neighbor friends were really into Houston Restaurant Weeks last month, and so we went to a few different restaurants showcased during the event. The basic premise is that during the event, participating restaurants will offer a special menu ($20 for 2- to 3-course brunch or lunch, $35 for 3-course dinner) to showcase their food and $3 of each meal sold goes to the Houston Food Bank.

Of course, I went to Sorrel. I've already talked about them a ton. I also went to Benjy's which offered a delightful brunch, as noted by the photos below:

Benjy's Famous Crunchy French Toast

 Steak and Eggs with Hash Browns and Grilled Tomato

And there was dessert too, but I ate that before I remembered to take a picture.
I've also hit a few other local restaurants worth mentioning. I've found a few yummy Mexican places, most notably Chuy's and Lupe Tortilla. Chuy's is sort of sketchy looking on the outside, but it's very eclectic and fun on the inside. I've gotten a burrito and quesadilla there, both were excellent. They also sell funny t-shirts and other paraphernalia such as CAPES! And yes, I bought one. No judgment. Lupe, on the other hand, looks like a pretty typical Mexican restaurant on the outside, but inside are the best freaking fajitas of all time. No lie, they are "world famous" and huge portions! I definitely need one or even two people to split it with me next time.

Last weekend, I also went to this fabulous Vietnamese restaurant (but I have no idea what the name of it was). I was at a concert with one of my classmates and afterward (at like, 2 AM), we were both a little hungry. She told me about this Vietnamese place that was open until 4 near her apartment, so we went over there. I was thinking this was going to be a little hole in the wall late night place, but it was a full-fledged, and dare I say mid- to upscale restaurant. I ordered some Vietnamese fajitas and once again, I was more than impressed. It was a large portion for about $11 dollars and I used my leftovers in my omelet the next day. I also seriously enjoyed the "tortillas" which, when they were delivered, were like giant see-through communion wafers. But then I got a bowl of water and when I dipped them in, they became pliable little spring roll papers.

I haven't been to too many other places yet, but I've got a couple on my to-do list and I'm sure I'll find more to go on and on about in the coming months. Meanwhile, I need to bulk up my menu at home with inspirations from these new delicious treats.

Okra and Eggplant

Hello, blogosphere. It's been a while. Here's a quick update on my non-foodie life: I've been working a lot. And I started school again in August. So I've had zero time for blogging. BUT! I have had time for cooking. And eating. Which we will discuss. Today.

So as I mentioned in my previous entry, I decided to experiment with the okra and eggplant that I bought at the farmer's market. I've eaten okra a few times prior to this, but I'd never cooked it on my own. Eggplant, on the other hand, was completely foreign to me. And so, my adventure began.

For my first cooking experience with okra, I decided to stick with something simple, so I pan-fried it. Basically I sliced it, covered it in olive oil, covered it in bread crumbs, and tossed the whole thing in the frying pan for a while.

Okay, so it wasn't exactly "covered" in bread crumbs, but you get the idea.
The final result was pretty good. Not amazing, but definitely edible. After I got tired of that, I still had quite a bit of okra left over, so I had to start getting creative. This is when I learned an incredibly important fact: You can put okra in just about anything. And so I did. Okra got put in salads. Okra got put in fajitas. Okra got put in chili. Okra has also made several appearances in my omelets. 

Okra, Tomato, and Feta Omelet. And also a bagel.

My adopted brother, Ben (who grew up in the South), told me the ONLY way to cook okra is to fry it in butter. I haven't yet tried this method, but it's on my list.

Perhaps the biggest complaint I hear about okra is how slimy it is, but there are ways to get around this. As noted in this blog, oil-based cooking works better than water-based cooking. I've also heard that cooking them whole works better than slicing them, but I haven't tried this technique yet. Overall, I would say my okra experience includes a mild slime, but it's not so bad. Probably my best results come from mixing it with a lot of other stuff, such as the omelets and fajitas. It blends pretty seamlessly, and therefore slime-lessly. Truth be told, I don't even notice it most of the time, and neither does my husband when I sneak it in his food.

 Eggplant has been more of a problem for me.

My first eggplant experiment was awesome. I made this eggplant burger and it was such an excellent meat substitute:

Mmm... cheesy.

Eggplant Burgers (from Simply in Season, p. 143)
2 tablespoons oil
2 teaspoons wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Whisk together in a small bowl. Cut 1 large eggplant into 1/4-inch thick slices to make 12-16 slices. Brush with oil mixture. Place on grill over medium-high heat. Close lid and cook, turning and brushing occasionally with remaining oil mixture, until tender, 5-10 minutes. Remove from grill. (Eggplant slices may be cooked under the broiler or sautéed in a fry pan until tender.

Simply in Season recommends adding cheese, tomatoes, red peppers, fresh basil leaves, etc. I just added the cheese, which was perfect.

After the excellent first attempt, I thought eggplant would be another successful venture. But I was wrong. Oh so wrong.

I tried a few other recipes and I just couldn't get them right. The eggplant always came out wet and chewy. It wasn't bad, but I just didn't like it very much, and it quickly became difficult finding ways to eat it. Here are some that I tried and maybe I'll try them again later and see if I have better luck.

