Monday, September 27, 2010

Project Food Blog Round 2: Vote Early and Vote Often!

The voting for Round 2 of Project Food Blog is underway! You can vote between now and Thursday, September 30 at 9pm (EDT).

Just make sure you vote for my entry, Extras Credit: Lomi Lomi Pupu. Unfortunately, Foodbuzz is in San Francisco - not Chicago - so you’re really only allowed to vote once.

Extras Credit: Lomi Lomi Pupu
 Thanks for all of the support!

Scott @ Inexpensive Eating

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Extras Credit: Lomi Lomi Pupu

My friend, Jennifer, is a great big thespian. That’s right, she’s a stage actress – educated and professionally trained. Jennifer is also married to Phillip, a naval officer, so they have hop scotched around the globe, landing at various naval bases. Because of that, she hasn’t had the opportunity to run to New York or LA and be ‘discovered’. Instead, she’s landed in Jacksonville, Dallas, and now Hawaii (and I don’t see the Navy building major installations in either LA or New York anytime soon).

Hawaii is the first place she’s landed that hasn’t had a large theater community, so Jennifer has branched out – she’s auditioned for the circus and for some television shows that film in Hawaii, including Lost, which is one of my all-time favorites – except for the finale (oh, don’t get me started).

Now there’s a second television show filming in Hawaii, the CBS remake of Hawaii 5-0. And guess what – Jennifer was cast in a major role! OK, maybe ‘major’ is overstating it a little. But the part has lines and everything!

Since Hawaii 5-0 is a crime drama, it has to set-up the murder to be investigated – that’s Jennifer’s part. She plays a mom with a pre-teen son who discovers the body of the murder victim. Alright, it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part, but it happens on a submarine!

Jennifer’s mother is one of my best friends, so I knew I had to organize a viewing party to watch her big Hawaii 5-0 debut, but I don’t know anything about Hawaiian food (because I don’t think ordering ham and pineapple on my pizza counts). I’ve never been to Hawaii, so I hit the interwebs to do a little research. Of course, I focused in on some classic luau dishes, and found one that really spoke to me: lomi lomi salmon. (Lomi means massage in Hawaiian, so it’s twice-massaged salmon.)

It’s a salt-cured salmon dish that is served with tomatoes and onions. Think gravlax meets ceviche meets salsa. I’m a sucker for all three, so I thought that this would be perfect. Then, when I found out the Hawaiian word for appetizer, the adolescent in me decided that I had to put my own spin on it and turn this into an hors d’oeuvres, just so I could call it Lomi Lomi Pupu.

Turns out that it’s an incredibly easy dish to make, Curing the salmon takes about 5 minutes to set up, but it has to set for 6 or 8 hours, so you need to plan ahead. Most of the recipes I looked at also called for peeling the tomatoes, which is no big deal if you first dunk them in boiling water for 30 seconds. I also thought the dish was in desperate need of some color, so I swapped out the sweet onions for scallions and used a yellow tomato as well as a red one. Some recipes called for some heat, while some others didn’t – I chose to add a little jalapeño to give it some background flavor.

One other tip – do not fall victim to the desire to season the vegetation before you add the salmon. Even after washing off the excess, the salmon is quite salty. Once you add the tomatoes et al, it balances out – but it certainly does not need any more salt.

To make it finger food, chopping it into smaller chunks turned out to be the best thing (the small-chop made it easier to get the filling in). I hollowed out some cherry tomatoes, used a melon baller to create some cucumber cups, and perched some of the salmon mixture on top of thick-cut pineapple. The pineapple turned out to be the favorite in the test run – the salty Lomi Lomi needs that sweet counterpoint for the best balance. In fact, the next time I make this, I think I’ll add a little pineapple to the mixture.

Jennifer and her "son" hanging out in her on-set trailer
So Jennifer is scheduled to kick off Episode 4 of Hawaii 5-0, which means that her episode should appear October 11 (Hawaii 5-0 airs Mondays at 9pm EST on CBS). Make sure you watch the beginning – look for the woman who is trying to make a cell phone call on a submarine while she ignores her son (yeah, I really don’t understand this set-up either). Then, all it will take is for the producers to see what potential her character has – they could bring her back. Oh! I know! She could have a torrid affair with Daniel Dae Kim’s character. OK, maybe that’s just a little projection on my part – but it could happen! Hey, at the very least, Jennifer ought to finally get a page on IMDB out of it – they always credit the extras.

Recipe: Lomi Lomi Pupu

Monday, September 20, 2010

Game On!

Project Food Blog
This is it, folks – voting for Project Food Blog has begun! Between now and 9pm (EST) on Thursday, September 23, your vote can send me to the next round of the competition. So what are you waiting for?!

Check out my entry for Project #1: Ready, Set, Blog, entitled Pilgrim Food.

Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Banana Bread

If you don’t, then I won’t win the $10,000 grand prize, and I’ll be hitting you up for a loan. So isn’t voting for me really the easier choice to make? (Oh, don’t worry - I know who you are…)

Thanks a Million (which is way more than ten thousand),
-Scott @ Inexpensive Eating

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pilgrim Food: Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Banana Bread

We all have that inner voice that drives us. Whether you are led by your faith in a higher being, your political and philosophical ideals, or the almighty dollar, we are all pulled somewhere. Sometimes that pull leads you on a physical journey to find more understanding about the thing that compels you. I have been on such a physical journey to find enlightenment – to Graceland. Of course, it wasn’t my journey. I was eleven, and I was forced to go on a family vacation.

Yes, I can admit it now – my family was one of the original blue-suede-shoes-set that traveled to the hallowed city of Memphis for the first anniversary of the death of its most famous son, Elvis Presley. I understand that now you can tour the inside of the mansion – see the Jungle Room, the pool, everything. Not then. We waited for over three hours in the hot August sun just to walk around gravestones of the Presley family and then walk back down the driveway.

