Monday, May 31, 2010

Weekend Lounging with Oatmeal Peanut Butter Pancakes

Don’t you love weekends? You don’t have to be anywhere, you don’t have anything on your to-do list. The only thing you’re required to do is laze around the house. Does that sound like your typical weekend? Yeah, me neither - but once in a while you have to ignore the piles of laundry and waist-high lawn in exchange for some much-needed down time. The next time one of those mornings hits, try these Oatmeal Peanut Butter Pancakes. They take a couple of minutes more to prepare than the boxed mix, but they are totally worth it. Luckily, it’s a 3-day weekend, and that usually gives me at least one morning to indulge in a fun breakfast.

It’s a little embarrassing, but I love peanut butter (What can I say? Parts of me are still just an overgrown 8 year-old). So any time I can add it into breakfast, I’m a happy man. This dish combines the best of my favorite morning meals: peanut butter, oatmeal, and pancakes. Make no mistake, this is decadent. That’s why I only make them on those rare, lazy days. But they’re both comforting and remarkably light at the same time. I know it sounds odd, but it’s true.

Ideally, you might cut the portions in half and serve them with some fresh fruit, but what’s the fun in that? Instead, I just top the pancakes with sliced banana. (That’s a healthy compromise, right?) Besides, one of the all-time classic flavor combinations is peanut butter and banana. It’s enough to make Elvis smile.

So the next time you want to ignore being a responsible adult, try out these pancakes. Child or adult, they’ll be sure to make you smile too.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Where's the Beef? Not in Eggplant Lasagna

One of the biggest dilemmas I continually experience while eating inexpensively is how to also eat healthy. I mean, it’s easy to load up on pasta and grains for little money. And cheaper cuts of meat tend to contain more fat than the more expensive cuts. But if you stick to just those things, you are missing quite a bit of vital nutrition. I finally realized that the way to kill two birds with one stone is to create some (sort of) vegetarian meals.

Now, I have nothing against vegetarians. If you’ve got reasons to be vegetarian or vegan, more power to you. I grew up in the Midwest where every meal was meat and potatoes – and ‘vegetarian’ was a derogatory term. Needless to say, it’s taken a little effort to get over that negative stigma of meatless dishes. For me, the one thing a vegetarian dish has to have is enough body to be satisfying. I’ve just never been a ‘salad-for-dinner’ kind of guy.

Because of that, most of my vegetarian dinners are take-offs of my favorite meaty dishes. This dish takes it one step farther – not only do I use eggplant instead of ground beef, but the eggplant planks take the place of the pasta as well. So this Eggplant Lasagna is so freaking healthy that it ought to come with a prescription. But, like I said, who cares if it’s healthy when it tastes like the lawn? Well, there’s the beauty of this one – it still tastes thick and rich - like the pasta and sausage laden version. Don’t believe me? Then try it for yourself.

Huh. Who knew that you didn’t need cows and pigs to make a great meal?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cheap Mediterranean Vacation with Saffron Lamb Ragu

Ah, Sardinia – Island breezes. Blue Mediterranean waters. Laidback culture. What bliss.

OK, so I’ve never been to Sardinia. In fact, it’s been almost two years since we’ve been able to get away at all. But once in a while you have to have a little mental holiday, even if it’s only for a meal. This month’s Gathering for Get Together Gourmets gave us the opportunity to experience a little faux-retreat for an evening.

Get Together Gourmets is the cooking club we formed a couple of years ago. It’s been great fun – we’ve made some new friends and had the opportunity to experience some wonderful food. It really runs the gamut, we have some professional culinarians (so I made up the word – get over it): a trained chef, a professional baker, food writers, etc.; some folks who are terrified of the kitchen (you know who you are); and a host of people who fall in between. The one thing we all have in common is our love of food. It’s a good time. If you’re interested in more information, here’s a link.

This month’s Gathering theme was The Island of Sardinia. The concept is really a subset of the Mediterranean Diet: lots of seafood, olive oil, etc. The one exception is that a large portion of Sardinia’s way of life revolves around shepherding (so I’ve read). That means lamb, and I noticed that no one had chosen a lamb dish when they signed up.

I love lamb. It is one of my all-time favorite flavors. Of course, the best cuts are out of my price range right now. I started researching some Sardinian lamb recipes and came across a recipe for a saffron roasted leg of lamb. It sounded good, so I improvised. I took the flavor components of the dish and turned it into an appetizer: a ragu with ground lamb, saffron, tomato paste, and red wine. I served it with another island staple, Sardinian Parchment Bread, called Carta Musica.

I adapted the parchment bread from some recipes I found online, so I don’t know if I can completely call it my own, even though I tweaked it (especially the rolling. Holy cow! How did they do that everyday?!), but the Saffron Lamb Ragu is an original. It went over well with the group (I, personally, have never had a lamb dish that I didn’t like), and the parchment bread is certainly going to make a return appearance at a future cocktail party. There is so much that I can do with flavor components to make it a stand alone dish – I’m sure you’ll see some future recipes on that.

