Aug 31, 2009

Fools Rush In

Ok, maybe I got a little carried away. It is still technically August after all, so it’s a tad early for roasting & such. But I was at the farmer’s market this weekend and it was full of apples and root vegetables and gourds of all shapes and sizes and it was all so unexpected and unusual after months of juicy peaches and ripe berries and sweet tender greens. And somehow I ended up with an acorn squash.

Now I don’t know about you, but I think acorn squash just cries out for roasting. So I complied with its request and popped that bad boy in the oven with a dash of olive oil, a pinch of garam masala spice, and a generous sprinkle of salt & pepper. At 400 degrees it took about an hour for the wedges to brown and become tender.

And then?

Well, then it was only just ok… sweet and subtle and not particularly thrilling really. I think it could have thrilled me – maybe with a roasted chicken or pork loin alongside or whipped into a rich pasta filling… but quite frankly, the oven had already been on for an hour, it was 80 degrees outside and I was starting to break a sweat.

The truth is, it’s just not roasting weather quite yet. So I spun my squash around with a little crumbled cow’s milk feta and then, oh then… it was downright delightful. Somewhere between savory and sweet with a little salty tang - it hints of the past and promises a comforting future - perfect for our present, somewhere between Summer and Fall.

An interesting and unexpected pairing, serve it as a salad at room temp or a side for your last BBQ of the season. And remember, good things may come to those who wait - but sometimes it's ok to peek ahead!

Aug 24, 2009

Farewell Friend

Oh Summer, what happened?

It seems like just yesterday we were heralding your arrival, pulling out swimsuits and beach towels, and shaving our legs more regularly. But in two weeks it will be Labor Day and then Fall will show up, and we’ll be braising and roasting, and you’ll be gone.

How about before you go we have one last hurrah? We’ll invite over some pals, fire up the grill and sit out on the deck drinking margaritas until the sun goes down. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

What to serve for our summer send-off? How about a sweet, spicy shrimp & pineapple salsa? More substantial than a traditional salsa, it’s a perfect way to kick off your fresh fiesta.

A cross between ceviche and a salsa, this chunky relish is great with tortilla chips, or as a topping for grilled chicken or fish. Don’t like pineapple? Try it with mango, peaches or any type of melon – it’ll be great.

Shrimp & Pineapple Salsa
Serves 6 as a starter

What you need:
8-10 medium shrimp, peeled, de-veined & tails removed (I use frozen)
8oz pineapple tidbits in juice
1 jalapeno, stemmed, seeded & finely chopped
half of a red onion, finely chopped
juice of 1 lime
large handful of cilantro, stemmed & chopped
large pinch of salt (maybe 2, you’ll have to taste it)
Chips for serving 

How to make it:
Cook shrimp in boiling water until pink. Drain and let cool, then cut each shrimp into 4-5 small pieces. Combine with remaining ingredients (including juice from pineapple) and stir to combine.

This is better after it sits for awhile, so make it as far ahead as you can and leave, covered, in the fridge until you’re ready to serve.

Aug 21, 2009

Remember Me?

Um, hi. Are you mad?
I would totally understand if you are. I just run off and leave you for a week with no explanation? It was pretty rotten of me. And then I show up with a few lousy paragraphs and not even a pretty picture? And I don’t even have a good excuse. But I’ll try.

You see, it’s like this:

Work has been rough. Like “run around the office all day screaming at people while getting screamed at by other people and not having time to pee” rough. So I’ve been eating out a lot because at the end of the day I’m too wiped out to even plug in my rice cooker. And you know how much I love that thing.

So short of taking pictures of all the lovely wait staff that have coddled & cared for me this week, I just don’t have anything to share. I’m so ashamed. And, looking at my bank balance, I’m a little sick to my stomach. So I’ll be back on the wagon next week, promise. I’ll even invite some friends over – you available?

Oh, and one small side note…
I have a new roommate who moved in this week – and just in the nick of time too, ‘cause now I can use her rent to pay for all my restaurant meals – and I haven’t exactly figured out how to explain why I’m taking pictures of our food…

Hi Roomie ☺

Aug 17, 2009

5 Reasons: Quiche

1. It's a great way to use up bits & pieces you have lying around - any veggies, cheeses and/or meats will work. A quick inspection of my fridge yielded half an onion, a few handfuls of spinach, two kinds of cheese and an open bag of cooked turkey bacon crumbles (TOTALLY doesn't qualify as bacon but when you're desperate...).

