Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nostalgia in a bun

For someone who likes to cook (well, for anyone really), I ate a lot of fast food when I was young. And yes, I was chubby. Although I have my suspicions, I don’t know that I could ever say for sure that these circumstances had anything to do with each other. I am tempted to make the claim:

I ate a lot of fast food; therefore I was chubby.

The only thing holding me back from doing so is the error in the following statement:

Zach eats a lot of fast food; therefore he is chubby.

If you have ever met or seen Zach, you will know what I am getting at. I suppose the candy drawer in my room along with my love for goodies like my best friend Anna's mom's bread (like heaven) could have been contributing factors as well. There were also the toaster strudels, Grandy's rolls, the snack machine lance white cheddar popcorn, and the Publix sweet tea. This is all making me very hungry.

When we were young, my brother and I would frequently sit in the back seat together on the way home from school and fight about whether we would go to McDonald's or Burger King that day.

Lindsey: “MCDONALD'S!”
Lindsey: “MCDONALD'S!!!”
Brian: “BURGER KING!!!”

Arguments in favor of McDonald's included:
* The toy in their Happy Meal was often a mini plastic Barbie doll, and I needed to add to my collection.
* The French fries were far superior to Burger King’s French fries, especially after Burger King changed theirs circa 1995 (I hope at least one of you remembers that).
* During the month of October, the Happy Meals used to (not sure if they still do) come in plastic pumpkins.
* The chicken McNuggets were crispy and delicious, and one of them was always shaped like a boot.
* The Bar-B-Q sauce was much better than Burger King’s sauce, although both establishments packaged them in a convenient compact little tub.
* The burgers were almost as good if they would take the stupid little chopped onions off of them.

While I only really go to McDonald's these days for their sugar-free vanilla iced coffee and the occasional treat, my general restaurant priorities have certainly changed. I have gone from a chicken-finger-kind-of girl to more of the get-in-my-belly-big-burger type (onions? yes please). I would never pass up a nice juicy burger for chicken fingers at a restaurant of any kind. I still prefer McDonald's to Burger King to this day, but now there are so many more options like In and Out, Five Guys, Fatburger, and Whataburger that specialize in just burgers.

For some of us, summer is in full swing and will be for months to come. For others, it is nearing an end. Either way, NOW is the time for grilling. If you don’t have a grill, you need to buy one. Zach and I got this baby with the gift card to home depot he got from his parents last Christmas, and we use it all the time:

Come to think of it, between the grill and the crock pot his parents gave us last year, I estimate about half of our meals are made thanks to them. This post is not really to provide you with a recipe for summer burgers because less is more when it comes to the meat for me. I just want to provide all three of my confirmed loyal readers some not-that-you-should-need-it inspiration to take a Saturday afternoon to sit outside with a cold drink, some crispy snacks, and a spatula and grill up some thick and juicy burgers. Please do it up right and be sure to add all the fixings! Dress your burgers like they are going somewhere special:

Prom Dress 2009 Burgers:

makes 4 1/4 lb burgers (or 3 1/3 lb burgers)

1 lb lean ground beef
salt and black pepper to taste
Worcestershire sauce to taste
Accessories: Cheese, lettuce, tomato, ketchup, mustard, pickles, onions, mushrooms, bacon, possibilities are not forget the buns!

Mold three or four thick-ish patties out of the ground beef (about 4 or 5 inches in diameter)
sprinkle a pinch of salt, a pinch of pepper and a few drops of Worcestershire sauce on each side of each patty
Be sure to press your thumbs into the center of each raw patty to make a slight dent. This will keep the burgers from bloating up in the center, and they will cook more evenly.

For a gas grill:
Place patties on the grill over high heat for the first 3-5 minutes to sear the outsides, keeping the meat from falling apart.
Bring heat down to medium, and continue until the burgers are cooked to your linking (about 10 minutes for me).
Turn heat down to low, and place a slice of cheese on each patty. Also, use this time to toast the buns. This should take about 3 minutes.



Monday, July 27, 2009

You say tomato; I say tomato; no one says tomahto.