Spicy Roasted Eggplant (from Simply in Season, p. 121)
1/2 cup fresh cilantro sprigs (chopped)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
pinch of ground cinnamon

Stir together. Cut 1 large eggplant in 1/4-inch slices. Brush cilantro mixture on both sides of eggplant slices and transfer to greased baking pan. Broil eggplant 5-6 inches from heat until golden and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Results:

Meh.
Broiled Eggplant with Crunchy Parmesan Crust (From Farmer John's Cookbook, p. 177. I used their recipe for making my own mayonnaise, but I did a pretty bad job. I think it's one of those things you have to follow the directions closely, or else. Maybe I'll make/buy better mayo and this will turn out better next time. Also, you can never have too much cheese.)
Oil for greasing the baking sheet
mayonnaise
eggplant, cut into 1/4-inch slices
freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 1/2 cup)

1. Preheat the broiler. Lightly oil a baking sheet.
2. Spread mayonnaise sparingly on both sides of each eggplant slice, then dip the slices in the grated Parmesan cheese, thoroughly coating both sides.
3. Arrange slices in a single layer on the oiled baking sheet and place under broiler until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Flip the slices and broil until golden brown and crunchy on top and the eggplant is soft, about 3 minutes more.

Result:
Served with pan-crusted tilapia, bread, and of course, fried okra
I really think the mayo was to blame for this one. I'm going to retry it later. And maybe make the mayo right this time.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Sorrel Urban Bistro

One of my friends is a pastry chef at Sorrel Urban Bistro, a new restaurant in Houston. I had the opportunity to check it out today and it was AMAZING!

Sorrel prides itself on being part of the farm-to-table movement. Much of their menu uses local, organic ingredients, in everything from the main courses to the desserts to even the wines (I had a sweet white wine on tap that was made from grapes grown in Texas). The atmosphere is light and casual and it's reasonably priced. They also offer a three-course lunch and a five-course dinner (with or without wine) so you can get a taste of everything.

This time I tried the green peppercorn crusted pork (I'm not gonna lie, the menu listed a bunch of other fancy ingredients and sides that I will not be able to recall from memory, but it was delicious). The meal looked like a piece of edible art; it was elegantly arranged into a neat little stack of tastiness--I almost felt bad cutting it apart...almost. The portion looks small compared to something at a chain restaurant like Outback or Texas Roadhouse (which are terribly over-portioned, mind you), but it was extremely filling and I normally would have skipped dessert had that not been the main reason I had come.

So next came dessert. And let me give you this advice: Make friends with the person in charge of desserts. We were treated to this little sampler plate, which was definitely not on the menu:
I am re-tasting the amazing-ness just looking at it.

Now all of these I can remember: On the left is a bread pudding. In the shot glasses are watermelon granite with cookie crisps. In the center is a lemon bar with raspberry sorbet. And on the right is a peach and blueberry crepe.

I am a huge fan of bread pudding, and this one was fabulous; and I love crepes, especially when they're made right; but I don't think anything can compare to the lemon bar/raspberry sorbet combination. It was the epitome of refreshment on a hot summer day. But who am I kidding? Everything was wonderful. I would eat it all again and then some.

So, long story short, Sorrel Urban Bistro is highly recommended. And I will be going back. Many times. Possibly with my mom when she visits next week...

UPDATE: Thought I would throw in another picture from a more recent visit. I think this one was when I went with my mom.

I can't remember what this was, but like everything else I've had at Sorrel, it's AMAZING!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Move

Well readers, in case you were unaware, I have moved to Houston. Hence my extended absence...again. But fear not, I have been busy cooking and eating up a storm! But first, I went shopping.

In order to get out of my fast food rut (it's not easy to eat healthy when all your food is boxed up and you're on the road, so no judgment!), I made a trip to the farmers market at Rice University. The market is every Tuesday afternoon and, I believe (*insert middle school girl squeals here*), it's year round!

I was a little afraid of what I would find there since Texas is a little less *ahem* tree-hugger than my previous community. I thought it might be difficult to find organic growers or humanely raised animal products. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that over half of the farms at the market were either certified organic or followed organic principles but were not certified. Even better was that each farm had a large banner proudly proclaiming their status, making my shopping much more efficient and less awkward.

In all seriousness, I hate walking up to a stand and not buying anything. I feel like a bitch when I just look and decide there isn't anything I want or the next vendor over is selling it cheaper. I really don't have the guts to walk up and ask about a farmer's growing practices and walk away if I don't approve, so I'm glad I don't have to do that.

While at the market the first time, I picked up some old favorites like tomatoes, green peppers, and eggs (though the egg lady offered me duck eggs as well...I may have to take her up on that later!), but I also got some hummus, some AMAZING feta cheese and some new things to try, including okra and eggplant (which I will blog about later). I also got some spare ribs and some beef stew meat.

Overall, I'm very satisfied with my new farmers market, and I'm excited to visit a different one this or next weekend, but I do have a few grumblings/complaints:

1. The market is kind of small, but I may find the weekend market larger and with more selection, so we'll see.
2. It's kind of expensive, but most of the food seems more expensive here, so I may just have to get used to it. I'm trying to buy less junk, so that should help my food budget a bit.
3. There are hardly any fruits for sale. Seriously, one or two stands had watermelon and one conventional stand had peaches. That was it. I am going through fruit withdrawal. But perhaps the weekend market will suffice my need for fruit as well, so we'll see and I'll report back.

