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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Thai Cucumber Salad

Order in not out:

"What is that interesting spice flavor," my father asks, spearing a coin of cucumber.
"I think you mean the basil, Dad," I say, hoping I sound patient.
He raises his eyebrows and continues munching.
"Basil and cilantro are really common in Thai food," I say, relinquishing responsibility for the strange but harmonious spicy, sweet, sour flavor of the salad.

Dad seems slightly startled but eats most of the salad before pulling out the seasoning salt (offense of offenses) and making a crash landing in his comfort zone. I guess it was asking a lot of him; he is new at this. His only encounters with Asian food have been at busy, salty, heat-lamped buffets. But, in my father's defense this recipe even surprised me, patroness of Thai salads everywhere, with its sharp, fresh flavor. With just a handful of ingredients the salad comes together in about ten minutes and tastes like it has been marinating for hours. I had higher hopes for the coconut marinated chicken we had with the salad but it fell a little short of my expectations. That's what I get for hacking the marinade time in half...

You see, I have been going through a little bit of a dry spell, as far as inspiration goes. Monday I picked through my pile of magazine clippings looking for an arsenal of recipes to carry me through another long week manning the fort. Nothing really struck my fancy but, seeing how I was going to be cooking for just one most of the time, I decided to take the opportunity to explore new flavor territories. I even went so far as buy the sweetest (USDA certified organic, locally grown) basil plant. His name is Reginald.

While my father remains secretly skeptical we (Reginald and I) believe this salad was a definite success. In fact, it was so good it reminded me of a green papaya salad I had a few months ago at a very scrumptious Thai cafe in Maryland. According to the original recipe one cuke yields about 4 cups. My only complaint was the texture of the big circles of cucumber. In my mind grating the cuke would be an ode to the juliened carrots and papaya in that salad but I have yet to try it. If you would rather not risk your knuckles, thinly sliced rounds, or any other shape for that matter, taste just as good.

Notes: When buying a cucumber seedless is usually preferred. These are very often called "English" cucumbers and are designated as seedless. If you can't find one, just cut the regular cuke in half and use a spoon to gently scoop out the seeds. Personally, I don't mind seeds one bit. A cucumber that is thin and fairly free of blemishes (look for smooth, dark green skin) is usually the tastiest. Be sure to thoroughly wash your veggies before using them. The cucumbers and limes are often sprayed with wax to make them shiny and appealing so be sure to use a mild detergent. Do not make this salad more than an hour or so in advance, otherwise your herbs will wilt and your cucumber will begin to break down.

From Good Housekeeping August 2006

2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper (or a scant 1/8 teaspoon cayenne)
1 seedless cucumber (peeled if you prefer)
1 tablespoon green onion (or chives) finely sliced
1 tablespoon fresh basil
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon chopped, unsalted peanuts

1. Wash the cucumber and lime and set aside. Place your basil and cilantro in a bowl of cold water, giving it a little shake to remove any dirt and then dry on paper towels. Rinse the chives or green onions.
2. Cut your cucumber in half lengthwise, placing the cut side on the cutting board. Cut the cucumber into slices. Place in a bowl.
3. Stack 5-6 basil leaves one on top of the other. Roll the leaves tightly then, holding the roll together carefully with your fingers, finely slice the basil. This is called a chiffonade. Add to the cucumber.
4. Remove the leaves from the cilantro stems and discard before chopping the cilantro leaves roughly. Add to cucumber and basil.
5. Remove the roots from the scallions, if using them. Finely slice the chives or scallions and add cucumber.
6. In a small bowl mix the lime juice, sugar and crushed red pepper. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and add the lime juice mixture to the cucumber and toss to coat, seasoning with salt if needed.
7. Serve with chopped peanuts.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tips: Chocolate

Chips, Bars, Cocoa + Cookie Recipe:

I am sure that by now you are all thoroughly sick of hearing my tired complaints about the heat. But, having just cooked myself for the sake of our neighbors lawn I cannot post something without at least alluding to the effects 100+ degree weather have on me. For example the only thing that looked remotely appetizing after a cold shower was the big slice of shriveled up three day old pepperoni pizza. There, that should be sufficient.

