Archive | September, 2010

When the boy is away, the girl will play…

29 Sep

Most of you know, or have figured out, that I teach, but I’ll give you some insight to Rob and my after work household conversations.  I tell stories of cute kids and the funny things they say, and Rob comes home and says, “Well, today I was tested on how close I could get to the top of a tree without hitting it.”  Quite a difference in topics, he definitely keeps me on my feet.  Rob is a helicopter pilot for the Coast Guard.  He is stationed up here on the coast of Oregon for the next few years, and I have to say, his stories of flying through clouds, searching for lost boatsmen, and almost daily getting a free wildlife nature show watching whales breach and sea lions play, understandably trump mine.

But with those stories come the reality that my babe will eventually be deployed to some drug-intercepting boat off the coast of the Pacific, and weekly he stands duty awaiting those frantic adrenaline-laced calls of frightened lost or distressed fishermen, leaving me with a quiet little house all to my lonesome.  Although I do miss him and given the option, would prefer not sleeping alone, I am not complaining – I knew this was the life of a Coastie pilot.  Plus, it’s always worth it when he comes home in his flight uniform… *sigh*).

So yesterday was a duty day, and I had the itch.  The cooking itch that arrives when you wake up, and doesn’t become satiated until meals and treats are prepared with love and, of course, the freshest of simplistic ingredients.  I had promised Rob a salad to take for lunch, so I quickly grilled some sweet corn and zucchini, chopped up some leftover Tri-Tip steak diced some tomatoes and a green pepper, and opened/drained a can oforganic black beans.  Tossed in a bowl with some baby red lettuce, a bit of arugula, homemade tangy BBQ sauce, squirts of lime juice and s&p, and voila – A gourmet BBQ Tri-Tip Southwestern Salad…. all before 10:00am.

I got a call around 2:20: “Hey babe.  I landed.  Never flown in such bad weather, it was very hard to see.  The salad was delicious!  I love you!” Hmm.  The incongruity of the two statements – not being able to see when flying and enjoying a salad, along with the nonchalant nature of expression – just boggles me.  Nevertheless, I was glad he landed safely, and the salad made him happy.

Knowing he was safe and and sound, it was on to other things – sweet things, comforting things.  Chocolate Cream Pie with Banana Bread crust and Mushroom Pizza with oven-dried tomatoes.  Yum.

The oven-dried tomatoes are a nod to my new foodie friend, Chef Jardin of the Black Market Gourmet shop.  I walked into the store last Friday, wet and cranky from the standard Oregon rain that day, and was immediately hugged by a smell of something sweet, tangy, and warm. Jardin greeted me and I expressed my interest in the aroma, almost forgetting my reason for entering the store (I was looking for Truffle Butter).  We got to chatting, he shared his tomatoes (oh so sweet and chewy with the hint of charred caramelization on the edges), we conversed over recipes, and I left, sans truffle butter (I can’t find it anywhere here!).

Fast forward back to Sunday, I was thinking about my pizza – a mushroom “pesto” with salty anchovy paste, nutty parm. reg. cheese – what better time for the oven-dried tomatoes to make their subtle appearance?  So I cranked up the oven to a blaring 275 degrees, and drizzled olive oil, a bit of s&p, and let them be, wilt, and almost melt for about 2 hours.  The house smelled delicious.

While the tomatoes were doing their magic, I took to making the Chocolate Cream pie.  Oh MY so easy!  And so, so, soooo yummy.  I called my mom to tell her, it was so good.  I dare you to make this and not go for seconds.  And thirds.  And lick the plate.

Then, with Sunday night football on the tele, the best accompaniment had to be pizza – Mushroom pizza.  There is something so genuine about smelling foaming yeast, kneading dough, and the anticipation when you lift the towel to see the dough actually DID rise!  And then having the earthy mushrooms and salty cheese and sweet tomatoes to boot – YUM again.

So please keep reading – and try these out the next time you want to cook to impress…. or just cook for yourself!

