Monday, March 30, 2009

Quick & Easy: Squash Soup with a Red Curry Kick

Now that spring has sprung, I'm enrapt in the adventure of cleaning out my winter veggie freezer stores. In addition to clearing space to make way for the upcoming summer bounty, using what's on hand means I'm able to save quite a bit of money on groceries.

This past week, when Peef poked his head down into our chest freezer, he found a package of winter squash puree that we'd forgotten about. I'd saved it up to make a batch of that beer-cheese-squash soup, but we didn't have any nice sharp cheddar cheese on hand. So, I decided to improvise.

A glance into the pantry revealed that I had ... not one, not two... but THREE little jars of Thai Kitchen red curry paste on hand. Apparently the paste was on sale at some point this winter, and my hoarding impulses took over for a moment. Needless to say, it seemed like a good move to amend my soup-making plans in that direction.

I sauteed an onion in a bit of coconut oil, and added a couple of teaspoons of the paste to the mix.
Then I added my squash puree, and stirred everything up thoroughly.
I added a can of low-fat coconut milk, and continued to stir until the soup was fragrant and creamy.
Then, I added 2/3 cup or so of diced red pepper -- for color and a bit of crunch. I let the soup simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the flavors melded. And then I poured it into bowls.
A bit of cilantro on top, and everything looked delicious.
This soup was definitely a delicious change of pace. The complexity of the red curry was a nice match for the uber-sweet squash, and the coconut milk gave the soup a lovely tropical edge without making it too rich. I have to admit I made it a BIT too spicy, even for our taste... but a less heavy hand on the curry paste would solve that in a jif.

This soup was the height of simple, weeknight cooking. Not altogether recipe-worthy, since it was so easy -- but delicious enough to warrant a repeat performance. This would be a fantastic soup to serve as a starter for a more intricate Thai feast... might have to start planning one of those for next winter.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Mushroom Tofu Stroganoff

Every dish has a story, or so it seems.
Legend has it that stroganoff was invented for a culinary competition held in Saint Petersburg during 1890's. An inventive chef -- who happened to be employed as a cook for the very rich, very famous Count Pavel Alexandrovich Stroganov-- combined the classic flavors of beef, mushrooms and sour cream, and took home the first prize.

Count Stroganov would probably be appalled at our liberal adaptation of this recipe for less carnivorous tastes. But, let's ignore that. Shall we? This recipe is just as delicious as the original... with quite a bit less saturated fat. It's a perfect addition to add to your repertoire of meatless meals. It can be easily thrown together on a weeknight. AND, if you'd prefer a vegan option, this recipe can be easily adapted.

You should begin with the loveliest mushrooms you can find. These are the backbone of the vegetarian version of this dish. So, choose wisely. I like the meaty flavor of baby portabella/cremini mushrooms. For a fancier, more company-worthy dish, try a melange of wild mushrooms. You won't be sorry.
You'll also want to pick up a package of the firmest tofu you can find. I recommend a nigari-style (or baked) organic tofu, which will give you the firmest texture and best flavor. Once you've pulled the tofu out of its package, you'll want to drain it, slice it, and press it to remove as much water as possible. I like to wrap mine in layers of flour sack towels and place it under a few ceramic plates for 15-20 minutes.
When the tofu has been adequately drained, you'll want to dice it into cubes. I like mine to be bite-sized so that they're easy to manage in the frying pan.
Now heat up a bit of your butter or oil, and fry the tofu. You'll want to get the cubes brown on all sides, which means cooking them over a fairly high heat (and being a bit patient... good things take time). When you take these out of the pan to drain, you'll want to snitch one or two for nibbling. These make a fantastic snack, especially when paired with a dipping sauce for a bit of flavor (try bbq sauce... or a bit of wasabi mayo). Don't eat too many, of course, or you'll be too full for dinner... and you won't have any tofu for the stroganoff!!
After prepping the tofu, you'll work on sauteeing up some onions and garlic. You'll caramelize all of those delicious mushrooms, adding layers of delicious flavor to the finished dish. And then you'll add dill, a pinch of cayenne pepper, some shoyu soy sauce, and the fried tofu. Stir well to combine, cover, and set the whole, delicious mess aside until your pasta is cooked.

