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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

homemade everything: my gramma's influence

gramma's cookbook

I just returned from a weekend at my grandparents' house in rural North Carolina - a sprawling farm on the Pee-Dee River we call "Neal's Hill". Just the other night a co-worker's wife was asking me how I came to love food and cooking so much... If I had to pick any single influence, I'd say my Gramma. Although I don't cook mainly southern food, I appreciate the process of making things from scratch, and from the freshest possible ingredients, because of her. When I was young, I'd spend at least a week each summer down on Neal's Hill, and Gramma and I would go out and pick apples, peaches or blueberries and bake cobblers or pies. When Gramma pulled out her old church cookbook this past weekend, I was so excited - what pie was she going to make this time??

blueberry pot pie

It turns out she made this delicious blueberry "pot pie" - kind of custardy when baked. I can't describe how good fresh berries from her garden taste.

tomatoes from the garden

Gramma slices up these fresh tomatoes she grows into thick pieces for...

cucumbers from the garden

...cucumber sandwiches! I'm not sure if this is a Southern thing, or just a Gramma thing, but she makes these cucumber and tomato sandwiches with slices of cheddar cheese and some mayo, salt and pepper - juicy and crunchy and the *perfect* lunch for a hot summer day.

gramma's green beans

My gramma grows and cans her own green beans. I took it for granted growing up that this would always be available - it wasn't until I went off to college and realized that most people only had canned vegetables.

gramma's pottery bowl

My gramma is so multi-talented - she's really gotten into throwing her own pottery the last couple of years. My mom and sister always go straight to her new pieces when we walk in the door to see what all she's been working on (and inevitably try to convince my Gramma how deserving we are of some new bowl or platter). The coolest pieces in my kitchen are these homemade pottery dishes my Gramma made. This past trip I scored a new serving bowl, and a small lidded casserole dish. You'll definitely see these featured on the blog in the future...

gramma's pottery

And how cute is this little card my Gramma started putting in her new pieces? Her work is now being commissioned by local churchgoers and friends, and now she's got some pieces on display at the local art center. I had such a great time when I visited, as always, and I'm already wondering when I can head back...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

why have I not heard of this? rich tomato sausage pasta with olives

pasta with tomatoes olives sausage

I was looking for a baked pasta recipe on epicurious the other day - I wanted to find an easy-ish recipe that I could make, divide into 2 batches and freeze half of it for future use. I came across this recipe as the most reviewed, highest rated baked pasta in their archive, from about 10 years ago. The foundation is a simple tomato sauce that simmers for over an hour (since I work from home, I'm not intimidated by longer cook times, since I can put on a pot and stir it occasionally between emails and phone calls). I added spinach and spicy turkey sausage to up the protein and vitamin content; I also used ricotta instead of havarti cheese, to increase protein and decrease overall fat. It was so good - the second half of the batch won't last long in the freezer, since I'm already craving it again.

Grocery list: olive oil, 1 large or 2 small chopped onions, a couple minced garlic cloves, 2-3 28-oz cans Italian plum tomatoes, crushed red pepper, 2 cups chicken broth, 1 pound pasta, 2 1/2 cups grated havarti (or 1 15-oz container of low-fat ricotta), 1/3 cup sliced kalamata olives (or more), 1/3 cup grated parmesan, plus optional add-ons of 1 pound spicy sausage and 1 10-oz bag of fresh baby spinach.

spicy spinach sausage tomato sauce

If you're going to add sausage, start by cooking it first in a little olive oil, breaking it up as it cooks. When it's almost cooked through, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon to a plate. Add a little more olive oil, then cook the onion for 2 minutes, then add the garlic and saute together for a couple minutes over medium heat. I added the bag of fresh spinach at this point, and stirred it till it was wilted evenly. Add the tomatoes, crushing by hand. Some of the user comments recommend keeping the tomato juice (which I did), or substituting with some combination of wine, chicken broth, etc. I think it depends on the cook time and what flavor you like. Basically you want a lot more liquid to start with than you think, so it can simmer and reduce down over the next hour or more. Season with salt, pepper, fresh thyme, oregano or basil if you have it (or dried if that's all you have available).

