Sunday, December 19, 2010

Autumn Pilafs

Well, it turns out the inability to cook saps my desire to write about cooking. But I'm pretty much back on my feet enough to prepare simple dishes and make short trips to the nearest market, so my interest is once again piqued. So it's about time I shared those Autumn dishes I promised so long ago! Just in time for winter. Oops.

I just reread my last post, Vegan Refried Black Beans, and thought I'd get back into the swing by showing my successful experiments using French Onion soup in place of vegetable broth in cooking grains.

Vegetable broths are often tinny with off flavors, and lack that umami flavor I love so much in chicken and beef broths. In my search for a satisfactory alternative, I first made some weird attempts with mushroom broth, since mushrooms are packed with umami. But everything just came out tasting like musty mushrooms. But then I saw onions in a list of foods that contain the molecule or whatever that has that delicious meaty umaminess and had an epiphany that has delivered many successful vegetarian dishes. French onion soup, available in most grocers' soup and broth aisles, makes a great vegetarian substitute for beef and chicken broth. It has become the standard vegan base for my favorite grain, Kashi 7 Whole Grain and Sesame Pilaf, as in these three recipes. Feel free to substitute your favorite whole grain or whole grain blend.

Veronica's Kashi Pilaf

The simple starting point from which my pilaf dishes grew, this is a super easy and delicious way to add whole grains to any meal.

1 packet (1 cup) Kashi 7 Whole Grain Pilaf
2 cups beef or onion broth
1-2 Tablespoons soy sauce
2-3 dashes garlic powder
2-3 dashes onion powder (omit if using onion broth)

Cook according to package directions using the above ingredients in place of water.

Kashi Stuffed Acorn Squash

I found this recipe in the comment section of Kashi's website. Yes, I'm that big a fan of Kashi Pilaf, as well as a number of their other products, that I have been on their site and even read the comments of other fans.

Of course, the day I finally made this, I did my shopping at a market that sacrilegiously did not carry Kashi Pilaf, so I used a blend of red & brown rice with rye and barley instead. I cooked one cup of the rice blend according to package directions, substituting onion soup for water. I omitted the diced onion since I figured the broth would add plenty of oniony flavor. Also, always remember to add garlic only for the last 30-60 seconds of sauteeing, just enough time to become fragrant. It really should never be sauteed as long as other vegetables. I added pressed garlic cloves at the end of the cooking time with the carrot, almonds, and spices/salt. I skipped sprinkling with grated cheese before serving because the thought of curry and cheese together weirded me out. Instead, I served the squash with raw brown sugar on the side for copious sprinkling by the spoonful. The extra sweetness was perfect to balance out the super strong spices and saltiness. This was just the final touch this fragrant autumn dish needed to reach true culinary heights.

Delicata Kashi Pilaf

I developed this dish as a faster, simpler alternate to the stuffed squash I love so much. Delicata makes  a great substitute for the cook in a hurry. Since the skin is edible, you can bake thin slices much faster than preparing other varieties, and you can then toss everything together and skip the second baking post-stuffing. The removal of spices, omitted to recover the extra time it takes to bloom the spices on the stove, also makes this version more versatile and easier to pair as a side dish with a larger variety of entrees.

The tiny delicata squash has a thin, edible skin that reduces prep time.

1 packet (1 cup) Kashi 7 Whole Grain Pilaf
2 cups onion broth
2-3 dashes garlic powder
2 Tablespoons soy sauce, divided
1/2 cup dried fruit (raisins, cranberries, apricots, etc.)
1 delicata squash, halved lengthwise, seeded, and cut crosswise into 1/2 inch slices
1 Tablespoon olive oil 
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup toasted almond slivers (these are just so handy to have around)

Cook pilaf according to package directions using onion broth, garlic powder, and 1 tablespoon soy sauce instead of water. Add raisins or other dried fruit during final 15 minutes of cooking. In the version pictured above I used freeze dried Just Apricots to add tang and sweetness.

Meanwhile, toss squash slices with oil, black pepper, and 1 tablespoon soy sauce. Spread in a single layer in a shallow baking pan. Roast in upper third of a 475º oven 15 minutes, or until squash is just tender. I even use the toaster oven to avoid preheating time.

Combine rice, squash, and toasted almond slivers.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Refried Black Beans For All!

Due to surgery, I've been unable to cook for awhile with awhile longer to go before I get back to the stove. Luckily, I tried to fit a lot of cooking under my belt before going under the knife, so I can keep this blog going.

I was deliberating which Fall delight to share first when I learned my dad had bought an enameled Dutch oven of his own - and we all know my love for my Le Creuset! His first dish was Creole Fried Chicken from the Cook's Country cookbook I gifted him. Sigh, I've been wanting to tackle their various fried chicken recipes. I was thinking of more great recipes from the America's Test Kitchen family for him to try and remembered the highly successful Mexican Rice I made for our tamales party. And why make the rice if you don't make the amazing refried beans, too? So I thought I'd share the vegan version I created through altering the America's Test Kitchen recipe.