When your pasta is ready, add your sour cream. Stir well, and toss with the pasta.
When everything comes together, you'll have a hearty, heady dish redolent with mushrooms, dill, onion, and garlic. If you've done your job, your tofu will be firm and toothy, your caramelized mushrooms will be rich and meaty, and your kitchen will smell as if you spent the whole day simmering up something wonderful.
Seriously, folks, my mouth is watering just thinking about this.
I'm pretty sure you'll want to try it out for yourselves.

Mushroom Tofu Stroganoff

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Hippie Food: Double Ginger Granola with Cranberries & Cocoa Nibs

It's true. I'm probably a hippie chick at heart.
You probably wouldn't be able to tell from my appearance. After all, these days I have a professional wardrobe. However, in the days of yore, my closet contained a very nice collection of peasant skirts, which I wore with t-shirts (in those days, I worked selling books at an independent bookstore). I'm also a bit of an activist by nature. I believe that most great movements begin as grassroots endeavors, and I firmly believe in the power of people to incite real change in the world. I'm not afraid to get my hands dirty. And I take the opportunity, whenever I can, to vote with my $$$ by supporting local farmers and local businesses.

There are other signs.
I'd rather have a string of beads than a set of diamond studs any day.
I secretly long for a tie-dyed VW bug.

I heart me a nice pair of Birkenstocks.

And, I love me some delicious, crunchy granola.
My mother used to make granola when I was a kid. She had the concept right, for the most part, but she tended to bake the raisins right along with the oatmeal, nuts, and honey... so they always had this sort of burnt taste. It wasn't until I grew up and went out on my own that I realized the raisins in granola weren't supposed to be crunchy.
Turns out, my mother wasn't alone, granola actually took a seriously long time to catch on, even among the health food crowd. I'm not sure we can chalk that up to a history of burnt raisins; but, some of the initial concepts for this crunchy snack were pretty unappealing.

Legend has it that we can credit the beginnings of granola to Dr. Graham, health enthusiast and inventor of graham flour/graham crackers. Dr. Graham preached that people should shun meat, alcohol, tobacco, stimulants (coffee, tea) and white bread. He didn't make or advocate granola... but he did inspire the production of GRANULA, sheets of graham crackers baked, rebaked, and broken up into little pieces. *YUM* Apparently, after the delicious granula concept failed to take off, Dr. Kellogg and Dr. Post subsequently invent their own variations in the late 1800's --the former resulting in the granola name, and the latter giving birth to modern-day Grape Nuts cereal.

When the term "granola" was revived by the modern health food movement in the 1960's, it became the lovely hippie food we know today.

As for me, I've been making granola for a number of years. Usually, I've gone with a pretty standard recipe -- oatmeal, some sort of nuts, cinnamon, sweetener (usually maple syrup or honey; sometimes brown sugar); and dried fruit. This recipe follows the mold, only I experimented a bit with the flavorings. This variety uses a bit of fresh ginger, some vanilla powder, and just a touch of cinnamon. It also benefits from some chopped up crystallized ginger -- which adds a bit of zing -- and dried cranberries, which keep the granola from getting too sweet. Cocoa nibs add a bit of chocolatey interest -- and a nutty crunch.
We usually eat our granola for breakfast with a bit of vanilla kefir poured over the top. It's the best cold cereal I've ever had (maybe next to Grape Nuts :)), and it sticks to my ribs just enough that I'm not ravenous before noon.
Granola keeps well. You can store double ginger granola for up to a month in an airtight container at room temperature. It keeps for 6 months in the freezer.

In addition to breakfast food, granola is also nice sprinkled over fruit, yogurt, or icecream. This lovely gingery delicacy is especially nice as a topping for baked peaches.

Double Ginger Granola with Cranberries & Cocoa Nibs

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mad Fusion to the Rescue: Reuben Calzones for Dinner!

