Category Archives: Anytime food

Gluten Free Trial: The Verdict

I came, I cried, I was conquered – by gluten.

It turned out, gluten-free was not for me.  Besides feeling hungry and empty all the time, I had about 7 migraines within my first 2 weeks of trying the gluten-free diet.  This was clearly not the culprit of my migraines.  So at week 3, after telling several friends and family members that it wasn’t working but I was still toughing it, the chorus of “why?!” finally convinced me to just eat some bread already.  I did and I felt better almost instantly.  So I don’t think gluten-free works for me.

However, it does work for A LOT of people.  Doing this trial so publicly, I had great conversations with people (mostly who suffered from IBS) that have had great success with going gluten-free.  These people are passionate and eager to share their recipes and their tips and tricks.  So I don’t want to dissuade anyone from going gluten-free if they think it will make them feel better.

What I learned during the Gluten Free Trial was that eating gluten-free at home really just takes some adjustment.  If you’re eating a lot of baked goods and sandwiches, it will be more so.  But my plan all along was to eat more vegetables and there are a lot of exciting recipes out there that encourage you to eat less bread products. (Look out for my recipe for “cauliflower rice” next post.  It will change your life.) You have to really commit and dedicate yourself to creativity – and, fortunately, the internet is ready to help you.

But I think giving up on bread products and baked goods is key.  That was really hard for me, especially trying the trial in such a busy period in my year.  Only 3 days in, I came down with a seriously nasty stomach virus.  Although I was queasy for days afterward, I was also hungry and you know what most Americans with an upset stomach turn to – bread!  Although I wasn’t planning on trying any gluten-substitute products during the trial, that became necessary as my sick belly was yearning for bread and crackers.  James dutifully went to the store and found me gluten-free bread and crackers, mostly made of rice.  This stuff is a very sad indeed.  The texture is all off, there’s really no taste.  It was depressing.  There is no straight replacement for gluten.  You have to give up those products completely.

Being a busy American on the go does not make that easy.  Breakfast gets things off to a bad start.  Americans love gluten in the morning – toast, pastries, egg sandwiches are all the norm.  And since I’ve been trying to be very cognizant of the sugar I intake, I try to avoid sugary yogurts but they were a necessity for protein.  I felt like I was constantly making sacrifices for other healthy ways I have trained myself to eat in order to accommodate the gluten.  Needless to say, my digestive system was a bit of wreck.  I will say that oatmeal at Starbucks has been my go-to healthy breakfast of choice for a while (and I enjoy Starbucks coffee quite a bit.)  You can control how much sugar you add, and they provide a decent array of dried fruit and nuts, adding fiber to an already fiber-heavy dish.  But the Starbucks at the hotel where I was staying was closed, so the only access to oatmeal I had was instant – some of which had a total of 29 grams of sugar in a serving.  No.  Thank you.

Lunch was a lot easier and, as evidenced by my instagram account, San Diego helped me out by providing corn tortillas for tacos at every turn.  So. Many. Delicious. Tacos!  The movement towards hearty salads and bean salads were incredibly helpful as well.  Lunches I often left satisfied, although my tummy still missed the gluten.

Dinners were very hit or miss for me, especially since event planners typically eat last once we’re sure there was enough food for our attendees.  One night I ate nothing but meat.  Another I settled for eating french fries off someone’s plate.  Like I said – the sacrifices I made to avoid gluten didn’t seem worth it.

But going gluten-free did open my creative brain to all of the wonders we enjoy that don’t include gluten and ones that I’ll be adopting for their fiber and their delicious flavor.

Some of the products I discovered that were gluten-free and delighted me:
Terra Chips: root vegetable chips, filled with fiber, and incredibly tasty
-Wolfgang Puck makes a number of gluten-free soups that were very nuanced for a canned soup and went out their way to label the fact that they were gluten-free.  Impressive.
Danielle’s Pineapple Chips: These things defy logic – incredibly crunchy, tangy, sweet.  I found them in the San Diego airport and went back and bought a second bag to bring home after I housed the first bag.  A thing of beauty!
-I’m sure Kind bars aren’t new to anyone at this point, but their low sugar and gluten-free properties make them a big winner for me. Plus they’ve got really creative flavors that satisfy cravings as well!

In summary: a gluten-free diet improves a lot of lives (just unfortunately not mine) but if you’re a busy person on-the-go, it can be a real challenge.  If you’re dedicated to it, make sure you pack gluten-free goodies that will truly satisfy you to get through the day and keep you feeling happy.

However, my return to gluten was quite glorious (I did not know how I could live without farro.)  There’s something about it that makes me feel more balanced.  Perhaps it’s possible that I actually need gluten?  Yeah, let’s uh… let’s go with that.  Pass the biscuits.

Pierogi Project: My first time making homemade pierogi

For the past three Valentine’s Days, James and I have stayed home and made ourselves some steak.  Mostly because going out to dinner on Valentine’s Day is akin to voluntarily being robbed.    And we were incredibly pleased with our decision when, around 7pm, a horribly windy snowstorm whipped snow against our window, and the highway was completely obscured from view.  Since we’re living on the 7th floor, the rest of the weekend promises to transform our apartment into a drafty haunted house.

And because Valentine’s Day was on a Saturday this year, I realized that we could take on a cooking project, something we’ve always wanted to try to make from scratch but didn’t have the time.  A lot of ideas were batted around until we decided that we would have steak and pierogi.DSC_0133

This seemed brilliant at the time but as I continued to research recipes, it became more and more intimidating.  We weren’t just trying a new recipe: we were making pasta dough, which we’ve never done by ourselves, making mashed potatoes, which I hate doing, and then filling the dumplings, which is what I had been regarding as the most difficult part.

There are lots of interesting pierogi recipes out there, as this is a traditional celebratory dish in several cultures, but the one I ended up using was from Sydney Oland of Serious Eats.  It seemed the most straight-forward to me, but that’s because the recipe is written very matter-of-factly.  To novice pierogi makers, like we were (are?), there was a lot of supplemental information we needed to search for as the day went on.DSC_0113

However, the results were delectable and our apartment smelled amazing for days.  Here, I detail James’ and my first foray into pierogi making – hopefully these tips will help you on your own pierogi journey!DSC_0221

Pierogi filled with potatoes and cheddar cheese

Recipe by Sydney Oland at Serious Eats, one of my most trusted sources for reliable food and cooking intel

Ingredients

Dough:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • large pinch of salt (I used 1/8 tsp)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil (I used olive oil)

Filling:

  • 2 large Russet potatoes
  • 1 1/2 cup shredded sharp Cheddar
  • Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
  • 1 sliced onion fried in 1 tablespoon butter (optional) (but not really)

Procedures:

  1. Make Dough: Place flour and salt in a large bowl and make a well in the center. Add water, egg and vegetable oil and mix, slowly incorporating flour until soft dough forms.
  2. Turn soft dough out onto floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes.
  3. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rest for 1 hour.
  4. To make filling: Wash potatoes and peel (or use food mill, see below) and cut into 1 inch pieces.
  5. Boil in salted water until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes.
  6. Drain potatoes, place in a large bowl and mash with a potato masher or fork (or food mill, see below) slowly adding grated cheese.
  7. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  8. Assemble pierogi: Divide dough in half, reserving other half under a kitchen towel.
  9. *Divide halved dough into 24 evenly sized pieces. Roll each piece into a round about 1/8-inch thick.*
  10. Wet edges of dough and place a rounded teaspoon worth of filling in center of round.
  11. Close dough around filling creating a semicircle sealing edges with fingers (or crimp with a fork).
  12. Repeat with all remaining dough (there may be some filling left).
  13. Boil a large pot of water, and working in batches, cook pierogi until they rise to the top of the boiling water.
  14. Another change.  Once all of the pierogi were boiled, we sauteed them in oil to get a nice, crisp browning.  More on that below…

*Here we differed.  Instead of rolling out the dough into pieces, we rolled out one big piece to 1/8 inch thick and used a biscuit cutter (but a cookie cutter would work too), to cut out circles in order to make pierogi in the shape to which we’re accustomed: the crimped half moon.

Pictures and Anecdotes:

Making Pasta Dough:

I’ve only ever made pasta from scratch once, in a cooking class that I took with my brother Dan eight years ago.  So you could say that I was rusty.  I had decided that we would make the dough in the food processor, which would do most of the kneading for us because I didn’t feel confident that I could teach myself how to knead.

So we started in the food processor, but because this dough contains a cup of water, the water started to seep out of the food processor and all over the counter.  This may have been avoided if we had added the ingredients in a certain order, perhaps the water and then the flour, so the water would seep into the flour and not spill.  But we added the flour first, then the water, which spilled over the middle of the processor, the cavity where the mechanics of the processor meets the food bowl.

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James, in his wisdom, said we should salvage all the ingredients and mix them in a bowl with a spoon.  I was skeptical, since I’d never seen it done that way before – there’s usually a complex, delicate mixing procedure that looks like this.  However, once James mixed it all together, the dough looked exactly how it does at the end of the complex procedure, so we just decided to move ahead!