I went to the market this week as well, and I skipped the okra and eggplant because I still had some leftover, but I picked up some local honey. Interesting fact: Honey helps fight allergies because you get a mild exposure to the local pollen through the honey, so it is especially important to buy local! (Note: I looked into this and the New York Times wrote about a study that disproves this theory, so this may not be true. The NYT said most pollen allergens are wind borne rather than insect borne, so you would not be getting exposed to the same kinds of pollens. HOWEVER, I found another article that suggests some pollens are both wind and insect borne, and if those are the pollens you're allergic to, then you would see improvements when eating local honey, so it may be worth investigating further...)

For the rest of my shopping needs, I was excited to find out there was a Whole Foods near my new home! Whole Foods is very similar to the co-op I used to shop at, but bigger and better! The produce section was probably twice as big, and they had a separate fish counter from the meat counter. The fish are MSC-certified and Whole Foods has a lot of control over their supply and their sources, making sure they are properly maintained. They had an even bigger selection of bread made in-house, and a huge wine selection that I have yet to check out.

I was delighted to see they had local milk in quart containers (that's really all I can drink before it goes bad) and I got this Peaches and Cream milk that was also local (and fabulous) in a quart container. I got some yummy rosemary sourdough bread, some catfish, gulf shrimp, lemons, sour cream, butter, spaghetti sauce, and some seasonings. But of course, it wasn't perfect:

1. They only had one kind of butter in a tub, and it was the exact same brand and type as they had at the co-op (which I hated). But I remedied this by putting one of my butter sticks (which I had several options to choose from) in my butter dish and left it out on the counter.
2. The wait was terrible. I had to wait ten minutes before someone could help me at the fish counter and about 15 minutes to get cashed out. It seems like they need to build another location so that half of the people will go somewhere else!

One random perk is that the co-op used to charge extra if you didn't bring your own bags but Whole Foods gives you a ten cent discount for every bag you bring, so I can lightly pack several bags and save even more...win!

I've made a couple random trips to the regular grocery stores for odds and ends (like s'mores ingredients) as well. Mostly I've gone to Kroger because it's closest, but I don't really like it. My husband really likes Albertson's and so he usually shops there (I'm addicted to their Yahtzee scratch cards). I've seen a few Fiestas around and I'm kind of scared to go in because they seem kind of... too focused to price and not on quality. I like H-E-B, it's probably the closest thing to my old grocery store, so once I find one nearby, I'll probably use it to find all those random things Whole Foods doesn't have.

PS: I'm blogging via phone because I dont have my Internet hooked up yet, so please excuse any spelling errors. They are hard to find on here, but I will go through and edit this later!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Phyllo Paper

After I finished watching Julia Child's cooking show, Everyday Italian came on. So I watched mindlessly because I had nothing better to do, and because Giada De Laurentiis is allegedly my brother-in-law's soul mate. Anyway, she was making these funny little things she called Smoked Mozzarella and Sun-Dried Tomato Cigars. Basically, you wrap phyllo paper around slices of mozzarella cheese and little sun-dried tomato bits and then bake them until they're crispy and delicious. They seemed simple enough and I'd seen a dozen recipes using phyllo paper, so I decided to try and make them.

I went to the co-op and found some organic phyllo paper and it came in a package of 20 frozen sheets. I really didn't need 20 cigars, so I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to try some other things made out of phyllo paper.

I let it thaw in the fridge overnight and set to work the next morning. Giada recommends putting a damp towel over the phyllo paper so it doesn't dry out while you're working with an individual piece, so I did just that and attempted to pull off the first piece of paper to use. Key word here being attempted.

Little did I realize that phyllo paper is a HUGE PAIN. It sticks together, pretty much no matter what you do. So you end up with these holes in your sheet and one corner is completely stuck together so you end up just ripping it off like a pad of legal paper and you've got this huge chuck missing off the end.

On the other side, this isn't really that big of a deal because you end up wrapping the phyllo paper around the delicious inside so many times it evens out. So while this was seriously annoying, my laid-back approach to cooking just worked with it.

So anyway, I ended up with this as my final product:

*CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH*

They were pretty tasty and a cute snack. Aside from the phyllo paper problems they were very simple to make as well. But I still had 12 sheets of phyllo paper left and I needed to figure out what to do with it.
I pulled out some cookbooks and dug through to find some phyllo paper recipes. And that's when I figured out that most of those interesting phyllo paper recipes called for ridiculous ingredients that I would never have on hand. There was one that was like a fruit pie that I liked but it had a cream cheese filling, and I had no cream cheese. And I liked the Chinese football folding method of another one, but I didn't have salmon or whatever else I was supposed to put inside. So I thought for a moment and decided to somehow combine the two.

So here is roughly what I did:


Cut phyllo paper into 2-inch(ish) strips. Spoon a bite-size amount of fruit onto one end (I used cherries mixed with honey, peach pie filling, and blueberries mixed with honey). Fold into Chinese football. Baste with melted butter. Bake 12-15 minutes at 400°F. 

