Saturday, July 30, 2011

I'm Back from Vacation, and I'm Moving

...over to Wordpress!  Please follow The Full Table to its new home, where I'll be posting about once a week.  See you there!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Shrimp Fra Diavolo, Summer Edition

Menu: Shrimp Fra Diavolo, Summer Edition; Caesar Salad; Watermelon

Lessons learned:
  1. The summer edition works! The kids still don't eat it, though.
  2. Organic romaine + sourdough bread pieces + bottled Caesar dressing = easiest salad ever?
I've always loved the recipe for Shrimp Fra Diavolo in my America's Test Kitchen book.  It involves a whole bunch of garlic, a simple tomato and wine sauce, and lighting some shrimp on fire.  Over time, I've simplified it a bit to make it a simple but upscale weeknight meal.  Usually it calls for a can of tomatoes, but it being summertime and all, I decided to try out a fresher-tasting version.

Shrimp Fra Diavolo, Summer Edition

Half a pound of pasta (the original recipe suggests linguine, but I pretty much always use farfalle these days to make things more kid-friendly)
6 garlic cloves, minced
About three large fresh tomatoes, finely diced (and seeded if you prefer... I don't bother)
1/2 cup of dry white wine (something you would actually drink)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (if you take your spice seriously and want to make this extra fresh and summery, you can use a real hot pepper!)
1/2 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
Extra salt
About 1/4 cup cognac
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
Parmesan or Romano cheese, grated to taste

Boil the pasta.  In the meantime, heat some oil on the skillet over medium-low heat and saute five cloves of the garlic until it turns golden.  Add the tomatoes with their juice, then the wine, sugar, salt, and pepper.  Increase the heat to medium-high and simmer it until much of the liquid has cooked off and it looks like about the right amount of sauce for your pasta... somewhere between 5-8 minutes.  Toss the pasta with the sauce and the last clove of minced garlic.  Yup: RAW.

Clean out your skillet and put it back on the burner over high heat.  When the pan is smoking, add a couple tablespoons of olive oil and then the shrimp, making sure they are all in a single layer.  Sprinkle them with just a couple of shakes of salt, and don't turn them for about a minute so they can brown nicely.  Once they have, turn each one over and add the cognac to the pan.  It should burn off pretty quickly, leaving the shrimp with a sweet, delicate essence.

Add the cooked shrimp to the pasta and sauce, then garnish with the chopped parsley and cheese.

This serves two hungry adults.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Hoisin-Marinated Filet Mignon with Lime Compound Butter

It basically looks like a normal steak, right?  It's a filet, so unless I overcooked it, it's probably pretty good.  But how different could it be from any other steak you've enjoyed?

Well, I love a good steak, and this may have been the best one I've ever had.  I think it's official: this is the only steak marinade I will ever use: one part Worcestershire sauce to three parts soy sauce to six parts hoisin sauce, plus ginger to taste.  I'm not exactly sure how long the marinating process needs to take to achieve these results... I gave these steaks 24 hours.

I didn't want John to have to grill on his special day, especially because I think our grill needs a good cleaning.  So, paying no heed to the inefficiency of using the oven during summer in the South, I heated up my ovenproof skillet, seared the steaks on both sides over the range, then let them cook in the oven at 450 degrees.

Now despite what I've said so far, if I claimed that process went off without a hitch, I'd be lying.  First of all, I got my skillet so hot that the steaks started to char before they could really establish a good crust and cook for the full three minutes per side recommended by most how-to guides I've seen.  It ended up being only about a minute of searing per side, then I put the pan in the oven.

You may not know it to read my blog, but my husband and I have very similar tastes.  He and I have shared many of our best times over food.  We do have one major disagreement over the alleged satanic qualities of onions, but other than that we generally say "mmmmmm!" to the same concoctions.  However, when we order steaks at a restaurant, I make sure to eat mine so that only I can the inside of it, because my man just can't help but be a little repulsed by the idea of raw beef.  I order medium-rare, but I'd never send it back for being even redder than that.  But he likes a good, solid medium: pink enough so that the meat is still moist and tender, but cooked enough that a clear unraveling of proteins has occurred.  So I took my steak out after about six and a half minutes, and I gave John's steak eight minutes.  When you pay upwards of $20 per pound for filet, you damn well better not overcook it.

Well, mine was on the rare side of medium-rare, and I loved every second of it.  My husband loved his, too... until he started to get closer to the middle.  No problem, I said.  Stop right there, let the oven preheat, and we'll pop it back in.  That turned out to be a little bit more complicated than I anticipated: we had to take it out, test it, and put it back in three times before it looked good to him, and even then it was still slightly too red.  The steaks were pretty thick, after all.  Especially in light of the reduced searing time, I probably should have left his in for a good ten minutes the first time.  It sounds like an ordeal and maybe a disappointing Fathers' Day dinner for him, but he would want you to know that regardless of the cooking issues, the flavor on those steaks was amazing.

I made a compound butter by softening half a stick, mixing in some lime zest, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, and ginger, and re-chilling it in the fridge the day before.  Given how incredible the steaks tasted, it was completely unnecessary, but a nice addition all the same.

Fathers' Day French Toast

One of the great things about French toast is that you can make it with just a few ingredients that are almost always on hand: bread (even stale), milk, and eggs.  My husband loves a hot breakfast, so he is usually the one to treat us to French toast in the morning.  When he wants to make it special, he might add some cinnamon and vanilla.

This Fathers' Day, I decided to make three significant improvements over our normal weekend fare:

  1. I bought some challah bread and sliced it myself.  When you compare a thick slice of egg bread French toast to the sliced whole-grain sandwich bread variety we usually have, it hardly seems fair to call them by the same name.
  2. I gave our maple syrup a makeover by boiling it for two minutes with a tablespoon of butter and two teaspoons of cinnamon (for one cup of syrup).  Wow.
  3. The night before, I sliced up some peaches and let them sit in a bowl with brown sugar and orange juice until they became French toast topping in the morning.
I can't take credit for any of these ideas, unfortunately.  Check out my sources at Epicurious.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Banana Bread Muffins

Well, it finally happened.  Two of our bananas turned brown.  Usually, bananas are the reason I go to the grocery store.  Both kids often want multiple bananas for breakfast (although they only get one each), and if either John or I have one, they're gone in two days.  I don't know what happened this time, but I was thrilled to see those brown speckled bananas.  It meant I could make my famous coconut-banana bread, and then blog about it.

Or... not.  Because you see, a loaf of banana bread takes an hour to cook.  And wouldn't you know it, I found myself out of coconut.  So I looked up a banana bread recipe in my America's Test Kitchen cookbook, mixed up some ingredients, and poured the results into a muffin pan.  We were eating them 25 minutes later.

My favorite part of banana bread is not actually the cakey interior.  The best part of banana bread to me is the crust, specifically the top of the crust where it splits as it rises, and what results is twin peaks of sweet brown crust that surround a small valley of gooey, sticky banana deliciousness.  Am I alone in this?  It doesn't matter.  All I know is that yesterday, I made twelve of those.  Best idea I've had all week.

Someday soon I will make my famous coconut banana bread and blog about it, because these recipes actually yield somewhat different textures.  My usual recipe is pretty cakey, whereas this one was a little lighter and airier.  Perfect for a muffin, if you ask me.

Banana Bread Muffins, adapted from The New Best Recipe from America's Test Kitchen

1 stick of unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/4 cup plain yogurt
2 (or 3, if you've got them) very ripe bananas
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

Let me say at the outset that I'm the kind of cook that uses only one bowl when I bake.  I'm not washing two mixing bowls just so I can sift out the dry ingredients.  I hope you're still willing to read my blog despite that confession.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Combine the butter, sugar, eggs, yogurt, bananas, and vanilla extract in a medium mixing bowl.  You'll want to use a potato masher, or something similar, for the bananas.  I like some bigger chunks of banana in my bread, so I don't spend too much time mashing.  After the first set of ingredients is well blended, add the flour, baking soda, and salt, and stir just until the dry flour is gone.  Spoon the mixture evenly into the greased cups of a muffin pan and bake for 20 minutes.  Yum.

