Thursday, September 10, 2009

Quick Update

Finally a chance for a little cooking, and more to come...

We've been extremely busy this summer and I've hardly cooked for at least a couple months. Last weekend, when we rented a house at the beach, I was itching to cook. So, we brought along a bunch of groceries and our pasta machine too, to make homemade fettuccine (my husband's specialty). We couldn't believe it when we found a pasta machine already there in one of the cupboards at the rental house! Of course, they didn't have a strainer of any kind, and we didn't bring one of those. Go figure!

I was so proud of us because we made practically everything from scratch for the first night's dinner. The Italian bread was already made – we just heated that. But we made the pasta, marinara sauce, pesto sauce, salad, dressing, and plum clafouti for dessert!

I'd never even heard of a clafouti before – a baked custard with fruit – but we had a bunch of plums from our tree and I happened upon the recipe, so we tried it. I'm pretty sure it turned out right. It looked beautiful, but the taste was kind of boring.

The next night we made crock-pot broccoli soup – perfect for a rainy day, plus it cooked while we played. We experienced rain, wind, sunshine too, and enjoyed it all!

After we got home, I made plum freezer jam. Haven't tried it yet, but I hope it's good as we have five jars.

I'm ready to settle in for the fall and winter. No more traveling for awhile. Time to get back to routine grocery shopping, cooking, and hopefully blogging too.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Portland


I'm taking off early today to spend the afternoon and weekend with a good friend from out of town. She's never been to Portland before.

We're going to start off with lunch at Kennedy School, so she can see what McMenamin's is all about, and get a taste of good Portland beer. I also have plans for us to visit various parts of the city, eat some fresh Northwest salmon, try out a few different eateries and a coffee joint or two. See the Oregon coast, get some pampering at a day spa, drink some more beer, and of course do some cooking. (She's going to show me how to make souvlaki!)

There are just so many amazing things to do and see, and eat and drink around Portland – it's absolutely overwhelming! I wish I could take her everywhere, give her a taste and a sip of all Portland has to offer, all in one weekend. I want her to know what a great place this is and understand why I love it so much.

But, it's just one weekend, and it's impossible to do it all. It'll be a fun weekend for sure, and I know I shouldn't worry so much about making an impression. She'll like Portland – how could she not? Will she love it? I don't know, but I guess it doesn't really matter as long as she has a good time.

What does matter is that I realize how lucky I am to live here – near the ocean and the mountains, in a fantastic, somewhat funky little city, among creative, interesting people, where there's lots going on (way more than I can keep up with), and of course, great food.

I just love it here.



Thursday, July 30, 2009

Peanut Butter Honey Balls: No-Cook Kid Treats

When I was a kid, I had a funny little children’s cookbook my mom gave me. I remember only a few things I used to prepare, all of which happened to involve the use of bare hands. To make a cheese ball (think 70’s cocktail party) I kneaded grated cheddar with my warm little hands until it was soft and pliable. I then sprinkled the doughy cheese with chopped onions and shaped it into a ball. Sounds scrumptious, doesn’t it? It must have been torture for my poor parents to taste it and pretend to enjoy. Hopefully, at least, my hands were clean – well, we all lived anyway.

I also made pretzels. It was a basic yeast dough recipe with minimal rising time. I kneaded, then rolled (with hands, of course) the dough into snakes and shaped them into pretzel knots. I added a little egg wash, sprinkled with salt, and with Mom’s help, baked them in the oven. As I recall they weren’t particularly good, but I thoroughly enjoyed making them!

Finally, I remember making what my cookbook called, Joann’s No-Cook Candy. These hand-rolled bites of peanut butter, honey, and powdered milk were my favorite thing to make and eat. Sometimes I still crave the strange concoction and wish I had powdered milk on hand (I never do), so I could whip some up.

I no longer have the cookbook, and the few times I’ve made them since childhood, I’ve just added a bit of each of the ingredients until the right consistency and the right sweetness was achieved. Since I wanted to write about it however, and give you the correct proportions, I looked for the recipe online. I found nothing called Joann’s No-Cook Candy, but there were variations galore, of course, for Peanut Butter Honey Balls. The recipes have additions such as chopped nuts, sugar, graham crackers, wheat germ, raisins, and corn flakes.

Here is the very basic recipe. If you like, try rolling the balls in wheat germ, chopped nuts, mini chocolate chips, or whatever. I like to put the balls in the refrigerator to chill before eating, but there’s really no need to wait. You could even just eat the mixture straight out of the bowl with a spoon!

Peanut Butter Honey Balls  PRINTABLE RECIPE

1 cup peanut butter (creamy or crunchy)
2 cups instant dry milk (do not add water)
up to 1 cup honey

1. In a large bowl, combine the peanut butter and dry milk. Add honey to taste and mix well. If the mixture seems too sticky, add a little more dry milk.

2. Roll into a log and cut into one-inch pieces, or use your hands to roll into one-inch balls. We used to wrap the individual pieces in squares of waxed paper (so they looked kind of like salt water taffy pieces), but this is optional. Store in the refrigerator.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Apple Salad with Basil & Mint


It's hot in Portland this week – over 100 degrees! That means I'm going to have to share another salad recipe. We've been eating salad at our house all week: an Asian noodle salad with crisp vegetables, the lentil orzo salad I shared recently (with some tomatoes added), and a hearty bread salad (panzanella).

Here's another salad that's good for a hot day. The original recipe called for chicken. I simply omitted it and added some celery instead for balance. It turned out fine, and the salad is faster and easier to make too!

Apple Salad with Basil & Mint  PRINTABLE RECIPE

1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp light brown sugar
4 scallions (white and light green parts only) - thinly sliced
2 Granny Smith apples - diced
1 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup thinly sliced fresh basil
2 Tbsp thinly sliced fresh mint
kosher salt & fresh ground black pepper to taste
1/3 cup roasted peanuts - roughly chopped

In a large bowl, combine the lime juice, vinegar, and brown sugar, and stir until the sugar dissolves. Add the scallions, apples, and celery, and toss. Add the basil and mint. Sprinkle with salt & pepper to taste and toss again. Top with peanuts and serve.


Ordinary Salmon Part II: Grilled Salmon with Soy-Mustard Sauce

This is a particularly ordinary recipe, but it's so very good. It's easy too, although I do have a tendency to overcook it, which is the saddest thing to do to a beautiful piece of salmon. The suggested cook time from the original recipe was definitely too long, at least for the cuts of salmon I get, so I've been working on getting it just right.

The other thing I tend to screw up is the timing of the meal. The salmon is supposed to rest for 10 minutes after it's removed from the grill, before serving. I almost always forget this. Sometimes it doesn't matter because I've already overcooked it at this point. Other times I end up having everything else ready to serve 10 minutes before the fish is done.

You can do this on an outdoor grill, or on the stovetop on a cast iron grill pan, as I often do.

Grilled Salmon with Soy-Mustard Sauce  PRINTABLE RECIPE

1-1/2 to 2 Lb salmon filet with skin
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
3 Tbsp soy sauce (I use the reduced sodium kind)
6 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp minced garlic

1. Whisk together the mustard, soy sauce, olive oil, and garlic.

2. Lay the salmon, skin side down, on a cutting board. Cut into four equal pieces. Drizzle half the marinade onto the salmon and let it sit for 10 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, preheat the grill (or grill pan) to about 350°.

4. Place the salmon, skin side down, on the preheated grill. Grill for about three minutes. Use a spatula to carefully turn the fish over and grill for up to another 3 minutes.

5. Transfer the fish to a plate, skin side down, and drizzle the remaining marinade over the top. Allow to rest for 10 minutes. (Remember, the fish will continue to cook during this time.)

6. Remove the skin and serve.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Ordinary Salmon Part I: Cedar Plank Grilled Salmon

Salmon has become so popular it’s considered “common,” as in nothing special, boring, or ordinary. But I think most people, at least in the Northwest, would agree: Salmon is popular for good reason. Grilled, poached, cured, smoked, in eggs, in pasta, on a salad, on a plank, on a bagel. Lemon butter, dill sauce, ginger-soy, mustard sauce, no sauce. We just love it every which way.

Back when I was planning my wedding, salmon on a plank was a pretty new thing. I read about it in a magazine – a Native American method, that I’d never heard of before, for preparing this succulent fish. I requested it for our wedding dinner, and the caterers (hesitantly, I think) agreed to prepare it for us. They ended up baking it on a plank in the oven, rather than over a fire or on a grill, and though it was good, I’ve had better since, especially when we’ve made it ourselves at home.

My husband is the expert when it comes to making fish. He’s less likely to overcook it than I. So, I do the prep work and let him do the actual cooking. I like to serve it right on the plank for a sort of rustic presentation, and also to savor the smoky cedar smell. It really adds to the enjoyment.

