Saturday, June 29, 2013

Oven Fries

I remember the first time I heard the word, "hummus." It was my freshman year of college, and a new friend with a nose-ring gave a restaurant recommendation that revolved around how good the hummus sandwich was. My first thought was that she must be talking about eating a layer of forest floor. I was really only one "m" off, and not so far off culinarily.

It turns out, this restaurant had a really excellent hummus sandwich, but I found something even better: sweet potato fries. Until then, sweet potatoes were something that Aunt Angela brought to Thanksgiving. I loved them - I just didn't know that you could eat them more than once per year and that there were other ways you could prepare them.

I've come a long way since freshman year. Did you know that a person can make her own bread? Her own pizza without using a Boboli pizza crust or English muffin? Her own hummus? Her own sweet potato fries? I could go on and on. These were all realizations I made along the way in absolute wonder and amazement. Keep in mind that this was all before the proliferation of food blogs and even before the Food Network became popular. I remember some college friends being really into the Iron Chef - but they were watching the original Japanese show back then. I bet it's a lot easier to learn how to cook these days. Back in my day we had to walk backwards and uphill 10 miles each way just to make a grilled cheese.

Sweet potato fries really aren't that difficult to make, but on busy nights during the school year, I would much rather just dump out a bag onto a baking pan than do any prep work whatsoever or dirty even one more dish.

Basic Oven Fries (adapted from Simply in Season)

2 large sweet potatoes (or white potatoes, or a mix)
olive oil
kosher salt
optional embellishments: crushed garlic, paremesan cheese, red pepper flakes, all three

Preheat oven to 425. Cut up potatoes - you can do thin wedges or shoe-strings, whichever you prefer. Toss with about a tablespoon of oil (I just eyeball it) to coat. Sprinkle with salt. Spread in one layer on a baking sheet. If eating straight from the oven: bake for 12-15 minutes, then flip and bake for 10 more minutes. If freezing: bake for 12-15 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool on the baking sheet. Use a spatula to loosen the fries from the pan. Stick the baking sheet in the freezer for about an hour. Pop off and place in a zipper bag. Label, date, and place in the freezer. When you want to cook them, take them straight from the freezer and arrange them in one layer on a baking sheet. Bake at 425 for about 20 minutes, or until cooked to desired crispness without burning.

What food discoveries do you remember making?

Nutrition Info per 1/2 of a large sweet potato:
Calories - 113, Fat - 7g, Fiber - 2g, Vitamin A - 220%, Vitamin C - 18.6%

Sloppy Joe. Sloppy, Sloppy Joe.

What can I say about Sloppy Joes?

Not much, apparently. I made them about 3 weeks ago, along with homemade buns and sweet potato fries. I couldn't think of anything interesting to say about them, so I put them on the back burner. To be more precise, I put them in the freezer.

One thing I will say is this: always put coleslaw on your Sloppy Joe. Always.

Sloppy Joes

1.5 lb. lean ground beef
1 onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
(any other veggies you wish to sneak in there)
28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup ketchup
2 Tbs. brown sugar
1/2 cup brown lentils (optional)
1 cup water (not necessary if not using lentils)
1 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. thyme
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper

Brown the ground beef in a large pan. When beef is about half finished browning, add onion and carrot, sprinkle generously with salt, cook 3-4 minutes until veggies begin to soften. Add all other ingredients and bring to a simmer. Allow to simmer for around 45 minutes, until lentils are soft. You may have to add more water if your Joes get too thick. If you aren't using lentils, they only need to simmer for about 20-30 minutes for the flavors to blend together. Add more salt to taste , if necessary, and a few shakes of pepper.

We had enough to eat for dinner, have for lunch leftovers the next day, and freeze about 2 cups for later. I think the five of us eat the equivalent of 3 or 4 adults - the kids take their Sloppy Joes as more of a light coating of sauce on a bun with cheese. I don't see why you couldn't make this with all lentils, if that's your thing. We've done ground turkey in the past, too. I plan to try and remember to take these out of the freezer the night before and then just warm them up in a saucepan.

