Thursday, January 30, 2014

Get Over It

Like writer's block, many home cooks get frustrated in the kitchen because they decide something is too complicated to make even before trying it.  How do you know if you've never tried?  My new motto for myself is: get over it.  I'll never expand my skills or palate if I stick to what I already know and get intimidated by a new concept.

There are some foods which really are tricky to make.  Even a professional chef can have a mayonnaise or hollandaise that fails.  Sometimes low relative humidity can make it impossible to work with phyllo dough.  The truth is, even the most complex recipe can be made easy if you just break it down into smaller steps and do them in the right order.

The best way to resolve this Cook's Block is to read the recipe before shopping.  All the way through.  If it's something you really want to make, nothing should stop you.  Hot dogs from scratch?  Did that once, just to see if I could.  The hardest part turned out to be keeping everything cold enough to be safe.  I don't recommend trying it unless you have a strong stomach, but that's not the point.  Roommate Smurf can't hard-boil eggs without a cookbook.  A properly boiled egg is what brings her satisfaction as a cook.  More experienced cooks may think deboning their own poultry is the extent of their powers, or croissants, or tamales, or Duck a l'Orange.  (Hm, I need to do a post on deboning poultry.)

The most important part of preparing a meal is believing you can, and being ready to improvise if you suddenly find out you can't.  You didn't realize you had to marinate your roast for two days?  Get over it.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Veggies From Scratch

Oh, I'm getting all cocky now.

With an 82% success rate from last year (the only failures were one of the Gus twins and the Brussels sprouts), and an apparent lack of winter in Southern California, I'm starting this year's plants from seeds.

I started the basil in the front yard from seed two years ago, and that worked out so well, it has self-seeded.  It isn't bushy, but I can pull off a few leaves whenever I want.  There is precedent for this madness.

I bought two packets.  The first is a rainbow mixture of bell peppers.  Yes, they destroy my stomach, but my neighbor grows them quite successfully in his front yard.  If he can do it....  The other is pumpkin seeds, which I'll have to wait until March to plant or I'll get pumpkins too early.

I picked up a starter tray and some seeding soil.  Pretty sure my 4th grade pea-growing experience can take it from there.  Stick it in the kitchen's greenhouse window, water regularly, and hope for the best for 6-8 weeks.  Yes, it's 18 of the little cups, but this is me.  If half of them make it into the ground, I'll be surprised.  I only put one or two seeds in each cup, instead of 2 to 3, so it's highly unlikely there will be an overabundance of peppers.  They should start popping up any time after the 1st.

The next part of the plan is where to transplant the survivors.  If the lettuce is done by the end of March, I'll put them in the fountain garden.  The six little plants are still alive, but only five of them are showing signs of growth.  The sixth is in a spot that I never realized doesn't get direct sun in the winter.

Should the fountain not be an option, there's an area of the front yard that is supposed to be for growing ornamental plants like roses.  They are not well organized, and it has ended up looking un-landscaped.  I can rip up some of that area and make a pepper patch.  A smaller area by the hose will be perfect if there are more than five to transplant.  Strawberries grew there at one point, until bugs ate them.

I researched where to put the pumpkins, and realized that those plants get huge.  I came up with enough space to plant two hills in the front yard and one in the back.  The front yard ones are barely going to get enough sun to make it, but I'll have the most awesome Halloween decorations on the block.  The back yard one will have at least 8 hours of full sun and another two of partial by the start of summer, so that's the one I'm banking on for the two pumpkins it will take to make back the investment.  Both sites are going to require serious excavation and soil preparation.  I'll do that the week before planting.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Applesauce Oat-Bran Muffins

I still have some applesauce from Techie Smurf's visit that I keep forgetting to eat.  I was planning to make some kind of bran muffins, and figured this was as good a use for it as any.

