Category Archives: in the kitchen

Urban Standard’s Grilled Cheese- at home!

I’m going to make this quick, as I have a piece of information that must be shared immediately. Ladies and gentlemen, something monumental happened in Houston, TX last weekend.

I cracked the code of Urban Standard’s grilled cheese and the ALL important balsamic jam.

I guess it wasn’t “cracking” the code so much as googling the mess out of every possible combination of words and finally stumbling upon a Birmingham News Food Detective column (for the balsamic jam) and a random blog outlining the different types of cheeses used. Armed with this information, I got to work.

Here is my version of this masterpiece (it’s pretty true to the original):

For the balsamic jam:

3 tablespoons of grape jelly

1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar (I used my wonderful, pricey Zingerman’s balsamic– next time I will go for a cheaper version)

(This made enough jam for about 3 servings, so adjust as needed)


For the sandwich:

Sourdough bread

Sharp Cheddar

Provolone (not smoked)

Boursin cheese (just the regular old garlic and herb variety)

And lots of butter, of course

The goods

Get yer cheezez ready


Hopefully we all understand how to make a grilled cheese. Go at it, and then when you’re finished, serve with the balsamic jam for dipping.

Butter


I imagine this balsamic jam would be good on other sandwiches as well. Turkey with caramelized onions, for example…

Enjoy!

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A Lighter Chicken Pot Pie

Welcome back to foodstalkers! It’s been a while since  I showed my face here. For shame. But at the start of this new year, it’s one of my goals to get back in the kitchen. And if I’m in the kitchen, I want to post about it! Yesterday I got Everyday Food‘s e-mail newsletter. Timing was perfect because the featured recipes covered just what I was craving: warm, cozy comfort food, like Chicken Pie! But on the lighter side—for both budget and waste-line.

chicken pie

lighter chicken pot pie. mouth watering goodness.

A few small changes in this chicken pie recipe transform a heavier dish into something on the lighter side: white meat instead of dark, olive oil instead of butter, skim milk instead of heavy cream, and fluffy puff pastry instead of a thick crust. And the result is something equally as tasty, and easy to prepare. Plus, this dish makes 4-6 servings. Not all leftovers are created equally or edible. But these leftovers were just as good as the first time around. Could this savory chicken pie keep getting yummier?

Here’s what you’ll need to make it.

2 chicken breasts
Coarse salt and ground peppes
4 tablespoons olive oil
Handful baby carrots, sliced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups skim milk
1 package (10 ounces) frozen peas, thawed
Fresh juice of one lemon
Phyllo sheet (12 by 17 inches), thawed
9-inch pie plate

And here’s what you’ll do.

1. Preheat the oven to 400°. Season chicken liberally with salt and pepper, 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves. Roast in a aluminum foil pack about 30 minutes, or until instand-read thermometer reads 165° and juice is clear. Allow to cool for a few minutes and then chop it up into bite-size pieces.

2. While chicken roasts, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in saucepan over medium heat. Add carrots, onion, 1/4 teaspoon thyme, salt and pepper. Cook for 8-10 minutes, until the veggies are tender. Then add flour and cook, while stirring for 1 minute. Then gradually add the milk while stirring. Allow the mixture to combine and thicken over a simmer.

veggies w/ thyme

after adding the flour and milk

3. Remove veggie mixture from head. Stir in peas, chicken and lemon juice. Season with S&P. Pour filling into a 9-inch pie plate. (I recommend a deep dish, and I regret I did not have that)

olive oil brushed phyllo dough

4. Drape strips of phyllo dough to cover the filling and seal around the edges. Use a paring knife to cut off the excess. Brush top with 1 tablespoon olive oil to get a pretty, golden brown topping. Bake for 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool for 15 minutes before serving.

tah-dah!

**If you do not have a deep-dish pie plate, I recommend placing your pie plate on a baking sheet while it’s in the oven. My house currently smells of burnt chicken pie drippings that bubbled over and onto the bottom of my oven. Not appetizing.**

Next up in the kitchen…something with ground turkey. I was thinking enchiladas, but I have a LOT of meat—about 1.25 lbs. Who has an idea? Meatloaf? Meatballs? Chili? Something new I hope. Somebody help!

