Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Family Days and Tennis Games

There's no question about it, my family loves to cook. Sometimes when we're all together, it goes as far as waking up, throwing on our shoes for a mourning walk to stretch away our yawns and what do we talk about? Dinner of course. As we walk and talk, our ideas bounce back and forth just like we we're playing one of our regular tennis games. "What should we make tonight?" Serve. "Something light and healthy." Bounce. "What do we have in the house?" Nice forehand. "I don't think we have very much." Oh no, somebody save it! "Hey I noticed we have ginger, what can we do with that?" Yes over! "Let's do a creative Asian inspired dish." Bounce. "Something with mango, cilantro, maybe pork or chicken with a spicy vinaigrette for a salad." Slice. "Hmmm tricky, but I think we can do it." Hit! "Actually I saw this great recipe from SmittenKitchen that has all of that, we should check it out." Down the line. "Ooh sound good." Score!

SmittenKitchen has to be one of my favorite blog sites, everything she makes inspires me and her photography is breathtaking. It's so good that she recently started selling some of her prints off her website, check it out. If you read her blog religiously (*cough* like I do) then you know she's a very detail oriented person (also *cough* like me) and her food is just amazing. Anyway, needless to say this recipe popped up in my mind the last time I was home not only for it's simplicity but for it's light, colorful, and fun nature while still having complex and unusual flavors. Bonus points for being uniquely creative. The only change we made was using pork tenderloin instead of the shoulder. After putting it all together, everything about it; from the sweet and salty dressing and the melt in your mouth pork to the crunch of fresh vegetables, won our hearts. It was a complete victory. Game. Set. Match.

Cellophane Noodle Salad With Roast Pork

Adapted by SmittenKitchen who adapted it by
Gina Marie Miraglia Eriquez, Gourmet, June 2006

Makes 10 first-course servings.

For pork
1 (1-lb) solid piece boneless pork butt (shoulder), halved along the grain*
1/4 cup hoisin sauce
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup Chinese rice wine or sake
1 tablespoon finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt

For dressing
3/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1/2 cup peanut or vegetable oil**
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons finely grated peeled fresh ginger
1 large fresh jalapeno chile, seeded and minced

For salad
8 oz very thin bean-thread noodles (also known as cellophane, glass, or mung bean noodles)
3/4 lb Chinese long beans (1 bunch) or green beans, trimmed and cut into 3-inch pieces
1 seedless cucumber (usually plastic-wrapped; about 1 lb), halved lengthwise and sliced diagonally 1/8 inch thick
1 bunch scallions, cut into matchsticks
1 firm-ripe mango, peeled, pitted, and thinly sliced
2 thin carrots, cut into 1/8-inch-thick matchsticks
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh small basil leaves

Make pork:
Cut pork along the grain into long 1 1/2- to 2-inch-wide strips. Remove and discard any sinew but do not trim fat. Transfer pork to a large sealable plastic bag. Stir together remaining pork ingredients in a small bowl until combined well. Add to pork and turn to coat, then squeeze bag to eliminate as much air as possible and seal. Marinate pork, chilled, at least 4 hours but no longer than 24.

Put oven rack in lower third of oven and preheat oven to 375°F. Put 1/2 inch water in a 13- by 9-inch roasting pan and place a metal rack across top of pan (rack should not touch water).

Remove pork from marinade, reserving marinade, and arrange pork strips 1 inch apart on rack. Roast in oven 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring marinade to a boil in a 1-quart saucepan, then boil 1 minute (marinade may look curdled). Remove from heat.

Brush both sides of pork with some marinade and roast 10 minutes more. Generously brush both sides of pork with marinade again and roast, basting 2 or 3 times, 10 minutes more.

Increase oven temperature to 400°F and roast pork until strips are mahogany-colored and caramelized on edges, 10 to 15 minutes more (pork should roast for a total of about 50 minutes). Transfer to a cutting board and let stand, loosely covered with foil, 10 minutes.

Make dressing while pork roasts:
Blend together all dressing ingredients in a blender until smooth. Stir before using.