My only complaint about ATK's refried beans was the onion. The onion flavor was perfect, but when I included a whole medium onion as instructed, it meant there was nearly as much onion crunch as smooth bean. It caused a texture issue. I've been experimenting with using French Onion soup broth as a vegetarian alternative to chicken and beef broth, since I usually find vegetable broths disappointing. I'll post other times I've successfully used this option in the weeks to come. I suspected this might be the answer to both veganizing this recipe and retaining the onion flavor. With the onion reduced from 3/4 cup to 1/4 cup and the chicken broth replaced with French Onion soup, it was simple to replace the 1 Tblsp. rendered fat from 3oz. of salt pork/bacon with cooking oil and doubled the salt to replace that lost when tossing out the salty grease. And, voila! Vegan refried beans! I also chose to use black beans, but you could very easily stick to the pinto beans used in the original version. These were so darn tasty it was hard to put down the fork, and the leftovers were perhaps even better after the flavors melded. Definitely a new favorite, and so very easy and healthy!

Vegan Refried Black Beans

2 (15oz.) cans black beans, drained and rinsed lightly
3/4 cup French Onion Soup (found in the broth and soup aisle of most grocery stores)
1 tsp. salt (more or less to taste)
1 Tblsp. cooking oil
1/2 very small onion, finely chopped  (1/4-1/3 cup)
1 jalapeño, stemmed, seeded, and minced
1/2 tsp. cumin
2 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
2 Tblsp. fresh cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1 lime

In a food processor, process all but 1 cup of the beans with soup until smooth, about 15 seconds. Add the rest of the beans and pulse until slightly chunky, about 10 pulses.

Heat oil in a 12 inch nonstick skillet to medium-high. Add onion, jalapeño, and cumin and sauté 3-5 minutes until soft and starting to brown.

Stir in Garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Reduce heat to medium and stir in the pureed beans. They will be runny.

Cook at medium heat until thick and creamy, about 4-8 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cilantro and lime juice before serving.

If you want the original recipe, reverse engineer my changes to sub back in the original ingredients. Or purchase The Complete America's Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook 2001-2010 (excellent purchase no home cook would regret) or a membership at (or just sign up for a 14-day free trial membership). And again, no, they don't pay me. I'm just a big ol' fan girl they've never heard of.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bacon Popcorn

We all know it's Halloween, but it's also another pretty significant day: the last day of National Popcorn Popping Month. And I've saved a pretty interesting recipe for last.

How do you like the sound of Bacon Popcorn?

I found the recipe here during some random Google search at some point and gave it a try to use up leftover bacon way back when I made BLTs. The reason for my cryptic remark about having a use for rendered bacon fat finally revealed! I'm sure you've all been wondering. I've been holding on to this just waiting for Popcorn Month.

Like I said, you start with rendered bacon fat.

Then you pop the corn using this fat.

To add more flavor, you freeze, chop, and grind bacon slices and sprinkle it on like salt.

The end result is very subtly bacon flavored and quite rich. Definitely another way to cancel out all nutritional value of the pre-seasoned corn. If you don't get the bacon fine enough by grinding it, you will definitely need to add a little salt. This is a really fun one to bring out in the presence of carnivores - meaty popcorn!

This may be my finale recipe, but that doesn't mean it's the last way to spice up your corn. How could I forget all those days in a friend's basement in junior high and high school munching on pungent corn coated with onion powder, garlic powder, onion salt, and garlic salt? A reader told me about "kamikaze" popcorn he made as a kid using butter, tabasco, salt, and soy sauce. One of my friends seasons hers with tamari and yeast. Another tops hers with furikake, the Japanese rice seasoning. Then there are a couple more of my personal favorites - popping corn on the stove in duck fat and adding copious amounts of sea salt, or drizzling truffle oil over the top of air popped corn, again with lots of sea salt. And that doesn't even begin to skim all the varieties of cinnamon and sugar topped corn, the pink squares my husband grew up savoring in the park, balls of sticky caramel goodness - the varieties are endless! And I'm always looking to try new versions. Please comment with your favorite popcorn recipes, or send me a personal note. Popcorn Month is over, but my love for this snack continues.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Popcorn, Indiana

It wouldn't be a proper Popcorn Month if I didn't discuss the most popular genre - movie theater style. The ultimate in popcorn, many would say. Or maybe it's just pandering to the lowest common denominator. Either way, I admit I'm a sucker for the salty, buttery deliciousness. I even sometimes suggest the husband man and I go to some crappy movie he's been wanting to see but I know I'll hate just so I can get my hands on a tub. But my discovery of today's popcorn tribute makes the theater obsolete when I all I want is the snack.

Popcorn, Indiana. I discovered this delectable bag of corn at Walgreen's, of all places. They make the standards, like kettle corn and cheese corn, plus a spate of other flavors from bacon ranch to wasabi, but the basic Movie Theater Popcorn with real butter won me over.