Thanksgiving Feast

roasted turkey breast

I braved the daunting task of cooking for about twenty (20!) of my friends this past weekend, and believe it or not, it went off without a hitch. The holidays are times for your family; and for me, friends are as much family as the people that raised me. So I was pleased to prepare this meal for them and spend time together before we scatter to the four winds to be with our families for the holidays.

the buffet; and yes, i wear an apron.

Here’s the menu:

Roasted Turkey Breast
Traditional Sage and Sausage Dressing
Apple and Leek Dressing (v)
Turkey Gravy with Sherry
Baked Whipped Potatoes (v)
Spinach Gruyere Gratin (v)
Honey Glazed Carrots (v)
Cranberry Conserve (v)
Golden Beets and Pomegranate Salad (v)
Yeast Rolls (v)
Jack Daniels Pecan Pie, Pumpkin Bread, Ginger and Orange cookies (v)

(v) – no carne; vegetarian

You might be wondering how I pulled this off. Well that secret weapon was my mom, who graciously helped with preparation and supplies. Thanks, Mom. She also served as my phone hotline while I was cooking for any emergency questions like, “Can you refrigerate gravy, nuke it, and have it come together again?!” The answer: yes!

Herb Roasted Turkey

I could do without turkey at Thanksgiving. Yean, I’m in that camp. It’s on the buffet, but it’s not the highlight for me. And it’s probably more trouble that it’s worth. That said, I had to forgo the full bird. Instead, I roasted and carved two turkey breasts (bone-in) Friday night, refrigerated the slices, and intended to bring it up to room temperature for dinner on Saturday. (I forgot, and served cool turkey; but everything else was hot, so who knew?) The advantages of turkey breast over the full bird are: reduced thawing and cooking times, more quality meat, less carving, and it will comfortably feed a crowd with some leftovers.

turkey bird

To begin, thaw the bird according to the packaging recommendations for the specific weight of turkey you have. Rinse and pat dry. (Clean your sink thoroughly after this to avoid cross-contamination!) Preheat oven to super hot: 450°F. Because I lacked a roasting rack, I used halved onions and lemons to prop up the bird. Melt a stick of butter and stir in salt, pepper and fresh thyme leaves. Brush the bird with half of this mixture, and then half-way through the cooking time, brush the bird with the remaining.

The key to getting the turkey right is checking the internal temperature, which should reach 165°F in the middle of the breast. I used a snazzy oven probe meat thermometer with alarm. When the turkey reaches the desired, programmed temperature, an alarm goes off, and out comes the turkey. Easy, right? Then just let the bird rest, tented with aluminum foil for about 30 minutes. Then carve. I followed this video to get the best results.

turkey

Turkey Gravy

When the turkey was done and resting aside, I placed the roasting pan on the stove top over medium-high heat, and added a gravy base from Williams-Sonoma with equal parts milk. This allows for full-proof gravy when there are other dishes to get together. Scrape the bottom of the roasting pan to pick up some of the tasty bits. I sprinkled in poultry seasoning (on the aisle with herbs at the grocery store), cooking sherry, salt and pepper. Then taste and season until you’re happy. I let it cool and refrigerated it overnight. When I was ready to serve, I just microwaved it in 1-minute intervals, whisking between until hot. While it’s optional, I highly recommend adding the sherry. It made the gravy more complex and acidic.

clockwise from top: apple & leek dressing, turkey gravy, sage and sausage dressing patties, turkey

Traditional Sage and Sausage Dressing Patties

Recipe to come…this is a family favorite.

apple leek dressing

Apple and Leek Dressing

This is a vegetarian option from Martha Stewart, with the major flavor components being country bread, Macintosh apples, leeks and rosemary. Yum! I’ve got to start using leeks more. They’re a pain to clean  (grains of sand lodge in the layers of the plant), but well worth it. Leeks are a lit like a cross between an onion and celery.

baked whipped potatoes and spinach gratin

Baked Whipped Potatoes

This is my mom’s recipe. What’s great about this is that it’s a casserole. You’re not whipping and seasoning potatoes at the last minute before they go on the serving table. Instead, you make it and bake in advance and just keep warm until served. All of the delightful baked potato toppings are already mixed in, and you end up with this very flavorful, airy potato.