Cook noodles and beans for salad while pork finishes roasting:
Soak noodles in cold water to cover until pliable, about 15 minutes, then drain in a colander. Cut noodles in half with kitchen shears.

Cook beans in a 5- to 6-quart pot of boiling salted water, uncovered, until crisp-tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer with a skimmer or slotted spoon to a large bowl of ice and cold water to stop cooking, reserving cooking liquid in pot. Drain beans and pat dry.

Return bean-cooking liquid to a boil, then cook noodles, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until just tender, about 2 minutes. Drain noodles in colander and rinse under cold water to stop cooking. Drain noodles again, then spread out on paper towels and pat dry.

Assemble salad:

Cut as much pork as desired for salad across the grain into 1/4-inch-thick slices.***

Toss noodles with 1/4 cup dressing in a bowl. Toss long beans with 2 tablespoons dressing in another bowl.

Arrange pork, noodles, beans, and remaining salad ingredients on a large platter. Drizzle with some of dressing and serve remaining dressing on the side.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Sweet Celebrations

I'm always up for a challenge and I tend to be a perfectionist. So I guess it comes to no surprise that I have a collection of recipes that I want to try over and over again, tweaking and revising, until I reach the exact flavor, color, texture, etc. I want. What falls under that category you ask? Hmmmm let's see, chocolate chip cookies (anybody read the now famous New York Times recipe?), scones (a sad fact that my mom begs me to bring her scones from work instead of asking me to bake her homemade ones), omelets (I can never get the top to flip without breaking, very irritating), are just some on the list. The more I cook and bake, the more the list grows. But nothing beats the challenge of one thing, the thing that I've been toying with for years: cheesecake.

Oh my gosh, the methods are endless! From all cheese, to adding milk, sour cream, whipping cream, flour, cornstarch, and even *gasp* water. I mean water? And I cannot even tell you how many accounts I've read of what people have gone through to prevent their cheesecakes from cracking (the true sign of a good cheesecake). Some people preheat their oven, turn it off, and then just leave it in their oven for seven hours. SEVEN hours. There's also the waterbath, or I guess correctly said bain marie, which is the perfect solution and does the trick beautifully but it's kind of a hassle. Needless to say, cheesecake has captured my attention and any chance I get to try it again with a whole new set of ingredients and variations, I'm down. So....two girls at my work were turning twenty one, and at the request and my delight, one of them (Kasey) asked for a cheesecake. It was all I could do to stop myself from dancing. I know, I know, I'm a nerd.

But more exciting than that was I finally got it, my eureka! moment. After mentally scanning through the list in my head of all my options, I got fed up, went straight into my kitchen and starting baking. And it turned out perfect, just the way I've been looking for all this time. Tall and thick but with a wonderfully creamy inside, sweet but not overly with the tang of sour cream and lemon to contrast. So good! The recipe I'm giving you is for a plain cheesecake but as you can see from the pictures, I ended up making it strawberry. Cheesecake is one of those things where besides the variations of making it, there are also endless flavors. Fortunately it's easy to mess with a basic recipe to get what you want. Like substitute the graham cracker crust with chocolate wafers or add pumpkin puree to the batter for a thanksgiving treat. I also love melting down chocolate, or getting jams and adding it in to the already poured batter in a swirl like motion to get beautiful color contrast. So have fun and play with it. Just remember three things when making a cheesecake 1) all ingredients should be at room temperature, 2) never over mix, learn the art of folding, and 3) you need to keep the oven humid to prevent cracking but instead of a water bath, I put a pan full of water at the bottom of my oven and place my cheesecake on the rack above it. Oh wait, I forgot, maybe four things, give it plenty of time to cool off or else the rapid change in temperature will cause cracking as well. Okay I'm done, promise. So I guess it's official, the oldest member of my list can finally be crossed out, it's almost sad. Almost.

