Welcome to my world!

I've developed a passion for cooking since childhood, but in the past six years, that passion has grown into a geeky obsession. I love cooking, baking, and most importantly, sharing the love of food with family and friends. I invite you along on my journey of food discovery and passion.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Should I change my focus?

Ok, so I haven't posted much lately, and one of the reasons why is that I'm honestly struggling with my initial mission. Yes, I try recipes out of my cookbooks, but more and more I focus on the cooking magazines I receive montly to cook things in season. Plus, I've just added a subscription to Bon Appetit, so that makes even more recipes to cook. I'm falling behind as it is on trying clipped recipes!!! Add to that is a budding interest in trying out restaurants and talking about those experiences.

So, I ask you, dear readers, do I further expand my focus of the blog to be "everything in my food universe?" There is so much to talk about, from the food shows I watch, to the scrumptious food I get to try at different places, that I think enrich my home cooking experience by expanding both my palate and horizons to the possibilities. Food has become both a journey and process of discovery that excites me and motivates me to search more and I want to share that with my dear readers.

So... talk to me... let me hear what you want to know about and what you don't.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Healthy homemade lunches

Do you ever get that giddy feeling when you know one of your favorite magazines is in the mailbox? Ok, maybe it's just me (and IceDaddy the one time he was mentioned in a USAHockey magazine, but I digress). I get that way about my "Real Simple." At one point in my younger life, I was heading down the path of Martha Stewart clone (so much so that I was asked one Halloween if my "costume" was Martha Stewart - ick! Never wore that shirt & skirt with an apron over again!). Then, I discovered "Real Simple." What I love is that it celebrates the home arts and provides a lifestyle publication focused on simplicity in everything. IceDaddy thinks it's just full of ads for everything they try and sell you to make things simpler. Anywhoo...

One of the features in that magazine that I'm really grooving on is "Brown Bag Lunch of the Month." It features simple recipes that make enough food for two portions to take at lunchtime. As a person that does attempt to eat healthy meals, I've pretty much exhausted the realm of Lean Cuisines, and frankly am not thrilled with both the level of sodium or garlic that they use to make them tasty. IceDaddy and I are trying to formulate good habits to drop some weight, and that inspired me to seek meals that don't make me feel "punished" to eat at my desk. It's part of an effort to not just look better, but, for me, to also become more conscious of the food chain. (I'm reading Mark Bittman's "On Food and Cooking.")

The first lunch was an Asian-style noodle dish with spaghetti, tofu, cashews, shredded carrots, and shredded cucumber. It had a light dressing of some canola oil, toasted sesame oil, and lime juice. I tried it the "original" way the first time, and frankly it lacked something in taste. Liking the idea, I decided to modify it to add some additional flavor and came up with:
Hoisin-glazed tofu with noodles. Pretty simple - just bought the most firm tofu I could find, drained it further on paper towels, cut into cubes, sauteed in a hot pan with a little olive oil, turned down the heat, added about 1 Tbsp. hoisin, and let cook another minute or so. I cooked some spaghetti (I like the whole wheat blend (Barilla Plus is my fave), about 5 oz, and drained. Meanwhile, I toasted up about 1/4 c. of cashew pieces that I chopped and shredded a carrot and cut matchsticks of an English cucumber. I added all of the ingredients together and made up a dressing of 1 Tbsp. canola oil, 2 tsp. of toasted sesame oil (really gives that authentic flavor), 1 1/2 Tbsp. lime juice, 1 Tbsp. hoisin (or more to taste), and salt and pepper to taste. Poured it over, tossed, and divided into two bowls. Delish as a cold noodle dish.

Second meal was a southwestern chicken salad. Recipe has Romaine lettuce, 1/2 cup of black beans (rinsed and drained), a red bell pepper cut up, and about 1 cup of shredded chicken. You make a dressing with sour cream, lime juice, and chili powder. Since I had some canned chipotles in adobo handy, I spiced it up with some adobo sauce. This is one of those recipes that I can see modifying by using ranch dressing, adding in other veggies, etc. With ranch dressing, corn and chopped tomatoes, it becomes a southwest chopped salad, for example.

RS recommends a deli rotisserie chicken that you shred, but it's so easy to bake or sear some chicken breasts in a pan that I see no reason to spend $5 on rotisserie chicken, unless you like the flavor. One of my favorite cuisines is Tex-Mex and a main ingredient, cumin. I love to create a spice-rubbed chicken breast that explodes with flavor and can go with just about any recipe, whether it's a side of rice and corn, chopped up for a salad, or included in a casserole. Here's my recipe for mouth-watering spiced chicken breasts. I confess, I don't really worry about measuring the spices since I just sprinkle them on, but here's the general proportions for 1 to 1 1/2 lbs of chicken.