  • 8 baking potatoes
  • 3/4 cup hot milk
  • 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 2 teaspoons onion salt
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 tablespoons butter on top
  • paprika

Directions
1. Peal, cube and boil potatoes in salted water until tender. Drain.
2. With an electric beater, combine hot milk, cream cheese, sour cream, butter, onion salt, and salt and pepper. Add potatoes and whip. Check seasoning—it may need more salt and pepper.
3. Pour into a Pyrex dish and sprinkle with paprika. Dot top of casserole with small slices of butter. Bake for 20-30 minutes in a 350°F oven.

Ina Garten’s Spinach Gratin

This cheesy little number was a favorite at the feast. And when you read the rich ingredients you’ll know why. One thing I like about this dish is that there’s a good balance between inexpensive—even some frozen ingredients—and the fresh, more expensive ingredients. And when it all comes together, it tastes truly divine. The cheese is gooey, and a bit crispy on top. And it’s well worth the extra penny for the Parmesan and Gruyere.

  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  • 4 cups chopped yellow onions (2 large)
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 cups milk
  • 3 pounds frozen chopped spinach, defrosted (5 (10-ounce) packages)
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese

Directions
1. Preheat the oven to 425° F.

2. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the flour and nutmeg and cook, stirring, for 2 more minutes. Add the cream and milk and cook until thickened. Squeeze as much liquid as possible from the spinach and add the spinach to the sauce. Add 1/2 cup of the Parmesan cheese and mix well. Season, to taste, with salt and pepper.
3. Transfer the spinach to a baking dish and sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan and the Gruyere on top. Bake for 20 minutes until hot and bubbly.

my favorite dish

Cranberry Conserve

This dish is absolutely my favorite item on the Thanksgiving plate. It’s sweet and tart, and crunchy and smooth. It beats the heck out of the canned, ringed cranberry gelatin stuff. And it is wonderful side item to not just turkey and dressing, but also chicken tetrazzini and other such bird dishes.

  • 1 (12-ounce) bag of fresh cranberries (can use frozen)
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and chopped
  • 1 orange, zest grated and juiced
  • 1 lemon, zest grated and juiced
  • 3/4 cup raisins
  • 3/4 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
  • a splash of port (optional)

Directions
Cook the cranberries, sugar, and 1 cup of water in a saucepan over low heat for about 5 minutes, or until the skins pop open. Add the apple, zests, and juices and cook for 15 more minutes. Remove from the heat and add the raisins and nuts. Let cool, and serve chilled.

honey glazed carrots

Honey Glazed Carrots

These carrots serve as a nice contrast to the creamy, heavier recipes of mashed potatoes and spinach gratin. The preparation is simple, but ever so tasty!

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 pounds carrots, halved lengthwise, and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 cup canned reduced-sodium vegetable broth
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
  • Coarse salt and ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • fresh thyme leaves

Directions
1. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high. Add carrots; cook, stirring once, until beginning to brown, 2 minutes.

2. Add broth, honey, and vinegar; season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook until crisp-tender, 10 minutes. Uncover, and cook over medium-high until carrots are tender and liquid is syrupy, 7 to 9 minutes more (there should be only a small amount of liquid remaining).
3.
Remove skillet from heat; add butter, and swirl skillet until melted. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Top with fresh thyme leaves.

incredible salad

Golden Beets and Pomegranate Salad

I love love beets, and especially love them on a a bed of lettuce with a delicious cheese. Raleigh Times Bar serves a tasty pub salad with pears and roasted beets with Gorgonzola, so that was my inspiration in hunting down a Thanksgiving-appropriate recipe. I noticed that not many Thanksgiving guests were thrilled with the beets. It’s a vegetable that’s not too common, apart from mentions on The Office by Dwight Schrute (Bears, Beets, Battlestar Gallactica). To me beets taste like a combination of carrot and potato, and when oven roasted, they’re far superior to their canned counterparts. As for the pomegranate, I picked one up at the grocery store, out of sheer curiosity never having used one before. I had to look up how to open the darn thing.

