Monday, November 29, 2010

Cranberry Walnut Salad With Apple Vinaigrette

I have always found salads quite complicated to come up with, believe it or not.  (At this point, you may be thinking "weirdo" but I can live with that!) So, recently, I have been making the effort to come up with salads on my own and boldly go forth into all manner of salad experiments. I learned a few things:

a) salads are fun to put together
b) you can put ANYTHING you want in them
c) no one will say "no" to some greenery on a plate :)
d) you can make your own salad dressing, and it can be ANYTHING you want it to be!

So, for Thanksgiving, I wanted to come up with a nice salad that would complement the rest of my dinner. And this Cranberry Walnut salad with Apple Vinaigrette came together at the very last minute, when I got sudden inspiration from the cranberries and walnuts that went into the stuffing. The apple vinaigrette was a last-minute happy invention, because the apple cider vinegar happened to be sitting in front of all the others on the shelf, and it occurred to me that I could mix it with olive oil and that would taste good with all the salad elements I had thus far chosen. Who knew! The flavors ended up going well together, and packed quite a punch. It was well-received at dinner and I already got two requests for the recipe, so I thought that warranted posting!

Cranberry Walnut Salad With Apple Vinaigrette

You can use any vegetables you want/have on hand. I used spinach and mixed greens, chopped carrots, chopped celery, chopped cucumbers, dried cranberries, and chopped walnuts. The apple vinaigrette is the best part though, The proportions are: 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and 1 tablespoon white sugar. Whisk these together very well and toss with salad just before serving. Yum!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Dinner And A Movie

Dinner and a movie. It's completely clichéd, isn't it? The same old go-to date itinerary. But somehow, in our house, it just doesn't get old. Since we do it about twice a year, and we really look forward to it each time, it has stayed pretty classic...dinner and a movie.

This afternoon, my husband took me out on a date to go see Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part I, entirely his own idea, followed by a quick and comforting dinner. He really did live to please, today. After the movie, we wondered what to do for dinner. I mentioned that I could go for some hot soup (in my head I was thinking French Onion, and I knew Panera always had it) so I suggested Panera. Done. He even knew which location was closest to us, and off we went. He never ceases to amaze me!

The soup hit the spot. I got French Onion (in a bread bowl, of course) and Ryan got Black Bean. It was simple, delicious, and hit the spot.

I remember going to Panera all the time in college with friends. We would go there with our books to study. Occasionally, we would time our visits to coincide with "closing time", which meant, we scored bagels and other things they were just going to throw away anyway. What a poor hungry student will do for "free food", it really is every college kid's kryptonite. I wonder if these restaurants still do things like that?

Fully charged from my date evening, I'm ready to take on this week!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Butternut Squash Red Curry

I’ve had some butternut squash sitting on my kitchen counter for a while now…and it seemed like a good idea to use one in an interesting new curry. I also had a red curry craving at the time. So the decision for Butternut Squash Red Curry was pretty easy to settle on. I really like Curried Butternut Squash Soup….this couldn’t be too different, I figured. And it turned out well! We had some people over last Wednesday when I made this, and it was all devoured pretty fast. Between the color, the flavor and the heat (it is very spicy!), it was a decent hit.

All you really need is some squash, red curry paste, some fresh basil, and a thickener of some sort - I used light coconut milk. You can do a lot of things with red curry paste, so easily available in jars at asian food stores, or most grocery stores. Here is the recipe:

Butternut Squash Red Curry

You will need:
1/2 of a butternut squash, seeded, peeled, and diced into 1/4" cubes
1/2 cup sliced onions
1/2 tsp minced fresh garlic
1/2 tsp chopped fresh ginger
1 tsp fresh basil, chopped
2 heaped tablespoons red curry paste
1 serrano pepper
1 cup water, or more, as needed
1/2 cup light coconut milk
1 tablespoon veg oil

Heat up the oil in a wide, shallow skillet on medium heat. Saute the onions, and garlic until softened. Add the ginger, stir well. Add the diced butternut squash, and let sit covered on medium heat for about ten minutes, or until it is cooked halfway through. You can tell when it's halfway done when your spatula can squish the edges of a piece of squash but not go all the way through. At this point, add the red curry paste and stir until well combined, for one or two minutes. Add the water, it should be enough to cover the squash. Bring up to a boil. Once boiling, lower the heat to a simmer, then add the coconut milk and the basil. Simmer covered for 10 minutes. Butternut Squash Red Curry done!
You can put chicken in this, to please those who “like their meat” at your house :) Just add it in while sautéeing the onions. Also, substituting chicken stock instead of water will give it a richer flavor.