Of course, there are plenty of other things that don't perform well in extreme heat. Chocolate, for example, lasts about as long as your frosty ice cream sandwich when placed in the blistering inferno of a July afternoon. And since we have seen a narrow collection of chocolate recipes in the last two months let me set the record straight with regards to kitchen variety chocolate. But first, a little terminology. Chocolate, in its unrefined form, is called cacao (not to be confused with cocoa) and comes from the tree very modestly named theobroma cacao. Once the cacao has been roasted and ground, and mixed with other necessary products, it yields what we call chocolate in any number of forms such as bars or chips or disks. Cocoa powder is the end product of a rigorous pressing process that removes cocoa fats. This of course raises the question, "what does Dutched cocoa mean?" A "Dutched" cocoa is simply one that has been treated with an alkali solution (totally safe). Some recipes will specify "natural" over "Dutched" in an attempt to influence taste or appearance.

I know that was all terribly riveting but let us proceed to something more applicable to the everyday use of chocolate and chocolate products. As we all know chocolate comes in two varieties: milk and dark. Dark chocolate is typically more bittersweet than milk chocolate, which has been mixed with milk products and cocoa butter and is usually considered smoother and sweeter. The percentage is prominent on most packages of chocolate and refers to the percentage of cacao to other ingredients. The higher the percentage the more bittersweet the chocolate. A good quality dark chocolate should start at 60-65%.

Of course, you are probably wondering why I have yet to mention "white chocolate". The ugly truth of the matter is "white chocolate" isn't chocolate at all but a concoction of sugars, milk products and cocoa butter. Therefor we are going to very snobbishly ignore it until such a time as it warrants attention (say, Macadamia nut cookies).

Chocolate chips: Great for cookies! These chips are best stored at room temperature. Use them for melting and dipping, stirring into batters or the like. However, if a recipe for something like pudding calls for chopped chocolate "bars" do not substitute chips. Because baking chips include oil they can alter the final texture of a dish.

Unsweetened chocolate bars: These bars are great for baking but not recommended for eating. Because they are totally unsweetened the flavor is often very bitter. Recipes that call for these baking wonders will specify "unsweetened" because a sweetener will be added to the recipe at large later. It is not recommended to substitute these bars for sweetened varieties.

Chocolate bars/disks: When a recipe calls for a bar chocolate it is best to invest in your favorite good quality bar. Typically, these are found in the baking section very close to their un-sweetened cousins. Substitute a grocery shelf candy bar of your choice at your own risk. Good quality chocolate is a necessity when the dish relies almost exclusively on the chocolate flavor which is why a bittersweet chocolate is often recommended.

Cocoa: Cocoa is widely used and can very often be substituted for unsweetened bar chocolate. Check the side of the container for the appropriate substitutions. Because of its form cocoa lends itself easily to a variety of batters and beverages like smoothies or hot milk with very little effort. While cocoa lends itself to any number of chocolate recipes it should not be substituted for chocolate chips.

Chocolate Chip Cookies:
Variation on Toll House "Original Chocolate Chip Cookies". Refrigerating the batter does some wonderful things to these cookies. When they bake up they will be crispy and golden around the edges and soft in the middle like those wondrously yummy bakery style treats. There is a very chemical explanation for this that, while having read about, I don't have the stomach to relate to you here (I'm saving room for cookies). The extra refrigeration time is, of course, totally optional. The success of the batter is not contingent on the refrigeration period like in some recipes, so feel free to bake a pan right away if you can't wait. And if you have a mind to enjoy them quickly, make sure you eat them warm straight from the oven! Makes 5 dozen.

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 cup butter flavored shortening (or butter)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 large eggs, plus one yolk
2 cups chocolate chips, of your choice
1 cup chopped peanuts, optional

1. Combine the flour, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Beat the butter and both sugars, adding in vanilla extract.
2. Add the eggs to the butter mixture, beating after each addition.
3. Gradually stir in the flour mixture, being sure not to over mix. Fold in the chocolate chips.
4. Cover the bowl, or place in an air tight container, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
5. Preheat the oven to 350. Bake the cookies on an un-greased cookie sheet for 9-11 minutes or until slightly golden around the edges.
6. Cool the cookies for 2 minutes before removing from the pan. Cool completely before storing in an airtight container at room temperature.

Sources for this post include: Hershey Center for Health & Nutrition and "The True History of Chocolate"(2000) by Sophie D. Coe

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


A Chilean Tradition:

In four years and one summer I never had a bad roommate. In fact, I never even had a roommate I couldn't stand sleeping near much less hanging out with or cooking for. Each and every semester provided new culinary memories. My junior year I moved into an apartment with three other girls, a substantial kitchen and my very first dishwasher *glorious raptures*. The first two straight week saw us eating little more than cereal or a grilled cheese cooked on a faulty stove burner; not our fault. By senior year though, all manner of new dishes were cropping up in our kitchen.