Voilà!

Basically I ended up with these cute (and tasty) little fruit tarts. They weren't the prettiest (mostly because I'd given up using proper strips of phyllo paper and resorted to whatever scraps didn't stick together), but I think they were still awesome.

And I wish the story ended here, but it didn't.

I had to run some errands almost immediately after making these gems, so I hurriedly put them in a storage container so they would be safe from germs and dirt and my dog. Little did I realize that they would turn into goop. The phyllo paper got all soggy from the fruit juices and everything just kind of squished together into this crêpe-y-cobbler-y mushy mess. It still tasted good, but it did not look anywhere near as good as when they first came out of the oven (which really wasn't even that good). Next time, I think plastic wrap/aluminum foil will be in order.

So I think it's safe to say I've figured out how to use phyllo paper rather effectively, and maybe if I try a little harder my treats won't come out so ugly. Maybe.

Poached Eggs, Revisited.

The other day I was watching TV and while I was flipping through channels I saw that Julia Child's cooking show was about to come on, so naturally I decided to watch it.

Hilariously enough, it was the episode in which she makes poached eggs, so I attempted to pick up some tips from the master and see if I could make any more sense out of her poached egg nonsense.

Basically, the entire segment was nearly word-for-word out of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She recommended using that dang poaching spoon again. But she also offered a new technique: The vortex.

The idea behind this method is that you create a vortex in your barely simmering pan of water and the spinning motion keeps the egg intact so it doesn't end up being poached scrambled (see my first attempt at poaching an egg).

Huh...I thought. That sounds like fun to try. And so I did. And I attempted to document simultaneously, which probably led to the ultimate demise of this plan. Nonetheless, here are the results.

Notice how the whites are going everywhere while following the path of the vortex.

So once again, Julia Child fails at teaching me how to properly poach an egg. What's even funnier is that all of the eggs she cooked without the poaching spoon thing ended up about as bad as mine. Perhaps the best part of the segment was when she said (in her boisterous and seemingly drunk voice): "Theeeeeese eggs are nottttttttttt very pretty. They would not be gooooooood enough to serve unless yoooooooooooooooooooou have a lot of saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaauce on toppppppppppp of them!"

After my failed vortex, I made another egg using my co-worker's method of letting the egg poach itself.

The one on top that looks halfway decent is my co-worker's method. The one underneath with the yolk hanging out is Julia Child's method. You be the judge.

Despite this, I may have to continue trying to catch Julia Child's show. Just so I can have a good laugh.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nudo Olive Oil

Waaay back in December, my husband adopted an olive tree for me from Nudo for Christmas. Nudo is an organic grove and they produce their oil in small batches at the nearby press to maintain their local, artisan flavor. They also send me monthly updates about the grove, along with recipes and other fun tidbits. The idea is that you adopt a specific tree in an Italian olive grove (They gave me a map of where my tree is located and if I so desire I can hug it and take my picture with it or whatever else) and come harvest time I get all the extra virgin olive oil from MY tree! Pretty cool, if I say so.

Well, harvest time came last month and I got four cute little tins of olive oil from my tree.

*Insert giddy noises here*
 
Unfortunately, I hadn't yet finished my bottles of olive oil I already had, so I had to wait until now to break one open.  I started my taste test with a little cracked pepper and dipped my pesto baguette from the farmers market in it.

Yum!

It was superb. The oil was so flavorful and lively, particularly because it was so fresh compared to what I buy at the store. The tins are supposed to help preserve the flavor and I could really taste the difference. Hopefully that will still be true three months from now when I get near the end. I'll also receive a package of flavored olive oils from their other groves in the fall, so I'll have about double what I got now altogether.
 
I was a little skeptical of the tins at first because I wasn't sure how they resealed once you opened them. But it turns out when you open it, a little spout pops up and the lid becomes a twist-on cap. It's perfect and incredibly cute. I will have to invite people over soon to try it out. Nudo recommends doing a side-by-side comparison of a store brand and I think that would be a lot of fun. Any takers?

Rhubarb

I have been having a hell of a time figuring out what to do with rhubarb. The first couple bundles I bought this season I ended up throwing away because they went bad before I figured out what to do with them. But I really wanted to do something with it, so I kept buying it. All of the recipes I came across called for unusual ingredients or complicated preparation and so I just wasn't interested. Finally, I pulled out my Simply in Season cookbook for some inspiration. I found the Roasted Rhubarb recipe (p. 74) and thought, Ahhhh perfect! Below is the recipe in the book:

4 cups rhubarb (chopped)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup orange or lemon juice
2 tablespoons candied ginger or fresh ginger root (minced)
1 teaspoon orange or lemon peel (grated)

Combine in baking pan. Spread evenly and bake in preheated over at 450F until rhubarb is soft but retains its shape, about 25 minutes. Stir, cool slightly, and serve with ice cream or yogurt.

Okay, so this was actually far from perfect because I didn't have any candied ginger or fresh ginger root or fresh orange or lemon peel (remember all those unusual ingredients?!). And I definitely didn't have 4 cups of rhubarb either. But this was doable. So I tweaked it a little and made it work. Here is my modified recipe:

1 1/2ish cups rhubarb (chopped)
honey (enough to lightly coat rhubarb)
big splash of lemon juice
healthy sprinklings of ground ginger and lemon peel

Cook as stated above.