Serve warm, over hot cooked rice. (I served it with leftover fried rice, which worked out pretty well too.) You should really also garnish with some green stuff, like cilantro or green onions, which, in hindsight, I wish I had! Enjoy!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Smoked Salmon Cucumber Rolls

I ushered in my Thanksgiving dinner yesterday with this refreshingly light appetizer. I figured, we could all use a palate cleanser before the onset of all the rich Thanksgiving food! Those who like smoked salmon or lox with cream cheese and bagels will love these Smoked Salmon Cucumber Rolls. I saw it in a magazine once, but modified it a bit to make it my own:

Here is the recipe:

You will need -
1 medium sized cucumber
2 oz. smoked salmon, cut into thin strips
4 oz reduced fat cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 tsp prepared horseradish
1/4 tsp coriander powder (trust me)
pinch red chilli powder (again, trust me)
pinch turmeric (I heard that!)
5-6 uncut fresh chives
black pepper
a vegetable peeler

Mix softened cream cheese with horseradish, coriander powder, chilli powder, and turmeric.
Make long strips of cucumber using your vegetable peeler. I like leaving just a little bit of skin on the edges, I think it looks prettier that way.
Wipe cucumber strips dry with a clean kitchen towel or paper towel.
Spread cream cheese mixture into cucumber strips and roll them up, and stand them up straight.
Arrange smoked salmon, and cut up chives on top. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
(You can make this entire thing a day ahead of time and refrigerate until serving time, but if you do this put a paper towel on the plate before setting the rolls on top because the cucumber and cream cheese will release a bit of water when they sit like that and you don't want to serve them swimming on a plate!) Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

My First Grey Hair

Picture this. I wake up last Saturday to a beautiful sunrise outside the bedroom window, Ryan is next to me, the dogs are whining to be let outside, everything is normal. I wash my face wash in cold water, brush my teeth, and race off to the gym. I take my jacket off, and adjust my headband in the locker room. And there she was...

In the dull, unflattering, fluorescent light, perched atop my head, sticking out from under my headband, and staring back at me in the mirror. My first grey hair. Twice as thick as the rest of my hair, and twice as straight as the rest of my hair. I knew it would happen someday. But, at the tender age of twenty-six???

I had two choices. Fight or flight. Panic was slowly starting to set in. But after my workout (great timing to relieve some stress), and a mild meltdown at home in front of Ryan, I decided to embrace it. Grey hair. Big deal. I knew a girl in school who had at least ten or fifteen grey hairs and she was only sixteen years old. I could be facing much worse things, I suppose. And, plenty of people have reminded me that it has nothing to do with age.

So, here's Marie.

Yes, I named it. It is part of the embracing strategy. And anyone who has ever watched Everybody Loves Raymond will  know why I picked that name. Well, Marie and I are off to begin our day now.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Two Tragedies Of Shredded Wheat

My husband Ryan always says "there are two tragedies in life...getting what you want, and not getting what you want." I expect he heard someone say it, or read it somewhere. But this makes sense, and I love hearing him say it. Not just because Ryan is very wise for remembering it but because it is true. I'll explain in a minute.

For years and years I have been coaxing him to get up an an insane hour (4:55 a.m.) and come to the gym with me in the early mornings. I don't know what it was, but a few weeks ago, something inside him snapped and he made up his mind to tackle a personal challenge head on. So, as of a couple of weeks ago, he has been getting up early in the mornings and coming to the gym with me, three times a week. I am so proud of him. This is the 'getting what I want' part of the story.

Now, he is also motivating himself to eat better. So, we talked about various things we would do to make sure he gets more fiber, cut back on fat, and making sure we always have breakfast in the morning. I told him that I used to eat Kashi cereal pretty regularly back in my college/single years, and he said that sounded good. So, this week Ryan went to the grocery store, and proudly returned with a box of...Shredded Wheat. And he exclaims to me, "no fat and 8 grams of fiber, thank you very much!" And I go "what happened to Kashi!?" You may have guessed by now that this is the 'not getting what I want' part of the story.

