Thursday, February 26, 2009

It's kale-rific!

I was at Whole Foods one busy weekend afternoon. My nearly overflowing basket was full of crackers, eggs, milk, and different kinds of produce. I was standing in the bulk isle, stocking up on cornmeal, when an elderly woman walked by and remarked on the dinosaur kale that was spilling over the side of the basket.

"Do you like kale?" she asked.

"I love kale!" I said enthusiastically.

She went on to say that people no longer appreciate vegetables like kale, turnips, or other veggies eaten in eastern European countries. And, you know, she's right. Many people today know the basics — potatoes, carrots, broccoli, lettuce — but they don't feel the need to expand their horizons beyond that. (The same is true with fruit, of course. I recently watched a program where people were asked to identify the different fruits arranged on a table, and they had a hard time recognizing kumquats, pomegranates, and papayas. Again, if it's not a banana, apple, or orange, people don't seem to be bothered.)

I suppose I'm spoiled because I live in California and have access to so many kinds of produce. But there really are so many vegetables available in many areas of the country that simply don't get the recognition they deserve: Beets. Swiss chard. Leeks. And kale.

Poor kale. It's so nutritious and is very tasty when cooked properly. I like to sauté it until tender and crisp around the edges, then serve it with brown rice with peanut sauce on top.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Surprisingly delicious

This dish was inspired by one of my favorite food bloggers. By inspired, I mean he posted the recipe, and I followed the instructions. It is absolutely fabulous — and insanely easy to boot. Basically, you throw some broccoli on a baking sheet, roast it for a few minutes, add some shrimp, and roast it all for a little while longer. A squirt of lemon and serving it over rice makes it perfect.

You don't normally think to roast broccoli. This green bane of many children's existences is typically boiled or steamed, right? But roasting brings out qualities that you wouldn't usually experience when cooked the regular way: crisped edges, caramelized stems, and a sweetness that roasting seems to bring to all veggies. The AG isn't kidding when he calls roasted broccoli "the best broccoli of your life."

I doubted it at first. Boy, was I wrong. Try it yourself. You'll see.

Don't leave out the lemon!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Going veggie

People often think I'm vegetarian. I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps they are buying into a stereotype? Because of course the girl who drives a Prius with the "Buy Fresh Buy Local" and "Coexist" stickers, doesn't wear leather, and buys from socially conscious companies would necessarily also be a vegetarian. But nope, sorry to dispel the myth: I am happily a meat-eater.

Why? I could go into biological and evolutionary reasons: that our teeth and digestive systems were designed to process meat. I could go into nutritional reasons: that meat contains essential nutrients that our bodies need that are hard to find in other foods. None of these, however, are why I eat meat. I eat meat because I enjoy it. It tastes good.

I don't eat pork. Pigs are more intelligent than dogs, and we don't eat dogs, do we? Cows, chickens, and fish are sufficiently stupid for my consumption.

So I've established that I love meat. I don't have to eat it all the time, and I certainly have been known to eat many meat-free meals. But it would be hard to go without it for a long period of time. Which is why I'm giving meat up for Lent. Since I was little, I give up something that would be a challenge to give up for a full forty days in the run-up to Easter Sunday. This year it's meat. I know I'll be able to do it, but it means no Thai green curry with chicken, no sushi, no chicken taquitos at Chevy's, and no burgers. I craved beef in India because very few people eat beef, what with the cow being sacred and all. But I made it through, and I'll make it through a meatless period just the same.

In the few days before Wednesday, when Lent begins, I plan to eat mussels over pasta, roast chicken, tuna noodle casserole, and finally, I'll have a nice, big hamburger to celebrate Fat Tuesday. And then my adventure as a vegetarian will begin.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A new year of salads

One of my new year's resolutions — and the only one I've been really good about — is "eat better." With those buffet lunches at work, it's super easy to load up a plate with fried, cream sauce-covered, bacon-laden, and overall fattening foods. So I've been making more conscious choices when eating at work, as well as making a point to cook healthy meals at home. I'm feeling really good about it, and I'm feeling healthier, too.

Salad is a new regular addition to my daily diet repertoire, especially now that I've learned what I like and don't like in a salad. I most certainly don't like a salad made of romaine lettuce (I'm not a fan of those crunchy ribs). I prefer baby greens, like spinach. I like additions like edamame or chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, julienned carrots or beets, cherry tomatoes (in season), and sometimes croutons. And my new favorite dressing? One that is yogurt-based. I had a yogurt and herb dressing on a salad at work and really liked it. When I recreated it at home with plain yogurt and a few dried herbs, it was even better. Today, I had a salad with yogurt tangerine dressing that was surprisingly tasty.

The salad above was a light Sunday night dinner (after a heavy late Sunday lunch of steak and shrimp fajitas), consisting of baby spinach, tuna, sun-dried tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, and yogurt-herb dressing.

