Saturday, April 30, 2011

Clark Park Farmer's Market at 43rd & Baltimore, Philadelphia

One of the best things about where we live is our close proximity to the Clark Park Farmer's Market. Five short blocks away (through a very sweet neighborhood, I might add) is the perfect place to score some local produce, dairy, and yes, Amish baked goods. Vendors accept vouchers from local food assistance programs, and some, like Landisdale Farms from Jonestown PA, travel over 100 miles to be here each week.

Detail of a photo (C) Conrad Erb

This market is year-round, but I have to admit that in this particularly harsh and snowy Philadelphia winter, we haven't made it down since the fall. It takes place on Saturdays throughout the year, and also on Thursday afternoons from May through November. There is also a funky flea market that takes place inside the park itself (the farmer's market is on the edge) on certain Saturdays, but it wasn't in action today.

On this visit, I was hoping to score some local goat cheese for whole-grain pasta shells with goat cheese and walnuts that I will be making this week, but I didn't get lucky with that one. Still, there was plenty of local, organic, "raw" dairy present, among many other treasures. One guy was even selling beautiful hand-thrown ceramics.

I can't be sure, but I get the sense that though it's a year-round market, the true summer produce boom has not yet begun. Greens, asparagus, onions and spring garlic are plentiful though, and I got in on a little bit of the action.

Two yellow onions, one red onion, a fab-looking bean soup mix, hot salsa from Landisdale Farms, and some dried chilies.
There is no doubt that we'll become more frequent customers as the season goes on. I can't wait to get my hands on some fresh summer tomatoes!

Quote of the Day: "It's bizarre that the produce manager is more important to my children's health than the pediatrician." ~ Meryl Streep

Friday, April 29, 2011

Odds-And-Ends Salad with Chickpeas & Other Good Things

Yesterday was another marathon day, but since today was my "day off" (full of laundry, reading, homework, and all of that other fun stuff) I took the opportunity to sleep in a bit. I always think that I will enjoy sleeping late  - if you can call 9:15 late - but the older I get the more I find that it totally disrupts my sense of what time it is, what day it is, even what I want to eat that day.

But by about 12 pm, I was starving. Honestly, I probably would have eaten anything.

Rummaging around in the vegetable drawer, I found about a cup of cooked (from dry!) chickpeas, half a zucchini, a big tomato, some fresh parsley and green onion. I almost added red grapes, but decided against it. With some feta that I had honestly forgotten was there (apparently it keeps until October?), oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and a few baby spinach greens, this was a pretty tasty lunch. Much better than the "anything" I would have settled for.

Quote of the Day: “Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon.” ~ Doug Larson

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Brined Dijon Pork Chops, Crock Pot Baked Sweet Potatoes & Baby Spinach Salad

Yeah, that title is a bit of a mouthful. (Get it?)

I love terrible puns. The worse, the better. I'm sorry you had to find out this way.

Okay, but on the serious: I find pork chops very frustrating. My dad and his partner Kathy will insist - and I am sure rightfully so - that the pork available in stores today pales in comparison to the fatty, moist, flavorful pork of their youth. They may even tell you not to bother with it at all. (If you've tried my dad's crown roast, though, you would strongly disagree). But personally, I see it as a challenge to marinate, brown, and perfectly cook (generally braise) it into a tender and moist cut of meat. So far, I wouldn't say that I have succeeded, exactly.

I've cooked a few that were pretty tasty, but none that have been outstanding, and tonight's was no exception. What was different this time, though, is that I brined the two boneless chops for over 36 hours. Still, a tiny bit dry. (What's a girl gotta do?!) I lightly browned both sides over medium-low heat in a grill pan, then covered and let them cook over low heat for about 10 minutes. The meat retained the tiniest bit of sweetness from the brine, which was great with the dijon mustard that I marinated it in post-brining. I'm only partially clear on the science behind brining, so perhaps it was the combo of salt&sugar brine and mustard that inhibited its juiciness. It was a flavorful but still slightly dry result.

I can't really explain the odd pattern of the grill-marks...
The LIFE CHANGING part of tonight's dinner is the concept of baking potatoes in a crock pot. Who knew you could do that? Not me. At least, not until I read this. I skipped the limes and rubbed the spuds with seasoned salt, cumin and garlic powder. I also forgot to stab them with a fork before wrapping them up in aluminum, but they didn't explode, so all's well that ends well. Ours cooked on high for about 7 hours, but that's just as much because of my schedule as their actual required cooking time. They may have been done at 5 hours, but if they were, they surely didn't suffer for it.

These sweet potatoes came out PERFECTLY. The skin was crispy and the flesh was buttery soft with a slightly oozy sugary goop-glaze. This might have happened differently if I had stabbed them, but I'm not totally sure. Either way, I am very happy with both the result and the process, and when the craving strikes, you too can have a fully-loaded baked potato in the middle of summer without having to evacuate your overheated kitchen. My two-quart crock pot (the "baby" to the 5-quarter) snugly held two medium-large tubers. I was surprised how subdued the cumin flavor became though. Next time I will probably try a more varied blend of spices. Naturally, I served them with a little butter.

For color and "balance," I tossed some baby spinach greens with oil and my new favorite salad vinegar, the apple cider variety. This is such a simple thing, but the three components of this meal worked so well together that I think I will make sweet potatoes and spinach salad a more frequent combination. We were pretty happy!

