Friday, April 22, 2011

friday breakfast: round 6

I had ambitious plans for breakfast this morning.  I wanted to make baked eggs in a biscuit cup - something that is all over the blogosphere right now.  You basically line a muffin tin with bread or a biscuit (and most recipes feature ham or bacon), crack an egg inside, and bake at 400 until egg is done.

But, you know what they say about the best laid plans. 

I spent last night battling with I-95 South and didn't get to Norfolk until midnight.  I slept in this morning, and now I'm off to the beach.  Mom had this beaut of a Southern breakfast ready for me when I woke - overeasy eggs with grits.

I'm off to the beach, have a great weekend and HAPPY EASTER!   

Thursday, April 21, 2011

faqs & from here on out...

I have gotten so many questions about blogging, cooking, and eating, so I figure I'd answer some of them here today.  (Also, I've been busy, lazy, and cheap, so I haven't been grocery shopping or cooked much this week).  Tomorrow I'll have a post for Friday breakfast, but today there's no food.......just answers.

What made you decide to become a temporary vegetarian?

I wanted a Lenten promise that was challenging, but it was also important to me that it be measurable and manageable.  It had to be something that was black and white (me, black and white?), and something that I could actually stick with.  I have a major, major sweet tooth, and no matter how many times I give up something sweet, I end up caving.  Plus, I obviously enjoy cooking, and I wanted to explore ways to prepare meatless meals.  There are so many healthy, well-rounded dishes that provide all the vitamins and nutrients necessary in a daily diet, but without the meat.  Now, I am confident implementing several different cooking methods, as well as preparing different ingredients I had never used before.

Why did you choose to keep a blog?

The short answer is: "so many reasons".  The longer answer is.....I've always wanted to, but never had any ideas, my family was skeptical that I'd be able to do this in a healthy way, I wanted to be able to have a forum to hold me accountable and share my stories, and finally, I really, really love writing.

Somewhere between high school and now I wound up following my head instead of my heart.  I chose what was practical and realistic over what I really wanted.  Actually, I've done this a few times....yet I digress.  I chose a field of study that I didn't particularly love, instead of following my dreams of writing.  I chose Economics partially because I knew I would always have a paycheck, as opposed to a career as a journalist, possibly scrambling for freelance gigs and having Ramen every day for weeks.  Don't get me wrong - I'm happy in my career path at this moment.  I don't necessarily regret choosing numbers over words.  But it's still something I think about, and it's been nice to have an outlet for writing.

Do you miss the meat, or are you going to give up meat forever?

I don't really miss the meat, but I wouldn't give it up forever.  I enjoy meat too much to never eat it again in some capacity, although I think I have become a much more conscious eater.  Before I get up on my soapbox, let me just say that I am obviously not a doctor or a nutritionist, and this just reflects my opinion. I've realized that animal proteins are simply not necessary as the cornerstone of a human diet.  There are plenty of ways to get proteins from other sources, such as beans and legumes (personal favorites are black beans and lentils), nuts, and even some grains and vegetables (quinoa, and randomly enough, peas?)

That said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with preferring animal proteins and consuming them as a part of a balanced diet, and I am certainly not trying to suggest otherwise.  I just happen to think that meat is far too ingrained in our lifestyles and not enough people have explored the option of switching to plant-based proteins as a substitute (maybe once a day, or even once a week).

I'm hesitant to put a number on it, but, in the future, I don't see myself eating meat more than three or four times in a (typical) week.  I'm sure there will be some weeks in which I don't eat meat at all, or some weeks in which I eat it more often.  The truth is, I've been absolutely fine without it.  I've always been healthy, and I feel just as healthy and strong - if not more so - than when I ate meat daily.  I think that is because I made sure to get nutrients from other sources.  If I skimped, and avoided other protein sources, I don't think this would be the case.

You're eating fish?  What a cop out!

Uh, #rude.  You know who you are (cough, cough, SISTER).  I set the rules on my first day - I would allow myself fish in limited quantities.  I have probably eaten it once a week.  Plus, as Catholics, Fridays of Lent are days of abstinence - i.e. no "meat."  "Meat" includes land animals only; the Catholic church allows fish on Fridays.  So, I guess you could say that my definition of "meatless" or "vegetarian" is based on that tenet.

If you prefer to call me the 40-day pescetarian, go right ahead - but it just doesn't have the same ring to it.  Also, I did attempt to make as many purely meatless meals as possible, but sometimes fish is so convenient because it thaws and cooks quickly, and it applies to all sorts of moods and flavors.

What were your favorite recipes?  Least favorite?  Favorite restaurant experience?

Favorites:   Unless I have a disclaimer somewhere in the entry, everything on here was pretty delicious.  I really loved the lentil, beet, and green bean dish I made.  It was so hearty and satisfying, yet light and invigorating.  It was great for lunch or dinner, and it tasted great as leftovers.  I am obsessed with the maple dijon vinagrette from Bollie's brussels sprouts and have been putting it on everything.  Also, this soup was delicious and I'm certain it will be a constant fixture in my refrigerator all summer long.  My favorite lunch was probably the curried chickpea and couscous salad.  Whitney's favorite dish is the stirfry.

Least favorites:  Easy.  Those oatmeal banana pancakes and the chickpea/tomato/spinach thing.  I'm going to give this one another shot with the honeyed sweet potatoes because it definitely has potential.

Dining out:  The potato waffle benedict at the Smith in New York.  Nom nom nom.  I often still think about it on Saturday mornings.

So, are you, like, totally skinny now?

Haha, no.  Let me make clear that I did not do this to lose weight.  Lent is a religious observance, not a diet.  Over the last 6 weeks, I've actually gained about two pounds, but I'm not sure if it can be attributed to my diet or if is just natural weight gain.  Without getting into too many details, a few months ago I dropped a significant amount of weight, and I do think that some of it has come back on naturally as my life has smoothed out a little.   But also, I've been cooking so much that my appetite can barely keep up!

What are you going to eat on Easter?

For breakfast, probably just my usual eggs.  Not a huge fan of bacon, as we've discussed.  I mostly just use it for flavoring and cooking.  Lunch will probably be a turkey or chicken sandwich.  Dinner will be my Mom's pork tenderloin for Easter dinner.  It's my favorite.  In fact, Mom asked what I wanted, and that was the only thing that came to mind.  It's juicy and succulent and I can't wait to sink my teeth in it.  When I get back to DC after the holiday, I'll probably have Ray's Hell Burger within the first couple of weeks of being a carnivore again.  That's the one thing I've really missed - a nice, juicy burger, as close to mooing as possible. 

What the heck does FOMO mean?

Fear of Missing Out.  Listen, to save yourself the embarrassment, just Google it next time.  Same with BSC.  In informal writing, I find that and Wikipedia are the best bets for defining unknown terms.

Are you going to do this next year, too?

I don't know - a year is a really long time.  Maybe I'll have a different vice to give up at that point.  Or maybe I'll go vegan.  Or maybe I'll give up vegetables. 

Are you going to keep blogging?

Everybody asks me this, and the honest answer is that I don't know yet.  I've really enjoyed this little project, but it's been a lot of work!  It's been so much fun getting back in touch with my writing side - I sit at work all day dealing with massive amounts of quantitative data, so this has been an incredibly stimulating, exciting, and rewarding side project.  If I do keep blogging, I don't know what I'd write about.  I'd probably want to re-brand and re-concentrate my blog, seeing how food blogs are a dime a dozen these days, and I don't have the time, energy, or resources to make it stand out.  However, a blog about my life in general is not really appropriate for the blogosphere.  I can't speak openly about my job or my projects (both for confidentiality reasons and also because it would likely bore you to tears), and a blog about my personal life would certainly need to be written anonymously or under some pen name. 