Jamaican Jerk Sauce

Menu: Barbadian Chicken with Jamaican Jerk Sauce; Moroccan Toasted Couscous with Fruit; Seared Zucchini

Lessons learned:

  1. My kids won't even try plums or apricots.  That totally bummed me out.
  2. I think I just need to admit that I'm not a couscous person.  That should be fine, since it's not a whole grain anyway.
  3. This chicken would be much better unbreaded and grilled.  The sauce is great.
It often happens that I end up making multiple recipes for the first time on the same night.  I guess I'm just taking advantage of the fact that I have time to do that these days, because very soon that will not be true.  So tonight I tried two, or two-and-a-half, recipes from The Whole Foods Market Cookbook, which I recently borrowed from a friend (thanks, Heather!).

I was really excited to try this Barbadian Chicken and accompanying Jerk Sauce (I'm choosing to refrain from any bad "jerk" humor; you're welcome).  Once again, as soon as the kids found out we were having chicken, that's all they could talk about.  I spent most of my cooking time deflecting urgent pleas for "some sicken."  Here's how it turned out:

To be honest, I was kind of disappointed because I don't cook meat very often, and this was just so-so.  I mean, it was... fine.  But there are so many things I could have done with this that would have turned out much better; at least I think so.  I guess if you really love breading on chicken, this was a healthy way to get it.  But these chicken tenders would have been much tastier just pan-fried, grilled, or even broiled, because the jerk sauce marinade was quite good and worked very well as a dipping sauce, too.  The breading was just unnecessary.

The couscous was one of those recipes that sounds really good to me, but the flavors somehow just don't combine into something I'm excited about eating.  The basic idea was to toast some Israeli couscous in the oven, then cook it with boiling water and turmeric (that's what gives it that golden color).  Toss in some apricots and plums (the original recipe called for dried fruit, but it's summertime!) and chopped pistachios, then dress it with a really fun-sounding citrus dressing made with delicious flavors like cardamom, cinnamon, and honey.  What can I say?  It just didn't work for me (or anyone else here).  But it looks kind of pretty:

I'm really interested in doing more with yogurt.  I thought it combined really well with the jerk sauce.  A few weeks ago, I tried making some fried green tomatoes and decided they needed a dip, so I combined some peach yogurt and Worcestershire sauce.  It doesn't sound good, but it was!  I need to keep some plain yogurt around and do more experiments like that.  For now, here's the recipe for the sauce.

Jamaican Jerk Sauce, adapted from The Whole Foods Market Cookbook

1 jalapeno pepper, halved and seeded
4 scallions, or a handful of chives
3 garlic cloves, peeled
A 2" piece of fresh peeled ginger
About 4 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 teaspoons dried allspice
Juice from 2 limes
1/2 cup ketchup
1/2 cup pineapple juice

Put everything in the food processor and press go.

This makes about 2 cups; combine it with plain yogurt to make it a dip.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Stir-Fried Corn and Broccoli

Menu: Broiled Tilapia; Sweet Potato Crinkle Fries; Stir-Fried Corn and Broccoli; Watermelon

Lessons learned:

  1. The Alexia sweet potato crinkle fries are pretty delicious.  Not cheap.  But delicious.
  2. Two ears of corn to one regular broccoli stalk would be a good ratio; I wasn't sure so I used three.

Stir-Fried Corn and Broccoli, adapted from Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges

Vegetable oil
Fresh sweet corn cut from 2 ears
1 stalk of broccoli, cut into small florets
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced (if you like heat, you could use a spicier pepper, which is what the original recipe called for)
1 large garlic clove, minced
About 2 teaspoons of pickled lemongrass from those squeeze tubes in the produce section
Soy sauce

Heat a skillet over high heat.  Add a small amount of oil to coat the bottom of the pan.  When it's smoking, add the corn, broccoli, and pepper.  Leave it still for about a minute so it has a chance to brown, then toss it with a spatula and leave it to brown for about another minute.  Add the garlic and lemongrass and mix it in evenly.  Add 1/4 cup of water to the pan to cook the broccoli  a bit more, stirring the mixture constantly now.  When the water has cooked off, take the broccoli off the heat and sprinkle on soy sauce to taste.  If the broccoli isn't cooked enough for your taste, you can cover your pan for about a minute to steam it some more.

This makes enough for two adults plus two kids who don't eat much of it.  I'd double it if I were serving four adults.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pasta ai Quattro Formaggi, Take One

Menu: Mac 'n Cheese Italian-Style; Fridge-Digger salad; Grapes

Going out back today, I discovered there were a whole mess of these:

So I grabbed them before anything else could.  I have more tomatoes than I can use.  Several bigger varieties are rotting on the vine.  I cannot tell you how sad that makes me.

I originally thought I might make two 8x8" pans of this dish and freeze one for another night, since these days I'm not home at dinner time on Tuesday or Thursday nights.  (That's a conundrum to discuss another time.)  But when I looked over the recipe, I realized that's it's actually not that kind of casserole.  Because of the need to preserve the integrity and flavor of the cheese, it seems like you pretty much have to bake it right after you've assembled it.  So I figured I would just score some (hopefully) delicious leftovers for lunch this week.

I have not had good luck with homemade mac 'n cheese in the past.  It's ALWAYS too milky.  But here's what came out of my oven tonight:

If anything, there wasn't enough sauce here, but actually I think it was almost perfect!  The focus is pretty much all on the cheese: fontina, gorgonzola, and pecorino romano (the recipe called for parmesan, too, but I didn't feel like buying it when I already had plenty of romano).  And the texture was everything I wanted it to be: crispy noodles on top, gooey cheesy pockets throughout.

However, I'm not going to post the recipe just yet because there are still some kinks I need to work out.  For starters, the original called for heavy cream and it really seems like you could get away with half and half here.    Also, it was a bit too salty, so next time I'm going to try it without adding any salt and using homemade bread crumbs instead of the packaged Italian ones I happened to have on hand.  Finally, the writers included a variation where you add tomatoes and I'm pretty sure I won't be able to resist trying that.

But if you're interested in this version, the basic idea is: cook some pasta until it's very al dente.  Meanwhile, make a bechamel sauce with a tablespoon each of butter and flour, then 1 1/2 cups of cream.  Put the drained pasta into a bowl, then put /14 cup each of fontina and gorgonzola on top, plus about 3/4 cup of romano.  Add some fresh Italian herbs if you've got 'em.  Pour the bechamel over everything, then cover it immediately with a lid of some sort to keep the heat in for a couple of minutes.  Stir it all up, then bake for 7 minutes at 500 degrees.

Anyway, all I knew going into dinnertime tonight was that I was, at long last, going to make the Italian version of mac 'n cheese that I discovered in my America's Test Kitchen cookbook.  No plans for vegetables.  I'm testing my hypothesis that if I just make a habit of grabbing the good-looking veggies and fruit when I go shopping and combine those with whatever I may have in the garden, I can pretty much ad-lib the veggies when it gets to be dinner time.  In my fridge, I found some spring mix on its last legs and some iceberg lettuce with barely one leg left.  Mixed it up with the little darlings you see above, some carrot slices, some homemade croutons (otherwise known as toast), and a nice red wine vinaigrette.  We ate it all.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Purple Party

Menu: Scrambled Eggs with Peppers, Monterrey Jack, and Worcestershire Sauce; Roasted Potatoes; Garlic Lemon Green Beans

Lessons learned:

  1. Purple potatoes just aren't quite as good in this dish as my adored Yukon Golds.  But they're definitely fun.
  2. Purple peppers are just a tease.
  3. Sophie will not eat scrambled eggs.  Ben will.  One-for-two is a partial win in this game.
Even though I haven't really figured out how to use them, I can't seem to resist purple potatoes.  They were at Earth Fare and no more expensive than the Yukon Golds.  That was all I needed to know.  While I was putting them in my cart, I remembered the purple peppers growing in my garden and got very excited:

Do you think I might have a condition?  Maybe I'm just amazed that this color is actually found in nature:

The potatoes.  Not the bowl.  Yes, I use pink mixing bowls.  And a pink spatula.  My food processor is also pink.  So are my dry goods canisters.  I'm feeling very vulnerable right about now.

