Monday, May 24, 2010

Above Average: Salad with Mozzarella, Tomatoes, Basil, and Olives

I’ve made this salad before and it’s always good. But something happened when I made it for our dinner last night. I’m really not sure what the difference was, but it was way better than usual. Both Dave and I thought so. As we ate, we kept repeating, “Wow! This is really good!”

I don’t have an exact recipe for you. But I’ll tell you about how I generally make this salad and what I did that might have made it go from good to excellent this time. I never measure. I just throw together mixed baby lettuces, mini tomatoes (usually mini pearls or grape tomatoes from Trader Joe’s), marinated mozzarella balls, fresh basil, and sometimes kalamata olives. I eyeball it and add a little more red (tomatoes), green (lettuce, basil), black (olives), or white (mozzarella) until the balance seems about right. I then add a basic combination of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar (nothing too fancy for either one), usually with a little garlic, salt, and pepper.

So, that’s the basic salad I’ve done quite a few times. What was different this time? Well, I found myself shopping at Safeway, which is unusual, and I used their baby lettuce mix. It’s pretty standard, but I do think it has more spinach than most of the bagged lettuce mixes. Dave commented that he really liked all the hearty spinach leaves. I also got tomatoes there – Nature Sweet Cherubs. They were definitely sweet and yummy. Next, instead of using my own olive oil for the dressing, I used the herby oil from the Trader Joe’s marinated mozzarella balls. I’ve done that before, so I don’t think that made all the difference. I do think it may have had something to do with the garlic: At my regular grocery store, Fred Meyer, they only had purple stripe garlic as opposed to the ordinary white skinned garlic they usually carry. And I did notice, as I selected a head, it was very aromatic. And when I minced it up for the dressing, it was juicier, and again, more aromatic than I’m used to. Finally, I added a little extra fresh basil to the dressing – something I don’t usually do since there’s already basil in the salad itself.

I still don’t really know what specifically made the salad so much better than usual, but Dave insisted I write down exactly what I did, so we could make it again. I didn’t actually measure or count anything however, so this is just to the best of my recollection:

Mozzarella Salad with Tomatoes, Basil, and Olives  PRINTABLE RECIPE

Safeway baby lettuce mix – about 3/4 of the bag
Nature Sweet Cherubs (tomatoes) – most of the container – halved lengthwise
Trader Joe’s marinated mozzarella balls – most of the container – halved
About a dozen or so large fresh basil leaves – cut into thin ribbons
About a dozen pitted kalamata olives – quartered

Approximately half the oil from the marinated mozzarella balls
1/4 cup or so balsamic vinegar
1 purple stripe garlic clove – finely minced
1 or 2 medium to large fresh basil leaves – finely minced
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper – to taste

Combine salad ingredients in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk dressing ingredients together. Pour dressing over salad and toss, or spoon dressing over individual salad servings – that’s what we did this time. (Note: we had leftover dressing).

Good luck! I hope yours turns out fantastic!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Mussels & Bruschetta: At least I remembered to take pictures...

Well, I made mussels again, and I remembered to take a picture – see! I also took pictures of the bruschetta I made, and even the kids’ frozen pizza.

For the mussels, I used a recipe from Bobby Flay for Steamed Mussels with White Wine, Tarragon, Shallots, and Butter. First, I must tell you that I love Bobby Flay. It’s kind of lame, I know, to be “in love” with a Food Network star, but what can I say... I want to marry him, cook with him, have babies with him, the whole bit. Now you know.
So of course, I expected these mussels to be great – tarragon, butter, wine, Bobby Flay – they just had to be good. But to be honest, I was pretty disappointed in Bobby’s recipe. The wine overwhelmed the other flavors. There was a slight essence of ocean, but I wasn’t getting the tarragon flavor at all, which is what I was looking forward to most. The broth wasn’t even good for dipping the bread. It was like dipping bread in wine. Not too good.

I also threw together some simple bruschetta that evening. I’m not sure exactly how it’s supposed to be made (to make it authentic). I just brushed some baguette slices with olive oil, then toasted them, rubbed with a garlic clove, topped with chopped tomatoes, fresh basil, olive oil, salt, pepper, and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. It turned out great, though it was a little soggy. I think it sat too long before we ate it.

I didn’t try the kids’ pizza, but they seemed to like it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Nicholas Restaurant: Lebanese Food

It’s not often I find myself mmm-ing through a meal, but today I did just that when a friend took me to lunch at Nicholas Restaurant, a Lebanese/Middle Eastern place on SE Grand. I ordered the Vegetarian Mezza platter with falafel, hummus, tahziki, tabouli, spinach pie, manakish, and pita bread – yes, it was a lot of food!

