¡Una Fiesta Para Mi!

My birthday was rapidly approaching (okay it was two months away), and I was craving a fiesta complete with a piñata, taco bar, Coronas with lime wedges, and a margarita station. So I made it happen.

The piñata, Smiley the Duck, didn’t start to break until the 14th person in the line-up gouged his abdomen with a blow of the broom handle. It took three more people, unblindfolded, hitting on him to get all the candy and treats to fly out for the kids and adults alike to scramble after.

Back inside, kids compared treats, and we continued to enjoy the taco bar and drinks. For the taco bar, I had three types of tortillas (flour, corn, and soy), MexiCali avocados shipped in from my parents’ yard in California, lettuce, tomato, sliced green onions, shredded Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheese, nonfat Greek yogurt to serve as sour cream, and two types of homemade taco meat included beef and chicken.

Guests loved the chili-seasoned shredded beef and the roasted chicken with southwest spices and asked several times how I made them. This is the first time I’ve made the shredded beef but the chicken is one of my trusted standards for a dinner party, easy, inexpensive, and delicious. In face, every time I’ve made my southwest-seasoned roasted chicken, guests want the recipe. So I’m going to share with you the technique and recipe for The Zin Diva’s Roasted Chicken.

This delicious, moist chicken uses two “secret” techniques that increase the flavor intensity and retain moistness, including in the notoriously dry breast meat. First, we’ll rub seasoning directly on the chicken meat not just the skin. To do that, we’ll loosen the chicken’s skin and spread our seasoning paste over the chicken’s breasts, legs, thighs, and possibly back and wings. Second, we’ll turn the chicken over twice while roasting to allow the juices to flow into the breast meat yet finish with a browned crust of skin.

Also, I do not truss my bird as many recipes direct. I find that the bird has a beautiful shape without the time and effort required to tie it up.

The Zin Diva’s Roasted Chicken

Tools: Roasting pan w/ rack or broiler pan, tongs or other device to turn the chicken
Time: 15 minutes to prep, 60-70 minutes to roast, 10 minutes to rest
Oven: 400 F 

Ingredients

1 Whole Fryer or Broiler Chicken, giblets removed, rinsed and patted thoroughly dry w/ paper towels
3-4 Tbsp. Penzey’s Arizona Dreaming Seasoning
2-4 cloves Fresh garlic, minced (optional)
Olive oil
Kosher Salt

1. Loosen the chicken skin from the meat using your fingers for the breast, legs, thighs, and back and wing areas if desired. Try not to tear the skin in the process. Place the bird on the top of grates of the broiler pan or on the rack of a roasting pan.

2. Mix together the Arizona Dreaming seasoning, the minced garlic if using, and enough olive oil to form a loose paste.

3. Using your fingers, spread the paste directly on the chicken’s meat, under the loosened skin, turning the chicken as needed. After the paste is gone, remove excess paste from fingers by rubbing them on the bird’s skin.

4. Rub the outside of the bird with olive oil. Sprinkle kosher salt on the bird. Sprinkle with Arizona Dreaming seasoning. Pat the salt and seasoning onto the bird to help it adhere.

5. Place the bird breast side up on the rack and roast for 30 min in the preheated oven. Remove pan from oven. Flip the bird over using tongs and a spatula/wooden spoon. Roast back side up for 25 minutes. Remove from oven and flip the bird over to be breast side up. Roast another 5 to 15 minutes until done as tested with a meat thermometer inserted in the breast. The breast should be moist but no longer pink.

6. Allow the bird to sit on the rack for 10-15 minutes to allow juices to settle.

7. Carve as desired and serve.

Variation 1: Replace the Arizona Dreaming seasoning with another southwest seasoning that you like or create your own version with ancho and chipotle chile powders, cumin, oregano, paprika, etc.

Variation 2: Go Mediterranean in style instead. Replace the Arizona Dreaming seasoning with fresh or dried rosemary leaves (cut up) and/or thyme, red pepper flakes, fresh lemon zest. Be sure to use the minced garlic in this version. In step 4, don’t sprinkle with the Mediterranean seasoning as it will scorch.

¡Es una fiesta en la boca!

A Taste of Italy

So for my latest adventure in wine tasting, I hosted “A Taste of Italy” wine dinner party at my apartment. I had 12 bottles of wine, my 3-day-3-meat sauce, and 15 guests.

For the wine portion, my co-conspirator in blind wine tastings, Dona, bagged up the wines and randomly numbered the three whites and then the seven reds. We had two Prosecco wines open for aperitif.

