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!). NutritionData.com 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 NutritionData.com, 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 interesting...next 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.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The First Turkey

Karl and I committed to bringing a turkey to a friend's Thanksgiving gathering on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. There were going to be about 20-25 people there, but quite a few are vegetarian, so we figured a 14 lb bird would do the trick. We opted for a regular, store-brand bird (I'm still amazed that an organic turkey costs about $50...yikes!).

But how to cook it? Neither I nor Karl has ever made a turkey before, and the hundreds of horror stories floating around about bad "first turkey" experiences made me a little nervous. My own mother's first turkey experience included the classic "fail": she left the bag with the organs inside the cavity while it roasted. Whoops!

Armed with this tale, as well as with the memory of a turkey taking up an entire shelf of the refrigerator for 3 or 4 days before Thanksgiving (for defrosting), I approached the turkey optimistically: I'm a fairly capable chef, so I wasn't too worried. But how to make a turkey that was impressive, fabulous, and the envy of all my friends (let's be honest: this is my goal any time I'm bringing edibles to a party)?

We hopped on the Internet and almost immediately found a Food Network (Tyler Florence) recipe for cornbread-stuffed, Maple-roasted turkey with bacon. I was about to scroll on by, but Karl stopped me and said, "That one." I thought it sounded a bit fancy (i.e. we'd need to buy expensive ingredients), but it turned out that, besides the bird, we only needed to purchase fresh sage, bacon, and cornbread mix. I had everything else lying around the apartment. Great!

This is what the turkey looked like when we put it into the oven. It looks pretty lumpy because we stuffed a LOT of sage-butter under the skin of the turkey (as the recipe required). However, we did not use all the butter called for in the recipe on the turkey. I ended up dotting the rest of it on our "outside-the-bird" stuffing. It just seemed like an awful lot of butter, and you might want to cut the amount of butter you make in half.

4-and-a-half hours* and a lot of anxious temperature checks later (the turkey was supposed to be done in 3, based on its weight), we loaded the turkey into the car and drove the party with it intact. We had planned to slice it up and transport it in tupperware before going over for simplicity's sake, but I'm almost glad it ended up taking so long because it made such an impressive sight sitting there on the counter. Many satisfying "oohs" and "ahhs" were heard from the other guests.

And so, our first turkey turned out awesome. The turkey was moist and tender (even the breast), the bacon we covered it with 2 hours into roasting tasted absolutely fantastic, and the stuffing, though simple, was excellent. And it looked like a million bucks. Everyone was very impressed, even though they had waited an extra hour for the turkey (and the rest of the food! I have such patient friends).

I'm not going to re-print the recipe here. You can just click on the title of this blog entry or here to see Tyler Florence's recipe, to which we made only one change besides not using all the butter for under the turkey's skin (we added a couple of drops of Liquid Smoke to the maple syrup/water basting liquid).

I highly recommended this recipe for a first turkey. It's not as fancy as it sounds, and Tyler Florence's instructions are very comprehensive, in my opinion.

* We speculate that the reason for the turkey's extra long oven time was that we roasted my vegan roomie's Tofurkey in the same oven (in a cast-iron pot, no less). This probably soaked up quite a bit of the heat, and as a result, the turkey cooked more slowly. Keep this in mind if you are hosting Thanksgiving! It might be better to cook all your side-dishes ahead of time, roast the turkey alone, then reheat the side dishes in the oven while the turkey is resting/being sliced up.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Soup's On: Spiced Parsnip and Apple Soup with Parsnip Chips

It's starting to get chilly out there! I love winter, because it means that the soup pot will be put to more regular use. Soup is so comforting, so versatile, and so delicious.

Last year, Karl and I started using parsnips more often. The parsnip is an overlooked vegetable, and I just love the tangy and earthy flavor. If you've never had one, it tastes a lot like a carrot, but stronger.

Well, Karl and I have used parsnips in bean stews and we've roasted them (side note: roasting parsnips is amazing! It changes the flavors subtly and makes a tasty snack), but we've never had a dish in which parsnips were really featured. So, I was excited to try out a parsnip-based soup!

This recipe comes from one of my many soup cookbooks, "The SmartCook Collection: Soup" by Delia Smith. The soup was excellent. The original recipe called for 1 1/4 tsp of coriander seeds, but I couldn't find any at the grocery store on short notice (not sure what was up with that), so I just left those out. It turned out for the best, I think: the more spices added into this dish, the less the parsnip will shine. I also made some other substitutions (margarine for butter, curry powder for turmeric, etc.) both to accommodate my vegan roomie and to avoid buying unnecessary spices. The soup as I made it perfectly exhibits the potential of parsnip. The apple grated in at the end was a nice touch, but maybe wasn't absolutely necessary.

I don't usually bother with soup garnishes, but this time, I made an exception and fried up some thinly sliced discs of parsnip into parsnip chips. It is well worth it to go to the trouble of making the parsnip chips for a garnish (or just for a snack): they are so flavorful and add some interest to the puréed soup. If you're pressed for time, or just don't feel like heating up a pan of oil, you can use potato chips, veggie chips, or croutons. If you're into presentation, I think it might also be pretty to garnish with a spiral of apple peel, or even a wedge of apple.

Eat up, and stay warm out there.

Spiced Parsnip and Apple Soup with Parsnip Chips
Serves 4-6

1 1/4 tsp cumin seeds
6 whole cardamom pods, seeds only
3 TBSP margarine
1 TBSP canola oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 1/4 tsp sweet curry powder
2 tsp minced fresh ginger root
1 1/2 lbs parsnips
5 cups vegetable stock
salt and pepper to taste
Parnsip Chips (fry thin slices of parsnips in a 1/2 inch of oil until light brown and crispy)
1 Granny Smith apple

Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Dry-roast the cumin and cardamom seeds in the skillet (this "excites" the flavors"). This only takes 2-3 minutes (don't burn them!). Crush the spices finely in a mortar and pestle, or use the back of a spoon to crush them in a bowl.
Peel and chop the parsnips into chunks (the smaller you chop, the shorter the cooking time, but it doesn't really matter what they look like as long as the pieces are approximately the same size).
Heat the margarine and oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until the margarine foams a little. Add the onions and gently cook for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes more. Stir in the toasted, ground spices, and also the curry powder and ginger root. Stir, and cook gently for a few more minutes.
Add the parsnips to the saucepan, stirring well, then pour in the stock. Add salt and pepper, then let the soup gently simmer uncovered for about an hour, or until the parsnips are very tender (fork will pierce easily).
When the soup has been simmering for an hour, remove it from the heat and cool it slightly. Use either an immersion blender, upright blender, or food processor to puree the soup. Return the pureed soup to the saucepan and taste to check the seasoning.
When ready to serve, reheat the soup over medium heat. Grate the apple into the soup and stir. Serve hot, garnished with parsnip chips.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Party Fare on a Budget: Spicy Popcorn

For our Diwali party, I decided to break out an old-school snack that I think I had forgotten about since the ol' college days. I used to keep boxes and boxes of microwave kettle corn at all times: you never knew when a movie would spontaneously begin playing in those days.