Quote of the Day: It is a solemn thought: Dead, the noblest man's meat is inferior to pork” ~ Mark Twain

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Curried Quinoa

I know, me and my grain-centric recipes.
But in my defense, quinoa is not properly a grain at all.

And also I love curry. And after great success with The Crockpot Lady's curried chickpeas, I feel I can do no wrong in the curry department. She is quite right: It will make you want to run around the house yelling "Who's the crock potting queen?!" which will quickly become annoying to the people around you.

This is not a crock pot recipe, but I am sure it has the potential.

Fair warning: This will seem like a lot of ingredients. It kind of is. But keep in mind that the spices in this dish can be altered to fit your preferences. Don't care for coriander? No problemo! It adds a lot to this recipe, but if you hate it, just use more curry powder, garlic, and cilantro to keep the flavors strong. I also suspect that there is a lot of flexibility for what veggies you can use. You could skip the chile altogether and just use bell peppers and spices, if you wanted to.

Since I have had a few run-ins with hotter-than-expected hot peppers, I thought I was being fairly conservative by using half the pepper, finely chopped, with literally THREE SEEDS added to the pot, also chopped. It was pleasantly hot, and perfect for our tastes, but definitely judge this for yourself.

This recipe (the first on the page) turned out to be a pretty good "starter" recipe for me. Because I made a lot of changes - mostly additions - here is my version:

1 c. quinoa
1.5 tbsp. vegetable oil
.5 onion, diced
1 clove of garlic, smashed
.75 of a red bell pepper, small chopped
1-2 tsp. fresh grated ginger root
2-3 tsp. dried cilantro (if using fresh, add desired amount before serving)
.5 fresh green chile, finely chopped
1 heaping tsp. coriander
.5 tsp. curry powder
.25 tsp. ground cinnamon
.25 tsp cayenne pepper
1.75 cups water
.5 c. fresh or frozen peas

1. Rinse quinoa with cold water. Use a fine mesh filter or coffee filter.

Quinoa is coated with a natural substance called saponin that protects the grain by repelling insects and birds. Rinsing the quinoa is important to avoid a raw or bitter taste.

2. Place oil, diced onions and garlic in a heavy saucepan. Saute the onions on medium high heat for four to five minutes.

3. Add the ginger root, chile, quinoa, and red pepper. Cook for one minute stirring constantly.

4. Stir in the coriander, cinnamon, cayenne, cilantro and seasoned salt. Cook for one minute stirring constantly.

5. Add the water and bring it to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 15 minutes.

6. Stir in peas. Cover and cook for four or five minutes or until peas are tender and all the water is absorbed.

7. Fluff with a fork before serving.

Even in person, this dish is much more than meets the eye.
We really enjoyed this dish, and considering that it was easy enough for me to put it together at 9 pm after class, I consider it nearly foolproof.

Quote of the Day: "We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine-gun."  ~ George Orwell

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sauteed Shrimp with Bulgur Wheat, Zucchini & Red Pepper

Sometime last month, I had the urge to bring more seafood into my life, so I thought I would make something with shrimp, one of my favorites. This is when I found this recipe.

I had never cooked anything with shrimp in it before, and for some reason I found it intimidating. To me, shrimp were those pink little morsels that could either be delicious and refreshing, like in a shrimp cocktail, or hopelessly overdone, chewy, and all-around disappointing. Taking my bag of easy-peel, de-veined, raw frozen shrimp to the checkout line felt like a big step into the unknown.

I had used bulgur wheat in bread and in tabbouleh-esque recipes before, but this seemed a bit different to me. Just bring it to a quick boil, then remove from heat, and let sit covered for a few minutes, and tah-dah! And it actually works! I just used a chopped green onion instead of the chives, and the second time around, I added a smashed garlic clove and cut back on the lemon zest a little, just because its aroma is more "pastry" than "healthy dinner," in this combination.

One important thing: The first time I made this with bulgur wheat that was apparently hulled, or pearled. I think this is the type of bulgur that this recipe was written for. Tonight, I used whole bulgur, the type I am more used to using, which has lots more fiber and a slightly chewier texture. If you're using this type you MIGHT want to partially precook your bulgur before adding it to the shrimp and veggies, because it takes more like 12-15 minutes to cook instead of about 5. My shrimp stayed tender and juicy using the original method, but precooking or even just presoaking the bulgur might be a better way to go about it.

Brady and I both liked the version with the whole bulgur MUCH more, and its just a bonus that this is the healthier version. Personally I also think its prettier than the paler pearled bulgur. Triple win!

Easter Wrap-Up

This photo caused a few family members to have flashbacks to Gourmet Magazine. I'm afraid the reference was somewhat lost on me, but I definitely get the vintagey feel part!
If you read my last post, you know that I was a bit apprehensive about the honey oatmeal bread that I brought for Easter with Brady's relatives yesterday. I had never made it with 100% whole wheat flour before, and I was a little afraid it would come out dry and heavy. Well, I was gloriously wrong!

The muffins that I had thrown together also came out much better than expected. I combined a very general online banana nut muffin recipe with the tried-and-truly fantastic Jacked-up Banana Bread from Smitten Kitchen. The resulting recipe:

1 1/4 c. whole wheat flour
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. soda
3/4 c. rolled oats
1 egg, beaten
3 tbsp. oil
1/2 c. milk
2 heaping tbsp. honey
1 c. mashed ripe bananas - about two bananas
1/3 c. chopped walnuts
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
Pinch of ground cloves

Combine flour, baking powder, salt, spices, soda and oats. Add egg, oil, milk, honey, vanilla, bananas and nuts. Stir only until dry ingredients are moistened. Fill greased muffin cups 2/3 full. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes or until done. Makes 12-18 muffins.