Tex-Mex Spiced Chicken Breasts
4 skinless boneless chicken breasts (about 1 - 1 1/2 lbs total)
1 Tbsp. oil (canola or olive)
Approx 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
Approx 2 tsp. kosher salt
Approx 2 tsp. garlic powder
Approx 2 tsp. cumin

Mix the spices and sprinkle on both sides of the chicken breasts. Heat a pan over medium-high heat and add oil. When oil is hot, add chicken to pan. Cook until edges of chicken turn from pink to white , about 5 minutes. Turn chicken over and cook on the other side until chicken is done, about 3 - 5 minutes, depending on size of the meat, until juices run clear. Remove from pan and let rest 5 minutes. Serve whole or slice/chop for your favorite recipes.

This recipe leaves a fair amount of black beans from the can, so I turn that into my quick and easy Black Bean Soup. This one is just ridiculously simple and very tasty!

Heather's Quick Black Bean Soup
1 can (about 14 - 15 oz) black beans, rinsed and drained (or whatever is left after making the salad above)
1 cup store-bought tomato salsa (mild to medium)or homemade
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. cumin
Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium saucepan, bring the tomato salsa up to a simmer for 5 minutes. Add the stock, beans, and spices and raise the heat to medium. Cook for 5 minutes more. Puree the soup for a smooth, thick consistency using a hand blender or regular blender (CAUTION: IF YOU PUT A HOT SOUP IN A BLENDER, IT COULD SPLATTER, SO COVER LID WITH A TOWEL IF YOU DO!!!). For a chunkier texture, mash up the beans with a fork or potato masher. Serve topped with sour cream and tortilla chips.

What I love about the recipe above is that it's really high in fiber, you can make it completely homemade with your own salsa, or take a shortcut with the salsa to add some additional flavor.

Replacing two high-sodium microwavable meals with these in a week can really make a difference. With the fresh ingredients available in the summer, there's no reason not to!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Cooking Channel: Has Food Network Gone the Way of MTV

For those of you that are old enough to remember August 1, 1981 (and for the record I am), television was ushered into a new era with MTV. The foreshadowing of the transition from radio to television for music was appropriately set with the first video - "Video Killed the Radio Star." In that vein, as an avid Food Network viewer for over (gasp!) 10 years, I've watched the evolution from dinky New York-based cable outlet with bad lighting and low budget productions to glitzy, elaborate sets, bigger name stars, and reality tv galore.

I know that everything must evolve and change and I am fine with that. Now, the beloved Food Network is changing Fine Living Network to the Cooking Channel. For those that know and love the cooking show aspect of Food Network (and lament the absolute worst show on the network, "Private Chefs of Beverly Hills"), this appears to be a return to cooking-centric programs with a more international flavor.

I think the American food palate has truly expanded to embrace the flavors of so many other nationalities (kudos Ruth Reichl for discovering and raving about Korean Barbecue decades ago!)and thus the timing of this expansion is appropriate. While Anthony Bourdain laments the reality of Food Network (aka Scripps) now owning his show on the Travel Channel, he too has contributed to expanding the American view of cuisine in other countries and I sincerely hope he gets to stay. Granted, I think we get more of "Bad Tony" as a result of his surly attitude to Food Network execs, but it should be entertaining.

Anyhoo, back to the original topic - the "MTV-ization" of Food Network. Have you ever tallied up the number of programming hours now devoted to reality TV? Not that all of those shows are bad - "Iron Chef" is absolutely awesome, and I love "Throwdown with Bobby Flay" nearly as much if only for the reason that he gets his butt kicked by regular people so often and he can laugh about it. But when you look at it, they've now added all of those "Challenge" shows, Triple-D (love that show too),"The Next Food Network Star," "The Next Iron Chef," and the aforementioned "Private Chefs of Beverly Hills." That show was SO bad that I thought there was no way they'd ever air even one more episode. Guess my taste isn't reflective of the rest of America.

While that attracts a whole new audience, it means that those of us that look to Food Network to serve in their original capacity as a purveyor of food knowledge can be grossly disappointed. Sorry for the soapbox rant, but while I love some of the shows, their quest to expand the audience has diluted their focus more. Having the new Cooking Channel may provide a return to their roots (IT WOULD BE NICE IN HIGH-DEF THOUGH!). Here's to hoping!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Poker Night (the overachiever's dream)

For those that know me, I am a bit of an overachiever. Okay, I'm a TOTAL overachiever. So, when Ice told me that poker night was coming 'round to our house again, I started planning the menu about two weeks out. Why, you ask, when I could serve pretzels, nuts, and chips to accompany the BYOB, would I even bother? Two reasons - 1) I LOVE to cook 2) I LOVE to try recipes and because Ice is the meat and potatoes person he is, I need opportunities to try out recipes he won't touch.
Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with ordering pizzas for the crowd - they would appreciate it either way, but with the bountiful produce available this time of year, I was inspired to create a (mostly) Mediterannean-inspired menu of noshes.