So, we needed to teach ourselves how to knead and found this video from Giuliano Hazan to help us.  (Fun fact!  I used this video completely ignorant to the fact that Giuliano is the author of the first cookbook I ever owned and the son on Marcella Hazan, who I just watched on Mind of Chef today and who is regarded as the “Godmother of Italian Cooking.”  I’d say we found a pretty reliable source!)

The steps we found are as follows:
1.  Flour the surface you’ll be working on – I tried using parchment, but it moved around too much.  I eventually switched to a wood cutting board.
2. Mold the dough into a ball so you can work with it.  It will be very sticky!  Add flour as often as you please throughout the process.
3.  Stretch the dough a little so that you can fold it over one hand like a book.DSC_0012
4. With the heel of your hand, push the dough back on to itself twice, like you’re trying to seal those edges together while also forming the dough back into a ball.DSC_0014
5. Turn the dough 1/4 turn and repeat.

As the recipe says, you knead for about 8 minutes until your dough is not so sticky and feels elastic.  What does elastic mean?  Think of a rubber band – it can be stretched but will snap back into its shape.  The dough won’t be exactly like a rubber band, but it will feel tougher than when you started and you can imagine rolling it.  If you’re not sure, just take the time into consideration – if you’ve kneaded for 8 minutes, it’s probably good to go.  You don’t have to knead continuously, either.  James and I switched at one point so we could both get a chance to try it.

Ready to hydrate!
Ready to hydrate!

Now you let the dough rest under a towel to hydrate.  The recipe says 1 hour, but we waited about 1.5 hours because we were doing other things in the kitchen.

Mashed Potatoes

Now we made the potatoes.  I hardly ever cook potatoes in my house because they’re such a pain – you have to scrub them, some people peel them (but I never do because that’s where all the nutrients are), and then boil, and then mash.  I just don’t like mashed or roasted potatoes enough to go to the trouble, especially on a weeknight.  However, the pierogi memories we had included mashed potatoes, so this was a must.  It also gave me the excuse to use my food mill, which James bought me about 3 years ago and I still had never used.DSC_0017

The food mill is featured on cooking shows a lot for mashed potatoes and for tomato sauce.  It’s used to make uniform, gorgeous texture and also keeps skins of potatoes and tomatoes out of your mixture.  It was also very easy to use, once we realized that all three blades were locked into the machine for storage, and we needed to choose one before proceeding.  Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this until after I already fed potatoes into the machine.  I don’t call this blog “Amateur Hour” for nothing.DSC_0076

Anyways, you feed to potatoes into the top of the machine and turn a crank that pushes the potatoes through the shredder blade and into the bowl below.  Some skins get shredded but most stay at the top, keeping the texture uniform.  It’s pretty badass.  The best part is that the whole mechanism is dishwasher safe.

Action shot!
Action shot!

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Once the potatoes were milled, I added the cheese and incorporated them together with a potato masher, my favorite non-fancy potato tool.  It can be used in lots of applications when you need to mash something, like avocado or mixing something hard into cookie dough like chocolate chips or nuts.

Back to our pasta dough.

Look at how it's hydrated after an hour (and a half)!
Look at how it’s hydrated after an hour (and a half)!


The big change we made to the recipe was that we decided to roll the dough out into one big sheet instead of rolling each individual piece.  It seemed like it would cut down on time.DSC_0105

Rolling pasta dough is different than any other dough I’ve worked with (mostly cookie dough.)  The elasticity we talked about earlier makes the dough start to shrink back into its shape once you’ve rolled it, so you need to apply a healthy amount of pressure to the dough to get it to stay rolled out.  The recipe calls for us to roll the dough to 1/8 inch, which is very thin – the concept is, because you’re folding the dough over to make the pierogi, you end up with 1/4 inch pasta in the finished product, just with some filling in between.  However, if your pasta is just a little bit thicker, it’s easier to work with and we didn’t find that it ruined the dish.  At the end of the process, James made a few pierogi that were 1/4 inch thick before he folded them and we can’t even find those among the others.  So the thickness is not going to screw up your pierogi!DSC_0107

Filling pierogi:
We really had a lot of fun during this part of the process.  It’s time-consuming and a little intimidating at first, which is why I created a short video to show how I did it from start to finish.

The steps are as follows:

  1. Once we rolled the dough out, we cut circles out with our biscuit cutter, which is 2 & 3/4 inch in diameter.  The exact size doesn’t matter a lot because…
  2. Then stretch the dough to be just a little bit larger, stretching the outside and turning the dough, just like a pizza, so that you can fit a healthy amount of filling inside.
  3. Measure out a rounded teaspoon of the filling and place it on one side of the circle.
  4. Flatten the filling, so it will fit the crescent moon shape.
  5. Moisten the edges with a little bit of water.
  6. Fold the pasta over and crimp with a fork.
    1. I like to make the first indentation, then for the next, I put the outside tine of the fork in the last indentation I made so that the crimps are evenly spaced.

Obviously this part of the process takes the longest.  I’d say it took us about an hour to do, although we were also preparing other parts of our meal at the same time.  But it was extremely satisfying, watching this pasta and mashed potatoes become something beautiful, this shape from my childhood that had only ever come from a Mrs. T’s freezer bag.  That is my absolute favorite part of cooking, possibly more than actually eating – when the ingredients come together and you can actually see the food take form.DSC_0137

Now once all the pierogi were finished, they sat for a while before we boiled them.  This was probably the biggest surprise when we tried to move them – the dough is wet and stuck to the plates we were storing them on, which then mangled our lovingly made shapes!  As James was tending to the pot, I had to very gingerly pry them off the plate and flip them onto their tops, which had dried just enough not to stick.  How can this sticking be avoided?  I’m not positive, but I think storing them on a different surface, like the wood cutting board, would be helpful.  We could store them on plates lined with parchment paper, and I’d recommend two layers, because the dough is wet enough to soak through the parchment, which would defeat the purpose.  You could also very lightly dust the plate before placing the pierogi down on it.  That’s probably what I’ll do next time.

You should use a large pot of water to boil your pierogi, which we did not do.  We were only able to get 5 pierogi in the pot at a time, which resulted in long cooking time and very cloudy water by the end.  The water will get cloudier than if you use dried pasta, so make sure you use a lot of water and your biggest pot!

This pot is not big enough...
This pot is not big enough…

However, fresh pierogi also cook very fast, so they’ll float to the top in 2-3 minutes.  Once they float, they’re done and can be fished out using a slotted spoon.

The original recipe says to serve the pierogi this way, but that’s not the way I remember them and certainly not what James was envisioning.  Oh no – we fried them up in olive oil for a golden brown finish and a crisp exterior.  What I found fascinating is that some of the pierogi had gotten really ugly and mangled, but once we fried them – it just didn’t matter.  It was as if my brain couldn’t even compute that they looked different than the others.  That golden brown color means “YUM ME EAT NOW” in my brain, no matter what.

Mangled, yet still looks delicious
Mangled, yet still looks delicious

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James fried up some onions low and slow to accompany the pierogi, also something I’m rather accustomed to when eating pierogi.  The apartment smelled amazing.  I think I’d like to make a fried onion scented candle.DSC_0167

We had about 50 small pierogi to enjoy and so we did, for several days now.  Pierogi are a great cooking project to take on: what would be even better is to take it on with a few friends, so you can all learn and work together, accompanied by some cold beers.  The process will go faster and you won’t be eating at 9pm… like we were.  Also starting earlier in the day would be a good rule of thumb.

Have you made pierogi before and have tips?  Is there anything you’re wondering about that I haven’t covered?  Hit me up in the comments below.DSC_0156DSC_0229

Thanks for coming along on our Pierogi Journey!

Homemade Spreadable Butter

About 6 months ago, I had an existential crisis in the grocery store.

I was standing in the oil section, trying to choose a neutral flavored oil for these delicious banana muffins.  I use olive oil in almost everything I cook, but it seemed like it wouldn’t lend the right flavor to the muffins.  I also thought it would be good to get an oil that had some beneficial component that would add to the healthiness of the muffins.

Grapeseed oil was a good price and what the original recipe had suggested.  So I googled grapeseed oil to see if it had any particularly healthy attributes.  And I was attacked by the following results:

Print Screen Grapeseed Oil

Some sites claimed that grapeseed oil was a great choice for my baked goods and others claimed that it would surely kill me.  I was literally paralyzed, hunched over my phone like that annoying person I usually grumble about in the grocery store.  I kept clicking and reading and clicking and reading, frenzied by the conflicting arguments and desperate for an answer for what I should actually choose.  All of the claims became more and more hysterical and this seemingly simple choice became more dire than ever.

I felt betrayed, afraid and embarrassed.  How was everyone else buying their products so easily?  Didn’t they know that EVERYTHING WAS A LIE?!