As I mentioned already, though, the peppers were just a big tease, which you find out as soon as you cut them open:

I dry-roasted them anyway, which completed my disappointment by eliminating ALL of the purple.  What?

So maybe it wasn't a purple party.  It was still a pretty decent weeknight meal.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Broiled Tomatoes with Pesto and Mozzarella

Menu: Farfalle with Black Pepper and Cheese; Broiled Tomatoes with Pesto and Mozzarella; Cucumber Grape Salad with Herbed Croutons

Lessons learned:
  1. This might be one of the few occasions in which fresh mozzarella isn't ideal.
  2. My son likes cucumbers!

Dear fresh tomatoes of summer,

My love for you is deep and true.  I adore you straight from the vine, chopped in a salad, sliced on sandwiches, tossed with pasta, blended into a smooth fresh sauce.  Whether you're paired with cheese, dressed with oil and vinegar, seasoned with soy, or wearing nothing at all, you are divine.  I would eat you smothered in pesto:

And topped with fresh mozzarella:

Sadly, my family doesn't understand my passion for you.  My daughter wants nothing to do with you, and my husband and son will only tolerate cooked tomatoes.  So tonight, you go under the broiler.  It's the only way we can be together.

Je t'aime.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

What to do with cucumbers?

Last night I saw that there were three big old cucumbers in my backyard garden.  I'm afraid of delicious produce rotting on the vine, so I picked two of them and mixed them up with some sour cream, lemon juice, paprika, and parsley (plus salt and pepper).  Meh.

What do you do with this staple of summer?  I need ideas.  If you have any, please share them in the comments!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Thoughts on filling a table

This Spring, we found out that a new era of our lives will begin in August.  I'll be going to law school, which means that the kids will be in school and that running the household is going to be more challenging for all of us.

John and I have had several tense conversations about the dinner issue in particular.  The way I cook now is very time intensive.  Grocery shopping alone has gotten kind of crazy: Earth Fare has the best selection of organic and healthy food, plus the cheapest dairy.  But I'm not paying $2 for one pound of pasta, so we need a trip to Publix about twice a month so I can get Barilla, cereal, the Good Seasons packets I will never give up, and the like.  Then again, New Leaf (our co-op) actually has cheaper prices on just a few items like ricotta cheese and tortillas; plus, their locavore cred is a lot higher.  When I buy fish, it's both cheapest and highest quality at Mike's Seafood, so that's another stop.  If I want prosciutto, I need to swing by an Italian deli.  And of course I like to support farmers' markets...  The thing is, my kids actually enjoy going on these errands with me; grocery shopping is one of the many activities I use to fill our days.  But it's obviously not going to be feasible when John and I are at work all day.

Then comes the issue of cooking.  As of now, I usually spend 30-60 minutes making dinner, and if I have no help it's another half hour for cleanup.  When I haven't seen my kids all day, I'm not going to be ok with letting their dad play with them for their remaining 2 hours of waking life while I'm stuck in the kitchen.  My solution -- which I think is a common one -- is that whoever cooks doesn't have to clean.  But my husband thinks the incentive structure in this arrangement is inherently unfair.  If the cook only has to worry about the experience of eating and not at all about the experience of cleaning up, then large-scale increases to the clean-up job might be added for only marginal benefits on the eating side.  (I love being married to an economics professor almost all of the time.)  He wants us to split cooking/cleaning duties during the week.

At first, I felt pretty hostile to that suggestion because I exert a lot of control over our diets right now, and on his three days I would lose a lot of that.  I'm also remembering what he ate for dinner before I cooked for him: lots of enriched starches and dry slabs of meat smothered in barbecue sauce.

But then I had a seemingly-unrelated epiphany about sending my kids to preschool.  I've gotten them through babyhood with lots of patient nurturing, but it suddenly dawned on me that we're moving into the phase where my goal as their mother is to teach them how to live good lives without my help.  Paradigm shift!  But in the context of the food discussion, I realized that part of that goal is teaching them how to feed themselves in a healthy way.  I want them to leave my house knowing how to buy good food and make it into something delicious; that would be an even greater gift than making sure they always have a full table to sit at for dinner in my house.  And it's not going to happen if it's always me doing all the work of filling that table.

So if John and I can agree on some ground rules, I think I can accept beginning the process of letting other people in this family share the responsibility of feeding us.  Here's my first draft:
  1. Every meal needs to include a vegetable.  (Ideally, we'd follow the new federal dietary guidelines just presented this week, which recommend filling a full half of your plate with fruits and vegetables.  My style of cooking tends to mix the food groups within single dishes, so it's hard to separate them out quite like they do with the new plate icon, but the point is still pretty clear.)
  2. We all eat the same dinner.  Arranging it in different components is fine, but no special meals for kids.
  3. Try to buy local and organic ingredients whenever possible.  I think we can do this by shopping at one big store each weekend, then making quick stops for specialty items or fresh produce on our way home on weekdays as needed.
We still need to sort out the meat issue, though.


Two nights ago, I made corn fritters and peanut noodles for dinner with a few tweaks.  To the corn fritters, I added tomatoes and peppers from my garden and some leftover black beans, and I served them with sour cream.  Yum.  To the peanut noodles, I added some cantaloupe for extra sweetness.  Not all changes are improvements, but my motto is "just try it."  (Hopefully my kids will not be finding out that's my motto.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Ohhhhh yes.  Let me love you.

I should probably back up.  This weekend I finally tried out a mojito recipe to put the lime mint in my garden to good use.  Not quite right that time, but I learned what I like.  Did some more searching, found a new recipe.  Made these tonight with guacamole and quesadillas.  New. Favorite. Cocktail.

There's a stand at the Thursday farmers' market where they're selling baskets of limes right now.  These limes aren't so pretty but they are really good and juicy.  Perfect.

Side note: I love the crazy stuff even at a tiny farmers' market like this one.  Here is a garlic blossom I bought for $1, which I was told is good as a garnish for salads or anything that's calling out for a fresh, garlicky taste. It smells delicious:

Back to the mojitos now.  The recipe I liked best is this one at  Fast and simple.  It says it makes four, but John and I each had "two."  Here's what you need:

About 12 mint leaves (lime mint! lime!)
4 tablespoons of sugar (you could probably cut this down according to your taste if you like)
6 tablespoons of lime juice (that was 2 limes for me)
6 ounces of light rum
Club soda

Get out your stepladder (or just climb up on your counter like a hooligan, as I do) and find that cocktail shaker you got for your wedding way up on the top shelf of your cupboard.  Don't keep it up there anymore. You'll be needing it frequently in the future.

Put the mint, sugar, and lime juice into the cocktail shaker and muddle up the mint with the end of a wooden spoon.  Add the rum and 4-6 ice cubes, then put the lid on and shake shake shake until you think the sugar is probably dissolved.

Set your glasses out and strain the liquid from the cocktail shaker into them.  Try to be fair.  Add club soda as you see fit, then two or three ice cubes.  Garnish with some more mint if you're feeling festive.  Otherwise, just try not to drink it too fast.