assembling pasta ricotta sauce

After the sauce has cooked down for an hour+, cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain and return to the pot, tossing with a few tablespoons olive oil. Mix the pasta into the sauce carefully, then add the shredded cheese and stir to combine.

ready to bake pasta tomatoes olives sausage

Transfer to a large baking dish (or 2), then top with the shredded parmesan and chopped olives. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes until bubbly.

baked pasta with tomatoes olives sausage

Thursday, July 24, 2008

weekday breakfast: egg white omelet

spinach bacon mushroom omelet

Making a healthy breakfast only takes me about 10 minutes. It may seem like that's 10 minutes you don't have in the morning, but if you invest there, you won't have to take extra time out mid-morning to go get a snack or another coffee. I also take one morning (or Sunday afternoons) to prep the ingredients for several breakfasts at once, so it's even easier to just grab a handful of veggies and throw them in the pan.

Here's a version of an egg white omelet I've been making this week - but you can switch up any of the ingredients. My mom was actually just telling me about her omelet du jour, a greek-inspired version with feta, sundried tomatoes, spinach, tomatoes and red onions. I'll try that one next.

bacon and mushrooms for omelet

First, I dice up a couple slices of center cut bacon, and fry those in a pan for 3-4 minutes, till they are almost done. Then, I add 3-4 sliced button mushrooms.

vegetables for omelet

After they've cooked for 3-4 more minutes, I add a couple handfuls of fresh spinach. The spinach only takes a minute or 2 to wilt, then you can add the eggs (or egg whites, if you prefer).

egg white vegetable omelet

I normally cook 6-8 egg whites for me and A - with him getting about 2/3 of the entire omelet. Anyway, once you pour in the eggs, stir them a few times slowly, so that the eggs that have started to stick to the bottom get shifted around. This will help them cook more evenly. After about a minute or two, even out all the fillings and half-cooked egg whites so it's flat and in the right shape. From this point, you won't have to do anything, just leave it alone for a couple minutes (turn down the heat to medium-low if you don't want the eggs overcooked on the bottom). Add cheese if you like, then fold in half. I'll serve this with a slice of wheat toast (with peanut butter and jelly for extra energy!) and I won't be hungry again for hours.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

meat loaf can be the side dish: sauteed spinach with shallots

meatloaf spaghetti squash spinach

Eating more vegetables with a main meat dish is a great way to (a) eat less meat, and (b) save money, by way of (a). It's a challenge for me to come up with an interesting method for vegetables that will adequately complement an awesome meat dish without just slathering cheese and bread crumbs all over it (I'm from the south, so that would be my default treatment for vegetables). I bought a big one-pound bag of baby spinach the other day, and was just going to do the "usual" - a little garlic, cranberries and walnuts. But then I happened across this recipe on Epicurious, which is even easier and adds less sugary fatty acoutrements. It's funny to me that they call it a "chiffononade" - if I ever make this for guests, I'll have to remember to fancy it up by using it's proper name. For now, it's just sauteed spinach with shallots. (And the spaghetti squash in the photo was so nice it deserves its own post...)

By the way - I've covered meat loaf before if you're interested in checking out my recipe...

Grocery list: 3 shallots, 1 pound bag baby spinach, some olive oil, salt, pepper.

spinach with shallots

Saute 3 minced shallots in olive oil for 2-3 minutes. Add the spinach carefully, and keep moving it around so the spinach wilts evenly. When it's all cooked down (it will look like you start with enough spinach for approximately 20 people, but this really only makes 2-3 servings), season with salt and pepper. Much more interesting than you'd think, I promise...

