Category Archives: Featured

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.

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Gluten Free Trial

In the past year I’ve had two surgeries, the second of which laid me up for two months with absolutely no exercise allowed.  These two months happened to oh-so-conveniently coincide with Thanksgiving and Christmas, the marathon eating season for this particular food enthusiast.  I ate pretty much whatever I wanted with abandon and, even now 3.5 months later, I am paying for it to the tune of 15-20 pounds of excess weight.

Needless to say, I’m trying to lose weight, but I’m also on a constant journey to change to a healthier lifestyle without giving up delicious food that delights me.  This doesn’t mean that I’m trying to live life eating an entire sleeve of Thin Mints every night and deluding myself that I can still lose weight. This means that I’m trying to find new foods that actually satisfy my taste buds but aren’t going to ruin my waistline, my heart, my pancreas and my brain.  I’m trying to have it all, essentially.  Yeah, you guessed it – I’m a millennial.  But an OLD and GRUMPY one who does not like being compared to the characters on Girls.  Just a warning.

Frankly, I am not generally a “well” person , especially for a 30-year-old.  I never feel good.  If I’m not suffering from embarrassing gas attacks due to gallstones, it’s a migraine, a sore shoulder, heart palpitations, acid reflux, general fatigue.  It’s sort of pathetic.  But I’ve been aggressively seeking medical attention to figure this out, and currently I’m tackling my migraines, which I’ve been suffering from for 12 years!

After undergoing lots of treatment including physical therapy and a sleep study, my doctor is able to conclude two things: my migraines occur when I’m stressed, when I tend to clench my right shoulder which is pinching my occipital nerve, and that I am mildly narcoleptic.  You read that right – narcoleptic.  My headache specialist kindly termed it as “a sleepy brain.”  It is oddly satisfying to know my love of sleeping late is not due to laziness, but the term narcolepsy definitely wasn’t what I was expecting…

We talked about a lot of different pills I could try to reduce stress or stimulate my brain, but I told her I’d really like to try to reduce stress manually instead and she was in full support of that.  So she suggested I try 3 things in the meantime: a magnesium lotion, more exercise, and a gluten-free diet.  Sigh.  Thank god I’ve had my gallbladder removed so I can still eat cheese.

And that is the beginning of a journey I have vowed to embark upon: going gluten-free for a solid month.  I know there’s a lot of debate about this in the news and in medical communities and I don’t necessarily believe in it.  But see the paragraph above – I never feel good.  If this could help me join the land of adult humans who function correctly then, what the hell, I’ll try it.  Geez, I’m so mature at 30!

My goal is to do this for a month and record how I am feeling.  Then introduce gluten-type foods into my diet when I am occasionally indulging (there’s no way I’m giving up cookies for good, people!) and see how that affects me.  And the increase in exercise.  Like WHOA increasing my exercise.  But that’s a year-long goal I’ve been doing pretty good with – my goal is to be able to keep up, speed-wise, with my boyfriend who has been running 5 miles a day for the past 5 years by December 31, 2015.  We’ll see. 😉

Anyways, this month is also a very stressful one for me, so I think it’s a great time to test if removing gluten from my diet has a positive effect on me – I predict a lot of right shoulder clenching.  I’m an event planner and I am on the core team planning a 1,200-person conference at the beginning of May, followed by an 800-person conference in the beginning of June.  It will be hard to fit my exercise in, though I’ll be doing my darndest, and I’ll be travelling, likely lacking optimal sleep, and working a lot of long days where food can often be an afterthought – grabbing a roll off the buffet before they close it down and running off to the next thing.  Well, rolls aren’t exactly an option for me, are they?  I hope this will present lots of opportunities to talk about my successes and failures in gluten-free eating when in these kinds of situations.

Because of the busy month, I won’t be updating this blog every day, but I will try to post on social media every day with any interesting tidbits I may have.  You can follow me on Facebook, InstagramTwitter, and Google+.