A lot of people say they like reading this because it's written the exact same way I speak.  I think this is hilarious, because how else is informal writing supposed to be presented?  I'm about to get really cheeseball and slightly emo for a second, but just hang on for one minute.  Like uninhibited speech, writing for pleasure is an expression of self.  Sure, it is marginally more editorialized, and slightly more thoughtful, but I truly believe its bottom line is equal to speech in intention and expression.  That is, we write what we say, which is how we feel, no matter in how many words, or how few.  Writing (and for that matter, speaking) from the heart is a most raw and vulnerable expression of self.  Similarly, art forms like dancing, acting, and cooking are manifestations of these expressions.  With food, so many things are communicated - love, respect, happiness, and celebration.

That said, I'm flattered that so many of you have enjoyed reading this blog, and I'm even more excited that so many of you have tried the recipes, or have expressed interest in doing so.  Your constructive criticism keeps me grounded and focused, your compliments make me blush, and your attention and support leave me stunned.  I've gotten over 3,400 web hits on 32 entries.  I've had readers in Canada, Spain, France, England, Germany, Russia, India, Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Bangladesh, Singapore, and Zambia.  It's super cool!  Thank you so much for embarking on this journey with me.

So tomorrow, like every Friday, I'll be serving breakfast.  It will be straight from Casa Mac down in Norfolk.  And I suppose Monday I'll have a run-down of my first carnivorous meal in 6 weeks.  And after that, we will see.  Who knows.

Thanks again for everything.  It's been a blast.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

cilantro lime pesto

pan-seared tilapia with cilantro-lime pesto

I’ve been on an Italian kick recently.  My computer background is a picture of the Cinque Terre, and I've been eating eggplant lasagna like it's the only food on Earth.  I think I am just getting excited for my upcoming trip!  Bollie, Jamie and I are peacing out in 34 days, but who's counting?  To continue my Italian binge, last night I went to Faccia Luna in Arlington for dinner.  Per the waiter's suggestion, I opted for the agnolotti con mozzarella - a sundried tomato ravioli filled with fresh mozzarella and smothered in a basil cream sauce.  It was very heavy, but not a huge portion, so it was great.  I'll spare you the details since I gave you a pizza post and a lasagna post back-to-back, and we'll switch gears!

Forget tuna - tilapia is the real chicken of the sea.  It's a mild, flaky white fish, not super "fishy" and versatile enough to be paired with a wide range of flavors.  Also like chicken, it's a nice canvas for any seasoning, accompaniment, or occasion.  If you don't like chicken, think of tilapia as the little black dress of fishies - it can be dressed up or dressed down, you can take it anywhere, and, when done right, it works for anyone.

I like tilapia for an occasional weeknight meal because it takes just a few minutes to grill it on my George Foreman, or just twenty minutes in the oven, sealed in a foil pouch with veggies.  A few weeks ago, I made a cilantro lime pesto that I thought would go great with a cumin-spiced tilapia filet.  The inspiration for this pesto was completely utilitarian.  I hate wasting leftovers, but I especially dislike tossing herbs.  I had a large bunch of fresh cilantro that I used to make black bean and corn enchiladas and tilapia with mango salsa.  Cilantro is one of those herbs that I don't use on a regular basis, so I wanted to find something that would use it all up and would keep well.

I had heard about people making pesto out of various greens and nuts, but I'm skeptical of anything that replaces basil and pinenuts.  Whitney and I actually made a pesto with spinach and almonds once and hated it.  (We used a recipe from Rachel Ray, which she made look amazing on Food Network but was the most flavorless clump of green oil I've ever had in my life.  You've been warned.)  However, I thought I would give it a try using cilantro since the herb's robust flavor would give so much depth and definition to any dish.  But, people have very strong feelings about this "Chinese parsley", kind of like brussels sprouts and beets!  (Side note: Does anyone know why it's called "Chinese" parsley?  I have never seen cilantro in Chinese food; it's more synonymous with Mexicali cooking to me.)

I adapted this recipe from Real Simple, swapping out the lemon juice for lime juice (because nothing goes with cilantro better than lime), added almonds (because can it really be a pesto without nuts?), and omitted the sesame oil (because that seems pretty fru-fru, and I didn't happen to have any).  I froze the pesto because I didn't have any immediate use for it, and it froze well.   It was a real hit with some grilled tilapia (marinated in cumin, olive oil, and lime juice.)  The pesto would also be great with shrimp and linguine, or, as Whitney suggested, as a sauce for fish tacos.

Cilantro Lime Pesto, adapted from Real Simple
Serves 2-4

3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped, or 2-3 teaspoons minced garlic
2 cups fresh cilantro, lightly packed
2 tablespoons lime juice
1/4 cup good quality olive oil
1/4 cup slivered almonds
salt & pepper, to taste

1.  Toss garlic, cilantro, lime juice, and slivered almonds in a food processor and pulse to combine. 
2.  Slowly drizzle in olive oil until mixture has reached desired consistency.
3.  Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

I'd like to wish a very HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my lovely friend Sarah!
Thank you for always making me want to be a better friend.
24 will be a fabulous year, I'm sure of it.

P.S.  Thank you to Whitney for catching a pretty silly mistake within 10 minutes of posting this entry.  I didn't sleep much last night and went to Hot Yoga this morning so I'm tired and a little over-zen'd (i.e. not as anal about my entries).

Have you all ever made a pesto sauce from something other than basil and pinenuts?  Leave your experiences or ideas in the comments!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

grilled eggplant "lasagna" with pesto-ricotta cheese filling

I preemptively apologize for this picture.  I know it isn't pretty or evenly layered, but it's really hard to get a picture of lasagna....

Grilled eggplant "lasagna" with pesto-ricotta filling

But you know what I don't apologize for?  This next photo.  Jamie sent me this on Sunday night.  Thank the Lord for iPhone MMS. 

I don't know why she has it - but it's hilarious.  This is probably my favorite picture of the three of us because it's completely typical, and it shows that nothing has changed in the last sixteen years except we're not as cute as we used to be.  I have short hair in this picture, which puts me in third grade.  (The Great Haircut of 1994 was the single most traumatic experience of elementary school - even worse than wearing headgear to school in second grade, and the episode in third grade when a boy called me an alcoholic because I answered Mrs. Marshall's question with "Sam Adams" instead of "John Adams".)

In this photo, I'm on the left.  I think most people would agree that I am a pretty prototypical "eldest child."  I'm maternal and protective, but bossy, impatient, and expect a lot from others.  While Bollie and Jamie are cheesing hard for the camera, I am very serious, literal, and practical.  Of course, the other, more likely reason I'm not smiling in this picture is because I had a realllly messed-up grill (see above re: headgear) and my mom wouldn't let me "smile with my teeth" when we were trying to take our Christmas card.  This problem was rectified with a full set of braces in fourth grade.

In the middle, we have Bollie.  She was always hammin' it up and putting on a show for everyone.  Most middle children fight for attention, but for Bollie, that was not the case.  She liked being in the limelight, of course, but she never actually had to fight for it because she was just so absurd.  Our home videos contain footage of her singing and dancing, and if the camera was ever on someone else, she quickly and effortlessly diverted the attention back to her hysterical ways.  Today, she's still the life of the party, just three feet taller and with a bit more maturity.  The baby blonde, Jamie, was a chatty kid that could talk to a brick wall.  She was a constant laugh-fest, except for when she would cry.  See how amused she is in this picture?  She was typically very happy, easygoing, and everything made her smile.  But with the flip of a switch, she'd get upset about something.  And I mean really upset.  She'd cry and wail and until one of us felt bad enough to give her what she wanted.  This usually happened when Bollie and I used to tease her (sometimes we'd tell her she was adopted - the perfect taunt for a kid with blonde hair, fair skin, and green eyes among a family of brunettes) or if her "I feel pretty" sweatshirt was dirty or missing.  She's tougher now, but she still talks a mile a minute. 