About 10 of us decided to take part of either a blind or semi-blind wine tasting challenge. Four of us “called the wines,” which means we described the visual cues, the nose, the taste, the mouth feel, and the finish of each wine and then tried to identify what varietals the wine was made of and where in Italy the wine was from.

Proseccos and Italian Whites

First up, we tasted the whites—two Pinot Grigios and a Soave. They smelled and tasted so nasty and dull that I didn’t even try to identify which was which. We suspected that the wine glasses were causing some of the off-odors of play-dough and clay, so we cleaned the wine glasses again before moving on to reds and had better results—at least as far as the nose and flavors are concerned! It was another story altogether on our ability to identify the wines. Lesson learned: Make sure I smell the wine glasses after I wash them to ensure they’re clean! I’ve taken this to heart and even started polishing my wine glasses so they sparkle AND smell clean.

We had red wines labeled #4 to #10, and I knew what the wines were but not the order so, in theory, I had an advantage. The guests who tasted “semi-blind” had the list of wines in alphabetical order. Those who tasted blind only knew the wines were from Italy.

Blind Tasting Results

So here’s how I identified the wines (* indicates that I loved it):

*#4 It’s so delicious, balanced, and smooth and not too acidic or tannic for my tastes. So it must be the Super Tuscan that I had selected rather than another type of Sangiovese-based wine. Call: Super Tuscan 2007
*#5 Yum! Lots of dried fruit, seems big and full. This is how I remember Ripasso tasting. So: Ripasso 2007
#6 Seems big and bold like I’d expect Amarone to be. Call: Amarone
#7 Tastes like a Sangiovese-based wine, dried fruits, violets in the nose. I already picked the Super Tuscan and it seems too beautiful for a Chianti, so I pick Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
*#8 It’s so soft and sweet. It must be the “little sweet one,” that is, Dolcetto. Call: Dolcetto.
#9 I’m running out of choices. I don’t recognize the flavors on this one, so maybe Barbera? Okay, Barbera 2008.
#10 It tastes Sangiovese-based again but all my options are gone except for one so let’s pick the Chianti Colli Senesi.

Italian Reds in Blind-Tasting Order

And here’s what they actually were…

*#4 Barbera D’Asti. Uh, oh. This isn’t good. I didn’t even get close to the right type of grape or region. But I guess I like Barbera more than I thought!
*#5 Chianti Colli Senesi. Oh my! I had no idea a Chianti could taste so good!
#6 Dolcetto. Are you serious? How could I mix up Dolcetto (the little sweet one) and the big, bold Amarone?! Yikes, I’m bad at this.
#7 Vino Nobile di Moltepulciano. Woo hoo! I got one right! I think it must be luck since I knew what the wines were.
*#8 Amarone. Okay, what is up with the Amarone and Dolcetto mix up? This Amarone was a gift and I think it was a Trader Joe’s wine that cost less than $20 and Amarones are routinely upwards of $40 for just a regular one. Maybe this is why is doesn’t taste intense like I expected.
#9 Ripasso. Huh. Well, I have had only one Ripasso before, so I guess I just need exposure to more Ripassos so I can get a better idea of this wine’s profile.
#10 Super Tuscan. Yea! I got that is was Sangiovese-based! Does this count for one right? But wait, I thought this was my favorite before the tasting… And I haven’t been a very big Chianti lover due to the medium plus acidity and high tannin levels (see Chianti call in #5 above) except with food… My world is shifting…

For the exact details on the wines, download the list I printed for the party: Italian Wine List.

On to the Food!

Okay, so I flopped this blind wine tasting. But so did everyone else! Misery loves company. But we didn’t wallow for long because we had lots of delicious wines to drink now that we had tasted and spit for the past, oh, two hours.

And we had 3-day, 3-meat sauce over penne waiting along with Caesar salad, garlic bread, and tiramisu.

As we settled into the social mealtime, we poured more wine and enjoyed the deep flavors of the meat sauce. Jennifer, who has trained as chef, said it was one of the best meat sauces out there and she wanted the recipe. I responded, “It’s made with love.”

I’ve been making some version of this meat sauce since 2003, inspired by my friend Carol of Italian descent who has her own family recipe, the 1997 “Joy of Cooking” Italian American Meat Sauce recipe, and the wild boar meat sauce at Sienna Restaurant on Daniel Island in SC. As I have grown in my love for food, wine, and cooking, my meat sauce has grown with me, and it truly is an act of love and generosity to make it for those around me.

But really, I’ll give you my 3-day, 3-meat sauce recipe. It’s up to you if you’re up to the challenge of dedicating so much time and love to one dish.