2. You get incredible mileage out of just three eggs. Here's the basic recipe I used:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place ready-to-bake pie crust (by all means make your own if you're so inclined) in a pie pan and sprinkle a handful of cheese on the bottom. Put 3 cups of veggies and/or meats in the pan and spread them out in an even layer. Beat together 3 eggs, 2 TB all purpose flour, 1 cup milk, salt & pepper. Pour egg mixture in the pan, pressing down on everything to make sure it's submerged. Sprinkle another handful of cheese over the top and bake for 40-45 minutes until center is set, crust is golden and cheese is browned in spots.

3. It's great any time of day. Case in point - I made this one for lunch Saturday. It was delicious. Then I had a piece before heading out Saturday night. Still delicious. Got home in the early morning hours Sunday and seriously considered having a piece - it would have been delicious but I was too tired to even chew. Went to bed, woke up later Sunday morning and had a piece for breakfast. Yep, morning was just as delicious as noon & night. 

4. My friend Kate loves it for all these reasons and more.

5. You won't have to share it with any men. Men, as a general rule, do not like quiche. If offered to them, they will scoff at it. No one really understands why because if you were to offer them a piece of spinach and bacon "pie" (for example) they would gladly eat a piece the size of their head. Go figure.

Aug 14, 2009

Spanakopita Redux

Here's an idea. Let’s bring back the Potluck Supper, what do you say? 

Just think about it - In these leaner times it’s a great way to enjoy dinner with your friends without breaking the bank. You can hand out assignments by course (appetizer, salad, dessert), set a theme and let everyone pick a recipe (Mexican, Italian, Greek) or just pick a time and place and let it be a free-for-all.

No matter how you structure it, the rules are simple: everyone brings a dish. And this should be yours-

Incorporating all the flavors of spinach spanakopita, this easy, make-ahead pasta salad is great served at room temperature - so it’s easy to transport if the party’s not at your place.

Greek Orzo

What you need:
Two 14oz. cans chicken broth
1 lb orzo pasta
2 huge handfuls spinach, washed, dried & roughly chopped
2 TB olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
4 oz. feta cheese, cubed or crumbled
3-4 sprigs each fresh oregano and mint, finely chopped
Salt & pepper
Red pepper flake (optional)

How to make it:
Cook orzo in chicken broth until pasta is tender and liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat, add spinach to pot and stir until spinach has wilted and is well combined. Toss with olive oil and set aside. Once pasta is cool, Add lemon juice, cheese, herbs, salt & pepper to taste, and red pepper flakes if using. Toss until everything is evenly distributed. That's it - you're done. Now just pack it up and head for the party!

NOTE: You can absolutely cook the orzo in water if you’re hanging out with a veggie-minded crew.

Aug 12, 2009

Making the Most of Breakfast

I lived in Mexico the summer after I graduated from high school. It was a student travel abroad program and I loved every minute of it. The people, the culture, the community and the food – oh the food… Authentic Mexican food is nothing like what we have here and I tried so many new things that summer. It’s probably safe to say that my taco fixation began then as well… yep, I ate from street vendors in small villages in Mexico – I was living on the edge.

Dinner For One: Chilaquiles

One of my favorite dishes from my time there is actually considered a peasant breakfast – a way to use up yesterday’s tortillas and leftover salsa. In the U.S. it’s usually served for dinner and sometimes you’ll see it made with eggs on a brunch menu. While my version is nowhere near authentic - it is a quick and easy way to whip up this comfort food any time of day.

What you’ll need:
3 TB olive oil
1 medium white onion, sliced thinly
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt & pepper
1 cup mild salsa
1 small can red enchilada sauce (approx. 10 oz.)
2 cups cooked chicken, shredded
3 large handfuls tortilla chips
1 large handful Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
crema or sour cream, diced radish & chopped onion for garnish

How to make it:
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Heat olive oil in a wide oven-safe pan over medium heat on the stove. Add onions, garlic, salt & pepper and cook until onions are translucent. Add salsa and enchilada sauce, stir to combine. Add chicken and tortilla chips, stir until the chips begin to soften and everything is coated in sauce. Add half the cheese, stir once more, sprinkle remaining cheese over the top and put the pan in the oven until the cheese is melted, the chips are soft, and the sauce is bubbling.

Serving this to friends? Add a side of spicy black beans and a salad with avocado and lime – morning or night, it’ll be a hit.

NOTE: This is not a glamorous recipe. In fact, as I'm re-reading now, it really doesn't sound tasty at all, does it? But please - trust me on this one & try it. I've introduced it to friends & they all love it so I know you will too. And buy the really thick yellow tortilla chips - the kind with a picture  of someone's sweet little abuelita on the front - you won't be sorry.

Aug 10, 2009

Host It: Closet Swap

So maybe you’ve heard the economy is in the dumps? Lots of folks have lost their jobs and their savings… I’m sure you’ve seen something about it on the news, right?