The one thing I wasn’t crazy about was the spinach pie, maybe just because everything else was so outstanding and this was… well, not bad, but certainly not outstanding.
Manakish was totally new to me. It’s a little round of pizza-like dough topped with thyme, oregano, sesame seeds, sumac, and olive oil. I wasn’t sure at first – the flavors are pretty mild – but the sesame seeds (I think it was the sesame seeds) gave it a nice texture that I can’t quite describe – slightly crunchy maybe? With each bite, I liked it more and more. I had to look up sumac, which, according to Wikipedia, is used as a spice in Middle Eastern cuisine to add a lemony taste.
Just about a week ago I had falafel at another place and I really wasn’t crazy about it. This time, however, I loved it! The texture, the density, and the seasoning were all just right. It had a nice, crisp exterior without being too greasy and it was delicious with the smooth, cool tahziki. The tabouli was loaded with parsley and really great with the creamy, rich hummus and the wonderful, fresh-baked pita bread, still warm from the oven.
Looking around the tiny restaurant, everything I saw on every table looked fabulous: stuffed grape leaves, fried eggplant and zucchini slices, kabobs, baked dough with toppings and stuffings, salads, rice, steaming discs of bread, and exotic-looking drinks. I’ll definitely be going back to try more of the beautiful food at Nicholas Restaurant!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Pile of Mussels

One of my favorite things to get when eating out is mussels. It’s also one of the few things I love that my husband really enjoys too. So, when we go out together, if mussels are offered, we almost always order them. The best I’ve ever had were from Wildwood here in Portland, many years back – mussels in a lemongrass broth. They were divine!

I’m not sure why I never made mussels myself. I think I had this idea they were too complicated. But, flipping through a magazine recently, I saw a recipe for mussels steamed in saffron broth, and as I read the recipe, I realized it was not at all complicated. In fact, it looked really simple. Why had I never realized this before??

There was one strange thing about this recipe. It called for four pounds of mussels to serve four people. Since this was my first attempt, I was only going to feed the two of us, so I bought the smallest bag of mussels I could get at Costco – just over two pounds. Later, when I was rinsing and sorting them, I realized what a ridiculous amount of mussels this was. We had way too many for just two people – way too many!

I went ahead and steamed them all anyway. (What else was I going to do with them?) At this point, I was still pretty nervous that something was going to go terribly wrong – that I’d screw it up and they’d taste awful or make us sick or something – so, I was thrilled when after eight minutes, most of the shells had popped open and the steam smelled delicious.

We sat down at the dinner table with a mountain of mussels. (I really wish I'd thought to take a picture! Will someone please nag me until I start remembering to take pictures of the food I make!) I can’t say we didn’t put a dent in the giant pile, but it was only a dent.

We gave them a rating of "good" – just good. I wouldn’t repeat this particular recipe, but for my first attempt at mussels, I was pretty pleased.

We made a second meal of them the following night. I removed the leftovers from their shells and gently reheated them in a broth of garlic, olive oil, crushed red pepper flakes, lemon juice, fresh parsley, and leftover saffron broth. I tossed it all together with some fettuccine and somehow, this meal was better than the first.

Again, we had leftovers, but I was worried about keeping the mussels for another day, so sadly, we tossed them in the trash this time.

I’ve already found a couple new recipes I want to try – one with lemongrass and chiles and another with shallots and tarragon. I can hardly wait to get going – one pound at a time, this time – and maybe when I find that perfect recipe, I’ll buy the two-plus pound bag again and throw a party. When that happens, I’ll be sure to take a picture and tell you all about it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Pile on the Veggies: Grilled Vegetable Sandwiches

Dave and I are really digging these grilled vegetable sandwiches lately. I’ve made them a couple times and they’re definitely going to be a regular item at our house this summer, especially since we finally have a new grill – a real one, not a tiny, travel-size grill like we’ve been using for the past few years.

I got the recipe from Cooking Light magazine. It’s so simple, you hardly need a recipe, but I guess the idea has to come from somewhere. I have to say, I don’t do a good job of sticking to the recommended portion size, plus I make my own vinaigrette instead of using bottled salad dressing. So, my version of the recipe may not be all that light compared to the original.

You can do the vegetables on a grill pan on the stovetop or on the outdoor grill with a perforated grill pan or basket (so you don’t lose all the vegetable slices). For variations, I’d try grilling bell pepper, eggplant, or portabellas.