Why am I such a lunatic about this?  Most of it has to do with watching my mother suffer from pancreatic cancer.  When something like that happens to a loved one, it’s natural to seek answers, and I decided to focus on food, which is really the only thing I can control about my environment.  Well, and exercise, but that’s a whole separate discussion.

The point is, I was very vulnerable and these “click-bait” headlines really messed with my head.  I’m very grateful to James for encouraging me to do more research before making drastic changes to my (and, because we live together, his) diet.  Now I’m able to look at Google results like the ones above and search for reputable websites that I have decided to trust like the Mayo Clinic or Harvard Medical School.  Are these sites infallible?  Of course not.  But I try to at least look for information with a science background.  It keeps me sane.

So what does all of this crap have to do with spreadable butter?  Merely that homemade spreadable butter has two ingredients: real butter and the oil of your choosing.  And after all that, my choosing is still grapeseed oil.  It’s cheap, has a neutral flavor and a long shelf life.

Because I’m a huge nerd, I find homemade spreadable butter so much fun.  I took spreadable butter for granted for so long, as something I HAD to buy, no other options, the end. But in my health crusade, I decided to look at the labels on every single spreadable butter in the store, hoping that one contained healthy oils so I could not only use delicious butter but increase my health as well.  Each and every one, even the ones that claimed to be organic and super healthy, had a ton of chemicals in it.  A TON.  Do I know these are bad for me?  Absolutely not.  They could be fine.  I really don’t know.  But it had me thinking – can’t I make spreadable butter at home?  Does it have to have chemicals to be spreadable? And this time the internet DID come in handy – not only was homemade spreadable butter possible, it only contains two ingredients. Done and done.

So, after that rant, I give you the recipe for Homemade Spreadable Butter.  I can’t say that it’s better for you, but I can say that it’s cheaper, less wasteful (no plastic container) and tastes AMAZING.  And it’s super fast, too!

Homemade Spreadable Butter

Ingredients:

  • 2 sticks (1 cup, 16 TBL) of salted butter
  • 2/3 cup of oil (I use grapeseed, but you can use any type that pleases you.)

Procedure:

  1. Let your butter come to room temperature so it is soft and easy to combine with oil (Alternately, heat your butter in the microwave in 5 second intervals until soft)
  2. Combine butter and oil in a small food processor until homogeneous and smooth
  3. Chill and enjoy spreadable butter anytime

Procedure with Pictures and Anecdotes:

Our apartment often gets really hot, especially when we’re cooking and baking all day, and this was one of those days.  My butter was way meltier than recommended and it still worked out great.

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Because I am obsessive, I actually have three food processors to choose from, and this one can be used as an attachment to my immersion blender.  I know.  I have a lot of kitchen appliances.  I find using my tiny food processor much easier in this application, but you can combine the butter and oil with a fork or with a whisk as well.  It comes out a little chunky, but it was still spreadable out of the fridge.

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So tiny – how can I not use that?

DSC_0096You can see here that the food processor makes the butter incredibly smooth in just a matter of seconds.

DSC_0024Yeah it’s… really easy.  There’s nothing else to say.  Go make some!  And then spread it on these delicious buttermilk biscuits!  Everybody wins.

Holy Guacamole

While we’re on the subject of the wonders of dried herbs and spices, it’s only fitting that I discuss our “secret ingredient” Guacamole.

When I realized that I couldn’t eat cheese, James and I started making A TON of guacamole and putting it on everything you’d eat with cheese, mostly sandwiches.  Turkey burgers, shredded pork, tacos – guacamole was a staple.

After making the recipe in many different ways, we found some tricks that not only made our guacamole easy to throw together, but balanced the flavors perfectly.  The one secret was garlic powder instead of minced garlic.  If you’re not going to heat minced or pressed garlic, it can be extremely potent and make your breath heinous – not just while you’re eating it, but for days.  Using garlic powder gives the flavor without any of the bite, and in powdered form it can distribute evenly throughout the dip.

Our other secret ingredient?  Jarred Jalapenos instead of fresh.  These last a really long time in the refrigerator and can come sliced and even diced, although I’ve had a hard time finding the diced ones lately.  The jarred jalapenos still have lots of heat but you don’t need to worry about touching them with your bare hands – the capsaicin has been muted by the liquid in which they’re packed.

I can count the number of times I’ve seen James truly angry on both hands.  He is, 99% of the time, the most calm, reasonable and kind person I have ever met.  But one of the times I experienced his anger was, fortunately, not at me but at a fresh jalapeno.  We were making guacamole while dog-sitting for my sister, and we bought all the ingredients to make dinner while we were there.  James bought a fresh jalapeno and scraped the seeds out with his fingers, “like Bobby Flay does.”  Then… he rubbed his eye.

This is what you’d call “a lesson learned the hard way.”  James was in terrible pain and I’d never experienced something like this before.  So I hopped from one foot to the other anxiously crying “Oh James, I don’t know what to do.”  And one of the few times I’ve ever heard him shout, James yelled “GOOGLE IT!!! GOOGLE IT!!!”

Fortunately and unfortunately, it’s a common problem but most of the advice online tells you how to prevent the burn, not how to cure it – there’s actually very few ways to cure a capsaicin burn besides time.  To cool the burning, you can ice the skin you rubbed with capsaicin, but it will not solve your problem.   We were advised to wash his hands with just soap (without water) before rinsing – the soap will adhere to the capsaicin molecules, whereas just water will actually spread them more easily.  For terrible cases like James, his hands were literally burning for 24 hours.  We had to soak his hands in milk the next day.

Therefore – pickled jalepenos are the norm in our household.  But not only are they safer, they add the right amount of heat to our perfectly balanced guacamole.  It’s party, season, y’all, so keep this recipe handy.  Oh – and you’re welcome.

Bonnie and James' Perfect Guacamole

Ingredients

  • 1 ripe avocado
  • 1/4 cup red onion (1/2 half small onion), diced
  • 1 TBL jarred jalapeño, diced finely
  • 1-2 TBL of lime juice, to taste (we use 2)
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Procedure:

  1. Core avocado and scoop flesh into a bowl
  2. Dice your onion and jalapeno and add to avocado
  3. Add lime juice, garlic powder, and salt
  4. Using a fork, press down on the flesh of the avocado to achieve the desired texture.  We like ours very smooth, but I know preferences vary.
  5. Mix together all ingredients and taste, adjusting seasoning to taste as needed.
  6. Serve immediately.

Procedure with pictures and anecdotes

Ah, avocados – how I love them, even though they are probably the most frustrating fruit to buy and store.  Here’s some tricks I learned in my cheese-less days…

Picking avocados: A ripe avocado’s skin will be black, not brown.  Pick up the avocado and squeeze gently – it should yield to the pressure, but not feel mushy.  A hard avocado will not be ripe for another few days.  Finally, you’ll see at the stem end of the avocado that there’s a small nub, almost like a button.  This can be easily flicked out with a finger – if it’s a nice light green (not yellow), you’re good to go!

Cutting avocados: On a cutting board and using a chef’s knife, slice the avocado lengthwise – once the knife hits large pit, rotate the avocado so that you’ve sliced the flesh in half all the way around the fruit.  Put down your knife and twist each side of the fruit in opposite directions – this will separate each half so you can scoop out the flesh.20141019_165853  I like to use the heel of my knife to take the pit out of the avocado.  Fold a thick dish towel over several times and hold in your outstretched hand so that your skin is completely covered.  Place the half of the avocado with the pit into your towel-covered hand.  Place the heel of your knife on the pit and, with a very focused, deliberate motion, lodge your knife heel into the pit.  YOU DO NOT NEED A STRONG “WHACK” – remember, your hand is on the other side of that towel!  (For a good, quick video of this – check out CHOW’s video here.)20141019_165934Once lodged, grip the knife blade from the dull side and twist the avocado and knife in opposite directions.  The pit should easily dislodge from the flesh of the avocado.  Press the pit gently downward, again from the dull side of the knife, to slide off the blade.

Some people do not like using the knife method, which is perfectly fair – you are definitely driving a knife towards your hand.  Hence the towel.  You can also use a spoon to scoop the pit from the flesh – the riper your avocado, the easier this will be.  Not the cleanest method, but certainly safer.

To get the avocado flesh out of the skin, I usually slice the flesh while it’s still in the skin.  Again, using the towel-to-protect-your-hand method: make lengthwise cuts in the flesh and then widthwise cuts in the flesh to make a grid.  Use a spoon to circle around the flesh in the skin and then scoop out.

Storing guacamole: This is a tough one, and there’s a lot of theories of how to keep guacamole from browning on the internet.  My favorite is to lay plastic wrap directly on top of the guacamole, after smoothing it into an even layer.  This keeps the guac from having a lot of contact with oxygen in the air, which causes the browning.  This works well for about 24-hours, but sometimes there will  be a very thin layer of brown on the top of the guac.  I usually scrape this off before eating.  I’ve noticed that the longer you try to keep it, the farther down the brown will extend.  However – it doesn’t last long enough in my house to be much of a problem.

