Archive for June, 2008

Butter: more is more.

I made risotto for dinner a few days ago using Mark Bittman’s Vegetable Risotto recipe from How to Cook Everything. A few weeks prior to that, I had made an even simpler risotto using Jamie Oliver’s Basic Risotto Recipe. The two recipes were almost alike (after all, it can’t be varied all that much) save for a single, very significant (as far as flavor and texture go) difference: Jamie’s recipe called for 5 TABLESPOONS (yes, my friends, that is more than half a stick) of butter plus a full 4 ounces of grated Parmesan to be stirred into the risotto in the final few minutes before serving; Bittman’s recipe, on the other hand, read “2 tablespoons butter, softened (optional)” be added at the end.

Can you guess which version I (and my fellow diners) preferred? Let me tell you, I should have listened to my gut about using the extra butter called for in Jamie’s recipe, and applied it to Bittman’s; but of course the wanna-be health nut in me fought the gut, and won (nut vs. gut – haha). My conclusion after eating the low-butter version was that yes, it was still tasty, but heck if you’re going whole hog for comfort food, why would you bother to make it lighter OR healthier? So my recommendation is to try Jamie’s recipe (or if you’re really brave, try this recipe – it’s next on my agenda), and dig right in. And don’t forget to unbuckle your pants.

P.S. The risotto in the photo was topped with my first two garden zucchini, fresh off the plant; they were so small and cute! Such a shame to take them away from their momma…


A premature end.

My poor, poor carrots. I had so few that successfully germinated, and then the healthy ones with potential had their hopes dashed by some mysterious nighttime predator – a skunk? a raccoon? a bird? or maybe a very large insect? – who so ruthlessly ripped away at their green tops. Without their formerly lush sprouts of foliage, the carrot roots did not have a chance to grow any larger than the thickness and length of Dizzy’s pinky (if that) – a teeny bite, at most. I had to harvest the little runts and immortalize our first, small yield with a little photo. We shall try you to cultivate you again in the fall…*Sniff*

To-fish sticks.

Yeah, that sounds pretty gnarly. Forget the silly title – what I’m saying is: eat more tofu! Reducing meat consumption is something we’ve been trying to do for a while now (not for any humane reasons, mind you, but just cuz I’m cheap and most weeks I don’t want to pay these goshdarn crazy beef and chicken prices. Plus there’s the whole green issue), and tofu is the miracle protein I turn to first. Some folks disrespect tofu because of its lack of flavor, but that is exactly the reason others exalt it, since it is so versatile.

Lately I only buy Trader Joe’s Super High Protein (!), Extra-Firm (!!) tofu, so my lazy self can skip the draining part required for less firm tofus. Plus, this particular product is so dense it’ll go a long way – very important for the hungry mouths I have to feed. I was pleasantly surprised that usually a single block will be plenty for the three of us to share.

I usually cut the blocks up into 1/2-inch cubes and stirfry them with random veggies and oyster sauce (borrrinnnggg), but lately I’ve been taking it up a notch and dredging the l’il buggers in cornstarch and deep-frying them in grapeseed oil. This process yields nice meaty morsels with a crispy coating that can then be tossed into salads, noodle stir-fries, rice dishes, you name it – throw it anywhere you want some extra protein.

Having recently gotten over my fear of frying, this time I breaded and pan-fried the tofu cut into finger-food-sized sticks. Pretend it’s fish. Pretend it’s chicken. Whatever your fancy, boy, what yumminess.

To accompany the crunchy logs, I chopped up a head of romaine, quartered some leftover boiled new potatoes and tossed both in red wine vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. As with all fried foods, a dipping sauce was in order, so I made a sort-of-tartar sauce with mayo, hot dog relish, tabasco, and some Guinness whole-grain mustard (brought back to us from Ireland by our awesome neighbors), and dolloped it right on the suckers. The lightly dressed tang of the salad balanced nicely with the tofu sticks smeared with the creamy, kickin’ sauce. What can I say, we all licked the platter clean!

Friends in high places.