I used my little silicone muffin cups on a jelly roll pan, which yielded 14 muffins. One became sadly decapitated (and immediately eaten) in the cooling process, making a perfect baker's dozen. 

These came out moist and tasty, and somehow much more delicious than I was expecting. We had some for breakfast, and a few even made it to the bread basket at Easter dinner.

If the bread looks lumpy, that's because it's braided.

Perhaps more importantly, they received high praise from Brady's grandmother, who could not have been sweeter. Come to think of it, everybody was very complimentary about both the muffin and the bread.

My first feeding-other-people-things-I baked experience was a big success! I have to admit, it felt pretty grown-up.

Everything was even more delicious than it looks. But the best part was the goodie bag that Brady's Aunt Kathy packed up for us!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Crock Pot Falafel from Crockpot 365

I have Stephanie O'Dea, better known in some circles as The Crockpot Lady, to thank for many of my favorite go-to recipes. Between her adventurous cooking and frank reporting, her blog is pretty great.

And in my opinion, one of her best - and most surprising - recipes is falafel that you cook in your crock pot.*
 Stephanie's Recipe:
1 15oz can garbanzo beans (chick peas)
- 1/2 onion, chopped
-1 T dried parsley
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- 1 egg
- 1 t kosher salt
- 1/4 t black pepper
- 2 t ground cumin
- 1 t ground coriander
- 1/4 t cayenne pepper
- juice from 1 lemon 
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup bread crumbs 
- 2 T olive oil (for the bottom of your crock)
Drain garbanzo beans. Dump them into a mixing bowl and smash them with a fork. Set aside.

Get out your blender or food processor. Blend together all of the spices, the onion, the garlic, the egg, and the lemon juice.

Pour on top of your smashed garbanzo beans. Use your fork to mix together, and add the breadcrumbs slowly until the mixture is wet and sticky but can be formed into balls nicely. I needed 3/4 of a cup of breadcrumbs.

Pour 2 T of olive oil into the bottom of your crock pot stoneware insert.

Form squished golf-ball sized patties of falafel. Dip each side into the olive oil and then nestle into your crockpot. It's okay if they overlap or are on top of each other.

Cook on high for 2-5 hours. You will know that the falafels are done when they turn brownish-golden. You can flip them halfway through the cooking time if you feel like it, but they will brown on top even without flipping.
My "mise." Silly little lemon juice container not pictured, because I feel kind of lame about it.

See? EASY. And honestly, out of sheer laziness I sent my chickpeas for a spin in my food processor until chopped instead of mashing them. I still do recommend mixing the ingredients in the order she describes, though. (I just dumped the chickpeas out after chopping and added them back in later). I use a Ninja Master Prep and apart from a somewhat annoying-to-clean lid design, I'm a big fan.
This is one recipe that I follow without messing around with it. Which is a pretty big compliment.

And by "not messing around," I mean that I only changed the following:
- I always cook with dry beans, so I cooked my chickpeas the day before. (Wonderfully, chickpeas don't need to be soaked). The equivalent of a 15 oz can is just under 2 cups of cooked chickpeas. Dry beans are MUCH cheaper by volume, and I hugely prefer soaking and cooking them to wondering exactly what goop my beans are canned in, and why they taste like nickels.

- I used 2 tablespoons of lemon juice instead of a fresh lemon, just because that's what I had on hand.

- Instead of the half onion, I used a bit of white and a bit of red onion, and instead of Kosher salt I used regular, for the same reason as the lemon juice substitution.

Happy little falafels cooking in my 2-quart crock pot.
I served them in wheat pitas with lettuce, tomato, and a quick tzatziki I made with fat free plain yogurt, a little lemon juice, dried dill, and salt and pepper.

Truthfully, I've never had "real" falafel - that is, the deep-fried kind. But, Brady insists that these taste just the same, except obviously not the fried part. Even better!

* If you want to get particular, "CrockPot" is a particular brand of the general appliance variety known as the "slow cooker." I grew up calling them all crock pots, so that's what you get. But whatever you call them, they are magical and fantastic, and definitely NOT just for soup.

Honey Oatmeal Breads I & II

About two months ago now, I made this bread. I found the recipe via a Google search, which sometimes yields mixed results, but the reviews were all excellent so I decided to give it a go. The only adjustments I made were 1) to bake one regular-sized loaf, and two mini-loaves (because of my love for all things miniature and therefore adorable), and 2) I used a combination of white and whole-wheat flour. I think it was half-and-half, but who can remember.

It came out moist, soft but slightly chewy, and "pleasantly sweet," to quote one review. Basically, its fantastic. The recipe below reflects my adjustments. I should say that it was the TEENIEST bit squishy in the middle, and perhaps should be baked for 35 minutes rather than 30. This could just be my oven displaying one of its many quirks, so I would check it at 30 minutes and decide there.
"Original" Recipe:
• 2 cups boiling water
• 1 cup rolled oats
• 1/2 cup honey
• 2 tablespoons butter
• 2 teaspoons salt
• 1.5 packages active dry yeast
• 1/2 cup warm water
• 5 cups flour; combination all-purpose white and whole wheat flour
For after baking:
• 2 tablespoons honey
• 2 tablespoons rolled oats

1. Combine boiling water, oats, 1/2 cup honey, butter and salt. Let stand for 1 hour.
2. In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
3. Pour the yeast mixture into the oat mixture. Add 2 cups of flour; mix well. Stir in the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, beating well after each addition. When the dough has pulled together, turn it out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 20 minutes. Lightly oil a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.
4. Deflate the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into two equal pieces and form into loaves. Place the loaves into two lightly greased 9x5 inch loaf pans.* Cover the loaves with a damp cloth and let rise until doubled in volume, about 40 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
5. Bake at 350 degrees F for about 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow when tapped. Remove loaves from pans, brush tops of loaves with 2 tablespoons honey and sprinkle with oats.