Overstuffed Grilled Vegetable Sandwiches  PRINTABLE RECIPE

1 cup sliced yellow squash
1 cup sliced zucchini
6 (1/4-inch-thick) slices red onion
cooking oil spray
1 cup grape or mini pearl tomatoes – halved
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp finely chopped red onion
2 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
kosher salt & fresh ground black pepper – to taste
1 loaf (16 oz) French bread – halved lengthwise
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 cup (about 4 oz) crumbled feta cheese

1. Preheat the grill to about 350°.

2. Lightly spray squash and onion slices (both sides) with cooking oil. Place the vegetables on the grill pan and grill for 4 minutes on each side or until crisp-tender and beginning to brown.

3. Meanwhile, place the tomatoes in a large bowl. Add olive oil, vinegar, chopped onion, basil, salt & pepper, and toss to coat.

4. Add the grilled vegetables to tomatoes and toss well.

5. Brush cut sides of the bread with a little olive oil. Grill bread 1 minute on each side or until lightly toasted.

6. Spoon vegetable mixture over bottom half of bread. Sprinkle with the cheese. Top with the other bread half and press down lightly. Cut crosswise into 6 sandwiches.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Crust: Butter Pecan Turtle Bars

I do not love pie. What I love, is pie crust. I love it. And I’ve been known to pop a frozen pie crust into the oven, bake it to a nice, flaky, golden brown and eat it up just as it is – no fillings, no toppings, no sugar sprinkles – just butter, flour, and a pinch of salt baked to deliciousness.

The crust is what makes the pie filling worth eating, be it tart apples, key lime custard, or sugary pecans.

Then there’s quiche and pot pie – oh, what a bit of crust can do for eggs and cheese or chicken stew!

And shortbread – a little sugar and lemon zest added to that ever-so-simple butter-flour combination – heaven!

Tarts – I think of fresh berries and cream on a crusty, crumbly shell – so good!

And bars – mmmm, lemon bars. I’ve eaten quite a few, from lots of different bakers and every one was delicious. But can you imagine that sweet, tart lemon filling without the crust? No way – it wouldn’t work. It’s the crust that makes it so yummy.

My bar specialty is butter pecan turtle bars with a thick crust of butter, flour, and brown sugar. I’ve made them for many a pot-luck and a few bake sales too. They’re always a hit and requests for the recipe are common. I’m happy to share, of course.

This is not an original recipe, but I don’t remember exactly where it came from – some cookbook I no longer have.

Butter Pecan Turtle Bars  PRINTABLE RECIPE

2 cups flour
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup butter - softened
1-1/2 cups pecan halves
1/2 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup butter
1-1/2 cups milk chocolate chips

1. Combine flour, 3/4 cup brown sugar, and 1/2 cup butter. Blend until crumbly. Pat mixture firmly into bottom of an ungreased 9" x 13" baking pan. Sprinkle pecan halves evenly over the crust and set aside.

2. In small saucepan over medium heat, combine 1/2 cup brown sugar and 2/3 cup butter. Bring to boil, stirring constantly. Boil for one minute, still stirring constantly. Then pour the hot caramel mixture over the pecans and crust.

3. Bake at 350° for 18 to 20 minutes, until caramel layer is bubbly and crust is light brown.

4. Remove from oven and immediately sprinkle with chocolate chips. Use a spatula to spread the chocolate evenly as it melts. Cool completely before cutting into squares.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Veg Shep Pie (or Vegetarian Shepherd's Pie)

This stuff is good. I mean it. I made it for the first time a couple months ago. It wasn’t the first time I’d made shepherd’s pie, but it was the first time I’d made it like this. I found two recipes that looked good. Each had different ideas that appealed to me, and I thought I’d put the parts I liked together and see how it all turned out. And wow, it was fantastic!

That first time I made it, I really just improvised, consulting the recipes, but also making it up as I went along. It turned out so good that I sat down with pen and paper and tried to remember everything I’d thrown in and approximately how much. Then when I made it again, just recently, I kept notes as I cooked. I tasted and added a little more of this or that, scribbled things out, and fixed the final quantities.

Amazingly, it turned out great again! I have a feeling, however, this will be an ever-evolving recipe. I already have ideas for next time like adding garlic and/or some fresh thyme or oregano. Also, the first time I made it, I used soy crumbles and the second time, I used seitan strips. Both Dave, and I preferred the crumbles initially, though the flavor of the seitan really improved by the time we got to the leftovers a couple days later.