Popcorn is the ultimate budget snack, especially if you make it using plain kernels either on the stove in a pot, or using this awesome contraption that our friends Lauren and Adam brought over for the party (thanks!). The microwaveable bowl essentially replaces the bag for microwave popcorn and helps you avoid the higher probability of burnt popcorn popped on the stove. Regardless, popcorn is CHEAP, and adding some chile powder or other spices to some melted margarine before tossing it into the popcorn is enough of a twist on an old favorite to wow the crowd easily.

I'm thinking about experimenting with sweet curry powder for my next batch...mmmm. Everything tastes better with curry it seems.

Spice up your life! This recipe is not just for parties.

Spicy Popcorn
Yields 6-8 cups popcorn

2 TBSP vegetable oil
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
4 TBSP butter or margarine (more if you like extra buttery popcorn!)
1 tsp extra hot chile powder (or any other spice)
salt and pepper to taste

Pop the popcorn by any method (using a microwave popper, an air popper, or the stove). If using the stove, make sure to coat the bottom of the pot with a little bit of oil to help prevent scorching. Click here for more-detailed instructions on popping popcorn on the stove.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the margarine or butter. When it is melted, add the chile powder and salt and pepper. Allow to heat through until the spices are fragrant.

Toss the freshly popped popcorn with the melted margarine or butter mixture in a large bowl and serve.

Party Fare on a Budget: Spicy Peanut Balls

My roommate Ruchi and I hosted a Diwali party last week for a few friends. In the spirit of Diwali, we lit a ton of candles and played fun games like carrom board, UNO, and Fluxx. We also had lots of snacks out, including burfee, spicy popcorn, vegan chocolate chip cookies, and spicy peanut balls.


I found the origins of the spicy peanut balls recipe in one of those cookbooks you can find 365 days a year in the bargain racks of the large bookstores (Barnes and Noble and Borders). You probably know the ones: there's at least one full-page photo every 2 pages and the price is so ridiculous ($5 to $8) that it's worth it to buy it for the pictures even if the recipes stink (which, sometimes they do...).

Anyway, I adapted a recipe from an Appetizers cookbook for the spicy peanut balls. If you have a food processor, you should file this recipe away for your next party. Essentially, to make it budget-friendly, I left out the expensive ingredients and substituted things I already had for ones I didn't.

These balls were a big hit! They're great finger food, and really: who doesn't like something fried once in a while? We dipped them in a spicy chile sauce that I purchased from Trader Joe's ($1.99) and they were quite lovely. There are a million ways you could make these without having to buy expensive ingredients. For example, I happened to be out of turmeric, so I used hot curry powder instead. You could also use something else to replace the fresh ginger, which most people don't keep around all the time.

The only problem I had with the spicy peanut balls was that they disappeared way too quickly. Next time I'll make a double recipe.

Enjoy, and Happy (belated) Diwali!

Spicy Peanut Balls
Yields about 14 balls

1 to 2 inches fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped fine
2 cloves garlic, minced fine
1 tsp hot curry powder
1/2 TBSP soy sauce
1 tsp hot chile sauce
1 cup cooked jasmine rice
1/2 cup peanuts, roughly chopped (or lightly processed)
vegetable or canola oil (for frying)
Hot Chile Sauce (for dipping)

Process the ginger and garlic in the food processor until they form a paste. Add the curry powder, soy sauce, and chile sauce, and process very well. Scrape down the sides of the processor several times if necessary. Add 3/4 cup of cooked rice and process until a sticky paste. Add the remaining rice and pulse a few times to incorporate it.

Form the rice mixture into bite-size balls, then roll them in the peanut pieces.

Heat 3 or 4 inches of oil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat. A good way to test whether the oil is hot enough for frying is to press a wooden chopstick or the non-spoon end of a wooden spoon on the bottom of the pot. If bubbles rise up around the utensil, the oil is hot enough.

Using a heat-resistant spoon, carefully add the peanut balls to the oil in batches of 5 or 6 and fry 3 or 4 minutes, until the balls are a lovely golden brown color. Enjoy hot.

Serve hot, with chile sauce for dipping.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Baking on a Budget: Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies

I believe that, even in a small-scale, personal economic crisis (or a big one), one should indulge every so often. Cookies are simple to bake, lift the spirits and, more importantly, stave off the symptoms of SAD (seasonal affected disorder) and PMS (no explanation necessary, I hope). A homemade cookie is also a treat that potentially will not break the bank.

Last week, I decided to bake chocolate chip cookies that both I and my vegan roommate Ruchi could enjoy. But how to do it on a budget? Vegan baking sometimes requires ingredients that I don't typically have on hand. However, when I Googled "vegan chocolate chip cookies", to my surprise, the first recipe that came up required nothing that I didn't already have on my shelves besides vegan chocolate chips. The recipe, from VegWeb.com (a site that features recipes, forums, coupons, and social networking), was so simple that I almost didn't think the cookies would turn out well. I was happily mistaken.

One of the things that usually turns me off about vegan cookies is the texture. Many vegan cookies are chewy, thick, and fibrous (i.e., they're 'healthy' cookies with lots of bran and oats thrown in for texture). These cookies are soft and the cinnamon gives the impression that they are melting in your mouth.

We shared the cookies at our Diwali party the next day, and everyone agreed that they were fabulous cookies, even before finding out they were vegan!

I think it's very important to follow the preparation instructions to a "T." Especially the part about mixing the oil and sugar together separately before adding it to the dry ingredients. I believe that this is the secret to the soft and delicious texture. I did need to add about 1/2 cup more of flour as the dough was clearly too wet with only 2 cups of flour, so I reflected this in the reprinted recipe below. I used about 1 tsp of ground cinnamon, but you can leave the cinnamon out (I don't really recommend it though: I think the cinnamon is what makes these cookies shine). I also did not use raw sugar, just regular granulated sugar. Some vegans do not use regular granulated sugar because it is processed using bone char. I opted out of purchasing special sugar since my roommate is not particular about what kind of sugar she eats.