People were fainting left and right (I’m not sure if it was the heat or they were overcome with grief – I always hoped it was the heat). At eleven years old, I can remember thinking that if this many people were falling over, then why were we still standing in line? But stood in line, we did. I think this was probably my mother’s favorite family vacation of all time.

While we were there, you would think that we could have tried some of the great cuisine of the city, but, no. It was nothing but fast food, although we did get some barbeque – from a chain restaurant. That’s the family I grew up with – not a culinary adventurer in the bunch. Except me.

I’m not sure where I got it, but I have become quite the foodie. I even started a gourmet cooking club a few years ago. I don’t have any formal training, but that hasn’t stopped me from exploring the food that excites me. Of course, all of that is easier when you have a disposable income.

We’ve been hit pretty hard by the economic downturn. It has meant giving up our favorite foodie haunts: cutting edge restaurants, the gourmet food store. Shoot, even a trip to the regular market gets a little hairy from time to time. But I try to live by the old adage: When life hand you lemons, make limoncello. (You can make lemonade if you want - but if things are that bad, I’d rather be liquored up.) That’s where Inexpensive Eating was born.

I really began my blog as a way to fill the hours while my kitchen and bath design business was in the dumps (there are only so many revisions you can make to the same bathroom drawing before you start to go insane). Having no money for exotic (or even non-seasonal) ingredients means that getting creative is the only way I have to cook. Turns out, that it’s a blast! My creativity (and my foodie soul) is re-energized by coming up with original recipes. The fact that other people seem to like them too is just icing on the cake.

In honor of this new pilgrimage that I have begun, I thought I should come up with something that connects the memories of my youth with the path I’m on now. As ashamed as I am to admit it, one of the things I adored from my childhood (and still eat occasionally) is a peanut butter and banana sandwich. And can there be another food that more embodies the Elvis Presley experience? Personally, I can’t think of peanut butter without thinking of chocolate. And chocolate goes great with bananas too!

So as a means of making this flavor combination more appealing to a wider set (at least those who live outside of the rural south), I decided to roll them all together into a dessert. It hits every comfort food button that is installed in my body. It really has become one of my new favorites. I hope it is yours as well.

I also hope that you find the thing that sets you on the path to begin your pilgrimage – even if it does lead you to Graceland (or Dollywood, or the Liberace museum…)

This isn't our pilgrimage, but it sure looks familiar. Thanks to Mona over at Itawamba Connections - it's her traveling grandmother, Beck, standing at the gates of Graceland in the late 70's..  
Recipe: Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Banana Bread

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Curse of the Black Thumb: Rosemary Focaccia Bread

Sigh. I look through all of these wonderful food blogs with pictures of people in their immaculate vegetable gardens. These people look so happy as they grow their heirloom tomatoes, beautiful squash, and complain about what to do with the bushels of basil they produce. I hate them.

Why? Because I can’t even grow dirt. I’m serious. Our yard looks post-apocalyptic: nothing but bare sand and weeds. The citrus trees have withered away, and the Live Oak is becoming ironic. When I go to the plant store, I look like a cartoon villain – the plants all wither and die as I walk by. It’s just sad.

I've always told Don that his OGT (obviously gay trait) was supposed to be gardening. Mine is cooking (OK, and I’m an interior designer too). But instead of HGTV, he got hooked on Project Runway and picked up a sewing machine – just no cooperation at all. In the meantime, our yard suffers and I’m reduced to buying dried herbs because neither of us can grow fresh ones.

I’ve come to grudgingly accept dried herbs. Given the choice, I will always prefer fresh, but I was spending $10-$15 per week on fresh herbs at the grocery store. It was either cut out fresh herbs or cut out half of the weekly wine budget. When you put it that way, there’s really no contest.

The one exception I make is parsley. It’s relatively cheap - I can spend a buck, make it last for 2 weeks, and add a lot of life to dishes with just one fresh herb at the end. Unfortunately, everything else was jettisoned.

I’ve tried the dried versions of most herbs. Some are OK (like thyme and bay leaves), while there is no point in even using others (like basil or mint). One of the herbs that I think works well dried is rosemary. Of course, I love rosemary anyway. I mean, what’s not to love? Earthy, piney, lemony, bold – it’s wonderful.

The one thing rosemary doesn’t do is play second fiddle. Because it’s so strong, it ends up being the dominant flavor most of the time (at least the way I use it). So I figured, why not let it stand out in front?

I was throwing together a pretty easy weekend dinner, so I thought I should spend some time and make some bread. Because we were having pasta, I thought a focaccia would go nicely. Like I said before, rosemary is always high on my list – besides, I figured it would work well with the chicken and tomato sauce on the pasta. I was right.

The thing I love about focaccia is the crispy, crunchy outer layer. It’s baked with so much oil, that it almost deep fries. Can there be anything better than deep fried bread? OK, maybe deep fried dessert – but we’re talking dinner here, not sweets. I’ve never tried it, but a friend told me that she just picks up refrigerated pizza dough and makes focaccia out of it. Personally, I don’t like the pizza dough you buy in a whomp tube (you know, you peel the label and whomp it on the edge of the counter), but if you do, try it. It will save you a little time.

So until they come up with a cure for Black Thumb, I guess I’m resigned to using dried herbs a little while longer. Maybe the CDC should look into this. Or maybe I should take a trip to the witch doctor and see if she can lift the curse.

