Sunday, May 29, 2011

New Friends

Arugula and Robust beside the bowl of mango salsa

Dinner is served... it looks a little messy on the plate, but that's ok because it tasted super good.

A couple weekends ago, Scott and I stopped into Capital Ale House around 4pm after a day of wedding shopping and errands. We sat at the outside bar. I got my Stoli and soda water, and Scott took 30 minutes and inquiry with the bartender before choosing from their 275 beers on offer. It was relaxing and a great way to end a busy day. We listened to another conversation happening at the bar about beer and food pairings, we watched the baby ducks and their momma walking around the patio area, we tried to decide what we'd do for dinner...
That's when a guy came out to the bar and sat in one of the 2 chairs to my left. He very sweetly asked if I'd mind moving my purse, as a friend was joining him. I told him that my bag needed its own chair. He had a quick and clever comeback. The bantering only continued when his friend arrived wearing a DARE t-shirt. (Can you believe it's called PEAK now?) We'd had several laughs with these guys before we even knew their names. Travis had been the first to arrive, and his friend was Mike. Instantly, we were into full blown discussions, and Scott and I ordered another round.

The rounds kept coming, the conversation never died down, and it was 10 o'clock before our little party broke up. Numbers were exchanged, and intentions for hanging out again soon were shared.

Fast forward 2 weeks, several food texting conversations, and emails about lesson plans. We were all at Capital Ale House again in the late afternoon enjoying the gorgeous weather. After 2 rounds and a couple of hours, we knew we should make a move. The last time we hung out, no one was feeling all that awesome the next day. So, food. Let's cook food. We suggested they come to the house for dinner. Mike and I are the foodies of the group, so the planning was all us. We were good with that. Mike and I instantly started throwing out ideas... tilapia? chicken? olive tapenade? citrus? roasted potatoes? In about 5 minutes we settled on something that would be fairly easy and economical. We'd saute some chicken up (We don't have a grill yet, sadly) and top it with a mango salsa. We'd roast some potatoes- let's do fingerling!- and add in some onions and garlic. An arugula salad on the side and we'd have a simple meal. Mike and I took off for Whole Foods while Travis and Scott stayed back to finish their Schlafly American Pale Ales.

Mango, lime, red onion, cilantro, jalepeno, garlic, avocado, chicken, potatoes, a nice cheese, and we were out the door and on our way to meet Travis and Scott at the house. Mike got to work on potatoes right away, slicing them lengthwise, and adding in the garlic and EVOO. I was on veg prep, so I threw the onions into the mix. My salsa was coming along. I diced up the mango- which was so sweet and perfect, some red onion, a jalepeno, some tomato, avocado, and cilantro. I added some black beans I'd had in the fridge, and seasoned it with salt, pepper, cumin, and Mexican oregano. While I was at it, I sliced some red onion and tomato for the salad. Potatoes were in the oven, and Mike got to work on the protein. He added EVOO and butter in the heavy saute pan, followed by the bite size tenders that would work their way into a nice shred ready to be topped by the salsa. I made a quick dressing for the arugula with a pressed garlic clove, balsamic vinegar, EVOO, Dijon, salt, and pepper. When the potatoes and chicken were done, I tossed some dressing, the cheese, and arugula in a big bowl, so we could easily top it with the veggies and nuts.

Dinner was served and everyone was happy. We had a great time. Travis and Mike are the kind of people you want to meet. Easy-going, funny, unpretentious, and real. Mike and I have made many plans for future meals, and I'm pretty sure Scott and Travis will be happy to eat what we make. This should ensure many more good times together and I'm very good with that.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

White ChiLightning

Last Saturday, Scott and I spent a good few hours at Barnes and Noble. He was leaving for St. Louis Sunday afternoon and had a lot of work to do. I did no work- even though I had a bag full of papers to grade- but, instead took the time to just write, read, and research. Eventually, we got hungry and I started thinking about dinner. I wanted something super comforting, and since it was going on 6 o'clock, I needed something that wouldn't take hours to prepare. I was at a good place for inspiration, and when looking through Chef Magazine, I saw a bowl of red chili. Instantly, I thought of something I'd oddly craved for years, but have never eaten before in my life. White Chicken Chili. I'd thought about making it several times with Quorn, but never did. Now that I was working some meat back into my menu, it was time.

I spent a little time looking through cookbooks, and also did a little online searching until I'd taken all I'd seen, added my own preferences, and came up with the recipe I would use. I made my grocery list, and we hit up the Martin's that was right next door.

When we got home, I started by chopping the organically vegetarian anti-biotic free chicken tenders into small bite size pieces and dropped them into my sturdy saute pan with about 3 TBSP of EVOO. Next, I added a chopped yellow onion and about 6 large garlic cloves that I put through a press. I cooked it until the chicken wasn't pink anymore and the onion and six cloves of garlic were filling the air with promise. Time to take it off the heat. I stirred it with a wooden spoon the whole time, and that helped shred the chicken a bit for me.

