Baby Steps

So this will be my first post on a baked-good item. It has only been nearly a year…my falling into any sort of baking habit will be fumbling, like baby steps. I am not scared to bake or horrible at it. The thing is, I associate baking with sweets – cakes and cookies – which are not popular in my house. We have had a box of Frango mints in the freezer since last Christmas and will occasionally retreat to that box after dinner for a single mint. This box is still half full.

My little brother visited over the weekend. For lunch we went to the amazing Kuma’s Corner, then decided to walk off our gluttony. We walked four miles and, inevitably, covered topics from how awesome it would be to own a house in Lincoln Park to the genius of Southpark episodes. A college kid, he expressed that he wants a stand-up mixer when he eventually gets his own apartment. Guiltily, I told him that both my sister and I have one (hand-me-downs). They are rarely used. Since life is often about making goals, however trivial, I’ll strive to get out my mixer this winter, affix the dough hook and turn on the oven for some fresh focaccia and extra heat in the apartment.

This morning I woke up to eat my breakfast choice of the month, greek yogurt with granola, yet realized I finished the granola yesterday. At this point I contemplated having leftover chili to start the morning.  I remember visiting family when I was younger and witnessing one of my aunts steaming clams and boiling spaghetti for breakfast. I suppose this is the side of the family from where I draw my fondness for savory and salty foods. Though the cowboys used to do it, I closed the fridge door on the chili pot. Luckily, a good granola is incredibly easy to put together.

My granola recipe is very bare-bones. Notice how I didn’t even chop the nuts. The recipe does, however, serve as a pretty good foundation if you wanted to add anything else like coconut or ginger or sunflower seeds. I used agave nectar to cut down on sugar, but alternatives like honey, maple syrup and brown sugar would produce a sweeter and richer result.

I should add that making your own granola is deeply satisfying and makes your house warm and smell like a bakery. Teeny baby steps. Some homemade chocolate chip cookies sound good right about now.

Homemade Granola

Ingredients
2 cups rolled oats
Salt, to taste
1 cup mixed nuts of your choice
2 tablespoons seeds (flax seed, sunflower seed etc.), optional
½  teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup warm water
¼ cup agave nectar or maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup dried fruit

Set the oven to 300 degrees. Line a baking sheet with some foil and either butter or spray to prevent the oats from sticking. In a large bowl stir together the oats, salt, nuts, seeds (if using) and cinnamon. In a separate bowl stir together the warm water, agave nectar (or maple syrup) and vanilla, pour this mixture over the oat mixture. Stir to combine. Spread the oat mixture evenly on the prepared baking sheet.  Bake this for 30-35 minutes, stirring occasionally so that the mixture doesn’t burn. You want the granola and nuts to be nice and golden brown. Once done, remove from oven and sprinkle the dried fruit over granola. Let cool and enjoy! Will keep in sealed container for about a week or refrigerated for one month.

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Don’t Waste a Thing

I must have been about seven at the time because we were living in the house where my brother was born. I recall my sister and I sitting at the kitchen table after dinner with our bowls in front of us being told that if we didn’t finish up, we couldn’t leave the table. What we had done was fish out all of the chunks of beef from my mother’s stew, leaving the barley, carrots, onion and celery. At the time, the ‘punishment’ was a terrible injustice. Now as an adult facing fall in full force with the threat of a mid-western winter just on the horizon, I would happily down vats of my mother’s hearty beef and barley stew or chicken soup made from leftover roast chicken the night before.

After an autumn storm in Michigan

It was a wonderful surprise to have the afternoon off the other day and, with that, the time to cook something nourishing and homey. Whether it be a thought-out appetizer or some cheese and crackers, Ryan and I usually like to nibble on something before dinner. This is especially true if the dinner will be boiling on the stove for awhile. Last night, with some green tea in hand instead of wine (head-cold), I put together an avocado and feta dip. We have an abundance of avocados because I snatch some up whenever I see them on sale. There really isn’t a true recipe for the dip. One whole avocado, about a half cup of feta cheese, some white wine vinegar, a little olive oil and lemon juice, oregano, pinches of salt and pepper – blend all of this into a fine puree and spoon onto toasts or cucumbers. Add a dash of cayenne pepper for some heat. It actually keeps the next day either on toast or straight out of the bowl with a spoon…

This I made and snacked on while my ‘peasant stew’ bubbled away on the stove-top and the cold night set in. Kale I have sautéed, baked into chips and steamed, but never added to a soup before. Incredibly simple, filling, and very delicious.

