Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last Day of Freedom/Back to the Beginning

It's my last day to eat. Last day for candy and cookies and cakes--oh my! Last day before Slim Fast and fiber bars and endless parades of salads with low fat dressings. It's a necessity, I know. If appearance and health didn't matter to me, I would be the world's fattest woman, unable to leave my house, creaking the floorboards whenever I dared to rise from the sofa. Appetizing, huh? But it's true--I love food that much. But I also love feeling good, feeling healthy, and not shuddering whenever I pass a mirror. I love being attractive to my husband (who says I'm pretty even in my chunky phases but--let's face it--whose opinion would change were I to morph into a whale). So, back to the dietary drawing board. In 2009, I lost 25 pounds. With the beginning of grad school and the holiday season, I gained nearly 15 of them back. The holiday weight might be easier to lose--it's been there only briefly and shouldn't mind moving out--but the rest has simply got to go. Ideal weight, here I come. Whether I like it or not.

So--last day of freedom. What am I going to make for dinner? No idea. Maybe something with hollandaise sauce. That's a rare treat. For lunch, grilled ham and cheese (hopefully using the last of the holiday ham). But you know, I think I might go light. The woman who loves food might have had enough. With all the cookies and candies, cheeses and crackers of the holiday season, I might be done. So maybe I don't have to worry about becoming the world's fattest woman. Maybe I'll just be moderately chunky.

Strange talk for a food blog, eh? Well, I'm sort of a culinary Jekyll and Hyde, wrapped into one. The feaster and the dieter. The one who melts for butter and the one who loves turkey bacon.

BUT! Let me tell you. The new year is coming.

Last year, I started this blog for a reason. To have a solid reason to get in the kitchen with my husband every Sunday, to cook something together, and to keep a record of it. Write it down. Let you read it, if you like. Granted, my mother reads this blog. My husband's friends are aware of its existence. I'm not going to write anything scandalous or embarrassing. So it's more pots and pans than passion. And I'm not exactly the world's best cook. But that idea that I had--well, I need to get back to it. So I'm changing the title up there on the header, and I'm going back to my original intention.

Sundays in the Kitchen resumes January 3, 2010.

Bon Appetit!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Best Compliment Ever...


Just a quick note:

This Christmas, I received the best compliment ever. My dad told me that my grandmother would be proud of my divinity. And my pie crust. I just wish I had learned the recipes from her instead of my Better Homes & Gardens cookbook.

To all of you out there with cooking grandmothers: get in the kitchen with Grandma while you still can.

And thanks, Dad, for the compliment. It's still making me smile.

Fluffy White Frosting


So--I don't know if this recipe is in any books anywhere because it's something my mother and I sort of came up with. We made a version of it at Thanksgiving for a cake designed to celebrate my grandmother's birthday--it went between layers of lemon cake with a raspberry glaze and stewed berries. The outside of the cake was coated in whipped cream and topped with more stewed berries (raspberries and blackberries, stewed with a little water, some sugar, and raspberry liqueur). At Thanksgiving, we neglected to write any recipe down. For Christmas, however, I decided to use real measurements and record them. This time I used the frosting over a delectable chocolate cake, topped with crushed candy canes. I must tell you, this frosting is amazingly easy and so delicious, you just won't believe it.

Fluffy White Frosting

1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
4 oz cream cheese, softened
1 cup heavy cream, whipped with 1/4 cup powdered sugar

Cream the butter and the cream cheese together. Fold gently into the whipped cream. (Tip: don't fold the cream in when it's too cold, or the butter and cream cheese will seize up. Cream cheese must be at room temperature or it will clump up in the frosting.)

This frosting could be so versatile. Add cocoa powder, perhaps, or vanilla extract, or peppermint extract, rum extract--whatever you like! It would be excellent on a coconut cake, red velvet cake, white, yellow, chocolate--pick your favorite.

Bon Appetit!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Non-Candied Yams

One of my least favorite holiday foods--I like it, I suppose, but I definitely don't love it--is the holiday yam. Candied, with brown sugar, baby marshmallows on top. Yuck. It's just too sweet, frankly, but not quite a dessert. I love yams. Sweet potatoes. Whatever you want to call them. They have such wonderful natural flavor. Sweet potato chips, sweet potato fries, baked sweet potatoes--all are superb. But none seem fancy enough for a holiday meal. So this year, I improvised. I used a simple recipe.

1 yam (sweet potato) peeled and cubed
1 bulb fennel, cubed
1 large red onion, cubed
2 tbs olive oil
1 tbs dried thyme
1/2 tbs dried parsley
salt and pepper

Toss all ingredients together and roast in a 375 degree (F) oven for 30-45 minutes, until soft and sweet.

It was absolutely amazing, I have to say. And what amazes me more is that it's relatively healthy. Cut back on the oil and it will work wonderfully come the New Year's diet. It's hearty, but not heavy. A revelation. I have a feeling this one will work its way into the regular rotation.

Bon Appetit!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Oh, Fudge! The Conclusion


The fudge turned out! It's just as smooth and creamy as it was before it went into the freezer. The brittle turned out, too--still crisp and delicious. The fudge did leave little drops of chocolatey water at the bottom of the Ziploc bag, and it's not quite as beautiful as it was fresh from the pan (mainly because the squares were not laid evenly in the bag, more tossed in every which way) but the taste is the same. Success was never so sweet!

Oh, Fudge!

I read in my Better Homes & Gardens cookbook that fudge, along with other candies, can be frozen for up to 2 months. Based on this information (alongside the fact that Ian and I are hosting both our sets of parents for Christmas this year and want to make sure there are treats enough for all) I made a batch of fudge and a batch of pecan brittle (just like peanut brittle, but with pecans instead of peanuts), put them in Ziploc bags and froze them. They're sitting on my counter right now, slowly warming through. I'm crossing my fingers that they defrost OK because a lot of time and sugar went into those candies. For the first time ever, my fudge didn't turn out grainy, and my theory is that instead of wussing out on the final beating that fudge must receive, I braved my tendinitis and beat that chocolate concoction half to death. My elbows were sore, but my fudge was smooth.

So now I just have to wait and see. And protect my bags of candy from my cat, who seems very interested in their presence on the counter. Thankfully, she's really only interested in the plastic bag. She eats plastic like nobody's business, but sweets are generally snubbed. Let's just hope my guests don't snub them!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gingerbread Construction Tips


Last year, I tried to make a gingerbread house. Tried. It failed. It fell into itself in a spectacular mess of cookie crumbs and royal icing. I had measured all the pieces exactly, but they still came out wonky. I used buckets full of icing and still nothing would stick. It was not the holly-jolliest part of my holiday season.

This year, however, I have succeeded! I feel I can safely say that, since Ian and I made the house last night and this morning, it is still standing. So, unless the cat gets a sweet tooth or tries to sit on the roof, we have a gingerbread house! It doesn't have the traditional sloping roof (one of the biggest architectural problems I encountered last year)--it's more Flintstones style--but it has four walls, a gumdrop snowman, and a cinnamon disc path. So if you want to make a gingerbread house without using the store-bought, cookie-cutter kit, here are some tips:

1. Have a gingerbread cookie recipe that makes for nice, stiff cookies.

2. Roll out your dough directly on a piece of parchment paper that will go directly on your cookie sheet (peeling dough off the countertop will only deform your pieces). A dough cutter/kitchen scraper works nicely for making straight edges.

3. Don't roll your pieces too thick: the heavier the pieces are, the more likely they are to fall in on themselves.

4. Use a basic powdered sugar and milk icing, and make it as thick as it can be while still being spreadable.

5. Have two sets of hands available: one to hold the walls and another to apply the icing.

6. Don't stress if it doesn't work. Don't stress if it isn't perfect (mine most certainly is not!). It's a fun activity, more than anything. And it's just gingerbread. And you can always eat the ruins!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Quiche


Yes, I'm skipping Thanksgiving. (Gasp!) Let's face it, it's long gone and I was too busy stuffing my face with turkey and yams to write anything about it. Sometimes enjoying life (to me) is more important than writing about it (crazy, perhaps, for an aspiring author--but true.)

So last night, Ian and I made quiche. It was our first time. The most amazing part, I think, is that I got Ian to eat eggs for dinner. He is one of those rare people who hates breakfast food, who wants a Reuben for breakfast, who got angry when the dining hall in his dormitory served pancakes for dinner. But he ate eggs for dinner. Of course, a few weeks ago he ate a souffle, which is basically eggs--but quiche? Quiche actually looks like eggs. So how did it happen?

First of all, two words: pie crust. I'm starting to think that anything is better in a pie crust. And I make a pretty good pie crust, and not just when I'm using Nigella's super-awesome part-butter, part-shortening recipe (How to Be A Domestic Goddess...if you don't have it, make sure to ask Santa) but also when I just use the flour, shortening, salt deal from my red checkered Better Homes & Gardens book. I think I've figured it out, too. I don't worry about it. Plus, as my aunt Phyllis told me last Christmas (a comment I did not appreciate at the time but am now grateful for), you only roll out a pie crust once. Otherwise, it gets tough. Only roll it out once! OK--I've broken this rule and still had awesome pie crust. The main idea behind that, though, is not to overwork it. Don't develop the glutens too far. And you will have lovely pie crust.

Second of all: ham. The addition of ham to the quiche recipe makes it seem more like a sandwich? Ask Ian. He can tell you.

Third of all: spinach, sour cream, cheese, half and half, and all those yummy, fattening things you whip into the filling. And (as Paula Deen--among others--says), "FAT EQUALS FLAVOR!"