Well, even for those of us who haven’t lost our jobs it’s a scary time, and if you’re like me, you’re really re-thinking your spending habits these days. Shopping, eating out, and hosting parties were pretty regular parts of my routine that have all slowed down to a trickle now that I’m watching my pennies. And with September just around the corner and every fashion magazine crammed with fabulous fall fashion, it’s hard to resist the call to shop…

So why not scratch the shopping itch by hosting a Closet Swap with as many pals as you can find and shop from other people’s closets??

Here’s how it works:
Clean out your closet and gather all the clothes that are still in good condition but just don’t work for you anymore – this includes anything you haven’t worn in a year, anything that doesn’t fit or anything that was for a special occasion and you won’t/can’t wear it again (somebody’s old bridesmaid dress could be somebody else’s hidden treasure!). Anything that’s stained or torn or otherwise needs mending isn’t eligible for the party – fix it and wear it, donate it, or throw it away.

Tell your pals to do the same thing, have everybody over, and set up a rack for hanging clothes. Clear off a bookcase for folded items and put everything out neatly, like it’s a little boutique. Put on some high-energy music, put out some snacks and cocktails and let everybody get down to the business of shopping!

My girlfriends & I have a rule when we’re in the dressing room: if it zips up, you have to show it. Put this into effect at the party and help each other put together outfits and try new styles. You might discover a new way to wear what you already have and everyone will go home with some new (to them) stuff. When it’s all over, bag everything up, give your pals one of those lovely Salvation Army tax forms and drop everything off at your local donation center.

What to serve:
Sangria (More drinks for your wine buck)
Have everyone bring a bottle of wine

Flavored popcorn - pop your own and toss it with any combination of spices. I especially like the version below:

Rosemary Popcorn:
Makes 16 cups (two big bowls)

Though it can be hard to find an old-fashioned hot air popper in this era of microwaveable popcorn, it is absolutely worth tracking one down. It’s every bit as fast as the microwave variety, has significantly less salt and fat, and it just tastes better. You’ll find yourself using it all the time – movie nights, sports events and as an unusual (and super popular) appetizer.

You can absolutely substitute the microwave version if you want, just look for low salt and/or no butter varieties.

An oil mister works great here – it gives you a fine, even spray of oil.

What you need:
1/2 cup olive oil
6-8 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/2 cup finely shredded parmesan cheese
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
salt & fresh cracked black pepper

How to make it:
STEP 1: Heat olive oil in a small saucepan over low heat. Add rosemary sprigs to pot & stir to coat. Let rosemary cook in oil gently for 8-10 minutes. Turn off heat and let cool. Remove rosemary sprigs from oil and strip leaves off the stems. Make a small pile of crispy rosemary leaves, the parmesan, salt & pepper on a cutting board and run a knife through it until everything is finely chopped and mixed.

STEP 2: When you’re ready to serve, make the popcorn according to the hot air popper’s instructions. As the popcorn comes out, spray with the rosemary oil & sprinkle with spice/cheese mixture. The hot popcorn will melt the cheese and help the seasoning stick to the kernels. Serve immediately.

Other flavor combinations (Skip Step 1 & proceed to Step 2 if not using fresh herbs):
Indian curry powder or garam masala with chopped candied ginger
Southwest chipotle powder & cumin
Mexican chili & lime seasoning
Chinese five spice powder and crunchy fried noodles

Aug 9, 2009

Sunday Morning

I love Sunday mornings. They are, without a doubt, my favorite part of the week. I’m usually out walking in the park with my dog and some old friends, followed by bagels & coffee at our usual spot. But every once in a while, when my walking buddies aren’t around, I get to spend Sunday morning at home – and that’s a real treat.

Coffee, toast and watching A&E are my Sunday treats but I woke up this morning to discover that the beautiful bread I got earlier in the week had gone stale. Really stale. Like too-far-gone-to-be-revived-by-the-toaster stale. So toast for breakfast was out.

I don’t know about you, but stale bread always makes me think of bread pudding (I know, I have a one-track mind) so I pulled out one of my favorite cookbooks – Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and found an easy recipe. I stuck to the basic recipe, but bread pudding is a perfect canvas for adding your own twist. If you’re into raisins (which I’m not), some golden raisins would be perfect. Really any fresh or dried fruit would work and you can vary the spices – nutmeg, cardamom, ginger – whatever you’ve got.

Clockwise from top left: Bittman's book, the star ingredient, out of the oven, good morning!