Next came out my Le Cresuet. I put in another TBSP of EVOO along with about a teaspoon of coriander and 2 heaping teaspoons of cumin. I let the spices soak up the oil and toast a bit before adding 3 finely diced jalepanos. I actually planned to put one habanero and one jalepeno in this chili, but Martin's had no habaneros. Next was a chopped anaheim- I wanted to use a poblano, but again, Martin's had none. The japs and anaheim did the job just fine.

I added about 3/4 of a box of vegetable stock. (I imagine chicken stock might add more depth, but I'm not all gung ho about eating meat, so I'd prefer to use veggie stock, even if I am cooking meat. This is the first time I cooked chicken in almost 10 years. It was a little weird for me.) I juiced a lime and added the juice. I let all of this come to a boil for about 10 minutes before adding about a cup of frozen baby sweet corn kernels, two cans of rinsed navy beans, and the chicken/onion/garlic mixture. I let it come to a nice rolling boil before I backed it off to a simmer. I gave it about 25 minutes to do its thing before adding a handful of chopped cilantro. Heat off.

When it cooled a bit and was ready to serve, I ladled a huge servings into my favorite soup bowls, which had belonged to Grandma Phoebe. I topped the chili with some jalapeno jack cheese, some sour cream, chopped tomatoes, and a few cilantro leaves. We had a some Snyder's White Corn Tortilla Chips on the side. The chili was delicious and every bit as comforting as I needed it to be. The heat was just enough, the balance came with the cilantro and lime juice, and the sour cream and Jalapeno Jack completed the texture. Scott was happy, and as he filled his bowl with a second helping, I felt sure he'd return to me from the Midwest.

I also think I finally understand the previously inexplicable cravings I had for this dish, and am quite sure I will want it again very soon.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is.

We spend a lot of money on groceries.

Everyone says that eating healthy really costs more, because, well, it does. Buying local free range organically and vegetarian fed chicken eggs for $5/dozen is simply more expensive than... well, I don't know. How much are the battery house torture chamber eggs? I really have no idea, but I'm guessing it's a lot less than $5. Eating gluten free doesn't help matters either. Although I had one little success with bread, I'm no where near depending on myself completely, and my current loaf of choice is nearly $6. Add organic dairy, fruits, and veggies to the list, and oh! Don't forget Scott's 6-pack of micro brews and it's easy to see how groceries top our list of expenses.

We have been well aware of this for quite some time, but have decided it's worth it. It's just worth it. Some people must have expensive brand name jeans or shoes. Some people like to always drive a new car. Others put a lot of money toward their hobbies or collections. It all boils down to priority. And whatever your priority is- good on you. You have to live for what makes you happy. If you're really lucky, and maybe you are- you can have it all. We're doing okay, but we're not that lucky- we have to choose.

Eating well makes us happy. We choose food.

(It works out that eating healthy doubles as my hobby since I love to cook the healthy food we buy. See? I'm doubling up- that certainly must save money!)

That said, we do have a wedding coming up and I have been trying not to allow the grocery bill to get any more out of hand. This means going to food that will go far. When I plan my meals at the beginning of the week, I always start with what I have on hand. On Sunday, my goal was also to see how far I could make every meal stretch. How could I use the same ingredients in several meals?

I started with a can of black beans sitting at attention in the pantry. I decided that spicy black beans would be a good place to start. I'd need to buy a red and yellow pepper- I put those on the Trader Joe's list- they are always cheapest there. I already had onions, of course, and there was already a bag of frozen corn in the freezer. I'd buy a couple Romas and we'd be good to go. Salsa, sour cream, and tortilla chips are all staples for us, so we'd have all the needed accompaniments. The best news was that I knew there would be leftover beans. I already decided how to use them and that would be for breakfast cuddled inside a nice thin omelet. They could stand in place of that expensive GF bread! My guess was that I'd have enough leftover for 2 days worth of breakfasts for Scott and me.

I knew I wouldn't need 2 entire peppers in my black beans, so I thought of how else I could use them. I decided I could caramelize them with a bigger onion than I needed for the beans, then I could use some of those to top a pizza since I had a GF crust in the freezer I wanted to use up so I can make my own. (Not a huge fan of what I bought, but it was a 2 pack...) and I'd use the rest to make a jarred pasta sauce more interesting. I had a jar of Organicville sauce I'd bought for back up when it was on sale. (Making your own is super easy, and cheaper, but come on, we all need a jarred sauce in the pantry!) I also had a free bag of corn pasta to use from the beverage manager at Maggiano's. He's super sweet and we had a long GF conversation when I was in last week. He gave me a bag to try. How nice was that?