Granulated garlic: Looks like this!20141019_172344Use it for a myriad of possibilities in the kitchen.

Juicing a lime: If you’re using freshly squeezed lime juice, and you have weak little baby hands like me, here’s a few tips:

  1. Roll the whole, un-sliced lime on your cutting board to break down some of the fibers.
  2. Once sliced in half, poke holes in the flesh of the lime to help release the juices.
  3. You can use a reamer, but I find limes so difficult that sometimes I use the fork as a reamer instead, squeezing the lime around the fork to release the juice.  It may help to re-pierce the lime in several spots as you try this.20141019_171746

Using a fork to squash avocado:20141019_171342Happy Guacamole!20141019_172433

 

Thanksgiving Dry Run: Cornbread Stuffing

This year for Thanksgiving, James and I have volunteered to bring a dish we’ve never tried before but that I’ve always wanted to make: cornbread stuffing.  Or I guess, more exactly, cornbread dressing since it won’t be stuffed inside the bird. We’re from Philadelphia and cornbread is not really a staple of family meals, although always welcome.  Stuffings or dressings that don’t use regular sandwich bread have always fascinated me, since that’s what I grew up eating – Mom’s bread dressing is always made with Arnold’s Whole Wheat Bread.  I’m also interested in the texture difference that chunks of cornbread would lend to stuffing – but most importantly, the flavors of slightly sweet cornbread combined with sage and rosemary sounds heavenly.  James’ brother, Andrew, the brave host of Thanksgiving even with the most adorable 3.5-months-old baby now residing in their home, welcomed the side dish and we’re excited to contribute.

Cornbread stuffing actually requires the use of two completely new recipes to us: baking cornbread and then the cornbread stuffing.  We could buy the cornbread, of course, but I saw several warnings that grocery-store cornbread would be too sweet.  And I had to concede that can happen – grocery-store cornbread can often taste like corncake.  So we decided to do a dry run and make both recipes, so we can be sure it’s delicious on Thanksgiving Day.

I only do dry-runs for really important things: I’ve done a few Christmas Cookie dry-runs, feeding my office with the tests, or before we’re going to make a special meal for someone.  But having the audacity to volunteer yourself for the most important part of the Thanksgiving table and trying a new recipe?  You must have some nerve.  Thanksgiving is the most sacred of meals in the year: if you’re contributing, you better bring your A-game.

The best way, in my opinion, to do a dry run is to do the recipe once exactly as written.  Therefore, I did no such thing.  Who has time for that?

When waiting at the doctor’s office one morning, James and I went through a whole bunch of recipes for cornbread stuffing on our phones and narrowed down the ones we liked.  Eventually, we settled on an Anne Burrell recipe, but we decided to sub in bacon for sausage, and omit cranberries and walnuts, to make it more crowd-pleasing.  All the rest of the ingredients seemed right on.

I found a recipe that reviews lauded as a sturdy cornbread that wouldn’t fall apart, that seemed perfect for this dish.  We needed 10 cups of cornbread, and in the very helpful video from Anne Burrell it looked like she just used two 8-inch cornbreads, so I’m trusting that I was right about that.

And therein lies one of my biggest frustrations as a home cook – poor recipe writing for normal people.  This recipe called for 10 cups of cornbread.  Sorry, but cornbread isn’t measured in cups.  Had I decided to base the amount of cornbread I needed to make on the number of cups in the recipe, I would have made 5 cornbreads instead of two.  Can you help a girl out and tell me how I get to 10 cups?  Come on now.

We’re feeling really good about the stuffing at this point, but we do have a few tweaks to make, which I’ve included in the recipe below.  I’ll make updates once Thanksgiving Day has gone down!

Cornbread Dressing

Adapted heavily from Anne Burrell’s recipe

Ingredients:

Cornbread (makes one 8″ x 1″ loaf):

Dry ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup plus 3 TBL yellow cornmeal
  • 1 TBL baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt

Wet ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick or 4 TBL) melted butter
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk

Cornbread dressing:

  • 2 pounds bacon
  • 2 medium-sized onions, diced
  • 1 heart celery, diced
  • salt
  • 3 gloves of garlic, pressed
  • 10 sage leaves, finely chopped
  • 3 sprigs rosemary, finely chopped
  • 2  8-inch cornbread loves, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 5 cups chicken stock

Procedure:

  1. First, bake your cornbread, at least 6-hours prior.
    1. Preheat your oven to 400ºF.
    2. Grease your pans
    3. Combine dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately.
    4. Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and stir just to combine.
    5. Grease pan, pour batter into pan, smooth into an even layer.
    6. Cook for 30-33 minutes, until a skewer or knife inserted into the center of the loaf can be removed (mostly) clean
    7. Cool, remove loaf from pan, leave loaf out in the open air to stale
  2. When ready to make the dressing, preheat oven to 350ºF
  3. Chop all your ingredients – onions, celery, herbs
  4. Cook bacon in a skillet on the stovetop.  Cut bacon into pieces with kitchen scissors or with a knife.
  5. Once bacon is cooked, remove to a plate lined with paper towels to drain
  6. Let fat cool slightly and removed from pan.  Leave about 4 tablespoons of bacon fat in the pan. (You heard me.)
  7. Add onions, celery and 1/2 tsp salt and cook in bacon fat on medium heat until they are lightly golden brown, about 10 minutes.
  8. Add pressed garlic and herbs and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes.
  9. Remove “aromatics” mixture from heat and let cool slightly – you’ll be mixing it with your hands soon.
  10. In a very large bowl (I mean VERY large), combine cornbread chunks, chicken stock and aromatics.
    1. Add chicken stock 1 cup at a time.  You may not need a full 5 cups.
    2. This may be easiest to do by hand: reach down into the bowl, and pull your hands up as if folding the mixture on top of itself.  It may take about 2 minutes until mixture is thoroughly combined.
    3. The final mixture will be very wet, but about half of the cornbread cubes will still hold their shape.
  11. Pour the mixture into a large casserole dish and bake in oven for 30-45 minutes, until the top is lightly golden and the mixture is very hot in the middle.
  12. Although delicious hot, we found the dressing even more delicious after sitting in the fridge for a day.  Heat in the oven again before serving.

Procedure anecdotes:

Since I’m serving this for guests, I took extra care to make sure my onion was properly diced, which can be a daunting task.  If you’ve never done it before, you make cuts in the onion in three directions.  It’s easiest in this order:

Horizontal slices (about 3):20141116_160028

Vertical Slices:20141116_160109

Now you can see the little cubes you’re aiming for, you can make perpendicular slices:20141116_160129

For the bacon, we cut the slices into pieces, instead of crumbling the bacon after it was crisp.  I wanted big chunks instead of bits.  James likes to cut each slice into the pan, as opposed to slicing the pieces altogether.

20141116_155710 20141116_155725 20141116_162747

 

I don’t always use fresh herbs, but it’s fun for something special.  Fresh herbs taste deeper, in my opinion – you get more of the flavor.  For the rosemary, you can strip the leaves (or “needles”, really), off their sprig by holding onto the top of the sprig and pulling your fingers downward.  You do not need pick them off one by one!  The smaller “branches” that hold the leaves are perfectly safe to eat.20141116_162512

With the sage, the recipe calls for 10 leaves.  I pile these leaves on top of each other and then roll them up, almost like a cigar! Then I slice into very thin ribbons or “chiffonade.” I then run the knife through the ribbons again several times to get a very fine mince.

20141116_162108(0) 20141116_162236

 

Finally – that yummy cornbread.  As I said above, the recipe we used isn’t my ideal cornbread for eating with some BBQ – it isn’t very moist and doesn’t have an interesting flavor on its own.  However, we hit a home run for the stuffing.  It works PERFECTLY – not too sweet and very sturdy.  It’s very easy to cut into cubes and mix with the aromatics and chicken stock.20141116_162742 20141116_163709

The finished mixture is half crumbly, half chunky – the texture really could not be more perfect!

Oh.20141116_164106

Yeah.20141116_172742

 

Girl.20141116_173843

 

Banana Oatmeal Muffins – “I’m crazy about fiber”

Two years ago, I moved to Washington, DC to be closer to James.  I got a new job at a company that had a few similarities to my old, beloved position at the Walnut Street Theatre: a casual office with almost all young people my age.  And yet the Walnut had become my home – I knew everyone and felt comfortable being 100% myself, letting my freak flag fly, unleashing my passion for my work and my love of theatre.  The Walnut staff was truly my family.  So when I moved to this new job, I was completely terrified to be in a new place and didn’t find making friends easy.  There was a lot of talk about getting drunk at parties, which is not my thing, and… there was no theatre.  Theatre folk are a special breed of loud and gregarious people and I felt lost without the flamboyant, boisterous personalities.  I was feeling pretty lonely.