Recipe: Rosemary Focaccia Bread

Monday, August 30, 2010

Half Coq’ed: Chicken and Mushrooms in Red Wine

I, like most foodies, speak of Julia Child only in hushed, reverent tones. I would venture to guess that most American food bloggers would list her as one of the culinary influences in their lives. (Do you think it’s mere coincidence that her initials are also J.C.?) Let’s face it, the woman is an icon. And I certainly appreciate her dedication to gastronomy – she was a consummate researcher. But be honest (and I swear, I’m whispering as I say this) – a couple of the recipes are a little overblown, don’t you think?

I have made her Coq au Vin recipe from start to finish a couple of times. It is absolutely out of this world! It also dirties almost every cooking vessel I own, takes hours, and completely tries my patience (seriously – blanching bacon and peeling pearl onions are some of the most tedious things I’ve ever done).

Now it’s confession time (Don doesn’t even know this one): I had avoided eating coq au vin since I was a child. If I saw it on a menu, I wouldn’t consider ordering it. I couldn’t believe someone would want to eat that concoction. Want to know why? Because I had no idea what I was talking about.

I guess I’d never seen an episode of The French Chef where she made the dish. I had never seen the name written down. The only thing I was able to pick up was that it was a chicken dish. Also, I don’t speak French. When someone says, “Coq au Vin,” it sounds exactly like “Cocoa Van. “ Putting together the little tidbits that I had gleaned, I couldn’t understand how anyone would want to eat chocolate covered chicken (that I assumed was somehow prepared in a moving car)! I won’t tell you how old I was, but you can not imagine how stupid I felt when I found out the truth (and never let on to anyone that I was so off-base.)

This is all by way of telling you about the dinner party I threw this weekend. My friend, Catherine, is great - a southern belle, through and through. She has this phenomenal home that looks like a French chalet from the outside. Inside, it’s decorated with wonderful French Provencal influences. The kitchen is a complete masterpiece (shameless self-promotion, since I’m the one who designed it). She is a Master Gardener, and has this weakness for all things chocolate. When I say that she’s a serious chocoholic, I’m not kidding. She once brought back cocoa hulls from Hershey, PA to use as mulch around her garden.

So when we decided to have an intimate birthday dinner for Catherine, what else could I make but French chocolate chicken? (OK, I’ve obviously figured it out by now, but this is still what I call it in my head). There was no way I was tackling the Julia Child method - I wanted to simplify it and make it a little less expensive to prepare. I got it all down to a single pot and about an hour’s worth of active cooking time. If you can taste the difference, more power to you – I certainly can’t.

I gave up on cooking with expensive wine long ago, but I still avoid anything labeled ‘cooking wine’ (yuk). I keep a $4 bottle of white wine on the fridge door that I cook with, and I picked up a $5 bottle of Zinfandel to make this dish this weekend. Honestly, you cook the bejeezus out of the wine for this dish, so I just can’t see spending $15 or $20 for something that isn’t recognizable in the end anyway. If you want to, have at it. I also dirtied only one pot for the whole meal, and skipped the stinking pearl onions.

The payoff was completely worth it. Catherine loved the meal, and I found a Chocolate Orange Cappuccino Cake from my buddy, Megan, over at Foodalution that is over the top stupendous! It doesn’t exactly fit into the category if Inexpensive Eating, but you have to splurge once in a while, right?

So I was able to cut out half the steps, ¾ of the pans, and about an hour’s worth of work. Not bad for going off half coq’ed.

Recipe: Chicken and Mushrooms in Red Wine

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Brain Dead Weekend: Breakfast Bread Pudding

I love entertaining, but I hate the morning after. It never fails: once the guests leave, we either stay up until the wee hours to clean the kitchen – or worse yet, we leave it until the morning and the kitchen looks like a Williams-Sonoma delivery truck exploded all over the countertops when we wake up. It’s just a no-win situation. (Of course, I’m glossing over the occasional wine-induced deteriorations that add to the troubles).

When I’m faced with these morning-aftermaths, this is one of the dishes I love to make. Partly because is let’s me use up the inevitable leftover bread; partly because it doesn’t take high-level brain function to accomplish; but mostly because it takes an hour to bake, so I can go back to bed. (OK, I actually end up cleaning the kitchen instead of sleeping – but it’s a nice thought).

This is nothing but simple comfort food, all the tastes of French toast without the standing around and babysitting it. It’s not going to win any awards for creative cooking, but when I’m faced with hand washing 637 pieces of crystal stemware, creativity is not high on my list (by the way, how do 8 people dirty that many dishes to start with?) I guess someone more organized than I am could even prep it the night before and stash it in the fridge (I don't see that happening at my house anytime soon though).

I so dearly love really good, crusty, rustic bread. But being on a budget, we usually reserve a trip to the ‘good bakery’ for company. I think that’s the reason I end up with so much bread left over – it’s some subconscious hoarder mentality because I know I won’t get the chance until we entertain the next time. And I think this is the only kind of bread to use when you’re making bread pudding or French toast. When I bite into it, I want it to bite back.

The other thing about this recipe is that it’s not overly-sweet. I’ve had some bread puddings that need to be topped with ice cream to cut the sweetness. Like I said, this one has a little sugary substance, but still plenty of room to douse it with maple syrup.

I have also eschewed the whole water bath approach for this recipe too (too much manual dexterity required for this type of morning). Besides, it would be just one more dish to deal with after already going through 3 bottles of Palmolive soap. Who needs it?

So next time you need to make breakfast without engaging your brain, try this one. It makes tackling that delivery truck’s worth of dirty dishes totally worth it.

Recipe: Breakfast Bread Pudding

Monday, August 23, 2010

Summer Squeeze: Roasted Corn and Tomato Salad

When I was coming up with side dish ideas for the pasta tasting I did a few weeks ago, I knew I wanted to use tomatoes and fresh corn for one dish because they were in such abundance, and both crops have tasted better than average this year. When I showed the idea to a friend, she said “but it’s so everyday and boring.” Well, of course she’s right, but I would not be daunted. I set out to come up with a couple of twists that might look a little less everyday.

