Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dinner Party...with 5 chairs...

I am the proud owner of a moderate sized home which is big enough for my husband, our two dogs and our two cats..ok yes, the home is really a small zoo.  While I do have bathrooms (1.5), bedrooms (3) and kitchens (just 1) what I don't have is more than 5 kitchen chairs which is why when Doug and I decided to host some guests we picked our three closest relatives to come over and join the fun.  Shannon and Jon, gamely drove up from Brookfield and my brother Kevin joined us from Madison for a night of good eating. 

Everyone contributed one of their favorite dishes which is one of the best ways to throw a dinner party.  We started with Shannon's homemade hummus and fresh veggies.  She was wonderfully patient in explaining how to make it but I can't try something new without written instructions so she's promised to email me her recipe.  I will say that hummus is a wonderful low-fat alternative to traditional "veggie dip" and that it was especially good with the fresh sweet red pepper strips she had brought along.

Kevin made one of his specialty salads which consisted of a chopped head of organic romaine lettuce sprinkled with feta, walnuts (which I pounded with my vintage wooden rolling pin), craisins and topped with a store bought Raspberry Balsamic vinaigrette.  Kevin was hoping to concoct a homemade dressing out of balsamic vinegar and olive oil and when he mentioned this I looked at him so blankly he realized there was no balsamic vinegar in the house.  We went with plan B (still delicious) and I added balsamic vinegar to my grocery list.

Here's a picture of the salad.  It only looks greasy because of the flash, trust me that it was a home run.

Next we moved onto some pasta with zucchini, summer squash and pesto and parmesan breaded chicken for the meat lovers.  Both were super easy to make and I'm going to give you the basics below but feel free to experiment.

Pasta with Zucchini, Summer Squash and Pesto

Inspired by Molly in her book for sale on Amazon.  She recommends using a mandoline to slice the zucchini up as thin as the noodles which is a genius way of serving this pasta. 

I decided to add the summer squash since it was sitting right next to the zucchini at the store and just seemed to go together.  You could also cut some cherry or grape tomatoes in half and add those to give a richer flavor.  This would be a great summer dish with produce right out of the garden and some freshly made pesto but it also is hearty enough to serve as a winter dish.

One final note - since I didn't have a mandoline I asked Shannon to slice the zucchini and summer squash into thin slices and she did a terrific job.  I highly recommend her services if you happen to run into her. 

13.5 oz pasta (more or less depending on how many you are serving)

1 tbls olive oil
2 medium zucchini, sliced thin by hand or with a mandoline
1 medium summer squash, sliced thin by hand or with a mandoline

1/2 - 1 cup pesto

parmesan cheese (for topping)

1.  Boil water and add pasta.  Cook to desired firmness.
2.  As pasta cooks heat oil in a large skillet.  After 1 - 2 minutes add thinly sliced zucchini and summer squash.  Stir frequently and cook until tender (about 5 to 10 minutes). 
3. When pasta is cooked use a pasta scoop or tongs to ladle the pasta directly into the skillet.  This allows a small amount of water to be transferred with the noodles so the dish doesn't dry out.
4.  Once all the pasta is transferred add the pesto and stir so sauce is evenly distributed.  Top with parmesan cheese and serve.

Makes about 4 servings.  Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 4 days.

Parmesan Encrusted Chicken

Since I don't eat meat I had to trust my guests when they said they enjoyed this dish.  I know there are many ways to vary this basic concept to add more variety and flavor and feel free to recommend your favorite variations in a comment to this post.  Maybe we'll give it a try next time!

1 cup bread crumbs
4 tbls shredded parmesan cheese

1 egg

4 chicken breasts

1.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2.  Mix bread crumbs and parmesan cheese together in medium sized bowl.
3.  Break egg and scramble yolk and white together with a fork in a medium sized bowl.
4.  Dip chicken breast into egg and then roll in bread crumb mixture.  Do this at least twice to ensure the chicken breast is fully covered.
5.  Repeat with all chicken breasts and lay them on a cookie sheet when done.
6.  Bake in oven for 45 minutes or until there is no pink in the center (I admit - I usually take a knife and cut into a breast to test for doneness.  Although this isn't very sophisticated at least everyone goes home healthy).

Makes 4 servings. 

Trader Joes Cranberry Vanilla Cake

I like to substitute applesauce for butter whenever I can when baking to cut down on fat.  I find applesauce will lend the same moistness that butter would and I usually can't taste the difference.  If you are curious on trying this method but want to take it slow you can always start by using 1/2 applesauce and 1/2 butter. 

