Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010 - Vegetable Tian Time + a Tribute to Southern California

Quite possibly what I love most about Southern California is the fact that you can drive an hour or so in any direction and be in a completely different world.

To the NORTH, you have Santa Barbara, an upscale costal town with mountains, great restaurants, a beautiful pier, bike trails, shops, wine and a sophisticated beach bum attitude as well as the Malibu Mountains where you will find anything from a beautiful dam on a hike to a line of buddhist monks at the Getty Center Gardens.

To the EAST, you have the dessert areas like Palm Springs (a chill desert town with a retro-chic charm and a huge casino), Joshua Tree (a small hippy-ish native town with a huge unspeakably beautiful national park for hiking, camping and awwwwing), other desert towns (where you can do things like apple-picking or gambling at random casinos) and Big Bear Lake in the mountains (great for hiking, kayaking and other water sports in the summer, snow skiing in the winter and lama petting!).

To the SOUTH, you have charming coastal towns like La Jolla (where the seals literally sun bathe on the shore). New Port, Huntington, Seal Beach and Laguna are all worth while destinations for weekend trips that might include surfing, relaxing, shopping and whale watching. You might even prefer the small-town life in a place like Jullian, famous for their apple and berry pies. Travel slightly farther south, and you will reach beautiful San Diego...slightly farther to reach Mexico!

To the WEST (southwest), you have Catalina Island which is a gorgeous small island off the coast of Long Beach. Catalina is extra romantic and relaxing, but you can always occupy yourself with the beach, SCUBA, fishing, walks through the gardens and the casino...unfortunately, I cannot find my pictures from Catalina. I will just have to go again soon I suppose!

The amazing thing about these each-completely-different pictures is not that they are all in California (the state is huge!), but that they are all within day-trip distance of Los Angeles (2 hours or less). I wanted to expand to all of California (or weekend-trip distance), we would have a completely different situation on our hands! I would include places like Mammoth Mountain for skiing, San Francisco or even Las Vegas (which is slightly out of state, but still just under 4 hours driving. This place is crazy!

Part 3 of our Thanksgiving adventure takes place in a town just southeast of Los Angeles called Temecula. Temecula is one of the wine countries of Southern California, reaffirming the southern California mentality that you can, in fact, have it all. I couldn't believe this area even existed. I loved traveling to Northern California and visiting Sonoma and Napa wine country the few times I went. It seemed like such a unique experience and great way to spend a relaxing day just frolicking from winery to winery casually sipping on wines that took the winemakers years to perfect. Then you say something like, "I like this one...has a bite to it...now THIS one...it has less of a bite at first but then it kicks in after a few seconds." I, of course, don't really know what I am talking about, but it is fun to compare the wines once you have started to try them. It is also fun to take a little piece of the experience home with you when you buy a bottle...or two...or three...or....

I must be fair and say Temecula is no Napa. It is less beautiful and the wineries do not have the reputation of the northern California wineries. However, it is the perfect substitute when you consider the time it takes to travel to Northern wine country and the lack of knowledge I possess about the difference between a taste of a good wine and of a great one (if that barrier even occurs here...like I said...I cannot tell). I decided to take my parents to Temecula for some lunch on the terrace of a winery that overlooks the Temecula valley and some tastings of our own. It was a really nice time, and we got back to town just in time for a Lebanese feast at one of my favorite restaurants, Pi which was followed by a trip to the Planetarium show at the Griffith Park Observatory. Phew! It makes me tired just recapping it.

The final recipe I will share with you from my Thanksgiving feast was the first recipe I decided on making. As you can see, it was at the top of my list on the chalkboard:

Vegetable Tian is something I have never heard of before. I am still not entirely sure of what it means, but it seemed like the perfect side dish (not only for Thanksgiving, but for anytime of year). The recipe I used was from a really great cooking blog I came across called For the Love of Cooking. This was one of several recipes I will be trying from this site. I am especially drawn to the roasted chicken recipes she has posted...there are some unique and delicious sounding ideas I am excited about. The result for this dish was so pretty and tasty as well. It is just a great way to get in your starch and veggie sides in one fancy-looking dish. The one thing I regret is prepping this one ahead. I baked it half way (without the cheese) the day before, and then I continued the day of. The cooking times were all off because I was putting a cold dish into the oven on Thanksgiving day instead of a pipping hot one (because you are normally just taking it out to put the cheese on and then returning it to the oven). The result was still tasty, but my potatoes did not end up cooking properly so we were forced to get by on only the mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes on the table this year.