Chocolate Cream Pie with Banana Bread Crust (serves 6-8)

  • The dry heels of banana bread (about 1 1/2 c, ground)
  • 2 c skim milk
  • 1/4 c heavy whipping cream (plus rest of pint container for whipping)
  • 1/4 c granulated sugar
  • 3 1/2 tbsp corn starch
  • pinch of salt
  • 4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
  • 3.5 oz/100 g dark chocolate, chopped (I use bars from Trader Joes that are 73% cacoa solids
  • 2 tbsp confectioners sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  In a food processor, grind up the banana bread until very fine crumbs.  Press the crumbs into the bottom of a spring-form pan, packing tightly.  Place in oven for 20 minutes, or until the crumbs have dried out, and set together.

In a medium-sized pot, mix the milk, cream, sugar, corn starch, and salt over med-high heat.  Stir occasionally for about 1 minute, until mixture starts to get bubbles around the edges from the heat.  Turn stove down to med heat, and continually whisk for the next 5 minutes.  The mixture will thicken considerably.

Add about a tbsp of the milk mixture to the egg yolks, and whisk, and then add another tbsp.  This is tempering the eggs so they do not scramble.  When mixed, add the eggs to the pot, lower stove to low heat, and continually whisk for the next 2 minutes.  The mixture will thicken a bit more, and start to smell like sweet eggs.

Take pot off the heat, and add the chopped chocolate, continually whisking.  Set aside to start to cool.

Meanwhile, whisk the rest of the heavy whipping cream into an oblivion with the confectioners sugar and the vanilla extract.

Measure 1/4 of the whipped cream, and, with a spatula, fold the cream into the cooling chocolate mixture.

Pour the filling into the spring-form pan and jiggle to even it out.  Place a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface (so a skin doesn’t form… unless you like the skin, but then you and George Castanza probably have a lot in common), and place in the fridge.

After at least an hour in the fridge, cut, dollop with the extra whipped cream, serve, and ENJOY!

Pizza Dough (makes 2 crusts)

  • 2 c all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 c whole wheat four (plus more for dusting dough)
  • 1 1/3 c warm water (between 105-115 degrees)
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 2 tbsp good honey
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 20-25 cracks freshly ground pepper
  • 2 1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • sprinkling of corn meal

In a stand mixer (fitted with a dough hook) or large bowl mix honey into warm water to dissolve, then add yeast.  Stir to lightly incorporate, and let sit for about 10 minutes.  When ready, yeast should be frothy and smell like sweet beer.  Meanwhile, mix dry ingredients, and oil a separate bowl with 1/2 tbsp of the olive oil.

To the yeast mixture, add 2 tbsp olive oil and, while mixing, add dry ingredients.  Make sure dough is well incorporated (use a spatula to wipe down the sides of the bowl if necessary), and when dough starts to come together in a ball, transfer onto a floured work surface.

Knead dough for 6-7 minutes, adding more flour if dough gets too sticky (dough should have a sticky feel, but nt so much that it won’t pull off the kneading surface).

Transfer dough to lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean, dry dish towel and place in a warm spot to let rise, about an hour. (Usually when the dough is rising, I will prepare the toppings for the pizza.  Or, sit down with a glass of wine)

When dough is risen, lightly punch down and remove from the bowl.  Give a few more kneads for good measure, and divide dough in half.  NOTE: If you want to freeze dough, now would be the time to do it.  Wrap well in plastic wrap and place in a freezer bag, releasing the air.  NOTE AGAIN: If you want an extra-chewy, lighter pizza dough, let rise again for another hour, and repeat twice.

When ready, evenly stretch out dough using your hands or a polling pin.  Sprinkle your pizza stone or sheet tray with corn meal, and place pizza dough on top.  If you like a thinner crust (I do), poke repeatedly and evenly with a fork.