When my husband and I are craving this desert we are once again grateful for buying and freezing the 5 pounds of cranberries from the Cranberry Fest in Warrens WI this last year. 

2 large eggs
1/2 cup applesauce (or 1 stick melted butter)
1 cup cold milk

1 package Trader Joe's Vanilla Cake and Baking Mix

2 cups cranberries (frozen or fresh will work)

whipped cream (for topping)

1.  Follow instructions on box to prepare mix. 
2.  Add cranberries to mix before spreading batter in pan. 
3.  Cook as directed if using butter, if using applesauce the cook time will increase.  Test by inserting toothpick in the middle of the cake to check for doneness (should come out clean).

Top with whipped cream and serve.

Makes about 9 servings.  Refrigerate leftovers to avoid spoiling.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Thoughts on Winter and Soup

“In seed time - learn, in harvest - teach, in winter - enjoy.”William Blake

William Blake (poet and illustrator, click here to view some of illustrators and here to enter an archive of his work) lived in London from 1757 to 1827.  London winters are no picnic but I’m sure if he experienced a Wisconsin winters he would have said “in winter – soup.” 

For those of us in Wisconsin, I think Christmas and New Year’s are put after the Winter Solstice to distract us from the weather.  By the time we look up from putting away our holiday decorations there are three more months of cold, snow and ice in our future.  Luckily there are various soup and chili recipes floating around to fuel us until the snow melts in April. 

Today I plan on reacquainting myself with Blake ("tyger tyger burning bright") and enjoying some soup with some great crusty bread.

This soup calls for leeks which are from the onion and garlic family and have a mild taste when boiled. I find they mostly act as filler in this soup and although I wouldn’t leave them out you can cut down to one instead of two. The leeks I bought were clean on the outside but I could see they had some dirt trapped between the internal layers once they were sliced.  To get rid of this quickly I soaked the cut sections in a bowl of ice water and used my fingers to separate and clean each section.

We have been buying dried beans which as a whole are easy to prepare.  There are different philosophies on preparing beans and I have had the most success cooking them in a pressure cooker.  If you decide to use this method here is a brief summary.  Keep in mind this process takes a couple of hours depending on how long you soak the beans.
  • Measure beans and add water covering beans by at least 3 inches.
  • Soak beans in water for 1 to 2 hours.
  • Drain and rinse soaked beans.
  • In pressure cooker add water to cover beans by about 2 inches.
  • Cook on medium heat until you hear the pressure cooker whistle.
  • Unless I am in a hurry I usually let the cooker sit and release the pressure gradually so I don’t have to manually release the steam and water discharge which can be messy

Simple Cabbage and Bean Soup

Thanks to Sara for passing this recipe on and suggesting adding white beans for some extra protein.  I have to admit I didn't have any thyme so I omitted that both times and was still pleased with the flavor although I did salt it more liberally. 

When dicing the onion, carrot, celery and potato keep in mind the size of chunks you want in a soup.  Taking the time to dice them smaller will give of a variety in each spoonful. 

Some great uses for the leftover cabbage would making a homemade slaw, adding it to pasta or just doubling this recipe and freezing some for another time.

Nods to Everyday Cooking for the original recipe.

1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, diced small
2 medium carrots, diced small
2 ribs of celery, diced small

2 medium leeks, white and light green parts only, cut into 1/2 inch slices
2 garlic cloves, minced (yields about 1 tsp minced garlic)

1 medium potato, peeled and diced small
6 cups low-sodium vegetable broth (I prefer Imagine’s “No Chicken” broth)
2 bay leaves

1/2 head green cabbage cored and thinly sliced
salt and pepper
1 can (15 oz) cannellini or great northern beans (or about 2 cups dried beans soaked and prepared)

1 tbsp chopped fresh thyme (or substitute 1 tsp dried thyme)

1.  In a stockpot or heat olive oil over medium-high (about 2 to 3 minutes).
2.  Add onion, carrots and celery; cook until softened stirring occasionally (about 5 minutes).
3.  Add leeks and garlic and cook until leeks start to soften (about 2 minutes).
4.  Add potato, broth and bay leaves and bring to a boil.
5.  Stir in cabbage, beans and season with salt and pepper. Return soup to a boil for 5 minutes.
6.  Reduce to a rapid simmer. Cover and cook until vegetables are tender (about 15 to 20 minutes).
7.  Remove from heat; stir in thyme and serve.

