Sunday, February 28, 2010

Brunch Club February: Humble Showing

Brunch club is still alive for those of you who had doubts. There was a humble showing this month, a humble showing of people that is, not food.

Yes, after a break during the month of January, the brunch club kids are back to their old tricks: making impressive, feastly and insane amounts of food for not-that-many people. One of us is also subsequently making up words like "feastly" just to accurately describe the food situation.

Andace (Andy and Candace) was in San Diego "locked up" in a room all day for some sort of conference Candace had to attend for work. I also feel I should mention Andy made a coke commercial that won a contest! It is called "Message in a Bottle," and I believe it will be playing in movie theaters before the movie starts... at least I am pretty sure that is the case. It is very exciting, and it is the reason I am giving these two a pass for missing out on brunch this month.

Emily had lots of work to do. She seems to be in a crazy-difficult post-grad english program. Somehow, she found the time to plan an entire Mammoth Mountain ski trip weekend earlier this month for all of us. She really did make all the plans for that amazing weekend in the midst of her full-time student, part-time english curriculum planner schedule so she too will receive a pass for missing brunch this month.

Natalie was sick. I simply do not wish to be sick right now no matter how much I knew we would miss her presence. She, of course gets a pass. She did get to enjoy a tidy plate of food from the festivities brought to her door by her loving sister, Sue, later in the day.

This leaves the rest of us who I now like to call the "die-hards" of Sunday brunches. While the above-mentioned hooky-players got free passes this time, next time they may not be so "lucky".

Elliott gets "Best in Show" this month. He whipped together a fresh broccoli salad that I think could get anyone to eay raw broccoli anytime. It was a delicious blend of a sweet balsamic dressing with raw broccoli, dried cranberries and walnuts from what I remember.

At some point I remember saying doughnuts could never be made better in the home than at the doughnut shop. Now, it has been a while since I have ducked into a let's say Dunkin Doughnuts, but I was very impressed with Sube's lightly-crispy-on-the-outside-and-delightfully-fluffy-on-the-inside powdered sugar doughnuts. Verrrrry impressed.

Sube also prepared some delicious baked goods featuring fruit: cranberry muffins and banana bread with orange zest. Both were delicious and adventurous.

BreAnna arrived after my pictures had been taken, but they supplied the much-needed delicious fresh strawberry fix. Oh, and the chocolate fondu and halvah to dip them did not hurt.

Lindzachary is all about the savory this month. First of all, we bring the meat: some slices of cooked Canadian bacon. We also brought a frittata (much like we did last time Sube hosted Brunch), this time with spinach, mushrooms and goat cheese. You can basically make a frittata with anything you want in it by whisking a dozen eggs with whatever vegetable, meat and/or cheese you wish. Put the mixture in a large skillet at 400 degrees F for about 15 minutes (until egg is set). If you are using hard vegetables (such as broccoli, carrots, potatoes, etc, you should sauté them in the skillet on the stovetop until they are tender before adding the eggs and cheese. Also be sure to cook any meat all the way through before adding the eggs. Sprinkle a little cheese on top because it is pretty.

What else could this group possibly need? Biscuits. I have never made biscuits from scratch before so I decided to go with a classic-seeming buttermilk biscuit recipe. I was not disappointed with the results. The best part of baking buttermilk biscuits from scratch is the buttery milky smell. mmmmmmmmmm. This is a good simple recipe by Alton Brown that is easy to follow.

Basic Buttermilk Biscuits By Brown

(Makes about 10 biscuits - Recipe by Alton Brown, featured in Family Circle Magazine)

2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons shortening
1 cup buttermilk, chilled

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
Using your fingertips, rub butter and shortening into dry ingredients until mixture looks like crumbs. (The faster the better, you don't want the fats to melt.)
Make a well in the center and pour in the chilled buttermilk. Stir just until the dough comes together. The dough will be very sticky.
Turn dough onto floured surface, dust top with flour and gently fold dough over on itself 5 or 6 times. Press into a 1-inch thick round.
Cut out biscuits with a 2-inch cutter, being sure to push straight down through the dough. Place biscuits on baking sheet so that they just touch. Reform scrap dough, working it as little as possible and continue cutting. (Biscuits from the second pass will not be quite as light as those from the first)
Bake until biscuits are tall and light gold on top, 15 to 20 minutes.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Something to Warm Up to

Some things take time.