The secrets, I think, that make this so good are the mushrooms, the pearl onions, the red wine, and the extra gravy. I like to pour the gravy over the mashed potatoes and stew on my plate. It really makes a big difference for me. Dave, however, passes on the gravy and tops his with ketchup – whatever!

Another cool tip is to make the stew part in a deep oven-proof sauté pan. Then top with the mashed potatoes and bake the whole thing right in the pan. It saves a step and it’s one less thing to wash.

I have a couple weird (possibly lame) short-cuts, which are the additions of canned mushroom gravy and ketchup. The canned gravy makes the stew and the extra gravy come together nicely for me, though I doctor it up plenty. And ketchup – well, I don’t know. I just tasted it and it needed ketchup. Again, all I can say is – whatever!

So anyway, here’s my recipe, though you’re on your own for the mashed potatoes. Just make your favorite mashed potatoes for the topping – potatoes, butter, milk, salt, pepper, and your favorite add-in’s (chives, garlic, cheese, horseradish, or whatever you like). And remember to taste the stew as you cook it. Add whatever you think it needs, leave out anything you know you won’t like, but please – just for me – try a meatless option for this recipe at least one time. I think you will enjoy!

Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie  PRINTABLE RECIPE

1 Tbsp olive oil 3 carrots – chopped
1 cup frozen pearl onions
1 cup roughly chopped crimini mushrooms
1 sprig rosemary – remove leaves (needles) and chop (discard stem)
1 Tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley
¼ cup red wine (I used cabernet sauvignon)
¾ cup vegetable broth
½ can vegetarian mushroom gravy
3 Tbsp tomato paste
¼ cup ketchup
1 cup frozen peas
¾ Lb. veggie (soy) crumbles or meatless (seitan) strips
1 Tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley
kosher salt & fresh ground black pepper – to taste

MASHED POTATOES – your favorite recipe (start with about 2 Lbs. of potatoes)

¼ cup chopped crimini mushrooms
¼ cup red wine
½ can vegetarian mushroom gravy
½ cup vegetable broth
kosher salt & fresh ground black pepper – to taste

1. Get your potatoes going and preheat the oven to 375°.

2. Heat oil over medium. Add carrots and onions and sauté, stirring occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes.

3. Add 1 cup mushrooms, rosemary, 1 Tbsp parsley, and ¼ cup red wine. Saute for about 3 to 5 minutes.

4. Stir in ¾ cup broth, ½ can gravy, tomato paste, ketchup, peas, and the soy crumbles or seitan strips. Heat through.

5. Meanwhile, get your poatatoes mashed and ready.

6. Add another 1 Tbsp parsley to the stew and salt & pepper to taste. Stir together. Top with the mashed potatoes.

7. Bake, uncovered, for 35 minutes.

8. In a small sauce pan over medium, stir together ¼ cup mushrooms and ¼ cup red wine. Stir occasionally until the wine is almost completely reduced.

9. Add ½ can gray, ½ cup broth, and salt & pepper to taste. Heat through, stirring often. Keep warm until ready to serve.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Fast Weeknight Dinner with Roasted Green Beans

Dave thought the Asiago-Crusted Pork Chops on the cover of the Cooking Light special issue, Fresh Food Fast Weeknight Meals looked good, so that was last night’s dinner. They were fast, easy, and pretty tasty too. Plus, my son had fun with his dad, pounding the chops with a heavy pan. The thyme – so earthy and woodsy – and fresh lemon juice really made the dish work for me. Go to for the details if you’d like to try it. The one thing I changed was: instead of panko, I used Italian seasoned bread crumbs, but that was only because I happened to have some bread crumbs in the cupboard that I wanted to use up. I’m sure the panko would be just as good, if not better.

Along with the pork chops, we had some wild rice and green beans with onions. I know wild rice isn’t especially fast, but I just put it on the stove as soon as I got home from work and didn’t even start on anything else until it was almost done.

The green beans were inspired by another Cooking Light recipe. I knew the caramelized onions would be a hit (my five-year old son loves them), but I didn’t really want the sesame flavors the recipe called for. I just didn’t think it would go well with pork chops. So, this is what we ended up with:

Roasted Green Beans with Onions  PRINTABLE RECIPE

1 Lb. fresh green beans – trimmed
1 to 1-1/2 cups slivered white onion
1 large garlic clove – minced
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
½ tsp salt
lemon wedges for serving

1. Preheat oven to 500°.

2. Combine all the ingredients, except the lemon wedges, in a large bowl and toss to coat. Then arrange the mixture in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet.

