Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cooking for One

Davy went out of town for work a few weeks ago, and I seized the opportunity to make a few meals with ingredients he's not especially fond of.  In the process, I also managed to clean out some of the odds and ends in our fridge. 

The first order of business was pasta, and lots of it.  Davy eats pasta, but he doesn't like to eat it more than once or twice a week.  I, on the other hand, would eat noodles multiple times a day given the opportunity.  Butternut squash is another food that I love and Davy could do without.  My parents gave me a nice jar of butternut squash sauce, and I decided to try it out with baked pasta.  

I browned three links of spicy Italian turkey sausage (casings removed), mixed it with about a half pound of cavatappi, 3/4 cup of shredded mozzarella, and a cup or so of the sauce.  I spread the mixture into a baking dish, sprinkled more cheese on top, and let it sit in a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes.  The creaminess of the squash sauce almost made me feel like I was eating a decadent variation of macaroni and cheese with spicy morsels of sausage throughout.  

Next up: mushrooms.  I was the weird kid who chose to eat mushrooms on my pizza when I was little, and I still love them.  The giant container of dried mushrooms, below, was recent purchase from Costco.  I'm thrilled to have them, because it means I don't have to buy fresh mushrooms just for myself if I want to add them into my cooking.

I'd found some beautiful organic rainbow chard and gigantic leeks at the grocery store and decided to take them home.  I thought for a few days about what I could do with them, and decided to combine them with the mushrooms to make an earthy spring soup.

I rinsed, chopped, and browned the leeks with some salt and pepper, and then added a rosemary sprig, parmesan rind, and some homemade stock from my latest roast chicken.  

After the broth came to a simmer, I threw in the mushrooms, which I had rinsed under hot water for a minute.  Once the soup had bubbled for about five minutes (the recommended cooking time for the mushrooms), I added the chard and let it soften a bit.   

Up until the moment that I started making the soup, I knew I wanted something else in the pot, but couldn't figure out what.  I had a can of chickpeas, but they didn't seem quite right.  The last of my frozen corn from the summer wasn't going to mesh well with the greens and leeks either.  Pasta would have tasted great, but it gets mushy if you're eating soup over several days.  I looked for barley in my cabinets, but didn't have any.  

Then I spotted a bag of brown rice, which I knew it would keep its shape when I wanted to eat the soup as leftovers.  I steamed the rice in a separate pot, and dumped it all in after it was almost done cooking.   

I ate many bowls of the soup with freshly grated parmesan and black pepper on top, and even though the combination was somewhat random, I thoroughly enjoyed the results.  Not only was it an extremely healthy creation, I also had it all to myself.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Tastebuds American Bistro

If Vietnamese, Tex-Mex, and Mediterranean fare are all featured on the same menu, it often means that at least one of them isn't worth eating.  The opposite is true at Tastebuds, which I tried for the first time a couple weeks ago.  The diverse menu was beautifully executed and affordable, especially for the quality of each dish.  

On Tuesday-Thursday, Tastebuds offers a three-course, Prix Fixe menu for $18.  A glass of house wine is only $3.50 if you order a Prix Fixe dinner, and the red that I tried was very drinkable.  

In addition to the fixed meal, three of the four people in our group also ordered a small plate to start.  We sampled the "Duck-Leek Spring Roll with Ginger-Pear Dipping Sauce, " "Pork Adobo Taco with Mole Sauce and Corn & Black Bean Salad," and "Mozzarella & Basil Risotto Croquettes with Fra Diavolo."  All three had a satisfying burst of flavors and textures, and were prepared with fresh ingredients.  

I don't think I've ever been noticeably impressed by a salad, however, the "Spinach, Shaved Red Onion, Goat Cheese Crumble & Lemon-Parsley Dressing " salad was basic and perfectly balanced.  

For my entree, which could have been any off the regular menu, I chose "Crispy Salmon Pho with Rice Noodles, Snow Peas & Mushrooms in Lemongrass Broth."  The server warned us that there wouldn't actually be a lot of broth in the bottom of the bowl, so it wasn't so much a soup, but it was delicious.  I didn't detect a lot of lemongrass, but  I took about half of it home for dinner the next night, and added a little soy sauce and Sriracha to enhance the other flavors.  If I ordered it again, I think I would at least ask for a little hot sauce to wake everything up.  The salmon was tender and the snow peas were crisp, and everything was light and healthy tasting.    

I also sampled Davy's "8 oz. Organic Beef Burger with Yukon Gold Potato Hash, Sweet Onion Relish," which was heavenly, and the "Greek Sirloin & Shrimp Skewers, Cucumber Crema, Feta & Red Bliss Potato Cake, Sautéed Haricot Vert & Tomatoes."  The skewers were definitely the highlight of the meal.  The potato cake and cucumber crema provided an ideal complement for the succulent, well-seasoned meat.  

A chocolate crepe was the third course of the Prix Fixe, and when it arrived, I was so pleased with all of the food that I didn't think I could fit anything else in.  That didn't last long, of course.  It only took one bite of the thin chocolate crepe, with its warm chocolate filling, for me to switch gears into defending my dessert territory.  

Tastebuds won me over in just one visit, and maybe even with a simple spinach salad.  My advice is that you try it soon, and go with friends to sample as many types of cuisine as possible.  No matter the origin, you won't be disappointed.  