This was definitely a much smaller batch, so I may have over cooked it just a little, but it was still very good paired with some local vanilla yogurt. With the yogurt, it was just enough for two small servings.

So my next visit to the market, I decided to get some more rhubarb and try it again. I was at the Monday market (which is a lot smaller than the Wednesday market) and I saw some rhubarb and asked for a bundle of it. The farmer smiled sheepishly and informed me that I was looking at chard, not rhubarb. Oh, how embarrassing. Nobody had any rhubarb that day. The chard farmer said he almost brought some but decided against it at the last minute. Oh well.

I went to the market again last night and bought some legit rhubarb (and I can plainly see the difference between it and chard now). I also bought some strawberries, so I decided to tweak the recipe even more today. Here is my final version:

2ish cups chopped strawberries and rhubarb (I probably had 1/3 strawberries and 2/3 rhubarb, but a 50/50 ratio would be ideal)
honey (enough to lightly coat)
big splash of lemon juice
healthy sprinklings of ground ginger and lemon peel

Combine in baking pan. Then add the Better Homes and Gardens streusel topping from page 126:

In a small bowl stir together 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour, 3 tablespoons packed brown sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon. Cut in 2 tablespoons butter until the mixture resembles course crumbs.

Sprinkle on top of strawberry rhubarb mixture (you could probably double the streusel recipe if desired) and bake at 450F for 18 minutes.

Pure Strawberry Rhubarb Heaven

Excellent on its own and probably even better with yogurt or ice cream, but I was out. I ate about half already, so I would say there are two servings without the dairy, three-to-four with it.
I'm pretty sure I have a new favorite summer dessert. Just saying...

Peas in a Pod

I recently bought some sugar snap peas at the farmers market. This was the first time I'd ever bought peas that were not pre-shucked, so I really had no idea what I was doing. I decided that I wasn't quite comfortable cooking them inside the pod yet, so I opted to shuck my small pile of peas and cook them like normal.

Half an hour later...
Talk about pathetic...

I brooded over my wimpy batch of peas next to the hulking pile of leftover pods. This isn't even one serving of peas, I thought. Nonetheless, I dumped my little mound into a pot of boiling water and prayed they would grow to a respectable size after absorbing some water.

Nope. Not really any bigger.

So apparently, these were not magic peas that would double in size with a little water. Despite this, I buttered and seasoned them up and ate them just the same. They were delicious, but there just wasn't much to them.

A few days later I found myself back at the market picking up another pint of peas, this time determined to cook and eat them in the pods. About a week later I bought some more peas and when I put them in the fridge, I realized I had not yet prepared or eaten the last batch I'd bought. So I immediately pulled the old batch out and got to work. Again, I wimped out and decided to shuck them, but these peas were a little more mature than the first batch (They'd gone through that whole 'potty joke phase' and were now discussing their college plans). As such, I had a much more reasonable portion of peas for an end result, but still only enough for about one person. Seeing as how I'm the only one eating these peas, this is probably for the best. I haven't yet made the most recent batch of peas, but something tells me I'm still going to shuck them.

I don't know what it is, but I just don't really have a fondness for eating pea pods...It's like eating an orange peel or something. I know I could cook them in a stir-fry and it would look perfectly normal, but I don't really care that much for stir-fry either. If anyone has any other great ideas for eating the pods, please share and I will try it out. Otherwise, I'm shucking them.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Kohlrabi

On one of my recent market visits, one of the farmers was selling kohlrabi for $1, so I figured I'd try it out. I've never had kohlrabi before, let alone made it, so this was going to be a new adventure for me.


I recently acquired a copy of Simply in Season, which is an excellent resource for all those unfamiliar fruits and veggies at the market. I looked up kohlrabi and it said to boil it for 30-35 minutes, then chop it up and serve with the typical vegetable fare (seasoning, butter, cheese, etc). So I did.

Is it just me or is it a little warm in here?
 
I boiled that ugly sucker for a good half hour, flipping it over halfway through so the stuff sticking out could be submerged too. And I think for most of the time I kept the lid on to try and steam it, or something. Then I pulled it out, cut it up into bite-size pieces, and added some melted butter, salt, and pepper.

Tada!


I was a little wary of this stuff. I took a bite of it while it was still raw and it sort of reminded me of raw broccoli (not my favorite). I'd never had it before so I really had no idea what to expect of the final product, so I took my first cooked and seasoned bite and my initial reaction was "This tastes just like corn."

I figured it was just because I season corn the exact same way, but after my husband tried it, he said the same thing. So I think kohlrabi is the hybrid baby of corn and broccoli, and honestly, it's pretty delicious. I haven't been back to the market to pick up some more yet, but it's definitely on my list.