3. Bake for 10 minutes and toss. Bake for 3 more minutes or until the green beans are just tender.

4. Move the green bean-onion mixture to a serving dish and squeeze lemon juice (to taste) over the top.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Mexican Monday: El Sombrero Tapatio

So much for Meatless Monday!

Every Monday a small group of us from work heads to a place called El Sombrero for lunch. They have a fantastic spicy salsa (it varies a little from week to week, but it's always spicy and good) and an extensive, but typical selection of Mexican-American dishes that are average to above average. I used to get a chile relleno or an enchilada or sometimes, a tostada or taco salad – all very good. The Burrito Colorado is a popular choice with my co-workers as are the tacos. I tried a few other dishes, but I pretty much stuck with these few standby choices until one day, I tried the tortilla soup. Since then, I’m obsessed. I look forward to it all week.

Just like the salsa, the soup is slightly different from week to week depending, I suppose, on the cook that day or maybe the available ingredients. But again, like the salsa, it’s always delicious: grilled chicken (pollo asado) in a rich broth with fresh avocado, tortilla strips, shredded cheese, and fresh lime to squeeze over the soup. I love the texture of the crispy tortilla strips along with the melting cheese and hot liquid. The broth is salty and so good with the tangy lime and chunks of fresh avocado. The excellent pollo asado is now on my list of non-meatless foods I must enjoy from time to time – every Monday, in fact.

El Sombrero Tapatio – 10820 NE Sandy Blvd.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Best French Toast: Cadillac Cafe

I went to The Cadillac Cafe for breakfast this morning and tried the special - French toast with pears. It was outstanding - the best French toast I've ever had - no question! They soak the bread in custard, then cook it to perfection on the griddle. Not soggy or mushy, browned just right, and the cardamom-spiced poached pears and vanilla whipped cream were excellent on top - no syrup needed. There was some other stuff on the plate too - eggs I think? I didn't really notice because the French toast was all that mattered. That, and a cup of coffee - not the best coffee in the city, but good with the sweet breakfast. I'm aware this is one of the best-known breakfast places in Portland, so my delicious experience is probably nothing new, but just in case you haven't heard, I want to mention it: French toast, Cadillac Cafe, 1801 NE Broadway. Yum!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Heavenly Thai

I discovered Thai food many years ago when I got a job waiting tables at a Thai restaurant in my early 20’s. I’d never waited tables before and I’d never tasted Thai food either. I have no idea why they hired me – they must have been desperate – but they did, and it was quite the experience for all involved.
I soon discovered I was not cut out to be a waitress. I was that waitress who forgot to bring your drinks, who mixed up your order, and who got it all wrong when you asked what’s in the soup. I spilled drinks all over myself (but, fortunately, never anyone else), and once, I even set my own arm on fire while serving a flaming pot of soup. I was appallingly bad.

The restaurant owners treated me kindly nonetheless, and occasionally, when my shift was over, I got to hang out in the kitchen and enjoy a meal with the Thai natives who cooked and ran the place. They were pretty impressed with the amount of heat I could take (I always liked spicy food), and I absolutely fell in love with the amazing flavors.

When I realized I was just never going to become a good waitress, I quit my job at the restaurant (I’m sure they were greatly relieved they didn’t have to fire me) and set out to find delicious Thai food elsewhere. I found that I liked different dishes at different places: panang curry at one place, green curry at another (far away in San Marcos, California – darn it!); pad Thai here, Thai string beans there. Today, I went to a place called Heavenly Thai for takeout. I got the spicy mango stir-fry with bell pepper, cabbage, onions, sweet basil, and fresh mango in a spicy sauce. It was fantastic – even better than usual.

I thought I’d learn to cook Thai food too. I mean, I love to cook and I love Thai food, so it seemed like I should be able to put the two together. But it didn’t really work out. Experimenting on my own got me nowhere. I just couldn’t begin to guess the ingredients or techniques used to achieve the authentic Thai flavors I was going for. Someone finally gave me a cookbook that was quite helpful and I’ve managed to make a few maybe-not-amazing, but decent dishes. Many of the recipes I’ve made over the years, however, have been total flops and, though I still take a stab at it now and then, I’ve had to admit that I’m much better off going out for Thai than trying to prepare it myself.

So, back to Heavenly Thai I go, and Thai Orchid, Lemongrass, Siam Society, Sweet Basil, Beau Thai, Typhoon, Thai Noon…