One morning, in the office kitchen making instant oatmeal, a very nice co-worker tried to chat up the shy new girl.  “Makin’ oatmeal, Bonnie?”, he asked.  “Wow. So many people in this office eat oatmeal.  I can’t remember the last time I ate oatmeal.”20140814_202533

Bolstered by his kindness to reach out to me, I replied with honesty.  “Oh yeah, man.  I’m crazy about fiber.”

Which lead this very nice chap, who I have had many good interactions with since, to laugh awkwardly… and leave the room.  Great way to make friends, Bon.

Despite this, I’ve never been one to shy away from the subject of fiber and its immense health benefits.  Yes, yes, fine, fiber affects your bowel movements.  In a good way!  Like Taro Gomi famously told us “Everybody poops” and fiber can fix lots of unpleasant digestive problems like diarrhea and constipation.

But beyond that, fiber is like magic.  It can help to prevent lots of diseases like cancer and heart disease and keeps you fuller than white grains, so you eat less and maintain a healthy weight.  But my favorite thing about a lot of fiber-rich foods?  It tastes great.  I’ve been subbing out pasta and white rice for whole grains like farro & barley and I’m so much happier for it.  They’re full of fiber and lend an interesting flavor and texture to my dishes.  Not that I don’t love some white food now and again, but if fiber-rich food actually tastes better – why go without?20140825_120441

The biggest problem I’ve found is with baking.  Baking is an exact science and experimenting with baked goods can be hazardous for the amateur cook – you can end up making something inedible and waste a lot of hours and ingredients in the process.  Replacing white flour in a recipe pretty much changes everything about the chemistry and I’m still learning about how exactly baked goods work in the first place.

However, I knew the internet would have my back.  I scoured the internet for a banana bread (because I had several frozen bananas in my freezer) with a whole grain flour to try.  The best recipe I found, with absolutely no white flour at all, was on Honest Fare and utilized lots of ingredients I had on hand: rolled oats, yogurt, low-fat milk.  I adore banana bread and I adore oatmeal – put together, they must be heavenly!20140825_120540

I tried the recipe exactly as Gabi describes (well, without the addition of walnuts or raisins) and it turned out pretty great – but the muffins weren’t as moist as I would have liked.  I still spread a little butter on them to reach the mouthfeel I wanted, which defeated the purpose of a baked good that I could enjoy AND feel good about eating.

So I thought a lot about the ingredients and considered increasing the yogurt or the milk but, in the end, decided to up the bananas in the recipe from 2 to 5.  Why 5?  Because I had a container of 5 smashed up bananas in the freezer.

The result was a little disconcerting because I needed to bake my muffins longer but was never able to insert a knife in the center of a muffin that came out clean.  Fortunately, this resulted in cooked-through but insanely moist muffins.  They did not seem to rise very much at all but the taste was delicious.  A baked good full of fiber that you can dig into for breakfast or a snack knowing you’re doing your body good: life is full of surprises.20140825_120504

Banana Oatmeal Muffins

  • Servings: 18 muffins
  • Print

Adapted from the recipe “Yogurt Banana Oat Muffins” on Honest Fare

Wet Ingredients:

  • 1 and 1/4 cups rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup plain, low fat yogurt (I used 2% Fage)
  • 1/2 cup low fat milk (I used 1%)
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar (I used Turbinado sugar)
  • 1/3 cup grapeseed oil
  • 5 bananas, mashed
  • 1 beaten egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Dry Ingredients:

  • 2 cups oat flour (made from 1 and 1/2 cups ground rolled oats)
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Procedure:

  1. Preheat oven to 400ºF
  2. Combine all of your wet ingredients, including rolled oats and sugar.  Let the rolled oats soak in the wet ingredients as you prepare the dry ingredients.
  3. Pour 2 cups of rolled oats into your food processor and pulse until they’ve reached a flour-like consistency, about 25 pulses – takes 60 seconds!
  4. In a separate bowl, combine the oat flour and the rest of the dry ingredients.
  5. Pour the wet ingredients on top of the dry ingredients and gently fold the mixture together to combine.
  6. Spray your muffin tins with nonstick spray (or similarly grease) and fill each muffin bowl 2/3 full with batter.
  7. Bake the muffins for 22 minutes.  At 11 minutes, rotate the trays 180° and switch the racks of the trays.  A toothpick will probably not come out dry when inserted into muffins – these puppies are moist!

UPDATE: On January 23, 2016, I made these muffins again with 1/4 cup sugar and thought they tasted just as good.  The extra bananas add quite a bit of sugar to the original recipe I adapted.  Also, once I had processed the oat flour, I threw in the walnuts for a few pulses so that the pieces would be smaller for these small muffins.  Worked like a charm!

Pictures and random annotations:

Frozen Bananas: Let’s talk about these bananas, shall we?

When I first made this recipe, I used two frozen bananas, as described in the original, still in their skins.  What an experience!  Although the bananas were perfectly safe and delicious, this process was super gross.

I put the bananas in the refrigerator to defrost and thankfully on the bottom shelf – when I picked them up they were limp and had leaked a brown substance all over the bottom of the fridge.  Gross.20140814_204238 20140814_204358

I cut the tip of banana off and squeezed the fruit into the bowl to combine with the other wet ingredients, along with all of the gross brown liquid that came out of them.

20140825_100404
The bananas will be brown on top, but that familiar cream/yellow on the bottom. Everything is edible.

When I tried this the second time, I used a container of five mashed up bananas that I had frozen.  I similarly defrosted them in the refrigerator overnight, but they were much easier to work with and incorporate into the batter.  I recommend mashing the bananas before you freeze them, but probably best to freeze them in 1-2 banana portions.

Ground oats:

Some illustration to show you just how you’ll want those oats to look.  Also see video for how long you should pulse.

20140814_20291720140814_203203

Combining ingredients:

20140825_101337
Wet ingredients on the left, dry ingredients on the right
20140825_101517
Combined!

Filling tins:20140825_102053 20140825_101641

MOIST muffins – see how the knife was never quite clean when inserted and removed.
20140825_104742 20140825_110553

Bonnie Mac and Cheese

The time has come.  It’s been years of pain, discomfort and embarrassment avoiding high fat food due to the 2 centimeter-sized gallstones in my belly.  But finally I can share with you all – I can eat cheese again!  Pain free!!!

It took about 6 weeks until I was finally ready to try cheese again.  The gallbladder surgery makes you feel funky and it takes a while for your body to figure out how it should digest again.  But at a rainy beach weekend with my girlfriends, I dared to say “No it’s okay – I’ll eat the pizza.”  They were terrified of what might happen to me (nothing that would be inconvenient for them, thank goodness), but we went ahead and ordered the pizza.  I went ahead and ate the pizza.  And then … NOTHING HAPPENED.  Which is the point!  No hot flash, no sweating, no cramping, no needing to lie down.  I could enjoy that pizza and that’s all.  Pure bliss!  (It was really good pizza with arugula and prosciutto, too, a fitting way to enter back into cheesedom.)

But enough about pizza I got in Rehoboth, let’s talk about cheese we can enjoy together.  If my title is any indication, as soon as I knew I could make cheese, I immediately bought some extra sharp cheddar and made the greatest cheese dish on earth: mac and cheese.  Cheese sauce.  Pasta.  Heaven.

One of my favorite things about cooking is watching ingredients turn into something else.  Which I know sounds “DUH”, but I don’t mean roasting a tomato, although that is amazing.  I mean taking cream and whipping it into fluffy clouds or beating together a batter that becomes cake (Reenie Cake, naturally.)  Well the Mac and Cheese recipe I’m about to share with you is another one of those – you take butter, flour and milk to create a thick, velvety sauce before your eyes that just needs cheese added to it. It’s amazing.

The recipe comes from my favorite cook book Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks by Linda Carucci.  I’ve given this book as gifts to many aspiring cooks because it is exactly what it promises – simple, easy-to-follow advice to make extremely stunning and impressive food.  Linda had me cooking risotto and cheese-stuffed chicken breasts very early into my cooking endeavors.  And she taught me so much about food and cooking that I’ve applied to many recipes of my own.  God bless you, Linda.

I make this recipe exactly (almost) as Linda describes and she turns fancy french cooking into something possible for this amateur here.  We’re going to make a roux, add milk to make a béchamel sauce and add cheese to make a Mornay Sauce.  Sound scary?  It’s not!  But it is weird

When you start to add the milk to the roux, the mixture seizes up into a big clump, so you need to add more milk quickly and keep stirring.  My only complaint is that Linda doesn’t describe what happens when you add milk to the roux.  She only says “Have faith and continue to add the milk.”  Rather ominous.

So in order to help you visualize this recipe, James, angel that he is, filmed the entire progression for you and helped me edit this video into true perfection.  This will allow you to see all the various stages so you, too, can achieve homemade mac and cheese glory.  I am here to serve. (THANK YOU, JAMES!!!)