My very first substitution attempt: replacing the breadcrumbs in this favorite Alton Brown roasted broccoli recipe with slivered almonds.  Dare I say – I think it actually tastes better.  I also added some smoked paprika, which makes everything awesome.  This won’t be so hard… right?

Let’s see what all the fuss is about, shall we?

 

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.

GUEST POST: My CSA Year, or, How I Learned to Tolerate Cabbage

The dead of winter may cause cravings for the fresh produce bounties of spring and summer.  Community Supported Agriculture farms know this, which is why the time is ripe (get it?!) to consider signing up for a CSA box.

Friend of Amateur Hour and all-around awesome person Lili Daniel details her experience with a CSA in a DINK (dual-income, no kids) household.

You can find more of Lili’s musing at http://ellegolightly.tumblr.com.

As I gear up for 2015 and reflect back on all the ups and downs of 2014, I realize that in the past twelve months, I crossed a massive to-do off my food related bucket list.  I got incredibly adventurous with my diet.  I ate local and supported small business and farms.  And I learned a lot about freezing food, preserving produce, and stretching leftovers into lunches and new meals.

How did I achieve all this?  By necessity – I bought a half-share of a CSA.

Now, all of the readers of this fine blog are inevitably foodies, but in case you live where this is not the cultural phenomenon it’s become in yuppie New Jersey, CSA stands for community supported (or shared) agriculture.  What it means, basically, is that a farm is offering shares like stock options to local people who want to support it.  The people who buy those shares are then called “members” of the CSA, and on a regular basis – usually once a week – the farm prepares a box of produce for each member.  The members of the CSA then go to a pickup place, often the farm, to get the box.

The biggest question mark with a CSA is that not only do you only get things that are in season and presently being grown by the farm, you do not get to choose what’s in your particular box in most cases.  (My CSA did offer an option of going to the farm and “choosing” your produce, but even that only involved a choice of two veggies and the rest of the box that the membership received that week.)  So if you don’t like a certain veggie, and your farm is having a boon of that crop this season, looks like you have to find a way to love it or sell it on the black market.

I’m kidding, unless there IS a black market for vegetables, in which case I’ll sell a kidney to get some heirloom tomatoes right now.

My journey being a CSA member began in April, when I got my tax refund check and frantically emailed a local farm (of which there are many – this is the Garden State, after all) to see if there were still shares available.  Note to all: if you want to join a CSA, believe it or not, the dead of winter is the time to buy a share.  People become loyal to certain farms and space becomes very limited.  Luckily, there were still a handful of slots available, and I bit the bullet and sent them over $399 of my hard-earned tax refund.

This is another big thing to keep in mind with a CSA – it’s not cheap!  Which makes sense, because you get months of produce that are prepaid, but don’t do this if you’re not going to eat all or most of the things you receive.  A full share of my farm was $750, and it was one of the cheaper ones in the area.  That was recommended for a family of 4-5 or two families to split, so I figured the half share, at $399 for the season, was more than enough for me and my veggie-loathing fiance.  When you broke down the price for what they anticipated to provide each week, it came to $15 a box, which was the amount I usually spend on produce in the grocery store anyway.  So I viewed it as an investment.  Especially considering that the farm anticipated its season going from May through October.  All those months of summer veggies PLUS the bounty of squash during the fall??  Sign me up.  Literally.

But the question I’m sure most of you ACTUALLY want to know: how was the produce?

IMG_0750The season started in late May with beautiful strawberries, fresh herbs, and greens.  Greens as far as the eye could see.  Unique greens that I never would have purchased – baby bok choy, lacinato kale, that lovely purple-tipped soft lettuce that comes in salad packs.  I am a fan of salad greens with a lot of taste but not a ton of crunch, so this was a good first week to pull me in and keep me hooked.  Summer continued with more strawberries, including a delightful pick-your-own session at the farm that yielded so many that I chopped and froze at least a quart.  I also got blueberries, tomatoes, carrots, and an absolute plethora of unique greens.  So many delicious fresh salads were consumed.

