Friday, July 23, 2010

From Cali, with love

Husband and I took a recent trip to Northern California to visit  the Wrangler and Bugsy.  Bugsy suggested a breakfast restaurant in Occidental.  While we drove the windy roads to this Northern California town, Bugsy whipped out her smart phone to show us the restaurant's website and, even better, its menu.  I don't know about you, but I LOVE to read restaurant menus.  I especially like to read the menus before I visit a place.  I don't like to wait until I'm seated in the restaurant for the first glimpse of the menu.  I  want to know what to expect and have an idea of what I want to order.  I'd much rather soak in the atmosphere of the place than spend the first 10 minutes with my head buried in the accordian, plastic-covered book.  Plus, I find it exciting to read menus and start your mouth watering for something on that said menu.  Thankfully, I found a kindred spirit who does this, too.  Thanks, Anne, for making me feel like not as much of a food nerd!

Anyways, as I was reading the menu of this restaurant in Cali, two things jumped out at me:  Blueberry Cornmeal Pancakes and Organic Brown Rice Scramble.  The first choice I knew I would love.  As for the second choice, I was intrigued, but skeptical.  The description: "Brown rice scrambled with eggs, green onion, feta, and spinach."  My first thought, brown rice in eggs???  That sounded so weird to me and a little more of a "hippie" breakfast than I'm used to.  But knowing I'd probably never find this dish on a menu at home, I decided to take the risk.  I also ordered the pancakes.  What can I say?  I was on vacation.

The pancakes were amazing.  The brown rice scramble -- out of this world!  Everyone at the table raved after trying it.  I think I definitely had the best breakfast at the table.  The eggs were perfectly fluffy and beautifully studded with specks of brown rice.  The spinach, green onions and feta perfectly rounded out the scramble.  The flavor exploded with every bite and was not at all what I expected from brown rice in a breakfast dish.  Brown rice notoriously has a bad rap for being bland.  This dish helped me see that brown rice is what you make of it.  It can be full-flavored if you do it right.

So, knowing that it maybe a long time before I would ever get that breakfast dish again, I had to make it back home. For me, part of the fun of going out to eat is finding inspiration for my cooking at home.  If I eat something tasty in a restaurant, I often try to recreate it at home.  It's like a challenge, a motivation to make restaurant dishes at home. This dish also kicks off my other feature I'd like to start -- I'm calling it "Oh, no, she didn't!"  I love to put unexpected ingredients together.  Sometimes it works out.  And sometimes it's, well, a good story to tell.  I also love a good challenge, so feel free to challenge me with ingredient combinations.

My take on the brown rice scramble is my Front Porch Frittata.  Named as such because I ate it on our front porch.  The recipe doesn't have green onions as I didn't have any at the time, but I would highly suggest them instead of the sweet onions I used.  It just gives the dish the added flavor it needs.   Another tip: make sure you turn your burner off after your put the frittata in the oven.  Common sense to most, I know.  Let's just say after I pulled the frittata back out of the oven, I might have placed it on the burner which may or may not have been still on.  Continued sizzling could be a sign of a possible hot burner.  I'm just saying.  In case you weren't aware.

Front Porch Frittata

2-3 tbsp olive oil
1 cup diced onion (or green onion if you prefer)
2 tsp minced garlic
5 oz raw spinach, coarsely chopped
8 eggs
1/3 cup milk
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup cooked brown rice, cooled
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese

Bring the 2-3 tablespoons olive oil to a medium heat in an oven safe 10-inch frying pan.  While the oil is warming, crack the eggs in a large bowl and whisk eggs with the milk, salt and pepper.  Add the feta and brown rice and stir.  Set aside.  Turn on your boiler to the high setting.

Toss in the onion and garlic and saute' until onion is soft.  If you are using green onions instead, they will need very little saute' time.  Add the chopped spinach leaves and let them wilt ever so slightly.  Add egg mixture and use a spatula to mix all ingredients together evenly.  Let the frittata cook for 5-8 minutes or until it is set around the edges.  Place in broiler for 5 minutes or until the middle is firm.  Watch closely as this can sometimes go very quickly.  
Every frittata recipe I've ever seen say to flip the frittata onto a plate.  I've never successfully been able to do this.  So, if you can, more power to you!  And, please, share your tips.  

Friday, July 2, 2010

I've Never . . . Made Flour Tortillas

What a perfect day Iowa summer day!  I'm sitting at my dining room table with our windows wide open listening to chatty birds, backfiring cars and enjoying the light, cool breeze making my bright yellow curtains float off the ground.  It seems like the perfect day to start one of my new blog features I hope to make a weekly entry.  I'm calling it "I've Never...."  This idea was born out of many youth  and college years of playing a game by this same name that is meant as a way to get to know people in a nonthreatening way.  Apparently, there is a board game by the same name now.  Who knew?