I love to squeeze every bit of flavor out of the ingredients I have, so instead of a raw salad, I thought I would roast the vegetable. Besides, I thought a roasted salad would pair better with a raw pasta sauce (pesto).

To try and make it a little more elegant, I decided to serve the salad in tomato boats – just hollowed out the tomato halves and roasted them along with the corn. It makes portioning much easier (don’t you sometimes hate trying to figure out how much is enough?), and I used the tomato flesh for another dish later on.

The salad dressing couldn’t be simpler – just oil and vinegar with a couple of dried herbs thrown in. And I used one of my favorite inexpensive flavor weapons: roasted garlic.

Roasted garlic is such a breeze – I just throw a halved-head of garlic and some olive oil into foil and toss it in the oven for 30 or 45 minutes. It comes out so fragrant and rich. I mash it down, combine it with a touch more olive oil, and stash it in the fridge for weeks. I’m not sure how long you can realistically expect to keep it in the fridge, but I’ve worked off of the same head of roasted garlic for a month or more. The trick is to make sure the oil covers the garlic – it acts as a great preservative. You’ve got roasted garlic add at a moment’s notice, and it costs about 45 cents to make.

Roasted garlic can make all the difference in a simple dish like this. Raw garlic could easily overpower the other flavors, but roasted boosts the overall flavor without drowning out the corn and tomatoes.

This dish was part of the winning combination for the pasta tasting party. You could say that it squeezed out a win.

Recipe: Roasted Corn and Tomato Salad

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Change of Seasons: Grilled Tilapia Packets with Tomato Arugula Cous Cous

I always tell people that there are two seasons in Florida: 1) summer; and 2) Oh, My God, It’s Hot! We have definitely transitioned into the second season around here. I mean, when the overnight low only gets to 85 degrees, it’s definitely time to find a way to make dinner without turning on the oven. READ MORE

Recipes: Grilled Tilapia Packets

Monday, August 9, 2010

Lick the Salt: Corn and Pesto Ravioli with Parmesan Butter Sauce

I get teased all the time by friends because I don’t shop and cook like they do. What can I say, I’m just weird. I know that most people utilize processed foods for convenience sake, I just don’t happen to be one of them. Seriously, I think the only processed foods I buy on a regular basis are peanut butter and dry pasta (do dried cranberries count? If so, add them to the list). I know there is a cadre of passionate healthy-eaters who bemoan the evils of processed food. I couldn’t give a flip about that, I just don’t think it tastes all that good.

I recently picked up some prepackaged fresh pasta and sauce for the first time in ages. It wasn’t until then that I realized exactly how spoiled I have become. While the mass-produced stuff was OK, I just couldn’t get past the amount of salt that was in it. It didn’t taste salty when I ate it, but I bet I drank 3 gallons of water the rest of the night and still woke up the next morning with cotton mouth. I bet if you had tapped my vein, you could have used it to brine pickles. No offense, but I’m not sure how anyone can eat that kind of processed stuff all the time and not suffer some consequences.

My recent experience sent me back to homemade. There’s really no big trick to making fresh pasta – and it impresses the heck out of people when you tell them it’s homemade. If you’ve got the right equipment, you might have 15 or 20 minutes of active working time in it. And if you don’t have the right equipment, then you might spend twice that much time. I still think it’s pretty easy – and foolproof.

I don’t know where I picked up this basic pasta dough recipe – it isn’t mine, but I use it all the time. I also substitute some whole wheat flour on occasion (about 40% of the total) to give it a little more bite. I happen to like the texture of whole wheat pasta. I know some people don’t. Because this recipe is ravioli, I didn’t use any whole wheat flour – I figured the ravioli was chewy enough without it.

And it seems like the local corn season has hit its peak, so I want to get a little more out of it before it completely fizzles out. I figured some fresh corn inside the ravioli might be fun, so in it went. And whenever I’m doing Italian food and corn, I automatically think of pesto. But just throwing pesto sauce on the ravioli is too easy, so I decided to put it on the inside instead. (Besides, I treat fresh pesto like gold – if it goes inside, I’ll use less. That way, it will last longer.)

Since the pesto went inside, I wanted something that would be both good with the corn and simple as well. How much simpler (and better with corn) can you get than butter and parmesan cheese? (Remember how I was complaining about too much salt? You would think I’d have some issues with too much fat too, but I don’t. Go figure.)

The nice part of this is that you can make the ravioli ahead of time and just stash them in the fridge. Then at dinnertime, the whole dish comes together in just a few minutes. It’s great to entertain with – you can actually spend some time with your friends when they come over.

So throw together your own fresh pasta and leave the excess salt where it ought to be – on the rim of a margarita glass.

Recipe: Corn and Pesto Ravioli with Parmesan Butter Sauce

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Never-Ending Propane Tank: Asian Marinated Pork

Do you remember Willie Wonka and his Everlasting Gobstoppers? Well, I’ve got the propane tank equivalent. We last traded out the propane tank in September – nearly 11 months ago. Granted, we didn’t use it prodigiously throughout the winter (it was freaking cold this year – even if you did live in Florida), but the thing has been near-empty for the last two months. Every time I use it, I assume I’ll have to finish the dinner in the oven when the tank fizzles. But it just keeps going and going (Maybe the Blue Rhino is somehow related to the Energizer Bunny). READ MORE

Recipe: Asian Marinated Pork

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bothersome Baby Brunch: Ham and Tomato Mini Frittatas

My good friend, Carol, is on her way to Hawaii as we speak (I know – we hate her). She’s headed there for her first grandchild’s christening. OK, it’s not a ‘christening’. It’s a New Age, hippy-dippy, nondenominational, waterside, baby-blessing (but ‘christening’ is so much easier to write). Either way, she’s thrilled. Of course, she’s been there two weeks out of every month since the baby was born (and she wonders why she’s always tired), so you would think the ‘new’ would wear off after a while, wouldn’t you?