Now, this is an example of how toppings can remove the nutritional value of these healthy whole grains, but darn this stuff is so good I find it hard to care. And at least it's natural fat, right? This isn't just some bag of neon yellow kernels popped in the microwave, only half of which actually have any flavor, all of which have the texture of styrofoam. No, this stuff tastes like the real deal. Better even, since we've all had the stale, greasy wadding churned out by some apathetic theaters. Even out of a bag, Indiana, Popcorn delivers fresh, buttery popcorn that tastes fresh from a top shelf concession. But I warn you, it's hard to share even this gigantor bag. Seriously, seriously addictive. The kettle corn is pretty darn good, too.

Indiana, Popcorn is pervasive enough to land on my drug store's shelf, so I'm guessing it's not hard to find at least some of the flavors. But all flavors are available on their site, so this nosh is out of no one's reach.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Thatcher's Gourmet Popcorn

So far I've left out a very deserving category of popcorn that simply must be recognized for National Popcorn Popping Month - caramel. And local SF gourmet poppers Thatcher's just happen to make my favorite store-bought caramel corn. Whether classic or in whimsical flavors such as Tiramisu Cappuccino, Thatcher's delivers a satisfying crunch from a thick candy coating chock full of flavor, never bland sickly sweetness.

They also have bold, full flavored cheese varieties, and cheese might just be my favorite type of popcorn of all time.

I find Thatcher's at CalMart in Laurel Village, for those of you in the Bay Area. Everyone else, keep an eye out at your local grocer or purchase from one of many online vendors.

*** I apologize for the low quality images. I've recently had ankle surgery that prevents me from going anywhere, much less the market, and I admit I counted on the Internet providing better than it did. But trust me on the contents of the packages stamped with a cable car, even if you can't quite make it out in these images. Thatcher's will not disappoint. ***

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Texas Popcorn

As National Popcorn Popping Month continues, the inspiration for this new-to-me popcorn recipe came from an unlikely source: a Disney star on a late night talk show. Yes, I learned about "Texas Popcorn" by watching Selena Gomez make it for Jimmy Fallon. It sounded just bizzarre enough to intrigue me.

Selena's version of Texas Popcorn entails tossing popped corn in a paper bag with Tabasco and salt. The coup de gras, though, is to then dip the pieces into pickle juice. She had me at "pickle juice."

We don't really keep Tabasco around the house, so, after popping a batch of hot air black diamond popcorn (which is why the popcorn has black hearts - it's not burnt, I just like how it photographs) I tossed half of it in a paper bag with popcorn salt and Cholula hot sauce

And the other half with popcorn salt and Pickapeppa sauce (which I love tossed over cream cheese served with crackers - an appetizer that seems super fancy but is actually super easy - I have old family friends to thank for that one!)

I may have overdone it with the Pickapeppa. The flavor was great, but it softened the popcorn to the point of sogginess. Oh well, first attempt!

I then served it all up with a small bowl of Claussen dill pickle juice.

And you know what? It was just weird enough to work! The flavors mingled while keeping separate places on the palate, a true menage of taste sensation. A little spicy, a little salty, and a little something else that just brought it all together. Each sauce was equally as successful, which tempts me to experiment with different hot sauces and blends (the Cholulah and Pickapeppa together was fantastic!) I'd also love to experiment with different pickle juices, with bread & butter and especially Wickle's pickle juice at the top of my list, but the purity and tartness of dill will be hard to beat. So this strange little experiment came out a huge success! I highly recommend serving Texas Popcorn at your next movie night.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Rosemary Popcorn

Yesterday I shared my favorite store bought popcorn in celebration of National Popcorn Popping Month. Today I share my favorite popcorn recipe, Popcorn with Rosemary Infused Olive Oil from Giada di Laurentiis.

This recipe starts by infusing oil with rosemary. This is done very easily by placing 5-6 sprigs of fresh rosemary in a small sauce pan with 1 cup olive oil and cooking it together at medium-low heat for about 5 minutes. After removing the pan from the heat and allowing the oil to cool, the infused oil and sprigs can be stored in the fridge for up to a month. I find that the fat molecules tend to solidify in the fridge, so it's good to plan ahead and set the oil out on the counter an hour or two before you plan on using it.

Giada goes on to suggest using half a cup of this oil to pop 1 cup of kernels on the stove, then tossing the popped corn with a further 2 tablespoons of infused oil and plenty of salt. This creates a very decadent dish perfect for bringing out at a movie party with friends. For a more sensible snack, I find that air popped popcorn drizzled with a couple of tablespoons of oil and plenty of fine sea salt delivers just as much flavor while saving on lots of calories and fat.

The added bonus is all the other wonderful things you can do with the infused oil. Add it to salad dressings and marinade in place of plain oil for a richer, more complex flavor, or sprinkle a pan with a few drops to toast bread to elevate your sandwiches to restaurant quality. I used both techniques for my Rosemary Balsamic Portabella Sandwich.