Nutrition Info
per 1/2 cup serving: Calories - 198, Fat - 6.3g, Fiber 3.5g, Sugar - 9g, Protein - 17g, Sodium - 408mg, Vitamin A - 28%, Iron - 16%

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Black Bean Burgers and Bonus Kale Salad

Sometimes your family reminds you of how silly you can be.

One of the last times I was at my mom's for a visit, we were sitting around the dining room table for a typical hours-long meal (I like to think this is the French in us), when the conversation turned to my sister's recent dietary changes. Then, before I knew it, I became the focus of the discussion.

My grandmother gave one of her endearing, disgusted looks and said, "Melissa, I remember when you were a vegetarian and you were SO SICK. Your mother had to take you to the doctor. EGGHH." We all kind of looked at her funny because this never actually happened. There was no convincing her otherwise. Then someone else chimed in, "I remember when you told your mother you were going to be a VEE-gaan." And then, "Oh yeah, Liss, remember your 'free meat' policy?"

Well, when you put it that way, I sure do seem flaky.

I have had a pretty tumultuous relationship with meats. It probably started when I was 14-ish and came home from a Naturalist summer-camp-boat experience on the Chesapeake Bay - Voyage of the Mimi, anyone? One of the counselors was the coolest woman ever. She wore Teva's and they left awesome tan lines on her feet. She didn't shave her legs. She didn't eat meat. Neither did the cutie-patootie Captain of our voyage. Ahh, Captain Drew. Obviously, I came home and foreswore all meat. I subsisted on a diet of Wonder Bread and oranges instead. This lasted somewhere between one week and one year - who's to say?

Throughout high school and the first part of college I sort of flirted on and off with being a vegetarian. I thought I made a life-long commitment when I was 20 and heard about all of the ways that Big Meat destroys land and forests and the environment and people's lives. I would say things like, "I just don't really want to be a part of that economy."

I think that sentiment is eventually where "free meat" came in. In the beginning of the end, if I was offered meat that, in my mind, was going to go to waste anyway, I would eat it. This was partially to not be rude in certain social situations, and partially because I was excited to find a loop-hole in my economy schema. I just didn't want to buy the stuff myself. It was a matter of conscience. This policy fully took effect when I moved to central Pennsylvania. Then I could go to someone's house and eat something other than a piece of bread and some iceberg lettuce. I know that real vegetarians everywhere are rolling their eyes at me right now. “Free meat” was the gateway, and getting married, I think, was the final nail in the coffin.

For the record, I never told my mom that I was going to go vegan. There was a "vegan experiment" once, when my roommate came back from a trip west and sat next to a vegan on her plane ride. It sounds like he was pretty evangelical about it and asked her if she ever thought about the fact that only humans drink the milk of other animals. She brought that same question to us, her roommates, and frankly, that thought had never occurred to me. It kind of grossed me out, if only momentarily. So the experiment was born - two weeks to see if we could be vegan. At this point my memory fails and I don't know if they joined me or if I just like to tell myself that other people did this with me. What I learned was that you can eat Keebler grasshopper cookies as a vegan and that soy milk isn't so bad.

Now that we do, in fact, eat meat, my favorite cookbooks still tend to be all of my vegetarian ones: my collection of Moosewood cookbooks and Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Here's a tangent for you: I love Ithaca, New York. We visited for a couple of days as part of our honeymoon and have been drawn back two more times since. We stopped there originally because of my infatuation with the vegetarian Moosewood Restaurant, but discovered the gorges, the vineyards, the hippies, oh my!

So, it's been a rocky road, and when I meet true, honest-to-goodness vegetarians, I sometimes feel a twinge of guilt. On the whole, though, I am mostly happy with my solution to the vegetarian dilemma that seems to plague me. We try to buy meat directly from a farmer. We try to eat 2-3 vegetarian meals a week. And of, course, my favorite - I mix bulgur, quinoa, or lentils into everything. You should try it; it's sneaky and fun!