There are a bunch of recipes online for muffins that use bran or raisin bran cereal.  But those come with sugar and other stuff attached.  This is the oat bran you get out of the bins at Sprouts.  Sure, it comes in packages as well, but if you don't want to have to find uses for an entire bag of it, just get what you need.

When I refined my search, the entire first page of Google results were almost identical recipes.  I'm specifically using this one from Allrecipes.  It seemed closest to what I would have developed if I had wanted to create my own recipe.  And I'm putting in the raisins.  Why are raisins optional?  I did like Martha Stewart's idea of chopping up dates instead.  Because I'm introducing the sweet fruit, I cut down on the brown sugar, but they were still plenty sweet.

Each one of these is a filling and nutritious breakfast or afternoon snack at barely 200 calories.  They keep well in the freezer and travel well in lunch boxes.

1/3 C light brown sugar
1-1/2 C oat bran
1-1/2 C a.p. flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
*1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
2 eggs
*1 C chilled applesauce
1/4 C vegetable oil
*1 C raisins, plumped in warm water

1.  Preheat oven to 400º.  Grease or line 12 muffin cups.

2.  Blend together dry ingredients (first 7).  If desired, reserve 1 Tb of oat bran for sprinkling on top.  Separately, combine eggs, applesauce, and oil.  Pour wet into dry and stir just until combined.  Drain raisins, reserving about 2 Tb of their water.  Add raisins and reserved liquid to batter.  Stir until evenly dispersed, maybe 4 strokes.  Let batter sit at least 5 minutes for everything to hydrate evenly without creating too many gluten strands that will cause holes to form in the finished product.

3.  Spoon into muffin cups, filling to just under the rim.  If using, sprinkle tops with oat bran.  Bake for 15 minutes, until golden brown and pass the toothpick test.  Remove from pan and cool completely on wire rack before freezing or storing in a plastic bag.  If serving immediately, go for it.

Makes 12 to 15

Difficulty rating  π

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Cabbage Soup

When I decided to make this and started to research recipes, I had no idea that cabbage soup was an extreme-diet thing.  I just had half a head of cabbage left over from the Chinese Couscous and needed to do something with it.  I thought I was going to find Polish recipes for cabbage borscht or something.

The fact that I bought the head of cabbage at all is testimony to trying to improve my diet.  My personal aversion to this leafy green stems from my mother making corned beef and cabbage every St. Patrick's Day.  Remember, I was raised Jewish.  She just liked the holiday and found it necessary to torture the rest of us with boiled cabbage, bland potatoes, and terrible corned beef.  By trying to change my opinion of this food, I'm making a real effort.

If you're not trying to do some kind of weird cabbage cleanse, it looks like cabbage soup is similar to chicken soup.  That means there's no wrong way to make it.  Chicken broth, beef broth, add meat, add pasta, change up the veggies.  Really, the only constant is half a head of cabbage.  I put a small bulb of fennel in it instead of celery because I liked the brightness that cilantro brought to the Chinese Couscous.  I have no problem with anyone switching it back.  My version here is based on what I have on hand and my current nutritional goals.

1/2 medium onion, diced (about 1 C)
1 Tb olive oil
*1 quart low-sodium broth (I used veggie)
*1/2 head of green cabbage, coarsely chopped
1 small fennel bulb (about 1/2 lb), thinly sliced and tops discarded
1 15oz can diced tomatoes
1/2 C dry quinoa, soaked and rinsed if necessary
lemon juice to taste
salt and pepper to taste

1.  In a large saucepan, sauté onion in olive oil over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add broth, cabbage, fennel, and tomatoes with their juice.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 30 minutes.

2.  Add dry quinoa and continue to simmer until it's done, about 15 minutes.  If it absorbs too much liquid, add water 1 cup at a time.