The basics of the game?  You gather chairs in a circle but have one less chair than people.  One person starts the game by standing in the middle and stating one things they have never done -- like, "I've never traveled overseas." or "I've never eaten a bagel."  All those sitting down who have done that very thing must get up and find another seat.  Whoever cannot find a seat must stand in the middle and share their "I've never."  My investigation online tells me that you can make this into a drinking game.  I'm sure it comes as no surprise that my many experiences with this game included no chugging of blue concoctions housed in glass test viles.  At most, I may have had a can of Diet Mountain Dew (my caffeine of choice during college) nearby.   

In my food blog form, the "I've Never..." will be exploring foods that I've never eaten and/or made before.  I've already got a list of items going from the kooky (eggs boiled in tea and spices???) to the simple (baked apples).  Life is too short to not to try new things, right?  I also would love to hear your "I've Never's..." in the world of food...and even your adventures in trying new things in the kitchen.   

So, in this first installment I made my own whole wheat flour tortillas.  Why?  Well, we had veggie tacos on the calendar for dinner the other night and I didn't have any tortillas at home.  It was as simple as that. 

I do have vivid childhood memories of homemade tortillas made by mom in our carpeted galley kitchen.  These tortillas were very hard to resist right off the stovetop, especially when they were folded around a pat of melting butter.  It's like that bread basket sitting right in front of know your meal is coming soon but you just can't resist the warm doughy perfection.

My attempt at tortillas certainly don't fit "warm doughy perfection" but for a first attempt, I'm happy with the result.  They are not even close to perfectly round and ended up a little dry from me overworking them with the rolling pin but I kind of like their scraggly appeal.  I will definitely make homemade again as they were super easy (aside from my lack of dough rolling skills) and cooked very fast once you rolled out the dough.

Do you make homemade flour tortillas?  What's your favorite recipe?  Any special tricks?

Here is the link to the recipe I used for my first ever flour tortillas.  Husband and I enjoyed them filled with pinto beans, caramelized onions, avocado, locally-made salsa and cilantro from our garden.  Divine.
Have a wonderful July 4th weekend! 

Monday, June 28, 2010

A shaky-leg, heart-thumping kind of decision

Why, hello, there!  Long time no see.  So sorry for my absence, again.  Ugh.  Life has been interesting as of late as I've been feeling my way through a new daily schedule.  It's been weird and a little uncomfortable.  It's been exactly what I needed. 

The journey behind this decision brings me back to vacation days as a little girl at my paternal grandparents in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho.  My grandparents lived on the outskirts of this small, slightly touristy town in a two-bedroom log cabin at the base of a mountain.  Every morning, I would drive with Grandma into town for her part-time job as a librarian in the sleepy library.  Some days I would hang out with her surrounded by paper and curled up in the basement reading a mystery of some sort like Nancy Drew or Encyclopedia Brown.  I would often take a break and walk to the local pharmacy for a chocolate malt.  And then some days she would drop me off at the Olympic-size pool on the edge of town. 

Not only was the pool expansive, but in addition to normal diving boards, they had diving platforms from Olympic-lore.  Three levels of platforms hung over the water, each level given you more street cred than the others.  I remember my shaky legs ascending the steep, narrow stairs past the first platform, then the second platform, and on to the third.  On that platform I was surrounded by giggly teenage girls, pubescent boys and muscled, hairless men in Speedo's.  I stood out with my arms crossed over my one-piece which covered my pillowy stomach and flat chest.  I tried to quiet my wildly beating heart and my shivering goose-pimply legs.  I watched as the men in Speedo's jumped quickly and nimbly off the platform.  The teenagers seemed like jumping off was the last thing on their minds.  My turn seemed to be now or never.  I shuffled slowly and looked down to the awaiting water to make sure no bodies remained in my path below.  I walked a few steps backwards and ran over the edge, my arms and legs waving like they were made of jello as my body descended to the sun-reflecting water.  And then it was over...the cold water met my feet with a loud clap and water soon greeted my nose and mouth with a whoosh.  I journeyed back up to the surface with my kicking legs.  My lungs gasped for air as they also fought with the water that I swallowed so swiftly.  Minutes of fear that seemed like hours and days were ended with exhilaration and an unsureness if I would do it again but so very glad that I at least tried it once.

My recent life decision has been, for me, like my jump off that top platform.  Many visits to that pool I promised myself I would take that chance but I never did.  But the day came finally when I could not hold myself back any longer.  Fear would hold my hand and leap with me.  Fear would become my friend.  Lately, I'd forgotten how good a friend fear can be.  I needed the reminder that fear is the catalyst for growth and self-discovery.  I'm ready to embark on a new discovery, Ala Christopher Columbus.  Fear will be my shipmate and not the storm that forces me to turn around to calmer waters.  I am ready.  In the meantime, kitchen adventures await and I cannot wait to spend more time slicing, dicing and writing.  