The Zin Diva’s Three-Day, Three-Meat Italian Sauce

Special equipment: 8- to 12-quart bouillabaisse pot or French (Dutch) oven, large frying pan, food processor
Total Time: 2-3 days Prep Time: 2 hours  Initial Simmer Time: 6 hours  Flavor Integration: Overnight in Refrigerator  Reheat: 1 to 2 hours  Total Active Time: 10 hours
Servings: 12-20 depending on portion size

Ingredients

Meat
5 lb. beef rump roast, trimmed of excess fat and patted dry
10 oz. pancetta, diced
3 lb. sweet or spicy Italian sausage (reduced fat works too!)

Everything else

4 jumbo white onions, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
4 28-oz cans whole plum tomatoes crushed between your fingers as you add them to the pot OR 4 28-oz cans petite diced tomatoes
2 cups dry red wine (such as Chianti, Tempranillo, Syrah)
1 6-oz can tomato paste
3 sprigs fresh basil (plus extra to balance flavors)
2 Parmigiano-Reggiano rinds from consumed hunks of Parmesan (I store the rinds in the freezer until I make sauce)
Olive oil
Kosher salt
Black pepper
Italian Parsley
Fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, for serving

Instructions

  1. Heat the 8-quart pot on the stove top over medium to medium-high heat until you can feel a good heat rising. Add 2 Tbsp. olive oil. When oil is hot, add the rump roast and brown on each side until nicely browned but not black or burnt. Continue to step 3.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the frying pan over medium heat until you feel a good heat rising. Add the Italian sausage and brown on all sides until sausage is firm and cooked throughout. Remove sausage from pan and allow to cool on a cutting board. Repeat until all sausage is cooked. After the sausage is cooled, slice it into ¼ inch thick slices. Set aside in the refrigerator until needed in step 4.
  3. Once the roast is browned, add the onions, pancetta, and garlic to the 8-quart pot with the meat still in the pot. Stir regularly, making sure to rotate/shift the beef occasionally so that the onions can absorb its juices. When onions are softened and almost translucent, about 20 minutes, add 1 cup water and continue to stir until a bit of a sauce forms and the water is mostly evaporated, about 15-20 minutes.
  4. Add the tomatoes and their juices, red wine, tomato paste, and basil, stirring to integrate well. Add the parmesan rinds. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Stir as often as needed.
    For a straight-sided pan, I found I needed to stir every 10-20 minutes to reintegrate the top layer that bubbled up. For the natural-convection promoting bouillabaisse pot, I only stir every 30 minutes to an hour. Every 2 hours, turn the beef over so it cooks evenly.
    Cook the beef for four to six hours until it is knife tender, i.e., a knife blade inserted in the roast is inserted and is removed with almost no resistance.  Remove the beef from the pot and let cool. Add kosher salt and black pepper to the sauce to taste. Add the sausage slices in the pot. If making this over two or three days, put all items in the fridge and return the next day to complete.
  5. Cut the beef into ¾ inch cubes and pulse in batches in the food processor until shredded but not mushy. Return the shredded beef to the pot, stirring after each addition to integrate. Allow the pot to simmer to integrate flavors.
  6. Add 1 cup chopped parsley and chopped basil leaves from one sprig to the pot and stir. Taste the sauce and adjust seasonings to taste. To further meld flavors, refrigerate overnight and reheat the next day, adding water as needed if the sauce is too thick. Remove parmesan slices before serving.
  7. Serve hot sauce over pasta such as whole-grain penne. Top with fresh grated Parmesan cheese.
© Elizabeth Taylor – 2011

Old World Food and Wine Pairing: Bison Bolognese Sauce

Cava, Spain; Trebbiano, Italy; Macon-Villages, White Burgundy, France; Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese blend, Italy; Chianti Classico Riserva, Italy; Chianti Colli Fiorentini Riserva, Italy

I’ve been hosting several parties that I call a “Wine and Food Pairing Experience.” Each person brings a food item and a bottle of wine to pair that fits in with the theme. After I order the bottles in a logical tasting order, we try each wine and food pairing and the person who brought the item explains the food and wine pairing.

For my recent Old World themed “Wine and Food Pairing Experience,” I made a bison bolognese sauce served over whole grain pasta topped with Parmigiano Reggiano and paired it with a Chianti Colli Fiorentini Riserva 2007. Typically for an Italian meat sauce, I’d choose Chianti Classico Riserva, California Old Vine Zinfandel, or Italian Primitivo. In this case, I needed to stay Old World and I wanted something traditional like Chianti, but a friend was already bringing the Classico so I opted for another one of the seven Chianti DOCGs. Delicious! Several people asked me to post the recipe for the bison bolognese sauce.