Find some excellent quiche recipes at www.foodnetwork.com or www.recipezaar.com

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Portabella Risotto

Just before my birthday, (I know--this post has been a long time coming) Ian and I went to West of Paris in Moscow, ID. For my appetizer, I had the seasonal special: portabella risotto. It was so delicious, I decided to try to recreate it at home. This isn't exactly like what we had at the restaurant, but it's pretty darn good.

Ingredients:
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter
1/2 yellow onion, finely diced
2 portabella mushrooms, finely diced
3 crimini (baby bella) mushrooms, finely diced
1 tbsp dried thyme
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 1/2 cups medium grain rice (arborio if at all possible)
4 cans vegetable stock

Procedure:
Heat oil and butter in a large, deep skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Saute the onion until translucent, then add mushrooms, thyme, salt, and pepper. Saute about 3 minutes more. Add rice; saute until the rice begins to smell nutty, about 2-3 minutes. Add vegetable stock about one can at a time, stirring regularly after each addition until the can of stock is completely absorbed into the rice before adding the next can. Serves 4-6

Friday, October 30, 2009

Another Twisted Treat

Sugar & Spice Cookies

Perfect for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas...

Just take your favorite roll-out sugar cookie recipe and add:

1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
dash ground cloves

cut into pumpkins, ghosts, or witches. cut into turkeys, pilgrims, or cornucopias. cut into bells, stars, or candy canes!

Happy Day Before Halloween!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Halloween Treat

This recipe is my twist on Nigella Lawson's Blood and Guts Potatoes. Hers is more for kids, and while mine is still completely kid-friendly, I've transformed it into an appetizer.

Blood and Guts Potato Pies

Ingredients (Pastry and Filling):

2 medium Russet potatoes, peeled
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup cold, unsalted butter
4-5 tbsp cold water
1 cup shredded mozzarella
1/4 cup ketchup
1 tbsp onion flakes
pinch dried mustard
splash milk
salt and pepper
extra ketchup

Technique:

*Boil the potatoes until fork tender; boil two minutes more; drain, mash, and cool.
*Preheat oven to 450F. Prepare a mini muffin pan (24 muffin cups).
*Separate out 1/2 cup of the mashed potato. Mash/chop until there are no major chunks. (Do NOT put in the food processor--potatoes will turn to glue).
*Combine the 1/2 cup potatoes with the flour and the cornmeal. Cut in the flour with a fork (NOT food processor! Can't emphasize this enough!) until the chunks of butter are no bigger than peas. Still using the fork, whisk in water one tablespoon at a time until dough looks moist, but not wet, and sticks together in a ball when you press it together.
*Divide the dough into twenty-four even pieces (divide the initial ball into thirds, divide each of the thirds into sixths). Press each portion of dough into the muffin cups with your fingers, forming a little pastry cup.
*Bake in 450F oven for 6-8 minutes, until crisp and lightly golden around the edges. Cool in pans for about two minutes before removing the pastry cups.
*Over low heat in a small saucepan, combine remaining potatoes, cheese, ketchup, onion flakes, mustard, salt, pepper, and milk. Keep stirring until nicely melted together.
*Divide the filling between the pastry cups, about a teaspoon each. Splatter the tops with a little bit more ketchup (thus--blood and guts potatoes!)

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Top of the Slippery Slope

Birthdays (though I enjoy them immensely) are decidedly bad for the waistline. Especially since Ian's and my birthdays are only two days apart and not too far from Halloween. We tend to overdo our indulgence in sweets, making full-sized cakes for just the two of us, giving ourselves permission to eat spoonfuls of leftover frosting and as many mellowcreme pumpkins as we can handle. Sweets, and cooking vessels and books to help with their preparation, are a popular gift. This year I received a lovely madeleine pan (which I am more than excited to put to good use), Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess (basically a baking book with more deliciously sinful treats than you can imagine, along with entertaining tips), and Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything (part memoir, part cookbook). These amazing, delicious things, along with a large bag of mellowcreme pumpkins and several non-food-related gifts (all lovely and well-appreciated--thanks to the givers!). Our birthdays are really that first step down the slippery slope of the holiday season. Birthdays, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas...and then the self-disgust and weight-loss resolutions of January.

Of course, I know I don't have to be eating that whole time. I often impose (or try to impose) dietary restrictions on myself in the interim between such holidays. After the birthday cake and candy is gone, be good until Halloween (if there is indeed a gap between them). Low-calorie soup all through November until Thanksgiving day. Christmas cookies only at social events. These are well-meant, but rarely followed through. Sometimes I'll try to be "good" by using I Can't Believe It's Not Butter baking sticks and Splenda in my baked goods. But I know all that chemicalized food is just as bad, if not worse for me, than the high-calorie stuff. It's just bad for me in a different way. I like to justify fall treats by saying, "It's got apples (or pumpkin or pears) in it! Vitamin C!". But let's face it. If I said that to a personal trainer, they'd knock me out. I know it. I think the problem is, I just don't care. Or--not enough, anyway.

The fact is, there are just too many wonderful treats to be had this time of year. And with the cold weather setting in, our bodies crave extra fat. Comfort food. Hot, hearty food. Warm, gooey pear tarts and hot apple pie. One of my favorites are my special Apple Cider Muffins--much healthier than the "muffins" you'll get at your local coffee house that should rightly be called "cupcakes"--they're light and moist and yes, they contain lots of Vitamin C (unless that bakes out--I've never been clear on such things).

Laura's Special Apple Cider Muffins

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 packets dry apple cider mix
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 cup honey
1 beaten egg
1/2 cup plain applesauce (no sugar or spices added)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup nonfat milk

*Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
*Line cups of a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners. Set aside.
*Mix flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, apple cider mix, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a large mixing bowl. Create a well in the center of the mixture using the back of a spoon or the bottom of a measuring cup. Set aside.
*Mix honey, egg, applesauce, oil, and milk in a medium mixing bowl. *Pour wet ingredients all at once into center of dry ingredients. Whisk together. Batter will be slightly lumpy.
*Fill muffin cups about 3/4 full.
*Bake at 400 degrees for 15-18 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the muffins comes out clean.

Makes 12 muffins.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Don't Hold Your Breath

Yesterday, Ian and I made a souffle.

It. Was. Awesome.

Granted, our souffle was a little firmer than the French might like, with a slightly browner crown, but boy, was it good. It puffed up nicely. It didn't fall. It was like eating light, fluffy, cheesy, crusty, eggy heaven.

Of course, this souffle didn't come without a little strife. Ian prepped the ingredients but didn't read the recipe, so when I came into the kitchen a lot of things weren't ready. We had to move fast. We had to whisk and grate and measure all at the same time. All four arms were moving in fast-motion, blurring like some crazy many-armed cooking machine.

OK. It wasn't exactly a cartoon. It would be cool if our arms would blur like the roadrunner's legs as he zooms past Wile E. Coyote, but alas, we are not animated. Still, we were working at top speed.

If anything surprised me the most about this souffle, it was actually how easy it was to make. So many cooks treat souffles like finicky bits of the Divine, whose wrath will be brought down from the sky should a wrong move be made. Sure, you have to get the egg whites to the right consistency. Anyone who's ever made a meringue or Divinity or even Angel Food Cake has done that. Sure, you have to make a cheese sauce with a roux. Anyone who's ever made white sauce, homemade mac 'n' cheese, or a pot pie can do that. It's precise, don't get me wrong. It is baking, after all, even if you choose a savory flavor like the cheese souffle Ian and I made last night. But there are so many myths about souffle-making, it's nuts!

Here are just a few:

*If you make a lot of noise while a souffle is baking, it will fall.
*If you slam the oven door, the souffle will fall.
*If you look at the oven the wrong way, the souffle will fall.

OK, so I made that last one up. But sneezing, coughing, laughing, stomping: all have been blamed for the souffle's deflation. And it's just not true, people! Souffles are puffy because of the air you whip into the egg whites and the protein, mixed with the cream of tartar you should be mixing your whites with, should be enough to keep that air where you put it. True, you do need to be careful when mixing your flavor base into your egg whites. FOLD GENTLY or the whites will deflate, making your souffle a lot less ethereal than you would like. But people, don't hold your breath for the sake of your souffle. It isn't worth the brain damage.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Food/Love Epiphanies #3 & #4

When you don't have your favorite cooking partner, you'll eat a lot of frozen veggie burgers.

If you have to bring food to class three days from now but your husband won't be there to bake with you, your classmates can deal with stale brownies as long as your husband gets them fresh from the oven.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Shepherd's Pie

British food isn't exactly known for its flavor. Many English dishes are misunderstood. They're known to be packed with offal and lard; hearty, cheap dishes that could be made from little more than a few root vegetables and poor cuts of meat. OK--so the Brits do have a long line of sausages in their history. They make pudding from blood and boil kidneys in sheep's stomachs. But tonight, I made a dish that I (and, presumably others) have long misunderstood: shepherd's pie. A meat pie. A meat pie? Well, in America we do love a good pot pie...and what's in a name? Well, a great deal. Sure, we eat mud pie, knowing it doesn't actually contain any mud. But steak and kidney pie...we know ther are kidneys in there. And shepherd's pie...what's in there? Anything a shepherd could get his hands on, presumably. For a long time, I thought it was a variety of chopped innards. I was so wrong.

In fact, shepherd's pie is incredibly simple. Ground beef. Carrots, celery, onion. Tomato paste. Beef stock. Salt. Pepper. Mashed Potatoes on top. How simple could you get? And how perfect?

It's just beginning to get cold here. The sweaters are coming out of the closets and the pots are coming out of the cupboards. The salads of three weeks ago are being replaced by soups. Warm, lovely, comfort food is on the menu. Ian and I are spending our Sunday together, thankfully, after being apart for most of the week and spending our Saturday up in Spokane. We're in our apartment, in our living room, with bellies full of shepherd's pie and Costco beer (try it--it's actually good!). We're watching The Next Iron Chef on Food Network. This is one good autumn evening. We are fully comforted, thanks to one major comfort food. If you haven't made shepherd's pie before, you have to try it.