Sunday, July 20, 2008

slow cooked ribs with lisa's secret* barbecue sauce

slow cooked ribs

*That is, secret until I posted it here (sorry Lisa, this is too good to NOT share!). Cooking ribs in a simmering slow cooker all day seems like a great idea at first: as minimal prep work as it gets, and you have the most delicious fall-off-the-bone tender ribs you've ever tried. The only caveat? Having to sit around and smell ribs cooking for 8 straight hours. Not a big deal unless, like me, you work from home. Anyway, the best part of these ribs is the sauce. And for me, the best part of the sauce is hearing Lisa (A's mom) TALK about the sauce. A is the oldest of 3 boys, so when Lisa tells me how to cook anything, it's always "the boys used to love this." With the ribs, it's "when the boys were all home, I used to have to make 3 crockpots full, I'd have to quadruple the sauce recipe, the boys ate 40 pounds of meat each" etc. I don't know why, but I absolutely love stories about "the boys". Anyway, try this sauce, and you'll know why a mom of 3 200+ pound "boys" has to make 4x or more of the recipe. It's that good.

Grocery list: however many rack(s) of ribs you want to cook - one full rack baby back ribs serves 2-3, technically. Ask the butcher to cut the membrane off the back for you and it will save you a lot of work at home. For the sauce (I make a double batch to cook the ribs in, and another double batch for dipping later on), per batch: 1/2 cup ketchup, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/4 cup water, 1/2 medium onion finely chopped, 1.5 T worchestershire, 1 T white vinegar, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp pepper, 1/2 tsp mustard, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, 1/4 tsp salt.

barbecue sauce

If you're making the sauce for the crockpot, you don't need to cook it first, just mix everything well and drop it in on top of the ribs. Set the slow cooker for 8 hours on low, and then vacate the premises lest you drive yourself crazy with how good it smells. When the ribs are almost done, you can make another batch of the sauce - heat it in a small saucepan on the stove at a low simmer for about 20-30 minutes (the onions will get super tender and all the flavors meld together the longer you let it cook).

ribs in crockpot

This is what the ribs look like when they're almost done. (Note to self: never blog on an empty stomach, especially NOT about ribs.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

eat your vegetables: broccolini with goat cheese and garlic

broccolini goat cheese garlic

A and I were in Vegas a few weekends ago and stayed at the always-amazing Wynn Hotel. I had never eaten at their SW Steakhouse before, so this was on our list to try. It's not as good as N9NE (still reigns as my favorite - their gnocchi, which our waiter described as "little pillows of love", literally melt in your mouth, the perfect complement to an already perfect steak), but they had a few unique dishes to talk about. First, the best part of the meal wasn't the wet-aged steak (great, but not the best I've ever had). The highlight was actually one of the items in the bread basket: bacon and cheese corn muffins. I almost had to get up and walk away from the table, I was afraid of making a scene when I bit into one. Maybe one day I'll try to make these.  But for now, I'm settling for an at-home attempt at my second favorite thing from this meal, the side dish of broccolini with goat cheese and garlic.

Grocery list (can you guess?): broccolini, goat cheese, garlic.

I started by blanching the trimmed broccolini: cook in boiling water for 5 minutes or until slightly tender, then drain and immediately rinse with cold water so they stay crisp and bright green. Slice 3-4 garlic cloves very thin, then saute in olive oil. Add the broccolini and cook for another 2 minutes. Sprinke some goat cheese crumbles across the top, turn off the heat, and season with salt and pepper. It was so simple I was *almost* surprised that I paid $12 for this in Vegas...

Monday, July 14, 2008

pan seared tilapia with chile lime butter

tiliapia broccolini sweet potatoes

I found this great recipe for chile lime butter on Epicurious. Not counting the time it takes for the butter to soften on the counter, the entire meal is ready in 20 minutes. This is definitely going in the weekly rotation. I saved the leftover butter and was able to use it later for some steamed corn on the cob - what a great treat.

Grocery list: 1 lime, butter (1 T for each serving of fish), 1 chile pepper, 1 shallot, enough tilapia per person (I made 4 fillets, 3 T butter total, this seemed like 3 normal size servings).

lime shallot chile butter

Let the butter soften, then mash in the juice of half a lime, a T of lime zest, 1 minced shallot, and about 1 tsp of minced chile pepper (add more if you like heat).

pan searing tilapia

Heat some oil in a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Sear the tilapia for about 3 minutes per side, until it is flaky and opaque in the center. Serve with a dollop of the chile lime butter. On the side I had sweet potato fries (covered here), and goat cheese broccolini...