I first came across this recipe for "pebre" after one of my roommates made a trip to Chile to visit family. When she came back she was spooning pebre over everything and anything she could find. (Once you've tasted this recipe you'll know why). I made this variation from a shred of paper I found in a kitchen drawer upon moving out and have been muddling out the proportions ever since. This version makes about 1 to 1 1/2 cups of pebre depending on the amount of cilantro or tomato. Because pebre is such a staple food in Chile almost every family, restaurant or street vendor has their own recipe so don't feel like you need to follow my proportions to the letter. If you like less heat use less chili, etc. etc. Try it spooned over grilled meat of wondrous varieties (chicken, white fish, beef or pork), hot dogs, even toasted slices of some crispy delicious loaf of bread. I've made two batches in the past week and scarfed it down (literally) with everything from scrambled eggs, salmon to plain old blue corn tortilla chips. Think of it like ketchup but way, way better. The bite of the fresh garlic paired with the sweet and sour lime juice takes our idea of "salsa" to a whole new level. Once you've had Pebre you won't go back to any old slab-shod jar.

Preparing the pebre the night before allows the flavors to really meld and deepen. For less kick-kick-punch action make it just before serving. My second batch seasoned for about 24 hours before being mixed up with the oil, juice and vinegar and it most certainly gave us a run for our chips. Making the pebre too far in advance could result in sad and broken down tomatoes so don't make the dish more than 24 hours in advance.

Notes: Always be sure to wash your cilantro. A single "pre-washed" package would be sufficient for a single batch. I, personally, don't buy the loose bundles after seeing some disturbing news reports. To wash: fill a deep bowl with cold water and set the cilantro on the surface, giving it a good swish. Any sand should fall to the bottom. Scoop the cilantro out gently, trying not to disturb the sediments. Layer the cilantro between paper towels to dry thoroughly. Store in a paper towel, herb savor or use immediately. Packaged herbs are usually $2-3 a package so if you tend to use a lot of something in particular (say cilantro) you might think about investing in a plant. Of course, a plant requires some maintenance so bear that in mind.

I used jalapenos because they were readily available. Most any green chili pepper will work but I would not suggest a bell pepper. To reduce the heat seed the pepper: cut off the top and split the pepper lengthwise, removing the seeds and ribs with a small spoon or just your fingers. Don't forget to roll your lime(s) on the counter before you juice them to release the good stuff. Lime happens to be my second favorite citrus so I was a little liberal with it, per the usual.

Makes 1 - 1 1/2 cups

1 large tomato, seeded and diced
1 bunch (or box) of cilantro
2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
1 1/2 green chili peppers (1 for less heat, 1 1/2-2 for more)
1 lime
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vinegar
1/2 teaspoon olive oil

1. Wash and dry your tomato, chili pepper and cilantro.
2. Cut the tomato in half, "hamburger" style, and squeeze gently over the trashcan or a bowl to remove some of the seeds. This will keep your pebre from being too watery.
3. Chop the tomato and add to a large bowl. Seed and chop the chili pepper and add to the tomatoes.
4. Smash two cloves of garlic on your cutting board, removing the skins. Finely chop the garlic then add it to the tomato mixture. Stir in the salt.
5. I tear my cilantro but you could chop it as well. To chop: hold the bunch of cilantro by the stem, leaves pointing down towards your cutting board. Run your knife along the stems in a gentle but swift chopping motion to remove most of the leaves from their stems. Discard remaining stems and chop before adding to the tomato mixture.
6. If you are preparing the cilantro in advance cover your dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate until almost ready to serve. If not, cut and juice your lime and add it to the tomato mixture along with the olive oil and vinegar. Check for seasoning and add more salt if needed.
7. Stir and serve.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sloppy Joes

Beef, it's for dinner:

When I was younger I remember there being something really special about sloppy joes. Maybe it was because we didn't eat them very often and so on occasions when we did have Mac 'n Cheese or a sloppy joe it meant there was something to celebrate. Ground beef and tomato sauce just doesn't cut it for me the way it used to these days. (I much prefer a steak with lime and avocado or that blessing of blessings, pot roast). Of course, this blog can't always be about me... Today, for the first time, I pay homage to a simple meat recipe in honor of students far and wide who want a quick, satisfying meal without the usual pomp and circumstance. Sure, you could get a sloppy joe at the nearest D-hall but why leave if you can enjoy the same humble, home-cooked meal at home?! Plus, for such simple ingredients you get a delicious, filling dinner fit for friends or visiting family.

