Friday, July 31, 2009

Green with Envy: Fire Escape Garden

Hi y'all! I promise I didn't disappear: it's been a rough few months of studying for the Pennsylvania Bar Exam, but the exam is now over and I, for better or for worse, won't know the results until mid-October.

While I studied, one of the few things I let myself do when I wasn't hitting the books (besides absolutely necessary planning for my upcoming wedding) was cultivate a small garden on my fire escape. I was given some organic purple tomatillo seeds by one of my professors, which inspired me to really "grow for it" beyond the usual small pots of herbs this summer. I purchased some green tomatillo seeds, my mom bought me a small tomato plant, and I planted some green bell peppers along with a bunch of different herbs, all in big pots on my fire escape.

Since I got a late start, Karl helped me out by starting my seeds under grow lamps at the lab where he's working this summer. Twenty-four hours of ultraviolet light a day keeps the stunted growth away!

For anyone who is under a lot of stress, I highly recommend growing some plants. I have been enjoying monitoring the process of my plants' growth all summer long, and it gave me much-needed time outside in the sun and away from my textbooks while I watered them and checked obsessively for flower buds and growing fruit. It's been so nice to sit and watch the bees flitting in and out between the flowers, and have you ever smelled a tomato plant? There is something intoxicating about the green smell they give off.

Right now, the plants have all re-located to my parents' deck. I'm staying with my parents between now and the start of my new life with Karl, and I can't move into our new house until August the plants are getting a two week vacation from the city in the suburbs. I guess it's almost like going to the beach...

I'm planning to get back into the whole cooking and baking thing in the next few weeks...probably not really until after the wedding, since I won't have moved into our new house with Karl until then. New culinary adventures in new places! It will be great fun, and in the meantime, I have quite a backlog of food photos and recipes to share: no promises, since I am getting married in three weeks, but I hope to post a few entries to make up for my hopefully noticeable absence the past few months.


Monday, May 18, 2009

Pork Roll with Sour Cherry Chutney

Karl is the kind of guy who has a hard time passing up a great deal on meat. We live the lives of quasi-vegetarians, not eating meat as often as many omnivores, partly because it's expensive. So, whenever there's a good sale on, say, a whole pork tenderloin, Karl buys one, slices it up, and freezes it in 1-lb packages. It's a pretty good system for insuring a steady supply of cheap, lean meat.

However, pork tenderloin is boring. I'll admit, the tenderloin is not my favorite part of the pig. It's hard to cook it so that it isn't dry or tough. Accordingly, we have been having fun trying different methods. We've tried slicing it 1 1/2 inches thick then stuffing it with fennel, onion, and breadcrumbs (that was pretty tasty); slow cooking it with some marinade and veggies (dry as a bone), and roasting it (also dry). Karl has had some good success pan-frying some of the stuffed slices.

Our latest attempt was born of one of my rare moments of true kitchen spontaneity. We were just planning to stuff the pork again, this time with a fruity mixture, but then I thought I'd try a technique I'd heard described a while back on "The Splendid Table," an American Public Media radio program hosted by Lynne Rosetto Kasper. The technique involves slicing the meet in a spiral fashion so that it rolls out flat. It was pretty easy to do with the pork tenderloin and a good, sharp knife.

I then spread my stuffing mixture (some cooked down sour cherries, ginger, garlic, and onion) on the slab of meat and rolled it back up, just like you would a jelly roll cake.

Into the frying pan it went to sear, then I popped it in a 400˚F oven for about 25 minutes (until it reached about 155˚F internal temperature).

It probably would have been useful to have some butcher's twine to keep the pork roll nice and tight, but I strategically seared the various sides so that there was no tragic loss of visual effect (when the meat is cooked it firms and holds its shape).

It turned out pretty well, we both thought, and though we still experienced some dryness in the meat, the cherry "chutney" we used on the inside seemed to help keep that part moist at least. In addition to the beautiful visual the spiraled pork made, we both really enjoyed the cherries as a complement to the pork.