*In my oven, three mini-loaves placed on the bottom rack, with the large loaf on the top rack, baked for the same amount of time.

Which brings us up to date on the honey-oatmeal-bread-situation.

Tomorrow, Brady and I will be meeting up with his folks for Easter with some of his relatives. Brady's dad is a great cook, and his mom is a great baker, though she is very modest about it, and at least as busy with other things. Still, we always seem to end up talking about what we've been cooking lately, so I figure it's high time I bring something tasty along for the holiday.

Of course, when I made it this morning, I had the itch to use only whole-wheat flour. (I just can't leave well enough alone, honestly.)

Anyway, I used my Hodgson Mills dry active yeast,  which contains 25% more yeast per packet than other brands. This makes it especially good for whole grain breads, but with other types of bread, you just end up with higher loaves, which is kind of pretty, so that's nice. In this case I was just hoping it would counteract the weight of the wheat flour to create a similar consistency as the original recipe.

Many of the reviews say that they had to add up to two cups more flour to get a workable dough, and I had a similar experience when I used part white flour. But with the wheat, four cups was all it took. The dough also did not achieve the same elasticity as the mixed flour version, though I will admit that I certainly did not work it for the full 20 minutes. I don't have a good reason for this. Mostly, this whole week (and kinda the week before) has been rushed and a bit slap-dash.

I was happy when it rose just the way that I wanted, but I am less pleased with its appearance than the first incarnation of this recipe. This can surely be blamed on my bread-braiding skills, which are still under construction, but I am also wishing I had taken the time to work the dough just a LITTLE bit more. I don't really know how this works, or exactly what it does to change the texture of the bread, but there you have it. I'll be honest. I was nervous about how it looks and how it would taste, so I decided to hedge my bets, and to bake some banana nut muffins for breakfast with Brady's folks, reserving one of the two loaves for Easter. The other loaf we are nearly halfway through already...

To me, is a totally different bread than the original. It is also delicious, but I would call it a "honey wheat bread" instead of a "honey oatmeal bread," just based on the prominence of the wheat flavor. It is also just a tad less soft and moist, but I think a slight increase in the water content - perhaps a quarter or half cup - could correct that.

Now, how the heck do I wrap two loaves of soft, sticky bread for transport on a Megabus? Hmm. I'm thinking loosely wrapped in parchment paper, in plastic food storage bags, in a paper shopping bag.Or maybe I will bring a little honey in a small container, a small baggie of oats, and dress it up upon arrival. Any advice for transportation of baked goods?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Brady's Grilled Cheese & A Hasty Salad

Today was pretty rough.

Like, 9-hours-in-retail-followed-by-a-three-hour-class rough.

But that's okay, because when I got home, Brady made some bangin' grilled cheese sandwiches that frankly, I was too tired and hungry to photograph. Sooo, I'm sorry for that. But I WILL tell you what they were made of.

A classic combination: Marble rye bread, deli American cheese slices, and bacon. And also butter. Plenty of butter.

In an effort to act like this wasn't a totally indulgent meal, I threw together some lettuce, tomato, olive oil and apple cider vinegar and called it a salad. I had considered sneaking some tomato into my sandwich, but with the mushy state of my brain at the moment, I really just forgot. But that would be good, too.

Remember, kids: April is Grilled Cheese Sandwich Month! Somebody told me this. Or I read it somewhere. Or it might not even be true. Every month is grilled cheese month anyway, right?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Peanut Butter and Oat Energy Bites from The Cilantropist

I have two people to thank for this fab snack recipe: The Cilantropist, for writing about it, and my sister for telling me - quite adamantly - that I should try it.

Despite all the school work I should have been doing instead of making these, a 9-hour shift at my retail job, and the possibility of not having a day off this week were my inspiration to stock up on reinforcements. If you're like me, hungry = tired = cranky = potentially being very rude to my coworkers and customers. So at a job like mine, the challenge is to avoid hunger at all costs without frequenting the nearby fast-food spots.

 Photo credit to The Cilantropist

For these tasty, healthy, and power-packed little guys there isn't a lot more to say than this: Make them. It couldn't be easier. It is literally just a matter of measuring out a few things, mixing them up, and rolling the mixture into balls.

From The Cilantropist:
3/4 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup unsalted, roasted sunflower seeds
1/2 cup (or more) dried cranberries, roughly chopped
2 tbsp ground flaxseed
1/2 tsp kosher salt
3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1 tbsp honey
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl, making sure to evenly distribute all the ingredients.  Take some of the dough and press it together between your hands - if it sticks together well, it is ready to go, if it feels too dry then add a bit more peanut butter or honey.  Likewise, if it is too 'wet,' add some extra oats or flax.  

