Friday, April 8, 2011

Handy Gadgets

Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I love kitchen gadgets. They make life easier and some of them are just plain fun. Here are some of my favorite kitchen gadgets that I currently own.

PASTA MEASURE. I love this thing! It's so handy to measure out 1, 2, 3 or 4 portions of spaghetti, fettuccine, linguine, etc. You could use it for soba noodles or other Asian noodles, too. And it folds back up when you're done.

ROSLE COCKTAIL MUDDLER. I was registering for my wedding at Bed Bath & Beyond, saw this little tool and instantly fell in love. At first sight, it's really fun looking. Upon use in muddling fruits in cocktails? It works really well! Simple to use and efficient.

MELON BALLER. At first glance, you'd think this tool is quite specialized. Well, it kind of is, but I've used it on much more than melons. It works well to pull the seeds and pulps out of squash. It also makes ball shapes out of other fruits like peaches or pears. And we all know how cute those little balls of fruit looking floating in a pitcher of punch or sangria...

CHERRY/OLIVE PITTER. I've not used this for olives yet, but I LOVE this tool for cherries. During cherry season, this thing barely stays in the drawer. It gets those pits out in no time! One note, though: It's best to use this over the sink or trash can, because those pits will fly and the cherry juice can spatter. Usually the inside of my trash can looks like a murder scene after I pit a whole bowl. Yikes!

MESH STRAINER. This is a great tool and I use it all the time. This one is pretty small (3-inch), but it's great for straining out the juice in small cans of olives, chilies, pimientos, etc. I use it most often for straining the pulp/seeds out of citrus juices. It's pretty versatile and comes in bigger sizes.

MICROPLANE GRATER. As a lover of kitchen gadgets, it's hard for me to choose a favorite. But this one might be it. Citrus zest can add such great flavor to baked goods and savory entrees alike. This tool makes grating citrus fruit a snap. I love using it for hard cheeses as well, like Parmesan. And for a grater, it cleans up surprisingly easily.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Great Pizza Caper!

I've been pretty excited about capers lately. This all started after I went to visit my brother in Denver. We went to a little Neapolitan pizzeria called Proto's. We ordered their Roman pie, which was made with mozzarella, tomato sauce, kalamata olives, capers and roasted red peppers. I have to admit, I was a little hesitant at first. Capers on pizza? I wasn't so sure about it...

OMG, was I wrong to be hesitant! It was fantastic. Something about the briny, lemony little pop of the capers with the tomato sauce and the olives just worked so well! I've seriously been having dreams about this pizza ever since. So I knew I wanted to recreate it when I got back home.

I was on my own for dinner one night and decided to make myself a little Roman pizza recreation. I started with a flour tortilla (I like to use pocketless pita breads for individual pizzas but didn't have any on hand that time) and spread on a bit of homemade pizza sauce. I topped it with turkey pepperoni, sliced black olives, an Italian cheese blend and lastly, capers. Threw it in the convection oven for 10 minutes and it came out delicious!

I'd definitely like to give it another try with kalamata olives and roasted red peppers, like I had at Proto's. As is surely the same with other people, my meals can often depend on what I've got on hand at the time. But what I can tell you for sure is that I will never think twice about capers on pizza again!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Green Thumb

Despite the strong winds, yesterday's weather was beautiful! I decided to take advantage of the sunshine and plant some more herbs. I've already been growing basil, mint and a little bit of oregano. I planted the basil and oregano last spring, from seeds. The basil has been doing quite well but the oregano kind of failed.

I wanted to plant more herbs to use in cooking. I bought some already-started herbs at my local garden center. They are called Bonnie plants and come in biodegradable shells so you can just plop them down in the soil. Very simple! I purchased some more oregano (since the scant amount I have currently isn't nearly enough to use culinarily), rosemary (I tried to start some rosemary from seeds last year but they didn't take), thyme and Italian flat-leaf parsley. I'm really excited to start using my new herbs and it's always fun to watch them grow. I highly suggest growing your own herbs. It's convenient, cost-effective and enjoyable.