For example, it took me years to warm up to the idea of getting a dog. It slowly grew on me over the years. Now it is all I can think about: a greyhound named Stella. I may have mentioned this already because it is also all I can seem to talk about. The day of the dog will be coming soon, but I will tell you a little story about me and pets in the meantime:

Meet Pat. Pat was my Betta Fish freshman year in college. I named it Pat since I was not sure what the sex of the fish was. After simple research online recently (which I was clearly not resourceful enough to do in college), I am now able to determine the fish was male. Male Bettas are almost always the gender sold in stores because they are more colorful and have longer flowing fins. Anyway, Pat lived in his glass bowl on the common room table of our dorm room suite. While it may sounds fancy, by "suite" I mean tiny smelly room that connected the two bedrooms that each slept two people, four of us altogether. I was not all too bad at changing the water and keeping up with Pat's basic fishy needs. When it came time for the winter holiday break, Pat made the trip home with me in his bowl that I strapped in the front seat sloshing about the entire time (bad planning on my part). He sat by during all the holiday festivities until it was time to make the trip back to school. I had a better plan for this trip. I poked a bunch of holes into the top of a cheap tupperware lid so I could put Pat in a semi-sealed, smaller container for the way back. I prepared everything over the kitchen sink beforehand, the bowl on one side, the plastic container on the opposite. I used my little fish scooper net to transfer Pat from the bowl to the plastic container right over the sink so that I would not drip water all over the counter. As my hand was about halfway between the bowl and the small container, Pat jumped. He jumped for the first time in his short life. It was unexpected, so unexpected I had not thought to cover the drain for the sink. Pat almost skillfully hopped out of the net scooper down into the kitchen sink drain without even touching the edges. He just went straight down and disappeared forever.

This story may give you the impression that I am not ready or responsible enough for a dog. The truth is, I wasn't even close to ready at the time of the "Great Pat Disaster." I have come a long way since then. I guess it is not so much that I have warmed up to the idea of getting a dog; the idea of getting a dog has warmed up to me.

This winter pot roast can warm you up to anything really. I made it about a month ago when the weather was too cold for me to bear. While by "too cold for me to bear" I mean about 45 degrees F, I am sure this recipe would serve to keep even the most high-tolerance-for cold-weather people warm when the weather becomes unpleasantly chilly. It is full of flavor and very satisfying:

Warm Up to Pot Roast

(serves 6 - recipe from Better Recipes - adapted due to sloppiness and convenience)

1 medium red onion, sliced in chunks
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 carrots, sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup beef broth
1.5 cups burgundy (I used Pinot Noir)
1 28 oz can peeled, crushed tomatoes
10 oz button mushrooms
2 lb small red potatoes, halved or in thirds
3 lb chuck roast or top round
3 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons pepper

Spice blend (this is where I get sloppy/creative):
1 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp pepper
1 tbsp dried thyme
1 tbsp dried rosemary
1 tbsp dried basil (I left this out..oops)
1 tbsp ground red pepper (do a few red pepper flakes count?)
1 tbsp cajun seasoning (I didn't have this so I substituted a pinch of cayenne pepper and chili powder)

Place all the vegetables into a slow cooker. Add 1 tsp of each: salt, pepper and spice blend.
Add rosemary and thyme sprigs to the mix.
Mix in broth, crushed tomatoes, honey and garlic. Sprinkle the flour over the top, and start mixing.
Season the beef with 1 tsp each: salt, pepper and spice blend all over.
Place beef on top of vegetable mixture in the slow cooker
Pour wine over beef (be careful not to run spices off)
Cover and cook on high for 8 hours
Remove thyme and rosemary sprigs before serving.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Baked Comfort

The Academy Awards are coming up in a few weeks.

They will honor the best of the best of last year's movies. Of course this year, the academy has added the ever-so-controversial ten nominations (it used to be just five) for the "Best Picture" category. I don't have a major problem with this besides the fact that I can hardly think of ten movies I liked enough to even come close to receiving such an honor. The nominees this year are:

The Bind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart"
George Clooney in "Up in the Air"
Colin Firth in "A Single Man"
Morgan Freeman in "Invictus"
Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker"

Matt Damon in "Invictus"
Woody Harrelson in "The Messenger"
Christopher Plummer in "The Last Station"
Stanley Tucci in "The Lovely Bones"
Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds"

Sandra Bullock in "The Blind Side"
Helen Mirren in "The Last Station"
Carey Mulligan in "An Education"
Gabourey Sidibe in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
Meryl Streep in "Julie & Julia"

Penélope Cruz in "Nine"
Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air"
Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Crazy Heart"
Anna Kendrick in "Up in the Air"
Mo'Nique in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"