Wow, I've droned on about this. So, I will give you two recipes for sticking with me. If you ever start to feel guilty about the amount of meat that you eat and all of the rainforests you may or may not be destroying and the giant hole in the atmosphere that you are contributing to, not to mention that the cows or chickens you are eating probably ate newspapers and soy while they were being "raised," make these black bean burgers instead. I will temper this guilt-trip by telling you that today I froze 10 of these veggie-burgers, but I also formed 2 pounds of ground beef into about 10 patties and froze them as well.

These are really easy with a food processor, but you could also mash up the ingredients by hand. I haven't tried to add other veggies, but I think the base recipe is pretty forgiving. You could shred some carrots and chop up mushrooms -maybe sautée them first - to throw in, or anything else that strikes your fancy.

Easy Black Bean Burgers (Adapted from Cooking Light)
2 pieces of whole wheat bread, torn into pieces
3-4 green onions, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 cans black beans, rinsed and drained
3 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup frozen corn (optional - my kids are crazy for corn)
salt, herbs, spices

Process the bread pieces until breadcrumbs form (If you are not using a food processor, maybe toast the bread first and smash it in a plastic zipper-bag with your rolling pin? Or just use store-bought breadcrumbs). Transfer the breadcrumbs to a large bowl. Next, pulsate the onions and garlic a few times until they are finely chopped, add the black beans and pulse a few more times. We're not looking for slurry, here. There should still be some whole black beans left. Transfer the ingredients to the bowl with the bread crumbs. Add eggs, and corn or other veggies, if using. Add seasoning. I added a bit of salt, a shake of cumin and chili powder. You don't have to make them southwest burgers - that's just what I tend to do with black bean things. Mix it all together.

I formed about ten patties – 4 grown-up size and 6 kid size - and put them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Freeze for 1-2 hours, then wrap in plastic, label, date, and put back in the freezer. You're done.

We took the experimental group out of the freezer and left them on the counter for 30-45 minutes while I did some other things. Then we cooked them low and slow on our gas grill, but you can probably pan-fry them. We lined the grill with foil for fear of a black bean mess. It worked out well - they turn out a little soft, but with a crusty roll (I have a homemade bun recipe coming) and some burger toppings, they were good.

Actually, my kids asked if we could please eat these every night. No, weirdos.

I will never, ever tell you they taste "just like meat." They don't. They taste just like black bean burgers.

This blog is becoming so carby and freezery, so I have to tell you what I had for lunch today. You have to promise not to put it in the freezer, though. I don't think that would work out favorably. 

I went to a Memorial Day picnic at a friend's house and someone brought a delicious raw kale salad. I've been thinking about it ever since. If I had a little more "foody" in me, I probably would have been more inventive with the ingredients. I just threw together what I had on hand instead. This is what I would eat for lunch everyday if I actually were vegan. Maybe I'd add a side-dish of grasshopper cookies too.

Kale Salad
3-4 cups kale, torn into pieces
1 medium red bell pepper, sliced
1/2 cup raw snow peas
3 green onions, sliced
1 carrot, shredded
1/4 cup reduced sodium soy sauce
juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbs. peanut butter
A few hits of Siracha
1-2 Tbs. sunflower seeds or other nuts/seeds

Whisk together the peanut butter and soy sauce in the bottom of a large bowl. Add half of the lemon juice. Add Kale and stir to coat the leaves with the sauce. Add the rest of the lemon juice and stir. Throw in the rest of the ingredients and toss. The longer the kale marinates in the sauce, the more tender it will become. I ate this for lunch today with a handful of dried apricots. It helped me to not succumb to my afternoon ritual of eating a bowl of ice cream the size of my head.

If, like me, you have a penchant for buying kale and Swiss chard and spinach every time you go to a farmer's market and there is no way you can possibly eat it all before it turns to mush, you can freeze it for use in soups and sautées. Just de-vein it and blanch it in boiling water for 2 minutes (probably more like 1 minute for spinach), drain in a mesh sieve, cool, and freeze in plastic bags or containers. Bam! Kale salad segues to freezer-tip.