** I bake most of my pizzas at 425 degrees for about 15-20 minutes, or until outer crust is golden and firm.

Mushroom Pesto Pizza

  • 2 cartons Crimini mushrooms, wiped and sliced.
  • 2 tbsp butter (or olive oil if you want to go lighter.  I just like the nuttiness the butter gives the mushrooms)
  • 1 1/2 tsp anchovy paste
  • a splash of dry white wine, about 1/4 c
  • 3 sprigs thyme, leaves only
  • 1 c Italian 4-cheese blend (can buy pre-shredded, or mix 1/4 each of: Mozzarella, Asaigio, Fontina, Parmesean Regiano.
  • 9 or 10 oven-dried tomato halves
  • s&p

Saute mushrooms in butter, until browned, about 10-15 minutes on med-high heat.  Addanchovy paste, thyme leaves, and mix.  Deglaze pan with white wine, picking up the brown bits, and reduce until almost no liquid is left.

Take off heat, and pour into food processor.  Pulse until finely ground – it will look the same consistency as pesto.  Spread evenly over prepared pizza dough.  Top with a sprinkling of most of the cheese, and oven-dried tomatoes, and then the rest of the cheese.

Bake at 425 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until the outside edges are golden brown and firm to the touch.  Serve!  Enjoy!!

NOTE: This pizza would be fantastic with a drizzle of white truffle oil before baking.  I would do it, but anything truffles are non-existent in this town!

What, No Meat?

23 Sep

Fall is an amazing time of the year.  Yes, winter has the gift-giving holidays, and spring is when love and yummy leeks start to bloom, and summer berries cannot be beat.  But there is something about the air – when it is still warm, but you get a cold breeze – that brings in the new season.  It seems Mother Nature likes to play around, alternating between hints of winter and reminiscence of summer.  Like in Southern California when the weather just starts to cool off, and then the *bleeping* Santa Ana winds dry out your skin, hair, and make you want to simply drink water for dinner.  I miss that.

I also miss some of my favorite fall rituals – like checking out the UCI Farmers Market on Saturday mornings for the latest fruits and veg to arrive.  Or, going to Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel, and Williams-Sonoma just to oodle at all the lovely fall things – red, orange, and eggplant purple decorations and kitchen tools begging to be purchased and used all while the house warming faint whiff of the latest Cinnamon Vanilla Apple Crisp potpourri fills the air.  A little much?  Yeah, I know.  But I must admit – I’m a junkie when it comes to fall cooking and decorating.  Did it just so happen that our Newlywed 10% discount at all of the aforementioned stores just coincidentally fell during the fall season?  I think not, my friends.

But, minus the absence of the Santa Ana winds, the lack of commercialized retail stores, and weekend restaurant-abundant farmers markets, there have been other new fall things I am growing to love up in my new surroundings.  Like purple peppers.  Seriously – the alliterating tongue twister is true.  I have never met a Peter  Piper, but there are such things as packs of purple peppers.  And we’ve got some.  Yay!

The farm basket has been plentiful lately, with the end of summer sweet corn, juicy tomatoes, delicate lettuces, and, of course, peppers.  So, inspired by the turning season, and adding a bit of harvest summer/early fall fruits and flavors, over the last few days I have traveled back to my vegetarian days and pulled out the OMG-I-totally-forgot-there-was-no-meat-in-this-dish recipes.  I have had the hankering for fresh, flavorful, main course salads, and both of the ones I provided here left us satisfied (even Rob, who will never turn down a steak with the accompanying fried onion strings and loaded baked potato, loved them!).

I remember wine tasting in a field kitchen at the Honig winery (amazing experience) in Napa Valley and being told that anyone who doesn’t eat meat is crazy – “all the flavor is in meat!”  Not true.  Not all.  One of the things I love about vegetarian cooking is how fun it can be to experiment with getting the maximum amount of flavor out of the ingredients used.  Sometimes, the best taste is just in the genuineness of the food’s raw form.  Other times, it’s realizing that a sharp bite of mustard or very aged cheddar cheese will explode in your mouth with the accompaniment of a bright, sweet Fuji apple.  Or that if you want to add a hint of “What is that?” that a little Agave Nectar, or even the char of a grill mark on lettuce or fruit can bring a boring salad to a whole new level.