This salad dressing is…ahmazing. It’s rather sweet and concentrated, so I added olive oil and a touch more red wine vinegar to cut the sugar and cover more greens.

  • 4 golden beets
  • 2 shallots, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup red wine vinegar, divided
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup chicken broth (or vegetable broth for vegetarian option)
  • 3 Tbsp Triple Sec or other orange-flavored liqueur *I had some leftover from margaritas
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon peel
  • Seeds of 1 pomegranate
  • Salt
  • 2 heads Boston lettuce, 1 head green lettuce, 1 head red lettuce
  • 1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese

golden beets, pre-roasting

Directions
1. Wash the beets, trim the greens from the top. Toss in olive oil, salt and pepper. Wrap in a packet of aluminum foil and place on oven rack. Roast at 375°F for an hour. Test the tenderness of the beet with a sharp knife. Continue roasting if not tender. Then allow to cool. Then peel and cube.
2. In a medium skillet over high heat, bring beets, shallot, vinegar, broth, liqueur, sugar, and orange peel to a boil, stirring often, until liquid is reduced to 2 Tbsp, about 5 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.
3. Stir pomegranate seeds into the beet mixture and salt to taste. Serve on top of salad greens. Sprinkle with feta cheese. Toss with remaining red wine vinegar and olive oil.

How to get to those pom seeds…

chop off the top or the crown of the pomagranate.

score the pom in segments around the fruit from base to the chopped-off end

submerge the pomagranate, and pry apart the segments. separate seeds from the pith. seeds will sink. sift off the pith and skin from the top of the water.

Yeast Rolls

I will never make bread from scratch, when I can I buy these. They’re so good.

Dessert

For dessert, we feasted on a a variety of items—pumpkin bread, ginger and orange cookies, and J’s Jack Daniels Pecan Pie! Wowsah. This is a show-stopping pie. So pretty.

julia's pie pie pie

That wraps up our Thanksgiving Feast. Thanks to everyone that came from all over, and for those that couldn’t make it, I missed you! (Katie Co—I poured out a little champagne for you.) Much love and safe travels this holiday. Love, Miss Em

PS—Thanks to Ashton for taking most of these pictures.

Cookie or Brownie?

heeeey cookies

super gooey chocolate drops

LG—I had an attack of the sweet tooth. This doesn’t happen too often. Enjoy!

This is one of the tastiest sweets recipes I have ever come across. Reading the recipe alone, I suspected it was a stand-out. Eating a just-out-of-the-oven cookie, and I knew. These extra rich and chocolatey cookies straddle the line between cookie and brownie. And that’s a fine place to be.

P9160007

the ingredients

Ingredients—recipe from FoodNetwork Kitchens

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup natural cocoa powder, such as Hershey’s or Scharffen Berger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
11 ounces (1 bag) semisweet chocolate chunks
1 cup dried cherries. optional (I omitted the $10/bag dried cherries I’m sad to say)

First things first: preheat the oven to 325° and position the oven rack in the middle. I was working with just one cookie sheet. If you’re using two or three, you can position the oven racks in the top third and bottom third.

A quick tip I’ve learned for cooling a baking sheet: just run it under cool water for about…eh…10 seconds. That takes most of the heat away so that when you reload the baking sheet with a new batch of cookie dough, they don’t start cooking immediately.

Break up the chocolate bars and place them along with the stick of butter into a microwave safe bowl. I use a Pyrex pitcher. Zap until melted. I usually start with about a minute, and then do 30 seconds more and stir, 30 seconds more and stir, etc. until smooth.

batter is lookin good

batter is lookin good

Add the brown sugar, granulated sugar and vanilla to the melted chocolate and butter. Then add the eggs and buttermilk.

wowsah

wowsah

For the dry ingredients, just combine—flour, cocoa, cinnamon, salt. Add the dry ingredients gradually to the wet. Once combined, throw in the chocolate chips (and though I omitted the cherries, this is when you add them, too. You could also add walnuts, or a number of other things).