To form the dough into a small bite, use a spoon or a cookie scoop to portion out the dough, squeeze it between your hands, and then gently roll it into a ball.  This amount of dough makes 12 bites that are about 2 inches in diameter.  Store the bites in an airtight container, and keep them refrigerated until eating.  Bites will keep for 1-2 weeks refrigerated.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Peach & Mango Salsa with Quinoa and Swiss Chard

I'm back! My mom, sister and I had a fabulous weekend with lots of laughs, relaxation, and yes, delicious food. More on this very soon.

Re-entry into real life after a vacation can be totally disorienting. Which explains why I am totally disoriented. And with another short getaway coming up for Easter, my schoolwork, regular-work and personal time are all quite compacted this week. But a girl (and her boyfriend) still gotta eat.

I have been meaning to try quinoa for some time, and since it seemed to be a quick and healthy route, I thought I would make some with dinner tonight. And, since its a good source of protein, I was free to pair it with just about anything. I think I am at the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship with the odd little things.

I decided to make a fruit salsa with mango (the smaller and more tart, yellow-fleshed variety, sometimes called "Champagne" mango), peaches, and just a sprinkle of chopped green onion, about one small one. Since my grocery store didn't have fresh peaches today, I picked up a cup of chopped peaches packed in 100% juice. I've used these little fruit cups before, and I find them really convenient. This particular cup was packed in a mix of pomegranate, peach, and white grape juice. I drained the fruit almost completely, but saved about two teaspoons to mix with the mango. In a perfect world I would still make this with fresh peaches, but I was a bit too committed to this salsa, and a bit too tired to think creatively while physically in the store, so I went with it.

I know, the mood lighting in this photo is a little bit out of control. 

The Swiss Chard I chose mostly for the sake of variety, because I wanted to cook a leafy vegetable, but have plans for a dish involving spinach later in the week. Besides being absurdly nutritious, I thought the Chard would add a more earthy - that is, less fruity - flavor to the meal. I just trimmed it, washed and dried it, and sauteed it with some olive oil over medium heat for about 3-5 minutes. Just a little salt and pepper is all we added.

I won't pretend: This is sort of an odd combination. But, we both thought that it "worked." The fruit salsa is definitely a winner, and with the quinoa I think it would make a great summer lunch or snack. The fruit with the Chard was certainly a contrast, but the slightly bitter greens with the tart mango and sweet peaches was pleasant. Tasty!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Last Night's Dinner: BLT Salad & Creamy Avocado Dressing

So after cranking my oven up to 500 for The Bread Experiment, and therefore heating up most of the apartment, a salad seemed like the thing to do. Aside from cooking the bacon, this took about 15 minutes.

I had read a recipe for avocado bisque a couple of months ago, and it has still been in my mind. I didn't make the bisque itself, because it called for a great deal of buttermilk and that seemed gross to me, but I like the idea of it. (I think I'll try this one some day soon). So, I thought with a BLT salad, that an avocado dressing would be tasty.

In reality, it was just okay. Not bad, just not as good as I was hoping it would be. But truth be told, I kinda wish I had just chopped the avocado, mixed some oil and vinegar and called it a day.

Trying to be conscious of the bacon, I didn't add any salt, which I think was a mistake. All I really did was blend two avocados with about a tablespoon of light mayonnaise until it was creamy in texture. I also added about a cap-full of apple cider vinegar, and blended a bit more. The avocados were not overpowered by the other flavors in the dressing, which is what I was afraid of. Instead of the mayo, I think you could - and if I make this again, I would - use plain yogurt. That might also do more to thin out the texture, which was bordering on mousse-ey. Unless you use Greek yogurt, then you might end up with cement.

And now, a brief farewell.

To my great excitement I will be leaving tomorrow morning for a long weekend getaway with my mom and my sister in Providence, Rhode Island. I'll be back in Philadelphia on Monday night, hopefully in a residual food coma from all the fantastic Italian food and seafood there. If you're like me, you're wondering "What is Brady going to eat all weekend?". Since he hasn't been able to get into the kitchen edgewise with me around, I think he might enjoy the opportunity. Anyway, I should be back and blogging by the middle of next week.

Thanks to everybody for their support so far. There is lots more to come!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Bread Experiment

Yay! Okay, I should probably wait until the end of this post to tell you how the oatmeal-version of this bread turned out, but I am much too happy and excited to wait that long. It's good.

Ultimately, I decided to use 1 cup of oats for the 1 cup of flour being replaced. I did this because I decided NOT to soak the oats first, which you can do for very moist and soft oatmeal breads, because I read somewhere that not soaking results in a more textured bread. I also thought that the 3/4 cup of oats I originally planned for may not expand to my liking, which may be entirely false. I suppose it doesn't really matter.

I thought that to achieve the same texture as the original Mom's Multigrain bread, the addition of oats would require more water, but this was not the case. I dissolved the yeast in a half cup of water, then added another cup and a half to the dough. A few good stirs and it was fully moist and combined.

I am afraid that photos of this bread really won't do it justice. It's beautiful in a hearty, rustic way though, and I do believe I will be making it this way from now on.

The only other change I made was to the yeast content. I used 2 packets of yeast, which are slightly different in size. One claims to be especially for whole grains, but that just means there is 25% more of it. I don't think this difference would change the character of the bread very much. This bread will always be fairly dense, but for me that's much of the appeal.