Below is a picture of my little herb garden, which is currently by the sliding glass door in our kitchen. I brought them inside for the winter and still have them inside currently because Missouri weather is crazy and I don't want them to die! They seem to be doing quite well by the window, though. (There's also a Greek myrtle and the beginnings of an amaryllis there, neither of which are edible. They just want to join in on the sunlight.)

From left to right: My crazy wild mint and scant oregano, basil, rosemary, Greek myrtle, amaryllis, thyme, flat-leaf parsley and oregano.

A close-up of the basil and rosemary.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Getting a Taste of Home

In my time as a home cook, I've tried a lot of recipes. As you all know, some turn out to be duds and others turn out to be keepers. One source for recipes that I know I can always count on is Taste of Home. Every Taste of Home recipe I've ever tried has been wonderful. Anytime I'm looking for something new, be it for a supper club night with friends, food day at work, or just a weeknight dinner, Taste of Home is always my go-to source. Today I want to sing the praises of The Taste of Home Cookbook, which is the best cookbook I own. It is fantastic is so many ways. It has information in it that is useful to any home cook. Some of the features that I have found useful are:

  • Guides for storing, preparing and using fruits and vegetables. I have found this very useful when buying new produce, or when I just want a refresher on how to prolong the life of say, raspberries.

  • Easy-to-follow instructive guides. This cookbook helped me make a beautiful lattice-topped pie on my first-ever attempt. Lots of pictures are included too, which is a great tool when you're not really sure if those egg whites have reached stiff peak stage yet.

  • References, glossary and indexes. To name just a few, included here are lists of ingredient substitutions, food equivalents and cuts of meat. Seriously, I can't be the only one who wants to know where on the cow that brisket came from.

Basically, this cookbook has pretty much anything the home cook could ever want to know. So much useful information and fantastic recipes. Below is one of my favorite recipes from the book. I love this recipe because it's quick, easy, healthy and flavorful.

Spaghetti Squash with Sweet Peppers courtesy Taste of Home Cookbook, 2006

1 medium spaghetti squash (2 pounds)

1/2 medium green pepper, sliced

1/2 medium sweet red pepper, sliced

4 medium fresh mushrooms, sliced

1 small onion, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 medium tomatoes, quartered (or you can use 1 14.5-oz. can of diced tomatoes, undrained)

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 cup chicken broth

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons shredded Parmesan cheese

1) Cut squash in half lengthwise; discard seeds. Place squash cut side down in a microwave-safe dish or plate. Microwave, uncovered, on high for 10-12 minutes or until tender. Cool.

2) In a large nonstick skillet, saute the peppers, mushrooms and onion in oil until tender. Add tomatoes and garlic; saute 4-5 minutes longer. Add the broth and salt; simmer, uncovered, for 3-4 minutes.

3) When squash is cool enough to handle, use a fork to separate strands. Place squash on a serving platter or individual plates; top with the pepper mixture. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Yield: 4 servings

Nutrition facts: 1/2 equals 110 calories, 5 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 4 mg cholesterol, 372 mg sodium, 13 g carbohydrates, 3 g fiber, 4 g protein.

The pepper mixture in the skillet, before adding to the spaghetti squash.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tough Critic

My new try for the day was to make corned beef and cabbage. Not groundbreaking by any means, since it is St. Patrick's Day after all. However, still totally traditional, and new to me! I've never made it before, but I was actually a little scared to! My husband has unreasonably high standards for corned beef (blame the kosher delis), and anytime I make something new, I always ask him several times, "Is it good? Should I have done anything different? Is it good enough that you want it again?" etc. How am I supposed to ask him for an honest opinion about a new endeavor when he has such high standards?! I didn't want to set myself up for disappointment.

Luckily, I discovered that much like beef brisket, corned beef brisket is pretty foolproof. Unless you slice it incorrectly or something (resulting in tough meat), you pretty much can't mess it up. I loosely followed a few different recipes for a slow cooker preparation, and it was insanely easy.

I added the following ingredients to the slow cooker:
  • baby carrots
  • small red potatoes, quartered
  • water (4 cups)
  • beer (I used about 8 oz. of Bud Select because that's what we had on hand)
  • flat cut corned beef brisket (and the included seasoning packet)

I put the first 3 ingredients in the slow cooker first, then placed the brisket on top. I poured the beer over, then rubbed the seasonings over the brisket. I cooked this on high for 8 hours. When I got home from work, I added chopped cabbage, gave it all a stir then set on high for 1 more hour. Then that was it!