Vegetable Tian

(recipe exactly from For the Love of Cooking - serves 6)

2 tbsp olive oil (divided)
1 large sweet yellow onion cut in half and sliced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1-2 russet potatoes, unpeeled
1 zucchini
1 yellow squash
3 large Roma tomatoes
Sea salt, freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
Dried thyme, to taste
1/2 cup of grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat a baking dish with olive oil cooking spray. Heat 1 tbsp of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Once hot, add the onions and saute until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 60 seconds. Spread the onion mixture on the bottom of the greased baking dish.
Slice the potatoes, zucchini, squash and tomatoes in 1/4 inch thick slices. Layer them alternately in the dish on top of the onions, fitting them tightly into a spiral, making only one layer. Season with sea salt, black pepper and dried thyme, to taste. Drizzle the last tablespoon of olive oil over the top.
Cover the dish with tin foil and bake for 35 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Uncover and sprinkle the Parmesan cheese on top and bake for another 25-30 minutes or until browned.

*I forgot to et a close up of the dish with my camera, but my dad snapped this shot with his phone. I guess I got a little tired of taking pictures by the time it came out of the oven. The good (read: great) news is that the blog link for the original recipe has a beautiful picture that I could never duplicate anyway. So look to that for inspiration, and enjoy!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010 - Sweet Potato Casserole Time

I had a helper in the kitchen when I was cooking my Thanksgiving feast.

Stanley loves to follow me around the kitchen while I cook. I thought he was looking for handouts, but I never gave in as to keep from encouraging it. However, I realized the other day that he follows me around the house in the kitchen or out. If I am working on the computer in the bedroom, he stands there next to me. He was not looking for handouts in the kitchen (I was making vegetables at the time, not exactly tasty to him), he just wanted to be with me. Nothing made my Elmyra side happier than this revelation. I knew he could never resist a cushy spot on the ground as long as it was in the same room so I put his bed in the doorway of the kitchen so we could hang out together, but he would not be in the way of my every step. I know he was happy to be there with me, but it made me really happy too to have the company. Such a sweet boy.

I did make something sweet for the Thanksgiving table this year, and I am not talking about the dessert. Sweet potato casserole has been one of my specialties growing up. From the time I was in college (and felt the need to contribute something of my own to the family feast), I would make a sweet potato casserole, garlic cheese biscuits and some sort of dessert. In the past, I have used canned sweet potato chunks for the base of this "recipe". I say "recipe" because I have never really followed any sort of instructions to make this. This year, I decided to keep with my make-from-scratch theme and bake the potatoes. Sweet potatoes are so creamy and delicious, I could have eaten them right out of the oven just the way they are. The natural sugar gives the skin a caramelized taste. I added a couple new things to my "recipe" this year that I think worked really well including bits of the skin (bonus fiber and some nice texture) and ground almonds for a nice smooth nutty flavor.

Stanley Is Sweet Potato Casserole

(Serves 6)

4 sweet potatoes
1 tbsp brown sugar
1/4 C half and half
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1/4 ground almonds (plus a little to sprinkle for the topping)
1/2 C pecan pieces
1 C mini marshmallows

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Individually wrap each potato in foil, and bake for about an hour (until completely fork tender).
Turn oven down to 350 degrees F.
Scoop out flesh of baked sweet potatoes, and mash with a potato masher (you can use a fork if you like them to be chunkier)
Chop up the skin of one of the potatoes into small pieces and sprinkle into the mashed potatoes.
Add half and half, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and ground almonds and mix together until combined.
Fold in pecan pieces.
Transfer mixture to a square 8" casserole dish; spread evenly into the dish.
Sprinkle some ground almond on top of the mixture, and evenly sprinkle marshmallows on top (you can also sprinkle a pinch of cinnamon on top of the marshmallows).
Put the casserole back in the oven for about 20 minutes (or until the marshmallows start to toast.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010 - Green Bean Casserole Time

I realize this is a little late, but I have some great Thanksgiving recipes for you.

The good news is most of these dishes, you can make anytime of year. Of course you are welcome to make a huge turkey and gravy anytime of year, but those dishes are better left to have something to look forward to each November.

My parents visited for Thanksgiving this year which I could not be more excited about. When preparing a Thanksgiving feast, little to no consideration goes into how many people will be at my table. My turkey is 13 lbs, they only sell Yukon Gold potatoes by the 1 1/2 lb, and 1/2 of my aunts stuffing recipe still contains 2 lbs of beef. The good news is, I am hosting this dinner at my place this year which makes for quick and easy storage of leftovers to eat for weeks! There was a cutthroat process to limit f=down the dishes that ended up making it onto the table. I recently painted a wall in my kitchen with chalkboard paint, and I decided to map out the meal there.