Of course, there's always room for improvement. The recipe we used contained no more complicated spicing than simple salt and pepper. A little thyme might be nice. Maybe rosemary. Sage. Anything warm and festive. What the Brits would say about this, I don't know, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to try it.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Food/Love Epiphany #2

When you're married, especially if you weren't a particularly social single, you get used to doing things for two. Buying clothes, going to the movies, cooking dinner. So when, say, you start a new school program and meet a bunch of people without your husband as a social crutch, you're baffled. And when you get home from meeting these people and cook yourself a solo dinner, you're bound to end up with two servings.

Pork, Potatoes, and Pears

On Saturday, Ian and I decided to purchase some locally-grown, organic fruits and veggies. We headed toward the edge of town to the WSU fruit sale, where we were greeted by at least a dozen varieties of apples, three or four types of pears, and several breeds of potatoes. We bought four Bartlett pears, two golden-something-or-other apples (for Ian) and three large (gee, I wish my memory was better) potatoes. So this week, a themed Sunday-night dinner: locally grown.

The potatoes went into a lovely au gratin with Monterey Jack and Mozzarella cheese. It was delicious and so easy to make--butter, onion, flour, milk, cheese; layer potatoes; pour on cheese; bake; done. The pears were meant for lovely individual pear tarts with a butter crust and artfully laid-out pears. I've made these before and they're delicious, but such a pain in the butt to make. So I took the lazy way out. I made a crust (a slightly mushy one--never get so proud that you don't consult your cookbook in baking matters) and tossed the pear slices with brown sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and a teensy bit of salt. Let them macerate for a while, baked off the crust, threw the pears in, baked some more. The pear filling was delicious. The crust...well, I'll do better next time.

Of course, we couldn't just have potatoes and pears for dinner. Where's the protein (besides in the ample amounts of cheese in the au gratin...)? So Ian suggested pork chops. Here we deviated from our locally-grown theme. We didn't go to Vandal Meats. We just went to WinCo. Cheap but lovely pork, two servings for just over three dollars.

Right now, if my mom is reading this, she's probably wondering, when did she start liking pork chops? Because let's face it, my family never heard more whining from me than they did on pork chop nights. (Here, Mom, forgive any commentary on your cooking). Pork chops, to me, were always dry and horrible, they tasted like wet cardboard and salt, and they were accompanied by the most horrible of all side dishes, applesauce. It took me a long time to come back around to pork chops--strangely enough (here's where I vindicate you, Mom) it was my mother who showed me a better recipe. Instead of thin, bone-in chops, these were pork loin chops, very thick, cooked with a mushroom and wine reduction she had learned from the chef at the restaurant where she worked on the business end. There was no suggestion of applesauce, and the chops were more likely to be undercooked than dry. It was yummy stuff, though I often worried about under-cooking the meat. So later, I saw Nigella Lawson cook some nice thin chops on her show Nigella Feasts and I was intrigued. Would they be like rubber? Some people liked that sort of thing. My brother and father would go nuts over Mom's pork chops, the very same ones that I dreaded. Either way, I trusted Nigella's judgment and I tried it. And you know what? Pan-seared, oven-finished pork chops are one of my new favorite things. Here's how I cooked them last night:

Marinate pork chops (2 medium, approx 1 lb) in a few tbsp olive oil, white wine vinegar, one crushed garlic clove, 1 tsp sage, 1 tsp rosemary, 1 tsp thyme, 1/4 tsp parsley, salt and pepper for two to four hours. Sear on an oiled grill pan, about 5 min each side, then place in 35o oven for about three to five minutes more. If you don't want to use the oven, pound your chops thinner before marinading.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Food/Love Epiphany #1

Never tell your spouse the chicken was overcooked. The look on his face will be worse than ingesting a thousand rubber chickens.

Friday, September 25, 2009

His and Hers

There are certain dishes that I consider to be Ian's. Shredded Mexican chicken. Fajitas. Anything on the grill. These are all things that he found the recipe for, that he originally cooked for me (and not the other way around). There are so many recipes that he pulls off the internet that I end up cooking, but sweetheart that he is, he sometimes takes on the cooking responsibilities, too. So when we plan meals like last night's "Skinnier Chicken Stroganoff" there's a part of me that clasps my hands and sighs romantically. Remember when he first made this? Oh, that was a nice evening...

Of course, Ian has no recollection of this at all. Even if he's made the dish for me several times. Each time he closes the cookbook, it's like his memory is erased. He retains nothing of the romance or the recipe. Of course, he was the one cooking so it probably wasn't as romantic for him. And recipes often seem to stress him out--he has such a fear of messing up. And, to be fair, he has messed things up in the past. So has any cook. I'd argue that even the Barefoot Contessa has burnt a chicken or turned out lumpy pudding. And I don't think she'd argue back.

Anyhow--last night, being that it was one of "his dishes" on the menu, I made the mistake of assuming that Ian would cook. Which freaked him out. Because he didn't remember. Oh well. I came to his aid, and an interesting thing occurred. Usually, I am in charge of the real cooking, boiling and sauteing things, etc. while Ian is in charge of chopping carrots and pulling things out of the pantry. This time our roles reversed. It seemed to tickle him, having me as his sous chef. And I realized, trying to chop quickly enough and fumble back and forth with ingredients, that being the sous is not such an easy job. We only have so much cutting board space. Sour cream and flour make strange bowl-fellows (but turn out a delightful sauce). Whole wheat fettucine takes forever to cook. Of course, I knew these things before--maybe not about the sour cream, but the rest of it--and yet, it was more stressful than being in charge of cooking the chicken through or making sure the spices go in at just the right time. Not in a bad way. Last night's cooking was fun (Ian and I were extra glad to see each other because I'd been away at school the night before and our cooking was punctuated with kisses) and the meal was delicious. I guess it was just fun to cook one of "his dishes" together.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Good Dieter, Bad Dieter

I apologize for being a delinquent blogger. At least this post is only a day late...it could be worse! My excuse (or at least my explanation) is this: I've been getting ready to start grad school (first class tomorrow!) and I've been freaking out. Because, as I've said, grad school involves being away from Ian. So I've had other things on my mind.

That is not to say that Ian and I did not cook this Sunday. We did. Well, I did. Um...I think he helped with a few things, but it was one of those utilitarian, I'm-hungry-so-let's-get-this-over-with kind of nights. We made minestrone (lovely, by the way--here's the recipe) and parmesan croutons. The food was delicious, but it didn't feel like it was supposed to. We ate very early in the evening (when dieting, I always feel like dinner can't come soon enough, especially when I get a free pass for a meal) and then had the traditional argument over whether to open a bottle of wine (this makes me sound like a wino, I know--I am always pro and Ian is always con. I just think that a nice meal should have a nice beverage to go along with it and Crystal Light fruit punch just doesn't cut it. Maybe we should switch our cooking days to Saturday since Ian's main argument is not to drink on school nights).

But here's what I really want to talk about: why is it that when two people diet together, there is inevitably a good dieter and a bad dieter? For a long time I was the good dieter, counting my calories and thoroughly planning our meals while Ian went to work and ate junk at staff meetings. It would frustrate me, but since I was the good dieter, I felt OK. I would help him, give him guidelines, etc. But now--the tables have turned. He goes to work with his low-calorie soup and doesn't snack all day (he never was much of a snacker anyway) and eats his low-calorie dinner and is good. But me--I snack. I'm bad, I know. And sometimes it adds up to more than I'm supposed to have. So now Ian is giving me diet tips, and it doesn't feel OK. I know better than to open a can of sweetened condensed milk to see what it tastes like and then turn it into a cookie-cake type thing (it was already open, I didn't want to waste it, what was I supposed to do, blah blah blah).

I guess dieting is, whether we like it or not, a competitive thing. I used to only compete with myself. Now, I compete with my husband. Not for the number of pounds lost or calories consumed--I know that our needs and thus our results will be different. It's like riding a mechanical bull, and lately I haven't been able to hang on. I guess instead of begrudging Ian his success, I should be happy for him. And instead of grumbling in the dirt, I should stand up and get back on the bull.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Chicken.

This week, during Ian's and my attempt at cooking "together", I learned the wonders of being a supervisor. You just pour yourself a drink, sit down on the couch, and holler instructions during the commercials of Everybody Loves Raymond reruns. Or at least, that's what I did. And I chopped a few vegetables. But mostly I sat on the couch.

Forgive me, if you will, for impeding the progress of this culinary experiment. You see, we had just returned from a "picnic" at Bear Lake, where I was supposed to meet all the lovely people with whom I will be going to school for the next two years. The picnic started at two and we high-tailed it out of there at exactly 4:15. This is not because it was horrible. In fact, it was rather bland. The part that made it scary was entirely inside my mind. I am not a social person. Nor is Ian. I have not had to meet large groups of new people in...four years? I have been so surrounded by Ian's friends, most of whom are entirely left-brained and socially awkward themselves, that I was intimidated by the large group of beautiful people (who knew that 80% of the writers present would not only be social butterflies, but brightly colored ones at that?).

This is not to say I didn't talk to anyone. I did. But I didn't talk to very many of them, and I found I had little to say. Then again, who expects writers to be so chatty? When I think of writers, I think of hermits, social outcasts, disfigured visages in bell towers. I know that's extreme. But think of Emily Dickinson. The woman was a shut-in. Think of Emily Bronte. It's not exactly a broad sample of writers on which to base an opinion, but I did. Because I am one of them, in my way. I like people, but not en masse. I don't like forced social events. I don't (despite my love of food) like eating in front of strangers, and though I brought a lovely corn and bean salad, I never approached the food table or took credit for my cooking.