Anyway, a couple of nights before she left, she casually said, “I meant to ask you: could you come up with a recipe for me? We’re doing a brunch for 30 people after the waterside baby blessing. Oh, and I leave day after tomorrow, so there’s not much time.” (Some days I really don’t care to be the food and entertaining expert of the group, you know?)

Luckily, the day in between was Sunday, so I had some free time to kill (yeah, right). She wanted something egg-y that could be done ahead of time and could be used as finger food. On top of all that, it also had to be fairly easy to make because everyone’s hands would be a little full, what with a newborn to look after and thirty guests and all. (Anything else? Want me to solve world hunger for you too while I’m at it?)

So that’s what I set out to do: easy, egg-y, finger food. What I came up with was a ham and tomato mini frittata. I think it fills the bill pretty nicely.

I tried desperately to figure out a way to crisp up the ham and use it as the shell, but I didn’t have any luck. When I used just the ham, the egg bled through and you couldn’t get it out of the muffin tin. I tried baking the ham first, then setting it inside a paper liner, but that didn’t get anywhere either. I finally gave up on crispy ham and settled on a paper liner, then lined the liner with ham as well (maybe if I’d had more time).

And evidently the grocery stores in Hawaii don’t stock quite as wide a variety of items as stores here on the mainland do, so I kept to a pretty simple set of ingredients. (Carol loves to tell the story of trying to find smoked salmon while in Hawaii. The clerk said, “You mean, for Jewish?” Turns out, they didn’t have it.) The tomato slice on top helps keep the eggs from being too dry, and the cheese, both in the eggs and on the top, give the whole thing quite a bit of richness.

Personally, I like to eat them warm, but they’d be perfectly fine at room temperature too. And it’s stable enough to make a day or two ahead, stash in the fridge, and just bring back to room temperature on the morning of the brunch. Should be a snap (these are all subliminal directions for the party throwers).

Like I said, being the resident party authority can be bothersome – then again, how could anything be too much trouble for a face like this?

Macy, the Party Girl
Recipe: Ham and Tomato Mini Frittatas

Monday, July 26, 2010

Buitoni, Homework, and Wine: What Could Be Better?

I hope you will indulge me while I take an editorial detour for the day...

As part of the Foodbuzz Tastemaker Program, I received a boatload of Buitoni Riserva Pasta and a few bucks to host a party. (Who is going to turn down money to throw a party?) The idea was to come up with a vegetable side dish pairing to go with one of the Riserva Pasta flavors. Always the overachiever, I decided to come up with four side dishes – one for each of the four Riserva flavors (What can I say? I use to do the extra credit assignments in school too).

Then, if that wasn’t bad enough, I decided to structure the party as a tasting. I mean, if I’m going to cook all day for people, they are darned well going to have to participate somehow. Everyone received a sheet that listed the pasta, Buitoni sauce, vegetable side dish, and a wine that was paired for that course. They then had to rate each individual dish and the whole course as a pairing (Of course, this probably explains why all the pictures look like the people are taking their SAT's).

Many thanks to Jonathan at the Wine Warehouse in Palmetto for coming up with great wine options that averaged $10 per bottle. And thanks to the Baroness for the use of her home for the evening.

Pan frying the Pub Course
This is Serious Work
Since I cooked all day, I decided to let my friends from the party write this blog. Below you will find each paired course, its overall score, and comments (positive and negative; useful and not) from the judges The names have been changed to protect the innocent (come to think of it, the names have actually been changed to protect the guilty).

The original side dishes will get some spotlight time over the next few weeks, and I’ll be back to my regular format next time. In the meantime, enjoy the party…

Pairing #1the Pub
Pasta: Buitoni Riserva Quattro Fromaggi Agnolotti (breaded and pan fried)
Sauce: Buitoni Tomato Herb Parmesan
Side: Baked Zucchini Fries
Wine: 2008 Ruffino Orvieto Classico

  • “Breading on ravioli makes it a great appetizer. I would consider taking this to a party.”
  • [side] “fun appetizer. Healthy too. I think I could do this.”
  • “how clever”
  • [pasta] “very fresh tasting, nice crunch”
  • [sauce] “I like the chunky texture”

Everyone Waiting for Dinner

Pairing #2Raw and Roasted
AVERAGE SCORE 9.6/10 (the winner)
Pasta: Buitoni Riserva Chicken and Four Cheese Ravioli
Sauce: Buitoni Pesto with Basil
Side: Roasted Corn and Tomato Salad
Wine: 2007 Teruzzi & Puthod Terre di tufi

  • “favorite pairing of all”
  • “the server is getting a bit snippy now…”
  • [pasta] “taste is somewhat lacking – would have liked chunks of chicken”
  • “pesto was a little mild”
  • “pesto was nice addition to the 4 cheeses”
  • [side] way cute. The color is a welcome addition to the plate”
  • [pasta] “moist and delicious”
  • “great combination; loved it!”
  • “they didn’t come together for me, seemed too different rather than complimentary”

Prepping the Next Tasting Round

Pairing #3Hearty and Traditional
Pasta: Buitoni Riserva Spicy Beef and Sausage Ravioli
Sauce: Buitoni Marinara
Side: Kale & Cannellini Beans
Wine: 2008 LeSalette Valpolicella

  • “didn’t taste beef & sausage too well”
  • “I’m getting in trouble for looking at Jane’s paper”
  • [wine] “brings out the earthiness of the vegs; interesting spiciness”
  • [side] “eating this, then following it with the wine brings out a very earthy flavor w/the kale mixture; nice pairing”