This recipe is a variation on a dish I found in "Cook Healthy, Cook Quick"(1994). I cut down on the "catsup", Worcestershire and nixed the garlic powder totally, replacing it with fresh garlic. Of course, this dish is extremely versatile. Served on gently toasted buns it is the perfect sandwich. Use the minimal amount of ketchup, add a little taco seasoning, a few jalapenos and you can serve it on chips with some sharp cheddar cheese. Moreover, spoon it over a baked potato or, some sources suggest, toss it with spaghetti for a quick meat sauce.

Notes: Buying ground beef is simple. The meat should always be a bright red, never brown or gray. Be sure to check your fresh date before buying. In the left hand corner of the package you will see a percentage. I purchased 97/3 which means 97% of the beef is lean. Some fat is essential if you don't want crumbles that taste and feel like shoe leather. But, buying a lean meat means you don't have to drain the beef after cooking to remove excess fat and oil. Most packages run $3-5 a pound so it is an affordable, versatile addition to your grocery list. Similarly, ground turkey and chicken are also available to use in place of ground beef. The same rules apply: bright even color, good fresh date and a suitable fat percentage.

Makes 4-5
1 pound lean ground beef
1/2 an onion, finely chopped
1/2 a green pepper, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon spicy mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice (or apple cider or red wine vinegar)
8 ounce can tomato sauce, flavored sauce would work
1/4 cup ketchup
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

salt and pepper
hamburger buns or soft rolls, toasted

1. Chop the onion, green pepper and garlic. Set aside.
2. In a small bowl mix together the ketchup, brown sugar, mustard, Worcestershire and lemon juice or vinegar and set aside.
3. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil and and swirl to coat the pan. Add the onion, pepper and garlic.
4. Crumble the ground beef into the pan using your fingers. Season with salt and fresh cracked pepper. Do not stir. Let the beef cook until it is 3/4 brown then stir, breaking the meat up into small crumbles. This allows the meat to caramelize, undisturbed. Continue cooking until thoroughly cooked and no longer pink.
5. Add the tomato sauce and brown sugar mixture, stirring to combine. Continue cooking 4-5 minutes or until the sauce is heated through and bubbly. If you like sloppier Joes add a little extra ketchup.
6. Remove from the heat and serve on toasted buns with a coins of dill pickle if you like. Refrigerate remaining mixture or freeze for up to three months.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Chocolate Strawberries

Because we all need a little romance:

I can't think of a simpler dessert than chocolate covered berries. At their most basic all you need are a dozen plump, ruby-red berries and half a cup of chocolate chips. Of course, you can dip almost anything in chocolate: raspberries, bananas, pineapple, dried fruit etc. But, in honor of that most classical and romantic of desserts I've chosen strawberries. Let's face it, we can all use a little extra romance these days.

My first two years of college my roommates and I would make elaborate dinners, complete with smuggled bottles of champagne, to celebrate Valentine's Day. Chocolate covered strawberries were, of course, the order of the day. I've stepped up the classic a little with some tasty additions to finish the berries but feel free to experiment! A cocktail hour where your friends dip and decorate berries while sipping something really yummy would be a great summer party idea. The berries don't take long to set up and you'll be done dipping a lot sooner than if you did it all one your own. Having each person bring something, like crushed hazelnuts for dipping or a wedge of brie for snacking, brings the cost down and adds to the excitement. I choose to use toasted coconut and crushed toasted almonds here because I can't get enough of them these days.

Notes: Because we are going to be melting the chocolate let's talk a minute about a double boiler. Placing a heatproof bowl over a pain of gently simmering water is a safe way to melt chocolate; just be sure the water never boils or touches the bottom of the bowl. Let the water heat up with the bowl on top for a few minutes before you add the chips. When they are softening stir them with a heatproof spatula until the chocolate is totally smooth and shiny. Also, have all of your toppings prepared in advance. The chocolate will set up very quickly once you dip the berries so be prepared! Because the berries will start to break down when rinsed it is best NOT to wash the berries before using.

Trick: turn the AC down. The chocolate will set up best if it is not refrigerated but the air should be very cool while the chocolate is setting. If you place the berries in the fridge or freezer they will be dull and have a powdery film (still very edible).