Then, on a parchment-lined baking sheet, scoop tablespoon-sized heaps of batter. Allow a couple of inches between. Then bake 12-15 minutes. I try to take the cookies out on the earlier side so they remained like a fudge brownie. Allow the cookies to cool for about 5 minutes on a rack. You may need to allow them to set on the baking sheet before you attempt to move them. They may fall apart.

i hope you have milk in the fridge

you better have milk in the fridge

I would have liked to splurge on the dried cherries for this recipe, but I simply couldn’t justify the cost. Nevertheless, these cookies are incredible. The cinnamon is an ingenious addition. It provides a surprising accent to the chocolate, much the same way that coffee flavor enhances chocolate.

It’s worth it to make these cookies from scratch—especially since they’re drop cookies that don’t have to be rolled out and sliced perfectly. And if you dare and can stand to wait the extra 15 seconds, zap a couple of cookies in the microwave before devouring.


Summertime Eats

Summer is beginning to come to an end. Actually, let’s be honest- summer doesn’t end in Texas until October… if you are really lucky. Some of my favorite foods hit their peak during summertime: peaches, tomatoes, chicken salad, Doodles (I…miss… you!), BBQ, and many more. I’m going to share some of my favorite uses/versions of the items listed.

Garlicky Spaghetti with Beans and Greens from Cooking Light

Garlicky Spaghetti with Beans and Greens from Cooking Light

I saw this recipe in the August issue of Cooking Light, and immediately started making a list of ingredients I’d need to make it. I love pasta dishes, and especially those that include arugula and tomatoes (shout out to Allred, arugula lover #1). This was super fast and easy to put together and the end result was just fantastic. I love when grape tomatoes get to that burst-y stage (I’m not sure what kind of freak superhero tomatoes the test kitchen was using for their picture- mine definitely looked messier than that). The addition of lemon juice just served to brighten all the flavors and bring everything together- acid-y tomatoes, peppery arugula- and the cannellini beans meant that it is a perfectly adequate and filling main dish meal. I think I will be making many more batches of this recipe in the future. I actually made the entire amount the recipe called for (I rarely do that since it’s just me), and ate every last bit of it for leftovers for the rest of the week.

If the adage “you are what you eat” is true, then by now I would be a Caprese salad. Central Market was having a sale on their house-made mozzarella, so I bought a ball, some tomatoes (your garden variety reds and then some pretty heirlooms), and a bunch of fresh basil and then proceeded to eat the entire ball in 2 days. This is the ultimate summer dish in my opinion. Sprinkle with plenty of salt, fresh ground pepper, drizzle with olive oil, and I add a generous amount of Zingerman’s balsamic vinegar. I ended up going back for another ball of mozzarella before the sale ended (and left with the mozzarella, a peach cobbler, and Haagen Daas brown sugar ice cream… but that’s another story).

Ah-mazing

Ah-mazing

Chicken salad is one of things that I didn’t start eating until fairly recently. It’s no secret that I strongly dislike mayo, so this was a pretty big hump to get over for me to enjoy chicken salad. I still frequently find those that are wayyyyyy too mayonnaise-y. The mayo is just supposed to serve as a medium to bind the rest of the ingredients together! Not a function as a main ingredient- gah! I find that the best chicken salads are those that I make myself, that way I can control the level of mayo. For this particular version, I wanted to make something similar to Central Market’s tarragon chicken salad. I love the flavors, but in one of their only failures (in my eyes), it has way too much of the bad stuff in it.

For mine, I shredded the breast meat of a rotisserie chicken.

Cut red grapes in half

Chopped celery

Added pecan pieces

Chopped fresh tarragon leaves

Salt & pepper

Added mayo little by little, until the mixture was combined

Sprinkled paprika over the top, and tucked it away for multiple workday lunches.