Normally, we'd be whipping up a nice batch of Reuben sammiches after St. Patrick's Day. And trust me, that's NOT a bad idea. But, neither is Reuben pizza... which was another option that came to mind.

Rather than trying to decide between the two, we opted to try our hand at a bit of good old fashioned experimentation. Ireland Meets Italia. Mad Fusion ensues.

First, you need the fixin's for pizza dough. But, this won't be just any pizza dough. Get your rye flour ready, honey. Cuz this pizza dough is gonna rock you like a Jewish deli... or something like that.
Once the dough is mixed, give it a short rise. Then knead in some caraway seeds, if you like them. If you'd prefer to leave them out, go right ahead. We'll just point and laugh. Loudly. Until you give in and add these delicious little seeds to your dough. Cuz they're AWESOME. But really, do whatever you like. We won't judge.
Now, lay your dough to rest again for a bit. And tuck him in. Cuz he likes that.
When he's risen all pretty-like, you can divide him up into four pieces. Roll each into a 12 inch circle. Or some sort of circle-ish (or maybe squarish) shape like you see here. Perfection is NOT the point here, people. Your calzone will not mind if he's a bit different from the rest. Trust me.
Now, you want to load on the filling... a few slices of cheese, a few slabs of corned beef, maybe some horseradish sauce (a Reuben wouldn't be a Reuben without horsey sauce at our house), and maybe a bit more cheese for good measure.
Tuck that filling in very neatly, and transfer your calzone to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Or a silpat. We opted for an exopat with very angry writing along the one side.

You should poke a few holes in your calzones so that the steam has a place to escape. Otherwise, heavens knows what could happen. Something might blow up.

You might also want to secretly brush them with a bit of whipped egg yolk so that they get a nice, sexy, sheen. But, don't tell anyone. Or take pictures. Cuz whipped egg yolk looks gross.
Bake your calzones at ... oh... 450ºF for about.. ah... 18-20 minutes. And then behold their loveliness!
You can leave them on a plate and just let them look pretty. OR you can cut them into slices and serve them to the hungry masses. Like we did.
Yum. Yum. Yum.
And don't forget to wash these down with a bit more of that delicious Irish Stout. Preferably something local. Guinness if you must.

And if you're curious about that rye flour pizza dough, we've got just the thing for you!

Rye Pizza Dough

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Cead Mille Failte: Corned Beef Brisket

I've been cooking up (and/or eating) Irish Day feasts for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, we looked forward to the tradition of boiled corned beef, cabbage, potatoes, and carrots that always awaited us on St. Patrick's Day. There were also often green bread or bagels for lunch, and even sometimes (when we were lucky) a green snowball.

My sister and I always had quite the fun sneaking into mom's store of green food coloring and dying everything green on the feast o' St. Pat's. Most years the mashed potatoes ended up green. The beer was ALWAYS dyed green by the end of the evening. And one year, we even managed to swirl a bit into the butter on the dinner table.

You can imagine what a joyful day it was when I brought Peef into the fold and introduced him to my family's traditional St. Patrick's day dinners. He had NO idea how Irish he really was until he sipped a pint o' stout and took a bite of a traditional boiled dinner. These days, Peef claims to be a long-lost Leprechaunian soul whose spirit was whisked into the present regions by an Enchanted Blarney wind. He fancies that I married him for his gold, and he's spent the past ten years keepin' it from me like a good little Leprechaun. heh!

These days, Peef and I have taken on the tradition of making the annual Irish feast. Although the side dishes have a tendency to change, the one constant is the corned beef. Yes, we realize that beef probably wasn't traditional fare eaten by Irish peasants back in the day (it was more likely mutton or seafood on feast days), but it sure is tasty. Burp's brisket is a delicious variation on the usual -- a brisket, braised in stout, with a dash of dill, some garlic, a bit of pepper, and some clove thrown in for good measure. It takes a couple of hours to prepare, but you can also short-cut the process by prepping it in the crockpot.