Grandma Mel's Tomato Sauce

From camera issues to computer issues. A couple of weeks ago Ben spilled water on our laptop and it would no longer turn on. Soooooo on the advice of friends and the Internet, we baked, yes BAKED, our computer in the oven at 175 degrees for 15 minutes. It worked! ...but only for a few days, when again it wouldn't turn on. Baked again, worked again, until it didn't. New computer!  The end.


Since I made it for company last Friday, I'm going to share with you one of the most valuable recipes I know.  I'll start at my beginning, although the story really begins long before that.  I met my husband in college.  He would often visit his aunt Carol, who lived not too far from campus, for dinner.  Not long after we started doing couple-y things together, he invited me over to her house for "spaghetti and meatballs."  I declined -- too much homework, and besides, I didn't like tomato sauce!  Undeterred, he brought some back for me (plus a brownie).  Well, I wasn't converted... not yet.  But I accepted the invitation the next time it was offered, and I tagged along with John to meet his mother's side of the family -- 100% Sicilian -- for the first time: his aunt (the kindest, friendliest, bubbliest woman I have ever had the pleasure to know) and his grandfather (who laughed for minutes on end when I told him how I had been repeatedly warned about his "inappropriate humor").  Unaware of the history of what I was being served, I politely (or really impolitely) asked to skip the tomato sauce so I could toss my pasta with the Good Seasons salad dressing on the table.  What can I say?  I was barely 18.

As I got to know my future in-laws, I learned that the smooth, meaty tomato sauce was actually the signature recipe of his grandmother Carmella, who died too early of ovarian cancer in 1997.  She loved organizing big family gatherings, for which a big pot of tomato sauce and several pounds of pasta is a perfect feast.  Over time, as her illness progressed, she taught her middle daughter, Carol, how to make her sauce just right -- because as with all the best sauces, of course, a written recipe will only get you so far.  In fact, legend has it that Carol couldn't get the sauce quite right until the first time she made it after her mother had passed on.

It's been ten years after that first night of pasta at Carol's house, and the family has celebrated numerous graduations, marriages, and births -- Mel's grandchildren are all grown up now.  But her three daughters still strive to get everyone together a couple of times a year, and when they succeed we always have Sauce.  It wasn't long before I learned to love it, and the year I married John, I asked Carol to teach me how to make it.  If the joy of being surrounded by people who love you unconditionally had a flavor, this is what it would taste like to me.  That probably sounds pretty cheesy.  But seriously, don't forget: it's gotta be Pecorino Romano.

Grandma Mel's Tomato Sauce

28 ounces canned tomato puree
18 ounces canned tomato paste
At least one bottle of good Chianti Classico, Grandma Mel's favorite wine
1 tablespoon olive oil
3-4 large cloves garlic, minced
2-4 bone-in pork ribs
1-2 bay leaves
Big pinch of sugar
Big pinch of baking soda
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
1 pound ground beef
½ pound ground pork
¼ bunch fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 cup of minced fresh Italian herbs (dried herbs to taste are fine, too)
2 eggs, plus more if needed
1 cup bread crumbs
½ cup fresh grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Extra Italian seasoning, salt, and pepper to taste
2-3 pounds of rigatoni or cappelini

Combine all the tomato products in a big stock pot. For every can of tomato paste, add three cans of water. You can use the water to get all the extra tomato off the sides of the cans.  Put the pot on the stove over low heat. Throughout the process, stir the sauce frequently so that the bottom doesn’t burn.

Now's a good time to open that wine.  Go ahead and pour a glass for yourself, and anyone else who wants one mid-afternoon (if you're among Sicilians, you'll have plenty of company).  This isn't supposed to feel like work.

Meanwhile, in a frying pan, heat a small amount of olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté until it's golden, then add the garlic to the sauce using a slotted spoon, reserving the oil in the hot pan.  Add the pork ribs and brown them on both sides, then add them to the sauce. Next, add the bay leaves, sugar, baking soda, and seasoning.  Take your time.  Drink your wine.

In a separate bowl, combine the ground meat, herbs, eggs, bread crumbs, cheese, and seasonings, adjusting the ingredients so that mixture is not too dry or too moist. Roll the mixture into meatballs, brown them all over in the  frying pan in batches that work for your pan size, then add them to the sauce.

And now you can really sit down and enjoy yourself, because the real work is done.  For the next 2-3 hours, simmer the sauce uncovered, remembering to stir every now and again and doing a taste test every so often (or getting other people to do it).  Your main concerns are not letting the bottom burn and skimming off any tomato froth that may form on top of the sauce.  After about 2 hours, cook the pasta to al dente, drain, and toss with just enough sauce to prevent sticking.  Serve the pasta on individual dishes topped with sauce, meatballs, and grated Romano.  Eat, enjoy, and think of Grandma Mel.

Makes enough for at least 8 people.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Golden Roasted Potatoes

I'm having camera issues over here, so I can photograph neither my food nor my son rocking various pairs of Mama's heels.

Yesterday we made our second trip to the Thursday afternoon organic farmers' market.  If you haven't been over there, I definitely encourage it.  They're really trying to grow (not to mention keep the farmers they have), and can only do that if there's traffic.  It's in the shade, too!  Yesterday we got free samples of chocolate goat milk ice cream (which Ben enthusiastically deemed "nummy") and black-eyed pea bread (THAT is why I love farmers' markets; there's always something I've never heard of).  I bought some green beans, blackberries, red leaf lettuce, and some beautiful big new potatoes.  The guy told me I had to make them that night to really capture their flavor, and I said no problem.

So here is my favorite potato recipe, which I made last night.  It's good anytime from breakfast to dinner, and it works anywhere from a barbecue to a baby shower.  And it's super simple.  Normally I use Yukon Golds, but I used the new potatoes last night and they were delicious, too.  Since the potatoes are only flavored with butter, oil, salt, and pepper, the key is to go for it on all four; take the following measurements as minimums.  Don't try to make this healthier than it should be!

Golden Roasted Potatoes, adapted from Gourmet magazine

1.5 pounds potatoes, Yukon Gold are best
2 tablespoons melted butter
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste (I like to use Kosher), at least 1/2 teaspoon
Fresh ground pepper to taste
Garlic powder (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350.  The original recipe says to peel the potatoes, but I see no reason to as long as you clean them thoroughly.  Slice them as thin as you can, within reason.  I mean, don't spend 5 seconds per slice or anything.  Someday I'll get myself a mandoline, but until then I can get my slices pretty thin by hand.  Just do your best.

Put the slices in a mixing bowl and combine them with the butter, oil, salt, and pepper.  Stir them around for as long as it takes to really get each slice coated with fat and seasoning, maybe a minute or so.  Spread them out in a pan; for this amount you could use either 8x8" or 9x13".  I like the larger one since my favorite potatoes are the ones that get brown, and the bigger pan means there are more of those.  If you want, you can sprinkle some garlic powder across the top of the potatoes here, too.  Cover them and bake for 20 minutes, then increase the oven temperature to 450 and take the cover off.  Bake for about another 20-30 minutes, or until the top looks brown enough to you.

Serves 4.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fast and Loose with Substitutions (Gingered Snow Peas)

Menu: Black Pepper Shrimp with "Sun-Dried" Pineapple; Snow Peas with Ginger Butter

Lessons learned:
  1. Oven-drying fruit: I can't WAIT to buy my next pineapple!
  2. Mashed black beans in stir-fries: surprisingly tasty.
  3. Ginger fried in butter: unsurprisingly tasty.

I almost never make a recipe as written, even if it's my first time.  I make changes according to what I happen to have on hand, what shortcuts might be possible, and what has worked for me in the past.  This approach isn't for everyone, obviously, but sometimes it ends up going too far even for me.