While Zach and I do not really have differing opinions on the pronunciation of the word, "tomato", we do have to participate in a little compromising when it comes to making the perfect tomato sauce. Our song would sound more like:
I say meat balls; you say meat sauce. I say yellow peppers; you say green peppers. I say sugar; you say why not. I say green olives? You say no. I say add red wine; you say that's weird.
I guess I will never be much of a songwriter, but all this back-and-forth does amount to something when it all comes together over some whole wheat thin spaghetti with a side salad drizzled with a homemade balsamic dressing .

The tomato sauce should always come together better when you have a partner with which to discuss the addition of each ingredient since experimenting is key in finding the right mix to work for you. Three words I like to use to describe the perfect sauce are: fresh, chunky, and comforting. This sauce has developed out of a recipe that started with Zach (possibly, the origins go further back?) It was the centerpiece of the first meal he ever made for me when we first started dating. It can be made in bulk, depending on how big your slow cooker is. You can save leftovers in freezer bags, and it almost tastes better after freezing and reheating! It can be made with meatballs or as a meat sauce (by just mixing in cooked ground beef). It can be used as a spaghetti sauce or as anything you would use a tomato sauce for like baked ziti and lasagna.

Zach's I Say Tomato Sauce:

1 6oz can tomato paste
2 15 oz cans tomato sauce
2 large fresh tomatoes, chopped (leave the chunks about bite-size, not too small)
1 large white onion, chopped
1/3 of a green bell pepper, chopped
2 tbsp minced garlic
1/2 C chopped mushrooms
1/3 C dry red wine
1 tsp brown sugar
1 lb cooked ground beef (optional)
1 tbsp Italian seasoning
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp salt
1 bay leaf

Just chop it all up and dump it all in a slow cooker.
Mix it all together.
Cook on a low setting for 6-8 hours or on a high setting for 3-4 hours.

Be sure to serve your spaghetti with a nice salad:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

We're Gonna Make You Feel Good

Some of you from the Southeast may recognize this slogan as the jingle for Sonny's Real Pit B-B-Q. Sonny's is the only B-B-Q restaurant I ever went to on a semi-regular basis when I lived in Florida. You really need to be in a particular mood to go there. While the slogan says, "We're gonna make you feel good", what it really means is "It's going to taste really good, but you will be sorry later thankyouverymuchXOXO". I would always order the pulled pork sandwich which is served with crinkle cut fries (my favorite).

I cannot say for sure since I was never really diligent about exploring the BBQ world in Florida (it was just easy to hit up Sonny's for a BBQ fix), but I don't remember there being a lot of options for great BBQ joints in either Tampa or Gainesville. Sonny's pulled pork was my introduction to pork and the only relationship I had with it until I moved to Los Angeles.

When you move to a new place or even go on a long vacation, there are restaurants and even little local shops you miss from the town you are leaving. Sonny's was towards the top of my list of places I missed being able to go when I moved out of Florida about two years ago. Other things I still miss include Moe's, Publix, Flacos's (in Gainesville), sweet tea and Carrabbas. But life goes on. When holes are left in our hearts, we try to fill them by finding things to take up the empty space. This natural process prompted my search for Los Angeles BBQ joints in need a rebound. I was skeptical, but hopeful, hopeful because Los Angeles has a little bit of everything and skeptical because, well, it is Los Angeles...not exactly the kind of place I would expect people to be patient enough to cook meat for long periods of time since our patience is pretty much spent on others activities. CanIgetanAMEN?. We may not have the very best of everything as far as food is concerned, but we come pretty close. I found we come dangerously close to the best (certainly the best I have ever encountered) in BBQ with places like Dr. Hogly Wogly's Tyler Texas BBQ and Kansas City BBQ. With the discovery of these restaurants (among others) and the following recipe, the empty space in my heart where Sonny's used to be has been filled and then some. I guess in that sense they really have made me feel good.