Grocery List:
1 bag chocolate chips of your choice
Nuts or other decorative toppings of your choice
Waxed paper

1/2 cup chocolate chips (milk, semi-sweet or bitter-sweet)
12-14 strawberries
Vegetable oil
1/4 cup toasted coconut, optional
1/4 cup finely chopped nuts such as almonds or pistachios, optional

1. Place 2 inches of water in a sauce pot with high sides and heat over low. Place a shallow heat proof bowl over the water. Make sure the water does not touch the bottom of the bowl.
2. Place a sheet of waxed paper on a cookie sheet and set aside.
3. To prepare the coconut and almonds: Heat the coconut in a dry frying pan over medium-low heat. Stir the coconut occasionally until it starts to crisp and become fragrant. Once it begins to turn golden brown stir it continuously and continue to toast for another 1-2 minutes. When sufficiently toasted remove from the heat and spread out in a single layer on a plate. Repeat with almonds.
4. When the chocolate is melted and drips from the spatula it is ready to dip. Add a few drops of vegetable oil to the chocolate and stir; this will make it extra shiny. Take a strawberry, holding it by the stem, and dip into the chocolate, rolling your wrist so that it covers 3/4 of the berry. Place on the waxed paper or dip into your topping of choice. Repeat.
5. When all the berries are dipped let them set in a cool place (but not the fridge) for about 10 minutes or until the chocolate is no longer sticky or soft. Serve and enjoy!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Orange Zucchini Bread

Vegetable Crossing:

I know most of you are convinced I am on a mission to turn you all into vegetarians; not that there is anything wrong with vegetarianism! I am obviously an advocate for salads, veggie stir fry and sandwiches with little more than a slab of beautiful, icy cold sweet potato, tahini and some fresh greens. I admit, I am a self-proclaimed veg-aholic.

My brother and I both made forays into the world of 60-40 (veg to everything else) diets in college to save money. Of course, I still salivated over pot-roast with smashed potatoes or politely gorged on a platter of dragon rolls and salmon nigiri every once in a while. How could I not? The main reason I am posting so many veggie dishes is to make use of the summer produce available at such low prices! Recipes circulating around multi-purpose veggies like zucchini, peas, carrots, sweet corn and tomatoes just make sense when they are a fraction of their normal price. Point in case, last week my grocery bill was $15 (plus tax). I was cooking for two, my full-grown and carnivorous father and myself. Not surprisingly, during the week we had Ranch Turkey burgers, Veggie Lo Mein and Southwestern Omelets. Each meal relied largely on in-season veggies so buying the produce that was on sale that week saved a ton! Of course, that meant "Chocolate Covered Strawberries" were out for dessert. Sorry Dad, maybe next time.

This week I needed to use up the remaining zucchini and prep a good afternoon snack, so Cooking Light's "Zucchini and Orange Bread", sounded like the perfect thing. Plus, it has a scrumptious orange glaze, reminiscent of those sinful Pillsbury Orange Cinnamon rolls you make at midnight when you're sitting around with nothing better to do. Zucchini is especially useful this time of year because it can be the star of any number of easy dishes and eaten at almost every meal. Steamed or baked it is the perfect side for everything from a grilled chicken breast to a juicy, cheddar cheese and bacon burger. Slice it for lasagna, saute it with some pasta or lo mein, even fry it and serve it with horseradish mayonnaise on a crispy baguette. Try grating it with carrot and sweet onion for a new twist on a traditional salad. And, of course, enjoy it for breakfast in this scrumptious quick bread. At only a few dollars a pound zucchini is one of the seasons most economical vegetables.

This bread is incredibly dense and moist with a pungent, sweet orange flavor. In a way it resembles a pound cake but the flavor is much lighter and, well, there isn't a stick of butter in sight. For more texture add the 1/3 cup chopped walnuts. Just don't forget to pour the glaze on while the bread is still warm. Be sure to remove it from the pans first, otherwise the glaze will seep down into the pans and make the loaves especially difficult to remove. If you don't have a wire rack just yet go get one!

Note on Ingredients: I didn't have quite enough zucchini so I finished off the second cup with a grated carrot. Alternatively, skip the zucchini and use 2 cups of carrot and a quarter cup raisins for a nice change. The original recipe calls for egg substitute but since I didn't have any, and didn't want to alter the health benefits, I used 1/2 cup of unsweetened apple sauce. Does that make this vegan? Hmmm... The loaves come out dense, moist and a shade of storybook gold. Perfect for snacking!