For those of you watching at home, the final recipe is this:

2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup bulgur (cracked) wheat
1/2 cup flax seed
2 cups water
2 packets of yeast; "whole grain" or non

Dissolve the yeast in half a cup of the water. Mix it all up, cover it, and let it rise for 12 hours before baking in a covered, pre-heated baking container at 500 degrees for 30 minutes. YUM.

Edit: This is a very moist bread. You can experiment with the baking time, if you would prefer it to be less so. Personally, I think it is best toasted and lightly buttered.

In pursuit of the full whole-grain experience, I am also interested in replacing either some flour or some oats with brown rice - previously cooked, of course. While flax is arguably one of the healthiest possible bread ingredients, and is already featured prominently in this bread, I love the idea of a fully-loaded multigrain bread that uses just enough (wheat!) flour to keep everything together.

Quote of the Day: “If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.” ~ Robert Browning

Last Night's Dinner: Mexican-ish Frittata & HotHot Salsa

Last night I got home from class around 8:45 feeling the way I often do after class: Exhausted, starving, and very tempted to order a pizza. But thankfully I had lined up an easy (though admittedly not as quick as I would like) dinner. I could lament that I was too tired to remember to add the can of diced tomato with green chilies to the frittata, but there would be no point. I think it turned out better the "mistake" way. And anyway, I'm not sure there would have been room!

As much as I am irked by the task of defrosting and (endlessly) straining frozen spinach, I do think it makes a great addition to frittatas. Last night, the concoction included:

1/2 a yellow onion, chopped
1/2 of a green bell pepper, chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
About a 1/3 cup of zucchini, chopped (it had to be used for something)
10 oz package chopped frozen spinach, thawed and strained. Endlessly.
6 eggs, beaten, with a little water added for fluff and beaten some more
3.5 oz package (two small sausages) of chorizo
Small handful of shredded "Mexican" cheese

In a 10 inch round cast iron pan (or you can use any oven-proof pan) over low heat, I lightly caramelized the onion in olive oil, about two or three turns of the pan worth. Then I added green pepper, zucchini and garlic, and cooked the veggies until they were just barely tender.

Then I added the chorizo to the pan, to cook for another two or three minutes. This is probably around the time that I preheated the oven to 400 degrees.

I find it is easiest to mix the spinach with the egg before adding the egg to the pan. I'm not sure if this is "right," but it works! You just have to work kind of quickly here: Add the egg to the pan, sprinkle in the cheese, and combine to be sure that the cheese, vegetables and spinach are distributed evenly throughout the frittata. 
This is around the time I realized I forgot about the tomato and chilies.

Then I thought, it's basically salsa already, why not heat it up and reduce it a bit, and have it be a spicyhot-temperaturehot* sauce. Obviously I couldn't resist adding some Sriracha, also. Honestly I wasn't sure, but it turned out to be a good idea! A nice balance of tomato and spicyness brought out the slight heat of the chorizo in the frittata but didn't overwhelm the other flavors. I might actually do this on purpose next time.

The actual cooking of the frittata remains somewhat of a mystery to me, in that I seem to do it differently every time. Generally, though, I leave it on the stove over low heat (so the bottom doesn't burn) for about 5 to 10 minutes, then stick it in the oven until it passes the "run" test. That is, it is done when tipping the pan does not cause an avalanche of goop and runny egg matter. (Sounds delicious, right!?). This usually takes about 10 minutes. Personally I find there to be something remarkably disgusting about even slightly overcooked eggs, so I watch it pretty closely.

A nifty thing about many dutch ovens, like the Lodge one that I have, is that the lid can be used as a shallow pan, which is what I used for this dish. It is also great for baking, although my one brush with Pineapple Upside Down Cake was a sticky-sweet disaster. Still, it's a useful thing to have on hand, and I find that I use it much more than I expected I would. Just note that the first few times you cook eggs in it, they will stick no matter what you do, even if it claims to be "seasoned" already. No pain no gain!

A note about cast iron in general: If you own it, don't make yourself crazy reading every article you can find about how to "season" your pans, like I did. The rules are simple. Remove crusty stuff with a metal spatula, DO NOT use dish soap, wipe clean with a lightly-oiled cloth (vegetable oil or, disgustingly, lard is best), and set it over medium/low heat for a few minutes after use. Sometimes a little oil in the pain over medium heat is necessary to dislodge all the crusty bits. If you ABSOLUTELY MUST use dish soap for some reason, stick it on the stove over low heat for 10 minutes to make sure it is completely dry. If you put cast iron in a dishwasher... Just don't do it. The Gods will cry, and so will I.

*My Italian grandmother was famous for the funny way she said "spicyhot!," which my mercilessly hilarious brother used to get her to say at every opportunity. A holiday meal wasn't complete without it.

Quote of the Day: "Love and eggs are best when they are fresh." ~ Russian proverb

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bread & Butter

My memories of my parents' kitchen are largely centered around two things: Family dinnertime, and baking bread with my mom. My mom took a couple of years off of teaching when my sister and I were kids, and we had a lot of happy days at home. One of our main - and I must say, dearest favorite - activities was baking bread. Really, it was an opportunity for us as kids to make a huge mess, get to eat raw bread dough (something I am still known for, in my family) and get to eat something warm and delicious when it was all over.

The first time that I baked a loaf of bread on my own, I felt like the guy that discovered fire: Proud, powerful, and a little bit afraid of what this new-found power may have on the rest of my life. I think it is such a cool and empowering feeling to bake something as basic as a dense, hearty bread. Cool in cavemanish way, I guess. If cavemen can be cool.