When Jamie sent me the picture message, I had a delicious grilled eggplant "lasagna" in the oven that was actually inspired by my baby sister herself.  Funny timing!  I make a dish for Bollie a few weeks ago, but this one has Jamie's  name written all over it.  Jamie's favorite color is purple and her favorite vegetable is eggplant.  Coincidence, I think not.  Jamie also loves cheese - so much that she gave it up for Lent this year.  Even though she won't be able to make this dish at least until next week, I know she's going to love it.  It's oozing with three cheeses and features a smoky grilled eggplant in place of lasagna noodles.  We have a slight obsession with eggplant in my family.  Stuffed eggplant.  Spicy eggplant.  Japanese eggplant.  Baba Ganoush.  But mostly we just eat it grilled.  The noodle-less aspect is also relative and appropriate, as my family is slightly pasta-adverse.  It's not that we have anything against pasta, per se, but we are really more rice, couscous, and quinoa people.  (Note:  Bollie may be the exception to this, as she's obsessed with tutto Italiano.)  So, since you can't put quinoa in lasagna, I used a nice fat eggplant in place of the noodle. 

A few notes about this recipe - I had a lot of leftovers from pizza night so I just tried to use those.  I used mozzarella on the top layer, but I wouldn't actually use that again on the top (maybe in the middle, though).  I think the top would be better just with grated Italian cheese.  I also love putting zucchini and spinach in vegetable lasagnas, but I didn't have any and didn't feel like going to the store.

Grilled eggplant "lasagna"
Serves 5-6
1 large eggplant or 2 medium, peeled and sliced lengthwise into 1/4 inch slices
2 1/2 cups homemade tomato sauce (or your favorite jarred tomato sauce)
1 red bell pepper or jarred roasted red pepper
4 ounces portobello mushroom caps
15 ounce can artichoke hearts
12 ounces ricotta cheese
3/4 cup grated Italian cheese (I used a mix of parmesan, asiago, and fontina), divided
one large ball of mozarella, sliced (maybe 3 ounces?)
1 egg white
3 tablespoons pesto sauce

1.  Preheat oven to 400F.
2.  Chop artichoke hearts and mushrooms into bite-sized pieces.  Season with salt and pepper and toss with olive oil.  Roast in oven 15 minutes.
3.  Remove from oven and cut heat down to 350F.
4.  Drizzle olive oil on eggplant and zucchini.  Season with salt and pepper and grill on stovetop grill pan, George Foreman, or outdoor grill (if you're that lucky). 
5.  Make ricotta cheese mixture by combining ricotta cheese, egg white, pesto, and 1/4 cup of grated Italian cheese.
6.  Assemble the lasagna in your baking dish.  My layers went something like this:  1 cup tomato sauce - 4 slices eggplant - 1/2 cup ricotta cheese mixture - sliced roasted red pepper - mushroom & artichoke mixture - 1/2 cup ricotta cheese - 1 cup tomato sauce - 3 slices eggplant - 1/2 cup ricotta cheese - 1/2 cup tomato sauce - mozzarella & 1/2 cup grated parmesan
7.  Cover with alumnium foil and bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes.  After 20 minutes, remove foil and let cook open for the last 10.

What do you like to put in lasagna?

P.S.  I have just fixed the recipe for my thai peanut sauce.  Randi tried making it last night and I think the proportions were messed up.  The recipe did not call for as much water as was necessary.  I still recommend adding it little by little, though.

Monday, April 18, 2011

pizza pizza!

It's the last Monday of Lent!  Only six more totally meat-free days!

Friday night one of my biffles, Brent, came up from Richmond to spend some time with some of us girls.  We were all too busy eating dinner to take pictures, so this is the only one I got (it's dark and from my iPhone, but you should have seen it before instagram made it better!)

So what did we eat?  Tax day left us all poor, so we wanted to stay at home.  My original intention was to host a make-your-own pizza night, but we eventually decided a potluck would be best.  My contribution was flatbread.  I had been wanting to make this carmelized onion and wild mushroom pizza, but I also wanted to make a pizza sauce from my leftover tomato paste.  Then, I remembered that Brittany is not wild about tomatoes, so I decided to get some pesto for a green pizza, too.  Because I am completely incapable of making tough decisions, I ended up with three flatbread "pizzas" - carmelized onion & wild mushroom; pesto, artichoke, tomato & mozzarella; and proscuitto & ricotta with tomato sauce (obviously I didn't eat this one). 

About the proscuitto di parma - that was a complete impulse buy at Whole Foods, likely stemming from how FOMO I was over the proscuitto from the previous week's Tarot card reading.  I was waiting for the pizza lady to bring me my pizza dough, and the proscuitto was screaming my name from behind the neighboring deli counter.  "Buy me, Maria.  I know I'm $22 a pound but I am so yummy and delicious and you only need a little bit.  And I know you can't eat me right now but think about how yummy I'll be once you can.  And don't worry, I'm cured with so much salt that I won't go bad between now and then.  You know you love me." 

So, in a desperate attempt to get the dead, talking Italian pig out of my head, I asked for a quarter pound.  And I talked to the butcher about how I gave up meat for Lent but that man, wouldn't proscuitto be nice on a pizza?  He told me what a nice friend I was for buying the proscuitto for my friends (nothing like a nice stroke of the ego at 4pm on a Friday to really get you ready for the weekend).  I, of course, told him that the real reason why I was buying it was not because I was nice, but that I wanted to live vicariously through them AND I was going to hoard the leftovers and cash them like Western Union once Lent ends.  He just looked at me like I was a nutcase as he weighed the beautiful meat.  I felt awkward.  The scale read 0.21 and I blurted out, "That's fine!  Thanks!"  I had to get out of there before I walked out with the whole meat counter.

I came home, tucked the proscuitto away, and got down to business.  I started the tomato sauce and let it simmer, got to work caramelizing the onions in butter and olive oil, and sauteed the mushrooms in a bit of white wine.  Later, I cut the ball of pizza dough into three sections, and Whitney and I rolled them out with a wine bottle, bringing back bad memories from my butternut squash ravioli nightmare).  

If you're ever making a pizza in the oven, just remember that high heat is your friend.  We preheated the oven at 500° (with the pizza stone inside) and, once we were ready to cook, cut the oven temperature down to 450°.  Be careful when you open the oven because I'm pretty sure my eyelashes almost caught on fire. 

Wild Mushroom & Caramelized Onion Pizza, adapted from Woodfire Grill's recipe on epicurious
makes one 6-ounce flatbread 

2 tablespoons butter, divided
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced crosswise
4 ounces assorted wild mushrooms (I used a mixture of baby bello, oyster, and shiitake), cut into bite-sized pieces
3 teaspoons minced garlic, divided
1/2 cup white wine (I used a Chardonnay)
1/4 cup freshly grated Italian cheese (I used a mixture of asiago, parmesan, and fontina)

1.  Position rack in bottom third of oven.  Preheat oven to 500°F at least 30 minutes before baking and place pizza stone (or inverted baking sheet) in there while the oven is heating.  This allows for more fast and even cooking. 
2.  Melt 1 tablespoon butter with 1 tablespoon olive oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until golden, about 45 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
3.  Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter with 1 tablespoon olive oil in another heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and two teaspoons garlic, sauté 4 minutes. Add wine and simmer until almost all liquid is absorbed, stirring frequently, about 10 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.  
4. Roll out pizza dough and reduce oven temperature to 450°F.  Remove preheated pizza stone or baking sheet from oven. If the baking sheet is rimmed, you may want to invert it and cook the pizza on the bottom.  You could line the sheet with parchment paper, but I think it would work fine without it.  In either case, sprinkle the sheet well with cornmeal or flour.  Carefully slide the rolled out dough onto the cooking device.  
5. Quickly drizzle the dough with one tablespoon olive oil and one teaspoon garlic.  Top with the onions and mushrooms.  Sprinkle grated cheese on top.
6.  Return stone to oven,  and bake 10-12 minutes, or until golden brown.
7.  Let pizza rest one minute, slice into wedges and serve. 