One bulb is just right for two regular-sized servings or one main course-ish sized serving. This is perfect for me because my husband still won't eat very much, if any, so when I get stuck eating a big portion, I'll at least be able to eat all of it. But if he does decide to eat a little bit, then there's enough to share too.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

TV Cooking/Home Cooking

A while back I found this really great Michael Pollan essay about cooking shows. It's pretty long, but basically he makes a point about how incredibly odd it is that people are cooking less and less, yet they are watching more and more food and cooking shows. Pollan suggests that this infatuation stems from a conflict between a general fear of cooking (e.g., the unknown) and a general love of food. Cooking shows allow people to become familiar with cooking from a safe distance and zero chance of failure. A great analogy Pollan gave was that cooking shows are like sporting matches: A lot of people watch them, but few actually do it themselves.

I never really understood cooking shows. When I was little, before the Internet was as far-reaching as it is today, I didn't know how people could possibly keep up with the likes of Martha Stewart and Paula Deen. Why would people watch these cooking shows if they can't make the food? Now, with the Internet, they can preview the show and pick out their favorite recipes online, so it makes a little more sense.

But then we get to cooking competition shows. I can't taste the foods they're making, so how do I know if it's any good?! This was the question I always asked with these shows. Other competition shows, like American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and Project Runway have results that I can see and hear, so I know if the winner is actually good or not. And yes, presentation is important (and so I can get down with cake decorating and other art-based food competitions), but bottom line is that it can look horrible and actually be pretty tasty, or it can look beautiful and taste like plastic.

Last summer, a couple of my friends were really into Top Chef, so we got together each week to watch it and have dinner. I didn't really care that much about the show (Most of the good parts were the bits of "drama" between the contestants), but I liked that we'd each take turns cooking dinner and eating together before the show. Since then, our group shifted and merged into another group and now we do Movie Night instead. Each week we watch two movies that are related somehow and make a dinner that fits with the week's theme (i.e., The Hunt for Red October, Red Dawn, and Russian cuisine). It's pretty fun and forces us to get creative sometimes and try making new things, like syrniki.

However, Pollan fears that actual, legitimate cooking may be lost forever. With the far-reaching availability of pre-packaged, processed, and fully-cooked "food," who needs to cook anymore? Further, who even knows how to cook? Does heating up a can of soup or making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich count? It shouldn't, but it does.

Young adults like me learned very little about cooking from their parents. I can work my way around the kitchen, but I can guarantee you that I was offered nowhere near the same expertise from my mother that she had from her mother. My mom gave me a few favorite family recipes and showed me the basics for cooking, but most of what I cook now I learned from the Internet, cookbooks, other cooks, or from having the courage to try something new.

My husband is the same way, though he doesn't have quite as much enthusiasm for trying new things as I do. His father doesn't know how to cook anything more than making a sandwich or heating up leftovers in the microwave. I've often wondered what he ate for the ten years that he lived alone before he met his wife, but I'm too shy to ask. Or I'm afraid to hear the answer. But anyway, as a result of my father-in-law's complete and utter lack of cooking knowledge, my mother-in-law forced my husband and his brother to learn how to cook, though I think his little brother may have gotten off a little easier because I'm not sure I've actually seen him cook real food on his own, but I could be wrong.

So I guess we're two people that give a sliver of hope to future cooks, but I know way too many people that rely heavily on pre-packaged, processed food that requires little more than water and heat. The sad thing is that their kids won't know the difference because no one's mom or dad will actually cook from scratch. Hell, they might even think boxed cake mix is cooking from scratch, rather than just buying a pre-made one from the store. What's even worse is the stigma associated with cooking from scratch. It seems to be fading somewhat, but there was definitely a time in my life where it was kind of uncool to have your parents cook from scratch. When you had a birthday, you wanted Pizza Hut and store-bought cake for your party, not a homemade three-course meal with Grandma's red velvet cake. You wanted to go to McDonald's for dinner, not Mom's goulash. Homemade food seemed so...simple. If you could afford the luxury of already prepared food, why should you bother cooking? You could have your food now, instead of having to go to the trouble of making it over the next hour.

Pollan's advice is simple: Cook more. Eat whatever you want, as long as you cook it yourself. When you do, it's fresher, healthier, and hopefully tastier (though who knows what your cooking capabilities are). It's also cheaper and, if you shop wisely, better for your local economy and the environment. So that's what I'm trying to do. I'm not perfect, but I'm getting better.

