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Posts Tagged ‘Easy’

Artichokes Redeemed

When Greg and I were dating in New York, we used to have a number of ingredient-themed dinner parties for select guests and roommates. New York was great for this, where dinner parties weren’t just dinner parties but adventures into exquisite new foods, and Fairway (the mecca of foodies) was just a few blocks away. There was a squash night, a duck night, and an ill-fated artichoke night.

The artichoke-themed dinner party was a disaster, and the only edible dish was a soy-based artichoke dip which used jarred artichokes. The roasted artichoke hearts were prickly with an uninspired dipping sauce, the steamed artichokes were bland, and the artichoke pasta was only acceptable because we used artichokes from a jar. I distinctly remember FDS (a former roommate and unlucky guest) cautiously nibbling away at the outer peels, uncertain of which pieces were to be discarded and which pieces to be consumed. We swore off fresh artichokes that night. (That said, FDS seemed to enjoy everything we made.)

Three years later, perched atop the reduced-price produce rack at Stop and Shop, was a box full of baby artichokes. There were easily 20 of them, for only $1.99, and our inner adventurers just couldn’t resist.  This time fresh artichokes delivered.

Sauteed Baby Artichokes and Tomatoes

~20 baby artichokes
12-15 cherry or grape tomatoes
grated hard cheese to taste

Prepare the artichokes by peeling off all of the outer layers until you reach the soft pale yellow inside. Be liberal in your discarding, as any ambiguous pieces will likely be too tough to eat. Save the outer peels for broth (see below).Quarter the artichoke hearts, and immediately place in a large bowl of water with lemon juice. This will keep the artichoke hearts from browning before cooking–this happens fast.

When all of the artichoke hearts have been prepared, heat a large skillet with 2 T of butter and some oil. When the butter has melted and the pan is hot, drain the artichokes, and toss them and the tomatoes into the skillet. Season liberally with salt, cover and let simmer.  Check often, stir often, and taste often (for doneness, of course!).  When the artichokes look/taste mostly done (you’ll know because they are soft), add crushed red pepper, and lemon juice. When the tomatoes are blistered, they are done.

Serve with freshly ground black pepper and a sprinkle of hard cheese (e.g. pecorino romano, parmesan, etc.) This can also be served with pasta or garnished with basil or oregano.

Artichoke Broth

Discarded outer artichoke peels
6 c water
2 bay leaves

Homemade vegetable broth is one of the easiest things to make, significantly cheaper than store-bought varieties, and contain all known ingredients and nothing processed. We regularly make a big stock pot full, store in 1-qt containers, and freeze until ready for use. It can be used as a base for other soups and curries or as a special addition to quinoa or rice.

We made artichoke broth the same way we make regular broth — bring all ingredients to a boil, salt liberally, and let simmer for some time. The longer it cooks, the more flavorful it is. We were in a rush to make some quinoa with dinner so we cooked it for only 20 minutes or so, but even that was enough to lend a nice artichoke-y flavor to the quinoa.

If you don’t have artichokes, you can use an onion, a few carrots, and a few stalks of celery instead. Typically, we store the outer onion layers, carrot peels, and the inner parts of celery in the freezer until we are ready to make stock. We typically use the carcass of a rotisserie chicken as well, which does add extra flavor, but vegetable stock is just as good. The key thing to remember is, pre-packaged broth is never as good as homemade!

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As part of our current “diet,” we’ve begun to really indulge in our morning meals.  Our omelettes overflow and we’re blending an embarrassing amount into our smoothies.  Thankfully, what’s kept us from feeling like we’re sliding into gluttony is remembering that our breakfast still has fewer calories than lunch or dinner–which maybe should change.  If there’s any meal of the day to indulge, it’s breakfast.

Everyone knows that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Eating breakfast regularly has been linked to increased longevity, higher metabolism, longer attention span, and sustained energy. It’s also a great opportunity to add some much-needed fiber, fat, and fruit to a body starved of nutrients after an 8-hr hiatus.

That said, it’s amazing what the packaged-food industry has done to this most essential meal! Rather than promoting good health through eating real foods, the food industry has taken over breakfast with its promise of rainbow-colored treats and cocoa crispies. Even the standard run-of-the-mill store-bought granola will contain a deceptively high amount of fat and sugar under the guise of healthful eating. Most granola recipes will contain half a stick of butter or a cup of maple syrup, and scaling back will lead to pitiful flakes of lightly toasted oats, barely resembling the substantial clusters found in store-bought varieties.

Enter the avocado. Hailing from Miami, Greg’s mom was in town last week with a hostess gift of two of the most ginormous avocados we’ve ever seen. Seriously, if you’re born and raised on Haas avocados, these South Florida beauties will knock your socks off. The two that we received were at least as big as pineapples, covered in a bright green skin, and sometimes called alligator pears. (I thought they were bowling-ball sized, but Greg insisted they weighed less than 8 lb. each).