This recipe also inspired me to branch out into other infused oils. I found that garlic infused olive oil also makes a great popcorn topper, especially when paired with garlic salt to really umph up the flavor. To infuse olive oil with garlic, heat half a cup of olive oil in a small saucepan until just bubbling. Add 4-5 medium cloves of sliced garlic. Simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool and transfer to a container such as a bottle or cruet. This will keep in the fridge up to one week, so a much shorter life span than rosemary oil, which is why I only make half a cup at a time. This oil also works very well in many recipes as a substitute to plain oil, like in my Ultimate Summer Quinoa Salad. The garlic flavor it provides is smooth, and even a little sweet, never sharp.

Keep coming back for more great popcorn recipes and products throughout the month!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

479°: The Degree of Perfection

October is Popcorn Popping Month! That's right, a whole month to honor my favorite snack. Whether crunchy, crispy, salty, sweet, cheesy, or buttery - few things have the ability to sate my various cravings as the versatile popped corn kernel. That it's a whole grain packed with fiber and [starts out] low calorie means we can tackle [certain versions] guilt free. I've been kept away most of the month so my popcorn blogging is behind schedule, but I still have a week and a half to share my favorites of my favorite snack. So let's get down to business. Not a moment to waste!

In the store bought category, the favorite of my favorites of my favorite is the gourmet popcorn brought to us by local company 479°, so named because that is apparently the best temperature at which to perfectly pop popcorn kernels - "The Degree of Perfection." How local? When purchasing a couple boxes to photograph and munch for this post, I learned the creator shops at my market. Yeah, that's local.

But location is not the important thing here. The important thing: Flavor. That's what 479° delivers in bushels. From subtle and sophisticated to bold and brazen, this popcorn offers unique takes on this classic snack, raising it from the ranks of greasy movie theater buckets mindlessly shoveled into our gullets by the handful to true foodie heights of gourmet excellence perfect for savoring one morsel at a time.

My favorite of this favorite of my favorites of my favorite... ummmm, I think I lost track. Anywho, my favorite of 479°'s many flavor options is the Madras Coconut Curry + Cashews.

Who's surprised my favorite flavor is of the savory variety? Not any of my regular readers. This bold flavor pairs the warmth of fragrant Indian spices with a hint of sweetness. Think the sweetness and slight crisp you find with kettle corn, not the full sweetness and solid crunch of caramel corn. This unique snack is so worth staining your fingernails yellow.

I also really enjoy another bold, savory flavor from 479°, Pimentón de La Vera.

This flavor matches smoky paprika with fresh tomato flavor and a kick of that same crisp sweetness. It's like a fancy barbecue in your mouth.

So far I have tried almost every flavor 479° currently offers. There's a variety for every taste profile. Some hit my particular snacking nerve better than others, but none turned me off. I would say that the caramel varieties have a softer coating than expected, lacking the satisfying crunch I look for in my caramel corn. But the flavor is there, especially in the Chipotle Caramel + Almonds' low, slow heat. For more subtlety, the Alderwood Smoked Sea Salt and Black Truffle + White Cheddar offer a hint of delicate elegance for the refined palate.

For my fellow San Franciscans, I've found 479° with varying degrees of success and availability at Village Market in the Ferry Building, the defunct Blue Fog, Andronico's, and Bryan's - but not always, and not every flavor. I've looked for it at other suggested retail partners, like Whole Foods and CalMart, with no luck. The scarcity just means even more excitement when I finally see those glossy boxes stacked in front of me. Whether or not you live in the Bay Area, take a look (and a chance) at other retail partners listed here. And even if you don't live near a retail partner, you can always order sampler packs, collections, and a PIY (Pop It Yourself) kit (which I'm dying to try) from the website. It may not be as easy as hitting the local market to find this delicacy, but it's worth the extra effort to taste something that redefines the concept of the previously simple snack that is popcorn.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


My favorite food is clams. When I was a little girl, my favorite food was clams. As a teenager, my favorite food was still clams. As an adult, my favorite food is currently clams. When I am and aged elder, my favorite food will still be clams. In other words, I love clams.

So imagine my excitement the other day at brunch at the Presidio Social Club when I discovered that they have a clambake every Monday of summer on through the end of October. So guess what I had for dinner last night. That's right. I had clams.

But not just clams. The clam bake came with lobster and mussels, too, as well as sides, salad, and dessert. A feast indeed.

The butterleaf salad had a bright vinaigrette, crisp and refreshing - the perfect lead-in for a seafood fiesta.

The, the piece de resistance: a mound of shellfish. That parchment under the giant slab of lobster? That was filled with clams, mussels, and potatoes. The best part of the night came when I went to eat the last couple clams I saved for the end, only to discover that the parchment pouch continued further back under the pile of seaweed greens, sheltering another handful of the tasty morsels. Bonus clams!

I was in shellfish heaven. I would say I could eat clams multiple times a week, but I already do. I could almost eat them everyday. So what could make this meal better? Well, maybe chocolate. That's about all I can think of. Oh, wait! The dessert that promptly followed: DARK CHOCOLATE PUDDING. Heaven, I say. Heaven.