Last night, I endeavored to prepare a fantastic-looking recipe from a great cookbook I found recently at the library, Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges (Vongerichten).  My thought process as I scanned the ingredient list before shopping was, unfortunately, as follows:

"Pineapple?  Those are $5 each.  I already have some mangoes.  Vegetable oil?  Check.  Scallions?  John doesn't like onions, so I'll just cut some chives from the garden and sprinkle them on my portion.  Ginger?  Check.  Garlic?  Check.  Black peppercorns?  Check.  Fermented black beans?  Ummmmm... I have regular black beans.  I'll just use those.  Kecap manis (sweet soy sauce)?  Huh?  I'll just use half soy sauce and half rice vinegar or something like that.  Regular soy sauce?  Check?  Lime juice?  Check.  Sugar and salt?  Check.  Shrimp?  Check.  Jicama?  I've always wanted to try one of those!  [Later at the store: 'gross, the two jicamas they have are both moldy!  I have some carrots at home.']  Baby pea shoots?  I'm going to pretend I didn't see that."

As you might expect, what I ended up with was very different than the beautiful picture in the book.  It was definitely edible, but next time I think I'll make a real attempt to cook the recipe as directed (probably still minus pea shoots, though).

The most interesting thing about this recipe is the oven-dried pineapple.  The intro says it is "amazing," so I decided I would try it with the mango.  It really was good: all that sweet flavor without the messy juice.  I think it really will be fantastic with pineapple.  I can't wait!

I also tried another recipe for preparing my snow peas.  This is one of those really simple ones that I don't know why I couldn't have come up with myself.  Melt some butter in a frying pan, then throw in about a tablespoon of fresh chopped ginger and wait for it to brown a little bit.  It tastes like candy!  Toss your veggies in it, then grate some lemon zest over that and sprinkle with a little salt.  Very nice.

Pesto Potato Salad

Menu: Pesto Potato Salad; Broiled Tilapia; Garlic Bread

Lessons learned:
  1. Putting some parsley in your pesto really helps to keep it looking bright green.  When my pesto darkens, I cry a little inside.
  2. Don't forget to leave some salad components unpestoed for the kids.  Ben liked pesto last year, but since then I think he has learned that green things are yucky, so he wouldn't try any of this.
 I LOVE this salad.  I discovered it last year in my Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home cookbook.  Their version includes hard-boiled eggs, but that goes a little overboard to me, so instead I just use a lot more fresh mozzarella than they call for.  I also use a different pesto recipe (from Williams-Sonoma's Sauces cookbook), since it's a perfect balance and I don't want to mess with that.

Unfortunately, I'm the only one in my house who gets excited about fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, and pesto.  But you know what, people?  That's what summer is about for me.  I know fresh corn is the standard crop for the season, and a grilled cob with a compound butter is hard to beat.  Except if you're me and you have fresh tomatoes and basil growing right in your back yard.  I waited for this all winter.

Tilapia has been a big hit lately.  I've got the prep down and it's super easy: I put an oven rack as high as it'll go and preheat the broiler on high.  I grease my grill pan and lay the fillets on it, then sprinkle them liberally with salt, white pepper, garlic, powdered lemon peel, and paprika.  Stick them right under the broiler for 5 or 6 minutes and they're ready to go.  I know they would be fabulous with some sort of remoulade or a drizzle of something... not that they need it!  These days I'm trying to find ways to make less effort, not more.  There's probably something I could buy if I got down off my high horse about prepared foods...

Pesto Pasta Salad

4 medium potatoes (Yukon Gold is usually what I have), cut into bite-sized pieces
1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1" pieces
About a pint of cherry or plum tomatoes, halved
About 6 ounces of good fresh mozzarella (I like the little balls), halved

For the pesto:
2 ounces pecorino romano chese
1/4 cup pine nuts
2-3 cloves garlic
2 cups packed fresh herbs: mostly basil, but about 3 tablespoons parsley for color
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

Boil a medium pot of water and add the potatoes.  Cook them just until they're easily pierced with a fork, maybe about 7 minutes?  I forgot to time it, and the recipe doesn't say.  Remove the potatoes from the water with a strainer, but keep your water boiling for the green beans.  Boil the green beans for about 3-4 minutes so that they're cooked but still have a little crunch to them.  Let the potatoes and green beans cool off, maybe in the fridge if you're pressed for time.

Put the cheese, pine nuts, garlic, and herbs into the small bowl of a food processor and turn it on.  Slowly pour the oil in through the feed in the lid as the machine runs.  Let it go until the mixture has a sauce-like consistency; no big chunks.  Pause every now and then to push down anything sticking to the sides of the bowl.

Toss immediately with the potatoes, green beans, and tomatoes.  Add the delicate cheese at the end and toss again gently.  Done!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Fried Eggplant

I've been tired lately.  By "tired" I don't mean that I want to sleep; I mean that I just want to sit on the couch all day.  And by "lately" I mean this has been going on for several weeks.  I've been running a lot, so that could be zapping a lot of my energy.  I also might need to start taking a multivitamin.  I took prenatals when I was pregnant, but then I read some studies suggesting that vitamins are a waste of money for most people, so I just figured my diet was probably balanced enough without them.  But nobody really seems to know.  So maybe I'll give them another try and see if I feel any better.

On Wednesday, I made Italian Rice Salad.  Since I'm the only one who gets excited about it, I decided to sweeten the deal with some fried eggplant, right from my garden!  They were very popular with the boys:

Here's how I make them: peel the eggplant, then make about 1/4" slices.  Mix an egg and some milk together in one bowl, and put some Italian bread crumbs (store-bought or make your own as long as they're very fine) in a second bowl.  Put a frying pan over medium heat, and coat the bottom with olive oil (be generous).  Dip the eggplant slices in egg, then crumbs, then lay them in the pan to fry, turning once.  They will soak up a lot of oil, so you have to add oil throughout with an eye for balance between super oily eggplant (it will be good, but vegetables are supposed to be "healthy" right?) and not oily enough (this is definitely the worst result: chewy eggplant and the bread crumbs don't crust).  I learned this from my husband's family, who turns these into eggplant parmesan.  Never knew I liked eggplant before that!

On Thursday, we FINALLY made it to the organic farmers' market in the parking lot of The Moon.  It was definitely small, but everyone was super nice -- the kids tend to have that effect on people.  There were vendors with the expected greens, onions, and summer squash.  There was also a guy with some pineapples, mangoes, and limes.  You could also get eggs and many kinds of meat.  That last category raises some questions for me.  I'm all about local stuff, and I'm much more comfortable eating meat if I can talk to the person who takes care of the animals while they're alive.  On the other hand, I'm not sure whether meat at the farmers' market has to meet the same safety standards as normal stuff.  (And if I could borrow a third hand, many small farmers argue that federal safety standards are actually designed to be unfriendly to small operations.  There was one guy at the market selling eggs that he had to legally label as not for human consumption because the requirements for small egg producers are too onerous.  Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, featured in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, has written a lot about the legal challenges faced by small farmers.)  Anyway, I left the market with a bunch of daikon radishes, the most beautiful and delicate head of red leaf lettuce I've ever come across, and some fine-looking limes that I hope we can make into mojitos this weekend.

I had planned to make fish, but I went to New Leaf Market after visiting the farmers and their seafood selection is no good.  After mentally reprimanding myself for stopping at NLM when I knew I needed fish, I spent about ten minutes searching around the store for some alternative.  I finally decided screw it, I would just make some meatloaf.  I bought some local ground beef for $1.50/lb more than I can buy it elsewhere, brought it home, and mixed it up with some Italian bread crumbs, an egg, some tomato sauce, and water.  By the time I got home, it was actually quite late, so I just threw some frozen sweet potato fries in the oven too.  It still needed almost an hour to cook, so I assembled a salad from my beautiful red leaf, a cuke from my garden, a red Bartlett pear from NLM, some leftover mozzarella, and a freezer-burned hamburger bun that I toasted in the oven with a light coating of cooking spray and Italian herbs.