So of course, when we got home, I polished off a few handfuls of corn chips, made a drink, and parked myself in front of the TV. I was disappointed in myself for being such a chicken and for not getting into character on the drive up--if I had played the part of Chatty Cathy, I would have been fine. But I wouldn't have been me. I would have been someone who would inevitably disappear a few weeks into the program and my classmates might find that the girl they liked so much was only an illusion.

Ian (with my supervision) made a Thai dish--Green Curry Chicken. It sucked. Through no fault of Ian's, of course. He followed the recipe precisely. It was just...unimpressive. Maybe it was missing the love.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Recipe for Togetherness

This week, for our Sunday cookery, Ian and I made lamb cassoulet. The recipe came from our Better Homes & Gardens cookbook (the red and white checkered one that just about every American cook has lying around somewhere) and, man! was it good. And relatively good for us, too, which jives well with our diet--unlike the movie popcorn and ice cream sundae we indulged in earlier in the day...

You see, Ian's and my lives have been complicated lately. Stressful. He has, as usual, a daunting amount of work to do at his day job plus this semester's graduate school course to keep him more than busy (he's been chipping away at his MS for a couple of years now...three more to go!). On top of that, I (usually only beleaguered by household chores and imaginary blogging deadlines) have been set on the track towards grad school, too--only my school is an hour and a half away. We've been moving me into my part-time apartment with my part-time roommate, though I'll still technically "live" with Ian, I've been inundated with school-related emails both professional and social, and have been desperately trying to figure out how I might end up juggling my two worlds. That, on top of our attempts at dieting, has meant that many meals have been spent apart, and those that have been more complicated than buzzing up a Slim Fast shake in the blender have not been cooked together.

I guess the reason I'm telling you all this is to justify the breaking of our diet. Also, it might give you a better picture of how happy I was to cook with my husband last night.

We chopped the veggies and browned the meat, and when I needed a skillet from the cupboard by Ian's knees I didn't push him out of the way but kindly asked that he scoot to the side for a moment. We had a couple of beers (another diet faux-pas...oh well) and waited for the meal to cook...several hours, actually, of beans soaking and stew bubbling. There was a strange sense of patience in the air. Maybe it was the movie popcorn keeping our bellies full, belaying the need for a quick dinner. Maybe it was the three-day weekend. Or maybe we were just glad to have a calm moment together, without worrying, without anything to accomplish but a lovely dinner and an evening in front of the TV. Dinner was served around 10:00 pm. We usually eat at 6:00.

So I guess absence--or maybe it's just stress--does make the heart grow fonder. More patient. I know the next year or two will bring many nights apart from my dear husband, and I know that our meals will be rarely eaten or prepared together, but that's actually why I started this blog, this idea of cooking together every Sunday (I know I write a lot of other junk, too, but that was the original point)--I knew this time would come when Ian and I would be torn apart by our schedules and I wanted something we could do together every week; something we could bond over. Forgive my corniness but I think we'll find the recipe for togetherness.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Grilled Chicken with Tomato and Fennel Sauce

Every dieter--or at least, every meat-eating dieter--knows that grilled chicken breast is one of the best things for you. It's lean, low-calorie, high-protein, and it fills your stomach. The problem is, there are only so many ways to grill a chicken. You have to be creative. It's tempting to make a nice healthy chicken breast and then douse it with high-calorie, high-sugar, high-sodium sauce or add a fattening side, or just burn yourself out on chicken breast and salad, day in, day out. To remedy those chicken breast doldrums, here's a sauce I whipped up last night. It's sort of like Chicken Milanese, except the chicken is not coated with bread crumbs and/or fried, and I lightened the sauce.

Tomato and Fennel Sauce

1 cup thinly sliced fennel
3 roma tomatoes, diced (you can peel them, too, but I hate peeling tomatoes)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp dried thyme
cooking spray
2 tbsp Parmesan cheese

Spray your pan with the cooking spray and put the pan over medium heat. When it's hot, throw in the fennel and saute for about 2 minutes, until it starts to soften. Add the tomatoes and garlic and cook until the tomatoes start to get mushy. Add the thyme and cook a minute or two more. The sauce should still look fairly fresh--not cooked down like marinara sauce, but not so crunchy as, say, salsa fresca. Add the Parmesan cheese (or, if you're making huge cuts to your calories, omit it) and serve.

This is about two servings of sauce, and you won't be disappointed with the size of the servings. It's light, healthy, and delicious. It works well with the chicken and whole wheat pasta (I served it with rotini).

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Diet Begins...

Fat equals flavor. Flavor doesn't necessarily equal fat. That's fortunate, because Ian and I are going on a diet. Actually, we're already on it. It began yesterday, and should run through October. You see, we both made New Year's resolutions regarding weight, and we've both made a good amount of progress, but our recent kitchen exploits have sent us sliding backward. With the holidays coming up, it's more important than ever for us to work on our waistlines and, more importantly, develop healthy eating habits. So be prepared for lots of low-cal recipes. Don't worry--there are a lot of delicious foods out there that are healthy and figure-friendly.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Jerk and Chicken and Sweetpotato

First, I blame our kitchen for this week's jerkiness. You've heard the phrase, "too many cooks in the kitchen"--well, in our kitchen, even two cooks seems to be too many. Sure, there are two stations--gaps of available counter space big enough to accommodate a cutting board--but each of these stations puts the cook in question in front of one of two major cabinets: one blocks the spices, vinegars, etc. and the other blocks all cooking vessels of any kind.

So that's fun.

In any case, this set-up explains why, while attempting to make the papaya salsa that would go on top of our baked sweet potatoes and jerk chicken, I was interrupted several times by Ian's opening and closing of the cabinet in front of me. I made the mistake of putting him in charge of the spice rub for the chicken, even though I was standing in front of the spices. I even gave him a five-minute head-start, hoping he'd at least get all the bottles he needed by the time I got to my board, but no. Ian is an excellent helper, but an incredibly slow one. He made an individual trip to the cabinet for each spice. He took the bottle of cinnamon, measured what he needed, put it back. Checked the recipe. Took the bottle of cayenne, measured what he needed, put it back. Checked the recipe. Nutmeg, chives, onion powder, thyme, allspice, sugar, salt, black pepper. Each ingredient got its own trip, and I got my feathers more than ruffled--they were standing on end. Needless to say, I lost my temper a few times. Nothing major. Just some verbal barbs and some frustrated squawking, but still. I got angry. And I apologized. Several times.

But at least I've figured this out--so next time, the person by the pots will be in charge of the actual cooking and the person by the spices can make any rubs or marinades. Trial and error, I suppose. And error and error and error.

That being said, let me tell you about the amazing meal we made. It was my attempt at duplicating Claim Jumper's Jamaican Jerk Sweetpotato (don't ask me why their menu has decided that sweet potato should be one word, but they have). It is absolutely mouthwatering, and while I didn't get the exact flavor I remember from the restaurant (mainly because my grocery store didn't offer the right kind of sweet potato, I think) it is delicious. The recipe is as follows:

Jerk Chicken Sweet Potato

2 sweet potatoes (try to get the kind with orange flesh--they might technically be yams), baked until the skins are crisp and the flesh is tender (poke holes in the potatoes, spray with cooking spray and sprinkle with salt, cook directly on oven rack)

1 small white onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 large handful cilantro, chopped
1 fat clove garlic (or two small), minced
8 slices jarred jalapeno, minced
1 papaya (~1 lb), diced
2 tbsp lime juice
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
(mix all these together, refrigerate until needed)

2 6-oz chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 tbsp onion powder
2 tsp dried thyme
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp dried chives
2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp black pepper
1/8-1/4 tsp cayenne
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
(mix all spices together, coat chicken pieces w/spice mixture, cook chicken in skillet w/nonstick spray)

butter
honey
green onions

To assemble:
When potatoes are done, cut them open and add about 1 tbsp butter (optional); top with salsa and chicken; add green onions; drizzle with honey

Oh. My. Goodness. You will not believe what an incredible meal this is. And while the Claim Jumper menu had this item listed at about 1400 calories, I'm fairly certain my version doesn't exceed 600 calories--

Sweet potato: 112
6 oz chicken breast: 165
papaya salsa: 150
honey: 60
butter: 100

Of course, the cooking spray does add a few calories (I don't care what the label says, it isn't calorie-free) and so do the spices (again, they might not need to list calories because they are so negligible, but there has to be some energy in them).

Regardless of the calories, this is a sweet and spicy, hearty dish that absolutely blows my mind. It's my new favorite. And I didn't even know I liked papaya. Oh, but I do. And the sweetness of the cinnamon really jives with the sweetness of the potato, and the nutmeg...

I have to stop writing about this or there will be drool all over my keyboard.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

In Defense of Junk Food

Yesterday I was out to lunch with my mom and grandpa, and when the waitress asked if Grandpa would like fries or coleslaw, he very disgustedly said, "fries?". She might as well have asked if he wanted arsenic in his iced tea.

"They're just the worst thing," he said after she'd left the table.

"Oh, but they're the best thing," I replied. Of course, I knew what he meant. Anything deep-fried is pretty much a cardiological nightmare, especially given the use and reuse of restaurant frying oils. For a health-minded person like Grandpa, they're absolute junk. Trash. A waste of resources. But to a slightly self-indulgent person like me, they're divine.

Which is not to say that I advocate binge-frying. All things in moderation, of course. But to deny yourself all things "junk"--well, that's just cruel.