When the peak of summer hit, in late June or early July, the zucchini started coming – and continued coming.  I love zucchini, but I unfortunately did not find a way to prepare it that my fiance did not hate, so I had a lot of veggie stir-fry lunches at home.  A real lot.  An embarrassing amount.  Also included at this time were green beans, broccoli (although the crop had suffered from the harsh winter, so it was not a lot of broccoli), cauliflower, more salad greens and herbs, radicchio, leeks, radishes, cabbage, and spinach.  Turns out I don’t love radishes, but the fiance actually does, so at least they got eaten.

Late summer brought much more summer squash, along with gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, scallions, massive eggplants, more cabbage, the beginnings of beets and root vegetables, snap beans, and bell peppers that I could eat like an apple.  This was my favorite time of the whole season.  My box every week was overflowing with vibrant, tasty things, and I felt slightly overwhelmed just unpacking it each week.

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That is the box from one week, taking up the vast majority of my counter.  On the side there, partially in frame, is a whole watermelon that was sitting outside the box for every single member.  This happened multiple times during the summer.  An entire watermelon.  The mighty struggle to get to my car with my half share box and a watermelon precariously balanced on top was, probably, the stuff of which YouTube celebrity is made.

As fall settled in, the watermelon and peppers were ushered out in favor of sweet potatoes, shallots, beets, cherry tomatoes, and heartier greens like collards and the return of kale.  I knew it had actually become fall when I got the email that outside my box would be a pumpkin.  Then a spaghetti squash (far and away the best squash!)  Then acorn squash – and I was implored to take two of them.  It was a Squash 101 seminar, in the best of ways.  I was still, inexplicably, receiving cabbage, which I was direly sick of at this point, but I was also receiving bagged spring mix and arugula which were insanely delicious.  I had no idea arugula was a fall harvest but I was incredibly glad for it.  It’s by far my favorite salad green and it was worth the wait.

The season didn’t tail off until the week before Thanksgiving, thanks to the relatively mild fall.  By November, the tomatoes had finally ended (they continued far later into the season than I had anticipated), but sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts had made an appearance, as well as the return of a lot of early season crops like carrots and cauliflower and leeks.  I was legitimately sad picking up my last box, except when I opened it and saw one final head of cabbage.  I wanted to yell, Austin Powers-style at it, “WHY WON’T YOU DIE?”

So what did I learn from my CSA season?  Well, first off, it was definitely worth the monetary investment.  According to my calculation, my $399 investment bought me 26 weeks of CSA boxes, or a solid half of the year.  That breaks down to $15.35 a box, which was absolutely worth it.  It gave me a glowing do-gooder feeling to have spent a chunk of my money on a local farm.  My grocery bill was reduced significantly over the course of the season, mainly because I wouldn’t buy veggies for sides with dinner or for my lunches – I’d use what the box had provided that week.

That brings me to my biggest lesson: I learned SO much about vegetables. I was well-versed in arugula salads and roasted Brussels sprouts and sauteed green beans, but I’d never cooked a collard green or a leek in my life before I got this box.  Now, I still think fondly about the roasted leek soup I made on a whim back in September, and I miss my easy lunches of braised collards with turkey sausage and a fried egg on top.  By necessity, I found a billion ways to make cabbage, including as the cups on lettuce wrap-style fajitas, cut into steaks and grilled (don’t knock it until you try it, it’s surprisingly good), and shredded fine into a thousand different slaws.  And it wasn’t until the end of the year, on what was probably my 670th head of cabbage, that I got sick of it.  That’s impressive.  I learned about garlic scapes, and swiss chard, and so many other vegetables that I don’t even remember them all.  I made so much new delicious food.

I also got the hang of prepping veggies ahead of time, also by necessity.  Beets and root veggies?  Chop ‘em, toss with oil, throw on pan, roast!  Ready for lunches.  Carrots and peppers?  Wash ahead of time, peel carrots, chop and throw into containers for snacks!  I ended up making time on the Saturdays after I got the box (or Sunday, if things were busy) to deal in some way with all the veggies I’d just received.