Lentil and Kale Soup with Sausage

Adapted from Gourmet

1-2 tbsp oil
1/2 lb kielbasa sausage, sliced
½ onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 package of lentils, rinsed
4-6 cups chicken broth
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 bunch kale, de-ribbed and cut into small pieces
1 tbsp balsamic or red-wine vinegar
salt and pepper

Heat 1 tbsp oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add sausage and brown the pieces. Transfer sausage to a plate. Add another tablespoon of oil, if necessary, and add onions and garlic to the pot. Cook, stirring, until onion is softened. Add lentils, broth, sausage and thyme to the pot and simmer, covered, for 40-50 mins until lentils are cooked. Add kale and simmer, this time uncovered, for another 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.

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Panini Madness!!

My parents recently acquired a panini press, courtesy of my aunt who was cleaning out her kitchen. I forewent the kitchen appliance due to lack of space, but I am very glad that I did. In my dad’s hands this became not only a sandwich maker, but a meal maker given his creativity and penchant for transforming whatever is on hand into something delicious. While my siblings and I would whine in between grocery-runs that there was “nothing to eat” my dad would swing open the refrigerator door and look at us in disbelief declaring, “we have stacks of food!” Shortly after, the kitchen stove top would be aflame and something garlicky and creamy or oniony and sweet would be defiantly simmering in a pot for us all to share. Having worked as a sauté chef during summers in his hometown, he was likely to effortlessly whip up a big batch of tomato sauce or slap some steaks on the charcoal grill he prepped and serve them with a special red-wine sauce. I write in the past tense, but this is what my dad will still do. With an empty nest now, he enjoys taking on most of the cooking and he does so very well. No need for recipes, just an earnest appreciation for flavors, ingredients and how they work well together. For Christmas last year, one of his gifts was a big smiley-faced spatula.

My dad called me up the other day and we set a date for dinner, the theme being different takes on the panini sandwich…what new, creative combinations can be done with some bread, fillings and a panini press? We found that it is hard to go wrong with warm toasted bread, gooey cheese and some meats, fruits and veggies. My grandparents came over for dinner too and we all tried the courses of small sandwiches, complete with a salad and dessert that my dad carefully prepared. All of us gathered in the kitchen, chatting as we looked on at my dad working above the huge cutting board my parents have had since my first memories, the panini press heated sitting to it.

Earlier in the day, we had gone outside to collect herbs from the garden. While my little apartment herb garden is looking shabby these days, my parent’s basil plant is a beast. The first course was demolished, but we had fresh mozzarella, basil, tomatoes and a beautifully rustic homemade pesto all pressed neatly between a potato bun. Served with a balsamic glaze, the little disks were essentially caprese salad sandwiches.

For the second course, we feasted on prosciutto, salami, havarti and granny smith apples with ciabatta bread. My dad bought the ciabatta bread half-baked so that by the time the paninis were ready, the bread was toasted to perfection with the fluffy innards softened just right. I believe there were dashes here and there of garlic powder, black pepper and whatever tasty spice.

To end the succession of savory paninis was the sandwich on a pretzel roll. Roastbeef, swiss cheese and a horse-radish cream sauce. Some very lovely sautéed baby bellas were intended…but conversation and cocktails will occasionally lead to little mishaps and their burning in the pan was not a biggie.

The tender roast beef and the sharp cheese played out nicely against the salty pretzel, elevating the sandwich to a sophisticated philly cheese steak. At one point we were scratching our heads, “hmmm…what could we add here?”, but that is the fun experience of the whole food that the evening was centered around – there are few limitations to what you can toast between two slices of bread. As long as you slice thin enough and don’t think that skittles meld perfectly with bay leaves you can handle making tasty panini creations.


He is actually thinking here- “But you should feed me ALL the timeSS!!”

Resting for a moment, we all tucked away into the den. At this point a drooling labrador, Chip, who could no longer be fended off was sent outside. My dad makes amazing coffee too and presented us with French-pressed coffee, each cup to our liking.