For those of you don't know what Shredded Wheat is or have not eaten the cereal before, it's not hard to imagine. It tastes exactly how it sounds. But, we resolved to finish the box. Actually, HE resolved to finish the box. I am just eating it because a) I can't stand the thought of wasting food, and b) I can't stand the thought of the man I love eating cardboard-like material all by his lonesome self. Besides, 8 grams of fiber in the morning is inherently a good idea, regardless of what form it is in. I can respect that.

So there you have it, folks. Two tragedies.

The best news though, is that the box is almost half empty now.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Three Days Of Curries

I have really been into curry these past few days. Quite inadvertently, too. What started out as an innocent attempt to serve a nice Indian meal to some friends turned in to a "curry frenzy" in an attempt to satisfy all sorts of sudden cravings (women will understand).

It all started last Friday. Some friends came over for dinner and, because they had never eaten homecooked Indian food before, I decided to serve them a variety. I wanted one of those things to be a good chicken dish. Unfortunately, I only decided this on Friday morning, a mere six hours before my guests were due to arrive. So, I did something I hardly ever do. I tried a chicken with 'thin gravy' recipe from one of the Indian cookbooks I have (without first testing it), and served that. It was okay, and was a nice accompaniment to the rest of the meal. But it was decidedly bland compared to what I was actually craving. I kept dreaming of the spicy chicken curries I ate growing up (it is hardly the same as your grandmother's or mother's when you attempt to make it yourself!) And, previously mentioned cookbook shall remain unnamed due to the fact that I have now tried four other recipes from it with which I have been equally unimpressed, to say the least. One good recipe for every four bad ones does not a good cookbook make. Hmph. A big fat NON-kudos to whoever published it.

But anyway, I put away the first batch of chicken and was determined not to let the weekend go past without making a richer, spicier curry, one that WOULD put this craving to rest, and to have in the fridge for the coming week. So, on Saturday afternoon, I looked through one of my favorite cook books, Recipes For All Ocassions Part I, by Mrs. B. F. Varughese, and picked a new chicken curry recipe to try - she has two other ones in that book. (Mrs. B. F. Varughese was not only a great-aunt of mine, but also a well-known cook in India and probably the most trusted cooking authority within the extensive Syrian Christian diaspora.) So, I can't go wrong with this one! My mom brought me my very own copy of her Part I book on her first trip to visit me in the States. These books are not easy to find. I would love to get Part II and Part III as well (hint).

Needless to say, the second curry turned out really well, thanks to Mrs. B. F. Varughese's wonderful recipe. It is full of chili peppers...yum! So, here it is, with just three modifications - I left out the tomatoes because I didn't have any on hand, I didn't have fresh grated coconut so I substituted that with coconut milk, I don't cook with ghee (clarified butter) because the smell of it makes my husband want to hurl so I just used vegetable oil.

Chicken Curry

You will need:
All the meat from 1 good sized chicken
1/2 lb Potatoes
1 piece ginger
2 cups sliced onion
6 green chillies (I used 3 very large jalapenos, or you can use serrano peppers)
10 dry red chillies
1 tsp garlic
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp turmeric powder
2 tbsp coconut milk
2 tbsp plain yogurt
4 tbsp veg oil
2 cups water
salt to taste

Grind the dry red chillies, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, garlic, and the turmeric. Fry the onion and then add the ground up spice mixture, ginger, and green chillies. After this is fried well, add the chicken pieces. Pour in about 2 cups of water, and add salt, put the lid on and allow the curry to simmer. Add the potatoes and cook covered. When the potatoes are cooked, blend in the coconut milk and yogurt. Bring up to a boil, then remove from heat. Serve hot, with cooked hot rice.

My next curry adventure will most likely be Butternut Squash Red Curry...hopefully, tomorrow night's dinner! Check back for the recipe.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Rocky Road...From Memories To Cake

I needed to make a dessert to contribute to a luncheon this Sunday. So I sought inspiration, for this Rocky Road cake, from one of my favorite childhood memories.