Farmers Market


Well, I’m back.
It’s been a busy couple of months, between making preparations for moving, my husband’s graduation, going on vacation, and working seemingly all the time. I lost some of my drive, but I’ve been kind of waiting for a few things to happen so I could write about them.
In particular, I’ve been anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Farmers Market, and it finally came at the beginning of the month. I’ve gone each week that I haven’t been working, doing graduation stuff, or out of town, which makes for three visits so far, and I’m planning for many more.
The city I live in is rather forward thinking when it comes to food, so the Farmers Market is a pretty big deal. There’s actually a market in different locations at least four days a week, possibly more. At the main one on Saturday mornings, there’s live music, demonstrations, and several stands along the perimeter selling food to eat while you shop. Last Saturday, I ate a fabulous omelet made with fresh, local ingredients sold at the market. It cost about as much as what we charge at the restaurant where I work (and, in my opinion, tastes about twice as delicious!). There are also several stands selling non-food items, such as pet treats, soaps, plants, and other crafty items. Overall, it’s a pretty fun event and quite crowded with fresh, local food lovers like me.
Yesterday, I took my husband with me to the market to pick up a few things. I usually don’t have a list in mind, I just look for new and interesting things and if I happen across some familiar favorites, I’ll grab those too. I knew I wanted some asparagus, but other than that, I had no idea what I was going to bring home.
When I go to the market, I usually like to make an initial loop around the stands to see what everyone is offering and for what price. Many of the stands also offer samples, so I’ll usually do my tasting during my first lap as well. After I’ve seen everything, I make one or two more laps to grab everything I want and usually find something else I didn’t see the first time.  Here are my finds for the week:
 Yum!
Starting at the top center and going clockwise I bought a bag of mixed spring greens ($3.00), a half loaf of bread ($3.50), strawberry peach jam ($6.00), asparagus ($1.75), a dozen eggs ($3.00), fancy bread [I can’t remember what kind, but the sample was delicious!] ($6.00), radishes ($1.00), and a quarter pound of smoked Gouda cheese ($5.00), for a grand total of $29.25.
I was ready to eat most of the food the second we left the market, but we’d already made dinner plans with my family so it had to wait until today. I started the morning off right with some delicious french toast using the half loaf of bread. I would have used the eggs but I had to finish off the eggs I’d bought at the co-op earlier this week. I ate it with butter and real maple syrup. 
 Below is my “recipe.”
½ loaf of bread (7-8 ½” slices)
4-6 eggs (depending on my mood)
milk (less than what I have in egg and in all likelihood inversely proportional to it)
vanilla (a few dabbles)
Mix the eggs, milk and vanilla. Soak the bread in the mixture and then grill on each side until it looks done.
Then for lunch, I decided to make the asparagus. I bought some the first time I visited the market this year because I wanted to try fresh asparagus (I’d only eaten it one other time and it was from the Cheesecake Factory). I had no idea how to prepare it—especially in a way my husband would eat it—so I asked the farmer if she had any suggestions. She said to sauté it with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Italian seasoning and top it with parmesan cheese after it’s cooked.
 Easy and Delicious
It was fabulous. I got my husband to eat it, but he wasn’t a fan (everyone else loved it though, so it’s just him). I got him to eat another piece or two today, but lucky me got to eat the rest. His loss, I say.
Peanut butter and strawberry peach jam sandwiches accompanied our asparagus. I also ate some Garden Salsa Sun Chips with avocado ranch dip—which I purchased at the market previously and is quite possibly the best tasting dip, ever.
Tonight we’ll be making a salad with the mixed greens and radishes (and possibly the avocado ranch dip) and probably eating the fancy bread with it. I’ll update more on that after dinner.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Cooking Failures and Triumphs, Part 2

So while I was making my hot cross buns, I had a little accident.

I was busily trying to mix up the dough with my hand mixer and I was getting frustrated because the dough was much sturdier than say, cake batter, and it kept sticking to my mixers. So I upped the speed and tried to get it to mix better. Then the batter began creeping even further up my mixers until it seeped into the innards of my hand mixer.

Long story short, RIP hand mixer.

Basically it overheated (luckily right as I was about to call it quits anyway), and then it wouldn't start back up again. I was even so crafty as to pull out the screwdriver and take the damn thing apart to clean out the dough that got stuck in there. I think I did a pretty good job and got it back together (minus a couple of washers that I have no idea where they came from), but it was too late. My mixer was done for.

This was exceptionally problematic because I had plans to make homemade pizza and banana bread later that day too and I now had no mixer. So I texted the hubby and this was roughly our conversation:

Me:"How much can I spend on a new mixer? Cause I just broke ours :( (i.e., Wal-Mart or Younkers mixer?)
Him: "Depends. What kind? The big stand one or hand one?"
(At this point I'm thinking, "What stand one?")
Me: "Hand one. Where's the stand one?"
Me: "Never mind, the hand one is the stand one. So can I buy a nice one or not?"

Didn't really get an answer before I dropped three Ben Franks on a gorgeous new 5-quart KitchenAid stand mixer. But my logic is that I would've gotten one eventually anyway, so might as well buy it now (while it was on sale, no less!).

So, not the end of the world, but definitely an avoidable hit to the bank account.

But what, you ask, was this week's triumph?

Duh. You have to ask?

Getting to set my food on fire was way fun and I felt like a super cool, expert chef. No lies. This topped my successful banana bread remake, the fabulously delicious and easy homemade pizza, and figuring out how to scald milk. Hands down.

Alright, I think I've updated enough for today. More to come soon I think.

New Recipe #1: Jumbo Shrimp with Chilies

So for my new recipe this week, I made Jumbo Shrimp with Chilies, although somewhat modified from the original. I got the original in a newsletter from Nudo (which I will blog about soon!) Here is basically how I made it:

1/2 lb. of shrimp (just enough for me by itself, probably enough for two if served with pasta, etc.)
Spicy salsa (a co-worker gave me a batch of homemade salsa because it was too spicy for her. I used probably two tablespoons)
Olive oil (probably about 5 tablespoons)
Salt (a sprinkle)
Grappa (Grappa is a grape brandy, I used about 4 tablespoons after a lackluster first attempt)

Mix salsa, olive oil, and salt. Add shrimp and mix well. Sauté in skillet for 10-ish minutes in an attempt to boil out some of the liquid (or next time just don't use so much). Add grappa, set on fire.