Two Tables, One Party

Pairing #4Fast Forward to Fall
Pasta: Buitoni Riserva Wild Mushroom Angolotti
Sauce: Buitoni Alfredo Sauce
Side: Sweet Potato & Fennel Gratin
Wine: 2007 Donna Marzia Primitivo del Salento

  • [pasta] “the best – delicious combo – pasta is light, filling good flavor & texture”
  • [sauce] “rich yet not cloying” (I don’t even know what this means, but it sounded good)
  • [pasta] “delicious – mushrooms tasted wonderful – not overpowered by pasta”
  • “good PMS dinner”
  • [pasta] “sharp mushroom flavor; not bland”
  • [side] “best part of meal – wonderful flavors”
  • [side] “best dish – want this often”

This Table Was Well-Behaved

This Was the Disruptive Table

And the best comment of the night:
“The people at this table confuse me. Or maybe the wine did.”
Thanks to the Wine Warehouse for the Great Selections

Friday, July 23, 2010

You Are Pudding Me On: Blueberry Barley Pudding

One of the things that I find appealing in dishes is a combination of textures. You know, crispy fried chicken with creamy mashed potatoes; smooth yogurt with crunchy granola; you get the idea. It just hits more of your senses when you eat.

On these incredibly hot evenings (even for Florida standards), I have not wanted to bake anything for dessert (even though I am about to die for a cookie) - I mean, it was still 91 degrees at 9:30 Tuesday night! But my sweet tooth must be satisfied, nonetheless. To substitute, I’ve been turning to cooler options: gelato, sorbet, and pudding.

Even though you have to fire up a burner on the stove to make a pudding, it doesn’t heat things up like turning on the oven. Besides, serving it chilled adds a little relief to this oppressive heat. And anything that beats this heat gets an automatic ‘thumbs up’ in my book right now.

If you’ve read anything earlier, you might know that I have this newfound love affair with barley. It’s just one of those things that I never had occasion to cook with until recently. I’ve been substituting barley for rice here and there, but hadn’t thought about dessert until the other night.

On a whim, I decided to make a barley pudding. I had some blueberries that were about to outstay their welcome, so I thought I’d throw them into the mix as well.

What came out was this incredible textural concoction in lavender. The barley stays so chewy compared to the minor bite left in rice pudding that it surprised me. I was prepared to throw in a handful of toasted nuts to give me that syncopated texture combination that I crave, but didn’t see the need. Even after sitting around for a couple of days, the barley still holds that bite. I just wasn’t expecting that. It’s like a tapioca texture on steroids.

I have a friend who is the exact opposite of me when it comes to food texture – she won’t eat anything on the plate if there’s a combination of creamy and crunchy. I don’t get it. She doesn’t know what she’s missing, so barley pudding probably wouldn’t be for her. But if you dig that mix of sensations on your tongue, then try this one.

Recipe: Blueberry Barley Pudding

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Stupidly Simple: Grilled Cabbage Slaw

Don’t you hate it when life gets in the way of the things you want to do - like cook? Me too. We recently attended the monthly Gathering of the gourmet club we belong to (Get Together Gourmets), and time was not on my side. The theme for the month was BBQ – not only did I need to make a BBQ dish, but I also had to come up with a side dish to accompany it as well.

I have this self-inflicted rule about the dishes I take to these things: I have to make an original recipe for the Gathering. I’ve fallen short of that a few times (Chinese New Year being a prime example), but by-and-large I keep to my rule.

It turned out to be a particularly busy week – multiple jobs, a fussy client, and a minor emergency all piled on one another until it became the morning of the Gathering, and I still really didn’t know what I was going to make. I decided to fall back on my Balsamic Rosemary Glazed Chicken that I blogged about a couple of months ago, but I still couldn’t figure out the side dish.

At the eleventh hour (and out of desperation), I decided to throw all of the ingredients for cole slaw on the grill and see what happened. The results turned out to be fantastic. The grill brought out all of the amazing natural sugars of the cabbage, carrots, celery, and scallions. It was absolutely surprising. Mingled with the smoky flavors that the grill infuses, I was well on my way to a pretty decent dish.

Don and I held an impromptu tasting to decide on a dressing. I didn’t want to do a mayonnaise-based dressing after I tasted the sugary-grilled marvel of the vegetables, so I switched gears and we tried to figure out which vinegar would compliment the slaw best. We went through cider (too sharp), rice wine (too delicate), white wine (too blah), and balsamic (too overpowering) before finally settling on simple, everyday red wine vinegar.

I had drizzled so much olive oil over the veggies before I slapped them on the grill that it wasn’t even necessary to add any more for the vinaigrette. Just some salt, pepper, and an extra tablespoon of sugar (I like my slaw on the sweet side) was all it took to give this salad the perfect flavor balance it needed. (Of course, the fact that we were doing this about 30 minutes before we had to walk out the door had absolutely nothing to do with the nakedly simple dressing either).

I think we ended up sampling 9 different types of barbeque and almost as many side dishes that night, and not a clunker in the bunch. Of course, I don’t think anyone else was trying to finish creating their dish as they ran out the door. It just goes to show you – sometimes it pays to keep it stupidly simple.

Recipe: Grilled Cabbage Slaw

Monday, July 19, 2010

Torta Reform: Mushroom and Rosemary Potato Torta

Do you have one of those pieces of kitchen equipment that you only use when you have to? For me, it’s a mandolin. It’s difficult to clean, it’s awkward to use, and every time I touch it, I think I’m going to end up with one less finger by the time I’m finished. Of course, the fact that I have a cheap (in the negative sense of the word) mandolin probably has more than a little to do with it. Regardless, I seldom get it out – unless I absolutely have to.