Fries, of course, are not the half of it. There are so many wonderful if slightly sinister junk foods to be had. There are the extreme cases, like the "Glorified Hot Dog" that was recently brought to my attention:

The Glorified Hot Dog

Make a slit in a hot dog; stuff it with cheese.
Wrap the hot dog in bacon; bake the whole thing.
Get out the Tums; you're going to need them.

There's the deep-fried twinkie, the deep-fried Snickers bar. Anything you can batter up and drop in boiling oil.

Then, of course, there are less threatening treats: the many, many "junk" items that, if consumed in small portions, won't send you to the doctor to get your cholesterol tested. One of my favorites is the Rice Krispie Treat. (I suppose I should call them crisp rice squares--don't want to infringe on any trademarks here.)

There's the basic treat, the chocolate treat, the peanut butter treat. There's the amazingly sinful frosted treat like the one I had at Disneyland that inspired this post. But be creative. Use those crazy flavored marshmallows and whip up a little something to top it off. Me, I like to melt down the pastel-colored mini marshmallows (they taste vaguely of citrus) with butter, stir in my krispies, and top the final production with a drizzle of white chocolate, thinned out with a little bit of orange juice. During the holidays I crush up candy canes and stir them in with my krispies and mallow, drizzle the squares with dark chocolate, and add a few more crushed canes on top. There are endless possibilities--krispie treats might actually be the world's most adaptable food.

To sum up--sure, it's called "junk food" for a reason. And don't get me wrong--I think you should eat your spinach and get all your fiber and avoid deep-fried anything for your everyday fare. But every once in a while...have a Rice Krispie Treat. Have a french fry. Enjoy yourself and your food.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What are you going to do next?

The answer:

I'm going to Disneyland!

Today I'll be away from the stove, eating amusement park junk and riding the Matterhorn. Since I'm not cooking, I don't have any recipes for you, but you know what? Rachael Ray does. This is today's recipe from foodnetwork.com's recipe-of-the-day program, which you can sign up for on their website. It's totally free and they don't send you a bunch of junk mail or sell your email address. In my opinion, it's a very good deal.

Have a beautiful day!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Let Us Eat Cake

Ah, weddings. So much love, so much joy…so much food. The menu can really make or break a wedding. Some choose to really do it up with tray-passed hors d’oeuvres and elegant plated meals. Others take the buffet route, whether the steam trays hold prime rib or mac ‘n’ cheese. I’ve been to weddings with beautiful appetizers (at one wedding the chicken satay skewers were tremendous) and artfully plated entrees. I’ve chosen chicken, beef, or vegetarian (last summer, a plate of vegetable curry absolutely knocked my socks off). I’ve had cold meat sandwiches and homemade salads. I’ve been a frequenter of the buffet line and I’ve flat out chosen not to eat. But no matter the couple’s budget, no matter how long the guest list, there is one thing a wedding can’t do without. That one thing is cake.

When Ian and I got married, there were several cake questions we had to ask ourselves. Should we have fondant or butter cream? Fondant looks better; butter cream tastes better (in the end we went with butter cream). Was it OK to have peanut butter icing or would some guests suffer from peanut allergies? How much cake did we really need? And of course, are we going to feed it to each other or (as tradition demands) shove it in each other’s faces?

OK—it’s not much of a tradition anymore. I’m not sure I’ve been to a single reception where the groom smashed the cake into the bride’s face—that would absolutely ruin her makeup and probably ruin her night—nor can I recall seeing a groom get a face full of frosting. This weekend, I saw a bride and groom actually use forks for the feeding. There were shouts and catcalls—quite a few men seemed to want to see that cake splatter—but they very demurely fed each other their first bites, regardless of the crowd. Ian and I didn’t use forks, but we were gentle with each other, too. I might have put a little frosting on his nose to appease the shouting guests (man, do they enjoy cake carnage), or maybe I just thought about it—I don’t know. It was my wedding day! I was too excited to remember every little detail. Still, it wasn’t the big to-do that we see in the movies. It was sweet, not violent—just how it should be.

Then again, lots of wedding traditions have strange roots, some of them with a history of violence.

But back to the good stuff. The cake.

There is one element of the modern wedding cake that truly fascinates me: fondant. Such a strange material. Edible, but plasticky. An edible modeling clay. I had never had the stuff until last weekend, having been warned away from it by many friends and relations. It's no good, they said. It tastes funny, they said. And while I do agree that it's nowhere near as good as butter cream or cream cheese frosting, I have to say that it isn't so bad (nowhere near as bad as the choice to layer chocolate and lemon cake together in one tier). From what I hear, most people respond negatively to the texture and don't really factor in the taste. That, and they might have eaten the pre-packaged fondant you can buy at Michael's instead of making their own. Homemade fondants can taste like more than just gooey sugar. You can incorporate extracts--vanilla, almond, peppermint--to make really exceptional cake coatings.

Of course, this makes me want to make some fondant of my own. It's an irresistible experiment in playing with my food. And of course, I'll need a cake to try it out on. And I won't want to waste the cake, so I'll probably have to eat it.

If I continue with this cooking thing, I am going to be
so fat.

Friday, August 21, 2009

CA BBQ Pizza

This weekend, Ian and I won't be able to cook together because we will be out of town and dang it, the hotel doesn't have a kitchen. That's OK. While I love cooking, I have nothing against a few restaurant meals now and then.

So last night, in an attempt to sort of salvage our cooking-together time, Ian and I made grilled pizza. All I have to say is, baked goods on the grill? Amazing! The crust cooked really well, got beautiful grill marks, and although Ian's spatula-and-tongs method of flipping it over inflicted a few flesh wounds, in the end we had ourselves one beautiful pizza. And it was almost too easy. It was appropriate, though--it was a California pizza, a sort of send-off for next week's trip to the Golden State (which I still say should be the Sunshine State--I've been to Florida. They should be the Sticky State).

Since I've got nothing particularly interesting to report, here's a pizza dough recipe, given to my by my cousin as part of a cookbook she put together for Ian's and my wedding. It's an excellent recipe, works every time.

Pizza Crust/Breadsticks

1 package dry active yeast
1 cup warm water
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 1/2-3 1/2 cups flour (I find it best to go with less flour rather than more)
1 tablespoon cornmeal
Optional: garlic powder, basil, oregano

Dissolve yeast in warm water in warmed mixer bowl. Add salt, olive oil, and 2 1/2 cups flour. Use dough hook to mix on medium speed about 2 minutes. Add remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time and mix about 2 minutes or until dough clings to hook and cleans sides of bowl. Mix for about 2 minutes longer. If you're making breadsticks, add the garlic powder, basil, and oregano.

Place dough in a greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover with a kitchen towel. Let rise in a warm place, free from draft, about 1 hour or until doubled in size. Punch dough down.

Brush 14 inch pizza pan with oil. Sprinkle with cornmeal. Press dough across bottom of pan, forming a collar around the edge to hold toppings. Pre-bake for about 5-10 minutes at 425 before topping.

For breadsticks, brush with melted butter and bake for 8-10 minutes at 425. For a cheesier option, sprinkle with parmesan cheese before baking.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Viva Vermouth

When I met Ian, I thought he must be very sophisticated because in his cabinets, alongside the requisite college-kid mac 'n' cheese and instant rice, he had two bottles of vermouth: one sweet, one dry.

Little did I know, he knew absolutely nothing about them.

Back then--not too long ago, really--my palate wasn't particularly developed. I opened the bottles, sniffed their contents, and was overwhelmed by the smell of alcohol. Later, I would attempt a martini. That ended up going down the drain. Still, Ian wouldn't throw them out. He was determined that they would be useful for something. He spent good money on them, and dang it, they were not going down the drain. Five years and three apartments later, he still has those bottles of vermouth. But now I know of something to do with them.

Cook.

You see, most modern recipes don't call for vermouth. It just isn't something the average American keeps on hand. Vermouth might be invaluable behind the bar, but although cocktail hour and homemade Manhattans might be popular in some circles, they just aren't popular enough to keep vermouth in the limelight.

Then again, was vermouth ever in the limelight?

I've been doing some reading, and I think it must have been. Did you know that martinis used to be made 2:1, gin to vermouth? Now you most commonly hear folks asking for their martinis dry, extra dry, bone dry--meaning little to no vermouth at all. Did you know that many classic French recipes call for vermouth? I've been poking around on the internet a lot lately, and one of the gems I found is the old Julie/Julia Project (the impetus for the film Julie & Julia--written by a woman who cooked her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year) and it's vermouth this, vermouth that, vermouth, vermouth, vermouth! Marinades! Sauces! So much vermouth.

So yesterday, I dug out Ian's old bottles. Yes, I know they've known him longer than I have. Yes, I know they've probably been open since the day he bought them, made a Manhattan, and decided he didn't like them. Still, I opened them up--and do you know what I found? They smelled good. How did I not realize this before? The dry vermouth was floral and fruity--like white wine but better; the sweet vermouth had a gorgeous musk to it that evoked the flavors of a good pork roast. I poured myself a drop of the dry vermouth and gave it a taste. Definitely alcoholic, but very pleasant. I had planned to make chicken, but now I would use vermouth in the sauce.

I sauteed the chicken. Sauteed some onions and garlic (I didn't let the onions go long enough, though--I was too excited to try the vermouth). In went the vermouth to deglaze the pan. Now, usually when I deglaze a pan, there's this excited sizzle and a burst of aromatic steam from whatever liquid I'm using to deglaze. That's the way it's supposed to be. Maybe it's something about vermouth or maybe my pan wasn't hot enough, but in this respect, the vermouth failed me. Still, I had my hopes up. This was going to be the most wonderful sauce ever. I stirred in some thyme, let the vermouth reduce a little, stirred in the last couple tablespoons of cream I had leftover from Saturday's truffles, let the sauce reduce a little more. It smelled good, anyway. Like wine and thyme. Once the sauce was thick enough, I dumped it over the chicken and some plain old white rice and Ian and I had our dinner.