Tonight, my plan was to try tempeh for the first time.  I was going to cook it with broccoli and noodles with a nice sauce.  Then I tasted it.  Now John is coming home with pizza.  Sometimes things just don't go according to plan.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Penne alla Vodka, Take Two

Menu: Penne alla Vodka; Green Beans with Balsamic Vinaigrette; Fried Eggplant

Lessons learned:
  1. Penne alla vodka is on its way back in my house!
  2. I love, love, love to see my children eat my food.
  3. The fried eggplant is worth it. 
It's been a good day for food at my house.  I ran a Mothers' Day 5k this morning and came back to a lovely breakfast of waffles and maple syrup prepared by my husband.  Then I treated myself to a French dip sandwich and some Pringles for lunch, it being my special weekend and all.  Then tonight, I sliced, breaded, and fried the first eggplant from my garden this year.  I put them out with just some jarred tomato sauce for an appetizer, and they were gone before I could take a picture.  Next time.

After some searching and on many people's recommendations, I decided to try Rachael Ray's "You Won't Be Single For Long" Penne alla Vodka.  I used an adaptation that I found over on Smitten Kitchen.  It was very good, but still needs some adjustments.  For one thing, I ended up with about twice as much sauce as I needed.  I also think this dish is truly naked without salted pork, so I did add about 4 ounces of bacon.  I'll post my official version when I get it perfect, but you have to admit this looks (and tasted!) leagues better than my last attempt:

At this very moment, I'm trying to resist going back for thirds.  And failing.  But we refilled my son's plate FIVE times, so I'm going to be sleeping well tonight.

Attempt at Mango Bars with Coconut

I got to go to a margarita party on Friday night!  I brought these mango bars to share:

They turned out pretty good, except I ran out of sugar and had to use some old random corn syrup I found in my pantry.  Also I don't know that mango and coconut go together as well as I thought, so I will wait to post this recipe until I fix it up a little more.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Eat A Rainbow

I've been really obsessed with meal planning lately. I've always made a weekly ishish meal plan...written down a few ideas for meals that week and semi-made-sure we had the ingredients on hand.

But now I've realized that if I spend an hour each week I can come up with a plan for breakfast lunch and dinner and a very specific shopping list. The first few weeks I was very intentional about eating exactly what my chart said for each meal. It was working but then life started butting in and I couldn't totally predict our days so I let it get a little looser and I think I've got it working for my family.

A few tips on the way I do it:

- find a good planner. Some people may like an app on their phone. Others may prefer an Excel document. I have to hand-write it and put it on the fridge where I can scratch out and easily see what's going on. I've tried it a couple ways and am currently using the form found here.

- Plan at least one meal that can be moved to the next week without any ingredients spoiling.

- Also make a notation to cook extra of something one night to freeze for later.

- Build in one night to use something from your freezer so you don't put a bunch of stuff in there and then never use it because you are waiting for the perfect day to need personal issue... Plus you'll love not having to actually cook one night.

- Planning breakfasts and lunches puts so much time back in your day. No wandering around the kitchen eyeing the cabinets and asking everyone what they want.

- Plan meals with your calendar of events open next to you. So you don't plan to make a brand-new 3-hour recipe on the day your kid has soccer practice and a dentist appointment and you're taking the car in for an oil change.

Meal planning allows me to see at a glance how my family has eaten that week. I even make a list of snacks we have for that week so we don't eat Goldfish or Bunny Crackers twice a day for 7 days.

One of my main food goals is to make sure we all eat as many naturally colored foods as possible each week. Some days we don't eat anything green (gasp!) but we make up for it another day with zucchini muffins for breakfast, peas for lunch and broccoli for dinner...and meal planning helps me make sure that happens.

Occasionally though we do get all the colors in one meal...

Eat A Rainbow for Dinner

Purple Potatoes!!!

A great addition to a rainbow meal. The texture and taste is a good cross between a regular white potato and an orange sweet potato.

Becki and I were discussing how to make rainbow meals a few weeks ago and previously the only purple item I could come up with were purple Goldfish. This picture is from a lunch Zola and I created in February:

But a couple weeks ago I hosted a potato bar night for us and Grant's parents and when we were putting everything on our plates I realized I had accidentally prepared a great rainbow meal for us!
Here's mine:

I like to make separate little piles so can taste everything individually and then mix as I go.

and another version made by Grant:

He's a pile it all together because it's just going the same place kind of eater.

and Zola insisted I take a picture of her dinner too which conveniently added in the blue that was missing from mine and Grant's plates.

Here's the Roy G. Biv from our dinner:

Red: tomatoes in the salsa
Orange: Sweet potato, cheese
Yellow: cheese
Green: homemade guacamole (avocado, lime juice), cilantro
Blue: blue corn chips with flax seed
Violet: purple potatoes!!!

extras: black beans, white potatoes, sauteed onions

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Oatmeal Cookies with Dried Cherries and Dark Chocolate

I've started baking with my kids.  We put everything down on the floor where they can see what's going on, I explain everything I'm doing, and they can dump things into the bowl (or onto the floor), taste things at various stages, and see how it goes into the oven and comes out looking different.  It's been fun, although Ben is sometimes very sad when things go into the oven.  He's not sure if that deliciousness is ever going to come out again.

Yesterday, we made cookies.  I had some chocolate and dried cherries on hand, and combining those with an oatmeal cookie sounded great -- plus, then I could say that there were healthy elements to them!  The last recipe for oatmeal cookies I tried cooled to be very brittle, which I don't like at all.  These were much better, quite chewy.  That may not be everyone's preferred cookie texture, but I was going for something that didn't taste like it was necessarily just a dessert.  Something that could conceivably be a snack... or my secret breakfast this morning.  Don't tell my kids.

I'm happily perusing a few new cookbooks these days, and this cookie recipe comes from a big old volume from Gourmet magazine.  It's full of new ideas that I can't wait to try, although most of them will probably be "special occasion" meals and not weeknight dinners.  But we'll see.

Oatmeal Cookies with Dried Cherries and Dark Chocolate, adapted from Gourmet Today

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon baking soda, dissolved in 1 tablespoon warm water
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups old fashioned rolled oats
1 cup dried fruit (I used cherries and raisins this time)
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips or chunks

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter two baking sheets.

Beat together the butter, brown sugar, and egg.  Then beat in the baking soda mixture, flour, salt, and vanilla until well combined.  Stir in the oats, dried fruit, and chocolate.

Drop 12 spoonfuls of dough, arranged evenly 3 x 4, on each baking sheet.  Bake the cookies for about 10-11 minutes, let them cook on the pans for about 5 minutes, then transfer them to racks to cool completely.