We'll just have to keep trying to figure out how to avoid drying out that pork tenderloin!

Pork Roll with Sour Cherry Chutney
Serves 4

1 lb pork tenderloin, at room temperature
1 onion, chopped
2 TBSP ginger & garlic paste** (substitute 1 clove ginger, 1 TBSP minced ginger)
1 1/2 cups sour cherries (pitted, frozen or fresh)
1/2 tsp salt, plus more for rubbing pork
1/2 tsp black pepper, plus more for rubbing pork
olive oil

Preheat oven to 400˚F.

To prepare the pork tenderloin, take a very sharp chef's knife and cut the pork in a spiral fashion to be about 3/4- to 1-inch thick. Rub some salt and pepper into both sides of the meat. Set aside.

Meanwhile, in an oven-proof skillet over medium heat, heat about 2 TBSP of olive oil. Add the onions, and cook 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the ginger and garlic paste and cherries, and cook another 5-10 minutes until the onions are soft and the cherries have burst. Remove from the heat and place the cherry chutney in a separate bowl.

Spread a layer of the cherry chutney on the flat slab of pork, then roll it up tightly. Reserve any unused cherry chutney. If you have butcher's string or twine, you can tie the pork roll up so it won't unroll.

Heat the skillet back up to high heat, and put some olive oil in the pan to heat up. Sear the pork roll on all sides, then place it in the oven. Roast for 20-25 minutes, or until internal temperature of the meat reaches 155˚F. Remove the pork roll from the oven, and allow to rest for 10-15 minutes before slicing. Slice 1-inch thick, and garnish with the reserved cherry chutney.

**SWAD Garlic and Ginger Paste ($2.49). This stuff is amazing and very cost-effective. We use it in lots and lots of things from eggs to pasta to rice. It's great to have on hand, and you can find it in any Indian grocery store.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Enchilada Evangelism

Hi, folks! It has been far too long since I updated. Rather than make long, extremely detailed excuses for why I have for being too busy to write blog entries, let me just say this: I'm graduating from law school in 1 month, taking the PA bar exam in 4 months, getting married in 5 months, and regaining my sanity in 6 months. Oh, and I am still unemployed. If anyone needs an environmental lawyer/foodie on staff, please let me know!

Ok, so about enchiladas. I had no idea that enchiladas could be anything special. I surmise that most people's experiences with enchiladas are either out of a box (e.g., Old El Paso dinner kits) or from a Mexican restaurant. I have eaten at many Mexican restaurants, and let me tell you: at most Mexican restaurants, it does not matter whether you order soft tacos, enchiladas, or burritos. Your food will taste pretty much the same regardless of what it is called on the menu. I can't comment on the dinner kits, but I imagine they aren't as awesome as what you can make on your own.

My enchilada epiphany came when one of my professors, learning that I was a food appreciator, loaned me a copy of an amazing Mexican cookbook. She had recently moved to Pittsburgh from Texas, where, as you might imagine, there is an abundance of excellent Tex-Mex and authentic Mexican food. Not so much here in Pittsburgh, apparently! When she learned I had no experience at all making Mexican food, and, indeed, did not even suspect that more "gourmet" Mexican food was possible than what I could get in a restaurant, she suggested I try making enchiladas. I made everything from scratch except the tortillas, and my life was changed forever. It's hard to describe how much better the sauces taste when they are not out of a can: the Salsa Verde alone is absolutely incredible.

I know what you're thinking as you scroll down this long entry full of recipes, but please do yourself a favor and give making enchiladas a try: you'll see for yourself that it's worth the investment of time.

The first thing you want to do when you are considering making your own enchiladas from scratch (minus the tortillas maybe...I haven't mastered that yet) is to make sure you have enough time. The process can be broken up by making the sauces the day before (they taste better the second day anyway) and the filling the next. Once you have all the ingredients prepared, assembling enchiladas is actually really fast (10 minutes maximum), so this is a great dish to prepare ahead, perhaps over the weekend, and have ready for fast meals during a busy week.