Thursday, March 10, 2011

I Keep My Camera in the Kitchen

This week I made a scrumptious Greek-style roast chicken with potatoes from this recipe on Big Girls Small Kitchen.  I was happy with the chicken, but the potatoes are really the best part of this dish.  Since everything is baked together, the potatoes absorb the delicious chicken juices and taste much better than they ever could tossed in olive oil.  I highly recommend trying this because it's simple and can be reincarnated into several chicken sandwiches and delicious stock, along with very appealing leftovers.

I must be trying to fit in some comfort food before the weather gets warmer for good, because I also had to try this baked spinach as soon as I saw it.  If you enjoy shopping at Costco, this is a great use for one of the giant bags they sell.  I used my freshly made chicken stock, a smaller amount of butter than called for, and a scant amount of Gruyere, and the spinach was still completely satisfying.  The breadcrumbs and cheese form a beautiful, crunchy top, and the spinach itself tastes velvety and rich.  We ate ours with a fried egg and garlic toast, and it's as good as it looks. 


Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Counter Top Dining

On Oscar Sunday, I found myself with a defrosted pork shoulder and the time to appropriately prepare it.  I decided to apply the Southwestern Pulled Brisket method, and let everything bake in the oven for a few hours.  

I would definitely use this recipe again for either pork or brisket.  The flavors are versatile enough for sandwiches, tacos, or any other creative variations you may conjure.  Our first two rounds with the pork involved sandwiches made with Cheddar-Sriracha Swirl Bread.

I've made sweet quick breads before, such as zucchini, banana, pumpkin, etc., but this was my first savory loaf, and I felt a sense of accomplishment when it turned out well.  The bread is relatively easy to make as long as you allow yourself some time, and could also be changed to accommodate a number of different ingredients for the "swirl," or filling.   

Our sandwiches had a significant kick from the Sriracha, but we happily ate them with steamed broccoli.  It may not have been an Oscar-worthy meal, but it did feel special to eat standing up in the kitchen while listening to Road Kill Roy's radio debut.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

San Bei Gi

As I mentioned last week, I really enjoyed reading The Art of Eating In by Cathy Erway.  Her mission to only eat homemade meals really inspired me to try some new recipes, one of which was a Taiwanese dish called San Bei Gi from her book.  Her version is slight untraditional in that she uses boneless chicken and adds green beans to make it a one dish meal.  

I followed her suggestions and used three boneless chicken breasts I had in the freezer (Trader Joe's sells all-natural, individually frozen breasts in a big bag).  The recipe in the book called for three pound of meat, but I only used between 1.5-2 pounds, and we still got six and a half servings out of it.  

The green beans were frozen from the summer, and I didn't weigh them, but I'm sure I had less than a half a pound.  We probably should have been eating more vegetables, but I didn't want to buy some from the store and have them interfere with the fresh tasting green beans from our share.

Since I already had most of the ingredients I needed, I went to Tan-A, an Asian market, and bought a nice piece of ginger, five cloves of garlic, sesame oil, and a huge bunch of Thai basil all for $5.54.  I think the sesame oil alone at a grocery store would have been at least that much.  The Thai basil has a very distinctive flavor - if you can't find it, don't try to substitute with regular basil.  You're better off omitting the basil all together.  

I should also have gotten rice wine, which I thought I already had, so I ended up substituting rice wine vinegar.  The next time I make this, I'm going to make sure I have the rice wine, because I could definitely detect a slight vinegar taste.  I think I'll also try to reduce the amount of sesame oil (unless I use the full amount of chicken and beans), because there was plenty of liquid and it's a lot more oil than I normally cook with.   

This is a great base recipe to use with a variety of meats, seafood, and vegetables.  The flavors are rich and layered, although they're light enough to still feel healthy, and there's the added satisfaction that it was made in your very own kitchen.

Boneless San Bei Gi with Green Beans
adapted from Cathy Erway's The Art of Eating In

1.5-2 pounds boneless chicken breasts
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons sesame oil
20 cloves of garlic (about 2 small heads), smashed or coarsely chopped 
20 slices of fresh ginger
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
3 Tablespoons sugar
1/2 pound green beans, ends trimmed and snapped in half
2 scallions, chopped
2-3 dried whole red chilies (optional)
1 large bunch Thai basil leaves
Rice for serving

Mix chicken pieces in cornstarch and 2 teaspoons of soy sauce in a bowl.  Cover and chill to marinate at least 30 minutes, or up to overnight.

In a large nonstick pan (or wok), heat sesame oil with the chilies, garlic and ginger until oil just begins to bubble.  Add chicken and stir to brown pieces on all sides.  Add vinegar, remaining soy sauce, and sugar.  Stir until boiling, then cover.  let simmer on medium-low 8 minutes or so.  Add the green beans and basil and stir to evenly distribute them.  Cover partially and continue cooking for 5 minutes.  Add scallions and toss once more.  Serve with white rice.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Treat Yourself

Every week I brose the Health section in The New York Times (one of my favorites along with Food, Travel and Style), and was struck by this article about "self-compassion."  The basic idea is that cutting yourself a break and judging your habits less harshly can actually help you exercise more, eat less, or succeed at whatever it is you're trying to improve.  Chances are you're not going to deny your friend the cookies she's craving (as long as it's not fifty cookies), so why not allow yourself the same occasional indulgence?