The Presidio Social Club's motto is, "All the benefits, with none of the dues," or something to that effect. All the luxury of a ritzy, exclusive club available to everyone. The decor and service fits the motif: classically chic with dark wood and leather, airy and full of light with lots of windows and an open floor plan, pleasant and friendly servers and bartenders. Certainly luxurious, but not without a sense of humor:

Monday, September 20, 2010

Soup's on!

Like with my barley post, I was still in the mood to keep things simple when I decided to make a soup from the leftover salt pork used in my tamales night refried beans.

Easy Lentil & Rice Soup

3 oz. salt pork - estimate
1 cup chopped carrots
1 cup chopped celery
1 chopped onion
6 cups chicken broth
1 bay leaf
1 cup bulk lentil & rice soup mix (consisted of brown & wild rice, and green, orange, & yellow lentils)

On stove, preheat removable ceramic bowl of crock pot (you could also use a pan) to medium heat. Remove much of the meatless fat from the salt pork. Dice remaining salt pork. Should have about 1/2 cup diced pork that's probably about half fat, half meat. Brown diced salt pork in preheated bowl or pan until crispy.

Remove crispy pork bits and set aside, leaving drippings in the bottom of the pan. Add carrots, celery, and onion to the pan and saute in the salt pork drippings over medium-high heat until tender. Add soup mix of rice and lentils to the pan and stir for a couple of minutes until coated with drippings.

Replace ceramic bowl into crock pot base (or transfer entire contents of the pan to your crock pot if not using a removable bowl). Add chicken broth, bay leaf, and reserved crispy salt pork. Cover and simmer on high setting for 4 hours. Remove bay leaf before serving.

Et voila! A simple, hearty, tasty soup perfect in this fresh Autumn weather.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Barley Time

We all know of my love for whole grains. As Summer shifts to Autumn, I feel my grainy desires shifting as well, from the crisp and cool, to the warm and comfy. Having perfected quinoa, I'm now turning my compulsiveness toward barley.

Of course, we all love barley in soups, but, inspired by Kashi's seven grain blend (plus sesame) which I super love, I wanted to give it a go in more of a pilaf style. I have a couple barley recipes in my queue, I think from epicurious and The New York Times, but first wanted to give my own simple concoction a try. Since this was my first barley attempt this year, I only did a half recipe to serve two. Except, it turned out so delectably, I ended up scarfing down the whole batch. So next time I'll definitely double up.

Simple Barley Pilaf

1 tsp. oil
1 stalk celery, trimmed and diced
1/2 an onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
1 cup sliced mushrooms, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup pearl barley
1 1/4 cup of your favorite broth (I used low sodium chicken)

Heat oil in sauce pan. Sauté celery, onion, and mushroom about 3-5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add broth and barley and bring to a boil. Cover. Reduce heat and simmer over low heat for 45 minutes. Salt & pepper to taste at the table.

Serves 2.
Nutrition Information Per Serving: Calories: 165. Total Fat: 3g. Sat. Fat: 0.3g. Cholesterol: 0mg. Sodium: 67.1mg. Carb: 31.3g. Fiber: 5.1g. Sugars: 3g. Protein: 5.1g.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Perfect Brownie

Way back in December, I bought the Perfect Brownie pan. For the family's celebration of Festivus, I contributed seasonal beverages (mulled cider and brandy, egg nog and rum, and Bittersweet cocoa with handmade marshmallows) and a cookie platter full of a combination of old family recipes and the recipes I'd used to make gift jars for friends.

Left to right: Grandma Adams' Old Fashioned Molasses Chews,
Mocha Rum Balls from Gifts in a Jar,
Butterscotch Oatmeal Cookies from Gifts in a Jar,
and Grandma Rose's Mamoul.

I'd planned on adding my mom's brownies from her high school home ec. class, but she couldn't find the recipe anywhere. But I still had the pan.

Fast forward a few months and multiple pans of experimental brownies using beans instead of flour (another time, friends). While visiting my Grandma in Kansas, my mom discovered a box filled with fundraiser cookbooks to which we had contributed over the years. I'd claimed all along that the High School Brownies recipe was in a cookbook created as a fundraiser, but predating the multiple such cookbooks used to raise money for our schools. Sure enough, in a cookbook my aunt compiled for a nursing home she worked for long before I started elementary school, my mom found it. A few weeks later, after some pestering phone calls on my part interrupting another of my parents' vacations, the recipe made its way through the Internets from their campsite in Eastern Washington to this very laptop on which I am typing at this instant.

And so I finally made the brownies to which I've always compared all other brownies in the pan that so easily divides a batch into such perfect pieces. My next cookie platter will be complete!