Today I found this lovely little insect (you won’t hear me say “lovely” and “insect” together very often, I assure you – so please indulge my excitement) lounging on the fuzzy leaf of one of my borage plants. A funny little ladybug, since I noticed it had no black spots on it, basking in the setting sun. Anyway, I’d been hopin’ and a-prayin’ that we would attract beneficials, i.e. the good buggies that will prey on the bad buggies, into our humble garden by jazzing up the array of veggie plants with a punch of color from flowers. To aid in this mission, we’ve also enlisted the services of cosmos, sweet alyssum, tansy, marigold (all who’ve yet to make their appearance), zinnia (blooming in all its pink glory) and nasturtium (running wild among the zucchini and cucumber plants).

That’s not to say that vegetable plants don’t have noteworthy flowers. The zucchini flower, which I am dying to try battered and fried (what’s not good battered and fried? I’d even eat that ladybug – ha), is quite remarkable; a big twisty yellow-orange bloom that, when fully open, resembles and is practically the size of a grammophone speaker. Too bad this really only occurs in the early morning, and my sleepy self has to witness this miracle by peering through the smudgy window.

The bell pepper blossom, on the other hand, is so small and innocent. Yet the pepper that eventually grows out of that blossom is strikingly robust, even at pebble-size.

For those who are unfamiliar with borage (I had never heard of it until I read they are great companion plants for strawberries), the flowers are edible and supposedly taste of cucumber. Verrry interrresting. I will have to gnaw on that soon enough, but I admit I still am a little weirded out by eating flowers that look like they’d be better off in a wedding centerpiece. The blue and pink blossoms are so vivid, especially when the sun hits it just so.

The nasturtium flower is edible as well, and I was told they taste like capers. Check out the day-glo orange on that one!

All this gorgeous color everywhere, the ladies won’t be able to resist! Hopefully the aphids will stay away…

Falafel parade.

For weeknight meals, I am trying to make foods that are not too ordinary (pasta with red sauce – blecch), but that don’t require the culinary skills of a seasoned grandmother or five-star chef. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that making falafel was not as exotic or difficult as I assumed it to be. I know, I know – good falafel can be found at numerous holes-in-the-wall for just a few bucks – why bother making them at home? Here’s my answer: it’s actually kinda fun to fry up these babies, grab the crispy nuggets fresh out of the hot oil and pop ’em right in your mouth (well, make sure you blow on them for a few seconds so you don’t burn your face off!). YUM.

I served this to my fellow housemates with minted yogurt sauce (homemade yogurt, garden mint, salt, pepper), whole wheat flatbread and heirloom tomatoes (can’t wait for my tomato harvest) tossed with sea salt and meyer lemon juice (from the tree out back).

Here is a great falafel recipe. I’m hooked. Enjoy.

You CAN have too much sour cream.

I’ve eaten beef stroganoff maybe two, three times in my life, but for some reason it’s always in the back of my mind as something I should eat more. Consisting of buttered egg noodles topped with a creamy, beefy, stewy sauce, it fulfills all the requirements that qualify it as comfort food; well, mostly because it includes one of my favorite things ever – sour cream.

I decided to attempt a turkey version of this dish, since turkey is leaner and more importantly, cheaper. I didn’t have the leftover turkey or gravy that was called for in the recipe (note to self: try this recipe again after Thanksgiving!), but I did have a pack of turkey breasts that were defrosting in the fridge. Anyway, sometimes I get a big head and think I can easily improvise on a published recipe simply by throwing in this for that and just a smidge more of the other thing. It’s a perfectly acceptable and encouraged thing to do – that is how one learns to really cook – and truthfully it doesn’t backfire all that often. In this case, however, I really should have stayed faithful to the recipe, as I consequently ended up with a too sour-creamy sauce (not such a horrible end per se, but sort of the wrong mouthfeel and VERY fattening), that I had to doctor up with faux beef stock that ended up thinning the sauce WAY too much. Argh. There goes stewy.

As an accompaniment to the stroganoff, I prepared sweet and sour cabbage, and again made the mistake of adding something the recipe did not call for; in this case it was caraway seeds, which I like just fine in rye bread or cole slaw but should not have tried to mix into this dish, given its sweeter tendencies.