The second pizza was made with a store-bought pesto and topped with mozzarella, artichoke hearts, and cherry tomatoes. This one (and the proscuitto/ricotta/tomato sauce pizza with it in the picture) was placed on an inverted baking sheet.  As you can tell from the photo, I lined the sheet with parchment paper.  I had problems getting the pizza off the paper (or the paper off the pizza?) so next time I will probably leave it off and just make sure the sheet has plenty of cornmeal or flour on it.  For the tomato sauce, I used leftover tomato paste to make a sauce similar to the one I had eaten with breakfast, but added a few more ingredients and tasted as I went along.  The recipe is as follows:

40-day Vegetarian tomato sauce, re-tweaked
Makes about 3 cups

1-2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 yellow onion
3 teaspoons garlic
7 tablespoons tomato sauce
5 ounces water (10 tablespoons, or about 2/3 cup)
15 ounce can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon white sugar
salt & pepper, to taste

1.  Heat olive oil over medium heat and sauté onion and garlic until translucent and fragrant.
2.  Add tomato paste, water, San Marzano tomatoes.  Cook on medium-high, stirring well and crushing tomato paste into the water.  After five minutes, add Italian seasoning, dried basil, and sugar.  Stir well for another five minutes or so.  Once the sauce gets very hot and begins to bubble, cover and let simmer 20-25 minutes.  Adjust seasoning as needed. 

Whitney made a delicious Greek orzo salad with sundried tomatoes, kalamata olives, feta, and parsley.  I was "taste-testing" it all day long!  Kate brought a delicious California salad - mixed greens with avocado, tomato, cucumber, and almonds, topped with balsamic.  It was crunchy and light and refreshing, the perfect complement to the flatbreads and Whitney's orzo.

And don't think we stuffed ourselves before dessert!  For dessert, Brent made some (tasty!) raw vegan cookies from oats, quinoa, coconut, peanut butter, agave, and vegan chocolate chips.  Y'all head over to My Sweet Natured Life to see the recipe! Brittany went all smitten kitchen on us and made an amazing blueberry crumble topped with ice cream, of course!

The rest of my weekend was low-key - spent some quality time with my mat at Hot Yoga DC and went on a long walk with Rae.  I also got a nice grilled vegetable burrito from Surfside on Sunday with some friends.  It's been a whirlwind of a Spring and there's even more on the agenda for the next several weekends.  Easter, NASCAR in Richmond, Gold Cup, UVA Riverboat Reception, Bollie's Graduation, Italy!!  It's wonderful to be busy.

Have a great week!

Friday, April 15, 2011

friday breakfast: round 5

Eggs and tomato sauce, a slightly strange but delicious breakfast

I'm sorry this post is a little late this morning.  Last night I went down the street to a friend's birthday cookout, promising myself I'd be in bed by 11 ready to get up at 7 and work my tail off today.  I put a lot of things on my to-do list yesterday evening.  In order of priority, today's tasks were:

1.  Work work - not gonna go into detail because y'all don't wanna hear about that.  But there's a lot of it today.
2.  Cook and write today's Friday Breakfast post
3.  Housework - mainly cleaning the kitchen, which is disgusting right now.  Whitney and I are having dinner guests tonight, so this absolutely must get done.
3.  Grocery store - see above, must get done.  Unless my guests want to eat Tasty Bite lentils or eggs.
4.  Long run - it's 68 and sunny, sunny, SUNNY!  For pure utility, I almost put this last, but I think I need it for my sanity.
5.  Laundry - bane of my existence.

Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans.  I stayed out till 1 and slept till 7:30.  When I woke up, the only thing I wanted was coffee, so I just got straight to work.  I know you all were sad when, after spending the first thirty minutes of work reading and replying to emails, rearranging stacks of paper on your desks, and making the trip down to Starbucks, you return to your computer and see none of the following things: 

1.  the 40-day vegetarian (1) in your Google Reader
2.  my face on your Facebook newsfeed (by the way, the status messages will promptly cease when this blog goes kaput).
3.  a tinyurl from me on your twitter feed (unlike Facebook status updates, these will certainly not cease). 
4.  no breakfast post on  (although per the stats, it looks like very few people access my blog this way).

Can you tell I'm in an anal-retentive, list-making mood today?  Sincerest apologies.

But back to the matter at hand.  It's Friday....I'm working from home....FRIDAY BREAKFAST! I can't believe this is my fifth breakfast post!

Too bad the only thing I wanted this morning was coffee.  So I put on a very large pot of coffee, put in some laundry, and turned on my computer.  Alright, #1 and #5 in progress!  When my appetite finally came around, I really wanted some runny, over easy eggs, and a side of crispy toast to soak up all the goodness.  But I knew that I had to give you something interesting since I was late with the post today.  I don't have much in my fridge (see #3), but I do have a can of tomato paste leftover from that chickpea nightmare/dream come true (I still am going back and forth as to whether it was a success or failure), so I want to use that at some point before it goes bad.  (I absolutely despise wasting food, or letting it go bad and having to throw it out.)

I also felt a weird nostalgia for Spain this morning.  I get this every once in a while, and because I can't afford to buy an $800 plane ticket every time I feel the urge, I normally just look at old pictures from my time there and ressurect an email chain with my amigas Valencianas (+ Jason) full of references to Cacao Sampaka, botellons in Plaza de la Virgen, and our Valencian frenemy, a weird dude named Fade.  When I really miss Valencia, I make Spanish food.  Normally this is tortilla espanola or dates wrapped in jamon iberico.  I tried making paella once but it was so bad I almost cried.  (It was good, but nothing like what I had there.  Something in the water...)

My madre cooked the most delicious Spanish food, but sometimes she got lazy and we would have huevos for dinner, one way or another.  One of my favorite lazy meals was arroz a la cubana, a 15-minute dish of boiled white rice and an over easy egg (or two), topped with tomato sauce.  I know it sounds gross, but mixing it all up together is so. freaking. tasty.  The first time I ate it though, I gagged a little.  It was the weirdest mixture of flavors and textures.  But a few bites in, I discovered that it all really works together, and made up my mind to lick the plate clean, if necessary.  Like I've said before, don't knock it till ya try it (twice).

I could have subbed grits in for the rice to make it a morning-appropriate dish (yes, I know tons of people around the world eat rice for breakfast), but I just decided to leave it all out and dip a crusty piece of sourdough (thank you, Whitney) in on the side.  So it's really not arroz a la cubana, but I knew it would work because I remember seeing similar dishes here and here.  I made the tomato sauce from the tomato paste I had, but canned tomato/pasta sauce would work just fine.  (I made this sauce all by myself, and it was pretty good, but if anyone has any suggestions to making a great tomato sauce from tomato paste, please let me know!)  I ate the final product directly out of the cast iron skillet (Sorry Mom, I know you must be cringing.)