Oh, and here's another tip if you have a Trader Joe's near you: their semi-sweet chocolate chips are vegan (i.e., there are no milk products or butter in them) and cost only $1.99 for a 12 oz. bag! Enjoy!

Happy Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies
from Vegweb.com

2 1/2 cups unbleached flour
2 TBSP baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
cinnamon to taste (optional)
vegan chocolate or carob chips - put in as many as you like
1 scant cup sugar
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup water

Make sure all ingredients are at room temperature. It will work if they're not at room temp but it works MUCH better if they are.

Preheat oven to 350˚F.

In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon. Add the chocolate chips. Make a well in the center and set aside.

In a medium bowl, mix sugar and oil very well. Add the vanilla, and then add the water, mixing well. Add the wet ingredients to the well in the dry ingredients. Mix, being careful not to overwork it. Add more chocolate chips if you so desire. Spoon the dough onto ungreased cookie sheets (about 1 TBSP per cookie).

Bake 8-12 minutes. The cookies are done when they seem a little bit softer then you want them to be. They will harden up some as they cool.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Tightening the Belt: Eating Oatmeal in an Economic Crisis

I'm experiencing an economic crisis. This one has less to do with Wall Street and the collapse of global financial markets than with having been a student for the last 6 and a half years with no source of income besides the extreme generosity of my parents.

As a result, I've decided recently to tighten my belt. This has led me to really re-think what I buy while I'm shopping. For example, Karl pointed out to me that eating cereal for breakfast is actually quite a drain on the finances (in perspective). I've switched to eating oatmeal and the occasional bowl of Cream of Wheat instead.

Think about it: the average box of generic brand cereal costs between $3 and $4 (more for the name brands). If you eat cereal every day for breakfast, that box of cereal will be gone in 5-7 days. You'll spend between $12 and $16 on cereal for a month. And don't forget the milk!

By contrast, a big cannister of generic brand oatmeal (traditional rolled oats, not instant) costs approximately $3 and will last you all month, if not longer. You can make it with water (though I do cut my water with some milk), which can help decrease the cost of the milk you would use for your cereal. So for a month of oatmeal (maybe more), you'll spend $3 (plus some milk if you do use it in your oatmeal; I would also add in the cost of a package of brown sugar, because I can't eat my oatmeal without a 1/2 TBSP at least!).

I have really started to look forward to that hearty bowl of oatmeal in the mornings. Karl and I have divergent viewpoints about eating the same thing day after day, but in this case, the fruit-element of my morning bowl of oatmeal really places this breakfast outside of the monotonous category.

I have found a cannister of prunes or raisins is a must to keep around for oatmeal. However, to shake things up, I keep a bag of frozen mango chunks from Trader Joe's on hand ($2.79): just throw a few chunks into the pot at the same time you add the oatmeal. Delicious! This works great for instant oatmeal in the microwave also. Other frozen fruits are also wonderful. If you have a Trader Joe's nearby, I highly recommend you shop there for affordable frozen fruit: the larger chain grocery stores tend to charge about twice as much for less quantity.

The best part about a hot bowl of oatmeal? I don't feel hungry in two hours like I would with a bowl of cereal. It's not just an old wive's tale: oatmeal really does stick to your ribs!

Feel free to share some "belt-tightening" strategies of your own in the comments below!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Spice Girls: Vegan Stuffed Chile Peppers and Zingy Mashed Potatoes

My fabulous roomie Ruchi recently inherited a bag full of wicked-hot chile peppers from her friend Mala, who received them from her weekly batch of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) produce. What a windfall!

Ruchi and I decided to use all the peppers in one night to make stuffed peppers and spicy mashed potatoes. Since Ruchi has recently committed to being vegan (thanks to Skinny Bitch, a book I couldn't stand to read more than 5 pages of), I formulated a delicious vegan filling to stuff the peppers with.

If you ever decide to make stuffed chile peppers, you have a couple of options.
The "boat" method: slice the pepper in half long ways, scoop out the pithy part (and the seeds: they can taste bitter if you leave them in, and I promise, you're not discarding the spiciest part of the pepper), and fill each half with the filling.
The "bullet" method: slice only a small portion the top part of the pepper off (with the stem) and use a small utensil (like a paring knife, but be careful!) to scoop out as much pith and as many seeds as you can. Then you put the filling in and press it down until you can't fit any more in.

I like the bullet method best: I think it looks prettier. However, when you bite into a bullet-filled pepper, you are more likely to have an explosion (kind of like an over-filled jelly donut!). Either way, these peppers taste great and have a delicious spicy kick! The mashed potatoes were also very tasty.

Be creative with your food! Ruchi thought of an ingenious way to use last night's creations for lunch today: she wrapped up a stuffed pepper with some mashed potatoes in a roti (an Indian flat bread) for an interesting "burrito!"

Helpful Tips for Handling and Eating Spicy Food
Always remember to wash your hands very, very thoroughly after handling chile peppers with your bare hands. Also avoid touching your eyes or face. The peppers Mala gave us were quite potent, and even though I washed my hands several times, I still had burning sensations on my nose from scratching an itch! If you're really worried about it you can always handle the peppers while wearing latex gloves.

If you ever eat a pepper that is just too spicy, so spicy you feel ill, nauseous, or just completely overheated (this really can happen: it has happened to me!), whatever you do, do NOT drink water. This will just spread the spicy capsaicin all over your mouth and down your esophagus: hello, heartburn! The best way I have found to soothe the burn is to eat some high-fat yogurt. Drinking milk also helps, as does eating a piece of bread.

Carly and Ruchi's Vegan Stuffed Chile Peppers
Feel free to substitute your favorite veggies, add spices, etc. Be creative!

6-8 hot chile peppers (any kind will do), hollowed out and seeded
3 TBSP chopped crimini mushrooms
2 TBSP canned spinach (drained)
1 half of a roasted red bell pepper, chopped fine
3 cloves of garlic, pressed or minced fine
3 or 4 TBSP panko bread crumbs
2 TBSP Better-Than-Cream-Cheese (Tofutti)

Preheat oven to 400˚ F.
Mix all ingredients except the chile peppers until well combined. Stuff the chile peppers with the mixture. Place stuffed peppers on a cookie sheet and bake in the oven for 30-45 minutes, until peppers are soft and the filling is steamy. Enjoy, but keep a glass of milk handy!