I got this recipe off the packaging for some cedar planks a number of years ago. I still have the original cutout from the label. It’s got a faint aroma – kind of a garlicky campfire smell. The brand name has been cut off, or I’d give them credit for this recipe, which I love so much.

Cedar Plank Grilled Salmon PRINTABLE RECIPE

1 untreated cedar plank – large enough for your salmon filet

1 to 1-1/2 Lb salmon filet
1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
juice of 3 fresh lemons
1/4 cup chopped parsley
3 cloves garlic – minced
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper

1. Submerge the plank in water and soak for at least one hour. After soaking, brush about 1-1/2 Tbsp olive oil onto the plank.

2. Meanwhile, preheat the grill to about 350°.

3. Brush the salmon filet with about 2 tsp olive oil and set it on the plank. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

4. In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, 1/2 cup olive oil, parsley, and garlic.

5. Set the planked salmon on the preheated grill, and baste it with some of the marinade being careful not to contaminate the bowl of marinade.

6. Close the lid and cook until the fish is very nearly cooked through – time will vary depending on how hot your grill is and how thick the fish is, but the goal is to cook it slowly. Also remember, the fish will continue to cook after you remove it from the grill, so don’t overdo it. We usually end up with about 20 minutes of grill time.

7. Remove the planked salmon from the grill. Serve it on the plank or move it to a platter. Drizzle the remaining marinade over the fish and serve.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Mexican Fiesta

We don’t do leftover night at our place very often. Most of the time leftovers are used for lunches or maybe an early dinner for the kids. Every now and then, however, we do a leftover night, and it’s almost always what we call, “Mexican fiesta."

Maybe it goes back to my philosophy about adding salsa to almost anything. We put salsa on the table with all the leftovers, buffet style, and there you go – Mexican fiesta. It works especially well if there’s leftover rice or tortillas or even lettuce. Add a little cheese, maybe some beans and you’ve got Mexican rice bowls, quesadillas, or taco salad.
My daughter likes a plain tortilla with a side of beans. My son likes tortilla chips with melted cheese. My husband, Dave, and I each make up our own plates with whatever sounds good. I’m likely to go for brown rice with black beans, grated cheese, and salsa, while Dave might make loaded nachos.
We like it so much we sometimes plan Mexican fiesta. We make more rice than we need for Tuesday’s fish dinner (and maybe an extra fish filet for fish tacos). We reserve some salad stuff from Wednesday night’s big salad. I make guacamole and salsa. Dave grates cheese. We buy black beans and tortilla chips, sour cream and jalapeño slices. I guess you could call it super-deluxe Mexican fiesta because it’s planned, therefore less random, and we’ve got everybody’s favorite fixings. Once again, we each make our own dish: maybe taco salad for me with lots of guacamole, quesadillas for Dave with onions and jalapeños. And the kids – well, they pretty much stick with the same boring stuff every time, but it makes them happy.
Maybe your family would rather have a celebrazione Italiano using leftover pasta, spaghetti sauce, or vegetables. Add a little fresh basil, a little Parmesan – you could make individual pasta concoctions, Italian-style salad, or pizza bread. Do you prefer Chinese? Make a vegetable stir-fry or fried rice (leftover rice is great for fried rice). Anyway, you get the idea.
For my family, Mexican fiesta is fantástico! There’s little effort involved, it’s a great way to use up leftovers, and we all get what we want. Now, if only I had a margarita – then it would be a true fiesta – rocks and salt please!


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Stuffed Peppers

I’ve never really been a fan of stuffed bell peppers, traditionally stuffed with rice, tomato sauce, onion, and sometimes ground beef. But I do like these Mexican-style stuffed peppers. My husband likes them too, and we enjoy them with a side of homemade chopped salsa (see recipe) and tortilla chips.

Poblanos are considered mild peppers, though there’s definitely some heat compared to a bell pepper. The smoke from broiling the peppers makes me cough, and I can feel a little burn from the pepper oil on my fingertips too. The rice and the cheese mellow the heat however, and the completed dish doesn’t actually taste very spicy to me.

Stuffed Chile Peppers  PRINTABLE RECIPE
(4 servings)

3/4 cup uncooked brown rice
4 poblano peppers (or to keep it extra mild, use small green bell peppers)
1-1/2 cups frozen corn – thawed
15 oz can kidney beans – rinsed & drained
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1-1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
4 oz goat cheese – crumbled

1. Prepare rice according to package directions.

2. Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to the highest position and heat the broiler.

3. Cut the peppers in half lengthwise. Scoop out and discard the seeds. Place cut-side down on a baking sheet. Broil until the skin is charred black, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

4. In a large bowl, combine the cooked rice, corn, beans, oil, salt, and pepper.

5. Use your fingers to peel the cooled peppers and discard the skins.

6. Place 2 pepper halves on each individual plate. Spoon rice mixture into and over the peppers and sprinkle with the cheese.

Pasta with Cucumbers

I found this recipe on the Food & Wine web site while looking for new pasta recipes. The idea of cucumbers and mint with pasta was really interesting to me, yet so very simple. I just had to try it.

Although I usually like more pungent flavors, I've really enjoyed this buttery combination. My only problem is that I can’t find Kirby cucumbers (like those in the picture). I’ve looked at all the different markets I frequent, including the farmer’s market, but no luck. Instead, I’ve used the small Asian cucumbers I find at Trader Joe’s.

I don’t think my husband is all that thrilled with this dish, mainly because it’s not very filling. You might want to try it as a side dish, rather than the main entrée.

Fettuccine with Cucumbers & Mint  PRINTABLE RECIPE
(serves 2)

1/2 Lb dry fettuccine
kosher salt
1 Lb cucumbers (Kirby cucumbers are recommended)
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh mint

1. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add 3-1/2 Tbsp salt and then the pasta. Cook until al dente. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta water.

2. Meanwhile, peel the cucumbers and halve lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds. (I’ve found that a grapefruit spoon works really well for this.) Then slice the cucumbers crosswise, 1/4" thick.

3. In a large skillet, combine butter, cucumber slices, and 1 tsp salt. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until the cucumbers are tender, but still a little crisp – about 5 minutes.

4. Lower the heat to medium and add the pasta to the cucumbers. Toss to coat the pasta with butter. If needed, add a little pasta water – 1 Tbsp at a time – to moisten.

5. Remove from heat, add mint, and toss. Serve immediately.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Asparagus Apple Salad with Bleu Cheese Vinaigrette

Cheese is one of my favorite things to eat, and bleu cheese – well, in my opinion, it’s one of the very best things on earth. This recipe calls for only one ounce of it, so please, splurge on the good stuff. It’s really worth it.

I also love asparagus. It’s my favorite vegetable. So, when I saw this recipe I just knew it had to be good. The original recipe calls for Gala apples, which are sweet, crisp, and slightly tart – a good choice, I'm sure, but I went for lots of tart with Granny Smith.

For some reason, I think this salad would be great with a steak, but it’s Meatless Monday, and anyway, it’s plenty good all on its own.

Asparagus Apple Salad with Bleu Cheese Vinaigrette  PRINTABLE RECIPE

1/4 cup (1 oz) crumbled bleu cheese
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 Tbsp water
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper

2 cups of 2-inch asparagus pieces
4 cups torn butter lettuce
2 cups thinly sliced apples – granny smith, gala, or your choice

1. Whisk together the dressing ingredients and set aside.

2. Cook asparagus in boiling water for 1 minute. Drain and rinse under cold running water, and drain again.

3. Combine the asparagus, lettuce, and apple slices in a large salad bowl. Drizzle with vinaigrette and toss gently to coat.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Lentil Orzo Salad with Feta & Mint

There’s a deli near my workplace that, unfortunately, is not too good. The prices are high, the service is poor, and the food just isn’t that great. But, because it’s so convenient, I end up going there for lunch every now and then. Plus, they sometimes have this lentil salad that’s actually really good. So good, I hunted down the recipe.

It’s a tasty and filling summer salad. The mint and the dill work together really well with the olives and feta and garlic vinaigrette. It’s a bit oniony (is that a word?), so if you think it might be too much for you, go ahead and reduce the amount of onion (and garlic too, if you like).

Lentil Orzo Salad with Feta & Mint  PRINTABLE RECIPE

1-1/4 cups dry orzo pasta
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup dried brown lentils - rinsed & drained
5 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
3 cloves garlic - minced
1/2 cup kalamata olives - pitted & chopped
1-1/2 cups crumbled feta cheese
1 small red onion - diced
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh mint leaves
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper - to taste

1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to boil. Add orzo and cook until al dente, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain and transfer to a large bowl. Mix in 1 Tbsp olive oil. Cover and refrigerate until cool.