This recipe asks you to be stirring almost constantly for about 15-minutes, which I really love.  It’s a simple recipe, but you’re really earning that creamy sauce, putting lots of love and effort into the dish.  You feel very accomplished when it’s done – and you SHOULD.  You just made homemade mac and cheese!  You’re the bomb.

Ready, Get Set – BONNIE MAC AND CHEESE!

(I do require that you refer to the dish that way from now on.  In honor of my struggles.  I think I deserve it.)

The following video will show you the progression of the sauce.  Specific times for each step are indicated below.

Mac and Cheese

  • Servings: Possible to serve 6-8, depending on how willing you are to share...
  • Print

Adapted ever so slightly from the “Macaroni and Cheese Variation” written by Linda Carucci in Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. medium shell pasta
  • 6 TBL unsalted butter (I use salted butter and adjust the salt at the end)
  • 5 TBL flour
  • 3 cups milk (I have always used 1%, but I’m sure whole milk would be delightfully decadent)
  • 2 cups (.5 lb) shredded extra sharp cheddar cheese
  • 2 tsp kosher salt plus more for pasta water (with salted butter, I ended up using 1 tsp at the end)
  • A few shakes of hot sauce or 1/4 tsp of cayenne pepper

Procedure:

  1. Boil water in a large pot, add salt and pasta and cook until al dente.
  2. Measure out all of your ingredients and grate your cheese.
  3. In a 3 qt. pot, melt your butter.
  4. Add your flour and whisk together roux for about 2 minutes. (0:23)
  5. Add the milk 1/4 cup at a time, mixing in between.  The mixture will change texture several times as you add. (0:42)
  6. Continue to add milk 1/4 cup at a time until the mixture turns smooth.  Add all remaining milk at this time. (2:45)
  7. When the milk is combined, switch to a slotted spoon and stir in a figure-8 motion (3:24) until you’ve reached the napé stage (when you can draw a line in the sauce on the back of the spoon and it stays in tact, without filling in.) (4:05)
  8. Add your cheese, about a 1/2 cup at a time, and stir to combine in between each addition. (4:15)
  9. Taste your sauce (careful, it’s hot!) and add salt and hot sauce as desired. (6:00)
  10. Pour your sauce over your cooked pasta and serve or store.

Procedure with Pictures and Anecdotes

  1. Boil water in a large pot, add salt and pasta and cook until al dente.

I cooked my pasta almost as soon as I came in the door from work, far before I was making the cheese sauce.  When the pasta was fully cooked, I drained and coated with the lightest coat of olive oil I could manage, to keep it from sticking.

This isn’t usually recommended, because the olive oil covers the natural starches brought to the surface of the pasta when cooked, which helps grab onto the sauce.  But as far as time management is concerned, I found this much easier.  I like to cook my pasta in my largest pot, which gives it room to move around in the water while cooking, but it also takes a long time for the water to boil – sometimes 15 – 20 minutes.

The pasta cooled to room temperature, but when the hot cheese sauce was poured on the pasta, the dish  was heated back up again.  I found this tactic much easier than cooking the pasta and making the sauce at the same time, because the sauce needs your full concentration.

I enjoy using Medium Shell pasta, because the sauce gets stuck in the shells like delightful little bowls of cheese sauce.  Mmmmm…

20140808_192148 20140808_192142

2.  Measure out all of your ingredients and grate your cheese.

Mise en place (everything in its place) will be your friend.  Again, the sauce will take your full concentration for those 15 minutes.  Be prepared!

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You can use any cheese in this recipe, although cheddar is most traditional.  Just make sure to do a little research on which cheese is a good melting cheese.  Not all cheeses melt well and can become stringy or clumpy.  Here’s a good article with a couple suggestions – I really want to try smoky gouda next.

3.  In a 3 qt. pot, melt your butter.

You can use a larger pot, but I think that a 3 qt. pot should be your minimum.  You’re doing a lot of whisking and stirring and a smaller pot could cause sloshing of hot liquid onto your feet!  Not fun.

Cut your butter into tablespoon-sized pats first, for quicker melting.20140808_201456

See video for visual of steps 4 through 9.

4.  Add your flour and whisk together roux for about 2 minutes. (0:23)

This will cook the flour in the butter, for added flavor.

5.  Add the milk 1/4 cup at a time, mixing in between.  The mixture will change texture several times as you add.  (0:42)

6.  Continue to add milk 1/4 cup at a time until the mixture turns smooth.  Add all remaining milk at this time.  (2:45)  (This actually happens at 1.25 cups, but I read the recipe wrong – ha!  I added all the milk at when there was just 1 cup left.  Things still turned out fine.)

7.  When the milk is combined, switch to a slotted spoon and stir in a figure-8 motion (3:24) until you’ve reached the napé stage (when you can draw a line in the sauce on the back of the spoon and it stays intact, without filling in.) (4:05)

8.  Add your cheese, about a 1/2 cup at a time, and stir to combine in between each addition. (4:15)

9.  Taste your sauce (careful, it’s hot!) and add salt and hot sauce as desired.  (6:00)

I think the hot sauce is clutch in this recipe, but I didn’t add it when I made this video because the dish was made for two dear friends who are also new parents and hot sauce is not for everyone.  I, personally, add the hot sauce and  pour the hot sauce over the mac and cheese when it’s on my plate.  The hotness cuts through the rich cheese sauce with delightful contrast.

10.  Pour your sauce over your cooked pasta and serve or store.

20140808_20391020140808_20392320140808_204114Oh yeah, girl.

 

Spicy Peperonata – and a Pepper Problem

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This is one of those recipes that I’ve held onto for years and years and years.  While we’re on the subject of colorful fruits and veggies, this could not be a more perfect recipe to try.

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I think perhaps my favorite thing about this recipe is the dressing of lime juice and mint – a divine combination.  I thought the mint would “cool down” the hot pepper in the recipe, but that is not its role – it complements the spice in a very sophisticated way, balancing instead of counteracting.  It’s absolutely worth going out and buying mint.  (Or if you have mint in the garden, well, you’re just a badass, aren’t you?)

There’s just one teensy, weensy catch with this recipe: the spicy pepper.  Seems easy, no?  But this recipe calls for a poblano, which is a larger, much milder pepper than your jalapeno but with a similar dark green color, that often looks a bit collapsed.  Like so – poblano-chili-pepper

They’re a fairly common pepper, yet I have found that  a lot of grocery stores (especially my beloved Trader Joe’s) has limited variety in peppers.  Oh, they’ll have your various colors of bells (which is also helpful in this dish!), but beyond that you’re out of luck.  So what’s a girl or guy to do?

When we made this recipe about a year ago, we went to a store with a large variety of produce but with dismal labeling and couldn’t find the poblanos.  We found one that looked like a poblano, but it was labeled as a very hot pepper, and we didn’t want that.  Then there were these bright, lime green peppers that were a similar size to poblanos.  And from what I thought I had learned about peppers, the bigger they are, the milder they’ll be.  So I was certain that these would be fine and James, like the good and faithful man that he is, believed me.  Poor James.

After we sliced up all the peppers and threw them in the pan, we started to clean up because the recipe is practically done at this point (another bonus!)  James started to cough and couldn’t figure out why – he thought he just had something in his throat.  But then I started coughing, too – my eyes were stinging and water would not give me relief.   We’re both rather sensitive to chopping onions, which has resulted in quite a bit of drama in the kitchen, but this was different – and it was permeating the entire apartment.  That’s when I realized – the pepper I chose was not mild at all!  Indeed, it was so hot that it was sending its capsaicin molecules flying into the air and choking us both.   Capsaicin is the chemical compound in hot peppers that produces that burning feeling so many people enjoy.  When your pepper starts to affect you before you’ve actually begun eating, you know that pepper is going to pack a punch.

The resulting meal was outrageously hot.  We tried serving it with sour cream to cool the burn, which it did, but it really was not the meal we had intended.  If you love super hot peppers, then go ahead and try a different pepper in this recipe.

For me, I’ll continue to seek out the poblano, although the heat level will vary a bit every time.  Peppers are living things, after all, subject to lots of environmental differences that will change the way they grow.  In the case of the recipe pictures below, I made a special trip to Whole Foods which does a great job of properly labeling their produce and has a greater variety than Trader Joe’s, thus finding a poblano with just the right amount of subtle heat.  If you’re lucky enough to live by a Wegman’s, they also do a great job with labeling and even specify the hotness of each pepper – not to Scoville-scale specificity, but they give you a general idea.  Also, if you live by a Wegman’s, COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS AND NEVER MOVE.  That place is paradise.

Versatile, you say?  Oh absolutely.  We served the peperonata over chicken and farro but you could serve with anything – pasta, polenta, grains, toast, over eggs, over steak – even all by its lonesome.  My only regret this time is that I didn’t double the recipe: we went through it fast.