This will make 6-8 servings of soup and it freezes beautifully for later enjoyment.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Scrapbooking and Peanut Butter Coconut Curry

I think the best recipes come from friends. The tried and true, the keepers, the bird in the hand, the honey crisp apple of recipes. That is the case with Peanut Butter Coconut Curry we made tonight which came to me from my best friend Rebecca, who got it from her mom, who had gotten it from her sister, who...and that's where my trail runs cold.

Before we get to today's eats I have to say I just spent a day and a half at my first scrapbooking weekend and I loved it. The women, the creativity, the food, the food, the food...I felt like I was taking advantage of so many people's "best" recipes. I also love the idea of women not apologizing for taking a weekend for themselves to spend time with old friends and make new friends.  I was working on a heritage album of pictures from my grandparents and so appreciate the ideas and support I received.

I myself brought Molly's Banana Bread with Chocolate and Cinnamon Sugar found here to the scrapbooking event.  If you are in the mood for a food blog, take a few minutes and check Orangette out. Molly has never disappointed me with a recipe and I love her stories around each one (since I'm reading her book right now too there are a lot of recipes being tried in my household).

But without further adieu, here is the recipe my husband, Doug, and I whipped up tonight (truthfully, Doug did the whipping and he impressed me with his ability to convert teaspoons into tablespoons to avoid dirtying another utensil). Chicken or shrimp would pair nicely with this traditional Thai curry although we think it is filling without a protein mixed in. I also like to serve this with a side of broccoli or green beans and a splash of sriracha sauce. Note that it may not look like much in the picture but it tastes divinely smooth and delicious.

Peanut Butter Coconut Curry

1 tsp olive oil
1 small red onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced (about 1 1/2 tsp)
1 serrano pepper, seeded and minced
4 tsp fresh ginger, minced (I have used ginger powder in pinch also)

4 tsp curry powder
4 tsp cumin

1 can light coconut milk (13.5 ounces)
5 tbls creamy peanut butter
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, minced
5 tsp tamari (substitute soy sauce if you have no tamari)
4 tsp honey
1/8 cup lime juice
1/8 cup ketchup
3/4 cup water

1. Heat oil over medium in a large frying pan or wok.
2. Saute onion, garlic, serrano pepper and ginger until onion is translucent.
3. Add curry powder and cumin and saute over low for one minute.
4. Add coconut milk, peanut butter, cilantro, tamari, honey, lime juice, ketchup and water. Bring sauce to a boil whisking often to combine ingredients into a smooth texture.
5. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

Serve over rice. Makes about 5-6 servings.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Welcome and Mini-Loaves

Here we go...I've been obsessed with cranberries since attending the Warrens Cranberry Festival in Warren Wisconsin this fall and learning how they are grown, harvested and processed.

My wonderful husband carried a five pound bag of fresh cranberries for almost 5 hours that day (my friends husband was also a sherpa that day and carried the same along with a jar of cranberry honey and a bottle of cranberry wine for their cranberry adventures) and then took the time to package them in one cup servings when we were home while I fretted and wondered if we could possibly use them up before the next cranberry festival.

We ended up freezing the cranberries whole and they have become incredibly convenient for baking. Cranberry muffins, cranberry cake and cranberry cookies have all been tried and the winning cranberry recipe to date is the following cranberry bread from my beautiful cousin-in-law Megan.

This bread ages really well so resist temptation and do not eat it until at least three days after you have made it (the orange flavor will continue to develop and strengthen as it sits up to a week)! Your reward for waiting will be wonderful complex flavors and you will want to eat it with everything - possibly even as a side dish with tacos as my father did this week (although I am not personally recommending that flavor combination, on the other hand if you think it would taste good then by all means go for it).

Cranberry Bread

2 cups flour*
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 stick margarine
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 large egg
3/4 cup orange juice
2 cups fresh (or frozen) cranberries
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease 3x5 loaf pan or mini-loaf pan.
2. In medium bowl combine flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon.
3. In large bowl cream margarine and sugar. Beat in egg.
4. Stir in flour mixture in 3 additions alternating with 1/4 cup of orange juice. Mix only until the dry ingredients are moistened.
5. Fold in cranberries and walnuts.
6. Pour batter into pan and back for 55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the loaf comes out clean.

*You can substitute one cup whole wheat pastry flour for one cup white flour. This substitution will make the bread more dense and the extra bran and germ in whole wheat flour will add nutrients so you can have an extra slice guilt free!

PS - Baking in a mini-loaf pan is a great way to control portions and you can gift friends and family with home cooked goodies which are always appreciated but possibly more so during a cold winter like we are having now in Wisconsin.
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