Oh, the disappointment.

I'm curious about this. Was my vermouth too old? Did I just choose the wrong elements to my sauce? Because while it smelled amazing and tasted great in the glass, in the sauce it tasted like almost nothing. That is, until after we were finished, when Ian and I both agreed that there was a distinctive vermouth-y aftertaste. I've read up on it and I'm not the only one who has thought to substitute vermouth for white wine, and many cooks have seemed to enjoy the results. It's a great way not to have to open a bottle of wine if you're not drinking. Next time, I'll try an established recipe and not just make things up as I go along.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Weeknight Wonder: Curried Lentils and Broccoli

I live in eastern Washington and around here, lentils are a big deal. This is a farming region. Along with wheat and canola, lentils are one of our biggest crops. In fact, the annual Lentil Festival is coming up this weekend in Pullman, WA. It's a weekend-long affair, including live music and one monster-sized pot of lentil chili. Ian and I won't be able to attend this year--we have a wedding to go to--but in honor of the festival, this week's recipe is all about lentils.

Curried Lentils & Broccoli

1 1/2 cups dry lentils, thoroughly rinsed
1 16-oz bag frozen broccoli (or 16 oz fresh broccoli, cut into florets)
1/3 cup peanut sauce
1 tbsp curry powder (I recommend Spice Islands--it has a nice, sharp flavor)
2 green onions
1 cup coconut milk
4 lime leaves
2 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp light brown sugar

*Prepare the lentils and broccoli as directed on their packages. The lentils should be softened but not mushy when cooked.
*Meanwhile, in a large saucepan over medium heat, combine peanut sauce and curry powder. Snip in green onions (white and green parts); allow to cook in the peanut sauce for ~30 seconds. Add coconut milk and lime leaves; cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add lime juice and brown sugar. Allow the sauce to reduce by about 1/3.
*Add lentils and broccoli to sauce and stir until completely coated. Cook 2-5 minutes more, allowing the lentils to absorb a bit of the sauce. Remove lime leaves and serve.

(Serves 2-4)

This recipe is tasty, low-calorie, vegan/vegetarian, and high in fiber. An all-around wonder meal!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sauces 101

If there is one thing about French cooking that I truly understand, it's the pan sauce. We Americans call it gravy. Basically, it's any sauce that's made through this method:

1. Cook meat in a pan; remove to a warmed plate.
2. Deglaze pan (using broth, wine, cider, etc.)
3. Stir in flavorings, scraping the bits off the bottom of the pan along the way.
4. Stir in cream or butter.
5. Pour sauce over meat.
6. Mangez! (that means Eat! in French...)

Of course, for American pan gravy, you'd first add flour to the fat (instead of deglazing--you'd make a roux) and then add your broth, boil it up, little salt and pepper...and that's that. And that's all well and good, but man, there are better ways to do it.

I'm saying all this, of course, because of a meal we had last night. We've had it before--Nigella Lawson's Mustard Pork Chops--and every time, it is just sensational. And so easy! The sauce is magnificent--absolutely perfect for pork--and it makes me curious to try a few of my own variations on this theme. It seems easy enough. For the mustard sauce, you deglaze with hard cider or, if you're like us and don't keep hard cider on hand, white wine. You stir in a glob of grain mustard (one of the best and least-known mustards...so spicy and tangy!) and follow that with a third of a cup of cream. This time we actually had cream in the house but usually I do two tablespoons of butter and a generous splash of nonfat milk, which makes a thinner but still delicious sauce.

Some of the variations that come to my mind and must be tested:

(Using beef steak)
--deglaze with beer (probably an amber?)
--stir in tomato paste and spices/herbs (allspice? rosemary?)
--butter or cream

(Using beef or pork)
--saute mushrooms in the drippings
--deglaze with red wine
--stir in herbs (thyme?)
--butter or cream

(Using chicken)
--saute garlic in the drippings
--deglaze with white wine
--stir in lemon zest and thyme
--butter or cream (maybe even just milk--low fat even--for this one...nice and light)

For the moment these are all theoretical...which would make me feel silly, but this is a blog, not a cookbook. I would test them right now except a) I don't have a reason to cook so much meat and sauce and b) I'm writing this from a coffee house, not my kitchen.

Of course, I concede that these sauces are a lot higher in fat and calories than your average steak sauce, ketchup, barbecue sauce, or what-have-you. But don't you get sick of the same old sauces, day after day? I know we do. And you can always lighten these sauces up a little by using less cooking oil for your meat (many of us tend to overdo it...more akin to frying than sauteing) and, depending on the flavors in your sauce, lightening up the dairy element at the end. Just don't tell the French I said that. Or the ghost of Julia Child. Or Paula Deen.

Anyway.

What about you? Do you have any killer pan sauces? Ideas? I'd love to hear them. If you do, go ahead and put them in the comments box...if you're willing to share, that is. It'll be like a recipe swap. And I promise to find a truly amazing recipe to share with you this week for my "Weeknight Wonders"...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Teamwork & Tamales

If there is one food whose preparation fosters teamwork, it's the tamale. The corn husks must be soaked and then dried, then filled with corn dough, then filled with the shredded meat, wrapped up, tied up, and steamed. They are an assembly-line food, meant to be cooked and enjoyed by entire families. You don't just make tamales; you earn them.

Of course, Ian and I are just a family of two. For the moment, we live two states away from either of our sets of parents and we are years away from having kids, so our assembly line was a little short. Ian dried the corn husks, I filled and folded them, and he tied the twine. It wasn't the crowded kitchen I imagine when I think of tamales, with gossiping grandmas and wide-eyed children trying to steal tastes, but that was OK. It was just two people making a heck-of-a-lot of food.

And tamales aren't all we made. We made "cowboy caviar" (a black-eyed pea salsa out of my Better Homes & Gardens cookbook), salsa verde (from an episode of Paula's Best Dishes that we watched that morning) and chocolate truffles (for no good reason at all). It was a regular food-fest, but we had an excuse: for the first time in quite a while, we were having friends over for dinner. Anyone who's ever been to our place for dinner knows that we love to overdo it. We had two guests on the way, and enough food for ten.

You see, I believe that food is meant to be shared, both in its consumption and its preparation. That's why I'm so excited to be in the kitchen with my husband, making tamales or jerk chicken or whatever, teaching him to cook and learning a few things in the process. It's a great way to bond, to have a common goal, and if you're going to stand around jabbering in the kitchen, why not peel a potato while you're at it?

But it's not just that. I do love cooking for my husband, letting him watch TV while I stir the pot, because it's like giving him a gift. I love cooking for my friends, because food might well be the best thing I have to give. But when we've worked together for something, we're invested in it. We can't take it for granted.

Think about Thanksgiving. I used to hate Thanksgiving dinner when I was a kid. The turkey was always dry and it got cold so quickly, we ate at 3pm when I would rather have been watching TV than staring at a plate of sticky yams. Then my mom got a job in the hospitality industry and had to work Thanksgivings, putting on a buffet for families who could afford to go out for their Turkey Day celebration. I was 16 or 17, and I made my first Thanksgiving dinner--Dad did the turkey, but I did the potatoes and the stuffing and the pie...all that (Dad might have done more than I realize, but the point is that it was a lot of work!). Suddenly I realized how hard it was to get that meal on the table, and the sense of accomplishment that comes from enjoying a meal that took time and effort to produce.

I also learned how lonely it can be in the kitchen. And I wondered, why don't we all work on this together?

So yesterday, Ian and I worked together. We shared our dinner with our friends and were able to truly enjoy their enjoyment of what we had made. We didn't just make dinner to eat together in front of an episode of The Simpsons (not that that isn't good, too). And you know what? We are really starting to work well together. There was no yelling, no arguing, no insults, intentional or unintentional. That might be boring to read about. Sorry.

In response to Pinky56's comment: the estimated time for the tamales was 5 hours including prep, but I guess Ian and I made a good team because it took 5 hours (including a couple of TV breaks) to make all the dishes I mentioned.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

It burns, burns, burns...

I'm sidelined.

Ian and I are having a couple of friends over tonight. We're making tamales, "cowboy caviar" (a black-eyed pea salsa), truffles, and salsa verde. Damn that salsa verde.

You see, salsa verde contains serrano chiles. Vicious, vicious little chiles.

If you ever work with chiles, wear rubber gloves and/or wash your hands 30 times after touching them.

Why? Because if you happen to chop onions after, and your nose starts to run, and you blow your nose, you could end up with vicious chile juice burning the tender skin around your nose. No fun.

The upside: I found some solutions for this predicament.

For immediate, short-term relief: rub it with butter or milk (fat counters the burn).
Water just makes it worse! However, ice does do well to numb it.
Lemon juice does nothing, despite what you'll read on the internet.
Rubbing alcohol burns at first, but after about a minute, you'll feel relieved.

Vigilance! Never let this happen to you! But if it does...at least you'll know what to do.

Friday, August 14, 2009

...Sardines...

For some reason, Ian has developed a nagging urge to eat sardines. It's been a couple of months--since we returned from Europe and Ian discovered that he was a bit of a culinary adventurer (not only did he like haggis, but he also liked anchovies). Sardines, I suppose, are the next step up from anchovies, or if not a step up then at least a step to the side.

It took him a while, but finally he bought a can of sardines in soybean oil. He was very careful about this. He looked them up online, deliberated over what kind of packaging he should choose (in oil or in water?) and how much he should spend (would the $8 sardines be any better than the $2 ones?).

