Saturday, July 31, 2010

Social Gatherings in July

 The biggest innovation in the past weeks: Pizza-fied Trader Joe's Frozen Naan.

I haven’t posted lately because the days I have cooked have been too busy. Most other days I’ve been out and about eating, drinking, movie-watching or exercising. The past couple of weeks have been quite social.
 Vegan Chicken Piccata - my husband requested I make this once a week from now on. My carnivorous friends agree, it's not half-bad!

Last weekend I hosted dinner parties both Friday and Saturday. With so many people to cook for and catch up with, I decided to make tried-and-true meals that I hardly had to think about as I cooked. Friday was more challenging than I hoped, since I made Chicken Piccata and it’s vegan twin both at the same time. The hardest part was avoiding cross-contamination – one spoon to stir chicken and one to stir vegan, and rinsing the one set of tongs between flipping fillets.

In the end, everything came out great and everyone was quite satisfied with the menu of Vegan Tomato Bisque, Spaghetti, Chicken Piccata and Vegan Chicken Piccata. My friends brought some taco dip and chips, liquor, wine and ice cream – so I only had to work on the main event.

Saturday my husband’s family came over, for a total of nine for dinner. The biggest challenge with this group is finding one dish that everyone will eat. Everyone is picky, it is no wonder my Mother-in-law spends about 3-4 hours cooking and catering to everyone every single day.

For me, just having the family over is a big production in itself, although they always offer help. I’m just not that good at sharing my kitchen… or anything at all, for that matter. Yes, I’m an only child. Never spoiled in terms of attention or money, but spoiled in the sense that I’ve always been able to enjoy an abundance of personal space.  This is crucial to my well-being. Otherwise known as stay the F--- out of my kitchen while I’m cooking.

My famous enchiladas: they're not always this pretty - but always taste fantastic.

This may be the 3rd or 4th time I’ve cooked for the in-laws, but I decided to make the famous Black Bean Enchiladas again. Personally, I hate dinner party repeats. I rarely cook the same thing twice for myself, let alone guests. Luckily, the family didn’t mind Enchilada repeat at all. Mom gets a night off from cooking, and I didn’t have to slave too hard. Win-win. 

Great Enchiladas come from my simple formula:
1. Create a flavorful filling of black beans
2. Make a sauce that contains Tomato (sauce, paste, fresh, diced - whatever), mixed with vegetable oil, chili powder, and spices.
3. Fold tortillas around bean filling plus cheese. Top with sauce and more cheese. Bake.

For specifics, see this recipe: Sweet Red Onion & Black Bean Enchiladas

Monday, July 26, 2010

Tangy Shanghai Noodles

Just because it's hot outside, don't forget how awesome soup can be. It may seem counter-intuitive  to those of us living in the Northeast to cozy up to a bowl of hotness in the middle of summer, but that seems a little close-minded. I can think of so many cultures out there that endure hot weather, and yet indulge in hot (even very spicy) meals year-round. 

Think of the southern Asian countries. In China, noodle soup is eaten at all times of the year, and an order of fish will come in a pool of broth, regardless of the season. Indians will be eating curry and stews in the hottest months, and in fact, the further south in India you go, the spicier the food becomes. Don't forget the chili infused Thai and Malaysian curries. On a trip to South Africa, I actually thought that the most stand-out items on most menus were the soups. I had many amazing fresh soups in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Kruger Park - all eaten outdoors on 80 degree winter days.

The point is, two hots don't make it hotter, so don't forget our friend soup.  A week ago, I tried to re-create a spicy and sour noodle soup I had in Shanghai. My husband wasn't into them on Sunday, but when he found the leftovers a few days later he thought they were the best thing ever and praised the day he married me. This past weekend, I made a batch of roasted tomato soup (with a few more random veg in the mix), and two sets of guests actually got very excited to eat it. Because in the whirlwind of summer barbecues, salads and dry sandwiches, they had forgotten how awesome soup is. 

Shanghai-inspired vegetarian noodle soup:

Tangy Shanghai Noodles
1 Garlic clove, chopped
1/4C Onion, chopped
1 tsp Toasted sesame oil
3C Vegetable Stock
1/2 tsp Hot Datil pepper sauce (or tabasco / favorite hot pepper sauce)
1/4C lime juice
1/2 tsp salt
Cooked Chinese egg noodles (looks like nests of yellow angel-hair pasta)
1 small Zucchini, julienned (shredded)

1. Heat sesame oil over low-medium heat in a small stock pot. Add garlic and onion, cooking a few minutes until tender.

2. Add stock, hot sauce, lime juice and salt. Simmer over medium heat, about 5 minutes and taste. Add more seasoning (sesame oil, pepper sauce, lime juice, salt) to taste if needed. You can always add more at the table.