Chips and Dips:
- Pepper-onion relish dip (Harry and David pepper onion relish)
- Mediterranean salsa
- Joe T. Garcia's salsa
- Spicy Dorito's, tortilla chips, salt and pepper potato chips

The main (meaty) items:
- Buffalo chicken dip (went so well last time that it made an encore appearance)
- Sausage/cheese rolls
- Prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella bites

- Cookies
- Strawberry cheesecake phyllo tart (TRIPLE-YUM!)

The Mediterranean salsa was a different take on salsa - tomatoes, corn, green chiles, kalamata olives, and mozzarella mixed with fresh basil, olive oil, and lime juice. Keeping with the Mediterranean theme, I took thin-sliced prosciutto, cut them into strips, and wrapped perlini mozzarella and secured with a toothpick.

I strayed into the "guy food" with the Buffalo Chicken Dip - mayo, cheddar, green onions, chicken, and buffalo sauce topped with blue cheese and baked 'til bubbly - and with the sausage cheese rolls. This one is so stinkin' simple, and accommodates a variety of tastes from breakfast to appetizers. The original recipe was Cooking Club, but I've completely modified it to my tastes.

Savory Sausage Rolls (Italian style)
1 tube refrigerated french bread dough (Pillsbury, for example)
8 oz. pork sausage (or other sausage such as Italian, spicy Italian, chicken/apple, etc.) cooked and crumbled
3/4 c. Italian-blend shredded cheese (mix of mozzarella, parmesan, asiago, etc.)
2 Tbsp butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Unroll french bread dough. Sprinkle with a little flower and roll out to about 13x9". Brush with melted butter to within 1/2" of edges. Add crumbled sausage to within 1/2" of edges, distributing evenly. Sprinkle with cheese. (I add in about 1 Tbsp. of sage if using pork sausage). Roll up jelly-roll style into a long roll. Slice off ends that are just dough; discard. Divide the roll into 12 pieces. (I slice in half, then slice each half in half, and finally each of those four pieces into 3 additional pieces). Spray a glass 13x9" baking pan with non-stick cooking spray. Place the slices with edges touching in pan (the swirl of meat and cheese should be face-up and look like a cinnamon roll). Bake at 350 degrees for 26 minutes, or until lightly browned. Cool and serve!

You can also add herbs such as sage, parsley, etc. to taste.

Finally, my crowning glory, the strawberry cheesecake tart. I think at least one guy would have given me his firstborn for it! I won't repeat the recipe since I've blogged it prior, but that was the validation of the resounding success of this recipe! Happy Poker!

Memorial Day Experiments - Day 2

The actual Memorial Day started off somewhat lazy - caught up on the Top Chef reruns, which was a great priming for the food to come.

We decided to honor the holiday the best way we know - traditional Americana food. With that, for the first time in several years, IceDaddy undertook cooking pork ribs. The process was ridiculously simple - rub gently, er, put on a rub by generously sprinkling and massage into the meat. Let marinate for at least 4 hours. Wrap up in tin foil and grill low and slow until done. Sort-of success; the ribs came out falling-apart tender, but the rub just wasn't the right flavor. Next time, will keep it simple - salt, pepper, maybe some garlic powder and paprika. That chili powder foiled us again!

The successful dish of the night was a mac and cheese recipe, courtesy of Cooking Club. Ice loves that little blue box for Mac & Cheese. I admit, that salty goodness can be a siren song, but I love a more sophisticated complexity of flavors and because Ice prefers mac and cheese that isn't baked, this recipe fit the bill. The verdict? good, if you eat it right away. It is hot, tangy (due to sharp cheddar), and rich. If it gets cold, a gluey mess is the result. But it did reheat beautifully!

Final recipe HOMEMADE creamed corn! No adders, fillers, or artificial anything! Just corn, scraped along with its milk, off of the cob, heavy cream, salt and pepper. Sometimes the simplest is just the best!

With that - Happy Memorial Day!!!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Memorial Day Experiments - Day 1

With as much travel as I've had to do lately, I was so excited about a 3 day weekend to cook up a storm. My mission was to find stuff, not necessarily on the diet, that evoked the sense of Americana. I trolled the cookbooks and clipped recipes and had a full weekend of cooking as the reward. IceDaddy contributed his part with plenty of grilling.