The final touches are sometimes the most remarkable, and the last panini we ate was arguably the best of them all in that it touched upon our most basic desires, yet it might have been easily overlooked had my dad not planned this night for us. For dessert the four of us savored every bite of a buttery croissant enveloping mascarpone, honey apple butter and various melted chocolates. I had to pause for a moment to grab napkins as the chocolate oozed onto my face.

The panini press is definitely getting some use out of it, in fact, the handle is becoming rickety. As long as both sides heat up and they heat up well enough to toast and melt, that machine will be righteously run into the ground. Perhaps for Christmas this year we should invest in a commercial-strength version for my dad (and show up with stacks of panini-friendly food!).

I love you Dad ☺

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The Most Popular Girl At The Office

One day for lunch at a previous place of employment, I absent-mindedly brought leftover fish for lunch to the office. It was cod too. I heated it up in the microwave and a blanket of fish odor wafted from the break room, into the lobby and followed me to my cube as I carried the Pyrex dish with me back to my desk. Never do this, just don’t. You will sit in this cloud of stench for at least an hour after. In fact, your co-workers will most likely dub you ‘Stench’. Back in eighth grade a boy who I thought was revolting, and most likely had a crush on me, told everyone I smelled like kippers for the entire day…which felt like two weeks at that time. As if being thirteen isn’t awkward enough, I was then taunted because my classmates thought I smelled like stinky kippers. If you are unfamiliar with these fish, which I gather are herring that have been salted and then smoked, go out and buy a jar to eat with some crackers. Just be sure to crack open a window or two. They are delicious and good for you, but viciously odorous. Back in my office and now older I was, once again, a social pariah except this time of my own doing. The day before, what had been a scrumptious lightly breaded fillet of fresh cod was now my down-fall, my thorn – a hot pile of white fish with soggy clumps of panko clinging to its exterior in a puddle of juice. Yes, my leftovers were not so delicious leftover, nor did they earn me any friends. I ate quickly to appease a nagging appetite, rummaged through the employee storage closet for some air freshener to tidy up the crime scene, ran out of there and took a nice, long walk in hopes that the fishy smell would dissipate by the time my lunch break was over. I cannot remember if it smelled like cod when I got back to my desk, but I do know that the closest thing to fish I ever brought back to that place were of the Swedish gummy variety.

Here is the meal that was served the evening prior to the incident at the office.

This is what happens when you are over-zealous with flipping over your pan-frying fish. Be careful.

Panko-Crusted Cod
Serves 2-3

Ingredients
1 lb cod
Salt and pepper
¼ cup flour
1 egg, beaten with 1 teaspoon water
1 cup panko crumbs
2 tablespoons oil

Rinse and pat the cod fillets dry. Season with salt and pepper. Set up a nice ‘dunking station’ by placing the flour, eggs and panko crumbs in separate, shallow bowls side-by-side and in that order with a plate at the end. Dunk the fillets first in the flour, then the egg wash and finally the panko ensuring that they are covered entirely after each step. Place them on the plate. Add 1 tablespoon oil to a large skillet (preferably cast iron) and heat to medium-high. Once oil heats up, place two fillets of same thickness in skillet and cook 4-8 minutes per side, depending on thickness. Once panko is golden-brown and the fish is white and flaky inside, remove from heat. Add the other tablespoon of oil and cook remaining fillets. Cod may be kept warm in an oven set at 200 degrees until ready to serve with your choice of sides and sauces. Re-heating the next day in a cramped office setting, not recommended.

And, a little potpourri to end with. Ahhhhh!

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Brunch Hermit

Perhaps because usually enjoyed on the weekends when we tend to “over-party”, that meal neatly tucked in between breakfast and lunch, brunch, is just as restorative as it is convivial. Warm summer months lend us the patios to pour onto for our runny eggs, buttered toast, pancakes glazed with bourbon-maple syrup and Bloody Marys over-flowing with meals of their own. For those actually nursing their hangovers rather than opting for a little “hair-of-the-dog” remedy there are always gourmet coffee drinks (think: chai tea married with espresso and frothed milk!) or fresh-squeezed juices. I love, Love, LOVE going out for brunch on the weekends. Catching up with friends over a boozy meal in the sun, trying the special eggs benedict and watching people pass-by in the city streets not only sets the weekend off right, but can also be a great cap to it. Having said that, it is lovely to lie around in bed until past noon, walk around the house in old yet well-loved t-shirts and enjoy brunch at home without having to look in a mirror entirely.