I now had 3 dinners and 2 breakfasts going from the inspiration of a $1.20 can of beans.

Time to cook. I chopped a large yellow onion and both peppers and got them started with some evoo, salt, and pepper. I cooked them low and slow until they were brown and gorgeous. I removed a little more than half to use for the pizza and for the sauce. I added a handful of frozen corn. The water from the ice, along with a few TBSP from my glass, deglazed the pan perfectly. I added a bay leaf. I let the corn cook for a few minutes, then added some spice. Obviously, I love Penzey's, but these exact spices aren't necessary. I threw in two Chili Piquin peppers- tiny little dried peppers that pack a huge heat punch, a few shakes of Adobo powder, some Ancho Chile Powder, a little Chipotle Powder, and why not? Some of their Arizona Dreaming blend... it's so good... It's got several spices creating its perfection, but cumin, oregano, and lemon stand out. I added a bit of this and a bit of that until I liked the balance. If you're not lucky enough to live near a Penzey's and don't have time for their awesome mail order, just use some cumin, chile powder, and chopped jarred jalapenos. I let the spices toast and when it started to get a little dry, I added the two chopped Roma tomatoes and the black beans and just let it simmer for a bit while I waited for Scott to get home from playing basketball.

When it was time to eat, I piled a little of the beans on my plate, put a few chips on the side with some salsa and sour cream. I did buy a treat at the store... avocados were on sale, and they are so good and so good for you... I just couldn't resist. I cubed it up right in the skin and flaked it on to our plates. It would be perfect on the eggs too.

I dug in and yummm... cheap can be so good. The best part was that there was enough leftover for 4 small omelets, and I also had the rest of the onions and peppers in the fridge waiting for their moment. I don't think our grocery bill is declining greatly any time soon, but it is oddly satisfying to know how far I could stretch a can of beans, an onion, and 2 bell peppers. Maybe one day I'll eat this well AND buy clothes that aren't on the Target clearance rack. Until then, I choose food.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

My first loaf of bread- ever. And it's gluten free.

A favorite childhood memory is breakfast at Grandma Phoebe's house. She'd cut a sinfully thick slice of her homemade rye bread, toast it perfectly, and slather it with butter. It was heaven.

I have her recipe, but I never baked a loaf. I've never baked a loaf of bread that wasn't a quick bread. I've always wanted to, but I never did. My grandma would spend full days baking bread and rolls. I've been there, I've helped her, I've watched the entire process, but I just never had the courage to try it myself. I'm not afraid of all baking. Cookies? No problem. I'll bust out biscotti and complicated cookies at Christmas time that get rave reviews. But bread? That's a whole new ball game. And I won't even comment here on cake.

After a couple weeks of eating gluten free frozen bread products void of protein and fiber, I had a realization. The reason I never baked before was because the Universe had plans. I needed to wait to learn to bake until now. I had to learn how to bake in a totally different way than Grandma. I had to learn to bake gluten free because this is now my path. And so began endless amounts of reading and learning about different flour combinations and starches... which ones were highest in protein, which were highest in fiber, and how to use those in proportion to the starches and flours that don't offer as much on the nutrition end, but are needed to create a tasty end product.

I happened upon Karina's Kitchen. I learned a lot on her blog not just about gluten free baking, but about gluten free living. Unless you just came out from under a rock, if you have any food sensitivities at all, I am sure you know exactly who she is. I spent a lot of time just browsing her recipes and her thoughts and learning from her immense experience. I loved that she had some of the same feelings I had about flours. She most often uses sorghum, millet, almond, and buckwheat- and those were all high on my list and in my pantry waiting for me.

Suddenly, my computer lit up and fireworks began to explode. Karina had a recipe for Ryeless Rye bread. REALLY? I could possibly taste something like the heaven Grandma used to make for me? This could happen? Reading the recipe only made me more excited. She used sorghum and millet, which would make this bread much healthier than the loaf currently in my freezer, and the caraway seeds were practically calling my name.

When we went to Penzey's this weekend, I went straight for the caraway seeds and inhaled the sample jar deeply. I just didn't want to be disappointed. I mean, really, I have never baked bread before and now I suddenly think I'm going to pull off a gluten free loaf? I talked myself down off the ledge. If it sucked, I'd chuck it. I'd try again. I'd get it right. Unless I wanted to depend on store brand nutritionally challenged gluten free bread forever, I'd have to.

Here is the link to Karina's Ryeless Rye Bread.

For now, I hid within the safety of following her recipe almost to the T. I did use 2 eggs versus the egg replacer. I didn't use sesame seeds on top, but instead more caraway like Grandma did. At the moment I was sprinkling the caraway seeds on top, I felt her presence as I often do when I'm in the kitchen. I was once again reminded how much I love that cooking keeps me so close to my family who I miss so much.