One note about briskets. You can get either a point cut or flat cut brisket. The point cut is cheaper (at my market it was $1/pound cheaper), but it's fattier. The flat cut still has a layer of fat on the underside, but that is easily removable after it's cooked. I made the mistake of trimming a brisket once - bad idea! Not only is it difficult to remove while the meat is raw, but you're removing all that great flavor that the fat imparts! So if you're trying to eat healthier, like me, spend the extra $3-4 for the leaner flat cut and just remove the extra fat before you eat it. It's a win-win.

What's great about a dish like this is that you can adjust the ingredient amounts to your liking. Add more carrots, less potatoes, etc. I'll probably add more carrots next time because they had such an awesome flavor (I used two cups this time). We have lots of leftovers!

The meal was fantastic and the corned beef was so tender, juicy and flavorful. The husband gave it a 8 out of 10 (a rating of 10 being his died-and-gone-to-heaven kosher corned beef). For my first attempt, I'll definitely take that! Success. :)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Irish Soda Bread

I woke up this morning to quite the snowstorm! It's not uncommon for St. Louis to see snow in March, but today's accumulation was a bit unexpected. When it snows or ices, it's usually quite difficult for me to make it up the hill in my subdivision. This morning was no different, so I found myself waiting it out. I had a small bit of time before the next try-to-make-it-to-work attempt, so I decided to make a recipe I'd found for Irish Soda Bread. This one is from Better Homes & Gardens and has currants and oranges in it...mmmm. Sounded good to me! With St. Patrick's Day soon approaching and me wanting to try new things, I thought it would be a fun venture.

This recipe was quick, easy and fun. Here's a basic rundown.

First phase: Dry ingredients and orange zest mixed together.

All ingredients, including currants, fully combined:

About to go into the oven. Mental note: Don't stand so close to the open oven door this time... (see post from March 4, 2011)

The finished product! Pretty good looking, if I do say so myself! :)

The orange zest and currants really add a lot to this bread. Soda breads aren't generally super flavorful, but this recipe is quite delightful. I put a warm piece in a bowl with a little bit of milk, which was tasty. Spreading some honey or marmalade over a piece would be very yummy as well!

I have to say, I was not really into baking bread before this. But making this bread today was fun! I really quite enjoyed getting my hands into it, even for just a brief kneading. Kneading the dough made me remember my mom baking bread when I was little, and her teaching me how to knead the dough. This experience has opened my eyes to further baking possibilities, and I can't wait to try more breads!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Citrus-Basil Cooler

I'm going out for dinner tomorrow night at King and I (which many consider to be the best Thai food in St. Louis), which got me thinking about the Thai basil I grew last summer. Unfortunately, I didn't have much time to play with it before it all burnt up in the August heat. I started thinking about cocktails in which I could use Thai basil, or just plain basil. I've been obsessed with Cara Cara oranges lately, so I thought the two could join forces. (If you haven't tried a cara cara orange yet, you must! They have the perfect balance of sweet and tart. And they have an awesome name!)

I assembled my ingredients:
  • fresh basil leaves
  • juice of 1/2 a cara cara orange
  • vodka
  • sweetened lime juice (which I didn't use during the first run but decided on because the drink was definitely lacking without it)

I bruised the basil leaves with a muddler, then muddled them with the orange juice. I added about a jigger of vodka, 1/2 jigger of sweetened lime juice and shook with ice. Strained into a martini glass and that was that!

This Citrus-Basil Cooler is tart, citrusy and refreshing. I could drink this all year, although it would be perfect for summer. When you take a sip, the aroma of the basil hits your nose. A subtle basil flavor lingers after the citrus is gone. I didn't use exact measurements when I put this together, so you could tweak it to your liking. You could limit the tartness if you want, you could use citron vodka or unflavored, you could throw in more basil, etc.

