Apr 29, 2009

The Best Time.

I helped throw the most fabulous dinner party last night.  I went with a group from work to make dinner at Hope Lodge. Hope Lodge is a residential facility run by The American Cancer Society that provides free temporary housing for cancer patients in treatment. You can learn more about them here and there may be one in your town. If not, I’ll bet there’s something similar. 

I’ve lost both family and friends to cancer in the last few months. It’s a cruel disease – heartless and unforgiving. If you’ve ever had to watch someone you love fight for his or her life then you know the feeling of helplessness that sets in. You desperately want to do something, anything, to help. Sometimes the best way to help is to take care of the little things – cook dinner & make them laugh.

Our dinner wasn’t fancy or sophisticated in the least. But it was homemade with love and served with real caring. Spaghetti and meatballs may not seem very special, but last night it was. We transformed the dining room into a quaint Italian trattoria with red checkered tablecloths, music, menu table tents and wine bottle candleholders splattered with wax that I made at home. When we were done decorating it didn’t even look like the same place. More importantly, it didn’t feel like the same place – it felt special.

I fetched plates and refilled glasses. I joked around, cajoled “one more bite” and listened to stories. I traded recipes, made movie recommendations and wrapped up extra cupcakes so they could be smuggled back for a midnight snack. I hugged and laughed and spoke words of encouragement. I plastered a big goofy grin on my face and made sure it stayed there. And when dinner was over, the dishes were clean and the leftovers had been put away, I climbed in my car to go home and realized that my goofy smile was actually genuine – I’d had a great time.

One woman stopped me on the way out to say it was the best meal she’d had in weeks and she wanted to thank us. I confessed to her that it was the most fun I’d had in weeks, so really it was I who owed her the thanks.

Wanna have a good time? Organize a group from work, some neighbors or a gaggle of girlfriends and plan a meal together. Keep it simple and easy - something everybody can help prepare. Then cook & serve it to a group in your community that could use a little pick-me-up. Everybody wins.

p.s. I promised a special hello for one of my new friends… Floyd is kicking cancer’s ass. His last treatment is Friday and then he’s headed home. Give ‘em hell Floyd.

Apr 27, 2009

Adventures in Coconut Milk

After my noodle bowl prescription last week I had sweet potatoes and coconut milk on the brain...

I started with the biggest sweet potato I’ve ever seen – it was easily twice the size of an average potato. So if your market isn’t selling overgrown produce you should go ahead & grab two regular sweet potatoes.

I cubed my mutant sweet potato into ¾” pieces, tossed them with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and garam masala and popped them into a 400 degree oven. Garam Masala is an Indian spice mix that I use a lot – it’s savory and a little sweet and delicious with everything. We had roasted carrots with garam masala for our Passover Seder a few weeks ago and everyone went crazy for them – they were phenomenal.

Anyhoo… I roasted the sweet potato chunks for about 45 minutes until they were soft and starting to caramelize around the edges. While the potatoes were in the oven I chopped a big handful of cilantro. When the potatoes were done I put them in a bowl, poured about 3.5 ounces of light coconut milk over them (about a quarter of a 14oz. can) and mashed them. It only took a few swipes with a potato masher, then I added the cilantro, stirred everything together to combine & voila – the most incredible sweet potato dish EVER. Tooting my own horn? A little bit. But it really is delicious, not cloyingly sweet like most sweet potato recipes, and if you use light coconut milk the fat & calorie count doesn’t get out of control. It would be great for an Island-themed menu, maybe with Jerk Chicken…

In the midst of my sweet potato bliss I decided to try a variation on the coconut cauliflower flat bread recipe from Mark Bittman. I chopped half a head of cauliflower, tossed it with some olive oil, salt & pepper & added it to the oven to roast with the sweet potato. While it was roasting I mixed the flat bread batter. The recipe calls for regular bread flour or whole wheat flour but I have a bag of chickpea flour I’ve been dying to find the right use for so I used that. It may have been a mistake. I mixed a cup of chickpea flour with the remaining coconut milk and a few ounces of water (to replace the coconut milk I had used for the sweet potatoes), salt, pepper and a palmful of curry powder. 

When the cauliflower was ready (about 20 mins) I dumped it into the batter and gave it all a good stir. That’s when I ran into problem #2. On the recipe video, Mr. Bittman suggests cooking the flat bread on the stove and finishing it in the oven. The only oven-safe pan I have that could do both is a cast iron skillet so I took it out, heated some olive oil over a medium flame and added the batter to the hot oil in the skillet. After a minute I slipped it into the oven and left it to cook for the prescribed 45 minutes.