This recipe made exactly 24 cookies for me.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Most Wanted Recipes

I think it was Julia Child who said that if you want to be considered a good cook, you just need ten classic recipes that you've made so often that you can do them perfectly every time.  Sounds like great advice, but unfortunately my style has always been too experimental and ad-hoc to stay true to a mere ten recipes.  I rarely follow the original recipe as written, I'm constantly looking for improvements, and my search for new ideas is never very directed.  As a result, I think there are some glaring omissions from my repertoire that I'd eventually like to fill, dishes for which I haven't yet found the perfect recipe for my tastes (or maybe never started looking).  Here's my list:
  1. Lasagna.  How do you screw up lasagna, right?  Well, sure... I admit it's hard to go wrong with sheets of pasta, a reliable jarred sauce, ground meat, and lots of cheese.  But I'm still looking for something special.
  2. Tiramisu.  No, these aren't all going to be Italian.  But I actually really love a good, light-textured tiramisu.  I'm a sucker for the ones they serve in martini glasses at restaurants.  I'd like to be able to whip one up all on my own.
  3. Clam chowder.  I used to love clam chowder night when I was growing up.  No, my mom did not use fresh clams, and guess what, foodies, I don't want to either!  I want something I can make on a weeknight and serve with a fresh loaf of bread that I bought on my way home from work.  I wonder if she still has her recipe...
  4. Cookies.  For most of my life I've preferred candy to dessert, but these days candy is going the way of most other processed food in my diet.  So I'm just getting into the baking scene, and somewhat reluctantly -- dough and I have had a rocky relationship.  But it seems like every cook needs his or her own signature cookie recipe.  I do actually have a couple of very strong contenders...
  5. Chicken salad.  I've had some really amazing chicken salads, but unfortunately they're the exception to the rule of bland and heavy salads that are in no way worth the calories they pack.  I need something interesting but not too complicated.  This looks very, very promising....
  6. Macaroni and cheese.  Pasta and melted cheese are two of my great loves in the food world, so what's the problem here?  Answer: milk.  Every recipe I've ever tried to make is much too milky, and my efforts are discouraged by the enduring skepticism of my husband, who swears by the blue box.  But I fight on.
  7. Sangria.  Or mulled wine.  Or both.  I'm assuming no justification is necessary.
  8. Mojitos.  See above.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Momo's Pizza

On Sunday night, it just felt like an evening for going out.  So we headed over to Momo's Pizza on Market Street for some pizza and beer.  They have 20 beers on tap, plus a a lot of bottles.  They also have HUGE pizzas.

I saw a tangerine wheat beer I wanted to try.  John had trouble deciding, and they were perfectly willing to bring samples to help him out.  We ordered some breadsticks for the kids and hoped our snack bag of crackers would hold out until then.

Momo's sells individual slices (which are ENORMOUS), so I thought that since our tastes are starting to diverge a little bit, we should each just get a slice.  But John convinced me that we should go ahead and get a pizza.  I told the waitress that we wanted a medium, their smallest.  It's 16"!  Their biggest is 32".  We saw one go by and it was unbelievable.

Unfortunately, the kids didn't really like the breadsticks and Ben didn't feel like eating any pizza, so we had to finish faster than we would have liked.  Sophie did eat some pizza crust, and Ben did eat one breadstick and some pepperoni.  I thought the pizza was really good.  I'd love to go back and just get one giant slice with my own toppings.  We'll just make sure to bring something more for the kids.

Score: 8/10

Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa

I have to admit that in the last year or so, I've become enamored of chunky guacamole.  But before that, when I bought avocados I almost always made them into this smooth salsa that I found on the Williams-Sonoma website several years ago.  It works as a dip, but also as a spread.  I made it for a Mexican buffet on Friday night... as good as ever!

Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa

1 Serrano chile, seeded
1 large garlic clove
2 large tomatillos, husks removed, skins washed, quartered
1 ripe avocado, peeled and pitted
2 tablespoons lime juice
Big pinch of cilantro
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth.

Makes about 2 cups.

Exploring Potato Salad

In my experience, potato salad is an oddly, intensely personal dish.  The dressings and garnishes are perfected and then passed down through generations.  My mom makes a "famous" potato salad with hard-boiled eggs, Miracle Whip, and scallions.  My mother-in-law uses Hellman's mayo and pickles.

I love my mom's potato salad because I grew up with it, but I'm also potato-curious... I like to experiment!  So the other night I finally got around to trying this "decadent" potato salad in HTCEV.  Anything with cream cheese as an ingredient is going to be appealing to me.

That's a lot of fish.  A lot of deliciously seasoned fish, if I do say so myself.  The potato salad, though... well, it was strange.  It went over really well at dinner... but it was so rich that there were a lot of leftovers, and no one has touched them yet.  It seemed to be much more appealing as a warm dish, which I think kind of goes against the spirit of a potato "salad."  I can't believe I'm saying this, but my final judgment was that this potato salad was too creamy even for me.  In fact, the entire experience of eating it seemed to be about the cream; it didn't really have any other flavors.  I love me some dairy fat, but not to the extent that I'm just going to open up the cream cheese tub and dig in with my spoon -- and that's kind of what this was like.  If you'd have no problem eating a stick of butter if it was socially acceptable, I get it... and if you want, I'll email you the recipe for this.  As for me, I'm going to try something with a mustard dressing next time.

UPDATE: it turns out that John finally rediscovered the potato salad last night while I was at my weekly track workout, and it was apparently still good enough that it ran out before he and Ben got their fill.  Good to know, but I still don't think this one was for me.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Tropical Rice Salad

It might appear to some that I'm obsessed with rice salads.  I don't think it's anything clinical, but I do seem to make them a lot.  They're basically just a cold version of the fried rice I used to make all the time.  Some people really don't like cold food; I am obviously not one of them.  In many cases -- fruits and vegetables, meat and seafood, breads and other baked goods -- I'd rather have things just barely cooked, if not raw.

Anyway, about that rice salad.  This is another one inspired by Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.  After seeing a whole bunch of other vegetarian cookbooks yesterday at the library, I'm even more aware of what a wonderful collection he came up with.  I think the fact that he's not vegetarian himself may be part of why I like it so much; we have similar taste preferences.

He suggests combining tropical fruit -- pineapples and mango -- with macadamia nuts.  I spent a long time not liking nuts at all, so I had actually never had those.  I thought I might try cashews in this dish, but I decided that even at $17/pound, my weekly budget would allow me to buy just a few macadamias and give them a try tonight.  I tasted one before I ground them up to put in the salad, and seriously thought twice about putting them in.  They tasted like peanuts, only harder and nuttier.  But I went ahead anyway.  What an amazing effect they have in combination with sweetness!  I guess that's why you see them so often in desserts.

Another surprise was the brown rice.  In my cooking, brown rice tends to be just a healthier substitute for the starchier kinds that everyone likes better.  But this time, the brown rice combined with the chopped macadamias and some coconut to create a really nice nutty complement to the extra-sweet tropical fruits.  (By the way, I also bought a papaya to add.  Definitely not worth it... the pineapple and mango were more than enough.)

I wish I had added a little cilantro or, as MB suggested, mint, but I didn't think of it and I'm sure the rest of my family is quite happy that I didn't.  Oh well.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I made enough for at least four people, so there is a lot of this left over and rice unfortunately does not save well... unless you're planning to stir-fry it!  I can't wait.

Tropical Rice Salad

2 cups brown rice
1/4 fresh pineapple, peeled, cored, and sliced
1 mango, peeled, cored, and cubed
1/4 cup chopped macadamia nuts
1/4 shredded coconut
1/3 cup dressing of your choice (I used champagne citrus vinaigrette)

Cook the rice well before serving time, and let it cool.  Mix in the rest of the ingredients, and enjoy.

Grilled Peanut Chicken

Menu: Grilled Peanut Chicken; Tropical Rice Salad; Stir-Fried Green Beans

Lessons learned:
  1. When buying chicken thighs, multiply the number of people you'll be serving by how many pounds of meat you think each of them might want to eat.  Then, add at least another half pound to that.
  2. Plain macadamia nuts = "why do people get excited about these?"  Macadamia nuts in tropical rice salad = very exciting!
  3. Brown rice was MADE for this salad.
For a few minutes, last night was a little disappointing.  John invited a couple from his department over for dinner last night at the last minute, so I changed my dinner plans in order to make something special.  Not a big deal; went out shopping for that.  After I got home and started cooking the rice, John got a call saying something came up and our guests wouldn't be able to come over after all.  So if I still cooked as planned, we were going to have a whole bunch of food.  I was kind of bummed about that, until I thought, wait, why would I be bummed about that?