Zingy Mashed Potatoes (Vegan-friendly)
If vegan isn't your thing, or you don't have a vegan roommate that you love sharing food with, you can substitute butter for Smart Balance and regular milk for soy milk. If you really want to load up on animal product, try using chicken stock instead of water to boil your potatoes...Yum!

4-6 medium Idaho potatoes, peeled and cubed
4 cloves garlic, pressed
3 hot chile peppers, cored, seeded, and diced
salt and pepper
3 TBSP SmartBalance
1 or 2 TBSP unsweetened soy milk

Put the potatoes, garlic and peppers in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and cook until the potatoes are fork tender (about 20 minutes). Drain the potato mixture, then transfer to a mixing bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste, then use an electric hand mixer to mash the potatoes (you can also just mash them by hand with a potato masher or a fork). After mashing, add the Smart Balance and the soy milk and mash again (with electric mixer or by hand) until smooth. Enjoy hot or cold!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Cocktail Hour: Bacon-Infused Bourbon

A couple of weeks ago, Karl emailed me a link to a New York Magazine article containing a recipe for a Bacon-Infused Old-Fashioned. I had the feeling he had sent it to me for its shock value, or even in an attempt to induce his favorite response of mine (apparently, my face is capable of evincing both horror and scornful disdain simultaneously). Imagine his surprise when I emailed him back and told him that we would be conducting the experiment of infusing bourbon with bacon flavor as soon as possible!

I really, really like bourbon, and the idea of the smoky flavors of bacon mixing with the spicy aromatics of a good bourbon tickled my fancy. As the process described by New York Magazine did not seem very difficult, I thought, "Why not?"

Karl and I chose Elijah Craig bourbon for our experiment, even though Maker's Mark is my usual bourbon of choice. We felt that the powerful vanilla notes in Marker's Mark would not pair well with smoky bacon flavors. Elijah Craig lacks the vanilla and boasts a much spicier taste (think cinnamon and black pepper). We bought a hickory-smoked maple bacon for our infusion.

Essentially, the infusion process consists of cooking the bacon, and taking 1 oz. of the rendered fat (while it's hot) and pouring it into 750 mL of bourbon in a nonporous container. Then, while eating the bacon, you then let the mixture sit at room temperature for several hours, then put it in the freezer until the fats solidify on the top of the bourbon. You can then remove the fat with a slotted spoon, and voila! You have bacon-infused bourbon.

There was still a good amount of fat floating around in the bourbon (in particle form) after I had spooned out the large pieces, so I also poured the bourbon through cheesecloth to get the last bits out.

The resulting infused bourbon tasted a lot less like bacon than I thought it would. However, it took on some smoky back notes and a more viscous mouth-feel (thanks to the fat, I'm sure). Karl compared the taste and mouth-feel to a nice Scotch Whiskey. Overall, we were both very pleased.

We also took the suggestion of the New York Magazine article and made a variation of the Old Fashioned (which traditionally consists of bourbon, Angostura bitters, sugar, and a slice of orange). The variation substitutes the bacon-infused bourbon for regular and maple syrup for the sugar. What a delicious and elegant cocktail! Granted, we did not have the proper glass (you should use an old fashioned glass), but I thought the cocktail looked rather charming in a wine glass.

I will definitely be pulling this recipe out for parties, and maybe even for when I try a bourbon I'm not wild about. At the very least, it's an interesting way to get a few extra miles out of bacon fat!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Fruity Booty: What to Do With 25 Pounds of Apples

"I need you to think of what we can do with 25 lbs of apples."

This was the text message I received from Karl last Friday as I was on my way to have one last relaxing day at the pool before really settling in to my law school routine. What followed was a conversation on the phone, somewhat miffed on my part and unrelentingly jubilant on his, about where he had come by a garbage-bag full of apples, just who was going to peel and cut up all those darn things, etc.

Of course, I never really felt too annoyed that he had acquired so much free fruit. He had discovered an apple tree on Duquesne University's campus and simply helped himself.

A couple of days later, we both sat down (I was still pretending to be grudging about my assistance) and started peeling with the intention of making a big pot of applesauce. We had also scored some $1-per-pound strawberries at Stan's in the Strip District of Penn Avenue that were just past their peak (but all the sweeter for it), so we were also planning to make a strawberry-applesauce.

Making apple sauce couldn't be simpler...well, unless you prefer what I call "baby food" applesauce, which has the silky smooth texture. If you like chunky apple sauce, all you need to do is chop up your peeled apples, throw them in a large pot with a few inches of water, and cook away until they are soft. Add a little salt and the spices you like to taste (we added lots of cinnamon and a few pinches of nutmeg) and you are on your way! We used a potato masher to help break down our apples, but some apples, I am told, will simply break down on their own. If you have sweet apples like we did, you probably don't need to add much, if any, sugar. Tarter apples can handle more sugar (Disregard the latter two sentences if you like your applesauce super sweet). We added about 1/2 cup of dark brown sugar, which gave our applesauce a lovely golden brown color.

For the strawberry apple sauce, we sliced up the strawberries and began cooking them down separately from the apples. Then, when the strawberries and apples were soft, we added a few cups of the soft apples to the strawberries. We also added a little brown sugar to this, but I don't think we needed it. No spices necessary either! I must say, of the two, the strawberry applesauce is my favorite. We made buckwheat pancakes the next morning and put the strawberry applesauce on them, and wow, was that delicious!

We also set aside a good number of apples to make an apple cake (recipe courtesy of Karl's mother) and an apple pie. I haven't made the apple pie yet, and I may mix in some apples from the store because, though these apples from Duquesne are as sweet as sweet can be, they are completely devoid of any acidity. For my tastes, a little tartness in an apple pie is absolutely vital. I also felt that the applesauce was a bit lacking for this reason, but it still tasted great. There's nothing like "free" to make something taste better (I'm starting to sound like my sometimes freegan sister!).

The apple cake turned out wonderfully. I got to use my bundt cake pan finally (I have had the darn thing for 5 years and I've never once used it until this week). We put it out for my and my roommate Ruchi's No-Meat-Week potluck/recipe exchange extravaganza, and everyone who made it to dessert (we had a lot of food!) and had a piece of cake really enjoyed it. The cake is moist and just sweet enough. My sister said it needed a glaze of some sort (an optional one was included in the recipe, but I decided against using it at Karl's behest), though I had a slice with vanilla ice cream and thought it tasted just heavenly. I'll definitely be adding that recipe to my collection of keepers, and I hope you will give it a try, too, if you are of the baking bent.