Fell Good Pulled Pork (from the "Better Homes Cookbook")

8 servings

1 2-3 pound pork sirloin roast
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tbsp cooking oil
2 medium onions (cut into thin wedges)
4 C root beer (do not use diet root beer)
2 tbsp minced garlic
1 C chili sauce
1/4 tsp rot beer concentrate (optional, found in the spice section at the grocery store)

Trim fat from meat, and sprinkle it with salt and pepper. Be sure the meat will fit into your slow cooker; you may need to cut it into two chunks.
Heat cooking oil in a large pan and brown the meat by searing quickly (about 30 seconds on each side). This will work to retain the juices inside the meat in the slow cooker by sort of sealing up the outsides.
Transfer meat to a slow cooker, add onions, 1 cup of the root beer, and garlic; cook on a low setting for 8-10 hours or on a high setting for 4-5 hours.

For the sauce:
In a medium saucepan, combine 3 cups of root beer and the chili sauce. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat.
Boil gently, stirring occasionally for 30 minutes (or until mixture has reduced to 2 cups).
Add root beer concentrate (optional) to the pan and remove from heat.

When the pork is finished cooking, simply pull apart and shred it using two forks. It should be very tender and easily fall apart. At this point you can do one of several things, depending on how you would like to eat it. My favorites include in a sandwich or with black beans and brown rice. If you eat the pork in a sandwich, I suggest smothering it in the root beer chili sauce and putting a pile of it on a toasted hamburger bun. If you would like to prepare it with black beans and brown rice (as pictured above, I would use the sauce to taste (probably not as much as you would use in the sandwich). You can eat it for dinner one way and then the leftovers a few days later another way.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

No Words

There are some moments in life when words escape you. Better, no words exist as a suitable reaction or response to certain experiences. If you would like to experience something like this, I suggest you try the following recipe:

No Words Blue Cheese Crusted Filet Mignon (with port wine sauce)

4 servings (a recipes from

1 tbsp butter
½ C minced white onion
1 tbsp chopped fresh thyme
¾ C low-sodium beef broth
½ C port wine
1 tbsp vegetable oil
4 filet mignon steaks (1 ½ inch thick)
¾ C blue cheese
¼ C panko bread crumbs

Port Wine Sauce:
Melt butter in skillet over medium heat.
Add the onion, garlic and thyme.
Stir constantly, until onion is tender.
Stir in beef broth and then the port wine.
Bring to a boil, and cook until the mixture has reduced to about ½ cup.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Heat oil in a cast iron skillet over high heat. Sear steaks quickly on both sides until brown, then place the whole pan in the oven.

Roast steaks in the oven for about 15 minutes (for med-rare).
Remove from the oven and place on a baking sheet.
Stir together the panko bread crumbs and the blue cheese.
Top each steak with a layer of this mixture.
Turn the oven up to the broil setting.
Place steaks under the broiler until the cheese topping is browned and bubbly (3-4 minutes). Remove from the oven, and let stand for about 5 minutes.
Pour the port wine sauce over the steaks and serve.

I like the taste of grilled steak better than baked. The next time I make this I am considering grilling the steak instead of searing it quickly and then baking for the 15 minutes in the oven. I would follow the grilling by topping them with he blue cheese and then broiling them for about 3 minutes in the oven to get the cheese to bubble.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Last Night

The past few weeks have been very busy for me. I had some friends in town for the July 4th weekend, and I went to a wedding in San Francisco last weekend. There has been little time to do things like cook and go grocery shopping. This weekend is the first in a while that I will have time to whip up some nice new dishes for this blog. I will also be dog-sitting this pup for our friends that were just married and are now in Hawaii for the honeymoon:

Her name is Three Hole Punch, but she also goes by Punch and sometimes George Clooney.

On a not-yet-but-soon-to-be related note, apparently one of my two adorable nieces, Olivia, is becoming a chatterbox. I use the word "apparently" because sadly she lives across the country from me so I have to settle for stories at this point. My favorite of the new things I have been told she has started to say is when she says "last night". It is more about how she uses the phrase to describe anything that happened in the past, no matter how long ago it was, that is so cute and makes me laugh. I guess she just does not yet understand the concept of differentiating between times in the past. For example, she might say something like, "Last night, I painted a picture for Aunt Lindsey", even though this even took place about three weeks ago. It is in this same regard that I will say, "Last night, I made this delicious pesto spaghetti pie with sun-dried tomatoes on top." I am not sure how long ago it was that I made this recipe (it must have been back sometime before things got too busy around here), but as far as Olivia would be concerned, it was last night.