My first experience, and memory, of the Rocky Road ice-cream flavor was when I was about eleven years old. A curious, bright-eyed kid growing up in India. My grandparents and I were visiting my uncle and aunt in Bangalore over my September holidays from school. A Baskin Robbins had newly opened its doors in Bangalore and we all went there one afternoon for ice-cream. I had never even heard of Baskin Robbins before, let alone have the choice of 31 different flavors of ice cream! It was like a dream. I remember thinking 'this could definitely take a while'...but I also remember eventually picking a single scoop of Rocky Road in a sugar cone. It looked so good through the glass...mounds of rich chocolate ice cream, flecked with tiny marshmallows, and roasted almonds. It was heavenly! Who would have guessed that something called "Rocky Road" could taste so divine?

Filled with new inspiration, I wanted to figure out a way to translate the memories into a scrumptious dessert. Obviously, I could not serve ice cream at the luncheon (or could I?) I decided to make a cake.

To my delight, it was not difficult, and it ended up being really fun to put together! I started with two round layers of German Chocolate cake, then frosted it with a coconut-almond frosting, then pressed marshmallows, almonds and chocolate chips all the way around it. The fun part was doing the almond "road" on top. Granted, the craftsmanship is a bit shoddy (try to ignore the "bald spots"), but I can't wait to dish it up. Hope it goes over okay at the luncheon.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Pumpkin Desserts

In our house, I am the only one who likes pumpkin pie. Ryan won't eat it. And this is sad for me because I love pumpkin pie during the holidays. When I ask him why he doesn't like pumpkin pie, he says "it's the combination of texture and flavor" or something vague like that. I say vague because he likes the flavor of pumpkin, just not in pie form. Okay. Rather than argue with him (which is often a temptation but often completely pointless), and rather than make a pumpkin pie just for me, I have been experimenting with new pumpkin desserts. A few years ago I started making Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies, and they have quickly become a house favorite. Pumpkin Pudding is new this season...this batch was delicious, but only time will tell whether or not it becomes a favorite. Here are the recipes for both.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 cup pure pumpkin
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup veg. oil
1 egg
2 cup all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp milk
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
Mix pumpkin, sugar, veg oil, and egg. In a separate bowl, sift flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Dissolve baking soda with milk and stir into flour mixture. Add flour mixture to pumpkin mixture and stir well. Add vanilla, and chocolate chips. Drop by spoonful onto greased cookie sheet, and bake at 350 degrees F for 10 minutes or until lightly browned and firm. Cool completely, and store in airtight container. Cookies will be soft and chewy. Enjoy!

Pumpkin Pudding

6 tbsp white sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch
1 3/4 cup skim milk
1 egg
1/2 cup pure pumpkin
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp salt
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
Combine 6 tbsp sugar and 2 tbsp cornstarch in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Combine milk and egg, whisking together well, add gradually add to the sugar mixture. Stirring constantly, bring to a boil. Let it boil for one minute, stirring well, and remove from heat. Combine pumpkin, vanilla, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg, and add to the milk mixture, whisking constantly. Put pan over low heat, whisking constantly, and cook for three or four minutes, until heated through but do not boil. Pour pudding into dessert bowls, cover surface with plastic wrap and let chill for several hours. Serve chilled, topped with whipped cream and candied pecans or candied walnuts. Enjoy!

Hope you enjoy these recipes. I think my next pumpkin adventure will be Pumpkin Creme Brûlée! I think that will be really fun.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Game Night

Ryan and I love board games, and getting together with others to share this love :) So that is exactly what we did last night. We had some fellow "under 30ish" friends over for games, talk, food and drink, and laughs. And we had several laughs, indeed!

In an effort to maximize time with my guests, keep the food and drinks coming, and make clean up a snap, these are a few simple rules I follow:

1) Drippy food = bad. Try to avoid anything too saucy or soupy, it WILL spill.

2) Food on sticks = good! Make oily foods as "touch-free" as possible. Put as many foods as you can on skewers/toothpicks. (Chips may be the exception.) The last thing you want is an undesirable sheen on your game pieces or dice.

3) Keep the path around drinks and food cleared of chairs, stools, or other obstacles to avoid traffic jams.

4) Put extra coasters out on end tables and other surfaces...people will like that they are easy to find.

5) Show guests where recyclables (glass bottles and such) go, and where the garbage is so paper plates and napkins can go directly there! All of my guests cleaned up after themselves, which was a nice surprise for me later!