The main question was, were we really going to go ahead and grill all 2.5 pounds of chicken I'd bought, or should I freeze half of it?  We decided just to go for it... whatever we didn't eat would keep for lunch the next day.

Let me back up.  We haven't made this in a while because of my no-meat-in-dinner experiment, but before that, grilled chicken thighs was one of our very favorite meals.  My mom used to make this amazing chicken when I was a kid, and I didn't realize that the reason it was so delicious was mainly because it was all dark thigh meat!  All she would do was make a recipe of Good Seasons Italian dressing, dump it in a bag with some chicken thighs, and bake.  SO good.  Most chicken recipes I see call for white meat -- I suppose because it's healthier -- so for a while, that's all I bought.  But forget that.  Thigh meat is more delicious and less expensive.  Once that light bulb went off, I've never gone back.

Anyway, I don't ever really make the same marinade twice; I always just start with sort of a general theme or inspiration, see what I have on hand that seems to fit with that, and throw everything in a bowl haphazardly.  Definitely no measurements.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't.  Last night, though... um, yeah, you might say it worked.  You might say it totally rocked that chicken, and you would be correct.  You might also say it's a good thing that nobody else came over wanting any chicken after all, and that would be correct as well.

When I stopped cooking with meat, I wasn't really sure where or how long the experiment would go; I mainly wanted to see if it was possible, and I wanted to adjust the extent to which we (I) crave meat.  I'd say on both scores, it's been more successful than I anticipated, with the exception being that we eat bacon probably once every couple of weeks.  But two things happened yesterday that made me come to a decision about how far to take this.

First, I got a rare chance to go to the library by myself, where I naturally made my way to the cookbook section.  I discovered that the vegetarian cookbooks are relegated to the "health food" section, and are mostly filled with recipes that my family and I are just never going to be excited about eating.  I know that the library's selection isn't necessarily representative of everything that's out there, but it made me a little sad to realize that so many of the wonderful recipes in the majority of other cookbooks were no longer conducive to my diet.

Second, it's been a long time since I've seen my kids so focused on a meal.  As soon as they heard we were having chicken -- I mentioned it while I was cooking -- neither of them could stop talking about it and asking for it.  Chicken has always been one of the few things Sophie actually eats consistently, so cutting that out was a significant sacrifice (although we have mostly made up for it with Quorn).  After she ate all of her chicken, she came over to our plates to get more.  Ben, who is normally up and down during dinner, just sat there very quietly for several minutes on end, just eating and enjoying.  Now, I don't think the kids are deprived.  If I wanted to keep meat completely out of our dinners, they would be fine, as they have been since the beginning.  But seeing them eat like that just made me so happy.

So I think that sometime soon, I'm going to designate just one day a week where I make meat for dinner.  Maybe Saturday or Sunday, and it can be a special meal.  That way I can still try out delicious-sounding recipes for carnivores from time to time, and I think it would make my family a lot more excited about dinner -- always a good thing.  And to balance, I might also (more discreetly) designate one night a week as vegan.

Back to last night's divine chicken: unfortunately, as I said, I don't measure, but I'm going to attempt to reproduce what I did for the sauce here, because I'd like to be able to do it again next time.  If you make this, I strongly suggest that you read the amounts below as mere guidelines, and just put in what feels right to you.  Also, my husband is the grillmaster at our house and his technique is similarly ad-hoc, so keep that in mind.

The rice salad was really wonderful, too; I will address that in the next post.

Grilled Peanut Chicken

2.5 pounds chicken thighs (I used to spend a lot of time trimming the fat off, but now I don't bother... most of it melts off on the grill anyway, and you can always cut off whatever you want when you're eating)

3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon powdered ginger
2 tablespoons orange juice

Put the chicken thighs in a large marinating bag.  Mix up the remaining ingredients in a bowl and pour it over the chicken in the bag, mixing it in evenly to coat all of the chicken.  Let it sit for about an hour.

Preheat the (gas) grill on high.  When it's ready, add the chicken and let it sear.  My husband does a lot of flipping unless I give him explicit instructions not to; some people say to flip only once, but his method seems to work for him.  He did lower the heat after a few minutes, and kept the meat covered when he wasn't flipping it.  The thickest pieces were on the grill for about 15 minutes, with the thinner ones coming off a couple of minutes before that.

Tropical Sushi

Menu: Sushi with Shrimp and Coconut-Fried Plantains; Edamame; Sliced Pears

Lessons learned:
  1. Tropical sushi is scrumptious!
  2. ... but next time I will cut the plantains into eighths, not fourths.
  3. Also, next time I need to make another nori sheet spread with rice.  Apparently Ben really likes to eat the rice that way, rather than loose.  I suppose that's reasonable.
Tuesday was sushi night, and I decided to change up my normal roll.  I think *certain* diners in my house might be getting a little tired of my old standby, the spicy tuna and avocado (even though they would never, ever go so far as to say so).  I'm a pretty conventional girl when it comes to sushi -- aside from the whole raw fish thing, which some of my favorite people see as decidedly unconventional, to put it nicely.  But one year for Christmas, someone gave me a little book of sushi recipes, so I checked that out to see if I could find some inspiration.  When I came across a sushi roll made with shrimp and plantain, I recalled the coconut-fried plantains I made several weeks ago and figured I'd try to actually put them in the roll.

When I went shopping the day before, I bought the ripest plantain I could find, which still wasn't all that ripe -- not nearly black, as Emily suggested last time.  I put it in a paper bag as soon as I got home and hoped for the best.  When I took it out to cut it up, I was relieved to discover that it was ripe enough to be a significant improvement over my last attempt.  I cut the plantain lengthwise into quarters, coated them in flour, then an egg/milk mixture, and finally the coconut.  Here they are frying in my pan:

Let me take just a moment to apologize for the photography in this post.  I'm not all that good to begin with, the lighting in my kitchen is terrible for pictures, and my camera doesn't seem equipped to remedy either of these setbacks.  Regardless, these tasted very good.  I know they could be even better if I could get a hold of a riper plantain (or plan far enough in advance to buy one in time for it to ripen completely in my kitchen).  But these worked quite well for that night.

In the same pan over high heat, I fried up 1/2 pound of large shrimp with nothing but some oil and a little salt.  Then I cut each of the shrimp in half crosswise so they would lay better in the roll.  (You can find my recipe/technique for sushi here.)  I rolled and cut the pieces, then mixed up a little mayo with lime juice, zest, and just a teeny tiny bit of chile sauce.  Here's (a disappointing photo of) what I ended up with:

And wow, I LOVED them!  Yum.  The only thing I would change for next time -- besides getting an even riper plantain-- is that the plantain sticks were too thick; they kind of took over the roll.  So next time I'll cut them in half one more time to have eight of them.  I also think the tropical flavor of these could be rounded out with a little pineapple.  Months ago, I accidentally bought crushed pineapple instead of chunks, so I just stuck it in my freezer to pull out if I ever make a smoothie or something (I never make smoothies).  But I think spreading a thin layer of that into these rolls could be fantastic.  I'll try it out and update below if it works!

I wish I could say the rest of my family loved these as much as I did.  John liked them ok, but after a few of them he was picking out the plantains; he said they were too thick.  He also doesn't love the texture of coconut, so if I'm feeling generous next time I might grind up my coconut into powder before coating the plantains with it.  The kids wouldn't try them, which is unfortunate because I really think it would be up their alley.  Ben ate rice on nori and pears, and Sophie ate pears.  At this point, if it's more than nothing, I call it success.

The other drawback here is that the quick preparation of sushi was a huge bonus for me.  When I have to actually cook the components of the roll, that advantage goes away.  But these were so good that I think it's definitely worth the extra time.