If you make them vegetarian, enchiladas are even faster to prepare, since preparing the meat fillings tends to take about an hour or more. I've included below my adaptation of the San Fonda Miguel chicken filling that is so amazing that, much to my chagrin (all those future enchiladas I missed out on!), Karl ended up eating the unused filling with a spoon for a midnight snack. I also included my own vegetarian filling. The San Fonda Miguel cook book also had a recipe for cheese enchiladas that seemed far too onion-y for my tastes (if you'd like to try it, it's basically raw, chopped onion mixed with Monterey Jack shredded cheese).

Some tools helpful for making enchiladas: food processor (or blender), tongs, small skillet, large skillet, griddle (or broiler)

Where to find:
chiles in adobo sauce: Mexican grocery store, and probably in the Latin American aisle at any large chain grocery store. They come in a small can.
corn tortillas: available in almost any large chain grocery store, but if you're in Pittsburgh, go to the Strip District (on Penn Avenue) and get some freshly handmade tortillas from the Mexican grocer there.
tomatillos and serrano chiles: available in most grocery stores, but definitely available in Mexican grocery stores

Enchiladas San Miguel
Serves 6

For best-tasting results, make the fillings and sauces well ahead of time and reheat just in time to assemble the final product when it’s time to eat.

Salsa Verde for Enchiladas (recipe below)
Sour Cream Sauce (recipe below)
Chicken Filling (recipe below), or Vegetarian Filling (recipe below)
6 TBSP vegetable oil
12 corn tortillas (white or yellow)

Prepare Salsa Verde and keep warm, or reheat when ready to assemble enchiladas. Prepare Sour Cream Sauce and set aside. Prepare the Chicken Filling and keep hot or reheat.

When ready to assemble enchiladas, preheat the broiler. In a small skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Make sure the oil is hot enough, or the tortillas will absorb too much oil. Using tongs, dip a tortilla into the hot oil for about 10 seconds on each side, or until softened (if it starts to get brown, it's been in too long). Quickly drain on paper towels, then immediately dip the tortilla in the warm Salsa Verde. Lay the tortilla flat on an ovenproof plate and put 3 to 4 TBSP of hot filling down in the center of the tortilla, then roll it into a tube. Repeat the process with the remaining tortillas. Place 2 enchiladas on each plate and cover with warm Salsa Verde. Spoon a couple of dollops of Sour Cream Sauce on each enchilada, then put the plates under the broiler for 1-2 minutes, until the sour cream sauce starts bubbling. Serve immediately.

Salsa Verde for Enchiladas
Makes 2 cups

15 tomatillos, husked
Half of a medium white onion
1 garlic clove
4 to 6 serrano chiles
¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves
sea salt to taste

Prepare the Salsa Verde for Enchiladas. Roast tomatillos, onion, garlic, and chiles on a griddle, or under the broiler until they are blistered all over (you should turn them over frequently so they roast evenly). Combine the roasted vegetables in a food processor and process until smooth. When ready to serve, add cilantro. Adjust seasonings, adding salt if necessary. Set aside.

Sour Cream Sauce

1 1/2 cups sour cream
3/8 cup milk
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp ground white pepper

Whisk all ingredients together and set aside.

Chicken Filling
Makes 3 cups (fills 12 enchiladas)

3 TBSP canola oil
¼ cup chopped white onion
2 garlic cloves, chopped
4 medium tomatoes, roasted in 350˚F oven for 10 minutes,chopped
3 chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
2 TBSP adobo sauce from the can
2 to 3 chicken breasts, poached in water seasoned with sea salt and ground black pepper, then cooled and shredded (about 2 cups)
1/3 cup chicken broth, reserved from cooking chicken
Sea salt and ground black pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet or Dutch oven over low. Add the onion and garlic and cook over low heat, stirring constantly until onions are wilted and transparent (5-8 minutes). If you're worried about burning the garlic, you can add it later. Add tomatoes, chiles, and adobo sauce. Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring often until all moisture has been absorbed and the mixture is dry, about 15 minutes. Stir in the shredded chicken and broth. Cook another 3 to 4 minutes, until chicken is heated through. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Vegetarian Filling