3. Add zucchini and pre-cooked noodles. Heat through, about 3-4 minutes. Serve with seasonings and lime wedges.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Dill Potato Salad

It's finally Saturday, and yet we have another heat wave. I've been dying to get some hard-core relaxation time in the grass, but it's just been too hot lately. All this dreaming of sunning and picnicking, and hearing about other peoples backyard barbecues, makes one crave some good ole summer food. I may not have a real grill, or a husband who appreciates one, but who can turn down a nice cold potato salad on a 90 degree day? 

Dill Potato Salad
Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1/2" pieces (do not peel)
Celery, chopped
Cucumber, chopped
Scallions, sliced
Dill, chopped
Helman's Light Mayonnaise 
Seasoning Salt
Salt, Black Pepper

Boil potatoes until tender, and then drain and cool. Add celery, cucumber, scallions and potatoes to a mixing bowl. Sprinkle with seasoning salt and mix together. Add a dollop of mayo at a time, mixing gently until it's the consistency you like. Taste and add seasonings as needed. Mix in desired amount of dill. Chill and serve.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Scallops over Oyster Mushroom & Asparagus Noodles

There were these GIANT scallops at the fish counter in the Garden of Eden. They suggested to me that I might want to eat them with noodles. It was only natural that they insist on an oyster mushroom broth.

I agreed, since I'm sort of in noodle withdrawal after coming back from Shanghai. Noodles were a safety food there, but they were also really good. I took the inspiration of all the brothy, noodly, vegetably, seafoody goodness of those foods, and tossed them all together without taking much time to think about it. The scallops told me to.

I definitely need to work on my noodle skills. I haven't been interested in cooking Asian food in a while, since that's what we order take-out, and it's pretty cheap also. But it's always better when you can make something at home, since you know what's going into it. Once I figure out how to give my noodles a bit more flavor, I'll be good to go. For now, I can't complain, they were mild, but pretty tasty. 

Scallops over Oyster Mushroom & Asparagus Noodles
Salt, Pepper
Sesame Seeds

Dried Chinese Egg Noodles (they look like yellow nests of angel hair pasta)

Oyster Mushrooms
Scallions, white parts sliced, green parts reserved for garnish.
Asparagus (or other vegetable)
Low Sodium Soy Sauce
Pepper, Cayenne, Red Pepper Flakes
1. Place noodles in warm water and soak 20 minutes.

2. Saute garlic and scallions in a tiny bit of oil for 2 minutes over med-high heat. Add mushrooms and asparagus and cook 2 minutes. 

3. Add about 1/3 C water and cover, simmering 10 minutes over med heat. 

4. Add a little more water if needed to make more broth. Add soy sauce a dash at a time, and seasonings to taste. Lower heat and simmer another 10 minutes.

5. Bring a pot of water to a boil for the noodles, and add the noodles when the scallops are cooking. Boil for 3 minutes.

6. Pat scallops dry and sprinkle with salt, pepper and sesame seeds. Saute in butter until opaque.

7. Drain the noodles and mix together with the mushroom sauce, tossing gently. Serve topped with scallops, sesame seeds, green scallions and crushed red pepper flakes.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Fatty Fatty Pignoli Potato Patty

Say goodbye to delicious looking photos of fried foods. I'm officially done with fried food. More like on a break, I guess. But it's so evil! How come delicious, fatty, fried things always taunt me so? Because I'm a genuine American - that's why - and I just can't help it! 

I should've noticed that I was in a rut when my canola oil started to disappear quicker than usual. Or when that extra weight hanging out on my sides and under my chin started to come back. Like an addict in denial, it took one final overdose to realize I was on a downward spiral into old ways. My poor husband will eat whatever I cook, so he was not to benefit from the situation, either.

Sunday I was back onto the fake meat wagon, after binge-mussel-eating and drinking copius amounts of Belgian beer for 8 hours on Saturday night. But a mild hangover leads you into dangerous territory with an appetite for fat and protein. I flipped through my new Tal Ronnen cookbook for a Gardein recipe, and it's no surprise I chose something breaded and fried. I had a lot of expensive pine-nut coating left after breading the "chicken", and I felt bad throwing it out. So I took out some leftover mashed cheddar potatoes and started plopping them in the mix, squishing as much as I could onto the patties. 