The Oscars are not only a time of year we honor the new movies that might someday become classics, but we also a time to honor the classics themselves. So let's make some classic food, shall we? Baked Ziti is a comfort food for anyone with an appetite for warm, meaty, flavorful, noodley, cheesiness. It is easy to make (the theme of this time of year) and very satisfying. I like to make a huge batch and save the rest in the freezer to last for a few more meals. I have made it a couple different ways in the past year, and it seems to me that baked ziti is really just something you need to adjust to your liking. I like a lot a lot of meat so I lean towards a pretty heavy amount. I also like the tomato sauce to really stand out (even though I was in a hurry this time and did not end up with a good sauce). Some people like ricotta cheese in their ziti, but I prefer to leave the ricotta to the lasagna. However, I think it would be nice in a vegetarian version (possibly with some mushrooms added as well). You an buy your favorite tomato sauce or make your own. I also added just a little bit of Italian sausage to the dish just for some added flavor. Zach suggested the dish did not need it, but I still like just a little bit of it. Here is how I made it, but this is something you should definitely tweak about to make your own:

1 lb ziti pasta, cooked al dente according to package*
1 lb ground beef
2 links spicy Italian sausage (optional), casings removed and chopped into small chunks
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves fresh garlic, sliced into slivers (about four slivers per clove)
3 C (about 24 oz) of flavorful tomato sauce
2 C shredded mozzarella (optional: sub one cup mozzarella for 1 C or 8 oz provolone cheese)
1 C shaved parmesan cheese

Preheat the over to 350 degrees F.
In a large pan, cook the all the meat with the chopped onion and garlic until the meat is browned.
Add the tomato sauce to the meat and stir thoroughly.
Add 1 cup mozzarella cheese (use the provolone here if you have chosen to substitute it) and 1/2 C of the parmesan to the meat/tomato mixture.
Stir the mixture into the cooked ziti pasta and transfer to a large casserole dish.
Sprinkle remaining mozzarella and parmesan cheese evenly over the top of the dish.
Bake uncovered for 40 minutes.

*I cannot explain why, but I much prefer actual ziti pasta which is chopped straight across on each end as opposed to penne pasta which is cut at a slant (even though I could not find the ziti pasta this time around). I also steer clear of the small ridges on the surface of the pasta. It is supposed to catch more of the sauce around it, but I find it has the opposite effect. I feel the sauce sticks to the flat surface much better.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Save the Hard Work for the Office

This looks more difficult than it is.

Keep in mind work is very busy right now. I of course have found time to continue cooking; it is just difficult to find the time to gab on all about it. I am way behind my twice-a-week blog posts for this month (yes, I nerd-i-ly have a goal set) so I am cutting to the chase here.

You can do this. This chicken is pretty tasty, and more importantly, easy to make. It looks pretty (not to toot my own horn or anything), and it is not bad for you either.

I went skiing this weekend with some really fun people.

More on that later.

Why is Family Circle Magazine so inexpensive randomly? It is $1.99 / issue. Really.

Okay. Now I am embarrassed that people will know I read Family Circle Magazine.

Simple Stuffed Chicken

(makes 4 servings - recipe from Family Circle Magazine)

2/3 part-skim ricotta cheese
1/4 C fresh basil, chopped
4 sun-dried tomatoes (not the ones packed in oil), finely chopped
1 clove fresh garlic, mashed
4 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless
wooden toothpicks
herbs of choice for the outside of chicken

Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees F.
In a small bowl, mix together cheese, basil, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic.
Using a small sharp knife, cut through the side of the chicken breast, creating a pocket on the inside of each
Scoop about 2 tbsp (or a quarter) of the filling mixture into each pocket, and seal them with the wooden toothpicks.
Place the stuffed chicken breasts onto a small baking sheet, and sprinkle with any seasoning or rub you prefer.
Bake for about 25 minutes.
Serve over rice with vegetables.

I may change this up slightly by substituting goat cheese for the ricotta to make it a variation of Chicken Bryan.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Guac Talk

I am pretty sure it has been just over a year since I started eating guacamole.

Avocados were one of those foods that I just used to stay away from but now embrace. I don't really blame myself for not really giving this green pile of chunky mush called GWAK-A-MOLE-EE a try. It sounds/looks/has-got-to-taste disgusting. Well, as discussed over a game of loaded questions one night, there are just too many words that sound nice, but are pretty gross (i.e. chlamydia). The opposite could be true of guacamole. Couldn't it?

Making this dip is just too easy to not at least give it a try. Avocados are good for your heart, and this is a guilt-free version mostly from my trusty Cooking Light Cookbook. I added a small tomato and some extra fresh lime juice, but you definitely don't have to. I like it lime-eeeeeeeeee.