So here’s the background on the sauce. I’ve made a few recipes in my Cuisinart electric pressure cooker and have started to get the idea of how to modify the techniques to make the food taste as delicious as if I had slow-cooked it on the stovetop. First, instead of using the low heat of the pressure cooker to saute or brown ingredients, splurge on getting an extra pot dirty and start the recipe on the stovetop. Second, for recipes like stews or meaty sauces that might take several hours on the stovetop to cook, use the “natural steam release” of the pressure cooker instead of the “quick steam release.” This technique seems to integrate the flavors much more thoroughly. My pressure cooker reverts to a “keep warm” setting after the steam is released. Since we’re talking stews or meaty sauces, keeping the pressure cooker on warm is like simmering the sauce longer on the stovetop, which is great for continuing to integrate flavors. Third, make the sauce the night before you plan to serve it and refrigerate it to allow flavors to further integrate. Reheat the sauce the next day in the pressure cooker on the “keep warm” or “low” setting. Finally, taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings (e.g., salt, pepper) as needed. Serve!

I served a Chianti Colli Fiorentini Riserva 2007 with a Bison Bolognese served over whole wheat pasta and topped with fresh grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

For this particular recipe, I started with the “Quick Bolognese Sauce” in The Pressure Cooker Cookbook by Tori Ritchie. I’ve made this recipe per the directions before and I wanted to update it to be healthier and reflect my personal tastes (more onion and garlic, please!). First, I replaced the 1 lb. ground beef and 1/2 lb. ground pork or veal with 2 lb. ground bison. Bison is a leaner meat than the beef, pork, or veal and, I suspected, a more gamey or earthy flavor, which would be perfect for pairing with the more earthy Old World wines. Next, I cut down the olive oil by 2/3, increased the pancetta by 1/3 for flavor, and increased the quantities of onion and garlic. Instead of using crushed tomatoes, which have a reputation for being the leftover and less desirable parts, I used whole plum tomatoes and crushed them in the food processor. I eliminated the optional heavy cream.

Bison Bolognese Sauce

Special Equipment: Pressure cooker, saute pan; Active Time: 30-45 min stovetop. Passive time: 45 min pressure cooker to cook including steam release, overnight melding of flavors in fridge, 1 hour reheat in pressure cooker
Serves 6

Ingredients

2 lb. ground bison
1 Tbsp. olive oil
4 oz. pancetta
1 jumbo yellow onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 celery stalk (or 2 if using celery hearts), diced
1/4 cup parsley, flat or curly, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 28-oz can plum tomatoes, crushed in food processor
Parmigiano Reggiano, grated

1. On the stovetop, heat a large (3-4 qt) saute pan over medium heat. When you can feel a good heat rising, add 1/2 Tbsp. of olive oil and distribute evenly. Then saute the bison until brown, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon or spatula. Remove the meat from the pan with a slotted spoon. Drain off any remaining fat.

2. Add 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil to the hot pan and distribute. Add the pancetta and allow some fat to release from it. Then add the onion, carrots, and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened, onion is translucent, and pancetta is lightly browned, about 10-15 minutes depending on your cookware and stovetop.

3. Stir in the parsley, garlic, a pinch of salt, and black pepper to taste. Cook for about 30 second to 1 minute until the garlic starts to release its aromatics but without it burning. Add the wine and cook until wine is reduced by half, about 2-5 minutes.

4. Return the bison and any accumulated juices to the pan, and stir to combine. Then stir in the tomatoes and 1/2 cup water.

5. Transfer to the pressure cooker pot. Following the manufacturer’s directions, lock the lid in place. Cook on high pressure for 20 minutes. Use the natural steam release and allow the sauce to sit on the “keep warm” setting for up to an hour before refrigerating. You can transfer to the refrigerator sooner depending on your schedule. Refrigerate overnight or up to 3 days.

6. Reheat the sauce in the pressure cooker over the “low” or “keep warm” setting. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings as desired. Serve over whole wheat penne. Pass the grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Enjoy!