Apple Cake
(from the kitchen of Helen Andersen)

1 & 1/6 cup canola oil
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
4 medium-sized apples, sliced fine and roughly chopped
1 cup walnuts, chopped
3 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325˚F.

Mix the oil, sugar, and eggs together, and beat on low speed with electric hand mixer until well-blended. Fold in the apples and chopped nuts. Sift the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl, then and stir in to other ingredients, also adding the vanilla. Grease and flour your baking pan(s). Bake in two 9-inch pans for 35-40 minutes, or 1-13x9 inch pan for 45 minutes. You may also bake in a bundt pan for 35-40 minutes. Test with a toothpick for doneness.

Side Note: I just noticed that Helen's recipe actually says to place your cake batter in a cold oven, set the dial to 325˚F and keep it in there for 45 minutes. I will be trying this method next time!

Glaze (optional)
1/2 cup butter
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 tsp vanilla

Melt butter with light brown sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the evaporated milk and allow the mixture to come to a full boil for 5-10 minutes. Turn off the heat, and allow the mixture to cool for a few minutes. Add vanilla and mix well. Frost cake.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

How to Make Eggrolls

My brother's former roommate Helen taught me how to make egg rolls! Perhaps this isn't the most mysterious kind of food, but I have definitely had difficulty maneuvering those little wonton wrappers in such a way that they don't explode. I have had some small success with steaming them, but frying is a whole different matter.

Helen taught me how to roll the egg rolls properly and tightly in order to prevent the wonton wrappers from coming apart during the frying process. She scared me a little when she was tasting her filling for saltiness (it contained raw pork, and I don't recommend trying this at home!), but boy, oh boy, were those egg rolls delicious when finished. We took the egg rolls to a really delightful "Arrested Development"-themed party (complete with chocolate-dipped frozen bananas with accompanying stand!) where they were, of course, a big hit. Who doesn't like delicious, greasy finger food with their caipirhinas? Yum!

Helen has told me what she puts in her egg roll filling, but I can't remember it off the top of my head, so I sort of made up my own. I think it's close enough. Try your own favorite flavors, though...egg rolls are very versatile, so make the filling to your own taste.

I've included a step-by-step "How to Roll" photo series. I'm a visual learner when it comes to cooking and baking, so I figure others out there would appreciate a visualization of the process, too. Also, as you know, hot oil is dangerous and can burn you very badly if enough of it makes contact with your skin. Please exercise extreme caution when frying on the stove.

Mini Egg Rolls
1 lb fresh ground pork
1/2 lb raw shrimp, chopped well
1 cup finely shredded carrots
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
generous salt and pepper, to taste (but please beware of tasting raw meat and eggs!)
2 eggs
1 TBSP soy sauce
1 TBSP fish sauce
1 package of triangle shaped wonton wrappers (available in Asian markets and some other grocery stores in the frozen or refrigerated sections).
several cups of oil (vegetable, canola, peanut...whatever you like to fry with)

Mix all ingredients (except wonton wrappers and oil). Mixing with hands is, in my opinion, the best, but if you don't like getting your hands messy, a wooden spoon will do. If you mix with your hands, remember to wash thoroughly with soap and hot water afterwards.

Prepare a space for rolling the egg rolls. Make sure to keep the wonton wrappers moist (if you roll quickly, this isn't a problem, but wonton wrappers dry out easily. I find it easier to keep a damp paper towel covering them, and have an assistant separating each wrapper from the stack as I need it). Place the wonton wrapper flat and spoon about a tablespoon of filling into the center. Shape it with your fingers into an egg-roll-shaped-log.

Take the right corner of the wonton wrapper and fold it across towards the left corner of the wonton wrapper very tightly. Do the same with the left corner, bringing it towards the right. There will be a bit of corner hanging over. Fold it back on itself so there is no wonton hanging over on either side.

Using your fingers in the center, tuck the wonton wrapper tightly into itself and roll towards the top point of the triangle. Continually check to make sure the roll is tight. Make it as tight as you can!

When you reach the end of the triangle, dip your finger in a dish of water and lightl brush the triangle tip to help seal it. You don't need much water.

There you have it: your first egg roll! Put it aside on a plate or in a shallow dish, and keep on rolling until you run out of filling or wonton wrappers. If you have leftover filling, you can use it in a stir fry or something.

Once all your egg rolls are rolled, heat 3 or 4 inches of oil in large or medium size heavy-duty sauce pan over medium high heat. When the oil is hot enough, carefully place the egg rolls into the hot oil. You'll have to work in batches. Only put as many in as you can fit in one layer. Watch the egg rolls carefully. When they reach a delightful golden brown color, they are done. Remove the cooked egg rolls to a plate lined with paper towels (to absorb the grease). Allow to cool for a few minutes before taking a test bite.

Continue with the rest of the egg rolls until they are all cooked, then take them to a party and watch them disappear!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Girls' Night Out: Pangea

Pangea
736 Bellafonte St
Pittsburgh, PA 15232
412-621-3152

Last night, the ladies and I went out on the town. Since I'm moving next week and am feeling the stress of packing, I voted we have dinner out instead of cooking. Ariel suggested we check out Pangea, a new tapas restaurant in Shadyside.

The ambience of the restaurant is incredible: soft and yellow, helping me feel very relaxed, as though I were dining outdoors during a lazy sunset. Also, though there may have been some music playing softly, I don't remember it, which means that it was at the perfect volume. I prefer to focus on the company and conversation when I'm out with the girls! The picture of the interior here is from the Pangea website, and the lighting in the photo does some justice to the lighting in the restaurant.

We each ordered a glass of wine from the menu. Pangea offers wine flights of three 2-oz. servings each, each with a theme ($12-14). I decided just to have a glass, as I'm operating under a rather tight budget. I probably should have foregone the wine completely, but I drink wine so seldom these days that I decided to splurge. The least expensive wine by the glass is $9 and ranges up to $14. I opted for a Viognier ($9), which turned out to be delicious. It was sweet, with no acidity at all, but remained uncloying with hints of honey and apricot and the classic oily mouthfeel of a Viognier.

The girls and I decided to share the Hummus tapas flight ($11), which consisted of three tasty hummuses (Gorgonzola and chive with toasted pine nuts, artichoke and feta with Kalamata olives, and Sweet Red Pepper with roasted shallot) served with warm, seasoned pita wedges. I wasn't wild about the pita wedges paired with the hummus, since the seasonings clashed with the intense flavors of two of the hummuses. However, the hummus was excellent. There weren't enough pita wedges to go around, however, and sadly, the remaining hummus was cleared from our table before we could lick the platters clean.