The recipe below I tweaked from Bon Appetit because I found their dressing to be incredibly oily.  I would just add a dash of extra virgin olive oil and increase if you like.  In my opinion, the lime juice is the real key ingredient in the dressing.

Spicy Peperonata – serves 4

Ingredients: 

  • Olive oil (I prefer extra virgin, but you could go extra virgin in the dressing and a cheaper oil for pan frying, if you prefer)
  • 2 TBL fresh squeezed lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons chopped mint
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, thinly sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced
  • 1 yellow bell pepper, sliced
  • 1 fresh poblano chile, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 medium red onion, sliced
  • Salt and pepper

Process:

1. Juice your lime, chop your mint, and combine with as much extra virgin olive oil as you desire.  Season with salt, pepper and coriander.

2. Slice your bell peppers and onion to about 1/4 inch in width.  Slice your poblano peppers to 1/8 inch in width, to spread out that peppery goodness.

3. Season your chicken breasts with salt and pepper.  Heat some more oil in a frying pan to medium-high heat and add your chicken.  Caution – this is a splattery process!  Get your chicken breasts crispy golden and cooked through.  Remove from the pan.

4. Add your peppers and onion to the pan.  Move the veggies around to coat with the existing oil in the pan.  Add some more oil until all veggies are lightly coated.  For a cooking process like this, it’s best that the oil distribution is even so the heat conduction is even and everyone cooks at the same time.

4. This process takes about 10-15 minutes.  Stir often until the veggies are limp and reduced in size by about half.

5. Mix in the lime/mint dressing and serve atop chicken breasts.

Process with Pictures and random anecdotes:

1. Juice your lime, chop your mint, and combine with as much extra virgin olive oil as you desire.  Season with salt, pepper and ground coriander.

You don’t need to grind coriander fresh by any means – but I have a spice grinder that I never use, so I figure, why not?
20140714_175010 20140714_175143

In order to measure fresh herbs, I just take the appropriate measuring spoon out and use it to estimate how much herb I need to chop.  By no means does herb measurement ever need to be exact!20140714_174219

2. Slice your bell peppers and onion to about 1/4 inch in width.  Slice your poblano peppers to 1/8 inch in width, to spread out that peppery goodness.

You can compare sizes here: 20140714_181823

Make sure to use the tops of your peppers as well!  Once you slice the top off, the stems and pod of seeds can be very easily detached from the flesh of the pepper.  No need to waste an inch!20140714_180638 20140714_180937

3. Season your chicken breasts with salt and pepper.  Heat some more oil in a frying pan to medium-high heat and add your chicken.  Caution – this is a splattery process!  Get your chicken breasts crispy golden and cooked through.  Remove from the pan.20140714_184335

4. Add your peppers and onion to the pan.  Move the veggies around to coat with the existing oil in the pan.  Add some more oil until all veggies are lightly coated.  For a cooking process like this, it’s best that the oil distribution is even so the heat conduction is even and everyone cooks at the same time.20140714_184316

4. This process takes about 10-15 minutes.  Stir often until the veggies are limp and reduced in size by about half.20140714_185712 20140714_185724

5. Mix in the lime/mint dressing and serve atop chicken breasts.

20140714_193621 20140714_193628 20140714_193633 20140714_193639

 

Like what you see?  Find me on Twitter @amateurhourfood and Google+!

Blueberry Crumble Bars – delicious and … nutritious?

20140704_094254

I’ve long been an advocate that just because you may have put butter and sugar into a fruit dessert, that doesn’t CANCEL OUT the fruit goodness and nutrition.  You just have to admit to yourself that, yes, there’s butter and sugar in there, too.  Mmmmm…. delicious butter/sugar combo…

Since it’s the glory days of summer, when the farmers markets are piled high with colorful delights, I decided this is as good a time as any to try to pack my diet with all the colors of the rainbow, since this will then give me a variety of naturally occurring vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist and the amount of information about nutition on the internet is astounding, befuddling and sometimes downright alarming… and alarmist.  Since my Mom was diagnosed with cancer, I’ve been doing a lot of research about cancer and good health and good nutrition.  Soon after my rampant research began, I’ve made a habit at looking at the website before the headline of the article and only reading from sources I find legit and trustworthy, such as Mayo Clinic, government entities or lauded universities such as Harvard or Princeton.

This can be frustrating, because I find the more trusted sources don’t have definitive answers – because there aren’t many, especially when it comes to food.  What doctors have come to a unanimous decision about is that our diets should be filled with whole fruits and vegetables, which not only pack nutrients but fiber and are low in fat & calories which we know lead to obesity.  So I figure getting a colorful variety can’t be hurtful, even if the hype about antioxidants is untrue or exaggerated.  Plus it’s fun and so preeeeeeetty.

(To check out some articles on antioxidants, check out How Stuff Works, National Institutes of Health and Harvard University.)

When doing research about the proposed health benefits of certain vegetation, I learned that blueberries, due to their very deep blue hue, are regarded by some as the most antioxidant rich fruit out there and also incredibly rich in fiber.

Well, how very fortuitous!  I just happened to make a successful batch of Blueberry Crumble Bars for the 4th of July which is, quite possibly, the easiest dessert I’ve ever made, and now look – it’s healthy, too!  😉  Cookie BARS give you huge bang for your buck.  Plus blueberries are at their cheapest right now since they’re in season.

I’ve come to worship at the temple of Smitten Kitchen, a famous blog that all bloggers hope and aspire towards.  Deb takes the time to make everything perfectly for her readers, and we’re so appreciative.  I’ve written out her recipe below and then followed by pictures and description of how it worked when I made it.  Got a BBQ, birthday party or baby shower to go to?  Make these in no time and earn some serious baking cred from your friends.

Blueberry Crumble Bars (ingredients were not changed, but the method was adapted ever so slightly for our convenience.)

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cold salted butter (oops, wait, I did change that – you know how I love salted butter!)
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 tsp salt (yep, I added salt, too, like a rebel)
  • 4 cups fresh blueberries
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 4 tsp cornstarch (I saw some commenters say that they used flour and it worked out fine for them)

Process:

1.  Preheat your oven to 375ºF.

2.  Mix blueberries, lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, and cornstarch together in a bowl.  Set aside.*

3.  Combine sugar, baking powder, flour, cold butter, 1 egg and salt into a food processor.

4.  Pulse until the mixture looks clumpy (or just let it rip until the mixture is homogeneous, like I did, which also turned out fine.)

5.  Estimate about half of the dough and pat into one layer on the bottom of a 9″ x 13″ pan (be careful of that very sharp blade in there!)

6.  Pour entire blueberry mixture onto the dough layer.

7. Crumble the remaining dough onto the blueberries as a top layer for an ever-so-rustic vibe.  Gently pat the dough down to give the bars some help.

8.  Bake for 55 minutes until the top is delightfully golden.  (I’d start checking on their golden progress at 45 minutes, since all ovens are different.)

9.  Cool the pan on a wire rack until pan is cooled completely.

10.  Cover pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate.  (I went with overnight, but I bet 2 hours would work.)

11.  Cut into shapes and sizes of your liking!  (I found that cutting the bars just a little more difficult than I an anticipated.  After cutting the shape and size you want, but before removing from the pan, I recommend sliding a butter knife under the bars to loosen from the pan.  That helped the pieces come out completely, with nothing sticking to the bottom.)

Process with Pictures

1.  Preheat your oven to 375ºF.

2.  Mix blueberries, lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, and cornstarch together in a bowl.  Set aside.*  20140703_194744

*I have found the addition of lemon juice and sugar (even just a tablespoon) to fruit salad to be a secret weapon – it elevates all of the flavors and begins to macerate the fruit, creating a delightful sauce that is great for spooning over cakes like Reenie Cake.  Just saying.

3.  Combine sugar, baking powder, flour, cold butter, 1 egg and salt into a food processor20140703_193733

4.  Pulse until the mixture looks clumpy (or just let it rip until the mixture is homogenous, like I did, which also turned out fine.)20140703_19490920140703_194929

5.  Estimate about half of the dough and pat into one layer on the bottom of a 9″ x 13″ pan (be careful of that very sharp blade in there!)20140703_19560220140703_195555

6.  Pour entire blueberry mixture onto the dough layer. (D’oh!  No picture.  Don’t worry, it wasn’t that exciting.)

7. Crumble the remaining dough onto the blueberries as a top layer for an ever-so-rustic vibe.  Gently pat the dough down to give the bars some help.20140703_20001320140703_200027

8.  Bake for 55 minutes until the top is delightfully golden.  (I’d start checking on their golden progress at 45 minutes, since all ovens are different.)20140703_21010820140703_210131

Daytime pic!  Gorgeous, darling!
Daytime pic! Gorgeous, darling!

9.  Cool the pan on a wire rack until cookies are cooled completely.

10.  Cover pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate.  (I went with overnight, but I bet 2 hours would work.)