 

© Elizabeth Taylor – 2011

Spinach and Goat Cheese Omelets

So here’s another recipe from Easter Brunch that was a huge hit: Spinach and Goat Cheese Omelettes. People could not believe their taste buds and ears when I told them this recipe was completely diet-friendly! I was thrilled with how many compliments people gave these omelets. One person said, if this is diet food, I need to be on this diet. 🙂

So here’s what I did to turn a moderately healthy but high calorie recipe into an “Eat Clean” recipe that was both healthy and moderate in the calorie count (~150 cal if divided into 8 servings). I modified a Gordon Ramsay recipe to increase the number of servings, increase the nutritional value including more lean protein and veggies, and decrease the fat per serving while keeping all the flavor. To do that, I kept the number of whole eggs the same at 4 but added a carton of egg whites, equal to 10 egg whites. I increased the baby spinach from 2 oz. to 6 oz. I eliminated the 2 tsp. butter and decreased the olive oil from 2 Tbsp. to 4 tsp. I kept the amount of goat cheese the same at 4 oz. but increased the amount of Parmesan Reggiano from 2 Tbsp. to 3 Tbsp. and upped the quantities of sea salt and black pepper. Overall, this upped the number of proposed servings from two to between four to eight depending on whether this is the only main course or served in a buffet as we did.

Spinach and Goat Cheese Omelets for a Crowd


Special Equipment: Broiler, broiler-safe skillet, large sauté pan
Serves 4 as a main dish or 8 as a side dish

Ingredients

6 oz. baby spinach
1 tsp. olive oil
4 whole eggs
1 container egg whites, equivalent to 10 egg whites
1 Tbsp. olive oil
Sea salt to taste (I prefer red Hawaiian sea salt)
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
4 oz. goat cheese
3 Tbsp. finely grated Parmesan Reggiano

  1. Preheat the broiler. Heat a large sauté pan over medium-low heat. When skillet is hot, add 1 tsp. olive oil and tilt the pan to coat the bottom in the film of oil. Add the baby spinach to the pan. Stir and toss with a wooden spoon until the spinach is lightly wilted. Remove the spinach from the heat and place on paper towels. Tease the spinach leaves apart with a fork. Set aside.
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk the whole eggs and the egg whites. Do not add salt and pepper.
  3. Heat the broiler-safe skillet over medium-high heat (medium for cast-iron). When you feel a good heat rising, add 1 Tbsp. olive oil and tilt the pan to coat.
  4. Pour the whisked eggs into the skillet. Using a metal fork, continuously stir, scraping the bottom of the pan to ensure the eggs do not stick. When eggs are 2/3 set, stop stirring, making sure the eggs are evenly distributed prior to the next step.
  5. Add the spinach leaves, spreading them evenly over the surface of the eggs. Sprinkle with sea salt and black pepper to taste. Pinch the goat cheese into small pieces, spreading over the top of the spinach. Sprinkle the Parmesan evenly over the omelet. Turn off the stove burner.
  6. Place skillet under the broiler until the cheese is lightly browned but not burnt, about 1-4 minutes depending on your broiler and pan. Serve in the pan at the table or at the buffet.

Whole-Grain Waffles for Sunday Brunch

This past Sunday, my husband and I hosted 25 friends for Easter brunch in our condo. As the RSVP numbers grew from 12 to 18 to 25, we knew we’d have to get creative with the menu, the serving method, and the seating plan. As usual, we had a coordinated potluck with guests bringing items that we had mutually agreed to. Instead of eating family style with china and fine linens, we had a buffet for most of the food and a self-serve waffle station equipped with three waffle makers and the waffle fixings.

As brunch progressed, more and more people came up to me and asked about the waffles, wondering what they were and what was in them. They repeatedly praised the waffles, their texture, and their depth of flavor compared with regular white flour waffles.

What I did was swap out some of the white flour for almond flour, flaxseed meal and whole wheat flour. This upped the fiber content, the nutritional value, and the flavor. I also substituted olive oil for butter so that we’d have a more heart-healthy fat. Then for an extra kick of fun I added Mexican Vanilla and Ceylon Cinnamon. (Another week I added Almond Extract and that was a hit too!)

The below recipe is a “double recipe” suitable for larger brunches. If you a serving a small group, I recommend either halving the recipe or cooking all the batter and freezing the leftover waffles, wrapped separately. Reheat the waffles in the toaster oven for a quick breakfast.

Whole-Grain Buttermilk Waffles


Special Equipment: Waffle Maker
Serves 12

Ingredients

½ cup almond flour
½ cup flaxseed meal
1 cup whole wheat flour
1.5 cup white flour
2 Tbsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. baking soda
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. Penzeys Ceylon Cinnamon
6 large eggs, well beaten
6 Tbsp. olive oil
3 cups low fat buttermilk
1 Tbsp. Penzeys Mexican Vanilla Extract

  1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients and mix well. Make a well in the center of the dry mixture.
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the wet ingredients and whisk til well-combined.
  3. Pour the wet ingredients into the well of the dry mixture. Using a wooden spoon, mix using long, swift strokes until combined but mixture still has a pebbly look to it. Do not over-mix or waffles will be tough. Do not severely under-mix or you will have surprise pockets of flour.
  4. Using a preheated waffle iron, add the batter to the center of the waffle iron and smooth out gently with the back of a measuring cup or with the wooden spoon. Close the lid. The amount of batter will depend on your waffle maker. I have waffle makers that take from ½ cup to 1 cup for a full waffle. Experiment with your waffle maker to determine the amount, then use that size measuring cup to scoop the batter.
  5. Waffle is done when the steam stops escaping from the sides of the waffle maker and the waffle is golden brown. Waffle can be cooked slightly longer if a browner crust is desired.
  6. Serve hot with pure maple syrup, butter, powdered sugar, and fresh fruit.