Voila

Voila

Another post coming very soon, in which LG visits a convenience store in search of a gyro! Oh, and a very special event is coming up next weekend: LG’s Pere, who happens to be LG’s most favorite foodstalking partner (no offense to others… it’s in our blood), is coming to Houston! Many MANY meals to come…

Ode to the Summer Tomato

caption here

sweet william's homegrown cherry tomatoes

To my delight and surprise the other week, I noticed some green and orange-ish tomatoes emerging on a plant that grows on the fence between my and my neighbor’s yard. To be honest, I didn’t even know there was a tomato plant there. My neighbor is a sweet lady in her 80s. She likes to yell at me when I’m mowing the yard, which makes for interesting conversation because I can’t hear her and she definitely can’t hear me. I usually pause to chat. She talks to me about her husband who passed away a couple of years ago, the yard and garden (called Sweet William’s Garden) he used to maintain, and the road trips she has taken with her friends. Oh and she drives a red Mustang. Convertible.

I gave Sweet William’s cherry tomatoes another week or so to ripen, and went out to pick a bowl-full when the vine was abundant and the tomatoes were looking handsome and red.

Peak tomato season is upon us.

Tomatoes are my most anticipated harvest of the year. This dates back to my younger years when my grandfather Pops used to maintain a healthy vegetable garden of mostly peppers and tomatoes. These tomatoes were legendary: brought to the house on each visit, peddled among the neighbors. Mostly we ate them in plain, thick, juicy slices with salt and pepper. And while most gardeners would argue that hot nights and lots of water produce your best tomatoes, Pops relied on singing to his vines and some tender care.

To my palate, there’s nothing more succulent, brightly acidic and sweet, so pleasurable to taste, than a hot summer’s still-warm-off-the vine tomato. And we wait all year for it! How sad to eat the pale, flavorless mush of a forced out-of-season tomato. But sprinkle your ripest with a touch of salt (the big flakes, like David’s Kosher Salt—available at any grocery store) and the plump, red morsel is like manna. The tomato is the hero of a bacon-lettuce sandwich on toasted bread with a spread of mayo. The tomato sings when accompanied by olive oil, salt, pepper and basil! Add fresh mozzarella and balsamic vinegar and you have created the most simple and elegant plate of food and goodness.

For my birthday my family went to 18 Seaboard for dinner. (Side note: I got the marinated Flat Iron steak with the Worcestershire sauce, sweet corn mashed Yukon Gold potatoes and sautéed spinach. It was a fantastic conclusion to my brief dive into veganism.) I was enjoying my meal too much to pause for photographs, though I did manage to snap a picture of the heirloom tomato sampler…halfway through devouring it.

I wish I could remember all of the clever names of the heirlooms—things like Mortgage Lifter, Brandywine and Banana Legs. They came in all colors and patterns —purple and green marble, red-orange and yellow—and sizes and shapes—bite sized and round, pear-shaped, and giant, bumpy, amorphous shapes. The plate was topped with basil chiffonade, olive oil, a very sweet balsamic vinegar and goat cheese.

heirloom tomato sampler at 18 seaboard

heirloom tomato sampler at 18 seaboard

That brings me to great heirloom debate. Something so lovely couldn’t possibly skirt by without controversy. First, a few traits of heirloom variety tomatoes:
•  seeds are passed down for generations, ergo “heirloom”
•  smaller scale production
•  open-pollinated (meaning non-hybrids, and pollination takes place as a natural mechanism by bird, insect or wind)
•  genetically diverse for desirable qualities; preserves biodiversity
most varieties have histories preceding industrialized farming (much of which now concentrates on the sturdiness of the tomato for shipping, and a higher yield for mass production)

beautiful heirlooms via

beautiful heirlooms / photo by flickr (cc) user clayirving

Heirloom tomatoes have become a touch trendy in the food world, a kind of commodity de cuisine. And with that high demand, prices have gone up, and in some cases quality has gone down while production was amped up. Jane Black of the Washington Post wrote in her article Snob Appeal: Won’t Someone Knock Heirloom Tomatoes Off Their Pedestal, “The best tomato I ate last summer was not an heirloom tomato. If those don’t seem like fighting words, then clearly you do not take tomatoes seriously.” And furthermore she said, “‘Heirloom’ is not synonymous with ‘good.'”