Arroz a la cubana-inspired Eggs in Tomato Sauce
Serves 1

One egg
olive oil
2 tablespoons onion, chopped finely
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic (about one clove)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3-4 tablespoons water (1/4 cup or a little under)
1/4 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1/4 teaspoon basil
salt and pepper, to taste

1.  Heat a bit of olive oil (just a teaspoon or two) in a small skillet over medium heat.  When hot, add the onion and garlic and salt and pepper.  Saute until onions are translucent.
2.  Add tomato paste, 3 tablespoons water, Italian seasoning, basil, and S&P, stirring with a wooden spoon to break up the paste.  Cut heat down to low.  Let simmer 7-10 minutes.  Adjust seasoning and add an additional tablespoon of water if necessary.
3.  Make a well in the sauce in the center of the pan.  The hole should be small, but large enough to fit an egg in.  This is done by pushing the sauce to the sides of the pan.  (The recipe doesn't make a whole lot of sauce, but it does make enough to cover the bottom of the pan.)
4.  Carefully crack an egg into the hole.  Turn heat up to medium-low, cover, and let cook a few minutes until egg has reached desired consistency.  (I cooked mine about 5 minutes, and it was still runny, but a little too done for me.)
5.  Eat it out of the skillet or transfer to a plate.

Have a good weekend, everybody.  Next week will be my last on the blog, and I'm not even sure if it's going to be a full week, as I'm going home on Thursday night and headed to the beach cottage, sans internet, early Friday.  Will keep y'all updated!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

chickpeas & spinach (and dessert, too!)

Chickpeas with Tomatoes and Spinach

Remember when your mom used to promise you dessert if you ate all your healthy dinner?  Well, this post is kinda like that.  Read this post (suffer through it?) in its entirety, and you'll find something sweet at the end, too. 

How many of you just scrolled all the way down?  Cheaters.

When I saw this post on Eats Well With Others, I knew I had to try it.  I'm not a huge fan of chickpeas, but the picture that Joanne posted was so mouthwatering that it made me want to cook it immediately.  Of course, my picture doesn't do it any justice.  Blame the point-and-shoot.  Maybe you should just go to the original post to see it.  It really was a pretty one!

I had high hopes for this recipe.  And you know what?  Until I started writing this post, I actually liked it.  It was definitely not the best thing I ever made, but it was good.  Solid.  Satisfying, stick-to-your-ribs, don't-have-to-choke-it-down, good.  Good enough that I ate it three days in a row, which is rare for me.  But, by lunch #3, I was bored.  "It lacks a certain je ne c'est quoi," I thought.  "But it's still fine - maybe I just don't love chickpeas after all."  When I went to write up this post, I navigated to the original post so I could link it to my own entry.  And I saw it.  And it hit me like a Mack truck.

The honeyed sweet potatoes.  I didn't make them.  "Well no wonder this dish was bad!  I forgot the sweet potatoes!"   You might wonder how that could happen, so I'll give you a limited-time-only glimpse into my psyche and explain.  I was searching for a recipe to make out of pantry staples because I didn't want to have to go to the grocery store.  I conveniently had everything the recipe called for - except the sweet potatoes.  I spent a few minutes debating whether or not I wanted to go to the store, and then I looked outside.  It was raining.  "No sir," I thought.  "Definitely not going to the store just to buy some sweet potatoes."  So, I "forgot" about them.  You see, I didn't actually forget them in the conventional sense, like someone forgets to pay a bill, return a phone call, or pick up the dry-cleaning, but rather, I convinced myself that they never even existed in the first place.  I pushed the sweet potatoes out of my short-term memory and stored them somewhere in my subconscious.  (Side note:  I do this a lot.  I find it works really well for most things, but not so well for other things.)  This would have been caught if I actually followed the recipe while I was cooking, but I made it from memory.  I didn't have it sitting in front of me shouting, "You moron.  You should probably make the sweet potatoes."

Upon my epiphany fifteen minutes ago, the meal, in my hypercritical mind, went from "passable" to downright awful.  Now that I discovered the reason for its suckage, I debated even writing about it.  But, the whole point of this blog is to showcase my successes and laugh about my failures, right?   I'll chalk this misadventure up to selective memory and refusal to follow any recipe to the letter.  I'll call it a failure that kinda-sorta-ends-up-halfway-okay-but-not-really and be done with it.  In fact, I'd venture to say that this would have been the kind of dinner that is force-fed to kids who want dessert.  But I bet with the honeyed sweet potatoes they would have gobbled it down. 

This makes about three lunch-sized servings, but could be served over rice, couscous, or quinoa for a nutritious dinner for two.  Or, ya know, you could just follow the original recipe and make the honeyed sweet potatoes with it.  Also, I know I photographed it with the yogurt sauce, but honestly I wasn't wild about it.  I left it out for my second two servings, so you could probably leave it out too.  But again, maybe it would have been good on the sweet potatoes....

Chickpeas and Spinach with Yogurt Sauce, adapted from Eats Well With Others
Serves 2-3 as a main

1 14 1/2 ounce can chickpeas
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon coriander
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 14 1/2 ounce can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon brown sugar (I used Splenda brown sugar)
Three handfuls baby spinach
salt and black pepper
6 oz Greek yogurt
1 garlic clove, crushed
juice and grated zest of one lemon
fresh mint

1. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a large frying pan and add the onion, cumin, and coriander.  Toast for eight minutes, while stirring, until golden brown.
2.  Add the tomato paste.  Cook for a minute while stirring.  Add the diced tomatoes and juices and brown sugar.  Cook for about 5 minutes over medium heat.  Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary.
3.  Stir the spinach into the tomato sauce.  Add the cooked chickpeas.  Mix together and cook for another 5 minutes. 
4. Make the yogurt sauce by whisking together the last four ingredients.
5.  To serve, spoon the warm chickpea mixture into a serving dish.  Spoon the yogurt sauce on top or serve on the side.

Okay, so now that you've suffered through dinner, I've promised dessert.  Reason #58 I am glad I gave up meat instead of sweets this year....

When somebody wants to go get cupcakes, I don't have to say no.  Because I have a hard time saying no to dessert in general, much less cupcakes.

Georgetown Cupcake (photo taken via Instagram)

Here are my thoughts on Georgetown Cupcake.   Full disclosure: I'm a huge fan of the cupcakery's hippie neighbor, Baked & Wired, and they will always hold the key to my cupcake heart.  Ever since Gtown Cupcake got that stupid TV show, the already long line of sweet-toothed patrons has stretched even further down 34th Street and has become even more overrun by out-of-towners.  That said, the cupcakes are flavorful, creative, and very cute - I am just not willing to waste an hour of my life waiting for a tiny cupcake. But, I was down in Georgetown a few nights ago, and my date had never been to Georgetown Cupcake, so it was an obvious choice for dessert.  Yes, the line was down the block, but it moved pretty quickly and I got some great material for Overheard in DC: Tourist Edition, so I can't complain.  Per usual, the cupcakes were super sweet (especially the salted caramel, top right).  The hummingbird (banana & walnut cake with cream cheese frosting) was the highlight for me - out-of-this-world tasty.  Definitely one of my favorites I've had from the shop.  It's one of their seasonal flavors, only available till the end of April, so get it while it's hot.

Have a wonderful Thursday!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

what do soup, black pumps, and men have in common?

Cold Ginger Carrot and Coconut Soup

I love soup!  (And no, that's not the answer to the question.) I like hearty chilis in the winter and light gazpacho in the summer.  I like creamy butternut squash soup, white bean and kale soup, lentil stew, tuscan vegetable soup, you name it, I'll eat it.  Well, I should take that back.  Soup can be a very quotidian thing, but sometimes it's delicious, and this is when it's at its best.  I feel the same way about soups as I do about a pair of black pumps, or even a man.  They're everywhere, and they run the gamut from cheap and tasteless to fancy-schmanzy, too fussy, and too much work (to make, walk in, or date).  Great soup recipes, like men and shoes, take a while to find and a lot of dabbling, but they're out there!  And once you find one you like, why waste time on the other ones you aren't wild about?  Some call it "pickiness"; I prefer "selectivity".  And I'm not sorry about it one bit.