2. Place lentils in a small saucepan, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Cover, and simmer over low heat until lentils are tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together 5 Tbsp olive oil, vinegar, and garlic to make the vinaigrette.

4. Remove pasta from refrigerator and add lentils, vinaigrette, olives, feta, onion, mint, and dill. Stir until well mixed. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Meatless Monday

It’s easy for me to commit to go meatless on Mondays since I seldom eat meat anyway. I don’t know why, but I’ve just never felt like I had to have a piece of meat on my plate every time I sit down to eat. I have a memory of an aunt though, who couldn’t fathom a meal without meat. I remember, ages ago, planning a dinner – I don’t recall what we were making, but apparently we hadn’t included a meat course – and she asked, “But what are we going to have for the meat?” As I remember, my mom and I scrambled to find a chicken breast or something to serve with the meal.

Another time, we took the same aunt to a Vietnamese place for dinner. The restaurant had the best spring rolls that just happened to be vegetarian, but without even giving them a try, she insisted that she and my uncle preferred to have meat in their spring rolls, and we ended up ordering the meaty version (they were guests after all).

So, although I can’t really say that I get it, I know for some of you, committing to even one meatless day a week, could be tough. As Michael Pollan suggests, however, if “we push meat a little bit to the side and move vegetables to the center of our diet” we’re going to be healthier and reduce our carbon footprint too. So, maybe it’s worth a try, and meatless Mondays is a great way to get started. Go to the Meatless Monday web site to learn more, and maybe even join the movement.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Love Every Bite

When I eat, I like every bite to be perfect. I try to combine the exact right amount of each component of a dish to make each and every bite just right. The best example is probably nachos. In fact, I’ve been told that watching me eat nachos is quite amusing.

First, you must know, I love nachos. I love them with gooey nacho cheese or sharp cheddar. I love them with Pace Picante or pico de gallo. I love them with onions or cilantro or black beans or all of the above. When I eat them, I assemble each chip as I go. Each one must have some cheese, a jalapeño slice, a dollop of sour cream, some salsa, a smattering of beans. Of course it varies depending on the ingredients available, but each little triangle is carefully constructed.

I eat salad the same way. A piece of lettuce, tomato, a slice of cucumber, a little cheese, an olive, dressing – whatever the ingredients are – there must be a little bit of each, so every bite can be thoroughly enjoyed.

Call me high maintenance, anal retentive, whatever you like. But I love food and I want to enjoy every mouthful and every calorie I consume. If it isn’t delicious, I don’t really want to eat it at all. All I want is to Love Every Bite!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Meatballs

The meatballs were the hit of the spaghetti dinner – there were many compliments. As you know, I’m not much of a meat eater, but I too went back for seconds. Unfortunately, I can’t take a whole lot of credit. I just went online, came across a recipe for spaghetti and meatballs that sounded good, and went for it. For the original, complete recipe go to Simply Recipes. The sauce was good, but I didn’t love it, so only the meatballs recipe is here.

Meatballs  PRINTABLE RECIPE

1 Lb ground beef
1/2 Lb Italian style ground pork sausage
2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh basil
2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1/2 cup finely chopped crimini mushrooms
2 eggs
3/4 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan-Romano cheese blend
2 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 Tbsp olive oil
Red wine (optional)

1. Mix by hand in a large bowl: beef, sausage, basil, parsley, mushrooms, eggs, bread crumbs, cheese, salt, and pepper until well mixed. Use a melon baller or spoon to form 1-inch round meatballs. Use your hands to roll and compress into tight balls.

2. Heat a large skillet over high heat. Add olive oil. Sear and brown meatballs on all sides, about 2-3 minutes. Cook in a single layer. (You'll probably need to do this in two or more batches.) Do not over-cook. The meatballs will have a chance to cook through as they’re simmering in the sauce (next step). As the meatballs are finishing, you can add a little red wine to de-glaze the pan and add that to your tomato sauce.

3. Add meatballs to simmering tomato/spaghetti sauce and gently stir. Simmer for 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Homemade Pesto

I’m hesitant to share this recipe because it’s one of my specialties – one of the things I make that always really impresses people. Maybe they don’t realize how easy it is to make, or that they could go online and find all kinds of great pesto recipes in seconds. Anyway, I guess I’ll go ahead and share.

Pesto is easily found at the grocery store, but the homemade stuff is pretty hard to beat. And if you don’t make it yourself, you miss out on the wonderful aromas of fresh basil and garlic.

There are all kinds of pesto variations with ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes, olives, cilantro, parsley, walnuts, lemon zest, and so on. Mine is a traditional basil pesto. Try it, then feel free to experiment with whatever sounds good to you. You can use a food processor as I usually do; crush and mix the ingredients the old-fashioned way, with a mortar and pestle; or simply chop everything up and toss it all together with your pasta.

I often make this with pepitas (pumpkin seeds) instead of pine nuts because of my son’s nut allergy. If you were at our spaghetti dinner in Minnesota, that pesto was made with pepitas.

Basil Pesto  PRINTABLE RECIPE

6 oz bunch of fresh basil - remove leaves, and discard stems
2 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 cup raw pine nuts (pignolias) or pumpkin seeds (pepitas) – toast in a skillet until fragrant and just beginning to brown
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp shredded Romano cheese

12 oz dry pasta – prepare according to package directions

Combine the pesto ingredients in a food processor and blend into a smooth paste. Toss with the pasta and sprinkle with a little extra grated cheese and maybe some coarsely chopped, toasted nuts or seeds.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Cooking for a Crowd (and my Lemon Garlic Salad Dressing)

Cooking a full meal for over 20 people is not an easy thing for me, especially in someone else’s kitchen. It was for my son’s 5th birthday, which we celebrated while visiting family in Minnesota. I decided a spaghetti dinner was they way to go. It’s a crowd-pleaser, the kids love it, and it’s not too complicated. Add salad, garlic bread, a couple simple appetizers – no problem!

Well, I don’t have much experience cooking for more than six or eight, so the first thing I had to do was put my multiplication skills to work, so my recipes would make enough for the large group. Then I realized I probably shouldn’t make sauce from a jar as I usually do. What would everyone think of a food blogger who didn’t make her sauce from scratch!? I went online and found a recipe for spaghetti and meatballs that sounded good. The reviews were all positive, so I decided to go for it – fingers crossed.

Next, I put together my master list of all the meal components: spaghetti, tomato sauce, meatballs, basil pesto, salad, garlic bread, plus cannellini bean dip, cheeses, and olives for pre-meal snacking. I kept thinking of more things: Spider-Man birthday cake, ice cream, drinks, ice. The grocery list was huge!

I made the salad dressing and basil pesto a day ahead. Then the day of the dinner, while everyone else went out for a day of fun on Lake Minnetonka, I stayed behind and cooked, hunting around the unfamiliar kitchen for the required cooking implements, improvising at times. I found two large pots for sauce and another not-quite-big-enough pot to boil spaghetti that evening. I made 64 meatballs and even though there was a nice large skillet, it took four or five rounds to brown them all. I made the cannellini bean dip that afternoon too.

After cleaning the kitchen, I sat down and made a list of what needed to be done starting at 4:30 to have appetizers out at 5:00 and dinner ready to serve at 6:00. The family then returned from the lake and we bathed and dressed the children. I showered and dressed myself, and before I knew it, it was time to start checking items off the to-do list. My sister and husband helped out as I heated the sauce and meatballs. The checklist worked pretty well, but I still found myself scrambling to wash the lettuce and throw the salad together at the last minute, and even worse, I forgot to start the water to boil the pasta! Thank goodness someone volunteered to take care of the pasta, and someone else poured me a glass of wine. I never would have made it without them.

In the end, everything came together, and dinner was served, buffet style, shortly after 6:00. Overall, it was a good meal, though there was way too much food. The sauce was fine, but I think sauce out of the jar would have been just as good. The meatballs received lots of compliments, as did the basil pesto, and everybody loved my husband’s out-of-this-world, fantastic garlic bread. I got a few requests for recipes, and I’ll publish them here over the next few days. One of those requests was for the cannellini bean dip, which I posted previously – see Quick Dips.

Here’s the salad dressing recipe that Mary Ann asked about (no onion). It’s a Caesar style dressing, but a little lighter – no egg yolks.

Lemon Garlic Salad Dressing with Parmesan  PRINTABLE RECIPE

1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
3 garlic cloves – chopped
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 tsp Worchestershire sauce
2 tsp finely chopped anchovies or anchovy paste
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. Pour dressing over torn or chopped Romaine lettuce and toss with additional Parmesan cheese and croutons. This recipe makes enough for two large salads (about 2 large heads of Romaine lettuce per salad).