Saturday, July 12, 2008

you don't have to skip dessert: strawberry shortcake

strawberry shortcake

I like eating healthy, but I also don't like the idea of depriving myself of dessert. Not that I'm going to make chocolate kahlua cheesecake every night, but if I'm craving something sweet, I am going to have it. Sometimes that's a fun date to get a gelato, and sometimes that's making a healthier option at home. I picked up a pound of fresh strawberries from the farmers market earlier this week, so I knew I had the option to make a light and healthy dessert with that. In order to make the shortcake healthier, I decided to keep the ingredients exactly the same (yes, butter, cream, sugar), but just make smaller portions of the bread with a larger ratio of strawberries. It was perfect.

Grocery list: strawberries, lemon, sugar, flour, butter, whipping cream, milk, powdered sugar.

Start by washing, hulling and slicing the strawberries. Squeeze the juice of half a lemon over them, and sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of sugar over top. Refrigerate for an hour or more, stirring occasionally, so the strawberries release their juices and make a nice syrup.

flour butter for shortcakes

For the shortcakes, the recipe I followed (from Epicurious) calls for 2 cups flour, 1/2 stick cold unsalted butter, 1/8 tsp salt, plus 2 T sugar (in order to make 6 shortcakes). I went for half this recipe, to make 4 smaller shortcakes, but I'll let you make that call for yourself. Anyway, after sifting together the dry ingredients, cut the butter up into small pieces and add to the bowl. With your hands, mix until the texture is course (like cornmeal). Then, pour in 3/4 cup milk and mix just until it turns doughy - don't over-mix.

shortcakes to bake with cream top

Drop the shortcakes into 6 round shapes on a greased baking sheet. Using a pastry brush, brush the tops with heavy cream. Bake for 15-20 minutes at 400 degrees, until the shortcakes are golden on top.


Transfer the shortcakes to a wire rack to cool. To make whipped cream, beat 3/4 cup whipping cream with 4 T powdered sugar with a hand mixer for 2-3 minutes (this made plenty for 4 shortcakes, but if you made the full recipe you might want to make double the whipped cream). Slice the shortcakes in half, lay strawberries and their juices on top of the bottom half of the shortcakes, a dollop of whipped cream, then top with the other half. Garnish with more whipped cream and a whole strawberry if you like.

Next time I'll try one of the many variations on shortcake - possibly with Grand Marnier?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

a healthy bear: provencal chicken salad with roasted peppers and artichokes

chicken artichoke olive salad

For the second salad from my new cookbook (Raising the Salad Bar), I tried this provencal chicken salad - it was delicious. The only problem: I halved the recipe (originally for 4 servings), but this didn't make nearly enough for a hungry bear trying to eat healthy... So even though it was delicious, I had to make a couple grilled cheeses immediately afterwards. I think the chicken salad would keep, and could be delicious in a pita, so next time I'll make the full recipe.

Grocery list (note this is for the full recipe, directly from the book): 1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes (I didn't have any so I skipped this), handful artichoke hearts (1 14-oz can), 4 chicken breasts, 1 roasted red bell pepper, 1/2 cup french green olives, 3 T minced parsley, 4 cups mixed baby greens (I substituted arugula). For the dressing: 2 T red wine vinegar, 2 tsp dijon (Roland extra strong recommended!), 1/2 tsp minced garlic (1 clove), 6 T olive oil, 1 tsp dried oregano, 1/2 tsp kosher salt, pepper.

garlic roast chicken

I started by roasting the chicken with a few minced garlic cloves, a couple of sprigs fresh thyme, and lemon slices (drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and roast at 425 for 25-30 minutes - covered in more detail here).

roasted red pepper

While the chicken is roasting, you can also roast your own fresh pepper if you don't have the jarred kind. Just place it directly on the oven rack - place a pan or some foil on the rack just below it though, because it will drip as it cooks. Every 5-10 minutes, use tongs to rotate the pepper so it gets charred on all sides. It will be very soft and juicy when it's ready, usually about 30 minutes.

roasted red pepper 2

Let the pepper cool, then pinch it with the tongs - the skin will fall right off. Slice into thin strips.

artichoke olive parsley

While the chicken and pepper are roasting, prep the other ingredients. Mince the parsley, chop the artichoke hearts, and pit and slice the olives. For the dressing, whisk together all the ingredients.

dressed chicken salad

Chop the chicken and place in a large bowl. Add the artichoke, olives, sundried tomatoes (chopped, if you're using them), peppers and parsley. Toss with the dressing. Arrange the lettuce or arugula on plates, the spoon the chicken salad on top. I was worried this would be dry since the leaves weren't dressed separately, but the dressing from the chicken salad seeped through and the consistency was perfect (just like the recipe said it would do). Another winner from this cookbook...