Makes 2 loaves (freezes beautifully sans glaze)

3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt, scant
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup applesauce, or egg substitute
1/3 cup vegetable oil
zest of one orange
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon orange juice
1/3 cup walnuts or raisins

1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoon orange juice
1/4 teaspoon zest

1. Preheat the oven to 350. Grease two loaf pans.
2. Wash and dry the zucchini. Using a box grater grate 2 cups worth and set aside.
3. Sift the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Mix well with a whisk and make a well in the center of the mixture.
4. Wash and zest the orange.
5. In another cup mix the egg substitute (or applesauce), orange zest, juice, vanilla, oil and sugar until combined. Add to the flour mixture, folding gently until combined.
6. Fold in the zucchini (and walnuts or raisins if you are using them) and split the batter between the two greased loaf pans.
7. Bake for 40 minutes or until golden and a tooth pick inserted in the center of the bread comes out clean.
8. Prepare the glaze: Mix the remaining orange juice and 1/2 cup of powdered sugar in a small bowl. Add the remaining zest and stir until smooth and combined.
8. Cool the bread for 10 minutes in the pans. Then, run the blade of knife around the loaf to gently separate it from the sides of the pan. Invert the loaves and the bread should slide out. Place on a wire rack with a large pan or plate below it to finish cooling.
9. While the bread is still hot spoon half of the glaze onto the top of each loaf. It will almost immediately drip down the sides of the loaf. Cool completely before serving.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Veggie Lo Mein

Ready before you can say "fried rice":

It goes without saying that almost every college student has a special dependency on takeout. For most of us, the takeout of choice is Chinese. We grub up those saucy noodles or sweet and tangy rice at all hours and with little regard for decency. For me, there has always been something mystical about eating dumplings with a plastic fork right out of the container. It is quintessential college perfection as far as cuisine is concerned: tasty, accessible, cheap and perfect hot or cold. The only problem... the waiting! This recipe is ready in about 20 minutes.

Why haven't I put up a post about fried rice or General Tso's in four months? Well, to be honest, since moving home my takeout consumption has lessened greatly. But, more importantly, I hadn't convinced myself to buy a few essential ingredients just yet. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was destiny. Whatever it was I broke down yesterday.

This week mushrooms were on sale at the Giant. I love those hibachi style stir-fried mushrooms so I was itching to cook each and every one of them! A brief Internet search resulted in a recipe for "Stir-Fried Noodles with Eggplant and Basil" by Everyday Food. The photo looked great, ingredients were accessible and the reviews were positive. Although the original recipe used eggplant, mushrooms and zucchini were listed as delicious substitutes.

I was only missing one thing: sesame oil (toasted). So, after work I hopped down the street to get a bottle. I spotted the stuff immediately; cafe-au-lait colored and sporting a red label. But the site suggested "toasted" sesame and this was just the plain Jane original. I did find a bottle of "toasted" sesame oil but it was $7.99!? The plain version was only $2.99. Need I tell you which one went home with ME?

The minute I opened the bottle I was slightly regretful for not buying the fancier stuff. It smelled so toasty and so much like dozens of sushi dinner-dates I was immediatly seduced into paying whatever price next time. My advice: settle for the plain sesame oil if you're skeptical but, once you've tried it, dish out the green for the upgrade. You will only use a little at a time so it will last for a while. But, the flavor, even of a cheap brand, is really irreplaceable in Asian food so make sure you don't skip it! I nixed most of the zucchini and doubled up on mushrooms in the recipe because, well, the mushrooms were really, really good!

Note on Ingredients:

Lo mein noodles are great if you can find them. If not, linguine or fettuccine noodles are a handy substitute. I used cellophane noodles because I had some. I've only ever had them fried or in small quantities so I was a little grossed out when I pulled yards of it all limp and wormy looking from the pot. They were great cold the next day but I would still suggest the fettuccine or other Asian style noodles. Although I don't condone it, Ramen could work as well. I've doubled the sauce recipe so it makes a little more than you need for this but it was sooo good, and simple, I think you'll want some on hand to toss with your leftovers the next day.

NEVER: rinse mushrooms. Use a paper towel or damp cloth and wipe gently to remove dirt. The stems should pop right out.