So don’t despair if your budget doesn’t allow for international travel. Whip up a dish that’s out of the ordinary. Sardinia really is within your grasp.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Comfort Food: Roasted Tomato Risotto

There’s something about comfort food after a bad day. It’s just so, well, comfortable. And, luckily, because of their peasant food origins, most comfort foods are fairly inexpensive to make. Around our house, we refer to it as ‘eating thick’.

One of my favorite ‘thick’ dishes it risotto. It’s starchy and creamy and simple to make. I don’t know why risotto has this reputation of being difficult to prepare. It’s done in less than 30 minutes, and all you have to do is stir it every minute or two to get the creamy consistency that everyone desires. The trick is not to ignore it – so as long as you’re doing something in the kitchen anyway, what’s wrong with a little stirring?

Most risotto recipes call specifically for Arborio rice. Unfortunately, Arborio can be a little on the pricey side, so I substitute a less expensive rice. Just make sure it’s a short grain rice – the long grain varieties don’t have the starch content necessary to get the starchy goodness that you expect. I’ve found a Valencia rice on my local supermarket shelf that costs about two-thirds less than the Arborio options.

The other fantastic feature of risotto is that it’s a totally blank canvas. You can add whatever flavors you have on hand, making it easy to keep the costs down. I found some grape tomatoes on sale this week, and decided to incorporate them into my risotto fest. I’m a sucker for any roasted vegetable too. It’s such a simple way to bump up the flavors components of simple ingredients. So roasted tomato risotto was on the menu for comfort food night this week.

And because you can never have too many carbs on comfort food night, I also made some spinach bruschetta – because you have to have something to help scrape the risotto out of the bowl, right? It’s simple, quick, and tasty. The bonus is that it’s made of staples I always have on hand.

So who cares if the Atkins people won’t ever call and ask me to cook for them? Carbs help cope with stress – and that’s all that matters when you’re craving ‘thick’ after a long day.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Picnic at Home with Chicken and Chimichurri

It was one of those weeks that made you want to hide from the world. And once the weekend rolled around, that’s exactly what we did. We unplugged the phone, locked the door and cocooned for two whole days.

Since Don and I were determined not to interact with the anyone, we decided to have a picnic at home instead of venturing out into the cruel world. Besides, it’s a lot easier to make good food when you don’t have to schlep it out to the beach.

For some reason, when I think of picnics, I think of bold flavors. And if it’s a picnic, then there has to be both chicken and potato salad involved (isn’t that some sort of picnic law or something?). So our indoor picnic consisted of chicken with chimichurri sauce and roasted potato salad, complete with roasted garlic for good measure.

And it can’t be a picnic without dessert, can it? (OK, who am I kidding? It’s a rare dinner at our house without dessert.) I had made ice cream earlier in the week, and since ice cream is definitely picnic food, I made caramelized pineapple with ice cream for dessert. (It’s fruit, so that made it a healthy dessert, right? I mean, that fact cancels out the sugar and ice cream, doesn’t it?)

So maybe a picnic on the beach might have had more atmosphere, and the dog might have enjoyed a trip to the park – but (at least for this weekend) an agoraphobic picnic was just what the doctor ordered.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Cocktails for Dessert: Mango Margarita Sorbet

There’s nothing like an after-dinner cocktail. And there’s nothing like dessert. What’s the best of both worlds? Combining cocktails and dessert into one great offering.

Mangoes were on sale last week, and I had picked up a few without knowing what I was going to do with them. I had thought about making some frozen cocktails, but I was also having trouble coming up with a dessert for a casual dinner party last weekend. That’s how I decided to combine the two into Mango Margarita Sorbet.

If you don’t own an ice cream maker, I think you should. I use mine all the time. I don’t think I’ve actually bought ice cream in years. If it’s too much of an investment to purchase a new one, check out Craigslist or E-bay to see if you can find a deal - and use it. There is nothing like homemade ice cream and sorbet. And they are easy to make. It takes 10 or 15 minutes of active preparation, then just some waiting.

The mango sorbet is quite refreshing. As you can see from the picture, I served it with a couple of orange shortbread cookie sticks (that need a little more work before sharing the recipe). If you’re concerned about having a family-friendly dessert, just omit the tequila and substitute orange juice for the orange liqueur. The alcohol keeps the sorbet from freezing too hard, so the absence of it will probably make the sorbet freeze a little harder.

I also didn’t have any limes, or I would have served the sorbet with a wedge that could be squeezed over the top before eating. The acid in the lime juice would cut through a little of the sweetness of the sorbet and round out the flavors.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Not Quite Cinco de Mayo, But Close Enough for Shrimp and Mango Ceviche

So I know this week is supposed to celebrate the Mexican battle victory, and that you usually see a bevy of authentic Mexican foods on May 5th, but I didn’t feel like actually heating up the kitchen with the stove (it’s just too hot outside). So I broadened the definition of ‘Mexican food’ to include some other Latin cuisines. What I ended up with was Shrimp and Mango Ceviche and a side of Black Bean Salad for Cuatro de Mayo (sorry, but I have to work on the 5th).