I wrote out all my ideas and then went all "politician" on it, making "line-by-line" cuts to the budget...the only difference is, I actually did make cuts, significant cuts like slashing the rum cake, succotash and mac and cheese.

Truth be told, I wanted to be sure to make some dishes I haven't made before so that I could share them on my blog. That is something I really appreciate about keeping this blog; it keeps me on my toes, trying new things instead of getting to complacent with my cooking comfort zone.

Green bean casserole is something I wanted to make from scratch this year. My dad has always been responsible for this dish when my whole family gets together, and it solely consists of cans: canned green beans, canned cream of mushroom soup, canned fried onions...oh a bag of chopped pecans as well. Now, don't get me wrong. I have learned to love this "dump and go" green bean casserole over the years, but I wanted to try to make it from scratch to see how it holds up. I used a popular recipe from Alton Brown, and I dare to say it was worth the extra effort. I may tweak it a bit next year by adding more green beans and also adding pecans (the way my dad does), but I highly suggest this recipe for the essential Thanksgiving dish.

I am particularly confident in recommending this recipe because it happened to be Zach's favorite dish at the table this year, even though he does not like green beans. There are several more recipes where this came from so stay tuned!

Alton Brown's Best Ever Green Bean Casserole

(recipe from Food Network's Alton Brown - serves 6)

For the topping:
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons panko bread crumbs
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Nonstick cooking spray
For beans and sauce:
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1 pound fresh green beans, rinsed, trimmed and halved
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 ounces mushrooms, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup half-and-half
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F.

Combine the onions, flour, panko and salt in a large mixing bowl and toss to combine. Coat a sheet pan with nonstick cooking spray and evenly spread the onions on the pan. Place the pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake until golden brown, approximately 30 minutes. Toss the onions 2 to 3 times during cooking. Once done, remove from the oven and set aside until ready to use. Turn the oven down to 400 degrees F.

While the onions are cooking, prepare the beans. Bring a gallon of water and 2 tablespoons of salt to a boil in an 8-quart saucepan. Add the beans and blanch for 5 minutes. Drain in a colander and immediately plunge the beans into a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain and set aside.

Melt the butter in a 12-inch cast iron skillet set over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms, 1 teaspoon salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms begin to give up some of their liquid, approximately 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and nutmeg and continue to cook for another 1 to 2 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture and stir to combine. Cook for 1 minute. Add the broth and simmer for 1 minute. Decrease the heat to medium-low and add the half-and-half. Cook until the mixture thickens, stirring occasionally, approximately 6 to 8 minutes.

Remove from the heat and stir in 1/4 of the onions and all of the green beans. Top with the remaining onions. Place into the oven and bake until bubbly, approximately 15 minutes. Remove and serve immediately.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Sometimes Sides Take Center Stage

Say that 10 times fast.

I made a roasted chicken for dinner. I am still impressed with myself every time I pull out a whole, beautifully cooked bird from the oven. I am not sure why because it is really one of the easiest things to do, but it just looks so pretty. However, last night I made a roasted chicken with a spicy rub that looked much better going into the oven than it did coming out. It is not the recipe's fault. It is just that I was supposed to slow cook the thing, and seeing as how I wasn't able to start until about 6pm, I kind of rushed things a bit. The spicy rub charred, and turned black. It actually didn't look so bad once I rubbed the charred part off a bit.

While the chicken was still delicious, and the spicy rub flavor was the bomb, it fell behind the star of the evening's meal, the Mediterranean couscous.

I have never made couscous before. But sometimes you need an escape from the same old rice and potatoes. I liked this recipe because it was basically the starch and the vegetable in one. It could definitely even be the main dish in a vegetarian meal. It was so flavorful and pretty healthy (due to the vegetables, not the couscous since it is basically teeny weeny bits of pasta). I cannot wait to experiment with this weird little food some more, but I don't know that I will be able to beat this recipe.