I put the pudding together, put it in the oven, took the dog for a walk around the neighborhood, and got back just in time to make a pot of coffee, pull the pudding out and sit down to watch Private Sessions with Gene Simmons followed by an episode of Barefoot Contessa. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

Basic Bread Pudding
Adapted from How to Cook Everything

3 cups milk
4 TB butter
1.5 tea ground cinnamon
.5 cup sugar (I used Vanilla Sugar, see below)
Pinch salt
8 slices white bread, cubed
3 eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat milk, butter, cinnamon, sugar and salt over low heat, stirring occasionally, until butter melts. Do not let it come to a boil! Place bread in a small baking dish and pour hot milk mixture over it. Let bread soak for a few minutes, pushing it down to make sure everything is submerged.

Beat the eggs and add them to the baking dish, stir to combine. Sprinkle sugar over the top and place the small baking dish inside a larger one. Add hot water to the larger dish until it’s about an inch from the top (you’re creating a water bath so the pudding cooks gently).

Carefully – very carefully – put the whole contraption in the oven and bake for 50 minutes to an hour, until center is softly set.

Usually bread pudding is dessert and you’d serve it with whipped cream or ice cream. Since I was having mine for breakfast I topped it with a little maple syrup. Gilding the lily a bit, I know - but it was delicious. Next Sunday? I'm going to pray for rain so I can do it all over again... 

How to: Vanilla Sugar

This is silly simple... go to a high end market and splurge on a whole vanilla bean. Come home, put a pound of sugar in an airtight jar, nestle the vanilla bean down in the middle, put the lid on and let it sit for a few days. The longer the bean is in the sugar, the more flavor you'll get. And when the first batch of sugar is gone, just refill the jar - the bean will keep working for awhile. Use it in your coffee, on oatmeal, or as the finishing touch on cookies or cakes. 

Aug 5, 2009

How to: Bread Salad

Pop Quiz:
On one very lucky day you are given a bag of home-grown cucumbers, tomatoes, jalapenos, and cubanelle peppers AND a bag of fresh herbs including oregano, rosemary & basil AND three delicious loaves of bread. What do you do with them?

You make a Greek-Style Bread Salad of course!

Before & After

How to make it:
There's not much of a recipe here - really just assembly instructions. 

Peel a cucumber (half of one if they're large) and roughly chop the cucumber, one tomato, one cubanelle and half a sweet onion. Add two ounces of cubed or crumbled feta, a handful of chopped fresh oregano and a handful of olives (if you have them, I actually didn't!). Add two handfuls of cubed bread and toss with a few tablespoons of basic vinaigrette. I made an easy red wine vinegar and olive oil vinaigrette but any oil and vinegar combo will work. Allow the dressing to soak into the bread, add salt and pepper to taste. 

This is actually a great way to use day-old stale bread. Since my bread was fresh, I toasted it for a few minutes after I cubed it. That way when it soaks up the dressing it becomes soft - not soaked and squishy.

Big thank you to all the sweet folks who gifted me with beautiful produce and bread!

Aug 3, 2009

Just stopping by

Oh, hello there.

How are you? oh good. I trust you had a nice weekend? Great.

I've just stopped by quickly to share two things with you:

1. You have to get some za'atar.

I read this post by The Leftoverist (you should check her out - I love her attitude) about a delicious looking Mediterranean platter she whipped up in no time at all, and it sent me off in search of za'atar - the delicious spice mix you often find sprinkled on everything at Turkish restaurants.

Turns out it wasn't that hard to find - the fancy new Kroger had some so I snatched it up. And I came home tonight and whipped up my own easy dinner.

The package lists roasted thyme, ground sumac, sesame seeds and salt as the only ingredients . 
I sprinkled it on grilled chicken, pita, cucumber, feta and yogurt. 

It was quite delicious and I can't recommend highly enough that you go find some for yourself. Or, if you live nearby, I'll share with you.

2. Haagen Dazs tricked me.

I work in advertising so I'm pretty savvy when it comes to sneaky marketing tricks. I can usually tell you that a product won't make you thinner, help you clean faster or re-grow hair. So imagine my surprise when I fell for Haagen Dazs' new advertising campaign!

Have you seen it? They have a new line of ice cream called 'five' that's only made with five "natural" ingredients. It also has less fat than regular ice cream and comes in flavors like mint & ginger - I was sold. I picked up the mint flavor, looked at the pretty picture of a mint leaf on the front, read the ingredients listed next to the picture - milk, cream, sugar, eggs, mint - and got ready for an all-natural, delicately minted, semi-healthy ice cream experience. Ok, I was pushing it with the health thing...

So I popped the top, grabbed a spoon, dug in for a big bite and... yuck. Really yuck. Turns out when they say "mint" what they really mean is "fakey-tasting mint extract that closely resembles the flavor of toothpaste". And, in fact, if you turn the carton around, put on your glasses, and read the very small print on the back... they do list mint extract as one of their five ingredients. 

They got me - I hate that.