In the interest of presenting the full spectrum of CSA emotions, however, there were a few drawbacks.  The prepwork for my box took up a lot of time, and I frequently would spend 2-3 hours on a Saturday chopping and roasting and washing (there’s a LOT of washing to do with organic farm produce) and then subsequently washing the knives and salad spinner and cutting boards.  I could have amortized this over the week, but I found that the less work I have to do on a Tuesday night to make my Wednesday lunch, the better.  Along those lines, the half share was still a lot for two people, and we threw out more than I’d care to admit.  Especially in the winter, when a potato can go from “fine” to “dear God get it away from me it’s developing a brain” seemly in ten minutes.  And that was with sharing our unwanted veggies and giving away two of our weekly boxes – and altogether forgetting a late-season box on a Saturday morning, which was maddening.  Fresh organic stuff just goes bad more quickly.  Better for your body, worse for your fridge.

Furthermore, while I liked the variety and the mystery, it was at times annoying that I would just feel like some roasted green beans but instead I had salad greens for the eighth week straight.  Or tomatoes.  I never thought I’d get sick of tomatoes, but after the summer of receiving about three pounds of tomatoes a week, and being the only person in my household that eats them… I needed a breather.  There were definitely times where I said to myself, “I know for a fact that ____ is in season and I really wish I had some of that right now instead of MORE CABBAGE.”  You are at the mercy of your farm, and their luck in growing crops this year, so you take what you get and like it and don’t complain.

Overall, I’m still on the fence about whether or not I’ll become a member of my farm again this year.  I felt great about making an investment in local agriculture and eating fresh Jersey vegetables all year, but I felt guilty and weird about eventually coming to hate swiss chard and throwing out entire bags of vegetables that we just didn’t have time to eat.  It might be better, for my household with two people (one of whom is an incredibly picky eater), to just make a habit of going to the farmer’s market every Saturday and getting a couple of seasonal items instead of getting a cornucopia delivered once a week.

My 2014, though, was definitely enhanced by my CSA.  And until I decide about 2015, you can find me here, wrapped in a blanket scarf at my desk and waiting patiently for collard greens to come back into season.  My sincere thanks to Bonnie for letting me share my story, and for having a fabulous blog that has inspired many a veggie-laden dinner for my CSA bounty!

You can find more of Lili’s musing at http://ellegolightly.tumblr.com.

Caesar Crusted Chicken with Roasted Romaine

If you make a recipe 4 weeks in a row, it’s time to share it with the world.

James and I have been really into roasting for the past few months.  We’re a busy couple of kids and looking to maximize our time, so roasting can come in handy: you prep the ingredients, put them in the oven and then you have time to clean up and set the table and all that good stuff.  Plus, roasting makes food taste delicious!

So when I came upon this recipe on Bon Appetit, I was rather intrigued and it did not disappoint.  First of all, it taught me that I don’t always need to  go through the flour-egg-breading process – this recipe has you mix together a breading and pat it on top of the chicken before it goes into the oven.  That’s it.

Secondly, grilling hearts of romaine has been trendy for years now but I’ve never tried it – mainly because I don’t have a grill.  I was delighted to see that you can roast romaine at a high heat for the same effect.  It’s incredibly easy, very quick and tastes amazing – it completely changes the romaine into an entirely new experience:  crunchy but with the satisfying flavors of a sauteed green.

The original recipe uses a lot of flavors you’d find it a Caesar salad (hence the name) including anchovies – but I’ve omitted them.  They really gross me out.  If you’re into them, go ahead and give them a try.  (The recipe added them to the romaine after it was baked.)