Variation 1: Instead of vanilla extract, add 1 Tbsp. almond extract to the wet ingredients. Cinnamon is optional.

Tahini Salad Dressing

I just tried a great yet simple salad dressing tonight, courtesy of the recipe on the side of Azar’s Tahini Paste. 🙂 Azar’s is a family-owned restaurant in the Hampton Roads area, which sells tahini paste under its own label. I use it for my hummus and now, apparently, my salad dressing!

Tahini Salad Dressing
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 tsp. red Hawaiian sea salt
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup tahini paste
1/4 cup water

1. In a food processor, finely mince the garlic. Add the lemon juice, tahini paste, water, and salt and run the food processor until well-blended. Adjust the seasonings to taste.

2. Serve on salad. Pairs esp. well with chicken served on salad. Enjoy!

Variations: Add cracked pepper to the dressing. Or try adding spices from my hummus–I’m considering cayenne, Aleppo red pepper, cumin, Smoked Spanish Paprika, though not all at once!

 

© Elizabeth Taylor – 2011

Weekend Brunch a Hit

On Saturday, I hosted a “coordinated-potluck” brunch for my friends. I was trying to keep the menu on the healthier side while still providing plenty of food. Check out the menu: Self-serve waffle station w/ pure maple syrup & sliced strawberries & whipped cream on request, Canadian bacon, turkey bacon, garden salad w/ avocado and cucumber tossed with homemade sherry vinaigrette, scrambled eggs, organic Guatemalan coffee, roobais chai tea w/ milk and Truvia, mimosas, and sparkling wine.

My friends loved the food, raving about the waffles as they polished them off. Meanwhile I nibbled on the relatively healthy bacon protein sources, scrambled eggs, the salad, and the unadorned sliced strawberries. I skipped the OJ from the mimosas, preferring to avoid the high sugar content and “just” have the delicious Brut sparkling wine from Louis Bouillout.

I wanted to make the waffles a little healthier so a made a few changes from my normal buttermilk waffles from the Joy of Cooking with ingredients in my pantry. For the flour, I changed out white flour to bread flour to add gluten to prepare for my two flour substitutes. I used 1/4 cup each of flax seed meal and almond flour as a substitute for 1/2 cup total of the flour (1 3/4 cup flour in recipe total). The flax seed meal and almond flour cut down on the carbs, added healthy fats including Omega-3s, and, I hope, cut down some on the glycemic index of the waffles. Olive oil replaced the butter, and I used the minimum quantity of added fat (4 Tbsp. instead of the normal 8 Tbsp.). Olive oil cut down on the saturated fat. To make the waffles more almondy, I added about 1/4 tsp. of almond extract–next time I would try adding 1 tsp. of extract.

Next time for the waffles, I’m considering trying whole wheat flour + gluten + flax seed meal + almond meal for the flour mixture. I’d like to get more fiber into the dish, lowering the glycemic index. If you have other ideas on how to reduce the highly-processed flour and increase the fiber, let me know!

For the salad dressing, we mixed 1 Tbsp. olive oil with 1 Tbsp. sherry vinegar and a touch of balsamic vinegar, red Hawaiian sea salt, and fresh ground black pepper. A touch of honey or agave nectar would likely have had the same general effect as the balsamic–to cut the acidity of the sherry vinegar by adding a little sweetness. We dressed the entire salad with this small amount, tossing with tongs to coat.

In all, great food, friends, and conversation!

Salud!

Roasted Eggplant Fries


Have you ever just had a feeling that you should try something new in the kitchen? That the flavor combination or cooking method will just work out for you even though you haven’t done any research? That’s how I felt last week when I made what I’m calling “Roasted Eggplant Fries.”