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Eating Out, Missing Out

The Oregonian just published their annual restaurant guide. It makes me feel like such a loser. I went through the whole list and found I’ve been to exactly six of the 101 restaurants! Only six. Wait, before I go on, let me go back and count again. (Yes, I really am counting.) Aha! I found a couple more places under the Keep in Mind headings (in smaller print than the main, featured restaurants). So, my revised total is eight. Eight out of 101. Great.

And remember last week when I wrote about a few breakfast places around town? Well, my sister from Chicago read it, then wrote: “Have you been to Arleta's Library Bakery and Cafe? I saw it highlighted on Diners, Drive-Thrus, and Dives.” No, I haven’t been there!

I have good excuses: I work full-time. I’ve got two little kids. Babysitters are expensive. Eating out is expensive. And fattening. And don’t forget, I really do like to cook. Still, I wish I could get out more. I want to try the food at Navarre, “beautiful to behold: fresh, joyful, sublime in its simplicity” says The Oregonian. I yearn to experience Ping, “the most daring, challenging, intriguing restaurant to open in some time.” And what about Le Pigeon, “one of Portland’s defining dining experiences, and you simply must have a taste of it….” I must, I must!

But I know it’s not going to happen. I’m sure I’ll make it to a handful of new (to me) places over the next year. Then the 2010 list will come out, and those Oregonian food writers with their magniloquent reviews of even more restaurants I haven't tried will once again make me feel like I’m missing out.

Then again, the descriptions can be so compelling and grandiose that sometimes one is just bound to be disappointed. Last year I made a point of going to Toro Bravo after reading all the rave reviews, and found myself completely disheartened when I tried one overly salted dish after another.

And there are other places that weren't even mentioned in The Oregonian guide. What about American Dream Pizza? The burgers at Humdinger? The curries at Siam Society? The drinks at 820?

Of course, when we can't get a sitter, there's my cheesy baked spaghetti and my husband's fantastic garlic bread. The kids just love it! And so do I. But I still feel like I'm missing out. I mean, it's not exactly a defining dining experience.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Dads' Choice

One of my readers suggested I write something for Father’s Day, which is coming up on June 21st. I started thinking about it and to be honest, I was at a loss. I really wasn’t sure what would make the dads happy. What do they really want? Steak, I supposed? I decided to do a little survey and get some answers. I sent out an email to the fathers I know asking what they’d like to eat on Father's Day.

My own husband’s answer didn’t surprise me: pizza. He was the only one, however, with that answer. The rest of the guys pretty much stuck with one theme: grilling and barbecue. None of them want to go out, and they don’t want anyone to cook for them either. They just want to head out to the backyard and grill their man food.

Steak, chicken, and brats were all mentioned, but the most popular choices by far were ribs and burgers. Baked beans were also mentioned repeatedly along with a few other typical barbecue sides like corn on the cob, chips, and potato salad. Only one guy mentioned dessert: vanilla ice cream.

I’m trying to think of something to make for our dads to go along with their grilled meat, but I have the feeling that neither my watermelon and arugula salad nor my potato salad with green beans, tomatoes, and tarragon are quite what they have in mind. I guess what we need is a great recipe for baked beans. Does anyone have one they’d like to share?

Otherwise, I guess we don’t get to cook for the dads in our lives – at least not on Father’s Day. Let’s just plan to do the grocery shopping, provide the sides (pick up some potato salad from the deli?), and take care of the clean-up. And, oh yes, supply the beer!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Wednesday Night Cocktail

I just felt like a little something last night. My mood was not great, and my neck was hurting (again). While I was working on our Mexican dinner, I called my husband to pick up a few things from the store. I spotted the gin bottle on top of the cabinet, and told him to grab a bottle of club soda too.

After he got home, and dinner was mostly prepared, I started putting things back in the fridge. As I was stashing the cilantro in the produce drawer, I changed my mind and set it back on the counter. I left a lime out too.

I combined these things with a little sugar, added some gin, ice, soda water, and went to put everything away again. Then I noticed the blueberries in the fridge. I’m not a big blueberry fan, but for some reason, I thought the drink would be pretty with a few blueberries floating in it. (I know, I’m weird.) So, I rinsed off the blueberries and dropped five or six into the drink. I gave it a stir, and with the back of the spoon, mashed a couple of the blueberries – just enough to release a little blueberry essence.

It really was pretty. I should have taken a picture, but I never think of that until it's too late. I took a cautious sip, and then another. It was refreshing, delicious, and soon my neck pain melted away. Even today, it’s hardly there.

Here’s my invention. I call it…

Blueberry Wednesday  PRINTABLE RECIPE

juice of 1 lime
1-1/2 tsp finely chopped cilantro
1 tsp sugar
1-1/2 to 2 oz gin (try Aviation Gin - it’s my new favorite)
ice cubes
club soda
6 blueberries

In a 15 to 16 oz rocks glass (also known as a double old-fashioned), muddle the cilantro and sugar. Add the lime juice and stir until sugar is dissolved. Add the gin. Fill glass with ice cubes to just below the rim. Top with club soda and add blueberries. Stir, and gently mash a couple of the blueberries with the back of the spoon. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Real Strawberry Shortcake

I grew up in Minnesota and knew strawberry shortcake as a slightly sweet biscuit topped with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. It was very popular in the summertime, and on the Fourth of July, blueberries were added along with the strawberries for a patriotic, red-white-and-blue dessert.

I don’t know if it’s a west coast thing or if old-fashioned strawberry shortcake is being forgotten nationwide, but at least out here, most people make strawberry shortcake with pound cake or sponge cake. The combination is good, but it just isn’t shortcake. I looked it up to make sure I wasn’t confused – maybe we Minnesotans had it wrong. I found that traditional shortcake is indeed, “a sweetened biscuit pastry, plenty of sliced strawberries, and a generous dollop of whipped cream.” (See About.com or Wikipedia for more.)

It’s a pretty straightforward concoction, but I set out to find just the right recipe. They’re all pretty similar, but I mixed and matched ideas from a couple and put it all together last night. It was so good, I almost cried – even better than I remembered. I wish I'd taken a picture because it was so pretty, and I can't find a decent picture of real strawberry shortcake anywhere.

The biscuits were perfect! The kids liked them so much, they were happy to eat them without berries or whipped cream. A couple of the extras mysteriously disappeared from the cooling rack. (I guess you can’t go wrong with over a cup of heavy cream!) I used two tablespoons of sugar for the biscuits, and I thought they were just right when combined with the sweetened strawberries. If you like though, you can add a third tablespoon of sugar to make them a little sweeter.

If your strawberries are really sweet and delicious, and you can’t bear to add sugar to them, you can certainly just slice up the strawberries and leave it at that. Adding the sugar, however, allows the strawberries to develop juice that the biscuits will absorb nicely.

My final tips: 1) Assemble while the biscuits are still slightly warm. You’ll be glad you did. 2) Make your own whipped cream. It’s easy, and it adds a nice, homemade touch. If you want to add a little extra pizazz, add 1/2 teaspoon of grated lemon zest along with the vanilla. Your friends will be so impressed!

Strawberry Shortcake  PRINTABLE RECIPE
(makes 6 servings + extra biscuits)

STRAWBERRIES

1-1/2 Lbs fresh strawberries – stemmed & quartered (or sliced if the strawberries are large)
3 Tbsp sugar

Mix strawberries and sugar, and refrigerate while juices develop – about an hour.

CREAM BISCUITS

2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1-1/4 cups heavy cream
milk (for brushing tops of biscuits)

1. Preheat oven to 425°.
2. In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Add cream and stir just until a dough forms. Gather into a ball and knead gently about 6 times on a lightly floured surface.
3. Roll out the dough to 1/2" thickness. Cut out rounds (or any basic shape – I made diamonds) using a 2-1/2" cutter dipped in flour. Place biscuits on parchment paper on a baking sheet. Re-roll the remaining dough and cut out more biscuits to make a total of 10.
4. Brush the tops of the biscuits with milk and bake at 425° for 15 minutes or until golden. Transfer to a rack and allow to cool for 5 minutes.

BASIC WHIPPED CREAM

1 cup chilled heavy cream
2 Tbsp confectioners' (powdered) sugar – or more to taste
1 tsp vanilla extract

Use a mixer to beat the cream and sugar until soft peaks form – about 1-1/2 to 2 minutes. Add the vanilla and mix just until blended.