3.  Taste.  Add a touch of lemon juice, salt, and pepper as desired.  Serve hot.

Serves 3 to 4

Difficulty rating  π

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Chinese Couscous

Whenever I start to eat healthier, it becomes almost a contest with myself to see what new and interesting thing I can invent that's both good for me and will keep me full.  The healthiest food won't do you any good if you get hungry later and eat ice cream out of desperation.  Stir-fry has more fat than I would prefer to eat right now, and you have to deal with the "hungry an hour later" syndrome.  I came up with a mix of ingredients that I hoped would leave me a bit more full.

Yes, couscous is a mediterranean pasta, but the concept of pasta is Chinese.  I see no problem serving an Asian-themed vegetable stew over couscous.  As for the cabbage, I don't think I've ever used regular cabbage for anything other than cole slaw.  Let's consider this a learning experience.

3/4 C dried adzuki beans
1 Tb olive oil
1 bunch green onions
*1 clove garlic, minced
*1 Tb fresh ginger, minced
1 C low-sodium vegetable broth
1 small eggplant, cut in large dice (or 2 zucchini)
1/2 small cabbage, shredded
1/2 lb white mushrooms, sliced
*1/4 C cilantro leaves, chopped
*2 Tb black bean sauce
1 C dry couscous
1/2 C roasted cashews for garnish

1.  The night before, rinse beans and soak in 2 C water.  2 hours before making the dish, drain.  Refill saucepan with 2 C water, bring to a boil, and simmer until step 3.

2.  Get out a 10- or 12-inch skillet with high sides (or a wok with a lid).  Cut green onions into bite-sized lengths and sauté in oil with garlic and ginger for 2 minutes.

3.  Drain beans.  Add broth, eggplant, beans, and cabbage to the mix.  It isn't going to look like there's enough liquid, but everything in the pot is going to give off some of its own moisture.  Cover and simmer until the eggplant is done, about 30 minutes.  If the pan does get dry, add water 1/2 C at a time.

4.  Add mushrooms, cilantro, and black bean sauce.  Simmer while you make the couscous.

5.  In a small saucepan, bring 1 C water and a dash of salt to a boil.  Stir in couscous, turn off heat, and cover.  Let sit for 10 minutes for the pasta to absorb the water, then fluff with a fork.

6.  Taste vegetables and add salt if necessary.  Place couscous on serving platter and top with vegetables.  Sprinkle with cashews.  Serve hot.

Difficulty rating  :)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Winter Greens

While the rest of the country was suffering from the Polar Vortex, I planted lettuce.  The remaining green onions were thoroughly infested by some kind of tick/spider/mite looking bugs and had to go.  I should have finished them months ago anyway.

I was really at the garden shop to get more bug spray so the tick things wouldn't attack the tomatoes, my remaining productive plant from last year.  (Jury's still out on Gus.  He's hanging on.)  I had to pass the vegetable section to get to the food & pesticide racks, and they had a bunch of lettuces and greens.  For $4, I got a six-pack of assorted lettuces, which more than filled the area.  It didn't say how far apart to put them, so they are staggered about a foot apart.  I made sure I could get to them from the back if they grow too bushy together.

My primary objective is to suppress weeds by introducing a dominant plant.  The side effect is salad.  I figure that eight dinner-sized salads, or about a pound of leaves, will be my break-even point.  I can start to harvest in about 45 days, around the beginning of March.

It's not in the fountain garden, but I thought I'd show off how massive and fast the artichoke is coming up this year.  It's already close to four feet across.

Oh, and I thought I was over my fear of spiders.  Found one crawling up my arm while I was putting in a plant and screamed bloody murder.  Guess not.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Poached Salmon Salad with Quinoa

I'm on a make-better-choices diet.  I don't believe in counting calories, nor saying that some foods are off-limits.  I prefer to control portions.  However, when all those controlled portions are cookies and eggnog for what felt like a month, it's time to get back to nutrition basics.

First up was putting more fiber in my diet.  When I have something approaching the recommended 21grams daily, I stop wanting chocolate and fatty foods.  Legumes and quinoa are shortcuts to that goal which also bring significant protein to the party.  I stocked up on a variety of beans and half a pound of red quinoa.  I don't know if it's better for you than the white, but it has more fiber and was a dollar cheaper per pound.