Awesome.

After flames subside, put in a bowl and eat. The result was a little on the spicy side, but not too much. I mostly focused on the exceptionally delicious part. I think this would be great over pasta, and it was my original intention to do so, but I got off work late and didn't want to mess with it. Also, I'm tempted to try out the recipe with my mango salsa as well. So many options and I'm so excited for all of them.

Yeast, Hot Cross Buns, Homemade Pizza

I finally got the ingredients together to make my great grandmother's hot cross buns. I had never made anything that used yeast before or anything that needed to rise before I made it, so I was pretty intimidated by this less-than-helpful recipe. Nonetheless, I am never one to let fear stand in the way of my cooking adventures, so I bought a couple yeast packets and went to work.

Lucky for me, my Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook also has a recipe for hot cross buns (p. 157), so I pretty much followed the entire second half of that recipe as a guide for the missing half of my great grandmother's. Interestingly, the Better Homes and Gardens recipe started with "These slightly sweet rolls often are served during the Easter season," which made me realize that they are actually hot CROSS (as in Jesus) buns. More information about traditional hot cross buns can be found here.

Anyway, here is my modified recipe all in one piece:

1 c. scalded milk
1/2 c. sugar
1/4 c. butter
1/3 tsp. salt

Combine above and cool to lukewarm. Mix 1 tsp. sugar with 1 yeast cake, dissolve in 2 Tbsp. warm water. Add to above mixture, then add:

1 beaten egg
1/2 c. raisins
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. allspice
3 1/2 to 4 c. flour

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead in enough remaining flour to make a moderately soft dough (3 to 5 minutes total). Shape into a ball. Place in a lightly greased bowl, turning once to grease surface of dough. Cover; let rise in a warm place until double in size (about 2 hours).

Punch dough down. Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface. Cover; let rest 10 minutes. Meanwhile, lightly grease two baking sheets; set aside. Divide dough into 20 pieces. Gently pull each piece into a ball, tucking edges under to make smooth tops. Place balls 1 1/2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Cover; let rise until nearly double in size (about 1 hour).

Preheat oven to 375°F. Using a sharp knife, make crisscross slashes across the top of each dough ball. Brush egg whites over rolls. Bake about 15 minutes or until golden brown. Immediately remove buns from baking sheets. Cool slightly on wire racks.

Tada!

Not gonna lie, this is pretty much what you would get if you made cinnamon raisin bread into buns, but they are delicious (particularly when they're fresh from the oven). Also, yeast is not that bad to work with (other than the smell...). I took the remainder of my batch to work the next morning where they were quickly gobbled up.

But before that, I decided to use my remaining yeast packet to try out Better Homes and Gardens' homemade pizza recipe (p. 150):

2 1/2 to 3 cups all-purpose flour
1 packet active dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 cup warm water (120°F to 130°F)
2 tablespoons olive oil

In a large mixing bowl combine 1 1/4 cups of the flour, the yeast, and salt; add warm water and oil. Beat with an electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds, scraping bowl. Beat on high speed for 3 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, stir in as much of the remaining flour as you can.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead in enough remaining flour to make a moderately stiff dough that is smooth and elastic (6 to 8 minutes total). Divide dough in half. Cover; let rest for 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425°F. Grease two 12-inch pizza pans or large baking sheets. If desired, sprinkle with cornmeal. On a lightly floured surface, roll each dough half into a 13-inch circle. Transfer dough circles to prepared pans. Build up edges slightly; prick dough with a fork. Do not let rise. Bake about 10 minutes or until light brown. Spread pizza sauce onto hot crusts and top with desired meat (pepperoni), vegetables (skip), and cheese (smoked mozzarella). Bake about 10 minutes more or until bubbly. Cut each pizza into eight wedges. Makes 8 servings (2 wedges). 

NOTE: You can take half the dough and freeze it to use later and just make one pizza.

Now, this recipe was ridiculously easy and I didn't get a picture because I gobbled up that pizza so fast there was none left to photograph. This happened both times I made it. It was that delicious.

Also on the subject of breads, the co-op was having a sale on extra-ripe bananas, so I decided to remake my banana bread. This time, I baked it at 325°F for about 80 minutes and it came out perfectly. So, now we know.

Also, after much thought, I've decided to retire my goal of cooking one thing out of my grandmother's cookbooks each week. The main reason being that upon further inspection, they were not the best cookbook choices for this experiment. The PTA cookbook and my grandmother's handwritten cookbook were almost nothing but desserts, the omelets and crepes book was just omelets and crepes (and all of them had too many weird ingredients), the Pomeranian cookbook was hardly Pomeranian at all, and my Julia Child manual was more a lesson in how to cook than what to cook (and, quite honestly, I seem to do better developing my own style of how to cook than listening to Julia, or anyone else for that matter). Also, I'll be moving for school in the next couple months, so I'll probably have to give the cookbooks back to Grandpa before long anyway.

I think, in the stead of this goal, I'll make a new goal to make one new recipe each week, regardless of its origin. The point of the previous goal was to make healthier food, and I can better make that point if I have more sources available to me.