At girls’ night last week, Rafah had purchased a couple of eggplants that she didn’t plan to use for our dinner of Stuffed Grape Leaves. I had an idea. What about cutting up the eggplant into steak fries, lightly coating with olive oil and a bit of kosher salt, and roasting in the oven for about 30 minutes? I tried it and it worked. Not only did it work, but Katie and I nearly polished off the two eggplants by the time Rafah and Erika even got to try the fries. At Rafah’s suggestion, we dipped the roasted eggplant strips in my homemade hummus. Oh my goodness! Talk about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts!

I love these eggplant fries so much that I have made them two more times this past week–once for a dinner party and once for a girls’ hangout night. Still a hit! So I have to tell you all how to make them. Trust me–this one’s easy.

Roasted Eggplant Fries


Special Equipment: Oven, baking sheet or roasting pan (nonstick is preferable), knife, cutting board

Prep Time: 10 min; Cooking Time: 15-30 min
Preheat Oven to 425º

Ingredients
4 eggplants
4 tsp. olive oil
Kosher salt to taste
Hummus, to serve (optional)

1. Rinse and dry whole eggplants.

2. Cut eggplants into about 3/4 inch strips. If eggplant is longer than 5 inches or so, cut the eggplant strips in half.

3. Apply 1 tsp. olive oil to the baking sheet, spreading with your hands to coat. Sprinkle kosher salt on the baking sheet to taste.

4. With the oil still on your hands, rub the eggplant pieces. Pour another 1/2 to 1 tsp. olive oil to your palms and rub your palms lightly to coat. Rub a set of eggplant pieces lightly to transfer olive oil to each piece while minimizing oil use. Place the lightly oiled eggplant pieces on the baking sheet, skin side up where applicable. Repeat until all pieces are lightly coated.

5. Sprinkle the eggplant pieces with kosher salt to taste. Drizzle another tsp. of olive oil over the eggplant pieces if desired.

6. Roast at 425º for about 15-25 minutes until the bottoms are nicely browned. Flip the pieces over and roast another 5 minutes or until eggplant in nicely browned but not burnt. (The eggplant fries will not be crisp.) UPDATE: I found the roasting time varies greatly depending on the packing of the eggplant fries, the thickness of the fries, and the oven in use. Also, while flipping gives the best results for appearance and texture, I have neglected to flip my eggplant fries several times and they still taste great. 🙂

7. While still warm, serve with hummus. Serves 4 as a side dish or appetizer.

Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves

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Talk about a fun girls night! My girlfriends and I just learned hands-on how to make entree-style Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves from our friend, Rafah. Rafah did all the research, contacting her aunt in Lebanon to find out how to make the stuffed grape leaves start to finish. Then Rafah guided us through the process of prepping the ground beef and basmati rice filling, rinsing the grape leaves, stuffing and filling the leaves, placing the stuffed leaves in the stockpot, and simmering the dish in a mixture of tomato paste and water for an hour.

When I tasted the first stuffed grape leaf, I was amazed at the flavor and texture! Who knew such simple ingredients could create such a delicious and intriguing main course! The grape leaves added a tangy yet complex flavor almost reminding me of coffee. We dipped the stuffed leaves into Greek yogurt and enjoyed.

I loved making and eating the stuffed leaves so much that I wanted to make them again while the memory of the process was fresh in my mind. I served them at a recent dinner with a different group of friends. I made a few changes while prepping though I kept the basic process Rafah had taught us. I learned that I far prefer the flavor and texture of 90% lean ground beef that we originally used to the 96% lean that I tried. I’m considering trying 94% lean next time to try to balance out the saturated fat intake with the flavor considerations.

Both times we chose basmati rice for its low glycemic index relative to other rices. For spices, Rafah added allspice, salt, and pepper. I added these and also tried a little cinnamon and nutmeg. If I had had my Lebanese mixed spice with me, I would have tried adding it plus the salt and pepper. When we were eating the leaves, Rafah mentioned that they should be more lemony. To try to compensate, I added about 2 Tbsp. of lemon juice to the meat and rice filling. I’m not convinced that this helped. Next time, I think a splash of lemon juice on the cooked packets would offer a sharper flavor contrast. Serving lemon wedges or slices at the table would be a nice touch.

I also tried a different technique for placing the stuffed leaved in the pot. Rafah’s technique had us make small pyramids out of the leaf packets and tie them with thread. Then these packets were placed in the stockpot lined with grape leaves. For my version, I kept the grape leaf lining to prevent the packets from burning. Then I packed the leaf cylinders tightly in layers in the pan. The cookbook I referenced said to put a plate upside down over the grape leaves, presumably to keep them pressed down during the simmering process without tying them in pyramids. I didn’t want to risk one of my white plates to an hour of simmering in a red sauce so I used a slightly smaller pot lid to press down on the packet layers.