Next was finding other lean proteins.  Legumes are great, but when you use them as your primary protein, you have to accept certain digestion consequences.  I compromised by making this meal's protein half quinoa and half poached salmon.  Yes, that means only 2oz of salmon per salad, but 3-4 ounces is a real serving.  It's not a lot.

Poaching is cooking something just below a simmer.  It adds zero fat and you get a very tender fish.  By adding wine or another flavored liquid plus herbs to the cooking water, you slowly infuse the fish with their essence.  And it doesn't take much longer than pan frying.

Finally up was the volume factor.  The more chewing you do, the more your body thinks you're eating. By putting crunchy and sweet jicama in the salad, I made it more of a project for my mouth.  I shovel food down quickly at work, but there's no need to do it at home.

1/2 lb salmon fillet (check for pin bones)
1/2 C white wine, 2 Tb liquor (I used Tanqueray), or 1 C fish stock
2 twigs thyme (or 1/4 tsp dried)
2 sprigs parsley (or 1/4 tsp dried)
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 C dried red quinoa
1 small jicama, peeled and cut into Batonnet
about 6 C chopped lettuce or spring mix
Ginger-Sesame dressing

1.  In a 6" skillet or medium saucepan, combine wine, thyme, salt, and parsley.  Add salmon, skin-side down, and add enough water just to cover.  Turn heat on medium and watch it.  You don't want it to boil.  You're looking for water that is very warm, when it starts to look wavy, but no bubbles.  If you start to see bubbles, turn down the heat.  Cook salmon until the center has just turned from raw to cooked, about 5 minutes for a thin cut, 10 for a thicker one.  Check every minute or so.  Drain, remove herbs, and let cool slightly.  Remove skin and flake salmon.

2.  While that's going on, cook the quinoa according to package directions (rinse if necessary).  If not using immediately, toss with about 1/2 tsp of olive oil to keep the grains from sticking together.

3.  To assemble salad, place about 1-1/2 cups of greens on each plate.  Divide quinoa among the plates.  Scatter jicama on each plate.  Top with flakes of poached salmon - your choice of warm or chilled.  Either drizzle with dressing or place on table for everyone to use.

Difficulty rating   :)

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Ginger-Sesame Dressing

I don't like storebought vinaigrettes because they are too much on the oil side.  When I'm at Souplantation, I just put straight Balsamic vinegar on my salad, no oil.  The oil does have its uses, and the salad I was making needed a bit of fat in the dressing.

I started with this recipe, then cut down the proportion of oil a lot and added sesame seeds to the mix.  I tried grating the ginger first, but it was disappearing and leaving stringy fibers behind, so I minced the rest of it.  Fresh ginger looks expensive when you see the label per pound, but the piece you snap off for this is only about fifteen cents.  Don't forget to peel it (a potato peeler works fine), or there will be woody fiber in your food.

I cheated on the sesame seeds.  I still have some pasteli in the freezer and chucked the biggest one in the jar instead of buying such an eensy amount.  I added about a teaspoon of honey to bring it up to what I have in this recipe.

1/4 C rice vinegar
2 Tb soy sauce
1/4 C olive oil
1 Tb sesame seeds
1 Tb honey
1 Tb finely minced ginger
1 clove garlic, finely minced

1.  Get a 1 cup jar.  To see science in action, add the vinegar, followed by the soy, followed by the oil.  I love that effect.  Add sesame seeds, honey, ginger, and garlic.

2.  Secure lid and shake briefly to disperse ingredients.  Remove lid and microwave for 30 seconds, until warm but not hot, to melt the honey.  Cover and shake again.  Refrigerate until shortly before use. Olive oil will harden in the fridge, so give it 10 minutes to come up to room temperature before shaking again and serving.  Can be used either as a salad dressing or marinade.