Not So Bad Guacamole

(Makes 10 servings - recipe adapted from the Best of Cooking Light Cookbook)

1 C chopped onion
1/4 C fresh cilantro, chopped coarsely
3 tbsp fresh lime juice
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 small tomato, chopped
2 ripe avocados, just the flesh, mashed
lime wedge and cilantro springs (optional for garnish)

Just mix it all together, and garnish with the lime wedge and cilantro springs. Serve with tortilla chips.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Quick, Easy. Cheesy.

I usually keep my work life out of this blog. I have always looked at this blog as something I can keep constant no matter what was going on with work. Wether work is going perfectly or poorly, writing about food and cooking is an outlet to something completely unrelated. I like this system, and I intend to keep it place. I just feel the need to mention all this (including the following) to explain the possible influx of idiot-proof, all-too-easy recipes about to invade this page.

Work has been busy to say the least. January through April is the busiest time of year in the entertainment industry and is known as "pilot season." It is the time of year all the new programs that will appear on the networks' fall schedule start casting. Casting offices have to fill series regular roles on the pilot (or first) episode of a television show that will either:

A) go on to air for years and years as a popular and successful series (e.g. "CSI", "Friends", "The Office" or last year's "Glee")

B) get picked up for a season, and start airing in the fall, only to be canceled after the first season (e.g. "Studio 60", "Freaks and Geeks", or last year's: "The Unusuals", "Three Rivers")

C) not even get picked up by a network which essentially means the pilot is the only episode ever shot, and the series never gets a chance (this is what happens most of the time).

Agents scramble to scoop up series regular roles on pilots for their actor clients because if the pilot gets picked up as a series, and is successful, it can be a solid paycheck for years to come. Casting directors carefully choose the cast which can make or break a pilot, auditioning hundreds of actors before making a decision on each role. Since the main characters in a pilot are can potentially be with the show for years, it is important to find really strong actors to fill these slots. Sometimes an actor can even be cast in a pilot, only to be replaced by another actor when the show gets picked up for series. An example of this is Full House. The role of 'Danny Tanner' (played by Bob Saget) was originally played by another actor named John Posey.

The producers had wanted Bob Saget, but he was not available when they shot the pilot because he was already set to shoot another show. By the time Full House was picked up and ready to shoot the series, Saget was available. The producers ended up firing John Posey and replacing him with Bob Saget. They re-shot the scenes from the pilot episode in which the 'Danny Tanner' character appeared, and the rest is history. If you don't believe me, watch the entire original pilot episode for yourself.

All this is to say a lot goes into pilots this time of year, and I am busy at work. I am not willing to completely give up cooking during this time because it is something that relaxes me and keeps me healthy. However, I need recipes I can whip out quickly, and this is certainly one of them. It is wildly adapted from my Cooking Light Cookbook (I definitely took the "light" out of it so click here for the original, lighter recipe), which was a gift from my brother and sister-in-law two Christmases ago. I call it Mexican Chicken Lasagna. It involves a simple chicken mixture as the filling, corn tortillas as the layers, plenty of cheese and taco sauce as the sauce. The original recipe is without the chicken so feel free to simply leave it out for a vegetarian option. On a different note, I imagine ground beef could be an interesting substitution for the chicken.

Pilot Season Mexican Lasagna

(makes 4 servings)

1 1/2 C extra-sharp cheddar cheese (I used some white cheddar some yellow...white cheddar is amazing for some reason)
1 large tomato, chopped
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast (cooked and chopped into small cubes or shredded)
1 cup cottage cheese (can use reduced fat)
1 C chopped onion
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 C golden corn
1 tsp hot sauce (optional)
9 (6-inch) corn tortillas
Cooking spray
1 Cup taco sauce
1/2 C extra sharp Cheddar Cheese or Monterey Jack Cheese for sprinkling over the top

Preheat oven to 375°.
Combine first 9 ingredients in a large bowl.
Coat the bottom of an 9x9 casserole dish (or 11x7) with cooking spray.
Arrange 3 tortillas in bottom of the dish (I tore one in half to make them more evenly cover the bottom of the dish).
Spread half of chicken/cheese mixture over the tortillas.
Repeat procedure with 3 tortillas and remaining cheese mixture; top with remaining tortillas.
Pour taco sauce over tortillas; sprinkle with the 1/2 C of Monterey Jack or sharp cheddar cheese.
Bake at 375° for 20 minutes or until cheese melts.

You can prepare the chicken/cheese mixture ahead of time to make this simple recipe even quicker when it comes time to cook it.