Before I get to the main event, the undercard of the weekend was a Foodventure about 15 years in the making - a pilgrimmage to Monica's Aca y Alla in Deep Ellum. Voted one of the top 10 restaurants when it opened in 1993, it's a funky, fun atmosphere with strong margaritas and a nice mix of traditional Tex-Mex and Mexico City. The bar bill for the foursome was higher than the food, both a reflection of how long we hung out and a tribute to the decency of the margaritas. Monica's is owned by a longtime Dallas resident/restauranteur Monica Greene. Her funky approach to the restaurant business has won fans in spades. Our dining companions recommended the Mexican lasagna, and it did not disappoint. Layered corn tortillas, tomatillo sauce, chicken, corn, black beans, and cheese layered up and served with tomato sauce. It had echoes of King Ranch chicken, but without the taste of Campbell's cream of chicken as the predominant flavor (and it tasted better). Culinarily inspired, I turned to the cookbooks for the rest of the weekend's fare.

On the menu Sunday: Prime Ribeyes (thanks Market Street) with garlic/lemon butter, baked potatoes, and homemade creamed corn. Dessert was a strawberry cheesecake tart in phyllo dough - YUM!

A meal so simple owes its success to the best ingredients you can afford. In this case, our local Market Street is a great source for USDA Prime (or Priiiiiiime Tiiiiiime - oops, Deon Sanders reference) beef. Prime is usually only available at restaurants, so the opportunity to cook it at home (at a much cheaper price than the $50+ a typical steak entree at a nice steak place costs) is a great option. Now, if you suck at cooking steaks on the grill, you might not want to drop $20 on a steak and ruin it. Leave that cooking to the professionals. But, if you're reasonably decent with a grill, you can have a wonderful steak that is absolutely tender and juicy without a)forcing your spouse to dress up b)saving over half the money you would normally spend and c)eating your meal in your pjs if you want.

IceDaddy is certainly happy about not having to get dressed up, drop $50 on a bottle of wine, and can have steak in his flip-flops watching the Rangers game, so he was up for the meal. He is darn good at grilling, and he achieved a great char on the steak, while cooking it to the point of tender juiciness that I so love. I baked the potatoes for a couple hours in the oven since a steak dinner needs a baked potato, and I rounded it out with two super-simple sides.

First, was a really simple creamed corn that is a simplified version of one in "Joy of Cooking." "Joy" murdered the flavor of the creamed corn with too much shallot flavor. I kept it really basic - I cut the corn off of two large cobs and scraped down the milk with it. As far as I'm concerned, the start of summer really occurs when fresh corn is available in the market. I threw the kernels in a pot with a tablespoon of melted butter and sauteed for about 3 minutes to cook the corn. I added about 3 Tbsp of heavy cream, salt and pepper to taste and cooked another 4 minutes or so. Seriously simple and, if you're using the fresh sweet summer corn you will not be disappointed. PS - IceDaddy loved it so much he ate the leftovers out of the pot!

Second side is one that I've made for years. It's a riff on the mushrooms and onions my mother always served with steaks on the rare occasion we had them. I updated mine with baby bella mushrooms and a Vidalia onion since they're in season. Basically, I sauteed up a chopped Vidalia in 2 tsp. of oil on medium low heat until translucent and starting to carmelize. Then, I added 4 oz. of chopped Baby Bellas (aka baby portabella mushrooms). They add a meatier texture and more flavor than the white button mushrooms. After browning those up a bit, I added something a little different - Worcestershire sauce - about 1 Tbsp. I really think it helps do a quick carmelization, but also adds some flavor without a bunch of fat. Salt and pepper to taste and voila!

Dessert was an adventure - TRUE CONFESSION: I am a phyllo-cooking virgin! Never cooked with that before (though I've eaten plenty!). Recipe was pretty simple - layer the paper-thin phyllo dough on parchment paper inside a greased glass baking dish (buttered liberally). Between each sheet of phyllo, butter liberally. How can you not love a recipe that requires butter as a base of a crust. After baking the phyllo for a little while, you pour over the cheesecake filling (pretty typical cream cheese, sugar, eggs, and vanilla concoction) and bake some more. After cooling, strawberries are judiciously sprinkled, er placed, over the filling and brushed with melted jelly. Though the recipe called for currant jelly, not having it readily available in the store, I subbed strawberry jelly.

I have to tell you, one bite of that buttery pastry combined with fresh strawberries and a decent, if thin layer, of cheesecake - my taste buds were doing the happy dance.

Now, this wasn't even the cooking for Memorial Day!!! That's a different post!