Caesar Crusted Chicken with Roasted Romaine

Ingredients:

  • 4 – 7 oz. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1/2 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano, plus extra for romaine
  • 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs, plus extra for romaine
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons dried herbs de provence (parsley and thyme also worked well for us)
  • 2 garlic cloves, pressed
  • 2 hearts of romaine (more, depending on your appetite – I can eat a whole romaine heart by myself)
  • garlic olive oil for drizzling
  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges

Procedure:

  1. Preheat the oven to 450ºF
  2. Mix together cheese, bread crumbs, olive oil, herbs de provence, and garlic.  Season with salt and pepper (remember, parmigiano is quite salty itself.)
  3. Arrange chicken breasts on a baking sheet.  Take a handful of breading and pat gently on top of the chicken breasts to ensure adhesion
  4. Bake chicken breasts for about 20 minutes, or until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast reads 165ºF
  5. Meanwhile, cut your romaine heads in half and arrange on a baking sheet
  6. Drizzle with garlic olive oil, sprinkle with bread crumbs, parmigiano, salt and pepper
  7. Bake romaine halves for 5 minutes.
  8. Squeeze lemon juice onto both chicken and romaine.  Enjoy!

Procedure with Pictures and Anecdotes

Cranking your oven up to 450ºF is the key to the speed of this recipe.  You want to keep an eye on your chicken, especially the first time you make the recipe.  I recommend checking the temperature every 5 minutes after you pass the first 10 minutes of cooking.  The temperature can go from under-cooked to overcooked very quickly.

I know in Buttermilk-Brined Chicken I said that I hated washing the garlic press and avoided using it, but I’ve come around.  We have a new garlic press that doesn’t take nearly as much effort for me to use and that won me over.  Also, this amazing little gadget that came with it – a silicone garlic peeler.  Usually I would smash a knife into the garlic clove to break it free of its skin, but this is so much more fun!  Insert the garlic cloves into the silicone tube, press down firmly and roll them on the counter.  Within seconds, perfectly peeled garlic gloves.  Washing it only takes a rinse with water – I totally recommend it!

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Patting the breading onto the chicken doesn’t seem instinctive, but its helped along by the fact that the breading is a little wet, from the olive oil and the fat in the cheese.  It helps stick together nicely.  As you can see in the pictures below, I cup my hand with the mixture, get my hand right next to the chicken breast and then quickly flip my hand over onto the chicken to coat.  Some of the breadcrumbs will fall off and that’s just fine.

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Cutting the romaine isn’t intuitive either.  The first time I tried it, I cut from the stem end of the heart, but I found starting in the middle actually worked better somehow.  The last time I made the recipe, I actually cut the stems off of the romaine once they were in the pan.  It’s easier to eat that way and, as long as you have some tongs to transport them from pan to plate, it shouldn’t cause any problems.

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I have found that reheating the romaine doesn’t work out great.  But since it takes so little time, I cook the romaine from scratch when reheating the chicken for leftovers.

And now some pictures of the finished product.  Look at how gorgeous the breading becomes!

DSC_0091DSC_0098The lemon is definitely makes the dish – do not leave it out!  I like using wedges because it’s easy – my juicer is kind of a production.  Also, looks very classy for a weeknight…

Hail Caesar!

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(For extra credit, we tried combining this chicken with our favorite stand-by recipe Roasted Chicken with Apples.  The results were delectable !  If you become obsessed with this recipe like me, give that rendition a whirl.)

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Christmas Cookie Crazy: Chocolate-Hazelnut Sables

You can tell something has changed this year.  Just from the simple fact that I’ve actually gotten a blog post out, on time, during the Christmas season, about cookies.20141209_122744

All my loved ones know that for the last nine years I have been 100% Christmas Cookie Crazy.  There was research and there were spreadsheets.  I’d spend hours upon hours making dough and freezing it; then hours upon hours baking as close to Christmas as possible so that the cookies would be given at peak freshness.  People loved them and the more they raved, the more encouraged I was to make and give more.  (I really hope that people weren’t just being nice, because now we’ve been dragged into a vicious cycle.)