Last Night Four Cheese Pesto Bake:

(adapted from a Paula Dean recipe)

1 lb spaghetti (I like to use whole grain pasta), cooked al dente according to package instructions
8 oz ricotta cheese (you can use up to 16 oz, but I think the 8oz is plenty)
12 oz pesto sauce (you can use a little more if you like)
2 1/2 C shredded mozzarella cheese
1 C grated parmesan cheese
1 C crumbled goat cheese
3/4 C sun dried tomatoes (in a jar with olive oil)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

In a large bowl, combine ricotta, goat cheese, parmesean, 3/4 C shredded mozzarella cheese, and pesto sauce.

Slowly add the spaghetti (about 1/4th of the pound at a time)to the bowl, mixing thoroughly, until the all of the pasta is coated heavily with the cheese and pesto blend.

Transfer mixture to a 9"x13" casserole dish, and sprinkle remaining shredded mozzarella and sun dried tomatoes evenly over top. Cover with foil to avoid burning the cheese on top during baking.

Bake at 400 degrees F for 20 minutes. Remove foil and turn oven up to broil for an additional 1-2 minutes.

Enjoy this as a nice heavy side dish to grilled chicken or as a vegetarian entree. I also like to serve it with some nice yellow summer squash on the side.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Not So Secret Ingredients

I used to work at a restaurant. I started out as a hostess and eventually became a server after working there for a year or so. This restaurant was an upscale steakhouse, one of the nicer ones in my college town. Everything on the menu was and I imagine still is delicious. When you start working at a restaurant, there is usually some sort of menu test you must pass before you are able to start. The menu test for this particular place was incredibly involved but very straight forward: memorize the menu. I remember being handed a packet of papers with just the names of every item on the menu. It was up to me to fill out a complete and thorough description of each dish along with the restaurant's abbreviation to put on the ticket to give to the kitchen. For example:

A Mediterranean blend of kalamata olives, French beans, grape tomatoes, cucumbers, mushrooms, pine nuts and feta cheese, served over a bed of fresh baby field greens and spinach tossed with herb-vinaigrette (abbreviation: MED)

We had to know everything about the food and drinks, from the big entrees to the appetizers to the desserts all the way down to the ingredients in the salad dressings. We had to know that the Caesar Salad dressing was eggless and that the cows the steaks came from had been corn-fed. And this was just to become a hostess.

It was a huge hassle to have to memorize all these things at the time. However, I cannot say that I am disappointed I was made to do it. The first reason for that is it made my job a whole lot easier. I didn't have to refer to a menu every time I took a to-go order over the phone, and it made the transition to becoming a server very smooth. The second and much more important reason I am glad I had to know all these things was it inspired my next recipe.

The only thing I remember about the Balsamic Vinaigrette dressing was the abbreviation, "BV" and the fact that one of the ingredients was either dijon mustard or honey mustard...I cannot even remember exactly which one. When my sister-in-law showed how she makes her own balsamic vinaigrette dressing by shaking balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and a packet of splenda together in a bottle, it got me experimenting. I started trying to make my very own creamier version of this dressing. I went through a bunch of random-seeming ingredients to make this work until I remembered the secret ingredient in the best Balsamic dressing I have ever had: mustard. Since I happened to have some dijon mustard on hand ,magic was made that night. I still felt something was missing so I continued experimenting until I found my own even more secret ingredient: lebne (also spelled "Labne", "Labneh" or sometimes called "kefir cheese"). It is a type of Middle Eastern yogurt cheese that comes in a tub and has a consistency slightly thicker than sour cream. My dad used to buy this yogurt from a small Lebanese grocery store when I was younger, and we would eat it by dipping pita bread in it. It is really flavorful and a nice alternative to sour cream or cream cheese. It goes well on toast, in sandwiches, and with veggies (instead of ranch dressing) so it is worth having a tub hanging out in your refridgerator.