Ready to begin? Alright. Let's go!
It doesn't take a whole lot of ingredients to make yourself a kick-butt St. Patty's day brisket. Just a bit of good, local, Irish stout, some tomato paste, a bit of dill, some brown sugar, a few peppercorns, and about 3-4 whole cloves.
You mix all of those seemingly incongruous ingredients into a virtual witch's brew of schlurk. (Schlurk is a lovely word; use it well and often). Make all the gross faces you like at this juncture... but believe you me, when all of this is over, you're gonna wish you didn't scoff at me and my crazy concoctions.
At this point, you want to draw the Boy of the house out of his dark hiding place and hand him the package of disgusting looking corned beefyness. Boys know what to do with this sort of thing. The appropriate treatment goes something like this: Unwrap package of meat. Ignore the fact that the weird red gelly stuff is really grossing you out. Turn on the tap. Place the meat beneath the cold running waters. Pray for cleanliness.
Now that the meat is nice and squeaky clean, you can let it mingle with some veggies in the big gorgeous dutch oven your parents bought you for Christmas. That meat does love hangin' with its veggie kinfolk, doesn't it? Reminds us all that we're all woven from the same fabric. Amen.
OK, enough of the silliness. It's back to cooking.
Now, go back and get that bowl of schlurk that you lovingly prepared earlier. You whisked it well, didn't you? Hope so! Cuz now you want to pour that mess right over the top of Mr. Meat and his Veggie Friends. Get him going at a nice simmer, and leave him there for a good... 3 hours or so. Start checking him for doneness at around 2 1/2 hours, keeping in mind that every meat has his own time frame. Some take 3 hours. Others take 4. You can't rush love, honey.
When you pull him out of his bath, you might choose (as I do) to slip him into the oven for a while to brown up his exterior bits. But, that's completely up to you.
Any way you slice it (we suggest thinly, and across the grain), this corned beef is going to be flavorful and tender. And just perfect for your Irish Day feasting. Or reuben sammiches. Or breakfast hash. Or whatever your lil heart desires.

We like to serve him up with a nice glass of our favorite local stout (Lakefront Brewery Snake Chaser), a nice big bowl of cheesy colcannon with leeks, and some steamed carrots. Oh, yes -- and don't forget the horseradish!

Burp's Corned Beef Brisket

Erin Go Bragh!
And if corned beef isn't quite enough o' the green for you, check out these Seven Weird Green Foods.
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Friday, March 13, 2009

Cold Buster: Mexican Style Chicken Soup with Chiles

Up until about three days ago, I thought I'd actually escaped the cold season this year. Peef and I have both been healthy as horses. We scoffed at the stomach flu when it passed through town. We laughed in the face of a few dozen colds and breathed sighs of relieve when we got through both January and February without so much as a sniffle.

Of course, I should have known better than to think we were out of the woods already; after all, it's only March. There's still bits of snow on the ground here in Wisconsin, and the temperatures won't be steadily above 50ºF for another 3-4 weeks.

Sure enough, I woke up on Tuesday with the rumblings of a sore throat. I took a nice wopping dose of Vitamin C, as a precaution, but I chalked the scratchiness up to a rough night of snoring. Heh. By Wednesday, when the sniffles started settling in, I was pretty sure that something more than sleeping with my mouth open was to blame. And today... well, today I'm verifiably cold-ridden. Serves me right for getting all cocky and thinking my immune system was impenetrable.

On the up-side, feeling under the weather always gets me in the mood for a nice big bowl of soup. And I've got a pretty fantastic version to share with you today. This actually started out with the intention of being an easy-peasy tortilla soup... but the direction turned a bit when I discovered a few stray dried chiles sitting around in the back of my fridge.