James even made this video last year to prepare everyone for the baked goodness:

http://youtu.be/tdk0JoRFgSM

When James and I started dating, he valiantly, like the good new boyfriend he was, offered to help me make the cookies.  You’d think that would have made things easier but no, it just added to my fervor.  Think of what we could accomplish with TWO sets of hands?! Mwhahahahaha!!!

The craze reached a fever pitch last year.  It was year 8 that I had been making hundreds of Christmas cookies and I really went overboard – I made over 400 cookies.  I kept convincing myself that I hadn’t made enough and started new batches or added another kind of cookie to the collection.  I exhausted myself to the point that it wasn’t fun anymore.  I felt incredibly sick and miserable during the romantic, and expensive, dinner out that we had planned.  (It didn’t help that I also had gallstones at the time and didn’t know it…)  And while the cookies did go over well, there were leftovers.  There was cookie fatigue.  It was obvious that I had gone to far.

And so to prevent James from leaving me, I told our families that I would not be giving cookies as gifts this year, because it was simply too difficult for me.  This year, we’re giving out salted caramels and hot cocoa mix.  Hopefully blog posts about those to follow!

However, I simply couldn’t let the season go by without making any cookies at all so I decided to make, bake and freeze two batches of cookies to share with our families.  The smells, chills and sounds of Christmas just engage something inside me that tells me I must bake!  And what do you know – I’m enjoying it again and experimenting in the kitchen.  Behold – Chocolate-Hazelnut Sables.

Chocolate-Hazelnut Sables

  • Servings: yield about 42 cookies
  • Print

Adapated quite a bit from Bon Appetit’s Chocolate-Pistachio Sables

Ingredients:

  • cups (2½ sticks) salted butter, room temperature
  • cups (lightly packed) light brown sugar
  • cups all-purpose flour
  • ¾ tsp kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp baking soda
  • ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder, “bloomed” in 7 TBL of hot water
  • 1 TBL vanilla extract
  • 1 egg 
  • 1 cup dark chocolate chips
  • 1 cup unsalted, roasted hazelnuts, crushed with a mallet
  • Flaky sea salt (such as Maldon)

Procedure:

The dough needs to chill for at least four hours before you slice into cookies, so the procedure for these cookies comes in two parts.

Making the dough:

  1. Put 1 cup hazelnuts in a gallon plastic bag.  Seal while pressing out all the air you can.  With a mallet, rolling pin or even a bowl, whack those hazelnuts until they’ve broken into smaller chunks.  Resist the urge to take out all your Christmas frustration and pulverize the suckers – you want small chunks, not dust!
  2. Add 1 cup of chocolate chips to the hazelnuts bag and set aside for later.
  3. Cream butter and brown sugar together until light and fluffy, about four minutes.
  4. Add flour, salt and baking soda and mix to combine.
  5. Combine cocoa powder with hot water, adding one TBL at a time and stirring until smooth.
  6. Add “bloomed” cocoa powder and vanilla to dough and mix to combine.
  7. Add egg to dough and mix to combine. (Adding egg to fully mixed dough will avoid any contact with hot bloomed cocoa, preventing the chance of curdling your egg.)
  8. Unroll a large length of parchment paper, about 2 ft. long.  Cut and lay flat on counter or table.
  9. Spoon 1/3 of dough onto parchment paper.  Using your hands, form the dough into a log of relatively uniform thickness – about the size you’d like your cookies to be.  Place the log on the long end of the parchment closest to you, centered.
  10. Roll the dough up in the parchment.
  11. Grab the ends of the parchment with both hands and, with your hands close to the dough, twist several times in opposite directions.  The motion will consolidate the dough into a beautifully round log.
  12. Repeat with the remaining 2/3 of dough to create 3 dough logs.
  13. Store dough in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, so the dough becomes firm enough to slice into cookies.  Alternately, freeze until a later date.  Home-made slice and bake cookies!