Tracie's Couscous Salad

(recipe adapted from Paula Deen)

1 box flavored couscous (garlic or Parmesan), cooked (I used toasted pine nut flavored couscous)
1 can chickpeas
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
1/2 Vidalia onion, chopped (I used a shallot)
1 English cucumber, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped
1 tomato, chopped
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped
1/2 cup kalamata olives, chopped
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
2 to 3 limes, juiced (I used lemon)

*Be sure to chop everything nice and small so that nothing is too chunky. This is the kind of thing you eat with a spoon

In a large bowl, toss all the ingredients with the olive oil and lime juice, to taste.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Decade in the Making: Spinach and Feta Stuffed Chicken

November 6th, in a wedding ceremony on the beach in St Augustine, Florida, my dear friends, Mike(y) and Amanda were married in front of 54 of their friends and family.

November 10th, they will celebrate their ten-year anniversary during their honeymoon in Jamaica. These two started dating our Sophomore year in high school (this suddenly makes me feel pretty old). They are newlyweds with the experience and history of a couple that has been married for years.

These two have been a staple couple in my life practically since the era of real dating began. Amanda’s sister, Sarah, gave a great maid of honor speech at the reception which included a list of trends and events that were going on during the year the couple started dating: “Survivor” was in its first season, The infamous Florida election recounts were underway, Amikeda even precedes Brangelina (and Brangelina have 6 kids). Sarah also mentioned that she always admired the fact that Amanda always knew, from the start, that she wanted to spend her life with Mike. I think we all (those that are close to them) always knew they would end up together as well. I remember talking to our other friends on several occasions about how excited I was for them to get married because their wedding would be really special not only to them, but to those of us who watched them grow together. It takes two really special people to A) recognize the kind of partner they want to be with for the rest of their lives at such a young age and B) be the kind of partner someone wants to be with for the rest of their lives at such a young age.

(I wish I had a really embarrassing picture of the two of them from high school to insert here)

I am so proud to call these two people my friends. They are two of the most fun and interesting people I know and such a blast to hang out with. They do not need my well-wishes or congratulations because Amanda and Mike’s wedding was just a great celebration of what they already have and will continue to have together as long as they both shall live.

I don't have many pictures from the wedding day, but here is a look at the little rehearsal set up on the porch of the beach house where the families were staying for the weekend:

The rehearsal was followed by a dinner at Saltwater Cowboys on the marshy, uniquely Florida land:

Here is my one and only good shot of the bride all dressed up:

Something Amanda and Mike have always loved to do together is cook. Although Amanda’s favorite food seems to be simply toast, she has bragged about their picadillo recipe for a long time. I told her to guest blog about it so hopefully she will be sharing that with us soon. I know they also like to create unique spice blends, which might be interesting to hear about as well. I almost love cooking with someone I love more than I love eating with someone I love. It can be a romantic activity to cook with your significant other or it can be a fun activity to share with your family during the holidays. Since the wedding was in St. Augustine, I had the pleasure of visiting with my brother’s family in Jacksonville for a few days before and after the festivities. I found myself in the kitchen cooking for my family on Sunday afternoon for one of three to four meals a year my immediate family gets to have together. I had a special helper in the kitchen for most of the cooking time.

Olivia was by my side, brushing olive oil on the bread, handing me toothpicks for the chicken and of course taste testing anything that was safe to eat. I was cooking for about two hours total, and I want to say she stayed with me for well over an hour of it. I kept explaining to her that sometimes if you want something to be really really yummy, it takes a long time to make (referring to the fact that we were making the croutons for the salad ourselves instead of buying them already made). She learned what garlic was and how fresh spinach “shrinks” when you sauté it. I learned how fun it can be to cook with curious little kids (it gave me an idea of someday teaching a “mommy-and-me” or even just a kids cooking class…could be chaotic-I-mean-fun right?). I also learned how much nicer/easier/better it is to cook with unlimited counter space and a garbage disposal.

It was such a treat to cook with someone I love so much. Olivia and I made panzanella (which basically gets better every time I make it), roasted potatoes and chicken stuffed with spinach, feta cheese and pine nuts. I realize I forgot something very important in making this recipe for my family because while they were all very complimentary of the dish, it could have used some fresh LEMON JUICE in the stuffing mixture. Lemon juice, by the way, is the miracle ingredient that provides bursting flavor to so many meals without adding a single calorie. You can use this recipe as a base for any stuffed chicken you would like t try. Sub goat cheese for the feta with the spinach, try something totally different with goat cheese and sun dried tomatoes or use Katie’s mom’s suggestion of creating a cream cheese and onion mixture to act as the stuffing. The stuffing can be made up of anything that sounds good to you. Just make sure it has a lot of strong flavors or else you run the risk of the dish coming up flat. Lastly, a nice flavorful sauce could be a great addition to the stuffed chicken (the gorgonzola sauce that goes with Ina Garten’s Beef Tenderloin recipe perhaps?).