I ordered a Scallop Trio flight ($16), consisting of a tempura-style fried scallop, a scallop ceviche, and a seared scallop. In other words, I paid $16 for 3 scallops. While the scallop dishes were very tasty and left me wanting more (especially of the ceviche), I do have a complaint about the price for obvious reasons.

Though the restaurant claims to be a tapas restaurant, I felt that perhaps they missed the mark. Yes, tapas are generally smaller portions; but they are also supposed to be shared. The tapas flights, for the most part, consisted of three very different items following a theme (e.g., my scallop trio), and could not easily be shared without divvying up those individual items.

I have almost nothing negative to say about anything else at Pangea. I truly enjoyed my dining experience. The food was delicious, if a bit scant in amount for the price; our server was charming without being overbearing (he even brought us a complementary dish of Potatoes Lyonaisse, which was quite tasty), and didn't even raise an eyebrow when we asked to split the check four ways; and, of course, the conversation was colorful, with nary a dull moment.

However, I probably will not go back to Pangea because I know I can get even more excellent tapas and wines at Ibiza. I could have eaten (and drunk) twice as much for the price I paid at Pangea. (By the way, I have just realized I never reviewed Ibiza on my blog, though I have reviewed its sister restaurant, Mallorca; this is a situation which I must soon remedy because the whole world needs to know about Ibiza!).

So, the verdict on Pangea is really based on your mind-over-money mentality, I suppose. If your eating experience is based solely on the quality of the food and money is not a concern, give Pangea a try: you probably won't be disappointed. However, if you are value-driven and pinching your pennies, you'd be better off eating somewhere else.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Trying New Things: Scrapple

Karl and I decided to throw our worries about future heart disease to the wind this weekend and made a sumptuous breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and scrapple. Originally, Karl had wanted corned beef hash, but can you believe it: not only is scrapple less expensive than corned beef hash (a 1 lb. block of scrapple at Shur-Save was $1.99, while a 14 oz. can of hash was $2.19), but it also boasts less fat and calories per serving (compare scrapple's 90 calories per serving to corned beef hash's 475!!). The fact that scrapple is pork-based was also a point in its favor, since Karl and I have been strictly limiting our beef intake for ethical reasons.
So, the scrapple won, much to my chagrin.

Wikipedia
blithely describes scrapple as "typically made of hog offal, such as the head, heart, liver, and other scraps, which are boiled with any bones attached (often the entire head), to make a broth. Once cooked, bones and fat are discarded, the meat is reserved, and (dry) cornmeal is boiled in the broth to make a mush. The meat, finely minced, is returned, and seasonings, typically sage, thyme, savory, and others are added. The mush is cast into loaves and allowed to cool thoroughly until gelled."


Who wants a piece?

I never thought I would try scrapple, but I suppose the liberation of summer (and Karl's contagious reckless abandon) has made me bold. After we had some bacon going in the pan, I thought I would just add a couple of 1/2 inch slices of scrapple to the pan. This turned out to be not such a great way to fry scrapple. Because the scrapple contains some grains (ours had some wheat flour and cornmeal in it), the scrapple didn't hold its shape once all those grains soaked up a bunch of bacon grease.

However, the scrapple, though it lost its square mystery-meat look, was actually quite tasty (suprise!). With the bacon grease addition, it really just tastes like extra-salty sausage gravy (country style) that you would eat with some fluffy buttermilk biscuits.

This morning before work, I tried frying up some scrapple sans bacon grease (or any type of fat, actually), and met with a similar problem: the scrapple just doesn't hold together once it's being heated. I speculate that this is because what is holding the scrapple together is the congealed fat, which doesn't stay congealed long at higher temperatures, obviously. No big deal, the scrapple still tastes great. Without the bacon grease, you can definitely taste the liver content (liver has such a distinctive taste). If I could get a less salty version of scrapple, I would call it the poor man's pâté!

Honestly, in a time of my life when I am actually attempting to eat ethically, the idea of scrapple is somewhat pleasing because the product is made of the leftovers that would otherwise be wasted. While you could say that when one eats scrapple, one is eating "offal," I think you could also say that when one eats scrapple, one is avoiding unnecessary waste. Maybe I'm being a little too optimistic, but really, try it out and see for yourself.

Friday, July 18, 2008

What To Do With Too Many Limes

Karl and I bought a ton of limes at Shur-Save in Bloomfield because they were 6 for $1. I suppose you can probably get them even cheaper if you buy them by the 5- or 10-lb bag at CostCo or some other similar store, but we don't have a membership to anything like that.

So, what to do with all these limes?

Well, I decided to keep it simple. I had contemplated trying my hand at lime curd, since lemon curd is so amazing, but I am attempting to watch it with the calories if you know what I mean. (For those of you who don't know, lemon or lime curd traditionally uses quite a few egg yolks and quite a bit of butter....and is absolutely heavenly on a scone with some clotted cream!).

But enough drooling. Instead of slaving over a hot stove making curd, I decided to make limeade.

After reading about a few techniques I discovered through various recipe search engines (check these out! They're great: FoodieView and ProjectFoodie), I decided I'd use the simple syrup method.

The benefits of creating a lime simple syrup are twofold. First, the sugar gets completely dissolved when it goes into solution as the water boils, which means no more sludge at the bottom of your glass (sad news for some, I guess?). Second, you can control how "watered down" each glass of limeade is (to accommodate for varying tastes).

I like my limeade to be much more tart than sweet, so I adapted a recipe for limeade that I saw on many sites which called for 3 cups simple syrup for every 1 cup of lime juice. I cut that ratio to 2 cups simple syrup to 1 cup of lime juice, and it turned out great! There is just no more refreshing way to cool off after a 90˚F day than by sipping on a tall, frosty glass of limeade.

Stay cool everyone!

Limeade Simple Syrup
Yields 3 cups syrup

1 cup fresh-squeezed lime juice, seeds removed (it took me about 7 limes to yield one cup of juice)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

Place the sugar and water in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil, stirring, until the sugar dissolves completely. Pour the hot mixture into a heat-resistant container with the lime juice and stir. Allow to cool, then refrigerate.

That's it! When you are ready for a frosty glass of limeade, put a couple of of ice cubes in a tall glass and fill 3/4 of the way with the lime simple syrup. Top it off with cold water.

Alternatively, you could top off your limeade simple syrup with some sparkling water or club soda. Or add some gin, vodka, tequila, or rum for an adult twist. Use your imagination!