Here it is when I took it out of the oven – doesn’t look too bad, huh? Well, right after I took this picture I tried to flip it out onto a cutting board. No luck. I cut around the edges, tapped the bottom, tried to slip a spatula underneath….no dice. It was stuck. So I tried to cut a wedge out in the pan. I couldn’t even get that out! In the end I had to scoop out the whole mess and ended up with something that resembled cauliflower stuffing. It was delicious cauliflower stuffing, but not really what I had intended to make. And not the kind of thing you could serve your friends…it really looked like I had dropped it on the floor before throwing it on the plate. Pretty much a complete disaster. I’m betting that a nonstick pan would have been the way to go here. But sticking to the bottom notwithstanding, the chickpea flour didn’t really cook into a bread consistency…it was more like a mushy undercooked pancake. I even put it back in the oven for 15 minutes but it didn’t help – it was fully cooked, just not the way I wanted it to be.

So, the moral of the story? Stick to the sweet potatoes.

Apr 22, 2009

The Book: Tips & Tricks

Time and Money Saving Tips & Tricks for The Single Gal 
(or anybody else for that matter)

Make a List
If you’re not used to putting on a party for lots of people making a list for everything from what to pick up at the grocery store to what to do in the final countdown hours until your guests arrive.

5:00 – Chill wine & beer
5:15 – Preheat Oven, Set Table
5:30 – Shower, get dressed and have a glass of wine
6:00 – Toss Salad, Put appetizer in oven

Reviewing your list can help ease anxieties about getting everything done and ensure you’re prepared to have a good time when your guests arrive rather than running around like a crazy woman.

Limit Liquor Choices
Don’t offer a full bar unless you already have the liquor on hand or want to stock up because you know you’ll use it. Create a signature cocktail for the party and buy the single liquor in bulk or stick to wine and/or beer.

Butcher the Meat
Use a less expensive cut of meat to get the same effect with less cost and waste. Instead of serving a full steak to everyone, use sliced flank steak and bulk it up with other ingredients (see the Thai Beef Salad recipe here).

Think Farm Fresh
Find a good farmer’s market or produce stand close to your home. The fruits and vegetables are generally better tasting and much cheaper than in stores.

Combine Creatively
Don’t spend all day baking desserts from scratch. Buy a plain layer cake from the grocery store or bakery and decorate it yourself with fresh flowers, candies or fruit slices.

Order a plain cheese pizza from your local delivery place. After it arrives add your own interesting toppings, sprinkle a little more cheese on top and pop it back in the oven to heat everything up.

Water it Down
Stretch your alcohol budget by cutting wine with fruit juice or club soda to make sangria and spritzers and get more drinks per bottle.

Enlist Help
Your guests will be bored if they’re just standing around and watching you cook for them, so put them to work! Make your to-do list a little shorter by designating easy jobs like setting the table, dressing the salad or opening the wine.

Apr 20, 2009

Cheap Eats

Cheap is super chic these days – everywhere you turn there are tips on how to save money, spend less and get stuff for cheap. Especially food. I've stumbled on what I think has got to be the cheapest way to feed yourself and still get a sliver of nutrition. It’s in the same vein as my Thai Beef Salad from a few weeks ago – cabbage and ramen noodles.

If your blood pressure is even the slightest bit high you need to stop reading and turn back now. Seriously, there’s enough sodium in this to send your cardiologist into cardiac arrest – don’t say you weren’t warned.

Dinner For One: Noodle Bowl

I was cleaning out my pantry last week and there was a package of ramen jammed in the back from who knows when - but really, does that stuff ever go bad? I was caught up in the spirit of frugality so I decided to break it out. I think a pack goes for something like 14 cents so I was feeling pretty economically virtuous. But then I realized I was about to eat dehydrated noodles for dinner and visions of college nights spent huddled over a hot pot came flooding over me. I had to do something to make this more exciting.

I’ve been eating a lot of stir-fried cabbage lately. I change it up and try different sauces but the way I make it the most is just a simple saute with soy sauce and chili sauce that leaves it spicy, salty and vaguely Asian-y. And, because slicing cabbage would be more than I can handle on some nights, I’ve started picking up a bag of pre-shredded coleslaw mix with green cabbage and carrots every time I’m in the grocery store. The height of laziness? Yes. But I’ve noticed that it’s on sale more often than not, so really the cost difference is minimal and the added convenience means I’m more likely to eat veggies than, say, microwave popcorn for dinner.