Makes almost 1 cup, about 8 servings

Difficulty rating  π

Monday, January 6, 2014

Pizza with Prosciutto and Brie

Californians will put anything on a pizza.  The more bizarre the ingredient, the more likely we are to try it.  I had a hoisin duck pizza once that was fantastic.  Sauces are not exempt from this treatment.  Anything that coats the dough so things will stick to it is fair game.

Writer Smurf made something similar to this on their visit, and then I had half a jar of apple butter left.  I've never used it before.  Now that I know a spreadable applesauce exists, I'll be more likely to have it again.  I couldn't remember exactly what she put on her pizza, so I picked up ingredients that I knew would taste good together and with the apple butter.  You could substitute barbecue sauce, but I wouldn't recommend regular pizza sauce.  It would drown out the delicate taste of the prosciutto.

And again, I'm posting a dough recipe, but you can buy pre-made 6" pizza bases.  That's what Writer Smurf did, and it came out fine.

Pizza Dough
1 C 100º water
*1-1/4 tsp dry yeast
1 Tb sugar
2 Tb olive oil
about 3 C flour
1/2 tsp salt
*cornmeal for dusting

1.  Stir together warm water, yeast, sugar, and olive oil.  Allow to sit until lightly foamy, about 5 minutes.

2.  In stand mixer with paddle, stir together liquids and 1 C flour.  Beat into a batter.  Add another cup of flour and the salt and beat about 2 minutes into a stringy, thick batter.
Before kneading
3.  Pour dough onto a heavily floured (about 1/2 C) work surface and top with a dusting of more flour.  Knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.  Place in a lightly oiled bowl and turn to coat all sides.  Proof in a warm place for about an hour, until dough is doubled.
Smooth and Elastic
4.  Punch down dough and let rest on the work surface while you prepare toppings.  When ready, divide dough into four pieces and roll out each with a rolling pin to at least 6".  The dough will spring back smaller at first, but will eventually rise again and spread out a bit.  Coat two cookie sheets with a generous amount of cornmeal and place two circles on each sheet.  Top (see below), then start to preheat oven to 375º.  That will give the pizzas time to rise and rebound while the oven is heating.  Bake 15-18 minutes, until dough is lightly browned.  Allow to cool a couple of minutes before serving.

4 C kale, finely chopped
1/4 C diced onion
1 Tb olive oil
1/4 C apple butter
4 oz prosciutto
4 oz brie

1.  In a large pan, sauté the onion in oil until tender.  Add kale and cook over medium-low heat until kale is wilted, about 5 minutes.

2.  When ready to assemble pizzas, spread 1 Tb of apple butter on each dough circle.  It doesn't take a lot of sauce to coat a pizza.

3.  Follow the apple butter by dividing the kale between the pizzas.  It's important the kale goes next, or it will dry out.  Ditto for the prosciutto.  Tear it into small pieces and use it to top the kale.  The brie goes last, as its oils will keep the other two from getting too dry and they will keep the brie's oils from getting into the crust and preventing it from baking thoroughly.

4.  Bake at 375º as stated above, and don't try to serve it while it's too hot.  Everyone can wait a few minutes.

Difficulty rating :-0

Friday, January 3, 2014

Pickled Tomato on Crackers

Happy New Year!

I found a way to use up the rest of the Triscuits.  This is a very simple snack or hors d'oeuvre.  Even when you count the effort of making the pickles, it still gets an easy rating.

I'm not going to put amounts on this one.  It's more a technique than a recipe.

at least a dozen Crackers (your choice, but I'd stay away from buttery ones)
whipped cream cheese
Pickled cherry tomatoes

1.  Drain tomatoes and rest on a paper towel to dry slightly.

2.  Spread a light layer of cream cheese on each cracker, then arrange on serving tray.

3.  Top each cracker with one or two tomato halves (depending on size of cracker).  Serve while the tomatoes are still cold.

Difficulty rating  π