Ian walked down to the Safeway by himself (we live about a block away, which comes in handy for last-minute ingredient needs and nagging needs to eat sardines). I stayed home and folded laundry. When all the clothes were put away and Ian was still not back from his shopping trip, I hit the computer. Foodnetwork.com, to be exact. I printed out a Bobby Flay recipe for grilled sardines on toast with vinaigrette and a Mario Batali recipe for sardine fritters (fried up with cheese, even I might try those little fishies) just in case the prospect of raw sardines was not so enticing once the tin lid was peeled back and those little fish were staring Ian in the face.

Luckily, they didn't have any heads and thus they could not stare.

The can only had three little fish in it, which for some reason was far less than I expected. The fish smell was overwhelming--luckily, I was heating up a bowl of potato soup for myself, which helped keep the fishiness at bay--but Ian ate them, tucked into a piece of pita with raw yellow onion. He liked them, but he was disappointed. Evidently, anchovies are better.

He put the last sardine on a small plate for the cat. She licked it, walked away, came back, licked it again, and then abandoned it for good. This is a cat who goes nuts if someone opens a can of tuna and meows like a maniac for her seafood-flavored treats. If she won't eat sardines, why should we?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

My Kingdom for Some Lamb

Once upon a time, I lived in a full-sized city. There were shops everywhere, drug stores and diners that stayed open 24 hours a day, and if you wanted to find a leg of lamb or a fresh duck, you could do it. Just jump on the freeway and hit up your local butcher, even your local grocery store (one not entirely run by bumbling college students), and you can come home with live lobster, or fresh kidneys, or veal.

There is no butcher in my town. I've asked for special cuts of meat at the grocery store and been greeted with blank stares. The meat isn't actually butchered there; it's pulled out of a box, defrosted, and put on display.

There's no butcher in the next town over, either. There's a Rosauer's that actually sells whole legs of lamb, but once again, the meat department does no butchery.

The closest I can come: the University of Idaho has a big agricultural and livestock department. They raise the animals, butcher them, freeze them, and sell them to the community.

I did say freeze, right? Yes--Vandal Meats (UI's mascot is a Vandal, don't ask me why) does freeze its meats, but at least it chops them into various pieces first. You don't have to buy a leg of lamb or nothing. According to their menu, you can buy it in various forms, though it can be a little touch-and-go. Because it is run by students, the level of professionalism ebbs and flows with the semesters. The best time to go is at the end of a semester, when the students have finally figured out the different cuts of meat and honed their customer service skills. At the beginning of the semester, forget about it. You're going to get a lot of wide, confused eyes, and you might just have to compromise on your cuts.

Knowing this, I am still one of their best customers. Ian is addicted to lamb--it is most definitely his meat of choice--and about once a month I make him one of his favorite dishes: a lamb curry called Rogan Josh. I'm making it again tonight.

Today's visit to Vandal Meats was remarkably the easiest I've ever had. It's not easy to get to--the road is filled with canyon-sized potholes and tucked into the back end of the campus. Once inside, the whole place smells vaguely of death and refrigeration. The walls are lined with fridges, labeled by the type of animal carcass in contained therein, and although I've never had any luck with the lamb fridge, today there were quite a few packages of meat waiting for me. I wondered for a moment if these were things reserved in advance by other customers, but since there was no one at the register, I scooped up all the stew meat they had.

I had no sooner placed my meat on the counter than a girl in a gauzy hairnet came out of the back room. Her apron and the sleeve of her pink sweater were faintly smeared with blood--disturbing, perhaps, but part of the trade--and when she didn't protest to my picking the packages out of the freezer, I figured it was OK. I recognized the girl as having served me before--she had become inexplicably confused when I asked for two pounds of lamb for kebabs and brought me stew meat instead. The stew meat was fine--it just required more cooking--and it was certainly cheaper, so that worked for me.

The girl rang up my purchases and chatted with me about the box full of beef bones--a somewhat eerie display of carnage, but I am a carnivore so I can't complain too much--and I was on my way, making sure not to total my car on their gouged-out driveway.

Now all I have to do is wait for the meat to defrost. I've got it in the sink at the moment, getting a cold water bath. It's still not going to be thawed in time. The stew takes two hours to make. Fun, fun, fun.

Ian tells me there is a real butcher somewhere in the area, but I've never been able to find it. Perhaps when I start going to school in Spokane I can bring a cooler with me and hit up a real butcher there.

Weeknight Wonder: Chicken Sausage with Peppers and Onions


There are a million recipes out there for sausage with peppers and onions. It's an Italian classic, and with good reason. It's simple and delicious, and when you need an easy weeknight dinner it is just the thing. It isn't an incredibly quick meal--the peppers and onions do need time to get nice and caramelized--but the payoff is enormous. And really, what work is there in occasionally stirring a pot? My version of the recipe is on the sweeter side, with a sharp edge of vinegar and tomato to balance it out. This recipe serves four, but has such simple proportions that it can be easily cut down to serve one or bulked up to serve 20.

Chicken Sausage with Peppers and Onions

4 Chicken Sausages (I buy pre-cooked, usually Sweet Italian or Sundried Tomato flavors)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 green bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 yellow or white onion, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp tomato paste
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

Heat the olive oil in a large pan and saute the peppers and onions over medium-high heat until soft and slightly caramelized (the onions should be a light golden brown), about 20-30 minutes minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the tomato paste and vinegar; stir until everything is coated. Cut sausages into bite-sized pieces (if yours are not pre-cooked, microwave them or cook them on the stovetop, let them cool, and then cut them up) and stir into the mix. Let the sausages heat all the way through (about 2 minutes) and serve.

We eat this straight out of a bowl, but it would be fantastic stuffed into some toasted pita bread or a sandwich roll. I've also served it over polenta, which is fantastic.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"Yolking" Around

Before I write anything else, I want to thank mightyfinelife for the link on egg yolk uses. Very helpful, very informative. (I also want to thank you for putting up my links on your site! Very cool!)

Second, I want to apologize in advance for any yolks I might make about eggs. I mean jokes. I mean--I've seen Mother Goose Rock & Rhyme too many times. Remember the Humpty Dumpty scene? Anyone? Well, if you haven't seen it, it's phenomenal. Tons of '80's stars as nursery rhyme characters. Over-the-top musical numbers. Good stuff.

So--egg yolks. As I wrote a few posts ago, I had some left over from the hazelnut meringues (which are all gone now...happily nestled into my fat cells) and I wasn't sure what to do with them. After a lot of deliberation, I made a decision.

Three went into a hollandaise. The last one will go on my face, if I get up the courage. Evidently eggs are good for skin, whether eaten or applied topically. We'll see if I get up the nerve for an egg facial or not. (I'm pretty sure my mom did this to me once in high school. I know it was uncomfortable but I'm not really sure if it worked.)

But back to the hollandaise. It was my first hollandaise, you know. My first time making it and--I'm fairly certain--my first time eating it. The only way I'd ever seen hollandaise used was globbed onto Eggs Benedict--a dish that has never appealed to me--and frankly, to me it was just yellow slime. And calories. So many calories. But once I made a hollandaise of my own, I discovered I didn't care too much about the calories...I was too busy drooling.

At first I thought making hollandaise would be difficult. You hear so many warnings about curdling eggs. I'd seen Tyler Florence of the Food Network make hollandaise in a blender before--how easy it looked!--but somehow, it seemed like one of those magical things that only TV chefs can do, something that for mere mortals will result in stomach cramps and all-night bathroom parties.

So I didn't use the blender. I used a makeshift double-boiler (metal bowl propped in saucepan with simmering water) and followed the instructions precisely. Off the heat, I mixed my egg yolks, water, and lemon juice (I feared the lemon juice would cause crazy chemical reactions with the eggs, but it didn't...just kind of separated them a bit until I whisked it all together). Next, the bowl went over the simmering water and in went the first 1/3 of a stick of butter--very soft, as per the instructions--and the whisk went wild, frantically trying to turn it into sauce, fearing all sorts of egg curdling and butter separation--nasty things you hear about but don't often experience.

At this point, I said the sauce looked pretty and Ian said, yeah, it did look gritty, which would have elicited a light slap on the shoulder had my hands not been busy whisking and keeping the saucepan over the burner. Instead I just yelped like a dog with a trodden-on tail. More butter went in and the sauce smoothed out, then more butter and it began to thicken. Once it was thick, off the burner it went and into a nice, cool bowl to prevent any further cooking (the cookbook didn't say to do this, but I figured if it wanted the sauce off the heat I would take it off the heat entirely). I added a dash of salt and some white pepper, and voila. Done.

I should have taken a picture of this dinner, though a picture wouldn't do it justice. I had toasted up some thick slices of French bread (wheat French bread--I hadn't known such a thing existed but it was delicious anyway) with some olive oil, salt, and pepper. I roasted some veggies (mostly leftover from Sunday's ratatouille)--eggplant, squash, zucchini, onion, potato, carrot, and celery--also with olive oil, salt and pepper, plus thyme and basil. The veggies went on top of the bread and the hollandaise went on top of the veggies.

Oh. My. Gosh. It was possibly the greatest meal I have ever eaten. Of course, it contained a half a stick of butter, so how could it not be? (You might even say it was "eggs"ellent.) Then again, if I dare think about the calorie content, my mind just boggles. I've already done an hour on my Wii Fit today and am thinking about hitting the gym for a while after lunch.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Julia Child Mania/A Very Good Meal

This is going to sound silly, but I'm about to compare myself to Julia Child.

Julia was 6'2", I am 6'0". She was a newlywed living in a strange place where she knew no one, brought there because of her husband's job. I, as a newlywed, stayed in a small college town where I knew practically no one, because of my husband's job. She learned to cook for her husband, and I learned to cook for mine. She married a very nice man. I married a very nice man.