The "chicken" was an oily disappointment, since the recipe didn't use any binders and the breading falls off in the oil. But the breaded potato patties were pretty good - crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Next time I decide to splurge and make these, I would use olive oil instead.

Fatty Fatty Pignoli Potato Patties
Leftover Mashed Potatoes 
(I had Yukon Gold smashed, including skins, with cheddar and a bit of heavy cream mixed in)

Pulse in food processor / chopper:
1/4C Flour
1/4C Pine Nuts (Pignoli Nuts)
4 leaves Basil
Salt, Pepper, Cayenne Pepper

Take mashed potatoes and form them into donut-hole sized balls. Roll them in the breading. Flatten into mini patties and keep pressing the breading onto them. 

Heat oil until a test bit of the potato or breading fries quickly when dropped in. Fry patties in oil on both sides until golden and crispy, about 3 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Squash Blossoms

I've never understood the hype about squash blossoms. I guess anything that has a small window of availability and limited supply just drives people nuts. I finally decided to experiment with them when I saw them on Fresh Direct. I had about 10 blossoms when they arrived. But what's the BEST way to prepare them? The internet findings collectively insist that deep frying them with cheese inside is the best. Duh - anything deep fried with cheese is good, everyone knows that! Apparently, the less complex the filling, the better, to preserve their "delicate squash flavor". Since this is my first time playing with blossoms, I decided to go with the masses and deep fry. 

When I opened the plastic carton of blossoms, I was disheartened to find them covered in aphids. I had a horrible infestation of aphids last summer during my first attempt at growing houseplants. They are impossible to get rid of. So I rinsed the flowers viciously in cool water and set them aside to dry, hoping that none of the aphids had a chance to migrate before going down the drain. The next step was removing the stamens from inside the flowers, which was harder than it sounds. Spreading the petals to get to the bottom of the stamen made tears between the petals. I decided to stop at four blossoms, in case my novice abilities ruined them. 

For the filling I took some goat cheese leftover from another project and mashed it up with some seasoning salt. I wrapped the four little balls of goat cheese in fresh basil leaves and stuffed them inside each flower - twisting the tops of the petals like a candy wrapper to close them. Then, I mixed together one egg white, some milk and a splash of lemon juice to make it buttermilk. I dredged each blossom pocket in the milk, and then in a mixture of cornmeal, salt and pepper. Finally, I dropped them in a small saucepan of hot canola oil until they were golden. 

The verdict? I have to say the "delicate squash flavor" was almost non-existent. I think the blossoms were really just a vessel for the fried coating and hot cheese. Really, you may as well just fry breaded cheese. Although, with the stem to hold, and crispy twisty leaves, they are kind of fun to eat. However, I think they would be more worthwhile with a more complex filling and some dipping sauce.

 For the last 6 blossoms, I took a simpler approach in hopes of discovering a more pure version of this elusive "delicate squash flavor".  I sauteed a little garlic and shallot in margarine and olive oil until they browned, and then doused the pan with a shot of white wine (hoping to create a bit of steam to cook the blossoms). I threw in the blossoms (which I sliced in half lengthwise), stirring until they wilted and seasoned with salt and pepper. The whole process only took about 5 minutes. 6 blossoms turned into a small portion cooked, but they actually tasted pretty good. Of course, they tasted like fried shallots and garlic, not a delicate squash. But with a higher flower to shallot ratio, these could make a fun side dish for a dinner party. I can't see anyone disliking it, and it's always fun to see people's reaction to a new food.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Taikang Lu, A Hidden Oasis in Shanghai

Tiny Belgian bar in an alley between homes and shops

Don't feel too bad for me, with my sudden work trip to Shanghai. It seems I accomplished what I came for on the business side, but I actually spent very little time working. My friend Megan, who is currently living in Shanghai, gave me some tips on where to shop. I have been to Shanghai before, and shopped Hua Hai road and eaten in Xintiandi several times. I'd been to the Bund for National Day and Old Shanghai temple market for dumplings, video games and haggling. So I decided to take her wise suggestion and check out an area called Taikang Lu

The concierge wasn't too familiar with this area, but he helped me write the name in Chinese so I could show the taxi driver. Once the taxi dropped me off on the actual street called Taikang Lu I walked a bit in both directions to get my bearings. At first I was unsure what the fuss was about because I only saw a few stores. Then I noticed a small 4-foot break between two buildings. Beyond this opening I saw some small shop signs and tourists with cameras shuffling down the narrow alley. 