There's something that feels really healthy about a eating a dish that is made up mostly of raw ingredients. Maybe it's psychosomatic, but I sometimes am put in a better mood by an especially good salad.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Cook's Cannon (TCC) #1: apple pie

The first recipe every cook needs to know to make is something I've actually made and posted about briefly before. I don't think I've made an apple pie since then, although I have made "pocket" pies — which also was a while ago.

I'm not going to make one as part of this challenge, as I'm fairly happy with my pie-baking skills. I'm definitely far overdue, however, in whipping up an apple pie, so I will definitely plan on making one in the near future — perhaps the next time I can get to the farmers' market for heirloom apples.

I wouldn't be following Raymond Sokolov's recipe to the letter anyway. His pie crust calls for lard, which not only is a pork product (which I don't eat) but it renders the pie no longer vegetarian. I prefer the all-butter crust. I also like the apple filling to be seasoned with cinnamon, ginger, cloves, or other spices, whereas the book's recipe calls for only sugar.

I think that's part of learning to cook something: understanding that a single recipe may not be the one and final way to make a dish. Even Cook's Illustrated's "master" recipes are not necessarily my master recipes – as evidenced by the fact that their pie crust includes Crisco shortening, which I would never use. As I've said before, one of my favorite methods of cooking something new is to lay out several recipes for that one dish, then pick and choose ingredients and cooking methods that are agreeable to me.

Stay tuned for #2...

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Stocking up

Inspired by the Amateur Gourmet, I made some chicken stock today, featuring chicken backs. I usually make stock from chicken carcasses, leftover after making a roast chicken. In fact, I have one waiting in the freezer, which I only remembered after everything was in the pot (but that's okay — I'll just make more stock soon enough!). I enjoy making stock because, well, it's ridiculously easy, and it fills the apartment with a comforting and chicken-y scent. I also am of the belief that packaged stock is flavorless. While I've been known to buy boxed broth at the store, I decided it was high time I started regularly making my own to keep on hand in the freezer, so that I could infuse my food with as much flavor as possible.

Which is what makes this recipe so great: no need to wait till you've roasted a chicken to make stock. Considering I'm only cooking for one these days, the opportunity to roast a chicken doesn't typically present itself. (The carcass in the freezer is from a dinner party I threw before Thanksgiving.) Chicken backs are easy to come by. All you have to do is ask the butcher for them, and he'll go into the back to get them. I mean, all those other chicken parts come from a whole chicken, and the backs have to be somewhere, right?

Plus, chicken backs just look cool.

My adjustments to the recipe the AG used: I roughly chopped everything, instead of making everything all tidy and pretty like he did, since I was going to toss all the solids anyway. For that same reason, I included the onion skins and carrot greens. In fact, I've made stock with vegetable "leftovers" before — it's a great way to avoid wasting those parts when you don't have a way to compost.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The "Omnivore's Hundred"

I love memes. I found the following on Foodie in Denial. It even includes handy links, in case you don't recognize something listed here.

I don't know how this person came up with this particular list. It apparently contains foods that "every good omnivore should have tried at least once in their life," which run the gamut from the processed (Hostess and McDonald's) to the gourmet (sweetbreads and Kobe beef) to the weird (crocodile and whole insects).

Well, you'll see:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten. [I starred mine because the bold doesn't show well.]
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
4) Optional extra: Post a comment here at linking to your results.

The VGT Omnivore’s Hundred:

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
*3. Huevos rancheros
*4. Steak tartare
*5. Crocodile (once and never again)
*6. Black pudding
*7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp
9. Borscht
*10. Baba ghanoush
*11. Calamari
*12. Pho
*13. PB&J sandwich
*14. Aloo gobi
*15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
*18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes (mmm, raspberry wine)
*19. Steamed pork buns (I prefer baked, though.)
*20. Pistachio ice cream
*21. Heirloom tomatoes
*22. Fresh wild berries
*23. Foie gras
*24. Rice and beans
*25. Brawn, or head cheese (I haven't had this since I was a child — my dad used to buy me a slice as a treat on Saturdays)
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
*27. Dulce de leche
*28. Oysters
*29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
*31. Wasabi peas
*32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl (one of my favorites)
33. Salted lassi
*34. Sauerkraut
*35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
*37. Clotted cream tea
*38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
*40. Oxtail
*41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
*44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
*47. Chicken tikka masala
*48. Eel
*49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
*50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear

*52. Umeboshi
*53. Abalone
*54. Paneer
*55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
*60. Carob chips
*61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
*65. Durian
*66. Frogs’ legs
*67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
*68. Haggis
*69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
*73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
*77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
*80. Bellini
*81. Tom yum
*82. Eggs Benedict (my favorite thing to order for brunch)
*83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
*85. Kobe beef
*86. Hare
*87. Goulash
*88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
*91. Spam
*92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
*94. Catfish
*95. Mole poblano
*96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
*98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

Score: 62. Not bad.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Avoiding disaster

This week is going to be a long week. One of my co-teachers is out on vacation part of the week, and my other co-teacher has a knee injury and can't move around too much in the classroom. Yay. To lift my spirits, I decided to do a little baking in the form of a loaf of chocolate banana bread.