As you can see, the recipe calls for "chocolate," no qualifications. Back in the days of this recipe's origins, that meant you'd go to the grocery store for a bar of "baking chocolate." Ah, it was a simpler time. These days, the chocolate aisle - because there's a whole aisle, now - is far more complicated. So, it's best to buy chocolate by cacao percentages. For baking, America's Test Kitchen tells me 60% is the best. It was one of the first episodes I ever watched. I practically memorized it. For this recipe, I finally tried a large block of Callebaut 60% Intense Dark Chocolate, America's Test Kitchen's winner for best dark chocolate. They tested by eating it straight, making pot de creme, and baking brownies. Perfect! Well, to be fair, with each of their taste tests, who wins goes back and forth between Ghirardelli and Callebaut. I usually use Ghirardelli (and that's a hard "g" people. Trust me. I took Italian in college. Sound smart, pronounce it correctly), which my mom taught me to love as a little girl. And now that I live in SF, it just fits. But, loyalist though I am, who am I not to try every great chocolate I can get my hands on? So this time I tried Callebaut, which many would argue is better (sacrilege!). I eyeballed it off the block, so my amount could have been anywhere between three and four ounces. I don't have a scale and couldn't think of a quick way to measure without making my head hurt with crazy conversion calculations. Close enough. These brownies were certainly chocolatey, and that's good enough for me! Not sure Callebaut replaces Ghirardelli as a favorite, but it's certainly good stuff. 

Man, this recipe is easy. You don't even need the electric mixer, though I usually revel in turning on my KitchenAid. A wire whisk and a little wrist action is all it takes! Even easier, as this is 2010 and not the 1960s, I may have melted the chocolate and butter in the microwave instead of using the baine-marie, or double pan, technique. I'm not dissing a classic, but using a low setting and stirring often, microwaving the chocolate both removes any accidental contact with water through condensed steam and allows control of the temperature so it doesn't get too hot too quickly. I also left out the nuts, of course. I'm in the minority that thinks nuts ruin baked goods. Completely destroys the texture. There you are, biting into a chewy brownie or cookie, and crunch. Yuck. Keep the nuts in a bowl on the side or grind 'em up, like in baklava and mamoul. Anywho, off the soapbox. I have one more adjustment for next time that applies only to the Perfect Brownie pan. Next time I'll adjust the timing a little to compensate for the quicker heating caused by the divider piece, cut it down to maybe 20 minutes or so. I like 'em gooey! 

Despite my tiny adjustments, these were definitely the brownies I grew up with. It's nice to have them back.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

¡Fiesta de tamales!

Recently, a friend was selling homemade carnitas tamales to raise money to pay for a relative's hospital bills. Of course, I bought way too many (if there is such a thing as too much puerco y masa) and quickly found my freezer packed with four dozen tamales. There was only one thing to do. TAMALES PARTY!

Well, tamales alone do not a feast make, so I figured I'd throw together a couple of side dishes. Luckily, my brand new The Complete America's Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook 2001-2010 had just the two dishes I wanted: easy Refried Beans and Mexican Rice. And it even gave me an excuse to use my Dutch oven, and you all know how happy that makes me!

Mexican rice is not traditionally a favorite of mine, but I knew the husband man and my other guests are fans. This recipe really did balance flavors and textures very nicely, turning out fresh tasting and fluffy. The tricks: Frying the uncooked rice in oil, using pureed fresh tomato and onion for half the liquid (chicken broth for the other half) - a traditional technique, adding a little tomato paste - very untraditional, and cooking it in the oven instead of on the stovetop, stirring it halfway through, ensuring even cooking. Fresh onion, garlic, chiles, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime all added to the rice's vibrancy.

Personally, I was more excited to try the super easy sounding refried beans recipe. Canned refried beans are usually inedible paste, and the traditional method of cooking dried beans, frying them in lard, and hand mashing them is too time and work intensive for feasibility. This 20 minute recipe started with canned beans, replaced mashing with food processing, and added plenty of flavor with rendered salt pork fat (which one could easily replace with oil for a vegan version), fresh chile peppers, onion, garlic, and fresh lime juice and cilantro stirred in at the end. ¡Muy delicioso! My only complaint is that the bean : onion ratio seemed off. The flavor was spot on, but it affected the texture. Next time I'll cut way back on the amount of onion and be extra careful to dice it very fine.

Golly, I love myself some America's Test Kitchen.

We used this fiesta as an excuse for a long awaited Project Runway party. We plan on having a total of four PR parties, one themed for each judge, plus Tim Gunn. We're counting this as our Nina Garcia party. Yes, I know she's of Colombian descent, not Mexican. But they make tamales, too, even if they are more often wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks. Close enough! And (SPOILER ALERT) such a perfect way to say good-bye to Casanova, too. Your sexy grannies will be missed!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


I finally caved and purchased a tacky infomercial item: The ReacherGrabber. Well, actually a PikStik. Was there ever an infomercial for the PikStik? Whatever, it was the best reviewed brand on Amazon. I've kinda wanted one for years because of a black hole behind our washer/dryer. I bought shelves to prevent items - and the cats - from ending up in this black hole, but I have not leveled up enough on my carpentry skills and failed in my installation attempt. The husband man said he'd install them but, well, I pick my battles and have put the nagging to other, higher priority needs. So, for the three or four years we've lived here, the black hole has collected a variety of towels, socks, bottles of cleaning supplies, boxes of baggies, etc. But then a box of croutons fell back there and I'd had enough. You may take my dishcloths, but you can not take my croutons!