So, while I was waiting for the noodle water to heat up I grabbed my bag of cabbage mix from the fridge and did a quick stir-fry – a swirl of oil, salt, pepper, a splash of soy sauce and a quirt of chili sauce. Let it cook over high heat until the cabbage is nice and wilted and starting to brown in spots. I cooked the ramen with its spice pack (I could only bring myself to use half of it – it’s SO bad for you) and dumped the cooked noodles and some of the “soup” in a deep bowl. Topped with the stir-fried cabbage and a swirl of sriracha chili sauce it was actually really good. Gourmet cuisine? No. But tasty and filling and kinda fun if we’re going to be completely honest with each other. Plus, it’s the kind of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink dinner that has endless possibilities – you can throw whatever you have in and it’ll work! I’m thinking a little egg omelet, some leftover cooked chicken or beef, any and every vegetable, sliced jalapenos… I have to get more Ramen!

So I was in a noodle bowl frame of mind when I stumbled across this and I think it’s hysterical. It’s a Noodle Bowl Idea Generator from a woman who takes her noodle bowl far more seriously than I do. This was my noodle bowl suggestion today:

Instant ramen noodles in coconut-curry broth with ginger; topped with sweet potato tempura, sautéed sweet peppers and fried garlic chips.


Apr 16, 2009

It Ain't Pretty...

But it sure does taste good.

Not pretty and slightly out of focus mushroom sauce - that wasn't my first glass of wine pictured above!

I really like this mushroom sauce over gnocchi but my grocery store was out, so I picked up a package of ravioli instead and they were great. Their shape made it easy to scoop up every last bit of sauce from the bowl. If it hadn’t been pouring down rain I would have gone outside for some fresh parsley to chop and mix in. But it was torrential, so I did without. A little green would make it prettier… but it tastes divine and that’s what really matters, right?

Dinner For One: Creamy Mushroom Ragout

This is the kind of recipe that can show up anywhere. It’s great on pasta or chicken and if you leave out the liquids (cream and chicken broth) you can serve the sautéed mushrooms as a steak side or bruchetta topping with goat cheese.

How I make it:

Put pasta water over high heat to boil. Clean and slice about half a container of button mushrooms. In a wide, flat-bottomed pan heat a swirl of olive oil over medium heat and add two minced garlic cloves (I just smush mine through a garlic press – so much easier!). After a minute, add mushrooms, toss to coat with the oil and let them cook, stirring and flipping occasionally.

The mushrooms will soak up all the oil in the pan but resist the urge to add more. As they cook, they’ll release their water and some of the oil back into the pan. As long as you have them over medium heat they won’t burn. You want them to darken and shrink until they’re tender.

When the pasta water comes to a boil, add salt & pasta and then turn your attention back to the mushrooms. Add salt & pepper and a shake of dried thyme (or fresh if you have it). Turn the heat up and add half a cup of chicken broth. Once the broth has reduced in half, add a swirl of cream or half & half and a few shakes of red pepper flakes.

When the pasta is about a minute short of being cooked through, pull it out of the water, drain and add it to the sauce pan. Stir to combine and cook for a minute before serving.

Apr 14, 2009

Viva Texaco

One of the great joys of taking a road trip is that you have free license to eat nothing but junk in the car if you want to. After all, not many of us take the time to make a sandwich & pack an apple before we set off (yes mom, I know you do…) and your on-the-road options are made up almost entirely of fast food, chain restaurants and, my personal favorite, gas station convenience stores.

Why do I love service stations? One-stop shopping. You can get gas, use the restroom (if you dare) and fill up on snacks and caffeinated beverages in a single go. Then there’s the variety of your snack options: chips, popcorn, beef jerky, candy, donut gems, corn nuts, slurpees, pork rinds or potato sticks. Plus hot dogs, nachos and microwave burritos for the experienced traveler. All of it scientifically engineered to keep your body humming for the next few hours and then send you to an early grave.

My road trip pick? Circus peanuts. (That was the collective groan of all my friends & family you just heard) Composed of nothing more than spongy sugar and fake banana flavoring shaped into an oversized peanut form, the circus peanut is, quite possibly, the worst food on the planet for the human body. But that’s not what we’re here to chat about today. Today I want to introduce you to my new favorite nibble to serve with cocktails: Chickpeas with Chili & Lemon.

That’s right, I’m actually shopping at gas stations for treats to serve my friends. If you think it’s weird, imagine the station attendant’s face when I walk up to the register with four bags of chickpeas…

This sounds like the beginning of a Top Chef challenge, doesn’t it? Plan a cocktail party using only ingredients at the corner Quickie Mart…. But hear me out here. These little crunchy snacks are spicy & tangy and really perfect for serving with a beer or margarita. They’d be great before a Cinco de Mayo dinner and I’m thinking of trying them as a salad topping sometime soon. They’re unexpected, unintimidating, and you can be sure your friends haven’t had them before.

So next time you’re at the Texaco station, don’t just swipe your card at the pump. Go inside and take a look around – just don’t tell your friends where you got the hor d'oeuvres…

And could you grab me a bag of circus peanuts? 