I Read the News, Too!

Sorry ahead of time for no visually stimulating pictures...Blogger is acting up!

Some time in the last few weeks, I stumbled across this article on my New York Times newsfeed Called "The 11 Best Foods that You Aren't Eating." The author had compiled a list of nutritious, easy to find, cheap to purchase foods that most people don't even think about keeping around the house even semi-regularly. You can go read the list for yourself for a few more days, but I will list them here also, without the explanations and suggestions for preparation given in the article:
1) Beets
2) Cabbage
3) Swiss chard
4) Cinnamon
5) Pomegranate Juice
6) Dried Plums (Prunes, but doesn't it sound better this way? Seriously)
7) Pumpkin Seeds
8) Sardines
9) Turmeric
10) Frozen Blueberries
11) Canned Pumpkin

It's a good list! I personally will not be stocking up on beets or sardines (for matters of taste) or pomegranate juice (for matters of economics).

Karl and I actually decided to grab a big ol' can of pumpkin puree at the store the other day, and have been enjoying mixing things in to see what we can come up with. The pumpkin puree we got was about 28 oz for $1.79 (ridiculous price for the store brand!), and magically had NO salt added. This is wonderful news for all people who think that unsalted canned vegetables are amazing (that would be me, by the way). I just like to control the amount of salt in my food, that's all!

So, the first time around, we just tasted the pumpkin puree alone. BLAND. I think that was when I realized that pumpkin is probably more versatile than sweet potato, though the two are used interchangeably for many things (like soups and pies). Pumpkin is almost tasteless without some help, especially unsalted, canned pumpkin puree.

So the first time we made poor man's pumpkin pie by heating up about a cup of puree in the microwave, melting some SmartBalance in it, and adding a tablespoon of brown sugar, 1/4 tsp of cinnamon, a dash of nutmeg, and a dash of allspice. It was absolutely delicious!

Tonight, we decided to piggyback off of our recent windfall of limes, and we whipped up some chili-lime pumpkin puree. This was pretty tasty, despite what I can imagine you are thinking!

I'm looking forward to some more adventures with pumpkin, which is apparently low-calorie, high-fiber, and packed to the gills (or gourds, I guess...) with vitamin A. Eat up!

Chili-Lime Pumpkin Puree
Yields two 1/2 cup servings

1 cup canned pumpkin puree (unsalted)
1/2 TBSP Smart Balance (or butter, let's be honest!)
1/2 tsp lime zest
salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/8 tsp cinnamon
1/2 TBSP lime juice or lime simple syrup (recipe coming shortly!)

In a microwave-safe bowl, heat up the pumpkin puree in the microwave until it's steamy. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir to incorporate. Taste a few times and add more of anything that you think it missing until you like what you taste. I kept adding chili powder, until I figured out to add cinnamon (which makes the spice pop in the absence of sugar!). I also added a bit more lime zest to make it good and limey.

This is great on a spoon, or for dipping tortilla chips or pita wedges.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Fresh Blueberry Pie

Apparently, my unconscious goal for the summer has been to make a pie per week. I indulged Karl the week before July 4th by making another strawberry rhubarb pie, then he requested that I make an apple pie for a July 4th picnic (very American, right)? Last week was the week of trying something new: blueberry pie made without opening a can of pie filling.

Blueberries were on sale at Giant Eagle for 2 pints for $5 (a pretty good deal considering that they usually run at least $4 per pint), so I figured it was a good time to experiment. I dusted off my trusty pie cookbook, 365 Great Pies You Can Bake (which was only dusty from having recently been floured for rolling out pie dough along with the rest of the kitchen table), and set to work.

I learned something about blueberry pie: blueberries, when cooked, don't taste like much. I kept wondering why the recipe called for lemon juice, lemon zest, and mace (I substituted allspice). Fresh blueberries are so delightful, but you will notice that they are not very acidic like most berries and fruits. I hypothesize that this lack of acidity is what causes the flavor of blueberries to diminish instead of increase when intense heat is applied.

I would certainly be interested to know if there is a trick to "brightening" the flavor of blueberry, or intensifying it. Usually lemon does the trick, but I honestly felt the lemon just blanketed the blueberries and hid their flavor.

Anyway, I obviously wasn't wild about the blueberry pie, because it just tasted far to lemon-y to me. Karl did not agree. I'm pretty sure that he has never met a [fruit] pie he wouldn't eat or rave about, so all's well that ends well.

Next time, I also intend to add a little more flour (I've reflected this in the recipe below) because the juices didn't quite thicken enough.

Any suggestions for my next pie?

Blueberry Pie
Yields 1 9-inch pie

Your favorite double-crust recipe
3/4 cup sugar, plus 1/2 to 1 TBSP for dusting
4 TBSP flour
1 tsp allspice
1 TBSP lemon juice
1/2 TBSP lemon zest
2 pints fresh blueberries, stems removed
2 TBSP butter, cut up in small pieces

Preheat the oven to 425˚F.

Roll out the bottom crust.

Mix the sugar, flour and allspice together. Add the lemon juice, zest, and blueberries, and gently mix (without crushing the berries) to completely coat the berries. Pour the blueberry mixture into the pie shell.

Dot the top of the blueberry mixture with the cut up butter.

Roll out the top crust. I cut mine into strips to make a lattice-top pie, but you could just cover the top if you like. If you do, remember to poke some holes in the top to vent. Sprinkle the top crust with 1/2 to 1 TBSP of sugar

Bake for 10 minutes at 425˚F, then lower the heat to 350˚F and bake for 30 minutes more.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Red Drum Tap House

Red Drum Grille and Tap House
2412 S. Virginia Dare Trl (The Beach Road, Mile Post 10.5)
Nags Head, NC 27959
252-480-1095

While Karl and I were on the Outer Banks last week with my entire family, we managed to slip out for lunch one more time (after the Outer Banks Brewing Station). Karl was really craving some good local seafood, which is surprisingly hard to find on the Outer Banks. Most of the restaurants' supply of crab, at least, is imported from places like Alaska (Snow crab, King crab legs), despite the abundance of delectable blue crab on the Outer Banks.

After scouring a few OBX restaurant guides and finding out that seafood lunch buffets are hard to come by, we settled on the Red Drum Tap House, which turned to be a fortuitous choice. Not only does this place have about 18 beers on tap (most of which are craft beers instead of the usual array of Anheuser-Busch selections), but they also were featuring a soft shell crab sandwich special.