Mmm. Chiles. There weren't many of them, so they'd be perfect thrown into my soup. But, the process for rehydrating them would add a bit of time to the soup prep, and I wasn't really sure I was up to it. But, after taking a nice big whiff of their rich, smoky aroma, I pulled them out of the bag and tossed them into some warmed chicken broth and let them soak for a good 1/2 hour.
When they were sufficiently softened, I blenderized them into the smoothest puree I could manage.
And then, just to be safe, I threw the whole mess through a fine sieve to get out all the seeds and funky little bits that are inevitably left over.
I sauteed some onions & garlic, threw in a bit of cumin and some Mexican oregano. And then I turned up the heat a bit. When the pan was nice and hot, I threw in the chile puree all at once and let it sear nicely. I added some tomato sauce, and then let the sauce reduce a bit before I added the remaining ingredients -- some additional broth, a bay leaf, and some minced red bell pepper.
After the soup had simmered for a while, I also threw in about a 1/2 pound of shredded collard greens. After all, why not take the health benefits up a notch with a bit of leafy-green action?
By the time the greens were cooked and I'd thrown in some cooked chicken and a bit of frozen corn, the kitchen smelled positively irresistable. Between the smoky chiles and the savory broth, I was seriously feeling better already. I poured a nice big serving into a bowl, and stuffed my face down into it. *huff* This was some seriously good food for a person who started off feeling not-so-much like cooking.

A bit of avocado, a couple of crunchy tortilla strips, and a liberal dose of cilantro (mmm... antioxidents), and I was all set for dinner.
I don't know about your mother, but my mother sure didn't make chicken soup that tasted like this!

Mexican style Chicken Soup with Chiles

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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sunday Sammiches: Roasted Asparagus & Onion Panini

Spring has sprung. Or at least that's what I'm telling myself now that U.S. asparagus has shown up in the market.

Asparagus is one of the seasonal crops that we eat with gusto for a short time, and then relinquish at the end of the season -- so "asparagussed-out" that we are happy to have a long reprieve. Like the tomatoes of August, we crave them for months, eat them with abandon, and walk away from them when June hits.

At this time of the year, I really ought to start the countdown for fresh WI asparagus. After all, local produce offers so many benefits... but, I can't help myself. It's hard to resist when my winter palate starts to salivate over their crisp, green stalks. So, I have a tendency to break down and buy a few rounds of California spears.

I thought the first asparagus spears of the season deserved a special treatment, so Peef and I put our heads together. A sammich was probably the last thing on our minds, but then it occurred to us that a ham & swiss with asparagus might be seriously good. And why not make the sammich less about the ham and more about the asparagus while we were at it?? Peef agreed that the concept sounded good, so we got to work.

We happened to have a couple of light, fluffy Telera rolls on hand, along with some local gruyere, which I thought would make a nice match for the asparagus.
We chopped the asparagus into 2-3 inch pieces, and tossed it with some thinly sliced onion.And I made a lemon vinaigrette of sorts with a bit of lemon juice, some zest, a bit of olive oil, and some melted butter.
We tossed the vinaigrette with the asparagus & onions...
... and then threw everything into a hot oven to roast for 15-20 minutes.
Then we set to work on the sammiches -- first placing a few thin slices of gruyere on each bun...
Then, adding the ham...
We spread the top of the bun with a bit of basil pesto, and added a slice of regular Swiss cheese (for a bit of creaminess).
At this point, we closed the sammich up and threw her on the panini grill for a few minutes until the cheese got all nice and gooey.
We opened her back up again (you'll note the cheesy goodness all intermingling with the pesto and ham. yeeeum.)
And we loaded on the asparagus and onions.
This was going to be one happy little sammich.
Turned out to be kinda purty too, with a majority of the asparagus spears lining up for their photo op.
Seriously, these were some great sammiches. The Telera buns were the perfect texture -- soft in the middle, but crisp on the outside, and not too heavy so that they overwhelmed the asparagus. The cheese was creamy and flavorful. The asparagus was fresh and tender (NOT stringy) -- and the onions were ultra sweet from being roasted. The lemon gave everything a burst of freshness, while the basil pesto brought forward a great herbal note. Surprisingly, although the ham was a nice touch, I'd venture a guess that these would be just as amazing as a vegetarian sammich.

Like "spring in a bun."
Try 'em for yourself!!

Roasted Asparagus & Onion Panini (with or without ham)

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