It was inspired by a recipe in the latest issue of Sunset magazine. But instead of a classic banana bread recipe with cocoa added to it, it substituted prune puree for the butter and included such things as walnuts and chocolate chips. Which I didn't have. I did have, however, two frozen bananas and a brand-new container of Green and Black's Organic baking cocoa.

A small aside here: A lot of chocolate is produced in not-so-friendly ways. In fact, much of the chocolate in the more commonly known brands is from plantations where they pay extremely low wages and employ child slave labor. I highly recommend buying chocolate from companies that support fair trade and organc growing practices, which would include Green and Black's, Dagoba, and Endangered Species. Sure, it costs more — but isn't it worth it to know your chocolate wasn't harvested by child labor?

To make the bread, I used my usual banana bread recipe and simply added the 1/2 cup baking cocoa from the Sunset recipe. Into a large bowl went the dry ingredients, and into a blender went the wet ones. It wasn't until I began to mix the two together that it occurred to me that perhaps I had misread the amount of flour — and as I stirred and saw that the dry ingredients were not fully incorporating into the wet ones, I already knew what my mistake had been. Two mistakes, actually. The first was that I used 1-3/4 cup flour instead of the 1-1/4 in the recipe. The second was that by adding 1/2 cup cocoa, I should have reduced the amount of flour. So there was far too much flour in the bowl than necessary.

I panicked slightly. Considering how much my fancy organic cocoa cost, even on sale, there was no way I could just throw out the batter. Although I had used melted butter as the lubricant in the recipe, I decided that canola oil would do the trick to moisten the mixture enough. I poured in some, then a little more, until the batter was dense but combined. If I'd had another banana, I would have thrown that in, too. But I didn't.

I put it in the oven to bake, crossing my fingers that it would all come out okay. Halfway through baking, the apartment smelled wonderful, and I figured there was still hope that the bread would be fine.

It took a little longer to bake than as directed in the recipe, so while the middle was still not completely baked through, the sides were drying out and nearly beginning to burn. The resulting bread wasn't perfect, but it was quite tasty, especially with a smear of cream cheese on top.

I've already told my co-teacher J that I plan to make a blueberry cream cheese coffee cake next week. Let's just hope I can manage to do it without any mishaps!

Chocolate banana bread
(adapted from Clueless in the Kitchen by Evelyn Raab)

1 c all-purpose flour
1/2 c sugar (feel free to use less, particularly if your bananas are especially overripe)
1/2 c baking cocoa, sifted
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 c melted butter or oil (I used butter this time)
2 bananas
2 eggs

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

In a large mixing bowl, stir dry ingredients together. In a blender, add all the wet ingredients and blend until fully combined. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry.

Pour the batter into a well-greased loaf pan and bake for an hour. Test the bread with a toothpick or wooden skewer; when it comes out with only a few crumbs clinging on, it's done. Turn out onto a wire rack and let cool.

Serve with cream cheese, if you so desire.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Food challenge 2009

In years past, I've chosen one or two foods that I had wanted to learn to cook. Two summers ago, it was ice cream, followed by an autumn of pies. Last year, I was tackling bread, until I was distracted by, well, life — and the intense heat of summer. (I'll definitely have to come back to that one, especially since I got the book Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Bread, as recommended by my cousin Deb, bread-baker extraordinaire.)

This year, I'm declaring three different food challenges I'd like to take on:
1. Cheese (mozzarella and paneer).
2. Perfect fried chicken.
3. Almost every recipe in The Cook's Canon 101 Classic Recipes Everyone Should Know. (I say "almost" because I don't eat pork, so Fresh Ham with Star Anise and Jambon Persillé are out. But Pork Vindaloo can easily become Chicken Vindaloo or some such thing.) My idea with this one is not to necessarily follow the recipes to the letter; instead, I'll use my favorite cooking method of gleaning from multiple recipes at once.

I'm hoping these challenges will keep me cooking. As I said on a Facebook meme that's going around: "Despite the fact that I love to cook and write a food blog, my cupboards are fairly bare. I eat at work during the week, and weekends are an exercise in scraping together meals with whatever I can find in the freezer." It's time to spend more quality time in the kitchen!

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Fry time

Have I mentioned lately that I love fried foods ? When I went over to a friend's house for cocktails and appetizers, I was happy to learn the nibbles would include make-your-own egg rolls — or won tons, depending on how you wanted to shape them. The filling was chicken and cabbage, and the result was crisp, hot bites that went well with sweet and sour sauce. J&J have a deep fryer, which makes the act of frying so much easier. When I fry, it involves a cast iron pan, a splatter screen, and lots of paper towels to mop up the mess. Which means I don't fry very often. I may have to look into getting a deep fryer at some point — so I can learn to make a perfect fried drumstick.

But I digress.

It was also fun watching everyone roll their own egg rolls or won tons. T and I both make our own versions (I have two: a shrimp-filled won ton and lumpia, or Filipino egg roll), so maybe what's called for is an egg roll cook-off!