My bread took about 40 minutes to bake. It was golden on top and fell right out of the baking pan. I devoured the end slice immediately. I slathered on some Earth Balance and dug in. Scott was napping on the couch and I thought my smile might wake him up. It was so yummy. It was as close as I could have ever hoped. I went right back for a second slice, which I popped in the toaster. When it was ready it woke Scott up. I was happy to share and to see him join in my excitement upon his first bite. I'd done it! I baked bread and it was good!

I'm excited to move forward. I want to explore bread. I want to decide on the combination I like best and that I feel is most healthy for me. I want to make baguette and pizza crusts... breakfasts breads and dinner rolls... I want to make biscotti nearly as good as I always have with wheat flour and maybe even a cake one day... Today was a great start and I am crazy excited to keep going.

Becoming gluten free is going to allow me to learn so much. I don't for one second want to feel sorry for myself or be depressed because I can't have something. I want to make anything I used to eat. And I want it to be as close to, or even better, than I ever remember it being.

I need a snack.

Aren't snacks every bit as important as meals? They get you through never ending mornings, give you the energy for the gym, make watching a movie just that much better, and are perfect with a cocktail and conversation...

I've noticed magazines lately offering endless lists of healthy snacks. I love this. It makes me want to yell at random people, "Put down the 100 calorie pack of crap. Eating healthy snacks is easy. You will feel better. And damn it, you're smart enough to figure out your own reasonable portion!!!"

Snacks for me usually hang out in the fruit and nut area during the week while I'm at school. Walnuts, pumpkin seeds, almonds, oranges, apple slices, pineapple, to name a few. Larabars have been a new favorite since going GF and I love their simple list of ingredients. (My favorite, peanut butter cookie, has simple dates, peanuts, and salt in the ingredient list.) At home, hummus goes without saying, and wouldn't be complete without the perfect companion. These days, I'm into Trader Joe's Baked Lentil Chips. Sometimes I go for a few Snyder's white corn tortilla chips dunked in super spicy salsa. (Can you believe they have 40% less fat than most other tortilla chips and their texture is perfect?) When friends are over and a Stoli is in hand, olives are required. And popcorn during a movie should never come from the microwave.

Upon reading through one of the previously mentioned snack lists, I came across kale chips. I've seen kale chips at Whole Foods pop up in the past month. They are a whopping $7 for what looks to be a couple handfuls. I searched Google and discovered just how easy they are to make. I followed the recipe from my favorite cooking couple, The Neeley's. (Seriously, I LOVE them.) I tore the leaves off the stalks of a bunch of kale and put them in the salad spinner. After a soak and spin, I laid the leaves out on a tea towel to air dry for about a half hour. I put them in a big bowl and used about a TBSP of evoo on the bunch. After a good toss to coat all the leaves evenly, I spread them out on parchment lined baking sheets. A little sea salt and freshly ground pepper led to them going into the oven on 300 for 25 minutes. When they came out, I sprinkled them with a bit of brown sugar and let them cool. I popped a couple in my mouth to try and had to come right back to my computer to avoid standing there eating both trays immediately. They are seriously amazing. Amazing. If you run screaming from greens, this is the recipe for you. Nothing about them feels green. A lovely way to sneak in some vitamin K and calcium. I apologize for not having a photo. I accidentally deleted it. Technology and I have come a long way, but we still have our moments. Picture gorgeous green leaves of crispy perfection and you pretty much have it.

Next on the agenda was a trail mix I saw in Claire Robinson's (The "other" woman) cookbook. I put 2 cups of raw pumpkin seeds, a cup of raw slivered almonds, and a cup of sunflower seeds into a bowl with 3 TBSP of high grade maple syrup (she says 6 TBSP, and that just seems like a lot to me, but if you're a sweets person, it might be perfect) and a heavy sprinkle of sea salt. I tossed them to coat and spread them on 2 parchment lined baking sheets. I set the oven back to 300 and gave them about 20 minutes, stirring them every 5 minutes or so. I took them out of the oven to allow them to cool. I chopped up some tart dried cherries and half a bar of Green and Black's 85% dark chocolate and mixed it all together. Salty, sweet, chocolaty- and healthy.

In the picture, there is also a pan of cooling walnuts I'd toasted a bit. I toast enough to get us through a couple weeks of snacks. They're so good all toasty, and Scott loves them on his cereal in the morning. I prefer them just as they are. Walnuts are incredible. I can be starving, but eat a few halves of walnuts and feel completely satisfied.

These unadulterated snacks might not be as fast as opening a 100 calorie pack of Oreos, but they're close, and what they will provide will leave you much more nourished than the Oreos ever could.