With the beginning of this new path, I thought I'd redesign the look of this blog.  Like me, I felt like it needed a fresh start.  I'm not sure I'm done with it yet but for now I am enjoying the brighter design.  What do you think?  I also plan on adding a couple of weekly features (you'll have to wait and see!) along with the storytelling that I enjoy so much.

Although I have been absent from my blog, I am still doing a fare bit of cooking and baking.  I actually had a cupcake recipe I wanted to include in this entry, but I have yet to find the recipe that I scribbled down.  Time to start a recipe notebook so that I don't mistake my torn pages as trash.  :) 
Until then, I hope some pictures of recent food ventures will suffice.  See you soon, with recipes.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Yolk on the walls

Husband and I love breakfast.  Not the take it on the run, wrapped bagel in a napkin that you eat as you pretend you can drive perfectly well while juggling feeding your face and steering.  We love the getting up early, out-to-eat lazy breakfast that can only come on the weekends.  It's our favorite thing to do and the meal that we eat out the most.  Which is odd -- as breakfast in and of itself is really pretty easy to make at home and pretty easy to make as tasty as you can find in a restaurant.  Maybe it's the treat of a weekend when it's nice to have someone else cook comfort food for you.  Or maybe it is a sign that Husband and I do have a bit of obsession with eggs and salty meats.  Did I mention we have a painting of bacon in our kitchen?  And one of our kitchen walls is the color of an egg yolk...oh, man, I just now realized that.  How funny.

One of the reasons we make a production of breakfast on the weekends is our schedules do not allow for a hot breakfast during the week.  It's darn near impossible.  So, I'm always trying think of easy things to have on hand that are perfect for lives on the go.  I've made homemade granola that we eat with creamy and tart Greek yogurt.  I've also done overnight oats that soak in yogurt and are accented with nuts and fresh fruit.  For me, I tend toward a baked good for a quick breakfast.  It's a little harder to find a baked good that satisfies that pastry craving while still filling you up and not being wholly unhealthy for you.

A nearby bakery has delicious banana chocolate chip muffins which I thoroughly enjoy.  So, I thought I would try to make a pastry that reminded me of this banana/chocolate combination but would still be hearty enough for breakfast or an afternoon snack.

When I try to make a baked item a little healthier I do a few things: 1) I substitute part or all of the flour with a combination of whole wheat flour, wheat germ and flax seed meal.  You could substitute the whole of the flour with whole wheat flour but I find that whole wheat flour, specifically true 100% whole wheat is too strong of a flavor.  When you bite into a baked good made solely with 100% whole wheat flour, it's like getting slapped in the face with a iron skillet.  Really, Whole Wheat, I love you but I don't love you enough for you to be the star of the show.  2) I substitute part of the butter with fat-free Greek yogurt.  3) I drop the sugar content by 1/3 to 1/4 because typically you don't notice it's been removed.  

Banana Snack Cookies
adapted from Field Guide to Cookies

1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup flax seed meal
1/4 cup wheat germ
1 3/4 cups rolled old-fashioned oats
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt 
1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
1/4 cup fat-free Greek yogurt (must be Greek yogurt, can just do 3/4 cup butter if you don't have Greek yogurt on hand)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup mashed ripe banana
1 cup dark chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 375F.  Line baking sheets with parchment paper.  Combine the flour, wheat germ, flax seed meal, oats, baking soda, and salt together.  In a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add the Greek yogurt, egg and vanilla and mix until combined.  Add half the flour mixture, mix, and then add the banana and mix. Add the rest of the flour mixture and mix until combined.   Mix in chocolate chips.

Drop tablespoon-sized balls onto the baking sheets. Bake for 12 to 14 minutes, rotating halfway through.

Makes about 3 1/2 dozen cookies.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ode to corn

When I moved back to Iowa in my mid-20's, one of my friends frequently asked if I had met any good corn-fed Iowa boys.  For so long, my answer was no, no, and NO!  That is, until Husband came around.  In him, I found my corn-fed Iowa boy (via Indiana, but after age 4 he was officially a corn-fed Iowa boy).  All this corn-fed love has seemed to have another influence on the form of food.  I seem to be obsessed with cooking with corn.  You may envision me cooking with yummy Iowa corn from the cob.  But, no, you'd be wrong.  I'm currently obsessed with corn in its ground form.