In terms of mixology, I have so much yet to learn. However, I really enjoy a good cocktail and I know what flavors complement each other, so that's my springboard. Time to go make myself another!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Strawberry Balsamic Chicken

Whenever I was a child, my mom deemed one night a week as "Try a New Recipe Night" for our family. Tonight, my venture was similar, but more like "throw a bunch of stuff together and hope that it works... night." Once again, I attempted a dish I've never made before without the guidance of a recipe.

I wanted to make a Strawberry Balsamic Chicken using the strawberry balsamic vinegar and sweet basil EVOO I purchased at Di Olivas last week. I threw 1 pound of chicken breasts in to marinate this morning before work, with the aforementioned vinegar and EVOO, along with some salt, pepper and dried basil. I used enough liquid to coat the chicken, but there wasn't any excess (I don't want to have to discard the good stuff!).

When I got home this evening (roughly 11 hours later), I put the chicken in the oven to bake. I threw some sliced strawberries and crumbled feta cheese over the top. The feta cheese did not turn out well in this recipe, so I'll scrap that for next time. The strawberries were OK, but I think they added too much sweetness to the dish. So I'll scrap those next time, too. However, the chicken had a fantastic flavor! There was a very subtle sweetness to the chicken that came from the vinegar - this flavor was much more appetizing than the actual strawberries.

I paired the chicken with some couscous that I'd tossed with finely chopped spinach and green onions, lemon juice, salt and pepper and a drizzle of the sweet basil EVOO. Yum! The husband gave dinner two very enthusiastic thumbs up.

A good result, methinks. Another lesson learned and toying with new ingredients is always fun. Oh, and I have to apologize for the lack of pictures. I looked down at my empty plate tonight and thought, "Crap, I forgot to take a picture of the chicken!" I'm still new at this. :b

Monday, March 7, 2011

Trial and Error

Today I tried out some of my new purchases from Di Olivas, on a salad. I made a vinaigrette using the cranberry-pear balsamic and the blood orange EVOO. It wasn't as awesome as I was hoping it to be, but I need to tweak the ingredients a bit more. I was going with what I already had on hand: an overripe pear, pine nuts, baby greens and feta cheese. I thought that the feta and greens worked well. Arugula and/or goat cheese would probably be nice, too. The pear I used was too sweet that it didn't work so well with the vinaigrette. There needed to be more acidity in the salad. Maybe some citrus fruit next time, or dried cranberries. Finally, a different nut than pine nuts. I love pine nuts normally, but the flavor just didn't work this time. Maybe almonds or possibly even macadamia nuts next time...

At any rate, a work in progress. Tomorrow: spinach salad with strawberry-basil balsamic vinaigrette! I'm also toying with the idea of strawberry balsamic-roasted chicken breasts sometime in the future.

Overall, today didn't have anything life-altering in store, but it's just a Monday. I can do better tomorrow. :)

Friday, March 4, 2011

If you can't stand the heat...

As with every other day this week, I experienced something new today. However, I wouldn't say that this experience was particularly enjoyable.

It all started with me wanting to bake some muffins. Every year, my friend and her husband have people over for breakfast before the Mardi Gras parade in St. Louis' historic Soulard neighborhood. (St. Louis has the largest Mardi Gras celebration in the Midwest, and I think is only second to New Orleans in the entire country. Actually, I just learned that the word "soulard" is French for "drunkard." It's almost like they planned that...) Anyway, so I volunteered to bring muffins to the pre-parade shindig.

I found a yummy-looking recipe for cranberry-orange muffins, so I whipped up the batter and into the oven they went. I opened the door when the timer went off and, like a moron, stuck my head a little deeper into the oven than I should've. Whoosh! A huge gust of 400-degree air comes flying at me (apparently there was a hellstorm brewing in this appliance of mine) and practically burns my face. I jerked back and for a split second, worried if my eyebrows were singed off. Once I realized that they were still intact, I noticed the strangest feeling in my eyelashes. The heat had wreaked havoc on my mascara, fusing my eyelashes together! It was the weirdest feeling!