We went to a party this weekend. One of us (not me) ended up having a little too much fun and was paying for it the next day. I hate days like that. I can certainly empathize with anyone who wakes up because they hear the ants crawling outside the bedroom window (I’ve been there once or twice myself). In an effort to combat the remnants of an exciting evening, Don had requested something starchy but light for dinner (yes, he was still not himself by dinner time – he thought it was a really good party). Starchy but light? READ MORE

Recipe: Mushroom and Rosemary Potato Torta

Friday, July 16, 2010

Just Beet It: Balsamic Roasted Beets with Gorgonzola and Walnuts

I did not grow up eating beets. My parents were not adventurous eaters, and beets just looked too odd, what with that startling crimson color and all. I was probably in my 30’s before I had ever voluntarily tasted beet roots, and I was hooked from the beginning. READ MORE

Recipe: Roasted Balsamic Beets with Gorgonzola and Walnuts
Link: Gourmet’s Pasta with Beet Greens (in case you want it)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Did It All for the Gnocchi: Rosemary Gnocchi Stew

When you want comfort food, you want comfort food. Who cares if the weather isn’t cooperating? It was 90+ degrees last weekend, but that didn’t stop me from satisfying my desire for something hearty and rich.

It all started out with a craving for my grandmother’s chicken & dumplings. She’s been gone for over 20 years, but there are still some dishes she cooked that I can’t get enough of. Various family members picked up the secrets to several of her prized recipes (I’m the only one who can reproduce her biscuits), but no one ever learned the secret to her chicken & dumplings. I’ve tried to mimic the dish multiple times over the years. I get close, but not close enough. Isn’t it strange how that works sometimes?

I wasn’t in the mood to fall short of my craving this time, so I decided to twist everything and come up with my own unique dish. Chicken was out – I wanted to start my own tradition – so I ended up with ground beef meatballs. They become incredibly tender after simmering for so long, and are full of flavor.

The dumplings were a little more difficult. I was tempted to leave them plain and pour all the flavor into the thick, luscious broth, but my second idea turned out to be the better choice: I loaded the dumplings with the sharp taste of rosemary and thyme. It turned out to be the perfect balance to the meatballs.

Let me make this confession – I guess they aren’t technically gnocchi. They consist of flour, eggs, and broth without the potatoes. But the translation for 'gnocchi' is 'dumpling' (thank you internet), so I stretched it a little. Besides, gnocchi stew sounds a little more sophisticated than dumpling stew. So I beg the forgiveness of you Italian purists and ask that you cut me a little slack.

After the whole thing simmers for an hour or two, there’s no way that it can’t be good. And to make a stab at eating healthy, I threw in a handful of peas at the last minute.

When it was finished, I knew I had to share this one - the taste is out of this world! I called up a couple of friends for an impromptu dinner party. The verdict was unanimous; the gnocchi stew is a new favorite all the way around.

So even if you have to turn down the A/C to make this one – do it for the gnocchi.

Recipe: Rosemary Gnocchi Stew

Monday, July 12, 2010

All Choked Up: Chicken with Tomatoes and Artichokes

I was supposed to be taking the night off. Don was at work, and I had the house to myself for the evening (which certainly is not a common occurrence). I had considered diving head first into a bag of chips for dinner, but then I got the dreaded phone call: Don needed me to bring him something to eat because he wasn’t going to get the chance to get away for a break.

So much for a Doritos dinner. READ MORE

Recipe: Chicken with Tomatoes and Artichokes

Friday, July 9, 2010

You’ve Been Quick-Rolled: Quick Bread Cinnamon Rolls

Ah, the weekend, the only time of the week when every-single-freaking-minute of my day is not scheduled. It’s nice to have one morning a week when I don’t have to be up and out. It gives me a chance to make something a little nice (and a little naughty) for breakfast. For that, there’s nothing like the taste of homemade cinnamon rolls – warm, yeasty, buttery bites that take a little time, but are totally worth it. Read More

Recipe: Quick Bread Cinnamon Rolls
Bonus Recipe: The Best Cinnamon Rolls - EVER

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Crepe Crusader: Sweet Corn Crepes with Scallion Dill Sauce

Don and I found ourselves with an unusual set of circumstances – a rare Saturday night with no work and no plans with friends. What better opportunity for a date night? Unfortunately, it was the first of the month – the mortgage was paid, and not much was left over for dinner and a movie.

So date night at home it was. I didn’t want to do just a regular every night meal. I wanted to make something a little special, but I wasn’t sure what. What eventually came to my rescue? Crepes. What was my inspiration? IHOP, of course. I mean, when you think of a special meal with a gourmet twist, my thoughts automatically go to IHOP, don’t yours? (OK, I saw an IHOP commercial with crepes in it – what do you want? Every great idea can’t come with a flattering story to tell, can it?) READ MORE

Recipe: Sweet Corn Crepes with Scallion Dill Sauce

Monday, July 5, 2010

All They’re Cracked Up To Be: Black Sesame Crackers

I’ve discovered there are two things that people are always impressed to find out that you made from scratch: the first is marshmallows, and the other is crackers. “Oh, my God! I can’t believe you made those! I wouldn’t even know how to start.” I’ve heard it several times, and it always surprises me. READ MORE

 Black Sesame Crackers
Springtime Scallion Spread

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Quick ‘Between Jobs’ Dinner: Tomato, Asparagus, and Pesto Salad with Chicken

I hate working two jobs. OK, let me correct that before the gods of irony get involved and have a field day: I hate the fact that I need to work two jobs.