(Illustration by Serge Bloch For The Washington Post; Photos by Julia Ewan/The Washington Post)

(Illustration by Serge Bloch For The Washington Post; Photos by Julia Ewan/The Washington Post)

I will agree with Black, mostly because a tomato—heirloom or commercial hybrid—can be judged on a bite-by-bite basis. Many commercial hybrid tomatoes, if thrown at a stage of horrible comedians, wouldn’t even burst. They’ve been genetically engineered indestructible so that during shipments, crates of product aren’t worthless upon arrival at their destination. That can’t be tastey. But some engineering in hybrid creation has proved beneficial, creating great taste, a resistance to rot and high-yield vines of great taste.

But since we’re in tomato season, I say eat the tomato as straight-off-the-vine as possible. Either from your own backyard or a farmer’s market. Enjoy the season and take advantage of what’s fresh. Heirloom or not, just do what tastes right.

Vegan….say whhhaaattt?!

tofu?

tofu?

In her most recent post, LG alluded to something I’ve been ruminating about for a while. And that is veganism.

“Hold the phone, Miss Em!,” you say.

Don’t get overworked. I love meat, dairy and eggs way to much to give them up. Life is about living and enjoying, so I don’t plan on depriving myself of the food that makes me happy. But I did want to give myself a cooking and dietary challenge for a limited time. My goals: try new cooking techniques and ingredients, challenge myself when dining out to choose the healthier option, improve meal planning and lessen food that goes to waste. As for some potential benefits: a taste for a variety of new recipes, restored energy (maybe?) and a lasting consciousness about eating choices.

My first observation: this kind of dietary restriction requires a lot of planning. I spend more time in the evenings packing my lunch. And breakfast. And snack. While I usually do these things, I often grab what’s convenient or what’s fastest. Or I’ll plan on eating out since that’s even easier. Consciously planning ahead for the next 10 days will be the only way I reach my goal. I’m 4 days in.

So at the end of this 14-day experiment, yeah, I’m gonna have a steak. On my birthday. How’s that for meal planning?

My first four days have been successful in following vegan guidelines. So far I’ve cooked a couple of vegetable soups, grilled tofu. And I made a salad with an Asian twist.

Here’s the Asian (Minus Chicken) Salad from Ellie Krieger. I adapted it.

crunchy!

crunchy!

I love this salad—reminds me of a salad at Harper’s that comes with Ahi Tuna. The combination of vegetables creates lots of interesting texture and crunch, and then the dressing adds tinges of sweet, salty and sour. I had picked out the Napa cabbage, having seen someone cook with it on PBS’s EveryDay Food. I thought I’d make a slaw or add it to soup, but instead I found this super salad recipe.

1/2 head Napa cabbage, thinly shredded (about 6 cups)
1/4 head red cabbage, shredded (about 2 cups)—omitted
1 large carrot, shredded (about 2 cups)
3 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced, greens included (about 1/2 cup)
1 (8-ounce) can sliced water chestnuts—omitted
1 (11-ounce) can Mandarin oranges in water, drained—just used navel oranges, peeled and sectioned
1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted—I chopped up some dry-roasted almonds

This makes about 4 servings. Rather than eat an only-cabbage salad, I topped a bed of romaine with this salad, just to add a different texture. Then I dressed my portion with Soy Vay Toasted Sesame Dressing, my new favorite bottled salad dressing. Soy Vay was earth-shatteringly good the first time I tasted it. There’s a mega sesame flavor going on, like toasted sesame oil, plus the dressing is pleasantly laden with toasted sesame seeds. A note on the name: the Soy Vay line was born from a business partnership of a Chinese gal (native of Hong Kong) and a Jewish guy. Voilà—Soy Vay.

soy vay!

soy vay!

Next up: I grilled some marinated tofu, inspired by this Grilled Veggie and Tofu Stack recipe from epicurious.