This recipe is completely kid-friendly, see? (There is a bite or two way down at the bottom of her plate, people)

Although I am sure Charlotte prefers her popsicles:

Sometimes if you want something to taste really really yummy, it takes a long time to make. This is not one of those times.

Spinach and Feta Stuffed Chicken: not a decade in the making, but still good

(Makes 6-8 servings)

6 Chicken breasts, boneless and skinless
1 package fresh spinach
4 oz feta cheese (or more...you will never regret using more)
1/4 c pine nuts
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cloves chopped garlic
juice of 1 lemon
salt and pepper
Olive oil for the pan

Coat a large pan with just a little bit of olive oil and place over med-high heat.
Add onion and garlic to the pan and cook until tender (about 8 min)
Add the fresh spinach to the pan and cook until wilted (about 5 min)
Add salt and pepper to taste, and remove from heat (try to drain, squeeze out or pat dry any excess moisture you can).
Toast pine nuts in a toaster oven until they turn slightly light brown (you can use a regular oven or just throw them in with the spinach in the pan for the last couple minutes while it wilts).
Add pine nuts, lemon juice and feta cheese to the spinach mixture, and combine well.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Lay out the chicken breasts on a cutting board, and cover with plastic wrap.
Pound chicken breasts out until they are less than 1/2 inch thick (no thinner than 1/4 inch), and remove plastic wrap.
Place a small handful of the spinach mixture in the middle of each chicken breast, and roll them up, securing with toothpicks (to keep them from unrolling.
Sprinkle salt and pepper to taste on the outsides of the chicken rolls.
In a large pan coated with a little bit of oil, brown the chicken rolls on all sides.
Place chicken in a small casserole dish.
Bake for 25-30 minutes (mine took 28) at 350 degrees F (until the juices run clear and there is no pink left in the flesh of the chicken.

I got a chance to chill with my brand new niece after dinner when the world was quiet (i.e. the other two girls were in bed).

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Copycat: Salami, Turkey, Goat Cheese Sandwich

Have you ever had someone copy everything you say?

Under certain circumstances, it can be quite annoying. However, when it is from the lips of adorable children, still learning the way language works and the true meaning of phrases like "excuse me", it is unbelievably precious. I spent an amazing day playing with my nieces, Olivia (4 yrs), Charlotte (1.5 years) and Rachel (2 weeks old).

Rachel Marie at 2 weeks

Like any good big sisters, Charlotte and Olivia would hover over Rachel, stroking her and talking sweetly to her the way they have observed their parents doing so. Charlotte kept calling her "Bachel" and getting nose to nose with her while Olivia kept cradling her saying "You're okay, you're okay", to Rachel whenever she would start to cry. It was explained to me by my sister-in-law that Olivia was mimicking my brother's response to Rachel's crying in saying "You're okay, you're okay." I am pretty sure I heard Charlotte telling "Bachel" she was okay as well a couple times throughout the weekend as well.

Another great Charlotte shot just for kicks:

It really hit me how spongy those young minds are when Olivia and I sat down to play "hair salon". I did her hair first. I gave her little french braid pigtails. The whole time I was doing her hair, I kept saying, "You're gonna love it. It will be so awesome", in an attempt to get her to sit still in anticipation of the big reveal of how truly awesome the final product would be. When it was Olivia's turn to do my hair, she kept saying, "You're going to love it. It will be so awesome" in the same tone as her wacky Aunt Lindsey.

And love it, I did!

I too, am guilty of playing copycat when it comes to food. Zach and I have a favorite sandwich shop in LA called the Larchmont Village Wine Spirits and Cheese Shop. The sandwich is just perfect and cannot possibly be improved upon so I just decided to copy it. I did end up tweaking the ingredients because Zach and I bought some bomb goat cheese and olive bread in Temecula last weekend. I think the most important thing about the sandwich is the quality of the ingredients. Everything is so tasty. Just do it, okay?

Copycat Larchmont Village Wine Spirits and Cheese Shop Sandwiches

(makes 2-3 sandwiches)

1 loaf of a crusty french bread (or any artisan bread - I used olive bread)
1/4 lb hard salami (I used part salami part turkey to lower the calorie count)
4 slices of manchego cheese (we used out Temecula Cheese Shop goat cheese)
1 tomato
a few handfuls of spring mixed greens
balsamic vinegar
extra virgin olive oil

You know what to do. Put it all together. The oil and balsamic vinegar go on the inside of the bread.

We enjoyed these sandwiches with some hearty vegetable soup.