Now a quick plug on avocados — they are high in monosaturated fat, which can improve heart health and keep cholesterol low. They are also bursting with vitamins C, E, K, folate, and fiber. Avocados, along with extra virgin olive oil and some nuts, are often considered to be among the best fats that a body can take in, in moderation of course.

Avocados work surprisingly well in granola because of their fatty content (remember, good fats) and their smooth, spreadable texture. Unlike the aforementioned granola recipes I’ve tried, which rely on bad fats and bad sugars to achieve desirable clusters, avocados are an incredibly healthy substitute. And because we typically eat granola with Greek yogurt and fresh fruit, there was no need for an additional sweetener. The vanilla, cinnamon, and toasted coconut gave it enough aroma and flavor that no sugar was needed. This recipe is by far the tastiest and most guilt-free granola recipe I’ve ever made! (And would you believe I dreamed it up in my sleep?)

Coconut Avocado Granola

1/2 Florida avocado (or 1 Haas avocado)
1 T natural peanut butter
2 c rolled oats
1/2 c coconut flakes, unsweetened
1/4 almonds, slivered
1 t cinnamon, cardamom, or other spice of your choice
1 T vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a cookie sheet with wax paper. Blend avocado, peanut butter, vanilla, and cinnamon until well-combined and smooth. There should be no clumps. Stir in rolled oats, coconut flakes, and slivered almonds.

Spread evenly on prepared cookie sheet. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally for even toasting. Let cool before storing. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

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This may not come as much of a surprise given the Manhattan-centrism of this blog, but I have a bit of a complex relationship with most of the U.S. See, with the exception of the Northeast, I have no real desire to live anywhere else. Now though this preference may seem fairly simple, it is significantly complicated when faced with the job market for econ PhD graduates. The U.S. has quite a concentration of top tier schools in the Northeast, but quite a few other schools decidedly not in the Northeast. It’s a rather large country, you see.

So in the process of converting me one state at a time, Greg recently brought home a large, delicately packaged box of fresh California calimyrna figs. In doing so, he planted the tantalizing fantasy in my mind of a mystical fig tree in our backyard that could produce figs at our . California figs are “succulent, aromatic and naturally sweet”, “environmentally friendly”, “the perfect fruit choice for summertime noshing”, and “a virtual powerhouse of nutrition”. (Additional propaganda found here.)

We’ve been savoring these figs a few at a time, since “sweet, savory, fresh or dried, sliced, diced, baked, puréed or sautéed – there are a lot of ways to enjoy simply beautiful, simply delicious California Figs.” If you find yourself with some fresh figs on hand, one of our favorite preparations of figs so far is halved with a drizzle of honey or balsamic creme. Another favorite preparation is chopped figs with maple-nut granola and Greek yogurt for a low-fat, heart-healthy breakfast.

Maple-Nut Granola

3 c rolled oats
1 c nuts (chopped hazelnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds)
1/4 c maple syrup

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, combine oats, nuts, and maple syrup. Mix thoroughly to combine maple syrup with other ingredients. Spread evenly on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally until granola is browned.

Additional modifications:

Maple syrup can be replaced with honey, agave nectar, molasses, or other liquid sweetener.

Dried fruits such as raisins, dried cranberries, chopped dried apricots, coconut flakes can be added with no modifications to the other ingredients.

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Our Fourth of July weekend kicked off with an epic feast celebrating the fully American value of diversity. Before I spin off into secular liberal propaganda, Greg has already vetoed my plan of celebrating a different new culture each Fourth of July with a different new traditional ethnic cuisine, country chosen by current events. His gentle argument is that Junior and Juniorette will have plenty of introductions to diverse cultures and foods that we don’t need to dedicate just one day a year for this form of subversive celebration.

Moving along, our Vietnamese summer roll party might just turn out to be our version of the KimJohnsons’ sushi party. Apparently this make-it-yourself sushi party theme has been so successful in the KimJohnson home that Brian now only invites guests over conditional on their not wanting a sushi party. (At least, the one time I tried to invite myself over for a sushi party, Brian quickly turned me down due to self proclaimed fish fatigue or something.)

The summer roll party starts off pretty simple with a number of items that can be prepped beforehand. Feel free to use any or all of the following:

julienned cucumbers, marinated in sesame oil, salt, sugar
julienned carrots
Pan-Asian spicy slaw
bean sprouts, raw or cooked (cooked if you fear e.coli)
shredded chicken or pork
piles of mint and basil
vermicelli

Now what really differentiates Vietnamese summer rolls from Chinese spring rolls is that Vietnamese summer rolls are made with a dried rice paper and not fried, and Chinese spring rolls are made with a flour based wrap and are fried. This rice paper, once dipped in hot water, becomes pliable and sticky and can easily be used to wrap the filling ingredients. It can get quite sticky, though, and if too much time elapses between your dipping in water and wrapping the summer roll, it can stick to your plate!

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When shopping for produce the other day, we were distracted by the most stunning poblano peppers we’ve ever seen.  Though neither of us had ever cooked with poblanos, we had to buy them — surely we could figure out something to do with these lustrous and deep green vegetables. Turns out, poblanos are wonderfully easy!