Almost every dish I've been wanting to do as of late contains ground corn in one form or another.  From Pan-Seared Polenta to Chili with Hominy to Jalapeno Cornbread to Turkey Verde with Hominy to Grit Souffle, I think I'm officially stuck on ground corn.  It's like I'm trying to channel life just off the Mayflower.

Every time I mention a new meal idea that mysteriously contains ground corn, Husband just nods politely with a amused smirk floating across his face.  He's graciously putting up with my corn fetish.  I don't want to push my luck for too long but for now he's happily getting his fill of corn.

One form of ground corn that I am fairly new to is polenta.  In fact, the first time I ate polenta was at the hands of a former nun in the northern hills of Italy on my 30th birthday trip.  I arrived at the ex-nun's home at the hands of my American friends who have spent the majority of their life living in Italy.  She graciously invited us over for a meal and to talk about her life.  The meal?  Pan-fried polenta and gnocchi.  The polenta was thinly sliced and in the shape of a rectange and simply spiced with salt and pepper.  It's shape and consistency was a more savory version of my Grandma Hazel's cornmeal mush that she would often make for us for breakfast topped with real maple syrup (is there any other kind?).  The gnocchi was speckled with spinach and also minimally spiced.  It was a carb-laden meal, for sure, but simple, beautiful and filling.  I have so many happy memories of that meal, partially due to the wonderful conversation had around the table in her beautifully sparse home (much like the food she cooked) in the plush mountains of Italy.

If you are unfamiliar, polenta is typically made from coarse-ground corn and mixed with water over heat until thickened.  You can eat it in its soft form, spread it in a pan to cool and set up or bake it in the oven.  It then can be cut it into various sizes, grilled, pan-seared and served with a sauce of your choice.  Once you get started, there are really many options and variations to this form of ground corn.

Until recently, I had only tried adding polenta to my meals from the premade tubes you can buy in the refrigerated section of your grocery store.   In fact, the first meal that I made for Husband, I made spicy polenta fries from premade polenta.  It was crumbly and didn't much resemble fries but the flavor was promising.   After many so-so experiences with premade polenta, I was inspired by a visit to a local restaurant to try my hand at making polenta from scratch.  What ensued was a dinner of "Wow's" and fulll-mouthed "So, good's!" which made me vow to never ever buy premade polenta again.  It just does not do this dish justice.

Making homemade polenta is really pretty simple depending on what method you choose.  I chose to bake polenta, which takes some time, but it is so very low maintenance that you can clean, fold laundry, read a good book while you enjoy the lofting smell of cornmeal, water & olive oil melding together.

So, here is my ode to cornmeal.  The dish that began my obsession of polenta and has now made me a polenta evangelist.  Now, therefore, go out and make only homemade polenta!  No tubes aloud.  Also, no tube tops.  But that goes without saying.  Forgive me, my message is a work in progress.   

Pan-Seared Polenta with Chives
(Polenta recipe adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine, January 2010)

8 cups water
5 tbsp. olive oil, divided
2 tsp. coarse salt
2 cups cornmeal (Coarse-ground is typically recommend but I used regular cornmeal and had excellent results)
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp. chopped fresh chives or 2 tbsp. dried chives

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Put a 9x13 glass or pyrex baking dish on a baking sheet.  Combine water, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and coarse salt in a dish.  Pour in cornmeal in 1/2 cup increments and mix carefully to avoid spilling.

Place baking sheet with cornmeal mix in oven.  Bake for about 1 hour.  Add pepper and chives and stir to blend.  Bake 20 minutes.  Stir mixture again and use spatula to keep mixture even on top.  Continue to bake the polenta until it is very thick for 20-30 more minutes.  Cool at room temperature until polenta is cool and firm.  You may want to use the back of a metal spatula to make sure the top of the poleta is even and flat.  This can be made up to 2 days ahead of serving.  Wrap the baking dish with plastic wrap and chill.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.  Cut polenta into 8 squares.  Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add polenta squares and work in batches.  Saute' until crisp and brown about 8 minutes on each side (if you choose to make the polenta ahead of time, pull it out about an hour in advance to allow it to reach room temperature or allow for 12 minutes per side).  Transfer pan-seared polenta to a cookie sheet and place in oven to keep warm until all polenta is finished.

How to serve?  So many choices.  You can make any type of tomato sauce that you would normally place over pasta and use it with this polenta.  For this dish at home, I just pepped up a jarred pasta sauce with fresh basil, garlic, red pepper flakes, diced fire-roasted tomatoes & freshly ground pepper.  To add a little more veggies, I also sauteed onions and yellow squash and placed on top of the sauce when plating. 

I reccomend serving this dish in a wide bowl.  Ladel the desired tomato sauce in bottom of bowl, top with pan-seared polenta square and top with a dollop of ricotta cheese.  Sprinkle with fresh parmesan cheese and some fancy salad greens (optional).