11.  Cut into shapes and sizes of your liking!  (I found that cutting the bars just a little more difficult than I an anticipated.  After cutting the shape and size you want, but before removing from the pan, I recommend sliding a butter knife under the bars to loosen from the pan.  That helped the pieces come out completely, with nothing sticking to the bottom.) 20140704_09353220140704_09352120140704_09420020140704_09440820140704_09425820140704_094254

 

 

Summertime! Roasted Herbes de Provence Tomatoes

Y’all, it’s officially summer and with that comes so many beauteous realities: warm weather, summer vacations, holidays galore, and as much sunlight as you could ever possibly want.  But, probably most importantly, it means summer produce.20140629_185400

For me, my absolute favorite summer jewel at the farmer’s market is the tomato.  Coming at you in all different sizes, varieties and colors, your possibilities are truly endless.

The tomato season varies by region, of course, but here in Washington, DC the tomato season starts in July and stretches until the end of September.  Of course, you can get tomatoes all year round, but I’ve found that once I tasted a tomato that was truly in season, it was hard to go back.  It’s not that they’re bad in autumn, winter or spring, just… bland.  They don’t really add anything to the party.  Smaller varieties like cherry tomatoes still have great flavor in the cooler months and are a great alternative.  (Bonus: explode your brain with this genius way to cut cherry tomatoes all at one time!)20140629_195220

But today I’m talking about big, beefy beauties in all their glory.  The tomatoes featured in this post are not necessarily at peak perfection: you can find bright-red lovelies in the store or at your farmers market just slightly later in the season, but I couldn’t help myself.  Farmers markets are a GREAT place to find tomato variety – grocery stores often feature the smaller kinds and vine-ripened tomatoes, but the markets will have heirlooms, which vary in color and size and shape.  These can be really fun to play with and add unexpected colors to your favorite tomato recipes.

I’m obsessed with summer tomatoes and eat them as often as possible in this delectable season.  And raw is wonderful, but I love them best roasted.  Even the slightest bit of heat will bring out the complexities of a tomato’s flavor.  During the summer, I buy 10-12 tomatoes at the beginning of the week and roast two every single night I’m home.  And gobble them up all by myself – James hates tomatoes.  I don’t understand how that’s possible, but frankly, more tomatoes for me.20140629_194734

As I prepared to write this post, I realized that roasting tomatoes is incredibly easy, but there are a number of tips to keep in mind so that you can enjoy true tomato nirvana.

Head Amateur Tips for Roasting Tomatoes

Use the right tools:

When I cut tomatoes, it requires two knives: the paring and the serrated.  I know, as soon as I did it last night I thought to myself: UGH this will turn people off!  But I hope you don’t let it.  When you think about it, cleaning tomato juice off two knives takes about 60 seconds total. And it is worth it.

Use your paring knife to cut the core out of the tomato.  Just stab in by the core, about 2/3 of the way down, and work in a circular motion around the stem, tilting your knife into the center so that the removed core is a conical shape.  I usually need to remove the knife and then insert again to slice the bottom off the cone so it can be lifted from rest of the tomato.20140629_18545620140629_185410

Then use your serrated knife to cut the rest of the tomato.  The tomato’s skin is unique – it’s just tough enough to be difficult for a chef’s knife unless you have a super-quality, super-sharp chef’s knife.  I do not.  Cut your slices THICK – a regular-sized tomato yields about 4 thick slices.20140629_18550420140629_185536

Season well:

My preferred seasonings, the ones I use every single night, follow:

  • Herbes de provence
  • Coarse sea salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Roasted garlic olive oil

Herbes de provence is a mix of a hella ton of different dried herbs that are indigenous to the Provence region of France.  The mix is exquisite and will transport you right to the Mediterranean coast, elevating every dish it touches.  The key, I think, is that the blend includes lavender, which lends the most distinct flavor.  It’s perfect mixed into breading for chicken, seasoning on steak, sprinkled on popcorn and, of course, melding with the glory of tomatoes for a heavenly dish.  20140701_175213

The mix is a bit more expensive than other herbs at the grocery store (by $1 or $2) but it’s so versatile, it is absolutely worth it.  I buy mine in bulk at Penzey’s Spices and it lasts me for months.20140701_175001

Herbes de provence loves garlic and will show off its peak flavors when “blossomed” in a little fat.  For instance, when adding to popcorn, heat up your butter or olive oil on the stove and add the herbes de provence for 2-3 minutes.  The flavors will sing!  When adding to the tomatoes, I rub the herbs between my fingers as I sprinkle.  The rubbing can release oils in the dried herbs and makes them more flavorful.

Coarse sea salt – I don’t know why, but I think that coarse sea salt has a different flavor than fine sea salt.  It’s a little brinier, more akin to the sea.  The coarseness also adds a tiny crunch.20140701_174920

Freshly ground pepper: I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: pre-ground pepper is great, I’ve used it for years and I still use it occasionally, but the fresh ground pepper opens up the oils in the peppercorn for an entirely different flavor.  I can’t live without it now.20140701_174851

Garlic-flavored olive oil pro tip – don’t get botulism:

For years, I was making my garlic oil at home.  You take a head of garlic, de-skin the cloves and cook them very slowly (starting with cold extra-virgin olive oil on low heat) for about 20-30 minutes or until the cloves are the loveliest golden-brown.  I’d eat the garlic cloves with a little salt and pepper – exquisite.  Then I’d store the oil in a plastic container at room temperature.

I stopped this practice when I didn’t have my own kitchen for a few years (it does make your house smell like garlic, which I love, but apparently not everyone does), and about a year ago I tried it again.  For whatever reason, I decided to store it in the refrigerator.  When I looked at it next, the oil had thick white growths in it, which looked rather threatening.  I looked it up and, lo and behold, the bacteria spores that cause botulism can occur and thrive in garlic oil – the less oxygen, the better for them.  Geez – who knew something as simple and delightful as garlic oil could be that dangerous?  I mean honestly – BOTULISM?  I had been afraid my oil had spoiled, I was never expecting that!

(Apparently the chances of actually harboring botulinum spores in your oil are quite rare, but it freaked me out enough never to try it again.  Here’s a pretty helpful article that shows ways to make oil at home with the proper precautions.)

So, I buy my flavored oils now, if I’m not going to use my homemade garlic oil at once.  I like to buy flavored oils and vinegars in a small store called Olio and asked them why I got the weird growths in my oil – and why it doesn’t happen with their oils.  They said their oils are flavored with a complex centrifuge process, so that no pieces of the garlic are actually in the oil when it’s bottled for you to buy in the store.  You can also buy garlic oil in grocery stores pretty readily, but I’ve found the oils at this specialty store more delicious.  There are lots of these Olive Oil Tasting Stores near urban areas – Alexandria, VA has two!

With tomatoes in mind, you can also use garlic powder or garlic pieces, but garlic burns easily and I don’t like to risk it: garlic-flavored oil for me, all the way.

Slow and steady wins the race:

Roasted tomatoes take a surprisingly long time.  That’s why when it’s tomato season, I start my tomatoes as soon as I come in the door: shoes off, oven on.  Preheat the oven to 400ºF, cut and season your tomatoes and get them in the oven.  The tomatoes take about 45-55 minutes to roast to perfection.20140701_18025920140701_18542620140701_185431

I know – it’s a long time.  But the taste – OH THE TASTE – makes all your waiting worth it.  I recommend trying this recipe when you have a day off and can accomplish other things while the tomatoes roast.

I usually end up eating my tomatoes after I’ve eaten the rest of my dinner and it’s the perfect ending.  You’ll notice that parts of the tomatoes have been become black – the black part is actually caramelization and may be the most delicious part.20140629_195751

I like to roast the tomatoes in a non-stick pan with a very good coating (not covered in aluminum foil) to savor all the juices and each blackened bit, which can often get caught in the ridges of the foil.  The very good coating is for ease of cleaning – just a quick wipe with a soapy sponge is all it takes.

The uglier, the better:

We, as humans, are drawn to beautiful things and tend to shrink away from produce that looks wrinkled or with unfamiliar blemishes.  With tomatoes, however, embrace the ugly.  Vine-ripened tomatoes will not necessarily be beautiful, shiny spheres, but can have strange lumps and hardened beige scales.  Heirloom tomatoes can take on 3 colors in one fruit and be so lumpy they look alien.  Fear not!  The stranger they look, the riper and more flavorful within.

Ugly tomatoes courtesy of cc-calendula.blogspot.com
Ugly tomatoes courtesy of cc-calendula.blogspot.com
SANTA SWEETS UGLY TOMATO
Courtesy of yumsugar.com

 

Piled high on a plate, the tomatoes will release delectable juices as they cool.  Sop these up with a piece of foccacia or sourdough – or lick them right off the plate.  No judgement coming from here.20140629_19515320140629_201815

At the very least, I encourage you to go enjoy tomatoes in any way this glorious season.  It’s almost like discovering these versatile little fruits all over again.  Bon appéit, mes chéris!20140629_195200