I must admit, though, that the menu at first seemed a bit disappointing. Most of the seafood selections were fried, and the non-fried (i.e., steamed) seafood choices were non-local (i.e., from Alaska). I chose the most local thing I could find for my lunch, a "Game Fish Burrito" ($10.95) with the Monterrey Jack Cheese on the side (I don't think that most fish is improved by cheese...). I'm still not sure what kind of fish it was, but it might have been blue fish. The burrito was delicious! Packed with grilled fish, it was well-balanced by the refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and sufficiently spicy salsa.

Karl fared even better. He had originally considered getting the Combination Seafood Platter ($21.95) (we would have split that), which would have included three of his choice of steamed spicy shrimp, snow crab legs, middleneck claims, and oysters. Then, feeling disappointed by the lack of local seafood, he considered risking the crab cake sandwich ($10.95), but was dissuaded when the waitress informed him that the cakes contained breading and green peppers. She recommended he try the special, a soft shell crab sandwich ($9.95), though it took some convincing. She insisted that the batter they fried the crabs in was a light one, and that the crabs were fresh off the boats on the Outer Banks.

If you have ever had soft shell crabs, you probably know that the crabs tend to be less than six inches long and are not so tasty unless fresh. You generally eat the entire thing (because the shell is edible). When the waitress brought Karl's sandwich out, I thought there must be some mistake: the crab sitting on the bun was much, much bigger than any soft shell I had ever seen! At least 8 or 9 inches across and 2 or 3 inches thick, this crab was more than substantial enough for a full meal. Karl didn't even bother with the sandwich roll. The waitress had been right about the batter, too: it was light and crispy, and the crab was perfectly cooked. Karl let me have a few bites. Yum!

Karl enjoyed it so much that, even though he was stuffed, he seriously contemplated purchasing another for takeout so he could eat it later. The waitress informed him kindly that he could simply buy his own raw soft shells down the street at local seafood market (Austin Fish Company). We stopped there on the way back and discovered those humongous soft shells were only $3! We didn't buy any, though, and I am sad that we didn't.

If you are going to the Outer Banks for vacation this year, and you enjoy crab, please do yourself a favor and seek out some of the local soft shell crabs! They are simply out of this world.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Outer Banks Brewing Station

The Outer Banks Brewing Station
P.O. Box 2584; MilePost 8.5
Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a family reunion in Nags Head, North Carolina on the Outer Banks. My dad's side of the family squeezed about 30 people into a beach house, and fun times were had by all.

I was extra excited because Karl tagged along for the first few days (and didn't break up with me after meeting the more temperamental and volatile half of my family). Since Karl was there, we of course had to explore the edible and drinkable possibilities brewing on the Outer Banks.

On recommendation from Gene (our favorite Church Brew Works bartender), we sought out the Outer Banks Brewing Station (on the sly, of course: my family is a bunch of teetotalers!), a brew pub at milepost 8.5 on the main highway (Croatan, or the Bypass, or "The Big Road"). When I asked my former missionary grandmother, who lives on the Outer Banks, for directions, she looked horrified, and said, "You're going there? But that's a joint!"

Oh well. We promised her we'd stay away from the bar, which seemed to satisfy her.

The Brewing Station resembles a church more than a pub (on the outside). It's a large white building with architectural aspects that suggest a nautical theme. The coolest part about the pub is that they have a windmill! I read on a blog somewhere (I'm sorry I lost the link!) that the windmill doesn't actually power the Brewing Station, but they sell the electricity it generates to the main grid and thereby receive a credit on their electricity bills. An ad we saw in one of the travel mags touted the Outer Banks Brewing Station as America's first wind-powered brew pub, which is a little misleading, but I think that this is a step in the right direction!

After being seated in the dining area (well away from the bar, Grandma!), Karl and I split a bowl of mediocre crab bisque ($5.99). Besides containing far too little crab meat, the bisque tasted cheesy. Crab bisque should have no cheese, or at least shouldn't taste like nacho sauce! It should be creamy and silky, with nice lumps of crab floating just below the surface. That bisque made me long for the she-crab soup at Soby's in Greenville, SC.

The fish (flounder) and chips ($8.99)were much more delightful, and there was plenty for Karl and me to split the lunch entrée and be stuffed. I am of the opinion that it is difficult to mess up fish and chips, but Karl has apparently had some bad experiences. The OBX Brewing Station pulled through well enough to satisfy Karl's tastes (and mine!). The batter wasn't too heavy, and we got about 5 good-sized pieces of flounder. The wedge fries were perfect: crispy and flavorful on the outside with pillows of soft potato on the inside. The fish also came with a delicious remoulade on the side.

Of course we tried the beer, too! Before ordering any pints, we ordered a tasting flight of four 5 oz. servings of their current selections ($6): Ölsch, Old Knucklehead Nut Brown Ale, Shipwreck Stout, and one that I cannot currently remember. I'll have to update when I do. The Ölsch was pretty plain. If you like light beers, go for the Ölsch. The Nut Brown Ale, on the other hand, was insane: I could appreciate what an interesting and well-crafted beer it was, but I still didn't like it. I took two or three sips and could not figure out why I didn't like it, but there it was! It is unlike any brown ale I have ever tasted. It has a strange roasted cereal taste that is juxtaposed by resiny hops. It makes a very, very strange and great beer that I, nevertheless, could not bring myself to enjoy.

The winner for me is the Shipwreck Stout. It definitely made the trip worthwhile: it's one of the tastiest and smoothest stouts I have ever had the pleasure of imbibing. The description on the menu is fairly apt: "Fat and chewy oatmeal stout with a sweet silky finish." I'm not sure that it's chewy, but it is a full-bodied beer that ends up feeling incredibly light and, yes, silky by the time you swallow. So well balanced! It's chocolate-y and slightly sweet, but not to the point of being a dessert beer. One of the things that often turns me off about stouts is that I have difficulty finishing even one pint because they are so heavy. The Shipwreck Stout is light enough that you can eat a meal and have your beer without risking explosion of the innards. It is absolutely worth the trip to the Outer Banks Brewing Station just to try the stout.

Karl also tried a pint of the Hefeweizen, which was alright. The waitress served it in a very tall hefeweizen glass with a slice of orange for garnish. Though the presentation was lovely, the beer had a little TOO strong of a banana flavor for my tastes. If you want the best brew pub hefeweizen, you should try the Church Brew Works' Heavenly Hefeweizen: I swear that it is like drinking a refreshing banana split (pineapple, strawberries, and nuts included) in a glass.