Perfectly Plain Cheesecake
By Julia Canavera

1 ½ cups crushed graham crackers
2-3 Tbsp. Sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. ground ginger
6-8 Tbsp. melted butter

2 lb. cream cheese
1 ½ cups sugar
1 cup sour cream
3 Tbsp. flour
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
Zest of one lemon
Juice of one lemon
2 eggs
2 egg yolks

*Make sure everything is at room temperature

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Combine graham crackers, sugar, cinnamon, and ginger in a bowl. Slowly pour in the melted butter until crackers combine and hold their shape when pressed together. Press into a 8”-9” spring form pan and bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes. Take out and let cool. Lower oven to 300°F and put a pan filled with water in the bottom of the oven. (This will help to prevent the cheesecake from cracking without having to go through the trouble of doing a water bath.)

Next combine cream cheese, sugar, sour cream, and flour, beating until light and fluffy. Stir in extracts and lemon zest and juice. In another bowl beat the eggs and egg yolks until thoroughly combined and slightly lighter in color. Slowly pour into the cream cheese mixture and fold. Try to be careful and not over stir as this will also create cracks. Take cool spring form pan and butter the sides where graham cracker crust stops. Pour in cheesecake mixture and put in oven. Let bake for one hour. After an hour, turn the oven off and let the cheesecake sit for another 45 minutes to another hour. Make sure the center is still jingly, that means the cheesecake isn’t over baked and will set up once cool. Take out of oven and let sit on the counter too cool to room temperature (about 2 hours). Then put in refrigerator to chill and set up completely for at least 4 hours. (I just let mine sit overnight).

To make the strawberry variation, I bought good quality preserves and heated it up until it was liquidly (if you need to, add a little bit of water). Then pour half of the batter into the baked crust, spoon strawberry jam over the top and use a knife to make swirls. Add the other half of batter and if you wish, spoon more jam over the top and swirl for presentation. I cut up fresh strawberries and glazed the top with my leftover preserves.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Berry Beginnings

How do you like to start your days? For most of my life I grew up starting it with nothing... meaning skipping breakfast. Just the thought of eating made me nauseous besides who had the time? Out of bed until the very last second, still trying to shake my dreamy state, and with school starting in 10 minutes it was amazing I made it down the stairs much less eat a decent meal. And don't even ask about lunch (I skipped those too). College was kind of a wake up call to that mourning haze. I choose to take a nutrition class for one of my core electives and I will never forget the professor that taught it, Mrs. Getty. A short plump little woman with cute roller-curl blond hair whose quickness and energy swept across the whole 300 seater classroom bringing all the students to the edge of their seats, drinking in her words. She had the best analogies and always found articles or hot topics that would interests us, sparking conversations with not only her but each other. "Breakfast", she told us pearing over her glasses with laughing eyes and a hidden smile, "is the most important meal of the day as I'm sure you've heard but why? Who can tell me why?" A hush fell over the classroom, most of us too shy to attempt her question while 299 people looked at us. "Because", she patiently continued, "your body is like a car that needs fuel. If your car doesn't have any gas what's going to happen when you turn the key? It doesn't start and even if it does, it won't go for very long."

Simply told but such an important basic and you don't have to look hard for the many scientific studies done that show the correlation between lower weight and better health to breakfast eating. From then on I've tried to eat breakfast every mourning. One of my favorites? Plain yogurt with blueberries, cinnamon, and honey. I like plain for the mere fact that I know for sure that there isn't any kind of syrup or sugar hidden in it, some brands have as much as 7 tsp. of sugar in it! Oh and yogurt is so healthy! Full of live active cultures that fight against unfriendly bacteria but add to the friendly ones, good for the digestive tract, has anticancer properties, the ability to lower cholesterol, source of complete protein, has calcium, vitamin B2, vitamin B12, potassium, magnesium, and zinc. Plus powerful blueberries chalk full of antioxidants (fights against free radicals that damage cell membranes and DNA and ultimately causes many degernerative diseases) and cinnamon (interestingly fights type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and digestive aliments). Now isn't that the breakfast of champions!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Welcome Home

Ahhhh home. It truly is my haven. And I got to be there for one whole week! Well, plus two days if you want to be specific. There really is nothing better than having two smiling parents with arms wide open to engulf me with their love as soon as I step out of my car, a little tired from the five hour trip. Once bags are brought in and our rambunctious year old lab, aka the third daughter, is settled down all of our attention turns to dinner. It's not hard, our house usually smells wonderful with the aroma of whatever concoction we whimfully made and this day was no exception. The air was thick with the flavors of bubbling tomato sauce and rich wine. Seasoned chicken laid out, a pile of mushrooms were awaiting the chopping block, and innocent looking fresh herbs graced the counter tops. It was the mess before the masterpiece: Chicken Marsala.