Serves 2

4 ounces lo mein noodles (or linguine or Ramen)
2 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup zucchini, chopped
2 cups sliced portabello mushrooms
3 scallions
1 clove fresh garlic (or 1/2 teaspoon pre-chopped)
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves or 1/4 teaspoon chili flakes

1. Bring a pot of water to boil over high heat. Cook your noodle of choice according to the package directions. Drain and set aside.
2. In a small bowl mix your brown sugar, sesame oil and soy sauce. Set aside.
3. Wash and dry the zucchini. Split in half lengthwise (the halves will look like half moons) and then again. Cut crosswise and set aside.
4. Wipe the mushrooms with a damp towel to remove dirt. Discard the stems. Cut to preferred size either in slices or quarters. Remove the roots from your scallions and discard. Slice scallions thinly, reserving the whites.
5. Heat a large non-stick skillet to medium high. Be sure to let it preheat for a few minutes. You want it good and hot. When the pan is preheated add the oil (it shouldn't smoke but should be rippling on the surface of the pan).
6. Add the mushrooms and zucchini and cook 4 minutes, stirring until the veggies are slightly golden. Push the veggies to one side.
7. Add the garlic and scallion whites only. Toss for 30 seconds and then stir all the veggies together again. Add the noodles and, at the last minute, the sauce and the rest of the scallions. Heat through for another 30 seconds.
8. Serve immediatly with torn or chopped fresh basil and/or chili flakes.

Portabella Mushrooms on Foodista

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Chef Salad for Two

+ Thousand Island Dressing:

I'll never forget the lonely, nervous feeling I had the first few hours of being alone on campus as a freshman. One of my first dining hall meals was a chef salad from the refrigerator case at the campus convenience store. My high school was small and since we didn't have a hot bar in the cafeteria we always brought our lunches or ordered pizza. The idea of eating my first college meal alone in a dining hall that could easy feed 250 was very nearly lethal.

So, instead I shoveled nests of salty lunch meat around a bed of iceberg lettuce, wondering if I was going to get food poisoning. It would be worth it though, I told myself, not to be a social outcast less than 24 hours into my college career. Of course, I was being ridiculous. By the end of the my second week I was blossoming beside my dorm mates at a table in D-hall, my timid first days completely forgotten. Since then, Chef salads have had a special place in my heart, and rightly so! Done well, it is the perfect salad.

Standing in the dark air conditioned sanctuary of our kitchen today I couldn't bear eating anything warm. Even the scrumptious turkey burger waiting in the fridge couldn't begin to tempt me. A cool, chilled salad was about all I had on my radar. But while seeding a tomato I couldn't help but lament the reputation Chef salads have across campuses world wide: tasteless iceberg lettuce, grainy tomato wedges, those hideous imitation bacon crumbles. Of course, the traditional salad, with wedges of chilled pink tongue and French dressing, isn't a dream either in my book. For me a simple, icy cold salad needs little more than a good deli sandwich: meat, cheese, lettuce and tomato and a perfectly in season sweet onion. This simplified version of a Chef salad, resplendent with an even simpler homemade dressing, is just the thing to make up for all those disappointing dining hall experiences. Serve it as a side or as a light, refreshing summer main course.

Note on Ingredients:
This dressing is probably the easiest dressing you'll come across. Omit the milk and you have the perfect dip for grilled shrimp, veggies or a spread for your next toasty Ruben. As a dressing it costs mere pennies to make and is the perfect choice for your next cook out (or the next time you have an excess of refugee condiments clogging up your fridge). Be sure to splurge and buy some good quality deli meet. You can buy small packages in the deli section of deli style meats and cheeses. If you don't like Swiss try Provolone and smoked turkey. Add the tomatoes at the last minute to keep the lettuce from getting soggy.

Serves 2 (entree) or 4 (as a side)
4 cups chopped romaine lettuce (2 hearts)
1/2 sweet onion, such as Vidalia, finely sliced
1/2 cup finely sliced green pepper
1/2 cup chopped, seeded tomato
1/3 cup Swiss cheese, 2 slices
1/3 cup diced ham or 4 slices deli style (Black Forest ham is perfect)
2 boiled eggs
2 slices crispy bacon (optional)

1. Wash and dry the lettuce. Chop roughly or, alternatively, tear into bite sized pieces.
2. Peel the onion and cut in half. Slice finely and add to the lettuce.
3. Wash the green pepper. Cut the top off the pepper and remove the ribs and seeds. Cut in half and slice. Add to lettuce mixture.
4. Cut the cheese slices in half and stack, one on top of the other. Cut into 1/2" slices. Add to the lettuce.
5. Roll up a few slices of ham and slice finely into ribbons. Add to the salad.
6. Peel the boiled eggs and chop roughly. Top the salad with the boil egg and cooked, crumbled bacon if you are using it.
7. Cut your tomato in half then, over a bowl or the trash can, squeeze the tomato gently. This will remove most of the liquid and some of the seeds. Chop and add to the salad.
8. Serve chilled with Thousand Island, or your preferred, dressing.