 I followed a group of young guys through a 2 foot wide alley trustingly. Sure enough, the narrow alley between homes opened onto an oasis of cafes and bars. I was glad I waited to find lunch here instead of the hotel, but I was starving. I wandered just a bit further before settling on an Asian-Italian cafe to read my book and eat. After lunch I explored this whole complex, going in circles and getting lost amongst the shops. The alleys create a maze, and I got stuck in a holding pattern coming across the same shops several times. It took hours to figure out how to get to the other corners, where I found more shops, as well as elderly people preparing their dinners behind open windows. The neighborhood is a strange mix of long-time residents going about their lives, artists creating their art, restaurants, shopping, and throngs of tourists taking pictures of it all. 

Shanghai noodle soup. Everything in China comes with pork somehow involved. These noodles were good, but I was confused by the acidity - I'm not sure if it was lime or some kind of chili but my lips and throat were burning. Requested a Tsing Tao ASAP!

 A tall glass of mango juice. Every restaurant, even traditional places, bars and diners in Shanghai will blend up fresh fruit or vegetable juice on the spot. I think it may be because they don't really drink much water. Why can't we have that in NY? 

 Narrow alley. You would never know that a little further lies a cafe.

 I felt sort of bad taking pictures of this person's home... but everyone else was doing it! You can see the paint stains on the tubs and table, I think it may be an artist's home or studio.

After the acid noodles, I needed something familiar for dinner. I settled on Indian food, wondering how China would interpret that. Aloo chat without the crunchy bits was more like potatoes with salsa, but good. My favorite dish, Paneer Makhanwala was actually very good. 

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Basil BBQ Seitan, Baco-Sprouts & Grana Padano Potatoes

 Brussels Sprouts with Fakin' Bacon, Grana Padano Roast Potatoes and Basil BBQ Seitan

In honor of the 4th of July, I decided to experiment with some barbecue sauce. It may not be one of the prettier meals, and my photo skills deteriorated this week, but the saucy seitan creation was actually very good. I also took an idea from my friend Marisa, and cooked up some brussels sprouts with fakin' bacon - although I followed a recipe from Emeril. I am also getting acquainted with Grana Padano cheese this weekend, so I found a recipe combining it with potatoes. I was watching David Rocco's Dolce Vita on the Cooking Channel, and I want to make his Grana Padano Ice Cream. Later, Drink Up came on and my husband got inspired to make an awesome cocktail from cucumbers and cilantro.

Vodka + cucumber + lemon + cilantro + simple syrup = very refreshing + very quickly buzzed.

Basil BBQ Seitan
Olive Oil
1 pkg Westsoy Seitan Traditional Flavor
1 Tomato, chopped
Garlic powder, Salt, Pepper, Crushed Red Pepper flakes
1/2C Original Flavor Barbecue Sauce, such as KC Masterpiece brand
1/4 C Shelled Edamame (soybeans)
1T Basil, chopped, plus chiffonade for garnish

1. Heat skillet with a dash of oil over medium heat. Add seitan and tomato, cooking for a few minutes.
2. Season with garlic, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Add BBQ sauce and bring to a simmer. 
3. Add edamame and cover. Simmer 5 minutes and stir in basil. 
4. Serve garnished with basil.

Emeril's Bacon Brussels Sprouts recipe (substitute with Morning Star Farms veggie bacon)

Grana Padano Potatoes recipe

Goodbye, Shanghai. Hello, New York!

View from the hotel in Shanghai. The first sunny day in a week, but still smoggy.

View of Grand Gateway Towers from the hotel. A few blocks away 
and you can't see much further because of the smog.

After a long week in Shanghai, I returned to New York and headed right back to work. The jetlag was only mild, but my stomach seemed to get the worst of it. I somehow made it through a week in China eating strange foods without any issue, and then I get back to NY and order a BLT at my favorite deli, grab some fruit, and end up dizzy and nauseous. 

Luckily, this is a long weekend for the 4th of July, and I seem to be getting back on track. Yesterday I unpacked, cleaned, and cooked us a good solid meal.  Just a few more chores to do today, and then what to do? We made no plans for the 4th for two reasons: #1 - I didn't know when this China trip would happen or how long I'd be gone, and #2 - the fireworks are over the Hudson AGAIN, so we won't even be able to see them from Brooklyn. We planned our 4th of July party 2 years ago before we even closed on this place, overlooking the East River, and suddenly Brooklyn & Queens are chopped liver when it comes to the fireworks. Why does New Jersey get the front row seats? 

Anyhow, it does feel good to be home. Every morning I wake up and look outside, and I can see for miles!
View from my corner office / dining room. It's like this almost every day.

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