Here’s what you need for my version:

12-oz. container of extra-firm tofu, cut into 8 cubes, drained
1/2 c. Piquillo Pepper Bruschetta sauce (Here’s where you may have to substitute. You could go straight for a jarred pasta sauce, pesto or salsa. But I like this bruschetta sauce because it’s spicy and has a concentrated flavor, which makes a nice marinade base. This saved me some time in the kitchen, too.)
a few glugs of balsamic vinegar

optional, but awesome: roasted peppers jarred in balsamic vinegar (I think you could possibly find this among the olives/capers and other jarred antipasto kinds of non-perishables at a grocery store.)
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste

1 zucchini, sliced
olive oil

Start by mixing up the marinade—bruschetta sauce through salt and pepper. Once the tofu has drained, place them in the marinade dish, and spoon the marinade all over the tofu cubes. Then work on grilling up the zucchini. Just give the slices a quick toss in olive oil, salt and pepper, and put it on the grill. I used an indoor grill pan.

pre-grilling

pre-grilling

Once the zucchini is done, put it aside and replace it with the tofu on the grill. Turn the tofu once you start to see nice grill marks—probably every couple of minutes. This adds nice texture and flavor. I love the idea of treating tofu like meat. Obviously it’s a kind of meat substitute, but by actually marinating and grilling the tofu, the plain spongy base takes on much more flavor.

Serve it up with some of the marinade that was left in the dish as a sauce. Top with slices of roasted red peppers marinate marinated in balsamic vinegar.

The results? I flat out loved the zucchini. A little bit of char on there made it extra tasty. And for the tofu—texture is still an issue for me here. It’s scrambled-eggish. Which is fine, but it reminds me of how hard it is to turn my back on my meat-eating ways! The marinade/relish/sauce is what makes this dish. Because the flavors—garlic, spicy pepper, balsamic are intense, you don’t need a lot. The sweetness of the balsamic-marinated pepper really knocks this dish out of the park. The tofu also made for a great lunch leftover or a quick snack.

oooh aahhh

oooh aahhh

I’ve also made a couple of veggie soups. Soup is a great option because it’s filling and easy adapt to any sort of dietary need, like or dislike. The first was a basic navy bean and veggie soup. I checked out Ina Garten’s Italian Wedding Soup to get an general understanding of ratios in a vegetable stock soup. But I kind of went off on my own: sweat some onions, carrots and celery in olive oil in the bottom of a stock pot. Season with salt and pepper. Add about 2 boxes of vegetable stock and a can of navy beans. Season again. Add some fresh thyme sprigs. You can retrieve these from the broth at the end. Let it come to a boil, then redue to a simmer for a bit. Done. Sorry no pic.

The other soup I made was Martha Stewart’s Hearty Spinach and Chickpea Soup with a few of my own tweaks. Here’s what you’ll need for my version.

1 cups uncooked white rice

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 green onions, sliced
8 oz. baby bella mushrooms, sliced
4 oz. can of water chestnuts, drained
4 cups vegetable broth, I used a carton
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
10 oz baby spinach leaves (these are those family-sized bags)
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
optional: juice of a lemon or lime

Get started on the rice first, preparing it as directed. Meanwhile in a stock pot, over medium heat cook the onion in the olive oil for about 5 minutes. Then add the mushrooms and garlic for another 5 minutes.

shroomin'

shroomin'

Add the vegetable broth, water chestnuts, chickpeas and red pepper flakes. Let that come to a boil, then reduce to simmer. Once the rice is done, add that in and bring to a boil again.

some add-ins

some add-ins

Allow to simmer for a few minutes, then add the spinch for the last minute of cooking. Serve with sliced green onions on top for an added crunch, and a squeeze of lemon or lime if handy.

hearty spinach and chickpea soup

hearty spinach and chickpea soup

What a delicious soup. And hearty is the appropriate word. The flavors are there, plus these are filling ingredients: spinach, chickpeas, rice. I would gladly eat both of these soups on a non-vegan day.

So to reflect on the vegan experiment so far, I’d say it’s been challenging but not impossible. I’m a big veggie eater as it is, though I’ve found myself eating a lot more fruit, oatmeal, Italian ice, veggies and hummus, plain almonds. All of the meals have been filling and satisfying without that feeling of over-fullness. And I’ve definitely planned my meals to a T. I’m not exhausted by it just yet.