All of these ingredients made their way into this recipe from different places:

Tossed Salad Balsamic (for your tossed salad):

1/4 C Balsamic Vinegar
1/4 C Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 small packet of Splenda (or any artificial sweetener)
1 tbsp dijon mustard (you can try honey mustard for a sweeter BV dressing)
1 tbsp Lebne*

*You can find lebne in any middle eastern grocery stores. Otherwise you can substitute plain yogurt (found in the dairy section of any grocery store).

Put all ingredients in a large bowl and whisk thoroughly until blended just before serving over salad. It may be even easier to put all the ingredients in a bottle, secure the lid and shake 'em up.

This dressing will go with any type of salad (like the one pictured above). I like my Balsamic dressing a little thicker than a vinaigrette and slightly sweet, but you should definitely play around with the ingredients and add more or less of things based on preference.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Opposite of Cookie Cake

I always knew what kind of cake there would be at birthday parties growing up. Every friend had her own favorite, and that would be the type of cake everyone would make sure she had. It is difficult for me to remember what my friends' favorite cakes were (not to mention tastes have changed), but there is one friend's favorite I will always remember: Becky likes cookie cake. I know some other favorites included funfettie (vanilla cake with sprinkles baked in)and ice cream cake, but Becky always had a cookie cake for her birthday. It was the one time a year I could count on encountering one. A cookie cake is a huge, thick cookie in cake form, also called a "cakie". The store-bought ones always beat the homemade ones to me, but maybe someday someone can change my mind.

This recipe is not about cookie cake; it is about the opposite, cake cookies, which I suppose can also be called "cakies". They are cake in the shape and form of cookies. They are for cake lovers because you do not need a special reason to eat a cookie. This cake cookie is made with store-bought cake mix. I am still experiementing, but I believe you can use any flavor you like.

Yesterday was the 4th of July. Some of my best friends in the world are in town for the weekend, and it has been a great one so far. I am not going to attribute all of the good times we are having to these cookies, but I will say they have certainly had an impact.

Even cookie cake lovers like Becky can appreciate them:

My favorite thing about these cookies (besides the fact that they are so easy to make) is the way you can decorate them to reflect a special occasion (even though of course you don't need one). I like to put M&M's on top of them, but you can really use whatever you want. Chocolate chips work well (white chocolate on a chocolate cookie would be nice). You could also try using funfettie cake mix for a colorful cookie. I have also considered decorating with icing to really give it a cake-like feel, but I think M&M's are a good start for your first batch. I used only red and blue M&M's for the ones I made for Independence Day, and for Christmas I used red and green. I have only ever used yellow cake mix (they taste like cold stone cake batter ice cream) and dark chocolate cake mix (these taste almost like brownies), but I certainly plan on trying some new cake mix flavors like strawberry (decorating with white chocolate chips), red velvet (also decorating with white chocolate chips), maybe carrot (decorating with walnuts and maybe raisins?), and chocolate (decorating with mint chips or maybe just chunks of Andes mints. I recommend starting out with something simple and then experimenting. You could get very creative with this. It is hard to assign a name to these cookies because they will be completely different depending on how you make them by just substituting your own cake mix flavor and topping when following this basic recipe:


1 box yellow cake mix
1 large egg
1/2 C vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla extract (use this with any flavor, even chocolate)
3 tablespoons cold water
M&M's (or anything you want to experiment with)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F

In a large bowl, mix the came mix, egg, oil, vanilla extract, and water to make the dough and form into balls. If you prefer a more gooey textured cookie, use a hand mixer for about 45 seconds at the highest speed to mix the dough. Otherwise, just mix with a large spoon (and maybe your hands) until blended.

Press M&M's into the dough (I do about 5 per cookie). Try to keep the dough in the shape of a ball (do not smash them down because they bake down more evenly than if you flatten them). Bake on a cookie sheet for about 10 minutes, or until they start to turn golden.