Three nights a week I have to run from the office, back to the house, scarf down dinner, and head out to job number two. I just can’t hit the drive-thru and be on my way, like normal people. Why? 1) If I ate fast food three nights a week, I’d be as big as a house; and 2) spending money to eat fast food defeats the purpose of working two jobs (I mean, if I’m going to pay for dinner, then I want to appreciate the food, not the plastic cup full of soda). The solution is to come up with some quick and easy recipes to keep in my back pocket. That’s where this one comes into play.

All these veggies pair nicely with pesto on their own, so I thought I might as well toss them all together. Same goes for the chicken. I seasoned the chicken breasts with just simple salt and pepper, instead of doing anything that would compete with the pesto.

In an effort to add a little body to the sauce (which is really just pesto), I cook the orzo as I would a grain – a 2:1 ratio of liquid to orzo (when it's finished cooking, it looks like a pot of rice). That way I can use all the starchy goodness that comes from the pasta when it cooks to give the sauce a little more heft. Cooking it in chicken stock just imparts that much more flavor. The only thing the recipe lacks is some crusty bread to go with it (which I happened to have on hand).

I know this is short, but that’s all the time I have – it’s a two-job day.

Recipe: Tomato, Asparagus, and Pesto Salad with Chicken

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Barley Any Trouble at All: Sausage and Barley Stuffed Tomatoes

I’ve been in a rice rut lately. I’ve got long grain, short grain, white, brown. I’m tired of rice. I love quinoa, but unfortunately quinoa is a little out of the budget for the immediate future. So while I was roaming through the grocery store this week, I noticed pearled barley. Read More

Recipe: Sausage and Barley Stuffed Tomatoes

Monday, June 28, 2010

Bilingual Blueberries: Mango and Blueberry Galette (or is it Crostada?)

I’ve got a friend who owns a bakery. She makes these wonderful dessert bites – little hors d’oeuvres that seem like they should be on display rather than eaten. I have neither the skill nor the patience for that. My desserts lean heavily towards the rustic. It doesn’t mean they are any less flavorful. But they are definitely meant to be eaten, not admired for their artistic quality. Read More

Recipe: Mango and Blueberry Galette

Friday, June 25, 2010

My Childhood Favorite with a Twist: Noodles and Green Beans with Asian Peanut Sauce

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to eat was pasta and peanut butter. I don’t even know where I got the idea. Mom didn’t make it, my brothers didn’t eat it, but I absolutely loved it. In fact, I think my brothers’ collective reaction was ‘Eew, gross,” when I made it. They just didn’t know what they were missing. Read More

Recipe: Noodles and Green Beans with Asian Peanut Sauce

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Rolling the Dice: Mushroom and Spinach Stuffed Pork Loin

Some good friends are getting ready to head north for the summer (that’s the problem with living in Florida: no one else lives here year-round), so we decided to get together for one last dinner party before they head to the Arctic Circle (OK, they’re summering in New Hampshire, but that’s close enough for me). Even though we were not hosting the evening, somehow I ended up preparing dinner - again.

I didn’t want to do BBQ and burgers, and I also didn’t want to do a formal, sit-down affair. Comfortable but nice is what I was going for. I’ve done too much chicken, seafood, and pasta recently, so I was grasping for something different to make. That’s when I decided to play The Game. READ MORE

Mushroom and Spinach Stuffed Pork Loin

Monday, June 21, 2010

Call It Whatever You Want, Just Eat It: Three Cheese Grits Soufflé

There’s something about a stick-to-your-ribs breakfast that just makes the morning better. Granted, you can’t do it every morning, but a weekend indulgence is just the time to reacquaint myself with my rural roots.

When I was a kid, the best thing in the world was to spend the night at my grandparents’ house. It was totally full of unique experiences: hunting forgotten treasure in the woods; a ride in the wagon pulled behind the tractor; sleeping on the hide-a-bed (OK, I was 6. It seemed like an adventure then – now it would break my back); but the best experience was breakfast. READ MORE

Recipe: Three Cheese Grits Soufflé

Thursday, June 17, 2010

More Than One Way to Skin a Catfish: Catfish Tacos with Cucumber Salsa

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in the rural Midwest (Bedford, Indiana, to be exact). Catfish was a part of everyday life. You could order it any way you wanted – as long as it was fried. I think I was pushing 40 before I found out that there wasn’t a law preventing you from preparing catfish different ways. I’d never had it other than batter-dipped, deep fried, and covered in tarter sauce. Now all of that has changed. How much farther can you run than Catfish Tacos with Cucumber Salsa? READ MORE

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

My Rosetta Scone: Orange Ricotta Scones

Just like the 19th century artifact that unlocked the secret of Egyptian hieroglyphics, I have finally stumbled upon the secret to making great scones. You know, fluffy and moist on the inside while simultaneously being a little crunchy on the outside with that great looking, craggly crater that forms on the top. I’ve tried recipes for years, and they all turn out too dry or too biscuity or too something else. Never have I been able to produce a scone that rivals the ones I grab at the bakery (or even Starbuck’s for that matter), until now. READ MORE

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Rubbed the Right Way: TexMex Rubbed Shrimp Skewers with Peach Salsa

Dry rubs and grill seasonings are a handy thing, aren’t they? But I just can’t bring myself to buy the premixed things off of the grocery store shelves. Why? Because A) you don’t know what’ they’ll taste like until you get them home and open them up; B) they’re mostly salt; and C) they end up being way too expensive per ounce. I can make up my own rubs and seasoning blends at home for a fraction of the cost, control the salt, and know that they taste good. Read More

Friday, June 11, 2010

Grilled Fruit Salad with Kiwi Sauce

I had one of those moments the other day. I don’t like to talk about it too much because it’s kind of embarrassing, even though it happens to all of us. Luckily the moments are rare and mostly fleeting – I decided to make a virtuous dessert. READ MORE