The tool did it's job exactly as I hoped, and I only banged my head on the cabinets once retrieving the myriad of items. But the image on the card stock backing for my PikStik does not depict my experience of crouching on a washer delving into a dusty crevice.

Look at this poor, but blankly happy, lady in her strange predicament. She seems to have misplaced her wine glass. On top of the cupboards. Because that's a really common place to casually set a single piece of barware. If this is a common party foul, I've been leaving my coasters out in the wrong areas when I have people over. Or maybe this is where she hides her wine and pills out of sight and reach of the kiddos and hubby. That would certainly explain her empty grin. But why does she need to hide the glass as well as the happy-making substances? I'm confused.

While I don't plan on needing my PikStik to retrieve errant stemware from many feet above my head, and despite the husband man's teasing at my purchase (I would've thought he'd be happy to have that pastel pink and green striped Paul Smith dress sock reunited with its mate), I'm happy with my new product. So neener neener, naysayers. I said neener neener.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

R.I.C.E. & Risotto

I'm lounging in a position with which I've become quite familiar over the months - laptop in my lap and my foot wrapped with an icepack in an ace bandage elevated in front of me - Rest Ice Compression and Elevation. Still. This weekend marked the three month anniversary since I fell walking down a steep hill and tore multiple ligaments and other soft tissue in my right foot and ankle. When I finally admitted it wasn't healing and went to the doctor ten days later, she told me it would take six-12 weeks from that day to heal. She expected six-eight weeks, and warned I could make it eight-twelve if I didn't "dial it way back" and take good care of it, working R.I.C.E. and my physical therapy.

Well, I'm at 11 weeks today, but not because I screwed up my rehab. Anyone can tell you how thorough I've been with first crutches, now a cane, R.I.C.E., and PT. I am now of the opinion that I had closer to a Level 3 sprain than the Level 2 sprain with which the nurse practitioner originally diagnosed me. And this misdiagnosis is completely and totally my fault. I am finally pulling myself the rest of the way out the denial that kept me from seeing the doctor for so long in the first place. I fully accept responsibility for downplaying the severity of my symptoms with the nurse practitioner. I did not do this knowingly. Looking back, I see that something - be it pride, or a false sense of toughness, or stupidity, or just human nature - kept me from admitting even to myself that I was in far more pain and in much worse shape than I let on. I told her my foot and ankle could support my weight, though not for extended periods. And I thought that was the truth when I said it. But, now that I've been working the PT and am conscientiously aware of everything going on with that area of my body, I know how many weeks it took before I could actually, truly put my full weight on that foot. And I'm still working on keeping it there for an extended period. Heck, I'm still working on standing with my weight distributed evenly between both feet for more than a few minutes.

But this is a positive post. After weeks of a plateaux in healing despite all my hard work and faithfulness to the R.I.C.E., I finally seemed to break through some sort of barrier in my progress today during my PT in a private Pilates apparatus class. Today, I was able to complete exercises I was literally incapable of performing even last week. It was exhilarating, and exhausting. And I'm shocked by how scary it was. For months, my body has instinctively guarded me from worsening the damage by telling me when to stop, what not to do. And I have listened. But that instinct becomes habit fast, and it was terrifying to not just stop listening to it, but to outright defy it, even with a trained professional guiding and spotting me on safe equipment in a safe setting. It's been months since I've put any type of faith in my foot's ability to support me. My nerves were jangled. The rush of emotions drained me as much as, if not more than, the physical work. Fear, trepidation, and anxiety, but also excitement, giddiness, and pride. It takes a lot out of a gal.

I've still got a long, hard road ahead of me before I'm at 100%, but at least now I've regained the faith that I'm closing that distance and not walking in place. I am just so thankful that I was already strong and in good physical shape when I fell. I can't imagine how hard this would have been if I'd been starting from nothing. Thank you, Pilates! I'm now looking forward to the day I can walk a long, hard road in reality instead of just metaphor. That, and a long, hard run on the elliptical with the settings on max. Now that would feel good. For the first time in weeks, I actually believe that I'll get there eventually.

In honor of both the three month anniversary of my fall and the progress in my PT, for lunch I made myself some risotto. Get it? Because of three months of R.I.C.E.? Hehehe. Congratulations to me!

Image from Stonewall Kitchen's website.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Three More Days of Inspiration

I thought it was about time I did another post on a half week of healthy, delicious cooking to keep everyone inspired. Why "3 Days" of cooking? I theorize that I have only ten meals to plan each week. Breakfasts are easy - bowls of cereal or oatmeal, smoothies, bars, fruit, the occasional egg dish. I spend weekends eating with the husband man, usually at restaurants. Even if we eat at home, I consider it a different category of food preparation. Which leaves me five weekdays of lunches and dinners to think about. I assume I will make a "convenient" meal twice, maybe thrice - a sandwich or prepared meal like a Kashi frozen dinner, takeout or delivery once or twice a month, or even the rare weekday meal eaten out at a restaurant. I also assume that one or two of the dishes I make in my "3 Days" will allow for yummy leftovers reheated. So that leaves me with, on average, six meals - three days of lunches and dinners - to think ahead about when I grocery shop and start my prep work. Logically, I could spread these six meals out throughout the five days, intermingled with the convenience meals rather than consecutive. But that would ruin the narrative, now wouldn't it?