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

cookbook review: raising the salad bar

raising the salad bar

I heard about this cookbook on NPR, where they were reviewing their favorite 10 new cookbooks, and had to order it. Here's a little background: I already cook what I believe to be "healthy." This doesn't mean dieting or counting calories at all; my definition of healthy involves eating organic fruits and vegetables, hormone- and antibiotic-free meats, seafood harvested in a sustainable way, whole grains, and above all, no processed foods (i.e. "made from scratch" whenever possible). Because A has a ridiculous daily requirement for protein, I've found myself cooking a less-than-ideal ratio of meats to everything else. This has been bothering me lately, and I won't get into all the reasons here (some related to consuming more than my fair share of natural resources, some purely health related). So I'm going to make an effort to make more creative salads and vegetables as the focus, with smaller portions of meat, and fish in lieu of red meat more often. That's why this book really caught my attention.

I started by making the cover recipe, an arugula and avocado salad, with a light lemon and olive oil dressing with a little shaved parmesan. (I took half a leftover chicken breast, combined it with walnuts and grapes, mayo & dijon, to make a small portion of chicken salad, stuffed into a small pita pocket - a great "side" to the salad!) The recipe makes 4 servings; I halved it for 2 salads. The half recipe is below.

arugula and lemon dressing

The dressing was simple: one garlic clove, minced, plus the juice of half a lemon and a couple of tablespoons of good olive oil. Toss this with 2 cups of arugula, and divide onto 2 plates. Slice half an avocado and arrange the slices over the salad. Add a few strips of shaved parmesan, a pinch of sea salt and fresh cracked pepper on top.

arugula avocado salad

Here's the result - looks pretty similar to the photo on the cover, right? The fact that the recipe turned out like the picture is one of my criteria for a positive cookbook review; the other is the actual recipe tasting delicious. So far so good! I'll post another salad later and see if the trend continues...

Friday, July 4, 2008

favorite ATL restaurants for indulging...

A reader requested a few recommendations for an upcoming trip to Atlanta, specifically places for indulging, so I thought I'd share with everyone in case there are others who are visiting here any time soon...  Here are a few of my favorites to celebrate special occasions:

Kevin Rathbun Steak: Since my favorite meal is a steak and a good cab, this restaurant is hands-down my favorite place in Atlanta (my "birthday" place).  The atmosphere is so much cooler than the steakhouses in Buckhead that are supposed to be the best - Morton's, Ruth's Chris, Chops, et al.  It's kind of like N9NE in Vegas, with a "modern ski chalet" twist to the interior decorating.  They feature both wet and dry-aged steaks, and no matter what you get, you will love it.  DO NOT EAT HERE without getting the mac-and-cheese with truffle bread crumbs.  There are no words to describe this.

JOEL: This west Buckhead restaurant is well known for its extensive wine list (and very cool glass cellar that they will let you browse), but the best thing on the menu is their creme brulee.  The best I've ever had.  It's a french menu "with asian and mediterranean influences" - you can't go wrong here.

Now I'm going to throw in my 2 favorite restaurants, which aren't necessarily in the "indulge" category if that means you want to spend over $150 per person...  But these are the places that are so good they are what I crave when I come back from week(s)-long international trips and I just want a place that is familiar, and comfortable, with the best food in the world.  Don't get me wrong, they are still *very* nice places, and you can do a lot of damage if you let loose with the wine lists.  All have entree options between $18-30 (estimated).