After looking through the freezer, I had narrowed the ceviche choices down to either shrimp or tilapia (I didn’t think that salmon ceviche sounded all that appetizing – and even less authentic than the ceviche concept itself). I think the tilapia would have worked fine, but settled on the shrimp because I thought it would retain its shape better in the citrus juice. By the time I had it plated, it looked much more expensive than the 6 bucks I spent on four servings – and more importantly, it tasted like more than $6.

The black beans were a nice compliment to the sharpness of the ceviche. I purposely used less dressing with the beans than I would normally in a salad – just because I knew the ceviche would be so sharp to begin with.

Of course, if money weren’t an issue, I probably would have used sushi-grade tuna instead, but for farm raised and frozen, the shrimp was OK. You just have to be really careful when you’re eating raw fish – you don’t want to take any chances. I mean, if you’re going to be sick on Cinco de Mayo, then it should be because of the excess of Coronas you drank, right?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Chocoholics Anonymous Approve of Walnut Bar Cookies

I’m a die-hard chocoholic. It just doesn’t matter – if it’s chocolate and cakey, I’m probably going to like it (even if it’s not cakey, I’ll probably still like it). When left to my own devices, dessert will probably be chocolate-based (and usually is). On the other hand, Don (my significant other), doesn’t really care for chocolate all that much (I know! But I let him stay around anyway). Every once in a while I try to come up with something that isn’t chocolate-based so he can enjoy it too. That’s how this recipe for Walnut Bars came about.

It’s kind of the best of both worlds – a crunchy, crumbly exterior and an ultra-moist, chewy interior. This recipe has been morphing for several months, and it finally got Don’s seal of approval last night, so I thought it was time to share it. The concept is pretty similar to a brownie / blondie, but I think the texture is so much better. Hope you like it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Taking Stock; Chicken Stock 101

There are several culinary compromises that I’ve had to make because of the economy. I’ve had to eliminate eating out at nice restaurants. Rack of lamb and artisan cheeses are just a couple of the things I can’t wait to reintroduce to my gastronomic life. But there’s one thing I started doing to economize that I will continue long into the future: making my own chicken stock.

I was spending about $10 every week to get 3 quarts of prepackaged stock at the grocery store (what can I say? I use a lot of stock). I finally had to break down and see if making my own would be any cheaper. It is. And it’s infinitely better too. I’ve even got to the point that I take the restaurant approach – using scraps for the bulk of my stock ingredients. I can make 6 or 8 quarts of stock at a time and use about $2 worth of ingredients to do it. It’s the best $2 I can spend on eating.

All I have to do is make a couple of strategic decisions during the month and I usually have all the makings of a good stock waiting for me in the freezer. The main strategy is to make a roasted chicken at least once a month – the carcass then goes on ice and is ready to make stock when I am. You could also buy a 2-3 pound package of chicken legs when they’re on sale. I prefer to roast them first, but you could use raw chicken. With raw chicken, it seems to make a lighter, more gelatinized chicken stock. It’s not bad, just different. I like the dark color and flavor you get from roasting the chicken first.

Additionally, I keep a ‘Stock Sack’ in the freezer. It’s just a gallon-size zip top freezer bag that I use to hold the vegetable cast-offs for my new, secret weapon. Onion and carrot peels, celery tops, parsley stems, and over ripe tomatoes use to go down the disposal. Now I squeeze every last ounce of goodness out of them before they get discarded. Additionally, I add anything else that I think would add to the flavor of my stock: fennel tops, mushroom stems, scallion ends and wilted salad greens all go into the Stock Sack for future use. Some of the things I intentionally skip are: anything overly starchy (like potato skins), bitter (like cucumber peels), or that don’t seem like they would blend with (or overpower) the stock (like asparagus, broccoli or squash).

Once I see what’s in my Stock Sack, I augment the deficiencies with fresh vegetables to come close to my basic chicken stock recipe.

You will also notice that I don’t put any salt into my stock. That’s because I consider stock to be an ingredient, not a finished dish. Since I’m going to cook with the stock later, I prefer to add salt to the dish I’m preparing with the stock. I’ve got much better control over salt content that way.

It really only takes about 30 minutes of active work to make a batch of stock that then lasts for a few weeks (or longer, if you don’t use as much stock as I do). I’ll put the stock pot on early Saturday morning, go about my business, and take it off the heat about lunchtime. I also tried putting it on to simmer as I went to bed one night, thinking it would be ready for me when I woke up. But it turns out that I am much too paranoid about burning the house down to get any sleep when I do that, so I wouldn’t recommend it.

Like I said, I use a lot of stock – to make rice and pasta dishes, for sauces, to poach fish, for quick soups, and a host of other things. It’s the easiest trick for better cooking that anyone could ever come up with.

Think about it: I was paying $3.50 for a quart of stock at the grocery store, and I can make up to 8 quarts for about $2. That’s a savings of over $25 for a batch of stock that tastes better than the stuff I can buy anyway. Why the heck did I wait so long to start doing this?! Now if I could only find a way to make gasoline at home as cheaply…