ASSEMBLY

Use a fork to split the biscuits into top and bottom halves. Place the bottom halves on small plates. Spoon some of the strawberries with their juice onto each shortcake bottom. Top with a generous dollop of whipped cream and then the biscuit top. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Asian Noodle Salad

It you want a break from potato salad, coleslaw, and standard pasta salad at your next barbecue or pot luck, you might like this. I love the toasty flavor of sesame oil (I can smell it just by thinking about it), with soy, lime, garlic, and cilantro. You can leave out the peanuts if there are allergy issues, but it really isn’t quite as good. Try substituting sunflower seeds if you need to.

PRINTABLE RECIPE

12 to 15 oz chuka soba noodles
1-1/2 tsp sesame oil
1/3 cup rice vinegar
juice and grated zest of 1 lime
1/2 cup soy sauce (I prefer the “less sodium” type)
2 tsp Vietnamese chili garlic sauce (I use one from Huy Fong Foods)
2 Tbsp sugar
2 cloves garlic – minced
1 cup grated carrots (about 2 medium carrots)
3/4 cup coarsely chopped dry-roasted peanuts
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1. Bring a pot of water to boil. Add noodles and boil as package directs (usually about 2 minutes). Drain, rinse with cold water, and set aside.
2. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine oil, vinegar, lime juice and zest, soy sauce, chili garlic sauce, sugar, and garlic. Stir until sugar dissolves. Mix in peanuts, carrots, and cilantro.
3. Cut through the noodles to make the lengths more manageable. Add to bowl with soy vinaigrette and toss. Chill for at least an hour and toss again before serving. If the noodles seem a little dry, add a little more soy sauce and vinegar.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Breakfast

I never used to be much of a breakfast person. If I ate it at all, it was something super simple – an English muffin with peanut butter, a bowl of cereal, maybe a pastry from the coffee shop on the weekend. If I was dragged out to breakfast, I ordered off the lunch menu whenever possible. I really didn’t have much interest in eggs or pancakes.

Something happened when I was pregnant. For the first time in my life I wanted to eat first thing in the morning. I craved a big breakfast and welcomed omelets, hash browns, French toast, waffles, all that hearty morning goodness!

These days, my non-pregnant self, again doesn’t like to eat much in the early morning hours, so most days I’m back to just coffee with something small and simple. But, I still love egg dishes, fried potatoes, and pancakes, and a little later in the morning, going out for breakfast is a great treat. A girlfriend and I try to get out for breakfast about once a month, but we’re both busy moms, so it’s really more like two (sometimes three) months between our outings. We have a few favorites...

Marco’s Café in Multnomah Village is one of our stand-bys. I like the Manhattan Scramble with lox, cream cheese, and red onion or the French toast made with homemade brioche topped with fresh fruit. Their specials too are reliably good. I once tried a smoked salmon Benedict that was absolutely delicious. (I noticed they now have Nova Scotia Benedict as a regular item on the menu – made with wild salmon lox.) I also watch for the Belgian waffles to appear on the specials board – they’re great with fresh berries.

Another favorite place is Helser’s on Alberta. My friend likes the mushroom hash, which is loaded with roasted garlic. I enjoy the russet potato pancake or the pear and havarti pie. We found Helser's by mistake when the wait at a place down the street was way too long. I’m so glad we tried it, and I look forward to tasting many more of their offerings.

This last weekend we went to Hash in Sellwood for the first time. It’s a small space, but bright and airy with a contemporary feel. Our coffee was served with tiny scones with sour cherries. They were yummy and much less sweet than a typical scone. The drip coffee was fair – I would have liked it a little stronger. Overall our food was lighter and less greasy than the usual breakfast fare. I ordered a two egg omelet (you can add an third egg for $1 if you want a heartier meal) with morels, arugula, and Taleggio cheese. It was truly delicious. My friend went for the seasonal mushroom hash. The bite I tried was very good.

I definitely hope to make it back to Hash to try one of their “Beni” dishes (eggs Benedict). And the apple caramel pancake balls at the table next to ours were awfully tempting too. If you get there before I, try them and let me know if they're as yummy as they sound.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Another Sandwich: Tuna & Artichokes

It’s been quite a week! In fact, I just got back from the chiropractor where I had some massage therapy and adjustments done to get rid of this horrible pain in my neck. Though there’s still something kind of nagging there, the pain is pretty much gone. Even so, I’m not really up for getting out the pots and pans or firing up the stove tonight. And I think I’ll have to get my husband to uncork the wine bottle. I wouldn’t want to tweak anything, you know, and start all over again with the neck pain. I guess I’m still in sandwich mode.

I love a nice basic tuna salad sandwich. Even better is a tuna melt with tomato. And even better than that is tuna with artichokes and olive puree. I can’t remember where this recipe came from. Maybe some Food Network show? (I love food TV by the way, but I’ll save that topic for another day.) Anyway, who knew canned tuna could be so great?

This isn’t quite as quick and easy as I’d like for the mood I’m in. I might end up with just the basic tuna sandwich tonight, or maybe just the wine, but here’s the recipe in case you’re a little more motivated than I this weekend.

Tuna & Artichokes on Ciabatta  PRINTABLE RECIPE

3/4 cup pitted Kalamata olives
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves
1 tsp lemon zest (mmm… lemon!)
1/4 cup mayonnaise
12 oz canned tuna (2 small cans) – drained
12 oz jar marinated artichokes – drained & chopped
1 tsp fresh lemon juice (mmm… lemon!)
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 Ciabatta loaf (about 16 oz) or other Italian bread – cut into top & bottom halves
1 large tomato – diced

1. In a food processor, puree olives, oil, garlic, and lemon zest until smooth. Blend in mayonnaise. Set aside
2. In a bowl, toss together tuna, artichokes, lemon juice, and pepper.
3. Hollow out both the top and bottom halves of the bread. Spread olive puree over both cut sides.
4. Spoon tuna and artichoke mixture into the bottom half of the bread. Sprinkle with the tomatoes and top with the other half of the bread. Cut into 6 pieces and serve.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Lemony Lemons: Lemon Potatoes

I love lemons - the juice and the zest. I make a nice pie crust with lemon zest, delicious roasted broccoli with lemon juice, yummy lemony salad dressing, and the Thanksgiving turkey is stuffed with lemons (and oranges and herbs too). I think I get a little carried away with it though. My husband often comments that he'd like this or that better with a little less lemon. So, I scale it back the next time, and sure enough - it's just as good, sometimes even better. So, I guess the lesson learned is: a little lemon goes a long way.

If you don't already have a good zester, I recommend you get a microplane grater. I love mine! You'll really appreciate it and find that it's good for zesting and finely grating many things including citrus, ginger, even chocolate. Unfortunately, my son thinks mine is a toy sword, and I have to keep it way up on the top shelf to keep it away from him. I'd get him his own, but those little grating blades are pretty sharp.

One of my favorite lemony recipes is lemon potatoes, and yes, I get the comment, "This would be better with a little less lemon." I happen to like this one with all the lemon juice and zest called for. Of course, you can make it with as much or as little as you like.

Lemon Potatoes  PRINTABLE RECIPE

2 Lbs small, waxy red or white potatoes
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
garlic salt to taste (I like Lawry's Garlic Salt, Coarse Ground with Parsley)

1. Place potatoes in a pot with salted water to cover. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and gently boil until the potatoes are tender - about 20 minutes.

2. Drain potatoes and return to pot over the lowest heat setting. Add olive oil, lemon zest and juice, and garlic salt. Stir to coat potatoes and serve.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

My Favorite Cookies: Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip with Oatmeal

On second thought, maybe they're not my favorite. It's just too hard for me to pick favorites (I don't even have a favorite color). There are simply too many good things out there to settle on just one. Today though, these cookies are what I want. I haven't made them in years because my poor little boy is allergic to peanuts and other nuts. So, you'll have to give them a try for me and let me know how they turn out. While you're at it, make a few without chocolate chips for my husband - he likes them better that way.

I know peanut butter and chocolate chips doesn't sound like anything special, and it's true - they're nothing fancy. But these cookies really are fantastic. I think maybe it's the oatmeal...

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies PRINTABLE RECIPE
(makes about 2-1/2 dozen)

1/2 cup butter or margarine
1 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 cup flour
3/4 cup quick cooking oats
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
8 oz milk chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 375°.

2. Cream together butter, peanut butter, sugars, and egg.

3. In a separate bowl, combine flour, oats, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Then add gradually to creamed mixture, stirring by hand, until well combined. Stir in chocolate chips.

4. Form into 1" balls and place on ungreased baking sheet. Flatten with fork (or other utensil) to about 1/2" thick.

5. Bake at 375° for about 12 minutes. Move cookies to cooling rack immediately.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Quick Dips: Cheesy Artichoke Dip and Cannellini Bean Dip

It looks like a busy week. I'm not going to have much time to write, but I'll try to at least post a recipe each day. Two today since I missed yesterday...