OK. I'll admit it. I have been excited for the premier of the film Julie & Julia for months. Maybe a year. Whenever it was that the local movie theater tacked up the enigmatic poster: two eggs--one brown, one white--a title, and the names of two of my favorite actresses against a black background. Back then I had no idea what it was about, but I didn't need to know. I didn't know anything about Julia Child, either. I knew she cooked, but in my mind her image was scrambled in with Miss Manners, Sara Moulton, and a series of other indistinguishable domestic icons. I most certainly didn't know who Julie Powell was. All I knew was that Meryl Streep plus Amy Adams had to equal bliss.

Of course, I was right--though contrary to my initial hopes, the actresses never appear onscreen together. Still, their stories and personalities complement each other. I've read lots of reviews that say Meryl overpowered Amy, that Amy was less fun to watch, but I have to disagree. I thought their performances were like oil and vinegar: very different, very enjoyable on their own, but together--divine.

But I digress. I was talking about my relation to Julia. While we're at it, my relation to Julie. The three of us, we all have that one thing in common; we all married very nice men.

For example, I didn't have to drag Ian to go see Julie & Julia. He specifically asked me not to see it Friday afternoon while he was at work, but to wait until Saturday when we could see it together. And you know what? He really enjoyed the movie. He is (have I mentioned this?) an engineer, which is basically just math and science, and Julia's approach to cooking was very scientific. He was fascinated by her theories on mayonnaise--heating the bowl and whatnot--and her exclamations about "scientific workability". We shall have to perform some science/cooking experiments of our own sometime.

Of course, after watching such a food-fest as Julie & Julia, we had to come home and cook. (This was Saturday, but I didn't want to miss writing about it--the meal was just too good. Though I also saw Julie & Julia by myself yesterday and then felt compelled to buy a loaf of French bread an pick at its crust the whole walk home before eating several pieces slathered with cheese.)

Our dinner: Greek-marinated steak (sirloin--yum) with grilled onions and homemade crostini with a goat cheese spread.

The goat cheese was leftover from the shrimp risotto I made last week, and we had some roasted red peppers lying around, garlic (a staple at our house), some cream cheese, some dried herbs. Inspired by the movie, Ian fried the bread in a pan with olive oil (I usually drizzle a little olive oil, hit the bread with some salt and pepper and bake it in the oven or the toaster oven)--one of the first dishes we see Amy Adams cook is a mouthwatering bruschetta that her husband eats so lustily you think he might need a nap afterward. Ours was not quite so incredible, but still very good--especially given the fact that we were winging it with the goat cheese spread--and the crostini provided an excellent nosh to tide us over until the steak and onions marinated.

We are, apparently, incredible marinade-forgetters.

The steaks were supposed to marinate for 8-24 hours. Yowza! We fumbled around. We'd bought feta specifically for this dish (you sprinkle it on top of the steak...get a bite of steak, feta, and onion, and you're in heaven)...was there any way to make a rub with similar flavors? No. Could we just do something different? Noooo! We had to have the steaks. So, long story short, Ian jabbed at those suckers with a fork until it looked like they'd had enough, I whipped up the marinade, and they spent 3-4 hours soaking in their juices instead of the 8-24. They still turned out well, but if you can, you must try this recipe and you must let it marinate for the proper amount of time. It comes from a book my favorite aunt gave Ian when they came out for the wedding:

Betty Crocker, Grilling Made Easy: 200 Sure-Fire Recipes From America's Most Trusted Kitchens; 2005, Wiley Publishing, Inc. ISBN: 0-7645-7453-1

It might not be a recipe Julia Child would ever have tried (though oeufs en gelee is a recipe I would never try, so we're even), but man alive is it good. And that's why we cook, right? Why we spend so many hours mastering the art of it. Good food is, to those who appreciate it, a joy.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Trouble with Egg Yolks

Last night, Ian and I made dinner together, including a lovely dessert of hazelnut meringues with coffee cream. The problem: leftovers--not just the extra meringues singing their siren song inside the fridge--but more specifically, egg yolks.

You see, when you make a meringue you only need the egg whites. You carefully separate the eggs, whip up the whites, and if you are the average American, you toss the yolks in the trash. I have done so on several occasions. But you see, this time I have four whole yolks left. Four yolks! What is a girl to do?

Unfortunately, recipes that star egg yolks minus the whites are notoriously unhealthy. Ice creams, pots de creme, mayonnaise: all star egg yolks, cooked or not, in all their cholesterol-soaked glory. I do love food and I do want to make good use of the entire egg, but I have to admit that my health-conscious side screams STOP when I think of all those extra fat calories (I do like to watch my weight, you know), especially on a weeknight, especially in addition to those cream-covered meringues.

If only I could store those yolks indefinitely. If only there wasn't such a thing as shelf life. According to saveonfoods.com, I've got 2-4 days.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Ratatouille

Ian and I love animated films. Our DVD collection is full of them. From the original Disney classics to the most recently released 3-D animation, animated movies speak to us: the humor, the heart, the technical expertise. We have many favorites--it's so hard to choose--but on the top of our list, maybe the very top, is one particular film: Disney-Pixar's Ratatouille.

So of course, since we are trying to learn to cook and cook together, since we love the film so much and since so many vegetables are still in season, we absolutely could not resist making a batch of the movie's signature dish. Ratatouille--a French "peasant dish"--is easy, cheap, and healthy. It is completely vegetarian--vegan, even--and although it makes for a lot of slicing and dicing, it is incredibly simple. Chop the veggies, throw them in hot oil with herbs, salt, and pepper; cook. Done.

OK. It's not quite that simple. Different veggies have different cooking times, the eggplant absorbs more than its share of oil, etc. But still--it's easy. Unless, of course, you've decided to make ratatouille, potato soup, and hazelnut meringues with coffee cream all at the same time.

Ian and I spent our Sunday morning in Coeur d'Alene, two hours away, running errands and generally spending time away from our oppressively small town. We got home around 3:00 pm, unloaded the car, and realized we were already late starting our evening meal. The ratatouille wouldn't require too much time at all, but the meringues--oh, the meringues. I've made meringues before, but somehow these seemed more demanding. I ground up hazelnuts, folded them into the puffy egg whites, squeezed the flecked fluff into the rounds Ian had made with his compass on parchment paper. Meanwhile, Ian flitted around the apartment with his camera, photographing a pair of whisks in strange places in an attempt to hone his photography skills and to capture an image to accent my blog (I hope you like it--he spent a lot of time on it and deserves the credit).

I could continue to bore you with the specifics of our evening of cooking, the reasoning behind making both ratatouille and potato soup (which could have easily been made tomorrow) but I won't. We spent our share of time chopping and sauteing, arguing over whether it was OK to have wine on a Sunday night, but that's not what I want to tell you.

I want to tell you that my darling husband is, at this minute, as the Ratatouille credits roll on the TV screen (of course we watched Ratatouille--how could we not when we had created such a delicious pot of the same?) in the kitchen, putting herbs in plastic baggies. He makes sure to fold a paper towel into each baggie--he's very fastidious, you know--and as he does so, I can't help but fall in love with him a little more. Maybe it's the pinot gris that I had chosen to accompany the meal. Maybe it's the four hours we spent together in the kitchen. But as he moves from bagging herbs to shelving dishes, I know this project is worthwhile. I watch him sorting silverware, and I can't help but smile. I chose a good one, and I don't mean the ratatouille recipe (though that was good too--thank you Emeril).

Weeknight Wonder: Thai-Style Ground Turkey

Ours is not a meat-and-potatoes household. It's strange, actually. Neither Ian's nor my upbringing was terribly diverse as far as cooking goes--my mother had to blitz the veggies in the food processor to hide them in meatloaf and sauces, while until recently Ian sincerely believed that red meat was one of the best things for you--but now that we are adults, we rarely eat anything run-of-the-mill American. Our favorite foods are generally Asian, Middle Eastern, and Latin. We rarely ever eat red meat, with the exception of the occasional burger and the fantastic steaks Ian's mother occasionally sends in the mail (Kansas City filet mignon--yum, yum)--though lately Ian has been craving lamb. We often find ourselves almost unwittingly vegetarian, though those are not the dishes that Ian most craves. Every weekend, we try to plan our dinners for the week and do the shopping accordingly. If there's one thing that seems to creep onto the menu most often, it's curry.

Tonight, Ian and I will not be able to dine together. I have an evening class and he has been working exceptionally long hours lately. I will, however, whip something up and leave it for him. It's definitely a favorite, and it reheats very well.

Thai-style Ground Turkey (or Beef, if you like)

cooking spray
1 cup thinly sliced leek
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 lb ground turkey or lean ground beef
3 teaspoons red curry paste
1 cup tomato sauce
1/2 cup light coconut milk
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon lime zest
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon soy sauce

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add leek; saute for 5 minutes. Add garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add beef; cook 7 minutes until lightly browned, stirring to crumble. Stir in curry paste and tomato sauce. Cook until liquid is reduced by half (about 2 minutes). Add coconut milk, brown sugar, lime zest, lime juice, and soy sauce. Cook 2 minutes, until slightly thickened.

Serves 4. Serve over white rice.

This is a recipe I got from recipezaar.com and then tweaked to my own liking. The original recipe calls for fish sauce instead of soy sauce, so you can use that if you like. The original recipe also only calls for one teaspoon of curry paste, but Ian and I both found the final product insufferably bland. Experiment with it. You might like less spice than we do.

The curry paste and the coconut milk might seem like exotic ingredients, but you can almost always find them in the Asian or international section of your grocery store (ask someone who works there--sometimes these things are tucked away in odd places). If they have them in Idaho, they'll probably have them anywhere.

Enjoy!