Pureed soup is something that is ridiculously easy to make, but can also be ridiculously unpleasant if you don't do it right.  Kind of like a pair of hooker heels or the complete idiot you went out with once.  I've tried pureed soups with all different kinds of flavors and vegetable combinations, but nothing is like this one.  It's silky and smooth, with just the right amount of kick from the curry, flavor from the ginger, creaminess from the coconut milk, and sweetness from the carrots.  It is supposed to be a cold soup, like a summer gazpacho, but can also be served hot (I ate it both ways).  The final result is a relatively painless recipe yielding immense happiness - everything you should get out of a relationship (with soup, shoes, or men).      

Cold Ginger Carrot and Coconut Soup, adapted from Gourmet 
3/4 cup finely chopped scallion (about 1 bunch)
1 small onion, chopped (about 2/3 cup)
1 tablespoon peeled, finely grated fresh ginger
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 1/2 pounds baby carrots (about 4 cups)
2 1/2 cups low-salt vegetable broth
1 cup canned lowfat coconut milk
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1.  In a large heavy saucepan cook chopped scallion, onion, and ginger in butter with curry powder and salt and pepper to taste over medium-low heat, until softened.  Add carrots and vegetable broth and simmer covered, 20 minutes, or until carrots are very soft.
2.  When carrots are soft, cut heat.  Using an immersion blender, purée mixture in batches, adding coconut milk little by little until very smooth.  Stir in 1 tablespoon lime juice and chill soup at least 6 hour or overnight.
3.  Thin soup with ice water, as needed, and season with additional lime juice and salt and pepper.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

just beet it

lentil salad with beets, green beans, and goat cheese
To me, beets are the perfect example of two things - a) don't knock it till ya try it (twice), and b) there are some things that absolutely cannot, and should not, ever be eaten out of a can.

There are a lot of people out there who can't fathom the idea of beets.  And I get it; I honestly do.  I used to be right there with y'all.  I didn't eat beets until about a year ago.  In fact, the only time I ever even saw beets prior to that was at my grandparents' house. Every few Sundays, we'd get in the car and drive a half hour to their house, and Dad and/or Uncle Jim would take my grandfather to the Methodist church.  While the men were at church, my mom and grandmother would cook the sides for lunch later that day, while Bollie, Jamie, and I would "play" the piano (I had no formal training, but I thought that four years of violin gave me a solid foundation) or run around in the back yard.  My grandparents had a sprawling lawn with tons of tall pine trees, and Paw-Paw would give us a dollar for every trash bag of pine cones we collected.  When I look back at this, I realize how much of a steal he was getting, and all I can do is laugh...he really was so cheap.

Church was at 11am, but if it lasted more than an hour, Paw-Paw would walk out.  I wish I were kidding. He once told the minister that the church didn't pay overtime, a story fondly retold during his eulogy.  Just after noon, the men would come through the back door with Hardees boxes of fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits.  And we'd feast.  Heaping platters of succotash, green beans, and sauteed spinach, all things my Dad loves, littered the table.  We'd help ourselves to chicken, biscuits, and the sides, passing the plates around for seconds and thirds until we were fully sated.  At the end of the meal, there was no chicken, no biscuits, no succotash, no green beans, and no spinach.  But there generally was a little plate of canned beets left over.  Slimy, icky canned beets, (too) perfectly trimmed (manufactured?) into circular disks.  The plate looked as if one or two beets had been picked off, but they mostly looked lonely sitting there, like the last kid picked in PE class awkwardly looking down at his Chucks until the last team captain called his name.  It was a shame, really.  The little congealed beets got no love.  My grandfather made me try one once; I think I took one bite and didn't eat a beet again until last summer, a good fifteen years later. 

I ended up with a bunch of dirty purple beets before my cousin/aunt/relative Angelita was going out of town.  (I don't know what it is with people always dumping their unused produce on me, but I'm not complaining!)  I searched for the perfect beet recipe for a few days - I was determined to find the proper vehicle to reintroduce the villain into my diet.  Every recipe said that roasting the beets was the failsafe way to bring out the flavor, preserve the texture (no slime!) and make them look pretty, too.  So I gave it a shot.  And I forgot to set the timer, and they cooked an extra twenty minutes longer than they should have.  Despite this slip-up, the final result was a caramelized, candy-like bulb, sweet and savory all at once.

So then I bought beets for the first time.  And then bought them again.  I tried boiling them once, but they're just not the same as when they're roasted.  Roasted beets are a versatile addition to several dishes.  I like them in salads with goat cheese, avocado, and citrus, or simply tossed in a bit of balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper.  I recently put some roasted beets into a warm salad with lentils and green beans and topped with creamy goat cheese (when the opportunity presents itself, I top everything with goat cheese).  It does take a while, but it's not a lot of hands-on time.  It's also great kitchen practice, as it utilizes a few different cooking methods. 

The pink tinge of the beets actually makes the lentils kinda pretty, which, as we have discussed before, is hard to do.  It's like putting lipstick on a pig.  A tasty pig.  If the pig were a vegetarian.

Alright, so maybe that metaphor doesn't hold.  But just give beets a chance.  Please and thanks.

Warm Lentil Salad with Roasted Beets and Green Beans
Serves 3

1/2 pound uncooked brown lentils (or 1 heaping cup)
6 baby carrots or 1 regular carrot
2 sticks of celery
1/2 medium yellow onion
1 bay leaf
4 sprigs thyme
3 cups vegetable stock
3 beets
1/2 pound green beans
3 ounces goat cheese, crumbled (omit if you want a vegan version)
salt and pepper
balsamic vinegar or maple dijon viniagrette (recipe found here)

1.  Preheat oven to 425.  Rinse and scrub the beets with a brush, if you have one, and chop off greens about 1/2 inch from the top of the beet bulb.  Do not remove the root of the beet.  Wrap each beet in tin foil and place in a roasting dish.  Let roast in the oven for about an hour, or until the beets can easily be pierced with a fork. 
2.  While the beets are roasting, heat olive oil and garlic in a pan and saute chopped onion, garlic, and carrot on medium-low heat, about five minutes (this is called mirepoix, and is the base for much of French cooking).  Add lentils, herbs, and vegetable stock.  Bring to a boil and cover.  Reduce heat and let simmer 20 minutes, or until lentils are soft.  The dried lentils should make about 3 cups of cooked beans.  Drain.
3.  Remove ends of green beans.  Place green beans in steamer dish in one inch of water.  Cover and let steam five minutes. 
4. When beets are ready, remove from oven and let cool 10 minutes.  Remove the foil from the beets and peel skin.  The skin should easily peel off, no knife is required.  You may want to wear gloves if you don't want pink fingers.  Be warned that the beet juice can stain, so if you get some on the counter or clothes, wash immediately.
5. Chop beets and green beans, and toss with lentils.  Top with salt and pepper and coat with balsamic vinegar or maple dijon viniagrette.  Top with goat cheese and serve.

Monday, April 11, 2011

back-to-work monday

Happy Monday!  How was everyone's weekend?  I, for one, am grateful that I am employed and at work today after the threat of a government shutdown.  Don't get me wrong, it would be nice to have a few days off, but I gotta make them dollar dollar bills.  But it's a moot point now, and we're good for the next six months, I guess.  I'm sure next year they'll go through the same thing.

But now, the highlight of your Monday....a quick recap of the weekend in food.  As I previously mentioned, Thursday night Brittany's Mom (Miss Cleo) and Aunt Elizabeth (Delta Burke) gave us a tarot card reading.  They were in town visiting from Atlanta and they love their Tarot cards!  As I said before, I was a complete skeptic, but I went in with an open mind and actually ended up getting too into it by the end.  Take it with a grain of salt, or take it as Gospel, but either way you look at it, it's all in good fun. 