As a family favorite it was just what I needed to come home to. And I even got to make the polenta, with my great grandfather's polenta spoon! I am way too excited about that! As far as a recipe, eventually I might put it up. It actually comes from a book called The Hill, which if any of you St. Louis people are reading know what that's about. For those of you who don't, The Hill is a patch of the city that's pretty much 100% Italian. Unfortunately I've never gotten the chance to go to any of the amazing restaurants I've heard about but oh my gosh, if you ever go you have to go to Volpi's, it's extremely necessary. That and Imo's. Sooooo good, if I eat pizza it's there. And the local bakery for cannoli's with the perfect cherry, chocolate chip, and ricotta cream ratio. Okay sorry, I got off topic. Anyway it's a great book about the history of The Hill and packed with time tested recipes so needless to say we love it. Can't you see the love?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Don't Cry Honey

I'm kind of clumsy. Actually really clumsy. Like trip over shoelaces while running, fall down the stairs at church, set off the smoke detector when cooking, clumsy. At work it's become an inside joke to say you've pulled a Julia if you manage to stick your fingers into the side of a cake and I literally lose my spatula a good five times a day. My co-workers can attest. Endearing? Maybe. Annoying? Yes. So I guess it should be of no surprise that I dropped my brand new jar of honey, spilling the precious liquid into a sweet golden puddle. It all started with my joy of finding a big bottle of honey at my favorite grocery store for the low price of $6.99 from $10.99. Granted $6.99 is still pretty high so my inward battle began. Well, I thought, I do use honey a lot. Besides what a deal, I mean it's 48 ounces. Let's see, the top is a screw on cap as opposed to the snap down lid. Hey, that should keep our pesky sugar ants out. Sold! Happily I placed it in my grocery cart with thoughts of honey dripping treats.

Once home I decided to put my honey to good use on a granola bar recipe. I've been wanting to try out granola bars for a while and finally set aside the time to make them for my friend Michael, one of my go-to taste testers. I went through some combinations in my head and finally settled on apple and cinnamon due to his love affair for anything apple but funnily enough, apples themselves. Everything is going smoothly until I get to the honey. Unscrewing the lid, I peel off the safety paper, pick up the giant jug and carefully pour a stream of sweet goodness into a well oiled one cup measurer. Beautiful, I thought, as the sunlight reflected off the fair hue. I grabbed the lid and securely fasten the top. Ah ha! Take that sugar ants! Just try getting into my honey now, I devilishly thought. And then, as if God had heard my defiance, the honey jar slips through my butter finger hands and lands with a loud thud on the floor, immediately oozing out sticky goo. Noooo! I cried, frantically finding something to scoop up what could be salvaged. From that point on the recipe was doomed to fail (that's for Micheal too). Actually it really wasn't that bad. I saved most of my honey and although my intent was to make granola bars, that didn't work out either and I ended up with a cinnamon sigh worthy batch of granola. Perfect for passing out to all my friends.
Apple Cinnamon Granola
3 cups rolled oats
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
1/4 cup flax seeds
1/2 cup sesame seeds

2 cups puffed rice
2 cups dried apples (can use any dried fruit if you wish)

1 cup honey
1 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
2 Tbsp. vanilla

Turn the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the first four ingredients and put on baking sheet. Let toast in the oven for 20-25 minutes, turning to make sure nothing burns.
Meanwhile heat the honey, salt, butter, and brown sugar together in a sauce pan until all is mixed throughly. Take off heat and add vanilla and cinnamon.
Once first mixture has been toasted, all the rice cereal and dried fruit, then pouring the honey mixture on top. Mix well and place back in oven for another15-20 minutes, once again stirring occasionally so not to burn. Take out and let sit. If you like your granola to be in chunks, let it cool almost completely and break apart. If you like it to be more cereal like, stir while cooling.