Cheesy Artichoke Dip  PRINTABLE RECIPE

2 canned artichoke hearts - finely chopped
1 green onion - finely chopped
1 small garlic clove - minced
1 Tbsp mayonnaise (low-fat or fat-free is acceptable)
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
4 oz jack cheese - cubed
1 tsp shredded Parmesan cheese

Combine everything except the cheese in a microwave-safe bowl and stir together. Add the cheese and cook on high in the microwave for 1-1/2 minutes. Stir. Cook for 1 minute more or until the cheese is completely melted and bubbly. Stir one more time and serve immediately with tortilla chips or crackers.

Cannellini Bean Dip  PRINTABLE RECIPE
This one's great for parties because you can make it ahead or make it at the last minute, and it can sit out for quite awhile.

19 oz can cannellini beans - drained & rinsed
1 small garlic clove - minced
3 green onions (white & light green parts only) - chopped
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 oz prosciutto - chopped into 1/2" pieces

Stir everything together. Serve with baguette slices.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Just a Sandwich: Parsley Cheese Sandwiches

I haven’t been in my usual cooking mode this week. Maybe I’m a little off because of the long holiday weekend we just had. Plus, the bright summer-like days here in Portland are distracting. This is the time for easy salads and sandwiches. When it comes to sandwiches, I’d like to tell you that I don’t miss the meat at all, but that would not be true. I love pastrami on rye or a good Reuben, and I definitely haven’t found a meatless version that measures up (and yes, I’ve tried).

Fortunately, there are plenty of good non-meat sandwiches. There’s grilled cheese of course – some good cheese, quality bread and you’ve got a great sandwich. Plus, there are so many ways to change it up: olive tapenade, basil, tomato, apple, nuts, onion, pesto, pepperoncini, and of course, there are all kinds of cheese. With a little imagination, the possibilities are endless. I even thought of a few new ideas just now that I’m going to have to try – how about bleu cheese, hazelnuts, and red onion?

The BLT is another good one. Veggie ”bacon” works well for this sandwich and I truly don’t miss having the real stuff on my BLT. Again, you can play around with this sandwich by adding extras like those above or avocado (I know, that’s an obvious one), aioli, good mustard, or I like red wine vinaigrette with shallots.

I also really enjoy hummus and cucumber sandwiches. You can make your own hummus or pick up some pre-made stuff – I’m sure you’ve seen the extensive selection at the grocery store with roasted peppers, garlic, olives and other additions. Many of them are quite good.

Another one of my favorites is a parsley cheese sandwich. It’s just a little different than your everyday deli sandwich, and I thought you might like to try it. The cheese is very rich, but the parsley is fresh and bright. I still pile on the greens though, and serve it with a cucumber-tomato salad to counter the richness.

Parsley Cheese Sandwiches  PRINTABLE RECIPE
(makes 6 sandwiches)

2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp water
2 cups (8 oz) grated Gruyère or Emmenthaler cheese
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 shallots - finely chopped (about 1/4 cup)
12 slices crusty bread or 6 crusty rolls
baby greens or lettuce and/or tomato slices

1. Whisk together vinegar and mustard. Add oil and water, and whisk until well combined. Stir in cheese, parsley, and shallots.

2. Spoon 1/3 cup cheese mixture onto a slice of bread. Garnish with greens, lettuce, and tomato as desired, and top with another bread slice.

Enjoy, and I hope you have a happy, sunny weekend!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Watermelon Salad

Fresh, crisp, juicy watermelon on a summer day – who doesn’t love it? Watermelon balls, chunks, wedges, or a half-melon with a spoon. Slurping up sweetness, spitting seeds, pink juice dripping down your chin. It’s simple and refreshing, and doesn’t need any dressing up. Or does it?

When I was a kid, I thought it was pretty strange that my South Dakota cousins salted their watermelon. Curiously, I tried it. The flavors danced around my mouth, and though, to this day, I prefer my watermelon wedges salt-free, the contrast between the fresh sweetness and the warm saltiness was stirring.

Then there’s the pickled watermelon my grandmother used to make. It was actually pieces of watermelon rind with vinegar, sugar, and spices. Good, but the breathtaking freshness of cool, crisp watermelon was completely gone. This was a different thing altogether.

A couple years ago, I came across a recipe for a watermelon salad. No, not a bunch of melon balls with a little citrus and mint. A real salad – with bitter greens, onions, nuts, cheese, and watermelon. How intriguing! I tried it and loved the crisp, tender, salty, crunchy, sweet, bitter salad. Contrasting flavors and textures abounded and somehow worked together beautifully.

To some of you, this will be nothing new or different. Since encountering this recipe, I’ve come across several similar ones. For the rest of you: try it. Keep an open mind, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

I haven’t gotten creative with this recipe, except that I haven’t managed to find raspberry vinegar, so I’ve used balsamic instead. I also used feta cheese instead of ricotta salata one time, and it’s good with either one. Because I haven’t added a twist to make this recipe my own, I’ll simply send you to Food & Wine for the original recipe: Watermelon and Arugula Salad with Walnuts

Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Food We Choose (and my favorite grilled tofu recipe)

One of my readers suggested I write something about issues related to how our food is produced – raising of crops and livestock, food processing, etc. I’ve decided not to do so. For now, I want this blog to be about enjoying food and cooking, not a commentary about what we should or should not eat or why. I will say these issues are very important to me. Food production methods and the impact on our environment are the reasons I stay on a mostly vegetarian diet. I will ask that you think about where your food comes from; consider using organic products; and consider buying from local farmers. I understand that buying local and organic can be costly and somewhat inconvenient, and it may not be an option for you/your family at this time. But at least be aware of what you’re actually getting for the food dollars you spend – the impact on the environment, the economy, and the nutritional value. If you want more information, I have provided a few links on the side bar under the heading, THE FOOD WE CHOOSE. It’s up to you. I’m done.

Now I want to talk about tofu. I happen to like it, but let’s not pretend it’s a meat substitute. It’s a decent protein source, and when prepared well, it can be really enjoyable, but you’re never gonna fool anyone into thinking it’s chicken or steak. It’s not meat; it’s soybean curd.

Tofu itself is bland, however it absorbs the flavors of seasonings and marinades very well. Asian restaurants, where I generally substitute tofu for meat in stir-fry and curry dishes, seem to do the best job preparing tofu. Marinated and stir-fried, it can be very flavorful. Fried tofu is also good, and the frying adds a little bit of a crusty, chewy, even meaty texture.

My favorite way to prepare tofu at home is marinated and grilled with green beans and onions. I think the key to success is to remove excess water from the tofu before you start. This allows the tofu to absorb all the flavor of the marinade. The original recipe, from Vegetarian Times, calls for arugula for the salad. I find that my family is happier with mixed greens with just some arugula. I’ve also found that frozen green beans work just as well, if not better, than fresh green beans, so that’s what I recommend. Finally, I’ve always prepared this on a rectangular, stovetop, cast iron grill pan. Feel free, however, to try it on an outdoor grill, using a perforated rack to cook the beans and onions.

Spicy Grilled Tofu & Green Bean Salad  PRINTABLE RECIPE















15 oz extra-firm tofu
5 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
2 Tbsp toasted sesame oil
2 Tbsp mirin
1 tsp rice vinegar
1 tsp Vietnamese chili garlic sauce (I use one from Huy Fong Foods)
2 cloves garlic - minced
1 Lb frozen green beans
1 medium yellow onion - halved and cut into slivers
5 oz mixed greens

1. Wrap tofu in paper towels or a tea towel and squeeze gently to remove excess water. Re-wrap in a fresh, dry towel and allow to set for about 15 minutes.

2. Mix together soy sauce, sesame oil, mirin, vinegar, chili garlic sauce, and garlic in a 9" x 13" inch glass baking dish.

3. Unwrap tofu and pat dry. Slice into 3 pieces horizontally and then cut each of those pieces in half. Add tofu to marinade, turn over to coat, and let sit for 15 minutes.

4. Heat a cast iron grill pan over two burners on medium-high heat. Spray tofu with cooking spray on both sides, and grill until browned and crusty – 3 to 4 minutes per side.

5. Arrange greens on a large serving platter, and place grilled tofu on top.

6. While the tofu grills, add beans and onion to remaining marinade, and toss to coat.

7. Grill beans and onion, turning frequently with tongs, until beans are tender and browned – 8 to 10 minutes.

8. Arrange beans and onion on top of tofu. Pour any remaining marinade over salad and serve.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Dragon Herb: Potato Salad with Green Beans, Tomoatoes, & Tarragon

Tarragon, also known as "dragon herb" or "little dragon," is a lovely thing. I really only came to appreciate it last summer when I found and made a recipe for green bean and tomato salad with tarragon dressing from Food & Wine magazine. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve been experimenting with tarragon and on the lookout for recipes ever since. If you’re not cooking with fresh tarragon already, please give it a try. It’s simply wonderful! I wrote last week about a tarragon-butter sauce that's divine. Try that or try the salad (below). I’m sure you'll enjoy them both.