My mom was (and is - and I hope she is reading!) amazing. I can picture her throwing ingredients together and kneading bread with a cheerful abandon. So after a long break from regular baking - a break filled with the bulk of her busy career, taking care of everyone else, and lets not forget, the dreaded teenage years - I was thrilled that about a year and a half ago, she made it her mission to invent and craft a delicious, simple, and healthful multi-grain bread recipe. She is not one of those crazy recipe-hoarding non-sharers (what is the deal with that, anyway?) so I feel perfectly justified in sharing what I will call Mom's Multigrain Bread:

Note: This recipe is for a LARGE loaf. I almost never bake the full size. Halve everything (which I've done below) for a reasonably sized loaf. Also, this recipe requires a covered baking container made of terra cotta (like hers) or cast iron (like mine). My dutch oven is a hefty 5 qts but this dough is very thick, and if you mold it into a loaf with your hands, it will keep its shape.

2.5 (1.25) c. wheat flour
3.5 (1.75) c. white
1 (.5) c. flax seed (scant)
1 (.5) c. bulgur (cracked) wheat (scant)
1 (.5) Tablespoon salt
2 scant (1 scant) Tablespoons yeast  (2 packages)
4 (2) c. H20

Dissolve 2 packages yeast in ½ cup water (for half batch, 1 packet in ¼ cup)

Mix, cover tightly.  Let 12 hours elapse.

Preheat oven to 500 (or more) with dutch oven or ceramic bake container in the oven.
Bake about 30 min for single loaf/loaves, 60 for one large loaf.

You can also pop it out of the container(s) and compete baking right on the oven shelf.

If you don't believe me that this is a recipe for a huge loaf...
                            ...Sorry for the crummy quality, this picture was taken with Photobooth.

This is a great recipe. Like, really great. But since I am inclined to tinker with just about anything I can get my hands on, I've tried a couple of adaptations.
Want to use ALL whole wheat flour, no white? Go ahead - just double the yeast.

I've made oatmeal breads in the past, and they have been great, but I have never attempted to introduce oats to Mom's Multigrain Bread. It is my hope to cut out a cup of flour, replacing it with 3/4 of a cup of rolled oats, and use only whole-wheat flour for the rest of it. That is, 3/4 cup of oats (which will expand), and 2 cups of whole wheat flour. For more on this experiment, tune in tomorrow! I'll be mixing it early and baking it late.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Spring Cleaning & A Simple Salad

This city has the craziest weather. I swear that for the last week, it has alternated between high-60s and sunny and barely-above-freezing and rainy on a daily basis. And somehow, it is 83 degrees in Philadelphia today. While it is pleasant in our airy (in the winter, drafty) 9th floor apartment, I'm not much in the mood for real cooking.

Except for oatmeal. I did cook oatmeal. With chopped apple and walnuts, which was pretty tasty.

Anyway, since I was home all day today, I took some time to do a chore I had been putting off: Cleaning the stove. And yikes, I'm glad I did it! It turned into what I have heard referred to as a "rabbit hole" task. That is, I didn't realize how bad it was until I started, and then it took about three times as long and twice as much effort as I was anticipating. 

But now its shiny and clean, and reasonably presentable. In other news, baking soda is my new default cleaning product.

For dinner tonight, I made a super easy warm-weather classic, Chef's Salad. Grape tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, Swiss cheese and turkey ham... Many of my favorite things! We had it with a red wine vinaigrette.

I learned fairly late in my onion-loving career that soaking chopped onion in cold water for ten or fifteen minutes before using helps mellow the flavor out a bit so they're less arresting in salads, salsas, relishes, and the like. Truthfully I do this more for Brady's benefit than my own. (Sometimes I think my register for "too onion-ey" or "too garlicky" is broken, but my grasp with reality is improving.) So the next time you shy away from adding onion to your salad, consider soaking them in cold water for a couple of minutes. With the proven health benefits of onion consumption - cardiovascular health, immune function, and even improvement of asthma symptoms - why wouldn't you?

If you haven't tried turkey ham, I do recommend it. Even though its something that even I would refer to as "processed food" - and therefore highly suspect - I feel better about the fat content than regular ham, and I have to say, it is quite delicious, besides being extremely convenient. I've used it in salads, sandwiches, omelets and frittatas, even soups. It is also gluten free. Just keep in mind that it's still fairly high in sodium, just like ham. For this meal it was the only ingredient that contained salt, besides just a little in the dressing, so I didn't feel bad about it. That counts as balance, right?

Quote of the Day: "Cooking is like love.  It should be entered into with abandon or not at all."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Semi-Asian Rice, Veggie & Tofu Bowls

Last Saturday afternoon, Brady and I happened upon a new and different-looking restaurant on the edge of the UPenn campus. (Apparently its so new that I can't find a decent photo online yet.) We were planning to go to our local Pho restaurant for some deliciously spicy Vietnamese soup, but because of a family emergency, it was closed that day. 

Giant. Bummer. 

Next on the agenda after lunch was an event at the UPenn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, so we walked farther in that  direction in hopes of finding something to snack on. There is not a lot to choose from in the area - a pizza place, a frat-boy infested Mexican place, and a Salad Works - so we were surprised when we saw T-Bowl: Passionate about Food at Tea. Since we are both interested in both food at tea, we decided to give it a try. When we first walked in, we were both a little confused. Was it a salad bar? A stir-fry place? Well as it turns out, it's the best of both, if you ask me. 