Nutrition Info:

Black Bean Burgers (per 1/8 of mixture): Calories – 156; Fat – 3g; Sodium – 538mg;
Fiber – 6g; Protein – 10g; Iron – 17%

Kale Salad (per ¼ of salad, about 1 ½ cup serving): Calories – 130; Fat – 6g; Fiber – 4g; Protein – 6g; Vitamin A – 220%; Vitamin C – 180%; Calcium – 10%; Iron – 11%

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Blogging is Harder Than I Thought

This week I have been cooking, baking, and freezing like crazy. You wouldn't know though, because I can't seem to get a blog post published. I'll offer some, among many, of the reasons:

1.) In the evening, when, theoretically I have some time to write, I sit and stare at the wall instead. This is one of my favorite pastimes. When Tom and I were dating, I bet he thought I just liked sitting with him because, you know, love and stuff. That was probably part of it. But mostly I like to just sit and do not much at all. Maybe have a smackerel of something, maybe not. Basically, I think I am Winnie-the-Pooh.

2.) I started reading this month's book for book group. We are reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Nearly every chapter I read makes me cry. It is definitely a page-turner and is the thing I am doing besides wall-staring when I get a free minute. I think a big topic of our discussion this month might be this - because a story is horribly sad and horribly horrible, does that automatically make it a good story? That's what I've been mulling over while reading, but there is no denying that this book almost forces me to keep going.

3.) Unexpected things happen. For instance, this morning about 5 minutes before I had to take the girls to school, I couldn't find EITHER set of keys to my car. I ransacked my own house. I didn't even need any help from my little friends. Here is a visual for you:

I swear, it doesn't always look like this.

For about 40 minutes I searched and searched. I had a crying melt-down. I had a full-blown adult temper tantrum complete with many f-bombs (if you know me - let's face it, all of you do - you know this is BIG). Thank goodness for a wonderful neighbor who took Laurel to school. I finally did find a set - on the floor next to my son's dresser. When I got back from taking Alice to preschool, I found the other set. "Someone" placed them in my dutch oven. I am currently obsessed with my pedometer and I was pleased to find that all of the key-searching netted me about a half mile of walking - just in my house. Sweet.

Because it's been such a challenging morning, (okay, I'm reading a book about the plight of women in Afghanistan over the past 50 years, so this is my parenthetical statement where I tell you I'm being sarcastic) today's recipe is super easy.

Slow Cooker Salsa Verde Chicken

3-4 pounds boneless-skinless chicken breast
3-4 cups tomatillo salsa (salsa verde)

Place chicken in your slow cooker. Cover completely with salsa. Cook on low for about 8 hours. Shred the chicken with two forks. Season to taste with salt. Serve. 

We ate this with some brown rice, taco toppings, and lots of chips. I froze a quart in a freezer bag for use later as either taco/burrito filling or maybe a zesty pulled-chicken sandwich. I will probably set it in the fridge the night before we plan to eat it, and then warm it up on the stovetop for a quick dinner. Easy to slow-cook. Easy to freeze. Now you will have time to search for you keys for forty minutes. Win. Win. Win.

Nutrition Info for 1/2 cup serving based on using Trader Joe's salsa verde:
Calories - 141.5; Fat - 2g; Sodium - 320.8g; Protein - 26g; Vitamin C - 19.4%

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

4 Pounds of Tortilla Chips

My lovely assistant, Tom, ran an errand for me today. He went to Pittsburgh's Strip District to get tomatillo salsa and some other things. He came back with this giant bag of chips. They were made fresh today AND you can freeze them. How fortuitous.


A baby in the background is a helpful size reference.

So, I guess we're going to freeze some chips. I will let you know how defrosted chips taste as soon as I find out. Perhaps a more useful tip than chip-freezing is that if you are in Pittsburgh and in need of a lot of chips for something like a party, go to Reyna's in the Strip. You can get about 4 pounds of freshly made tortilla chips for $7.50.

I have lots more coming up soon, stay tuned...