For some reason, back when I first made the green bean and tomato salad, I had an irresistible urge to add some potatoes to the recipe. I did, and it turned out fantastic. I like to use a combination of purple, red, and yellow potatoes and a mix of green and yellow string beans. It makes for a nice, colorful salad. If you prefer, however, you can use green beans only and whatever color potato you prefer – just stick with with smaller ones from the waxy family of potatoes.

Potato, Green Bean, & Tomato Salad
with Tarragon Dressing  PRINTABLE RECIPE

1/3 Lb small to medium purple, red, and yellow potatoes
3/4 Lb green and yellow string beans
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 medium shallots – minced
2 Tbsp chopped tarragon
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pint mini pearl or grape tomatoes – halved

1. Place potatoes in a pot. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are fork tender – about 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool.
2. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the beans and cook until just tender – about 4 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water, and set aside to continue cooling.
3. In a small bowl, whisk olive oil with shallots and tarragon, and season with salt and pepper.
4. Cut the cooled potatoes into 1-inch cubes and place in a large bowl along with the beans and tomatoes.
5. Add the dressing and toss well. Refrigerate for a few hours to allow the flavors to blend before serving.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Cocktails on My Mind

A little play at the Back Door Theatre brought us to the Hawthorne district last Friday night, and we stopped in at the Sapphire Hotel on SE 50th & Hawthorne for a drink. This was my second visit to the long-past hotel lobby, which is now a bar serving inventive cocktails and small plates. I love the intimate atmosphere with dark wood, candlelight, and throw pillows.

The plates I've tried are pretty good. We tried the cheese platter a number of months ago, and it was impressive with a basic, but very nice assortment of cheeses, fruits, and nuts. The guacamole on Friday night was fine, though nothing special (see The Guacamole Experiment). Unfortunately, the house drink concoctions, though intriguing, were disappointing. I so wanted to like the Concierge – cucumber infused gin with Pimms, lemonade, and ginger beer – but the combination just didn't work for me. Friday, I went for Going Up? – serrano pepper infused tequila, cilantro, lime juice, and sweet & sour with a salted rim. This drink was better. I loved the heat of the pepper infused tequila, and the cilantro was nice, but it was a lot of sweet, not much sour, and the salted rim just didn't work for me. I think the mixologist may be trying too hard. There's way too much going on with these drinks, at least for my palette.

For a muddled cilantro drink, I much prefer the Ad Lib – vodka, cilantro, and lemon lime juice, with a sugared rim – at Mint/820 on N Russell. Apparently you can order a spicy version of this drink for $1 extra! Mmmm, I'll have to try that next time. 820 also makes an unbelievably good Avocado Daiquiri, and their signature drink, Mint – rum, mint, grapefruit juice, soda, and a splash of bitter – is also excellent. You can find recipes for most of 820's drinks in owner and mixologist, Lucy Brennan's book, Hip Sips.

One more favorite drink can be found at Yakuza Lounge at NE 30th & Killingsworth. The Basil Honey with tequila, basil, honey, and lime is heavenly. The menu has changed quite a bit since I visited, but I tried several small dishes when I dined there last summer and had a truly enjoyable meal.

Have a happy and safe Memorial Day weekend, and please drink responsibly!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Things Go Right, Things Go Wrong (with a delicious recipe for Tarragon-Butter Sauce)

The last couple evenings, dinner has not turned out so great. Two nights ago, I made swiss chard and caramelized onion lasagna. I found the recipe under “favorites” on the Vegetarian Times web site. It entailed a lot more effort than I normally put into a weeknight dinner, but the chard from the farmers' market had to be used, so I decided to go for it. My husband was late getting home from work, so children were parked in front of the television while I cooked. Soon, pots and pans, knives, bowls, measuring devices, and all sorts of ingredients were everywhere. Noodles were ready and waiting here; chard and ricotta were combined and on hand over there. At one point, I was sautéing onions with one hand and whisking milk with the other. Where was my sous chef when I needed him! Finally, when everything was assembled and going into the oven, he pulled into the driveway.

While the lasagna baked, I cleaned up and made a salad to go with the rich, creamy lasagna I was eagerly anticipating. The kids had finished snacking their way through dinner at least an hour before we sat down to our late supper. The lasagna looked perfect, but taste good? Not so much. How disappointing! It just had no pizzazz. It was bland and boring. Nothing seemed to be wrong with it – it just lacked… It lacked! The little salad however, with baby romaine, mini pearl tomatoes, basil, garlic, Parmesan, a few cubes of day-old bread, balsamic, and olive oil, was wonderful. We ate it all up and wished it had been the main course.

Last night, another new recipe – sole with tarragon-butter sauce. Luckily, this recipe was pretty simple and prepared all in one pan (I love that). Again, I made a salad (lettuce, tomatoes, chives – that's it) to go with it. Plus, we had some crusty bread. This time it may have been my fault. I do have a tendency to over-cook fish, but I think it was just poor quality, previously frozen and re-frozen fish. The tarragon-butter sauce though, was delightful. Thank goodness for the bread, which I used to sop up that heavenly liquid. I’ll definitely be making the sauce again.

So, things go wrong, but other things go right: I ended up with a great salad that was just thrown together, and a fantastic sauce that I know I’ll make again and again. Cooking is an adventure that's disappointing sometimes, but it's great when you discover something new and delicious.

Here’s the recipe for the sauce only. If you’re not already a tarragon fan, this will make you one. Try it with a nice, fresh piece of fish or maybe with steamed mussels.

Tarragon-Butter Sauce  PRINTABLE RECIPE

3/4 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup fat-free chicken broth
1/3 cup finely chopped shallots
1 Tbsp minced garlic
5 tsp butter – cut into small pieces
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp chopped fresh chives
1-1/2 tsp chopped fresh tarragon

1. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add wine, broth, shallots, and garlic. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until reduced to about 3/4 cup – about 10 minutes.

2. Remove from heat and stir in butter, salt, chives, and tarragon. You're done!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Memories of the Corn Carnival (with recipes for Chocolate Cream Cheese Cupcakes and Cornbread Casserole)

Growing up in Minnesota, I used to go with a friend to her grandmother’s house each August for the Cokato Corn Carnival. It was a small-town carnival with rides and games, fried food and frozen treats, and of course, corn. I remember riding the tilt-a-whirl again and again, playing bingo (with dried corn kernels to mark our squares), and eating blue raspberry snow cones. At a certain time of day, a train whistle would blow signaling the corn on the cob was ready, and free for carnival attendees. We’d get in line for an ear of buttery sweet corn to eat right then, and more to bring back to the grandmother’s house for that night’s dinner. The Cokato web site tells me the carnival is still going strong. This August will bring the 60th Cokato Corn Carnival, complete with the coronation of Miss Cokato and a parade. And the corn is still free!

When I think of the Corn Carnival, I also remember the grandmother’s house, sleeping on the porch, picking zucchini in the garden, watching As the World Turns, and eating these fantastic chocolate cupcakes with cream cheese filling. After many years, I recently got a craving for them. The grandmother has died, but I emailed my old friend for the recipe. They somehow aren’t quite what I remembered, but they're still incredibly yummy, and my kids love them!

What made me think of all this? It was actually cornbread casserole – something I tried for the very first time last month. I don’t know how I managed to grow up in Minnesota, where corn is the king of vegetables and the “hot dish” rules the dinner table, and never get introduced to this casserole. No one else at the dinner last month seemed particularly excited about the corn dish, but I thought it was wonderful. Creamy and comforting like macaroni and cheese. Moist and crusty at the same time, like pie.

So today, I have two recipes for you. I’m sure there are dozens of versions of each of these midwest recipes. Here are the ones I’ve tried and enjoyed:

Chocolate Cream Cheese Cupcakes  PRINTABLE RECIPE

8 oz cream cheese - softened
1/3 cup sugar
1 egg – slightly beaten
1/8 tsp salt
8 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup water
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 Tbsp vinegar
1 tsp vanilla
1-1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cocoa
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

1. Preheat oven to 350°.

2. Blend cream cheese, 1/3 cup sugar, egg, and 1/8 tsp salt in a small bowl. Stir in chocolate chips and set aside.

3. In a large bowl, mix together water, oil, vinegar, and vanilla.

4. In yet another bowl, sift together flour, 1 cup sugar, cocoa, baking soda, and 1/2 tsp salt.

5. Add the flour mixture to the water and oil mixture, and mix well.

6. Fill paper cupcake cups 1/3 full with chocolate mixture. Then drop a large spoonful of cream cheese mixture on top of each.