Lastly, I paired the Stuffed Grape Leaves with a Pennsylvania Cabernet Franc, 2008, from Pinnacle Ridge on the Lehigh Valley Trail. Excellent match! I’ve generally found that VA and PA Cabernet Francs have the perfect body and vegetal flavor profile to pair beautifully with vegetable dishes.

Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves

Special equipment: Large bowl, colander or strainer, stockpot with lid, thread (optional) or plate/pot lid that fits inside of the stock pot

1.25 lb. 90% lean ground beef, raw
1.25 cups basmati rice, uncooked
1-2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. to 1 tsp. allspice
Dash of Vietnamese cinnamon (optional)
Dash of nutmeg (optional)
1/2 tsp. to 1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1 16 oz. (drained) jar grape leaves
1 16 oz. can of tomato paste
1 lemon, sliced into wedges

1. Soak the basmati rice in water for 10-20 minutes after rinsing. Meanwhile, rinse each grape leaf and allow to drain in a colander or strainer.

2. Mix equal portions of the beef and rice together with your hands until well-incorporated. You may have leftover of one of these two ingredients. Add the olive oil, spices, salt, and pepper and mix in with your hands.

3. Set up a prep station for folding the grape leaves (in front of the TV or with friends makes this part much more fun!). My station includes the stockpot, the colander full of grape leaves, the bowl of meat and rice stuffing, and wax paper for a work surface and for placing folded packets.

4. To make a packet, take a grape leaf, cut or tear off the stem, and place vein side up (shiny side down). Take 1-2 tsp. of the meat and rice stuffing and place it in the center of the leaf, in line with the vein extending from the stem. Shape the rice into a log with a pointy top. Do not overfill the leaf; there should be ample leaf left along the center vein to almost completely cover the meat when folded. Fold the pointy tip of the leaf over the meat and fold the bottom of the leaf (the side with the stem) over the meat. Holding down these sections, take the side of the leaf and wrap it over the meat mixture, pressing it down on the other side. Roll the mostly-wrapped meat section toward the other side of the leaf until meat mixture is completely wrapped. Set packet aside on the wax paper, seam side down and repeat until all the meat mixture is gone.

5. While stuffing the grape leaves, take note of grape leaves that appear less attractive or more delicate than others. Use these to line the bottom of the stockpot to prevent the packets from burning.

6. Carefully arrange the packets on the grape-leaf lined stockpot, packing them tightly. For the next layer, alternate the direction of the packets. Continue to layer until the packets are gone.

7. Mix tomato paste with water until you have enough liquid to completely cover the grape leaves and the tomato paste is completely dissolved.

8. Place the smaller pot lid or plate on top of the packets to keep them in place during simmering.

9. Pour the tomato paste mixture over the packets, ensuring they are all covered and adding 1-2 inches extra liquid to allow for some evaporation.

10. Bring to a boil on the stove top and reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer for about 1 hour, checking after 45 minutes for doneness and to see if more liquid is needed. Packets are done when the rice is cooked (soft) and meat is brown.

11. When done, remove pot from heat and serve the stuffed grape leaves warm with the cooked-down tomato paste mixture on top. Serve with lemon wedges and Greek yogurt.

Super Quick and Flavorful Meat

So I took a step outside my normal comfort zone and did some very simple stovetop cooking with meat last night. I had thin cutlets of pork and thin pieces of “hangar beef” that I bought at Grand Mart, the nearby ethnic supermarket. I was in a hurry, so I just sprinkled a variety of spice blends on each and rubbed it in with my fingers. My favorite pork seasoning was the Penzeys Sweet Curry Powder. My favorite beef seasoning was Arizona Dreaming from, you guessed it, Penzeys!

The key to having these thin cuts of meat taste good is to have a high temperature in the pan so that the outside sears/browns quickly but the inside is moist not dry. I had the pan over a medium-high heat and it was so hot that the 1 tsp. olive oil immediately began to smoke. I cooked the pork first, about 1-2 minutes per side just until each side had browned a little and the meat had stiffened slightly but not completely. I did the same with the beef. I had to cook each set of meat in batches so the pan wasn’t overcrowded–the key is to brown the meat, not steam the meat. 🙂

So after I cooked a pound of beef and a pound of pork, I sat down to try each. I have to admit that I was skeptical that a thin cut of meat could actually taste good. I cut into the curry pork cutlet with trepidation but happy that it didn’t have the characteristic ultra-white color inside of overcooked pork. I put it into my mouth and tasted it. Huh. It was actually good! Then to try the Arizona Dreaming Beef. Same thing (except not too brown inside instead of not too white)!

So now I have protein for my lunches for the week set to go!