I set down the muffins to cool and went to look in the mirror. I was a spitting image of Tammy Faye Baker. WTF. I don't even want to know what is in mascara that made it react to heat that way. When we were kids, my brother and sisters and I used to tease my stepmom that mascara was made out of bat guano. I don't know where we got that idea, but I'm going to assume that's not really what it's made out of. At least that's what I'm hoping...

Anyway, a few laughs at myself and a good face-washing later, I can definitely claim a lesson learned on this one. It'll be a good story to tell tomorrow, right? Before all those Hurricanes turn me into a soulard. ;)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

An Oil & Vinegar Emporium

Today I visited Di Olivas, an oil and vinegar shop that just opened its second location in the town where I live. I'd heard good things about the original location but had never gotten a chance to stop by. Once I got word about the new shop, I knew it was only a matter of time before I'd make it over there.

The owner and shop assistant were so helpful and friendly. As a oil- and vinegar-tasting "virgin" (oh, you gotta love puns), I definitely had some questions. I did learn some new things while on my visit, such as the difference between white and dark balsamic vinegars. I sampled, sampled, sampled until I found my favorites.

I came out with the following:
  • Cranberry-pear balsamic vinegar
  • Strawberry balsamic vinegar
  • Sweet basil EVOO
  • Blood orange EVOO

I've already got a lot of ideas about using these, especially for salads! A strawberry balsamic-sweet basil vinaigrette would be great with a spinach and strawberry salad, but I'm thinking it'd also taste good as a reduction over chicken. However, I'm really excited about the cranberry-pear and blood orange - they taste so fantastic together! It's so good I would drink it as a cocktail. Throw a little vodka in there and you've got yourself a party! Although I can only imagine the looks I'd get when I bust out the vinegar as a mixer. The college kids already think I'm crazy just for drinking wine at parties. But I digress...

Oils and vinegars make up the majority of their inventory, but Di Olivas also sells a selection of specialty pastas, tapenades, salts and olive oil-based hair and skin care products.

On my way out the door, the shop assistant said to me, "I have a feeling you'll be back."

I have a feeling I will be, too.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Going it alone...

I just finished Day 2's new and exciting task and I'm quite proud of myself! I made a meal that I've never made before, without using a recipe! That might seem totally minor to some, but let me provide a little background. I'm a strict stick-to-the-recipe kind of girl. "30-minute meals" generally take 45 or 60 minutes for me, because I'm so anal about double- and triple-checking the recipe to make sure I'm following the directions correctly. So when I'm making something that's not completely basic (e.g. scrambled eggs), I need to have a recipe.

Tonight I decided to challenge myself. The game plan: throw things together, in a somewhat logical way, and hope that it turns out. The hubby was gone tonight, so if I screwed up dinner, that would just be on me. I can deal with a failed personal first attempt, but I kind of hate disappointing other people. Anyway, my plan was a mix between pasta alla vodka and chicken piccata.

I prepared the pasta, chicken and sauce all separately, in case something went awry. I prepared the chicken breasts simply, seasoned with salt and pepper and sauteed in a bit of olive oil. I started the sauce with minced garlic sauteing in some butter and lemon juice. After a minute, I added some citron vodka and let that all reduce down. Total, I ended up adding the juice of 1 and 1/2 small lemons (I love lemon juice!). After this, I threw everything together with some additional salt, pepper and EVOO. I added capers at the very end to tie in the "piccata" part of the inspiration. That, and I'm sort of obsessed with capers lately.

The verdict: The capers and lemon juice added a nice, acidic brightness to this dish. The little textural "pop" of the capers were a nice contrast to the pasta and the chicken. I really liked the way the subtle citron vodka flavor played off the rest of the dish. Success, if you ask me! It was really fun to combine the vodka sauce and piccata styles together, and even more enjoyable because I sort of just blindly ran ahead, using only my prior culinary knowledge, instincts and tastebuds to guide me!

Thoughts for next time: I wanted to saute some minced shallot in here, but didn't have any. I also wanted to sprinkle some fresh parsley on top at the end, but the store was all out of that today (lame). I did like using thin spaghetti with this kind of sauce. Any larger pasta wouldn't have worked as well, IMO. And throwing in some veggies might be tasty, too. Like mushrooms or, ooh, asparagus! That could be yummy.