Thanks to sales at Safeway, my proteins for this particular three days of lunches and dinners were chicken (six organic breasts for $6!) and beef sirloin (three 5oz. steaks for $6!).

Prep: I wrapped up three breasts and one sirloin and tossed them in the freezer for later use. Then I fired up the George Foreman and grilled up corn leftover from my very successful quinoa experiment, two steaks, and three chicken breasts in batches one after the other. I dusted all the meat with garlic salt prior to grilling - prep doesn't get much easier than that.

Day 1

Sirloin Steak, Corn, & Snap Peas

For the first meal, I kept it simple, since already putting my effort into prep work. Besides, while hot and fresh, it didn't need embellishment. Alongside my 5oz. steak, I added half a cob of corn and a handful of snap peas, both ingredients that made an appearance in my quinoa salad.

Red Curry with Chicken & Vegetables

As anyone who read my guest post over on Gamer Girl Gets Thin knows, I'm sort of obsessed with finding a tasty, easy, and healthy curry to make at home. Therefore, I have been slowly working my way down the shelf of curries at the store, with varying degrees of success. This night, I shredded one of the chicken breasts, sauteed a package of mushrooms (buy 1 get 1 free at Safeway - score!), steamed a quarter head of cauliflower, and added 2/3 cup of frozen peas. I heated all of this with a jar of Thai Kitchen's red curry, then served it over microwaveable brown rice. All in all, a fast and filling one-pot meal that came in at under 300 calories. Definitely healthier and cheaper than ordering take out, and perfectly palatable to boot. Palatable as in I will eat the leftovers. Still not good enough to make me give up my favorite Thai delivery, but I don't expect that from a jar.

Day 2

Sirloin Steak on a Bed of Whole Grains with a Side of Sesame Soy Snap Peas

I heated garlic brown rice with quinoa and topped it with a chopped 5oz. steak and a drizzle of gravy. For the vegetable, I tossed together some of my famous Sesame Soy Snap Peas. Satisfying. Simple.


Chicken Salad Sandwich with Quinoa Salad

I shredded half a chicken breast and tossed it with a little Smart Balance Mayo, a tiny dollop of garlic infused olive oil, lemon juice, chopped tomato and onion, toasted almond slivers, salt and pepper. Threw it on a sandwich thin and spooned some leftover quinoa salad on the side. Crazy yummy and very filling.

Day 3

Curried Chicken & Brown Rice Salad

For those of you taking notes (an image that makes me giggle), you can maybe guess what I would do with leftover brown rice, coconut milk, and chicken. Hmmmm... Maybe some curried rice salad? Yes, please! One cup of the garlic brown rice and quinoa, half a chicken breast shredded, toasted almond slivers, toasted coconut shreds, chopped onion, apple chunks, dried cranberries - all things I already had. For the dressing, the chicken absorbs less than the rice, so by replacing half the rice, I also reduce the amount of liquid. 1/4-1/3 cup light coconut milk, a couple tablespoons of rice vinegar, I left out the garlic since some already flavored the rice and instead grated in some ginger from the freezer, and a lot of curry powder. After I stirred the dressing into the salad, I added a tablespoon of Smart Balance mayo to thicken it a bit and hold everything together to go in a low carb/high fiber wrap rather than a bowl. This made enough for two wraps, so the rest went into the fridge for later yummies. I love the versatility and spontaneity of this salad. I make it a little differently each time, and it's always awesome.

Mushroom Lentil Casserole

I will conquer the Campbell's-less casserole! I've just about perfected this pursuit in my mushroom lentil version. Awhile back, I created a surprisingly delectable casserole using Near East Rice & Lentil Pilaf, Campbell's  Cream of Chicken soup, and chicken broth. Now I'm near cracking the code for making it even better without the soup. I'm still finagling the liquid amounts. This time I had a lot of extra liquid leftover. Not that it affected the outcome, which I think I've about perfected. It just seems silly to write a recipe that tells my readers to dump out extras. I'll post the recipe once I have it fine tuned. I bet I can even work out a vegetarian version. I love my projects! 


This used the last chicken breast, the last of the onion, and the second container of mushrooms. Even with the husband man home for this meal (and seconds were had - better seconds of this nutritional dish than gorging on popcorn at the movie we saw after), I still had a bowl leftover for later. See why I only need to plan three days of meals? That's leftovers of red curry, curried chicken salad, and mushroom lentil casserole to get me through the other days of the week without getting bored or wasting food. And that's the whole point of my 3 Days/6 Meals system.