We had plenty of wine to ease any nerves, and noshed on hummus, cheese, fruits, crackers, and cured meats (well, everyone else did).  There was a great brie, mozzarella, and a sharp white cheddar.  Those were paired with flatbread, crackers, and a whole wheat baguette.  We also had some delicious hummus and a fruit plate.  I will admit that the plate of proscuitto and sopressata literally made my mouth water - it was actually the first plate of meat I've seen that I really, really wanted (which is weird, because I wouldn't count those meats as my favorites!)  It was actually pretty funny to hear everyone's readings - my friends and I are all at such pivotal points in our lives, albeit all for different reasons, and it was interesting to see how the cards' meanings changed in different "positions" and applied to everyone's scenarios. 

This was my Tarot card reading.  Of the ten cards, six are cards of the "major arcana."  There are only 22 major arcana cards in the whole deck (of 78).  Miss Cleo thought it was tres interesante to see so many major arcana appear in my reading - apparently these cards are very strong, and with deep meanings.  Strong cards for a strong personality, she said.  Needless to say, everyone thought this was quite appropriate.  The reading itself didn't tell me really anything I didn't already know about myself or this hilarious sequence of events that comprises my life, but it was funny to see that a lot of my past and present was reflected in the meaning of the various cards.  Don't count me in as a believer just yet, but I'm interested to see if any of the future predictions will hold.  It was a lot of fun to see what the Tarot thinks the future has in store.

Friday night we had Happy Hour to mourn a possible furlough, celebrate the end of March Madness, and toast to a coworker getting into a neat graduate program.  I got hungry so I grabbed a crepe from Crepes on the Walk - oozing with swiss cheese, spinach, tomatoes, and avocado.  Saturday I made banana pancakes (but I cheated - I used a buttermilk premix!)  I also went to Cactus Cantina for Lindsey's birthday and had the best vegetable fajitas ever!  The platter included not only the traditional peppers and onions, but also mushrooms, zucchini, green onions, corn, potatoes, and even ginger and bean sprouts (not exactly Mexican, but whatever).  Obviously the platter was served with pico de gallo, guacamole, rice, and black beans (a nice alternative to refried beans, which are generally not vegetarian).

After dinner, I met up with Laura and Mauri, two friends who were visiting from NYC.  We sang karaoke, Laura's favorite pastime, at Cafe Japone.  Sunday was spent writing, grocery shopping, cooking, doing laundry, catching up on emails and trip planning....all the things I normally try to do on Sunday to make me feel like a productive human.

My most loyal commenter finally makes it on the blog (!!)
Quick PSA:  There are only two more weeks for the 40-day Vegetarian!  I've gotten so many great suggestions for blogs, magazines, and websites to gather inspiration, and I really appreciate all of the support and ideas!  I've sometimes had trouble getting the ingredients, though.... zucchini and eggplant are expensive and flavorless this time of year.  I'm keeping my eyes peeled!
This week on the blog, another yucky childhood vegetable gets a makeover, a boring fish filet gets dressed up, and Thursday's post is still TBD.  Enjoy your Monday!

Friday, April 8, 2011

friday breakfast: round 4

As I've spoken about before, I'm not much of a baker.  Mainly, I dislike baking because I am far too anal-retentive in most other areas of my life, and I don't need to add baking to that list.  If I absolutely must bake, I make Ghiardelli Triple Chocolate brownies (best boxed mix EVER!) or chocolate chip cookies.  Those are made-from-scratch, but hardly original - I use the recipe off the back of a bag of Nestle Tollhouse chocolate chips, and double up on the amount of chocolate.  Sophisticated, I know.  I really don't care for baking, but sometimes the easiest way to people's hearts is through a delicious baked good.

I am currently on a long-term software development project at work in which we are building, from scratch, a new computer program to replace a group of old ones.  My time is now budgeted fifty percent for economic analysis (my "real job"), and fifty percent for program development.  I am so grateful for this project - it is an interesting case, and a wonderful opportunity for me professionally.  I'm honing skills I would not otherwise be developing, and I'm working with some very intelligent people whom I would not otherwise get to interact with.  But, as with all long-term projects like this, there's a complicated web of politics and issues that underlie the direction of the project.  And true to the nature of teamwork, it is a constant challenge to accommodate the varying viewpoints, backgrounds, personalities, and leadership styles of the people working together to produce one final, well-rounded product.

Last week we got into it in one of our meetings.  One gentleman and I had a whole list of problems with a particular document we were reviewing, and we brought our issues up for discussion with the group.  He and I are particularly vested in this project, as we have been working on it since its kick-off six months ago.  It's also worth noting that he and I are very opinionated  active participants in group discussions.  To make a long story short, we had to give a run-down to the folks new to the project.  By the end of the meeting everyone was either confused, irritated, or just tired of hearing us speak.  I knew that in order to get back into the good graces of the group, I'd need to come to the next morning's three-hour workshop bearing gifts.

I believe that a little butter and sugar can make people go goo-goo, but my go-tos of brownies and cookies wouldn't be ideal for a 9am workshop.  So, I turned to smitten kitchen, in my opinion, today's preeminent food blogger and an especially knowledgeable source on all things baked.  I love Deb's outlook on cooking, her tounge-in-cheek writing style, and her passion for good food.  I often look to her blog for inspiration when I'm in a culinary rut, and plus, she just makes me giggle.

Armed with what Deb had dubbed "the best ever" banana bread and "perfect" blueberry muffins, I waltzed into Wednesday's workshop.  I smiled, laid the spoils out on the table, and watched as my teammates took a slice of bread and a muffin.  And came back for seconds.  And asked for people to pass them the leftovers.  Suddenly, everybody loved me again.  Funny the way those things turn out.....

Best-Ever Banana Bread, adapted from smitten kitchen
Makes one loaf

3 to 4 ripe bananas, smashed
1/3 cup melted salted butter
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 cup of flour

1.  Preheat the oven to 350°.
2.  With a wooden spoon, mix butter into the mashed bananas in a large mixing bowl. Mix in the sugar, egg, and vanilla.  Then, mix in the spices. 
3. Sprinkle the baking soda and salt over the mixture and mix in. Mix in the flour last.
4.  Pour mixture into a buttered 4×8 inch loaf pan. Bake for 45 minutes to one hour, or until a tester comes out clean.
5.  Cool on a rack. Remove from pan and slice to serve.

Note:  Deb spiked her loaf with bourbon, but considering I was taking this to work and I was trying to win people over and not possibly offend them, I omitted it.  I do love bourbon, though.

Perfect Blueberry Muffins, adapted from smitten kitchen
Makes twelve muffins

5 tablespoons unsalted butter , softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
3/4 cup plain yogurt or sour cream (I used Greek yogurt because I always have it in my fridge)
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup frozen blueberries

1.  Preheat oven to 375° and line a muffin tin with 12 paper liners.
2.  Beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat well, then yogurt and zest.
3.  Mix in flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt just until the flour disappears. 
4.  Gently fold in your blueberries.
5.  Using a spoon or ice cream scoop, spoon your dough into your muffin cups.  The dough will be quite thick. You’re looking for them to be about 3/4 full, nothing more.
6.  Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until tops are golden and a tester inserted into the center of muffins comes out clean.

And because it wouldn't be Friday without some Friday eye-candy, allow me to introduce you all to my new boyfriend. I met him the other day on a run up Massachusetts Avenue....yes, that is a towel, and only a towel, and with slits-up-to-there, around his waist.  (I very rarely run with my iPhone, but my iPod was dead, so I am really happy I had it with me.  Camera FTW!)