In the end, the meal turned out to be edible, tasty even. Dizzy inhaled the cabbage, mostly because it was crunchy, sweet and purple – who can resist that?

P.S. Forgive the not-so-great photo. By the time we sat down to din-din, it was getting too dark for pics!

Broccoli stalk-er.

I had two leftover broccoli stalks sitting in the fridge – remnants of last saturday’s fried tofu and broccoli stirfry (which was just okay-tasting. I’m still working on my wok skills), in which I utilized only the florets. Up until about last year, I had always cut about 3 inches or so down from the florets and (gasp!) thrown the rest of the broccoli away. What am I, nuts? Truly a waste of food.

I then read somewhere that you could just as easily cook up the stalks and I had a real “DUH” moment. Since then I cut off about 1/4 inch from the bottom of the stem, pull of the stray leaves, and use the whole durn thing for whatever it is I’m cooking, especially for an ultra-satisfying cream of broccoli soup. The stalks do need a once over with a good veggie peeler, just to get rid of any fibrous bits on the outermost layer.

Recently, I saw this recipe for broccoli pesto on the 101 Cookbooks website, and thought again DUH, why not make a pesto out of a good-for-you veggie? I was inspired. Since I only had stalks (as opposed to the whole head of broccoli called for in the recipe), I improvised a little by peeling then slicing the stalk into about 1/2 thick slices, boiling them till tender, and then pureeing them in a food processor with toasted pine nuts, a handful of parsley (to provide dark green color), garlic, kosher salt, fresh pepper, and olive oil to form a nice paste. Then I boiled up some wheat fusilli and tossed that with the pesto, more toasted pine nuts, and pecorino romano cheese. It was yummy. And what a great way to sneak some nutritiousness into a toddler’s tummy!

Mommy, where did I come from?

I’ve realized as I’ve started to garden that I see too many veggies and fruits at the farmer’s market or grocery store whose origins I have absolutely no clue about: how big is the plant it comes from? exactly what part of that plant is edible? would i recognize a baby raspberry plant if i saw one?

I think it’s absolutely fascinating to see a plant grow from a seed the size of one of Dizzy’s boogies (gross!) to the stage where I can pluck something right off and just eat it. Cool, right? I figure it’s pretty useful to have some knowledge of growing food, just so we know what it is we’re putting into our bellies, and also just in case the world explodes and we all have to start from scratch hunting and gathering and such (haha).

This here is a tomato blossom, whose appearance at the start of summer signals you will soon be rewarded with some fresh caprese salad (run, don’t walk, to Trader Joe’s now for their insanely cheap and large and lush basil plants! Only $3.29!)

The blossom soon gives way to perfect little green orbs (and there are little hairs on them; I didn’t know tomatoes were hairy at this stage. does this hair fall off later? Have you ever eaten a hairy tomato?). I think this one looks like it’s got its party hat on.

Here is a strawberry blossom. So pretty on its own, but this too will give way to a yummy ruby fruit. I believe that little cone of yellow-green amid the stamen is what will emerge as the edible morsel.

Here is a zucchini plant hard at work. Soon it will grow so big it’ll need its own bedroom in our home. The leaves on this plant are so large, they could be utilized as umbrellas in light rain. By humans.

See the little zukes? Look closely – they sort of resemble those troll dolls with the crazy hair – harhar.

First crop of the summer.

This cute little Easter Egg radish was the first veggie to get chomped. Excitement all around. Isn’t it just the greatest shade of hot pink?

It took all my willpower to wait until after the photo was taken to bite into it. It was juicy and peppery. Too bad I don’t like radishes!

As pretty as any jewel.

Dizzy can hardly contain his excitement at seeing such a nice little strawberry, emerging before his very eyes and just hanging out there waiting to be picked and enjoyed. I keep reminding him on practically an hourly basis that it’s just not ready to be eaten yet, but I’ll have to stop torturing him soon and pick the darned thing already. Little does he know about my plans for him to share it with me – the kid’s gotta learn. I mean, what else can I do, since it IS the only remotely ripe berry growing of the five or so plants I’ve got. Boy do I have new appreciation for the small fruit farmer.

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