Unlike green bell peppers, which have a fresh, clean, sweet flavor, poblanos are more interesting, slightly earthy and savory, with a slight amount of heat (though this can vary pepper to pepper).  Roasting produces a milder, smokier, and more complex pepper.

We chose a simple approach: stuff with (dressed up) rice, roast covered in foil, finish with a quick broil (why not, right?).  You can be very flexible with your stuffing.  We sauteed onion and garlic, added some chile for spice, and mixed in pre-cooked rice with some grated cheese.  For two poblanos we used half an onion, a few cloves of garlic, half of a small, seeded habanero (we’re a bit gun-shy at the moment due to a recent habanero-ed slaw!), and about a quarter cup of grated cheddar.  Other vegetables, grains, maybe even nuts or meat (chicken, fish, or ground beef) would work nicely as well; why not experiment with a handful of ingredients already in your fridge or pantry?

To stuff the poblanos, cut lengthwise and half-way through across the top (we didn’t want to cut off the top, but there really is no harm if you do).  Clean out the seeds, stuff with rice, and put pepper back together (so it looks like it did before you cut it…sort of).

Place in roasting pan, cover in foil, and bake at 400F for about 30 minutes, until poblanos are soft.  If you want to get some nice blisters, finish for a few minutes under the broiler (you can totally skip this part).  That’s it.

To go with our poblanos, we also baked white fish wrapped in foil, which conveniently cooked for the same amount of time at the same temperature.  We started with frozen fillets, to which we added splashes of lemon juice and olive oil, and pinches of salt, pepper, and thyme.  This is another versatile cooking technique, which would work well with almost any combination of flavors.  We’re thinking of doing a scallion-ginger-soy-sauce recipe next.

As for the “inaugurating summer” bit — it’s freaking hot! We’re melting in this 90+ weather.  How we both grew up in tropical climates now fully escapes our memories and imaginations!

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Eggplant is back!

This winter gave us many things: record snowfall; our first set of heating bills; reason to put insulating plastic sheets on the windows; a stronger-than-usual longing for short sleeves, flowers, and sunshine; and some very pricey eggplant.  Winter gave and took away, and perhaps most notably this year it took away eggplant from our diet.

Cooking eggplant requires one to remember two things: salt heavily, cook thoroughly.  Do that and you can put eggplant in anything, from salad to sandwiches to sauce for pasta, which is what this post is about.  Well, I guess for us cooking eggplant also requires that summer be around the corner, because nobody should pay more than $1.50/lb for eggplant.

In our continuing theme of cooking pasta with little more than a few vegetables and olive oil (we’re not sure when we decided that, with the exception of fresh basil, pasta doesn’t need herbs), this pasta dish is simple, short on ingredients, and quick enough that you can do the whole thing while the water boils.

Take one large eggplant and cut into small cubes, maybe 1/2 inch.  In deep saute pan, heat oil, add eggplant, salt heavily, and cook covered on medium heat.  Add chopped garlic to taste (we use 4-5 cloves).  When eggplant is definitely done, add diced tomatoes (we used a can), and let simmer until pasta is done.  Add 1/4-1/2 cup of pasta water to sauce, stir in pasta, that’s it.  Add herbs if you so desire, especially if fresh basil is in season.  Also good would be to stir in some fresh spinach or arugula at the last minute.  As always, we used bucatini, but anything would do.

And speaking of summer being right around the corner, you may notice some changes around here. That new header picture was taken from our first-of-the-season trip out to Lyman Orchards last weekends. None of the fruit was ready for harvesting yet, but the apple trees, pear trees, and peach trees were in full bloom. We spent the afternoon sunbathing under the fragrant, flowering trees. Magical.

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Well, I certainly think it’s a milkshake, no sort-of about it.  This is a discovery that keeps on giving: a healthy, quick and easy, delicious shake, perfect for breakfast or dessert or snacking because you’re hungry and dinner is just far enough away to warrant eating something now.

So what makes it a sort-of-milkshake?  Well, there’s no ice cream, for one.  No ice, either.  The cheat: frozen banana.  Blend a frozen banana and milk and you get the texture of a true ice cream shake.  The banana adds both richness and creaminess.  And it’s cheap and healthy to boot.

Frozen bananas are a great trick.  Impossible as it seems, a frozen banana really does have the consistency of ice cream.  And it requires nothing more than just a little forethought and planning.  Peel a banana.  Put it in a container (or put several in one container).  Put in freezer.  That’s it.  Definitely peel ahead though; peeling a frozen banana isn’t quite the same as peeling a fresh one.

You need little more than milk and banana to make this work–the more banana, the thicker and creamier, of course–but why stop there?  This shake pictured above has been our staple: banana, oats, peanut butter, milk (and when feeling decadent vanilla and cinnamon, too).  Blend blend blend.  I use a full banana, a large scoop of PB, and fill maybe 1/2-1 cup of oats.  Don’t be scared by the oats.  They get plenty ground up and add both body and healthiness (word?) to the shake.  Okay, they’re a little “gritty,” so if you hate them leave them out.

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