The concept is this: First you choose white or brown rice (brown rice all the way, I say), then you have your choice of a multitude of veggies, each added for about $1 each. Choices for proteins include egg, chicken, shrimp, tofu, various types of nuts, and beef. Then comes the sauces, which were numerous, and very difficult to choose just one. For my brown rice, edamame, green onion, carrot and shrimp concoction, I chose an African chile and garlic sauce, which was fantastic. Like, really awesome. So awesome that I tried to recreate some fraction of its deliciousness to go with dinner tonight.

Once you've designed your meal, it is "grilled" (lightly sauteed, really) in organic vegetable broth and your sauce of choice and brought to your table. Though I think their prices are a bit high, the flavors were so bold and distinct that I can't help but try it at home.

So here is my game plan for doing it at home: 
Lightly seasoned brown rice topped with (sauteed) snow peas, shredded carrot, green onion, and some cubed, pan-fried tofu. I am planning on using a low-sodium chicken stock, since that's what I have on hand, and cooking the tofu in sesame oil. The part that I was less certain about was the sauce. 

There is something you should know about me. I don't really measure, as such. Unless I'm baking, everything in my kitchen is subject to my (fallible) artistic license. I recommend reading my recipes the same way: Unless it is a tried and true bread recipe (coming soon!) don't take anything as gospel truth. Make it your own. That said, some combination of the following ended up in the sauce:

1.5 tsp Sriracha, or "Rooster Sauce"
2 tsp Grated ginger root
1 tsp Orange zest
2 tsp Lemon juice
a few shakes of Curry powder
a few shakes of Cumin
1 more-effective-than-expected shake of cayenne pepper
1 clove of Garlic, peeled and smashed
2 tsp Tahini
a hefty drizzle of Sesame oil
a less hefty drizzle of Soy sauce
              ... And a bit of cilantro.

I used a small blender (a 2 cup Ninja food processor) to make the sauce.

First I started the rice, then I fried up the tofu, and set it aside. Sometimes it seems crazy to me that brown rice can take 40 minutes to cook, but in favor of the dubious contents of those microwaveable rice bags, I don't mind it so much.

After draining the excess sesame oil from the tofu pan, I mixed about a tablespoon of the sauce above with about 1 cup of the chicken stock, brought it to a boil, and reduced it by about a third. After that I tossed in a couple handfuls of snow peas and some sliced carrot, which I cooked as LITTLE as humanly possible.*

When the veggies were done I plated the rice, tossing tofu and veggies on top, and topped it all with a little chopped scallion.  Of course, I poured a large amount of the sauce/stock juices on the rice, and the extra sauce I served along side. Yum!

I can't really say that this turned out just like our tasty lunch at TBowl, but it was definitely a tasty adaptation. And if you use vegetable stock instead of chicken (someone correct me if I'm wrong) it is also a vegan dish.

*As a kid, I used to watch The Frugal Gourmet on TV with my Dad fairly often. I recently read a quote from the chef on the show, Jeff Smith: “Please understand the reason why Chinese vegetables taste so good. It is simple. The Chinese do not cook them, they just threaten them!" So, I threatened my vegetables, and it paid off big time.

Last Night's Dinner: Arugula & Romaine Salad, Chicken Kabobs, Feta & Whole Wheat Pita

Since I began this blog yesterday, it seems only fitting that I should share what I made for dinner last night! To a fairly simple arugula & romaine salad with cucumber and celery, I added red grapes - which Brady and I both love - and sunflower seeds, which he was not so sure about at first. In the end, we were both quite pleased with it.

I am increasingly curious and cautious about the true nutritional value of cheese, but in the case of feta, my policy is this: If feta is wrong, I don't want to be right. The End.

The chicken kabobs were a little bit of an afterthought, really. I had a massive chicken breast that was waiting to be used so I kabob-ed it and cooked them in my George Foreman Grill. And at the risk of sounding like an infomercial, I love that freakin' thing. It's so easy to use and easy to clean, and it perfectly cooks meat so much faster than... Anything, really. I also use it for grilled sandwiches, but that's a topic for a different post. I am also a fan of the kabob format because in my experience, it makes a smaller (really, more reasonable) serving of meat look and feel as satisfying as a larger one. Who doesn't love eating grilled tastiness off a stick?

Do not ask about the pink wine. Big mistake.

I am not ashamed to admit that my kitchen is not the most beautiful. More unfortunately, it is rather cramped, and suffers from poor lighting, so my photog skills will need a little time to catch up. Good luck to me!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Welcome to Guerilla Kitchen

Hello friends and strangers! Welcome to my brand new blog.

Here's the thing about me: I love food. I love cooking it, I love eating it, and most of all, I love sharing it with the important people in my life. I grew up in a house where family dinnertime was non-negotiable, and always delicious. My parents are both great cooks, but more importantly, they taught me to appreciate what happens when you mix good food and good people.

There was a lot of Italian food in my life as a kid, and to me, it is still the best comfort food. There are few things in this world that are more beautiful than a well-made meat sauce over hot pasta. After college, and now living with my manfriend Brady as graduate students, these were the first dishes I learned to make. But, since spring has sprung here in Philadelphia, and the last few months have seen (ahem) perhaps a few too many meat sauces, this blog is about trying to find a balance.

I am always looking for the next easy, delicious, healthful (and yes, budget-conscious) recipe. So here goes nothing! I'll be adding more VERY soon.