My biggest tip for salad lovers: always remember the lemons.  Lemons, when used correctly are not bitter or sour – they are bright and clean and often act like salt, bringing out flavors in different ingredients while humbly hanging out in the background.  Experiment, try it out, have a ball, and make lemonade out of your lemons – or yummy salads.  Oh – and don’t forget to light your new fall-scented candle for ambiance.

Grilled Tomato & Apple Salad with 2-Mustard Vinaigrette  (serves 4)

  • 2 vine ripe tomatoes, halved
  • 1 Fuji apple, cut into eighths.
  • 1 large bunch of arugula (about 1 – 1 1/2 handfuls)
  • 1 large bunch of baby red lettuce (about 1 – 1 1/2 handfuls)
  • 3 slices Muenster cheese
  • 1 tbsp fresh thyme
  • 1 garlic clove
  • Olive oil to drizzle
  • s&p

Vinaigrette:

  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp grainy mustard
  • 1 tsp Blue Agave Nectar
  • 1-2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • s&p

In a large bowl, rub the bottom and sides with the clove of garlic.  Mix the ingredients for the vinaigrette, minus the olive oil, in the bowl.  Slowly pour in the olive oil, whisking as while pouring, emulsifying the mixture.  Set aside.

In another bowl (or on cutting board), drizzle olive oil, s&p on the cut fruit.  Place the tomatoes cut-side down, and the apples on one of the fleshy sides on a hot grill pan, or outside grill.  After about 4-5 minutes, turn the fruit (if you see that the fruit is starting to soften, but no grill marks are made, then the pan/grill is not hot enough).

Meanwhile, add arugula and baby red lettuce to the large bowl with the dressing.  Cut the slices of Muenster cheese into thin strips and roll into pinwheels (this cheese is soft enough to roll, and stay rolled, when sliced thinly).  Add to the salad bowl.

When fruit is done, sprinkle with fresh thyme leaves and add to bowl.  Gently toss to incorporate dressing, and mix salad.  Serve and Enjoy!

Pistachio & Cranberry Couscous with Creamy Lemon Feta Dressing (serves 4)

  • 1 c dried couscous
  • 1 c water
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • salt

Bring butter and water to a boil, and then add large dash of salt.  Turn off the heat and add the couscous and stir.  Cover and leave sitting for about 5 minutes, or until all liquid is absorbed.  Fluff with a fork, and keep covered.

  • 1/2 c dried cranberries, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 c pistachios, roughly chopped
  • 3 scallions (white and light-medium green, discard tops), chopped
  • 1/4 c fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
  • s&P

Dressing:

  • Juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • 1 1/2 tsp Blue Agave Nectar
  • 1/4 c fresh Feta cheese, small diced
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • s&p

To make the dressing, add the lemon juice and Agave to a small bowl.  Add the pieces of Feta, crushing them with the back of a spoon.  Whisk in the olive oil, and s&p to taste (you may find you will need more pepper than salt, as Feta cheese is briny).

To make the salad, toss the couscous, pistachios, cranberries, scallion and herbs in a large bowl.  Top with the desired amount of dressing, and taste for s&p (again, I found I only needed a bit of pepper).

Serve warm over a small bed of lemony greens (greens topped with just a spritz of lemon juice).

Enjoy!

Scandinavian Comfort Food

16 Sep

So before I start writing, and you start reading, I just want to give the disclaimer that I am happy, blessed, and thankful to have a job during a time of two very discouraging factors: 1) the obvious state of the economy, and 2) the not-so-obvious state of education and good teachers repeatedly loosing their jobs due to budget cuts and lack of tenure.  I have been tenured, I have done my time with the union, and now I’m starting over in a new district, new city, and with new little people that will – hopefully – one day make a positive impact on society.  And I’m so blessed to be continuing my professional career, as well as pulling in a paycheck during these times.  So now that the fine print is over, here come the more immediate feelings.