Thousand Island Dressing:
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons ketchup
1 boiled egg, finely chopped
1 tablespoon pickle relish
2-3 drops Worcestershire sauce
fresh cracked pepper

1. Dice the boiled egg finely.
2. Mix the mayonnaise, ketchup, pickle relish, Worcestershire sauce and pepper together.
3. Add the egg to the mayonnaise mixture and mix to combine. Chill until ready to serve.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Chocolate Cupcakes!

Cake and Cupcake Part II:

For, me cupcakes are a reason to celebrate. This is not the same thing as saying, "cupcakes are perfect at celebrations" or "I always celebrate with cupcakes". No, not even close. Cupcakes, being the cutest and most adorable cakes around, are a reason to celebrate! On my list of most adorable things cupcakes rank somewhere between piglets, bears and spicy gumdrops.

This recipe was originally an old fashioned chocolate cake of undisclosed size. I found it huddled in a large Tupperware bin of clippings and magazine pages belonging to my Mother. She typed it out (on her typewriter) in High School and somehow it has managed to stick to her traveling menagerie of recipes since then. But, because I just had to make cupcakes I simply halved the recipe and stuck it in cups. It worked perfectly!

I'm not totally sure when my cupcake condition (and it is a condition) happened but it was some time after I graduated. It probably didn't help that within 6 months after moving home a gourmet cupcake shop opened up not a block from where I work and live. Then there was that trip to Charleston where King Street wooed me with, among other things, the cheekiest little cup-cakery, "Cupcake". My profile picture is of the two chocolate covered strawberry cupcakes I, my very sweet companion and one amiable seagull, enjoyed well before 11 am on a bench around the corner.

But what makes cupcakes cute!? Size for one. Shape, of course, but even a droopy, lumpy cupcake is still cute in a "only-your-mother-could-love it" sort of way; even the most unfortunate cupcake is still delicious! But, let's pretend all of our cupcakes turn out perfectly each and every time and we never have the need to frost away imperfections. How do you guild the lily that is the easiest, springiest chocolate cupcake? Let's start at the beginning. I don't expect any of you to have gone out and purchased that off-set spatula I told you about, much less a piping bag and very large star tip. So, let's start from the basics. Piping can be done with a Ziploc bag very cheaply and easily. I suggest a quart or freezer bag because they are heavier than sandwich bags and less likely to burst a seam and squirt out frosting. Doesn't that sounds cute, though?

Right, piping. I like to place the bag in a large mug or measuring cup and fill accordingly. Tilt the bag on a angle, so that a corner is pointing into the bottom of the cup, and fill it up. Seal the bag, leaving a small corner open to allow air to escape. I like to hold the bag in my non-dominant hand, twisting with the other hand until the icing is squeezed into the corner and conical in shape. Snip the corner of the Ziploc and you are ready to pipe. Applying pressure to the bag from the top pushes icing out of the "tip". Rocket science, yes?

If that piping bag sounds a bit too scary at this stage just use a butter knife to smooth the icing onto your cupcake. For a finished bakery appearance hold the knife almost parallel to the cupcake and skim the edge.

For the swirls: I put two drops of blue food coloring on opposite sides of a zip lock bag (repeat with red). Of course, this can be done with any colors. Also, bear in mind this is the super cheap, beginner way of piping a swirl frosting. That doesn't mean it is any less adorable! Fill the bag with frosting and then pipe a large swirl onto the cupcake. Always start from the outside and work towards the center. If you mess it up just smear a knife around the cupcake to give it a tie die effect. If you really botched it just pour some sprinkles onto a plate or into a bowl and press the cupcake into them, rolling your wrist slightly to coat the sides and edges. I can tell you from experience, there isn't anything that can't be fixed with sprinkles; except maybe really cute cupcake liners.

Makes 1 dozen
(You should have all of this in your kitchen already!)

1 cup flour, all purpose
2 tablespoons cocoa
1/2 cup cold water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup mayonnaise

1. Preheat to 350 (325 if your oven cooks hot like mine). Line a muffin tin with cupcake liners.
2. Sift the dry ingredients.
3. Add the wet ingredients and mix until moistened. Using an ice cream scoop, fill the liners 3/4 full.
4. Bake the cupcakes for 15-20 minutes or until a toothpick (or very sharp knife) inserted into the center of the cupcake comes out clean. There should be no gooey residue left on it and the cupcake should spring back when gently tapped with your finger.
5. Cool the cupcakes before icing.