6) This one is my favorite - if you have dogs, let them loose after the party. They will save you the effort of cleaning crumbs and food off the floors :)

Now for the food. Here are some fun foods that we served last night. These are super easy to make and can be prepped days ahead of time.

Cheese and Spinach Tortellini

Dress up store-bought pasta (like boil-and-serve tortellini!) by serving them on skewers and putting them on a nice plate. You can do all this ahead of time and just heat up the plate before your guests arrive. Drizzle with just a touch of olive oil and fresh cracked black pepper just before serving. Leave the pesto on the side for those who don't care for the green stuff! Or, better yet, serve marinara sauce on the if only I had thought of that last night! I guess hindsight really is 20-20.

Buffalo Chicken Dip

This zingy dip is extremely popular around these parts, particularly in our circle of friends. Another dish that can be assembled ahead of time and just heated up in the oven before guests arrive. Here is my version:
You'll need:
1 pkg cream cheese, softened
2 cups cooked, shredded chicken breast
1/2 bottle Frank's buffalo wing sauce
1/2 cup ranch dressing
2 cups shredded monterrey jack cheese
Spread softened cream cheese in the bottom of a 9x13 pan. Mix chicken breast meat with buffalo wing sauce, and spread this over the cream cheese. Drizzle the ranch dressing over this. Top with shredded cheese, and bake at 350 degrees F until cheese has melted and is bubbly.  Serve warm. Really good with tortilla chips.

Cocktail Bites

Who doesn't like cheese, olives, and meat at a party? Throw them all on toothpicks in varying combinations and you're done. They sell mini pepperoni slices (not quite as wide as a penny!) in stores now, those are just perfect for these. Pair with cut up cheese cubes and manzanilla olives and you're all set. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Penne With Blue Cheese Sauce

N: Hon, I put blue cheese in the sauce for the pasta, hope it turns out okay.
R: Smells good.
N: How do you know when blue cheese goes bad?
R: I don't know...I didn't think it ever went bad.
N: Hmm. You can't really tell if there is mold on this.
R: That's okay. We'll just eat it.
N: Okay.
R: As long as we're on the same page.

Julia Child always said that one should be fearless in the kitchen, and I have clung to that statement ever since I first heard it. So...tonight I dug out the blue cheese from all the way in the back of the cheese tray in the fridge, fairly certain that it has been there since mid-September, and bravely put it in the white sauce for the penne we had for dinner tonight. The pasta was, quite unexpectedly, delicious!

The sauce is very easy to make. For 6 servings, melt 1/2 cup butter in a large saucepan, and add 2 tbsp flour to make a roux. Then add about 3/4 cup milk, stir until all lumps are gone and let thicken over medium heat, stirring constantly. Then add 1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese and stir until well combined. The sauce will turn an unsightly grayish color, but that's is just absorbing the blue cheese color. It should thicken in a couple of minutes. I also had some kale and chopped ham on hand, so I added those to the sauce as well, and stirred over low heat until the kale wilted. Add cooked penne, and dinner is ready. Enjoy!

Monday, November 1, 2010

When FUNdraising Is FUN

Our local Culver's had a fundraising event all day today. The fundraiser is that they will donate fifteen percent of all their sales, today only, to the local Humane Society which is moving to a new location and is in desperate need of financial help to keep those poor little animals cared for. So, I urged my fellow animal loving friends to go to Culver's, and we went too. I got a single scoop "flavor of the day" (which happened to be "Turtle" today - totally yum!) and Cheese Curds. I need to pause here in order to spend some time talking about cheese curds.

In India, the word "curds" has a very different meaning, and my desi friends would concur. It's what we in the States know as our everyday yogurt. But in Wisconsin - for my non-Wisconsin resident friends reading this - "cheese curds" are something totally unique. Picture this - very, very fresh cheese, portioned into perfect little bite-sized pieces, often salty, sometimes deep-fried, and always very, very good. It makes a squeaking sound when you bite into it. The fresher the cheese curds, the more pronounced the squeak. How incredible is that?!

If you look for cheese curds on wikipedia, you will find out that the New York Times describes the squeaking sound as "balloons trying to neck." You will also see that cheese curds are staple menu items in fast food restaurants across the midwestern US. And I love them :) What better way to support a cause?