LITTLE KIDS HAVE BIG GERMS.  They are snotty!  They are dirty!  They eat with their fingers and spill their food, and they love every minute of it.  Don’t you remember being a kid?  Come on, if you think hard enough you might just be able to start tasting the blue box mac-n-cheese.  So needless to say, I’m experiencing the beginning of the school year cold coming on, and it’s a doozie.  Teachers never get sick the first week, maybe not even the first few weeks.  But come that 3rd week, when the schedules have been made, and the kids have sneezed enough times, and maybe a little one forgetting to wash their hands after using the bathroom comes back to your room just one too many times, it hits.  Sore throat, headache, body aches, and overall feeling of, well, ickyness.  Being the math specialist at our school, I haven’t worked with A classroom of students, but a whole SCHOOL of them.  And trust me, on pizza day, there is no way those kids are staying home, even if they have a couple sniffles.

So last night was comfort food: Swedish Meatballs with some raw farm basket veggies.  I had actually been planning the meal for a while (give the hubby a rare hearty meat dish, as well as sticking to my roots), but it was made even better by also serving it to a friend, who had helped us out earlier in the day (moving a washer and dryer isn’t the easiest task.  So I’m told.  I was taking a nap for that part).  There’s nothing better than entertaining with comfort food!  What better way to make someone feel at home in your house than to serve them warming gravy soaked meat?

Well, the meatballs turned out perfectly – seasoned with spices and fresh from the parsley, with just the slightest tang from the goat cheese and mustard.  The gravy was finger-licking smooth, rounding out the meatballs with the perfect texture and coating mouth-feel.  The conversation was fun, and the late night Wii playing just topped off the evening (p.s. I am a champion Wii fencer.  It was only fitting that I cut our wedding cake with a sword).  We poured rounds of wine into our new goblets, and were able to pull out other wedding gifts to entertain.  By the end of the night, my oncoming flu was the last thing I was feeling.  Maybe it was the meatballs, maybe it was the fun, or quite possibly it was the wine, but there was no antibiotic in the world that could have made me feel better than the hug of a great, comforting night.

Swedish Meatballs in Gravy

Meatballs (makes 12):

  • 1 lb. finely ground turkey meat
  • 1 lightly beaten large egg
  • 1/2 c unseasoned bread crumbs
  • 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 3 tbsp chopped parsley
  • 1 tbsp chopped dill (I alternate dill and rosemary depending on the season.  Dill is more harvest/summery)
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 3 oz good goat cheese (I always look for goat cheese made in Sonoma, CA)
  • 1/2 tsp garlic salt
  • s&p to taste

Have a sheet tray lined with parchment paper ready and turn the oven on to broil.  Add all ingredients into a large bowl, and mix with clean hands.  Form into balls, about 1 1/2 – 2 inches in diameter.  Evenly place meatballs on sheet tray, and broil for 10 minutes, turning the meatballs after the first 5 minutes.

Gravy:

  • 4 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/4 c finely chopped white onion
  • 4 tbsp all purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 – 3 c low sodium chicken broth, warmed
  • s&p
  • Optional: chopped parsley, for garnish

Melt 2 tbsp of butter in a large saute pan over medium heat.  Add onions, a bit of salt, and saute until onions turn soft and translucent.  Add the flour, stir, and let the flour “cook out” for about a minute.  Then, in 1/2 cup increments, add the chicken broth, constantly whisking to get rid of lumps.  You will be able to tell when the gravy is at a good texture by coating a wooden spoon and running your finger down the back.  If the finger line stays in tact, you’ve got a good gravy thickness.  Add the meatballs to the pan, cover the meatballs with the gravy, and simmer on low heat for 20-30 minutes, returning every 5 minutes to re-cover the meatballs in the gravy.  Note: the gravy will thicken a bit more during this time.  So if you want a thinner gravy, add more liquid during the whisking process.

Serve hot, and top with fresh parsley, if desired.  Enjoy!

NOTE: Traditional Swedish Meatballs are made with a mixture beef, pork, and sometimes veal, and are fried to brown rather than broiled.  I wanted to do more of a healthier version of the dish, thus the turkey and lack of frying.  But trust me – with these flavors, you’ll never miss the extra fat.

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