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I wanted potato, egg and velvety avocado all wrapped up into one, neat, dish. I believe I succeeded. What you see is a toasted half of a pretzel roll topped with hash browns, avocado, a poached egg and then finished off with salsa. Placing a couple crisped pieces of bacon alongside this would not be remiss.

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Here is a relatively easy hash brown recipe. I like my potatoes unadulterated when served with eggs, bacon and breakfasty things in general but I am sure the addition of cheese and/or onions would be delicious.

Hash Browns
Serves 2

2 large potatoes
1/2-1 c vegetable oil
salt
pepper

Clean the potatoes extremely well, there is no need for peeling unless you really prefer to. Using the coarse side of a cheese grater grate the potatoes into a bowl. Take the potatoes in a cheese cloth over the sink and squeeze as much moisture as you can out of them. Place potatoes back in bowl and season with salt and pepper. Heat 1/2-3/4 cup oil, depending on the size of the pan in a good-sized skillet over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes to the pan and press down gently to make a flat cake. Do not stir. Cook on medium-high until bottom turns golden brown, about 10-12 minutes, and turn over. This can be done more easily by placing a plate on top of the skillet and flipping the entire skillet then gently sliding the hash brown back into the pan from the plate. Add more oil to pan if necessary and cook the other side until both sides are golden and crispy.

One of these weekends I really should muster up the stamina for a 45 plus minute wait at The Bongo Room…

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Heat Wave

Yesterday was HOT. So hot. Romance aside, this month has been a steamy one. Facebook has been burgeoning with pictures of car thermometer readings over 100. People travel to work in as little as they can get away with. Bitter sweetly, it has been too hot to eat or drink aside from ice water and cold fresh fruit. Back from a lunch meeting yesterday, I sat in my air-conditioned apartment tempted by the bright sunlight from outdoors, but I knew better. Once outside, I’d either wilt or become irritable. I was reminded of the intense hotel scene in the Great Gatsby…nothing good comes from extreme heat.  I contemplated mixing up a big batch of mint juleps, which is what I think the characters in that novel choose to get drunk on to stave off the heat, but I wanted  something refreshingly non-alcoholic on a day like yesterday where I begrudgingly paid a cab driver $7 just to get me 5 blocks home.
 

 

I love Nigella Lawson’s book, “Forever Summer” for some perfect and simple recipes on uncomfortably warm days .  My parents thoughtfully picked it up for me in a small bookshop on a vacation of theirs. Her accompanying vignettes for each recipe are so well-written and entertaining, I’ve spent an afternoon reading the book as a volume of short-stories. Here is a fantastic Greek salad recipe and mint and lime cool aid from her book that, from experience, help one cool off.

 

 

Don’t worry that there are no cucumbers, which tend to get soggy anyway…this is the best Greek salad I have ever had. In fact, Nigella warns her readers just how addictive it is. The onions marinate in vinegar for a couple of hours which not only softens their texture but sweetens their taste, allowing them to meld together perfectly with the wine vinegar. The recipe calls for some ingredients that were unfortunately not in the house, nor nearby as I live in the grocery store desert of the Chicago Loop district with a few mom-and-pop shops or Walgreens to fill in the gaps.  There are some places not too far to walk if it were not so miserably hot. With this in mind: the salad is great even without the fennel, using white wine vinegar and swapping white onions for the red…Enjoy!

Greek Salad
Adapted slightly from Nigella Lawson’s Forever Summer

 
1 red onion (may sub white)
1 tbsp dried oregano
Pinch of black pepper
1 tbsp red wine vinegar (may sub white)
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
5 fresh beefsteak tomatoes
1 teaspoon caster sugar
pinch of sea salt
1 large head of romaine lettuce
4 ½ oz pitted black olives
14 oz feta cheese
juice of half a lemon

 
Peel and finely slice the onion then sprinkle over the oregano and season with pepper. Pour in the vinegar and olive oil and toss well, cover with clingfilm and leave to sit for at least 2 hours. Cut the tomatoes into quarters and then cut each quarter into quarters (Nigella suggests always lengthwise here for fine segments rather than chunks). Sprinkle the sugar and a pinch of salt over them and set aside. Wash the lettuce and tear into bite-size pieces, placing them in a large salad bowl. Slice the fennel and add, then the tomatoes, olive and crumbled feta. Pour in the onion mixture and add the lemon juice.  Toss gently to combine ingredients.