1 14-oz can of vegetarian refried beans (at room temperature)
1 cup shredded monterey jack cheese (at room temperature)
3 TBSP onion
salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients well in a small bowl. Add a little oil or water if it is too thick to easily spread into the waiting tortilla.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Slow-Cooked Root Vegetable Soup

I love root vegetables. I love to roast them, microwave them, steam them, and smash them. And I also love to make soups out of them.

I was recently given a beautiful, blue, enameled, cast iron Le Creuset oval French oven. These pots are versatile. They can go on the stove or in the oven, and thus easily transfer from one to the other for braising or slow cooking. I decided to make a slow-cooked root vegetable soup by chopping up a bunch of root veggies, covering them with broth, then cooking them at a low temperature over a long period of time in the oven. The result was absolutely fabulous.

Slow cooking really brings out the sweet flavors in root vegetables while mellowing out any of the harshness. The result is a rich, almost buttery tasting soup that has absolutely no fat in it. It's perfect for lunch or dinner!

Feel free to substitute any other vegetables (whether root veggies or not).

Slow-Cooked Root Vegetable Soup
Serves about 6

8 oz celery root, peeled and chopped into 2-inch pieces
1 rutabaga, peeled and chopped into 2-inch pieces
3 carrots, chopped into 2-inch pieces
3 leeks, white and pale green parts only, washed well and chopped into 2-inch pieces
1 small onion, roughly chopped
3 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste
6 cups vegetable broth
low-fat Greek yogurt (optional garnish)

Preheat oven to 275˚F.

Put all ingredients into a large, ovenproof pot with a lid. Bring to a simmer on the stove, then place in the oven. Cook for 3 hours, then remove from the oven and take off the lid. Allow to cool for 10-15 minutes. Remove the bay leaves, then puree the soup with an immersion blender.

Serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Roasted Eggplant & Butternut Squash Burrito

Happy New Year, and welcome back! I hope you all enjoyed wonderful holidays and ate well. Now it's time to make up for all those cookies we ate, right? Right.

I have the added incentive to get back into fighting shape this year for my upcoming wedding. Add that to the fact that I recently found out that my cholesterol is a little too high (221!!), and I have all the motivation I need to get to the gym and maybe cut back on the eggs and butter (I refuse to give up my very moderate intake of cheese just yet!).

The way I like to "detox" is to avoid eating processed foods. This means using "whole" foods, like vegetables, fruits, rice, beans, etc. (things that haven't had anything added to them) to make my meals. Sometimes it's hard to dispense with convenience for the sake of eating well, but I do try. Take the following situation, for example:

I had just gotten back to my apartment from working out and I was hungry! I wanted food right then and there. I opened the fridge and surveyed: I had about 3/4 of a roasted eggplant, chopped (left over from a small dinner party I threw last week, so I chopped it up and roasted it in a 400˚F oven for about 25 minutes), leftover roasted butternut squash, as well as a package of tortillas and a can of refried black beans with lime juice my sister couldn't fit into a certain someone's oversea Christmas package. I also spotted some cherry tomatoes and Greek yogurt. "Eureka!" I thought.

I decided I could delay eating long enough to heat up the innards of the burrito, so I tossed everything except the beans and yogurt into an olive-oil-lined skillet over medium heat for a few minutes before assembling the burrito. It was quite tasty, and took about only about 10 minutes to prepare. Yum.

Sure, it would have been easier, and faster, to heat up a Hot Pocket or a Lean Cuisine...but it certainly wouldn't have been as tasty or as filling. Next time you're hungry, see if you can't build something from the building blocks that may be lurking in your refrigerator. Also, when you're cooking vegetables, or anything really, consider making more than you'll need so you'll have something waiting for you after those regular post-New-Year workouts you promised you'd be doing by now!