Apr 13, 2009

Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much

"I feel a recipe is only a theme, which an intelligent cook can play each time with a variation."
~ Madame Benoit, Canadian cooking expert

I was gifted a really delectable piece of blue cheese recently and I've been adding some to just about everything - with mixed results. My last two experiments: Blue Cheese Risotto and Blue Cheese Carbonara. 

The risotto was pretty delish - I used the basic recipe, added a good dose of dried thyme with the onions and stirred in some crumbled blue cheese at the end. It was really nice and would make a great bed for some sliced flank steak. I'll most certainly re-visit it again.

Blue Cheese Carbonara was less of a hit. Again I started with the base recipe and added about two ounces of crumbled blue cheese when I tossed the pasta with the egg. The cheese and the country ham went really well together, but you didn't want to eat a whole bowl of it. A few bites in and I was over it - even the most die hard blue cheese lover has their limits.

The verdict? I'm one for two so far and I'm going to keep experimenting - I can feel a New Classic recipe right around the corner... Blue Cheese Potato Gratin anyone?

Apr 8, 2009

When I Grow Up

I want to own a cookbook store. That's right - a bookstore that only sells books about food & cooking. Just like Rabelais Books in Portland. 

You can check them out here and they have a great blog here. But first, go here and read their list of the top ten cookbooks on Design*Sponge - really interesting selections.

Apr 6, 2009

Recession Salad

Everybody could use a little more cash these days – but that’s no excuse not to have your buds over! Entertaining doesn’t have to cost an arm & a leg. It’s not about wowing your friends with champagne and caviar – it’s about getting everyone together to have a good time.

This salad is easy to assemble and the cost per person is ridiculously low. You probably already have most of the sauces and toppings in your pantry, and if you have an herb garden then your grocery list gets even shorter. Each portion should be made up of mostly noodles and cabbage, with a few bites of steak. It’s a one-bowl meal that’ll fill everyone up with tons of flavor.

1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cups brown sugar
1 cup chopped ginger
1 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 cup rice wine vinegar
16 ounces hanger or skirt steak
6 cups shredded green cabbage
1 cup shredded purple cabbage
2 cups grated carrot
5 packages ramen noodles, cooked without spice packages & cooled
2 green onions, chopped
1 English or seedless cucumber, thinly sliced into matchsticks
1 cup chopped mint, cilantro and/or basil
1/2 cup chopped roasted peanuts
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

In a small bowl, combine the soy sauce, brown sugar, ginger, garlic, and vinegar. Set aside at room temperature.

Generously brush the meat with some of the dressing and place on a baking sheet. Roast meat until it’s medium rare. Remove from oven and cool. When the meat is cool, slice into 1/4-inch strips.

In a large bowl, combine the carrots, green and purple cabbage. Add half a cup of remaining dressing and toss to coat, set aside to soften (overnight is best). When softened, add the green onions and toss to combine. Toss noodles w/ half a cup of dressing to coat. Arrange noodles on an extra-large platter, place cucumbers, cabbage and beef on top, drizzle with remaining dressing. Sprinkle chopped herbs, peanuts and chili flakes on top, if using.

If you have a few extra bucks and want to save a few minutes, skip shredding the veggies yourself and buy two bags of coleslaw mix – the cabbage and carrots will be ready to go.

Still have cash left? Grab a few mangos and add the peeled and sliced pieces around the edge of the salad.

Apr 3, 2009

Just a pretty picture

It's been raining all week in Atlanta... so I'm thinking of warm, sunny beaches & blue skies

xo, TSG

Apr 1, 2009

When life gives you lemons...

Make soup! 

Dinner For One: Avgolemono

This lemony chicken & rice soup is great year-round. It's warm and almost creamy in texture but the flavor is still bright and fresh. I add leftover chicken to make it a more filling meal, but it's also great without the chicken as a first course.

I also use leftover rice to save time, but if you don't have any cooked rice lying around you can cook orzo pasta in the hot broth for a few minutes instead. As long as you have the basics: one can of chicken broth, one egg, and one lemon - you can add whatever else you have on hand.

How I made it:

In a small saucepan bring one 14oz. can of chicken broth to a simmer. While you're waiting for the broth to heat, put the juice of one lemon (about 2 tablespoons) in a small mixing bowl & add one egg. Whisk until smooth. 

When broth reaches a simmer, scoop out half a cup and drizzle it into the egg and lemon mixture, whisking constantly. This tempers the egg so you don't end up with scrambled egg soup. Add the lemon/egg/broth mixture back to the pot of hot broth, whisking constantly until soup is smooth and begins to thicken. Taste and add salt and pepper as desired.

Put half a cup of shredded cooked chicken and half a cup of rice in a soup bowl.  Pour in the hot soup and grab a spoon!