Overall, I'm pretty psyched that I gave myself this little challenge. I'm really excited to do this again, to experiment with dishes, tweak old favorites, etc.

Lesson learned from today's new experience: going out on a limb can lead to bigger trees.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Delightful French Confections

Today began much like any other day, except perhaps for the elevation of my mood (blame it on the sunny morning, the coming of spring, or the excitement of knowing I was going to try something new today). The day progressed much like any other, but as the workday drew to a close, I decided to make a fun little stop on my way home home.

My "something new" for the day became a post-work snack trip to a little French bakery/cafe near my office - La Bonne Bouchee. I've been here several times for lunch, but I've never tried any of their sweet treats before. Which, if you've ever seen the massive amount of beautiful treats they have displayed in this place, you'd praise me for my willpower.

I chose 4 lovely little confections: a raspberry meringue, one chocolate-dipped madeleine and one plain madeleine, and a bag of petit French macarons.


They all looked and smelled fantastic. I ripped open the bag before I even started my car. The chocolate-dipped madeleine was the first and the best. The chocolate created this wonderful soft shell around the fluffy, light cookie that had just the subtlest hint of almond. For some reason, and despite the fact that I grew up very far from France, this madeleine reminded me of my childhood. I can't quite put my finger on it, but somehow it brought me joy.

The raspberry meringue continued on the road to bliss. It was like cotton candy for the discriminating palate! There's still that airy puffiness, but the flavor is truer and not so sickeningly sweet.

The petit French almond macarons were no disappointment. Each one was better than the one before it! I was actually excited to come to a red stoplight, just so I could sample another macaron. The almond flavor is just so good! It's delicate, yet has a really nice, sweet nuttiness. I highly recommend them! (They also received a shout-out in last month's Sauce magazine... check out the article here.)

I think the lesson to be learned here is that a plain old Tuesday afternoon can be greatly enhanced by divine treats such as these. And that trying something new from someplace familiar can turn out to be a great experience.

My first attempt to make each day more exciting and pleasurable? I think we can call Day 1 a success.

Monday, February 28, 2011


I've been wanting to start a blog for months (ugh, is that the first thing everyone who starts a blog says?!). Not like the blogs I've had in years past - something more than just the daily ramblings of a barely 20-something. I had ideas and thoughts, even sample posts drafted in my head. But for whatever reason, they never quite made it all the way out there...

But today, I finally found some much-needed inspiration, thanks to a dear friend. Over the months, she's been striving - and with great success - to live in the moment and find excitement in the everyday things that most people would normally find to be mundane. Things that I would normally find to be mundane. I've been in a bit of a rut lately, and I could really stand to find a way to break free of that. After talking to my friend, it hit me. Who says "everyday" activities have to be mundane? Who says I can't find excitement in something that makes me happy and opens doors to knowledge, joy and fulfillment? And truly, for someone who works in a cubicle 40+ hours a week, a little excitement is not going to kill me!

A few short hours later, and here we are. The start of my journey for the aforementioned rut-escaping. I'm going to begin the month of March with a quest to find excitement and discovery in every day. The best option for that, for myself? A food blog. Simply put - I love food. I love that it brings people together, I love that people bond and connect when food is around. I love the tradition and the history that food maintains, while still continuing to evolve and morph into what we want it to be.

Geez, look at me, first blog post and I'm all serious and I've already mentioned the words "quest," "journey" and "discovery." Yikes... But, in all honesty, I want to keep this simple, fun and funny. The bottom line is that I love food and I love talking about food. And I would love to keep you posted about my new experiences with the following:
  • Food and drink (Did I mention I love food? I don't know if that qualifies as bias...)
  • New recipes
  • New finds at stores and markets (I've actually never been to a farmer's market... I know, I'm ashamed about it, too)
  • New fads and trends
  • The occasional restaurant/bar review
  • New-to-me experiences (I'm willing to go out of my comfort zone here, people! Not like Bizarre Foods zone, though...)
  • Old and new culinary tools, processes, etc.
  • Anything else I deem relevant/noteworthy

Alright, now that the introduction is over, it's time to figure out what I'll be discovering/learning on March 1! Until then...