Have a wonderful weekend, friends.....hope you're lucky enough to snag a man as sexy as this one!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

what to do when you're sick of cooking

Roasted Vegetables and Sauteed Spinach

One of the reasons I started this blog was that I wanted a public forum to share my kitchen adventures - chronicling all the new techniques, ingredients, and recipes that I tried as a part of my vegetarian lifestyle.  Through this blog, I am held accountable not only to myself, but also to my readership.  With my readers awaiting recipes and stories of success and failure, I avoid falling prey to lazy, unimaginative dinners of fried eggs, peanut butter sandwiches, or hummus.  And guess what?  So far, it has worked.  With only a little more than two weeks left on this little journey, I haven't had eggs for dinner once.  I've only made peanut butter and banana sandwiches when I'm on the go, like on the bus to New York, at last week's Wizards game, or during an afternoon of errand running.  And my Rockin' Moroccan white bean dip stuffed in a wrap with veggies is the closest I've gotten to a hummus-only meal.

I've published one post a day, Monday through Friday, for almost a month now.  And I hate to say it, but I've been cooking so much that I'm a little bit tired of it.  This speaks volumes.  I'm one of those weirdos that derives immense pleasure in the entire process of preparing a meal.  I love going to the grocery store or farmers' market and selecting the stars of a dish.  I enjoy selecting fresh herbs to accent and enhance the flavors of a dish.  I think sharpening my knives is fun, and take pride in the methodical way I dice vegetables into uniform pieces.  I love my handtools, like my immersion blender, vegetable peeler, and multipurpose hand grater, and the way they make it so easy to zest lemons and mince ginger.  Don't even get me started on sauteeing onions in olive oil, butter, and garlic, or removing the lid of a pot of soup and  inhaling the deep scent of herbs and vegetables simmering away. 

But as happy as those things make me, sometimes I come home and just want to microwave a packet of Tasty Bite madras lentils, poach an egg, or get takeout.  Not that there's anything wrong with doing those things, but y'all wouldn't read my blog if that's what I had for dinner every night (and likewise, I wouldn't be keeping an online journal).  So luckily, while I can get away with lazy days once in a while, I also have a convenient backup - roasted vegetables.

Now, I know I roast a lot of vegetables.  Roasted vegetable and quinoa stuffed eggplantRoasted vegetable saladRoasted brussels sprouts and quinoa.  But it's just so easy!  On the particular night that I roasted these beauties, I was tired and not particularly enthused about making dinner.  So I roasted some vegetables.  I turned the oven on 425, removed some peeled and diced butternut squash from the freezer (left over from this amaz butternut squash pasta recipe), diced a red pepper, and opened a six-ounce box of sliced baby bellas.  I tossed the vegetables in olive oil, sea salt, and pepper (but you could also choose to use fresh or dried herbs like basil and oregano).  I spread the vegetables on a roasting pan, hopped in the shower, and after 12 minutes, turned the vegetables.  I put them back in the oven, dried my hair, and another 12 minutes minutes later, they were finished.  I quickly sauteed some spinach in garlic and lemon juice, and then topped the bed of greens with the charred vegetables and sprinkled feta cheese on top (though you could easily make it vegan by removing the cheese).  I had a delicious meal in less than a half an hour, without even really doing any "cooking".  If you're hungry or in need of some protein, add some chickpeas.  Now how easy is that?

Of course, the other thing you can do when you're sick of cooking is go out to eat.  Last night I went to Cafe Ole, a hidden gem near Tenleytown.  Concentrating on Mediterranean-style small plates, and with a plethora of vegetarian options (helpfully denoted on the menu), this place was right up my alley!  Unfortunately, my pictures didn't turn out, but the food was delicious.  We ordered an all-vegetarian meal of the hummus platter, the olive orzo salad, the chickpea pizette, and the sangria....all were amazing!  The orzo salad (Toscana salata) was my favorite, an orzo lightly coated in roasted red pepper puree, tossed with kalamata olives, artichokes, and parmesan cheese, and topped with a thick lemon aioli.  My date didn't really care for it, which was fine....more for me!  I was also totally impressed by the black bean hummus (spiced with cumin and topped with cilantro) and the pizette (chickpea dough topped with wild mushroom ragout and cheesy parmesan arugula).  The only disappointment was that there was supposed to be baba ganoush on the hummus platter but it was replaced with a lackluster tabbouleh salad.  And the sangria (always, always red!) met my seal of approval, not an easy feat.  Check it out!

I'm kicking my weekend off tonight with a Tarot card reading courtesy of Brittany's mom and aunt.  Yes.  Not a joke.  I'm openly skeptical about those things, but it's all in good fun, and plus, there will be plenty of libations to smooth anxiety and lessen the damage from any not-so-stellar readings.  I'm actually really excited to see what the ladies think my future holds!  Then, I'm looking forward to a Mexican dinner for Lindsey's birthday and karaoke with some visiting friends from NYC.  Should be a whirlwind of a weekend!   

What does everybody have planned this weekend?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

lean & green quinoa with maple dijon vinaigrette

Lean & Green Quinoa with Maple Dijon Vinaigrette
Last week, my sister Bollie left a comment on the blog asking me to do something with brussels sprouts.  This may not seem like a big deal, but I almost picked up the phone to make sure her Google account hadn't been hijacked.  You see, Bollie used to the pickiest eater on the face of the planet.  She was the kind of kid who ate waffles drowned in syrup as often as my mother would let her.  Her ideal dinner was three dinner rolls and half a stick of butter.  Okay, so maybe that is a slight exaggeration, but she really did make other “picky eaters” look like Anthony Bourdain.  Her diet included a steady rotation of peanut butter and cheetos sandwiches (yes, together), unseasoned chicken breast, Easy Mac, American cheese & butter sandwiches (not to be confused with "grilled cheese"), and very little else.  Luckily, she always had a clean bill of health, so we never worried too much about her.

Somewhere between 1994 and today, Bollie's tastebuds have matured.  She now eats "lots of vegetables", though she's "still not ready for tomatoes."  This in particular is amusing to me because Bollie is an aficionado on all things Italian and spent an entire summer studying, cooking, and eating in Rome.  I also don't understand how someone who eats eggplant and zucchini would find the little tomato offensive, but whatever.  So when she asked for something featuring brussels sprouts, the quintessential villain of the vegetable world, I was confused....but happy to oblige.

This dish is kinda an ode to my lil' sis - it includes green vegetables she likes (asparagus, green onions, and apparently, brussels sprouts) and is topped with a sweet maple and dijon dressing.  The maple pays homage to her favorite breakfast and the sharp zing of the vinegar and dijon combination reflects the one-two punch of her personality.     

The brussels in this recipe are roasted.  In my humble opinion, the only way to cook brussels is to pan-sear them or roast them.  Boiling or steaming them renders the poor brussels sprouts completely deserving of their reputation as a pile of sour mush.  However, the carmelization that results from roasting or sauteeing them gives the humble brussels an extreme makeover, elevating them from ugly duckling to belle of the ball.


Lean & Green Quinoa with Maple Dijon Vinaigrette
Serves 2 as side dish, 1 as main

1/2 cup uncooked quinoa + 3/4 cup vegetable stock (yields about 1 1/3 cup cooked quinoa)
1/4 cup green onions, chopped (green and white parts)
1/4 pound skinny asparagus
handful spinach leaves, coarsely chopped
1/3 pound brussels sprouts, halved

for the Maple Dijon Vinaigrette

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons grainy dijon mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons maple syrup
salt and pepper to taste

1.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2.  Chop asparagus into bite-sized pieces.  Additionally, prepare brussels sprouts by removing outer leaves, if necessary, and cutting the sprouts in half (perpindicular to the base).  Toss sprouts in 1 - 1 1/2 tablespoons of the maple dijon vinaigrette.
3.  Roast the asparagus and brussels (cut side up) 20 minutes, or until golden.  If your asparagus are very skinny, they will roast in less time, and you may want to remove them halfway through.
4.  Meanwhile, prepare the quinoa according to package directions or read my method for preparing quinoa here.
 5.  Mix roasted brussels sprouts and asparagus with the quinoa.  Top with green onions and drizzle vinaigrette overtop the salad (you may have some left over).  Toss to combine.