Roasted Eggplant & Butternut Squash Burrito

1 large tortilla, (optional: toast your tortilla in a skillet or under the broiler)
3 TBSP refried black beans with lime juice
2 TBSP chopped roasted eggplant
3 or 4 cherry tomatoes
1/3 cup cubed roasted butternut squash
olive oil
1 TBSP 2% Greek yogurt

Spread the refried black beans on the tortilla, mostly in the center. Heat a little bit of olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the cherry tomatoes and sauté for 3 or 4 minutes, until they start to "pop" (the skin will deflate and wrinkle a little). Add the butternut squash and the eggplant, and continue to sauté for 2 more minutes. Just before taking the veggies out of the pan, gently mash the tomatoes with the back of a spoon.

Spoon the veggie mixture into the tortilla, then add the yogurt on top. Roll up and enjoy!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Crazy Breakfast: Karl's Mushroom and Sauerkraut Frittata

Karl and I wanted a hearty breakfast to get us moving today. Neither of us had class this morning, so we decided to cook something a little more fancy than the usual oatmeal with dried fruit.

We managed to do it without purchasing anything extra. I fried up the bacon that we had left over from our first turkey, and planned to make a frittata with whatever was around. A frittata is a lot like an omelet. It's usually thicker, though, and instead of adding any "filling" after the egg has cooked, then folding the omelet over, you usually just pour the egg over the "filling" and cook it around it. The frittata is generally served by slicing it into wedges, similar to a pie.

Karl, ever the creative one, chose our frittata filling by, apparently, thinking of the ingredients most unlikely to complement one another. His genius plan was to make a sauerkraut, mushroom, onion, and garlic frittata. I made some mild protests, but he insisted that he felt good about this one.

Sauerkraut is awesome. We regularly purchase cans of Valutime sauerkraut for snacking (and at only $0.50 per can, you can't go wrong!). reveals that canned, low-sodium sauerkraut is low-calorie (34 calories per serving), very low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and a good source of calcium, magnesium, dietary fiber, vitamin C, etc., etc. The list goes on. So, if you can get over the smell, which apparently some people find unpleasant, it's a great way to snack healthily, especially if you are fond of other pickled foods (like, duh, pickles).

Despite my love for sauerkraut, I was skeptical that eggs, mushrooms, and sauerkraut were a match made in heaven (especially for breakfast!). However, Karl's sense of adventure is contagious, and I knew he'd eat it no matter how horrible it was (waste not, want not!). I also knew there was a container of oatmeal in the pantry in case I had to call on the backup breakfast reserves.

Well, I have to hand it to Karl: all my cooking instincts and intuitions were dead wrong. Karl's quirky breakfast concoction was delicious. I am actually looking forward to making this again. The sauerkraut wasn't too strong after it cooked for a few minutes with the onions, garlic, and mushrooms, and added just enough of its lovely sour tang to make the frittata taste magical.

Try it for yourself! This is a great way to serve a healthy, more impressive breakfast, and the total cost was actually not high. The most expensive ingredient will be the mushrooms, but you can often find crimini mushrooms or white button mushrooms on sale for 1 pint for $2 or less.

A tip for making frittata: we used a special Calphalon pan set designed precisely for frittatas (a gift from Karl's parents, thank you!), which includes a second pan that fits on top of the first pan to make flipping clean and easy.* If you don't have such a pan set, don't worry! Just preheat your broiler before you start the frittata, and make sure you use an oven safe pan. Once you think the bottom of the frittata is cooked, just remove it from the stovetop and put it under the broiler for about 2 minutes (not too close to the broiler). Your frittata will be perfectly cooked, and you won't have to try to flip it expertly in the pan. The extra filling can make the egg heavy and you will most likely just make a mess.

If you are using the frittata pan set, we have found it works better if the separate pan is preheated over a low flame so that it is hot when it receives the frittata (otherwise, cooking the other side takes forever).