7. Bake at 350° for 20 to 25 minutes.

Cornbread Casserole  PRINTABLE RECIPE

15 oz can cream style corn
15 oz can whole kernel corn - drained
8 oz box cornbread/muffin mix (Jiffy is recommended)
2 eggs - beaten
1/2 cup butter - melted
1/2 cup plain yogurt

1. Preheat oven to 350°.

2. Combine everything in a bowl and mix well.

3. Pour into a greased 9" x 9" baking dish and bake at 350° for 1 hour.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sometimes, A Piece of Meat... Rosemary Roast Pork Sandwiches Au Jus

I’m not much of a meat eater for various reasons, and I very rarely cook it anymore. My husband, Dave, is fine with that, but he recently pointed out some meatful dishes that sounded good to him, and one of them appealed to me too, so last night we made Rosemary Roast Pork Sandwiches. Other than scalding my hand during the preparation, it was a great success. The kids did not partake, yet every last morsel of what was supposed to be six servings of pork, was consumed!

The original recipe can be found at Cooking Light or, with my very minor alterations, below. Dave added melted provolone to his. I added horseradish – fabulous! You can spoon some jus over the meat or dip the sandwich as you eat.

Note: Please be careful, after removing the skillet from the oven, not to grab the hot handle with your bare hand! This causes hours of throbbing pain; assistance is required to finish cooking; brushing teeth is difficult; it's a challenge to take care of a sick daughter and change her bedding; and even falling asleep is hard to do. Enjoying this sandwich however, is still totally doable.

Rosemary Roast Pork Sandwiches Au Jus  PRINTABLE RECIPE

2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1 garlic clove - minced
1 tsp olive oil
1 Lb pork tenderloin, trimmed
2 tsp olive oil
14 oz canned beef broth
1/4 cup dry sherry
1 Tbsp tomato paste
6 small sourdough sandwich rolls

1. Preheat oven to 400°.

2. Combine pepper, rosemary, salt, garlic, and 1 tsp oil in a small bowl. Rub mixture all over pork and let stand 15 minutes.

3. Heat remaining 2 tsp of oil in a large oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat. Add pork and cook 4 minutes, browning on all sides.

4. Place skillet in pre-heated oven and bake 10 minutes or until a meat thermometer registers 160° (slightly pink). Let stand 5 minutes. (At this point, if you've burned your hand, your husband or partner can take over while you hold your hand under cold, running water.) Remove pork from pan and cut diagonally across the grain into 12 slices.

5. Return pan to medium-high heat, and add broth, scraping pan to loosen browned bits. Add sherry and tomato paste, and stir with a whisk. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes.

6. Assemble sandwiches – two slices of pork for each roll – and serve with jus.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Coffee Please!

I’m already wishing I hadn’t told you about being on a diet. Now, when I write about some of the food I’m eating you’re going to be thinking: Isn’t she on a diet? Should she really be eating that? Don’t tell me you won’t. We all do it. We love to judge people. All I’m asking is that you please keep these thoughts to yourself. I don’t need your comments about how fattening this or that is. I know. My philosophy is to enjoy good food, and I don’t intend to get carried away, but sometimes I will eat some major crap, nutritionally speaking.

With that said, I need to tell you about the chocolate almond croissant I ate this morning at Stumptown Coffee on SE 33rd & Belmont. At first, I thought – not that good. It wasn’t the delicate, buttery layers of pastry I expected. Then I had another bite and mmmm – a flaky exterior with barely bittersweet chocolate and a rich almond paste that tasted almost like caramel. It was really quite delicious. As a croissant, it might not stand up to the best ones out there (I like Grand Central Bakery’s and Marsee Baking’s croissants), but there was a yummy factor with this one that made it thoroughly enjoyable!

Anyway, the reason I went to Stumptown to begin with was coffee. I’m utterly sick of office coffee and bored with Starbuck’s (damn them for being so convenient!). Stumptown is not on my beaten path, but I had an appointment in the area this morning, so I finally had the chance to give them a try. I had a hard time deciding between the French press or a soy latte. Their French press coffee is supposed to be excellent, but in the end I went for the latte. One sip and I knew it was a mistake. Maybe it just needed an extra hit of espresso, but the soy milk drowned out the espresso flavor. (At least it wasn’t that icky, sweet soy milk Starbuck’s uses. I’ll never forgive them for switching to that sweetened Silk brand.) I suppose it’s pretty typical to lose the espresso flavor with the addition of several ounces of milk or soy milk, but a good soy latte can be found at – of all places – Café Sip n’ Play on SE 164th in Vancouver, or Coffee People at the Portland airport.

My problem, I suppose, is that I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy that wonderfully rich, black, earthy stuff in a Paris café that only vaguely resembles American coffee. Every cup since has been a disappointment. If you can tell me where to find or how to make that perfect café au lait, I’m awaiting your comments. In the mean time, I’ll try to make it back to Stumptown soon to try the French press coffee and enjoy another chocolate almond croissant.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Salsa Diet (with two salsa recipes!)

I guess it’s time I told you: I’m on a diet. I know – great time to start a food blog! Have you ever noticed though, when you’re on a diet, you kind of get obsessed with food? Well, I’m on this team at work – we call ourselves “Slim Jeans” (no laughing!) – and we’re competing with others to lose the most weight in sixteen weeks. By the way, we’re not calling it a weight loss contest, but a Health Challenge Throwdownwhatever!

Anyway, it’s going really well for me: I’ve lost a few pounds; I’m exercising (a little) more; I’m eating my Lean Cuisines for lunch; and preparing Cooking Light recipes for dinner. It’s working, but I find myself thinking about food way more than I did before the diet. So, here I am, blogging about food. It makes sense really, doesn’t it?

Don’t worry. I know most of you have no interest in boring diet recipes. If I decide to share any “light” recipes, it’ll be because they’re really good, and I won’t even mention that they’re low-fat ‘cause that’s not what this blog is about.

Luckily for me, one of my favorite things is salsa. It goes well with lots of foods, adds mucho flavor, and even on a diet, I can pretty much eat all I want. As with many things, I’m a snob when it comes to salsa. There aren’t many commercial salsas I like, though I’d recommend Native Kjalii Foods Fire Roasted Green Salsa (with tomatillo and avocado). Several Mexican restaurants I’ve tried have good salsa too. One of my favorites is the spicy salsa at El Sombrero on NE Sandy. I won’t claim that my homemade salsa beats either of those two, but it's easy to make and there are all kinds of ways to mix it up, so it never gets boring.

Fresh, chopped salsa is super easy and one of my husband’s favorites. I like the buzz – that rush of heat – from the habañero in this recipe, but please, make it your own way – less pepper, more onion – whatever makes you happy. The quantities are just approximations. I never measure when I make salsa. It's all about what I'm in the mood for at the time. Diced avocado is a great addition to this salsa. Or, try mixing in some chopped tomatillo.

Salsa Fresca  PRINTABLE RECIPE

4 medium-size ripe tomatoes - diced
½ cup peeled, diced cucumber
¼ cup finely chopped red onion
2 Tbsp chopped cilantro
½ to 1 habañero pepper (or jalapeño or other) – seeded and very finely minced
1 small garlic clove – minced
1 Tbsp lime juice
½ tsp kosher salt

Mix everything together in a bowl. It’s best if you let it sit in the refrigerator, covered, for an hour or so, then taste it and adjust the ingredients as needed. Keep in mind, you can add, but you can’t take away, so go light on the salt and the hot pepper to start. Also, chile peppers vary greatly in heat intensity, and you can’t tell how hot they are until you taste them. So, be cautious. Use this fresh salsa within a day or two max.

Blended salsa using canned tomatoes is also good. I make this one more frequently in the fall and winter. A teaspoon or so of oregano is an interesting addition to this recipe. Another idea is to take a dried New Mexico (or Anaheim) chile and place it in a lightly oiled hot sauté pan. Turn it occasionally until it starts to blacken and smoke a little. Then add it to the food processor with everything else. I do this for my mom (another salsa lover) and leave out the onion as she prefers.

Salsa Mexicana  PRINTABLE RECIPE

28 oz can whole, peeled tomatoes
4 green onions - chopped into quarters (or 1/2 cup chopped yellow onion or other)
¼ cup jarred jalapeño slices (I like Mezzetta brand)
1 small garlic clove
½ tsp kosher salt

Combine everything in a food processor and blend until mostly smooth or slightly chunky. Taste, adjust your ingredients as needed, and enjoy! Use this salsa within a week.