Baking the cookies:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. Working with one dough log at a time (keep the others in the fridge), unwrap and slice cookies with a serrated knife about 1/4 inch wide.
  3. Arrange cookies on a jellyroll baking sheet, lined with parchment or silpat, 12 or 15 cookies to a baking sheet.
  4. Sprinkle liberally with finishing salt, Maldon recommended.
  5. Bake for 12 minutes total, switching the racks and turning each pan 180° halfway through baking.  Cookies should look dry in the center.
  6. Let cool 2 minutes on baking sheet.  Move cookies to cooling racks to cool completely.

Procedure with Pictures and Anecdotes

I made these cookies twice last year – once to test on co-workers and the second time as gifts.  While people raved, I just wanted a richer, more chocolatey flavor and I couldn’t quite attain it.  To try to maximize the chocolate, I made FIVE changes to this batch: all things I’d learned to “up the ante” on chocolate flavor:

1. Blooming chocolate: I learned this from America’s Test Kitchen – apparently, to get the richest flavor from your cocoa powder, you need to “activate” it with hot water.  Even though the original recipe doesn’t call for any liquid, I added 7 TBL of water to bloom the cocoa.20141207_091017

2. More salt: Salt brings out other flavors – it’s often what’s missing when you find a recipe to be “meh.”  I used salted butter instead of unsalted to increase the salt quotient.

3. More vanilla: Vanilla is often cited as a flavor booster, so instead of the teaspoon the recipe suggests, I added a tablespoon.

4. More fat: The reason that milk chocolate is so popular is because it contains more fat and more sugar than dark chocolate.  So instead of using an egg white, as the recipe suggests, I used a whole egg.  A little more fat to increase the chocolate flavor – and a little more egg magic also helped the dough stayed together better.  I’ve done this with peanut butter cookies as well and I’m very happy with the result.

5. More sugar: I used Toll House dark chocolate chips instead of chopped bittersweet chocolate.  The sugar brings out the chocolate flavor we all know and love while the chocolate chips cut out a whole step of chopping chocolate by hand – not one of my favorite kitchen chores.

The combined efforts definitely gave me a more satisfactory cookies – the dough wasn’t as brittle and I did have a better chocolate flavor.  Still not perfect, but I think my loved ones will enjoy them!

A manageable dough:

I think the addition of a whole egg as opposed to an egg white really gave this dough what it needed to be easier to handle.  While the steps above seem a little complex, and certainly take more time than a scoop cookie, I think you’ll find it’s easier than it sounds.  Pictures to help visualize below.

The log formed with my hands.  I know it… looks gross.  Try to look past that.

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Rolling in the parchment:20141207_095316

Twisting the ends to make the cylinder:

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20141207_095401 Last year, I found that my cookie logs became flat on one side when chilling.  It’s easy to fix by hand once you’ve sliced the cookies, but I thought I must have some vessel that was curved that would help them keep their shape.  And behold – I remembered that I had a baguette pan, which I have never ever used to make baguettes, but that is just the right size.20141207_100353The twist method makes a pretty impressive cylinder.  However, the edges to get a little wonky, as one might expect.  Fortunately, this dough is very forgiving.  I slice the ends to the right width and then just mold those scraggly edges with my fingers.  In some ways, I actually like the look of them better! 20141208_18272720141208_183503

Left: cookie that has been cut from the inside of the log. Right: end slice that has been molded into shape.

Cutting the slices is very easy, especially with a serrated knife (bread knife)…

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Sometimes the knife can’t get through the chunks of chocolate chip or hazelnut and they fall apart.  Never fear!  Just mold them back together with your fingers.20141208_19131920141208_19133420141208_191336Baked cookies:

With a little bit of effort, these cookies are dressed to impress.

20141209_122707Here you can see the differences in the cookies.  Some turn out picture perfect like the cookie in the top right but, really, I think they all look pretty delicious.  I kinda like the imperfect ones better.

Perfect with a mug of something warm, snuggled with loved ones in front of the fire.  Cookies and Christmas just go together.  I mean, really – what’s Christmas without cookies?

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