 
It’s funny how something so simple as oregano, onions and vinegar could be so delicious, but  together they are and I cannot wait to tuck into my leftovers.
 

 
I am a fiend for citrus beverages and this limeade with a touch of mint is incredible on a hot day.

Mint and Lime Cool Aid
Recipe from Nigella Lawson’s Forever Summer

8 limes (or enough to make 1 cup of juice)
¾ – 1 cup of caster sugar
bunch of fresh mint with some sprigs reserved for pitcher
5 cups water
ice cubes

Remove the zest for 4 limes using a vegetable peeler and put this, along with the sugar, mint and 1 cup of the water into the saucepan. Bring this mixture to a boil., stirring to dissolve the sugar. Once this starts boiling, turn the heat down and let the liquid simmer for about 5 minutes. Take this off the heat, allow to cool and then strain into a jug or pitcher.

Squeeze the limes to make about 1 cup of juice and then add, with the rest of the water to the jug of sugar syrup. Add some ice cubes and a few sprigs of mint.

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To Thailand, With Love

Although it is sunny and 80 degrees outside in Chicago, I wish I could be back here for awhile.

 

 

I went out for lunch last week and an acquaintance brought pictures from her recent vacation to share. In this quaint suburban restaurant, we passed around scenes of the pyramids in Egypt, Grecian seascapes and gondolas in the canals of Venice. The images were inspiring and made me nostalgic for my own time spent away in Thailand. Today, going through old photos I remembered how I had posted that I would share more about Thailand and never did.

 

 

I love to travel. Even the sometimes exhausting logistics of getting to the destination is exciting to me, all part of the experience. Well, it is easier to type that now as I am cosily reclining at home and not attempting to sleep in the awkwardly shaped seat at an airport lounge in Seoul during an 8-hour layover. The lounge’s unlimited ice cream for its patrons made this leg of the journey a little more tolerable.

 

 

But I do love to go to new places and see new things. I often think of the saying by G.K. Chesterton, “The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see,” when experiencing a different place and travel with a very loose agenda.

 

 

Ask the locals what to visit, where to eat or hangout. This plan brought my boyfriend and I to some popular local restaurants and helped us to avoid over-hyped tourist traps. For our Thailand adventure we were under the leadership of an extremely gracious and adept tour-guide who knew to take us a little off the beaten path, but for most vacations socializing with locals will usually help make the most out of a trip.

 

 

I noticed that at restaurants in Thailand the style of dining was very communal. Unlike the typical Western way of one entrée per person, the Thai would order and collectively share a number of dishes. This was often accompanied with a tableside bottle of whiskey or beers. Here is a good article that explains how the Thai order. Most days for lunch we ate in a group under an open-air covered patio, sampling traditional Thai food specific to the region that we were in.

 

 

Honestly, I focused more on eating a lot and savoring the very fact that I was in Thailand than retaining the knowledge that was passed on concerning the different styles of cuisine. I read bits about the regions while there, but mostly absorbed the scenery and talked with fellow travelers. Now that I am back in the states, a fun way to self-educate would be to just try more of the food. Here are some tasty things we were served in Thailand…

 

 

Bean-thread noodle soup with chicken. The soup is served mild with various condiments – chiles, sugar, lime juice – to season to your liking.

 

 

Chicken feet! I saw my guide, Nok eating these and she suggested I try them as well. They smelled delicious being brought to the table, steamed with a sweet, garlicky broth. The texture was the unsavory part of the dish. Exactly what one would expect of tender chicken feet.

 

 

I really wish I could remember what this was called. These little gooey coconut patties were so good, I ate about 3 of them.

 

 

A typical lunch while we were out sight-seeing. One of the most memorable meals, however, was a $1.50 bowl of noodles at a shop across from our hotel in Chang Mai.

 

 

Thailand has some of the best pineapple in the world. I miss going down for breakfast every morning to an array of freshly cut papaya, mango and pineapple.

 

 

Not the best picture, but this is a popular street food. Khao laam, delicious sticky rice in a bamboo tube.

Where to next?

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