Bon appétit!

Karl's Crazy Mushroom and Sauerkraut Frittata
Serves 2

1/2 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
3 TBSP onion, chopped fine
1 cup sliced crimini (a.k.a. baby portabella) mushrooms, or any other mushrooms
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup canned sauerkraut
4 eggs, beaten well
1 TBSP grated parmesan cheese (optional)

Preheat broiler if not using a frittata pan set.

Heat the oil in a medium-sized pan or skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened (about 3 or 4 minutes). Add the mushrooms, and continue to cook for 4 minutes. Add the garlic and sauerkraut, and cook 2 more minutes.

Pour the beaten eggs over the mushroom/sauerkraut mixture in the pan. As the eggs cook, use a heat-resistant spatula to lift the sides away from the pan and allow more liquid egg to flow into the resulting space. Repeat until most of the egg is set.

If using a frittata pan set like ours, place the second pan on top of the first and flip quickly. Give a gentle shake to make sure the frittata falls into what is now the bottom pan. Remove the top pan.

Sprinkle with cheese, if using, and replace the top pan (to help it melt).

Remove the fritatta from heat after about 2 or 3 minutes at the most. Serve hot.

*Our frittata stuck to the bottom of the pan a little, so it didn't transfer as beautifully during the "flip." Oh well! It still tasted like a million bucks.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Waste Not, Want Not: Roasted and Spiced Pumpkin Seeds

Karl and I bought a pumpkin before Halloween. We had grandiose plans to make pumpkin wine by scooping out the insides, rubbing sugar all over the flesh, sealing it back up with wax, then letting it naturally ferment for a few weeks. Apparently, you get pumpkin wine out of all this, and it would have been a fun experiment, but our lives got busy, and the pumpkin sat out on my fire escape for about a month before I remembered it existed. C'est la vie!

Last weekend, I determined to cut up and roast the pumpkin, then freeze for a rainy day (I'm thinking soups and stews rather than pies, as our pumpkin was quite large. The smaller ones are better for pies, or so they say). And so I did.

One of the best things about pumpkins are the seeds. I think a lot of people just throw them away when they make their jack'o'lanterns for Halloween, but when I was growing up we always dried them out and roasted them in the oven with a little bit of salt. What a tasty snack! It's relatively health, though a little higher-calorie than I would have thought. According to, 1 cup of pumpkin seeds (without salt) is 285 calories, with 2 grams of saturated fat. NutritionData also touts pumpkin seeds as a good source of protein, magnesium, and zinc.

When you scoop the seeds out of a pumpkin, they're usually covered with the stringy, slimy innards of the pumpkin (which you probably will want to discard). I simply put all the seeds in a colander and spray them with water until the stringy bits are detached from the seeds. You will probably have to pick through to get the last few stringy bits, but it's not difficult or time-consuming. Since my pumpkin was a little older, there were also some seeds that had sprouted. I discarded those, although, in retrospect, they might have tasted time!
I spiced up my pumpkin seeds with Spanish paprika and Hot Curry Powder (Penzey's Spices), but you could simply use salt (classic), or be even more adventurous and use a blend of spices (e.g., cumin, cardamom, coriander, chile powder, etc.). Anything goes!

Happy snacking!

Roasted and Spiced Pumpkin Seeds

1 1/2 cups pumpkin seeds, rinsed and dried completely
1 TBSP margarine, butter, or oil
1/2 tsp salt, or more or less to taste
1/2 TBSP spices of choice (e.g., Spanish Paprika, Hot Curry Powder)

Preheat oven to 300˚F.
Melt the margarine or butter, if using, and pour into a small bowl. Mix in the salt and spices until well blended. Stir in the pumpkin seeds, tossing until well coated.

Spread the seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet, and bake 30-45 minutes, or until well toasted. You should give them a stir every 10-15 minutes or so to make sure they aren't burning.

Allow to cool before eating.