Murphy's: I get emotional talking about this place.  It's my second home.  The little wine shop attached is where I buy all my wine from, and I know at least half the staff by name.  So yes, I'm biased.  But have their burger with a glass of the BV Tapestry, and you'll see why this place is my favorite way to remind myself why I'm glad I'm American :)

Food 101: Best fried chicken you'll ever try.  The caesar salad is incredible (these crushed up bread crumbs and whole romaine leaves - don't know what it is, but it's ridiculous).  The trout with bacon and brussel sprouts is what I order when I've been there too recently to have the fried chicken again.  All that in an unassuming front on N. Highland (just north of Morningside), where you can always get a reservation - perfect.

beer battered fried shrimp

beer battered shrimp

I never knew fried shrimp could be so easy... How have I not been making this for so many years? A actually didn't stop talking about these shrimp for 2 days - literally, each batch was gone after 5 minutes, and none ever made it to our plates. Next time I'll double (or triple) the shrimp.

Grocery list: bottle of beer, 2 cups flour, 1 pound shrimp (tails optional, but cleaned and deveined).

beer batter

To make the beer batter, mix 1 bottle of beer with 2 cups flour and a generous pinch of kosher salt. Stir well till the consistency is like heavy cream. Heat vegetable oil a couple of inches thick in a large skillet till it shimmers. While the oil is heating, you can butterfly the shrimp so there's more surface area to catch the batter and get crispy (this is a Chef Sev secret techinque). Working with a handful at a time, coat the shrimp in batter then carefully transfer to the hot oil, and fry for 2-3 minutes per side.

shrimp with tartar sauce

When the shrimp are as crispy as you like, transfer with a slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined plate. Season with a little more sea salt. I mixed up some tartar sauce as well (just 1/2 cup mayo and a few T of pickle relish, and the juice of half a lemon), but the shrimp would be fine with just a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Enjoy while they're hot!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

grilled strip steaks with argentine chimichurri


A and I spent his birthday last year in Buenos Aires. If you've never been, imagine gorgeous architecture (European though, not American in any way, and very classic, 19th century influence), cafes on every corner with young hip-looking people taking espressos with their friends, and best of all, a preference for steak and good wine at every meal. We had some of the best steaks ever (EVER), and these would normally cost around 10 USD. After A left, I stayed a few more days to work, and one of the meals I had with my coworkers was so good I have seriously considered taking a trip back there just so A could try this -- steak with chimichurri. I decided to grill a strip steak (not the thin skirt steaks the Argentines use), and find the best chimichurri recipe I could. The result wasn't exactly authentic (I mean, it's an Emeril recipe after all), but it was a way to share the experience with A, without flying him all the way there again.

Grocery list: couple of steaks (about 12 ounces each, I used local grass-fed strip steaks from WF), 1/2 cup olive oil, 1/3 cup red wine vinegar, 1 T fresh lemon juice, 1/2 cup chopped parsley, 2 T chopped fresh basil leaves, 2 tsp fresh oregano leaves, 3 garlic cloves, 1 shallot, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes. [Note, I made a half batch of the Emeril recipe and it was more than enough for 2 steaks - could have probably worked for 4 steaks at this amount also...]

starting chimichurri

One great thing about chimichurri: you can make it in the food processor, so it only takes a few minutes. Start by chopping the garlic and shallot, then pulse in the fresh herbs. Then, pour the olive oil and vinegar slowly in the top while continuing to pulse the food processor. Remove the bowl and blade, then stir in the lemon juice, followed by generous amounts of fresh ground pepper, a sprinkle of red pepper flakes; then season with salt to taste.

marinating chimichurri steak

Put your steaks in a ziploc bag, then add enough of the chimichurri to marinate the meat (1/2 to 1 cup). Cover the rest of the chimichurri and set aside at room temperature. Refrigerate the steaks for at least 2 hours. Remove from the marinade, brush off any excess, then grill over medium-high heat for about 6-7 minutes per side, until cooked to medium or medium-rare. Let the steaks rest on a cutting board for 5-10 minutes before serving. On the side, we had white asparagus (the kind you have to peel first), tossed in olive oil and grilled. This was perfect with the chimichurri sauce covering the plate.