Friday, July 30, 2010

Dinosaur Parmigiano: Why I'm Way More Awesome than Sandra Lee

Have you guys heard of Sandra Lee and her "semi-homemade cooking" phenomenon? I hadn't until just recently, when I read something about her using baby food and muffin mix and trying to pass it off as homemade (well, semi-homemade) and I was slightly disgusted. It's not that I have a problem with taking shortcuts. I can totally understand using a muffin mix. I've done it myself. The problem that I have rests in her tendency to act like her creations take skill and to tell her audience that nobody will know that it's only semi-homemade. Oh, right--and the fact that this somehow has a show on the food network. If you want to be outraged, go to her page on the food network's site and watch the short videos on the bottom. There were one or two that I found acceptable, and the rest were just absurd. Nobody's going to think that a grocery-store cake with melted lemonade concentrate brushed on it, coated with canned frosting with lemon extract mixed in, is anywhere near homemade, yet she finishes every single "recipe" saying "And no one will know that it's semi-homemade!"

Sandra Lee, the gig is up. I'm about to beat you at your own game. LET'S GO.

RECIPE: Dinosaur Parmigiano
I made this up, like, six years ago. Because I love dinosaurs.

-1 package Perdue dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets
-1 box spaghetti
-1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
-1 jar pasta sauce
-1/4 lb of the cheapest mozzarella you can buy
-about a teaspoon of Italian seasoning
-about a teaspoon of garlic powder
-freshly grated parmesan or romano cheese
-a couple fresh basil leaves (garnish, optional)

Yeah. This stuff. A good-quality sauce is key to making people think you have mad kitchen skills.

1. Preheat the oven to the temperature that the package of chicken nuggets says.
2. Get a pot of water boiling.
3. Put the sauce in a pan on medium heat.
4. Shred the cheese.
5. Spread the chicken nuggets out on a cookie sheet. Use your fingers to sprinkle a tiny bit of Italian seasoning and garlic powder over each one. Press down on them (to sort of embed the seasoning into the breading). Flip over and repeat.
6. At this point, the sauce should be bubbling. Spoon a little bit of sauce over each dinosaur, then top with some shredded mozzarella. Stick in the oven for 8 minutes.
7. Your water should be boiling, too. Put the pasta in there and cook it until al dente, also about 8 minutes. When it's done, strain it, put it back in the pan (off the heat) and add the olive oil to keep it from sticking.
8. When the dinosaurs are done, take them out of the oven. You can now assemble your plates. Scoop a pile of the spaghetti onto each plate. Cover with sauce. Add 4-6 dinosaurs. Sprinkle with the freshly grated parmesan/romano and garnish with a basil leaf. POOF! Semi-homemade.

See the seasoning on there? That little added flavor will completely convince your guests that you made this all from scratch. Seriously. They'll have NO IDEA. (At least, that's what Sandra Lee would have you believe.)

You shredded that cheese yourself. What more can your guests possibly ask of you?

And with a gorgeous presentation like this, how could anyone suspect that you pretty much bought everything pre-made at the store?

Okay, that's enough sarcasm for now--I'm starting to feel nauseous just pretending to think like her. Now it's time for the important thing: why I'm better than her. I'll make a list for that, too.

Reasons I'm Better Than Sandra Lee:
1. I'm not actually going to pretend any of this is homemade. In fact, by using the dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets instead of the less-obvious tenders or something, I'm admitting right up front that I put zero effort in. In short, I'm not going to lie to you.
2. I understand that, while sometimes you don't have time to cook an intricate meal for your family, shortcuts like this are neither as healthy or as tasty as what you'd make yourself if you had the time. I therefore don't encourage cooking like this all the time.
3. I would never, ever, EVER feed this (or anything like it) to guests. I mean, maybe if the "guest" were a little kid, sure--but I'm not going to have company over and serve them things I bought pre-made at the store.
4. I actually know how to make every aspect of this meal from scratch--the pasta, the sauce, the breaded chicken...okay, maybe not the cheese. But the rest, yes.
5. I think it bears mentioning twice--I'm not lying to you.
6. Come on. I used friggin' dinosaurs. How much more awesome could it get?

I promise to someday give you guys a real chicken parmesan recipe that isn't making fun of anyone. Someday. But for now...

Yes, we did actually eat this. And honestly? It's actually pretty tasty, as long as you don't expect real homemade flavor. I have no problem with boxed or jarred food items. It's easy and quick. This took about 45 minutes from me leaving to go to the grocery store and get the ingredients to putting dinner on the table, and you just can't do that with real homemade food, and most people don't have a lot of time to cook an intricate meal every day. There are plenty of better options out there for quick meals, but occasionally, this is just fine. The only real problem that I have is with people pretending it's something that it's not.

Oh--and I promise that, someday, I'll give you a real chicken parmesan recipe. It won't involve dinosaurs. But until then, why don't you go read about some awesome new discoveries that paleontologists are making? (I really, really love dinosaurs.)

Sandra Lee, our game is done sir.
Thank you for a lot of fun sir.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Panna Cotta with Strawberries and Balsamic Vinegar

Wow, it's been a while since I posted a dessert on here! I don't actually make dessert all that often--in the summer it's too hot and we just go out for ice cream, and when I'm in school I don't have a lot of time. However, there are sometimes special occasions that call for homemade dessert--birthdays, holidays, sales on fruit, and most importantly, realizing that something you can get at your local farmstand is about to go out of season and then you'll have to get it at the grocery store and they won't be quite as delicious. I made these when the strawberries were about to go out of season, which means I'm about a month behind in my posting things. (I like to have a buffer of pictures, though, so don't expect this to change!)

I made this panna cotta (my first!) for our belated Father's Day celebration. Generally I'm the pie person in the family, and anytime I'm bringing a dessert pie is requested, but since this was a week after my cousin's graduation (for which I made three pies and a gluten-free crumble), I was all pied out and wanted to make something different. I'd seen panna cotta on a few blogs and was curious--partially because it was Italian, partially because I'd never made it before, and partially because it sounded like a perfect summer dessert: cold, creamy, and refreshing. It was also surprisingly simple to make and required very little heat--the stove for a few minutes, but that's it. Perfect! This particular recipe caught my eye because it seemed different--balsamic vinegar in a dessert? I was intrigued, and I know my dad and knew that even if it came out terribly, he'd appreciate the concept.

RECIPE: Panna Cotta with Strawberries and Balsamic Vinegar
Adapted (very slightly) from Epicurious

-2 tbsp water
-1 1/4 tsp unflavored gelatin
-2 cups whipping cream
-1 1/4 cups plain greek yogurt
-1 tsp vanilla extract
-1/2 cup sugar
-1 quart strawberries, hulled and sliced
-3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
-1/4 cup sugar
-freshly ground pepper, to taste

1. Put the water into a small cup and sprinkle the gelatin on top of it. Let sit about 15 minutes.
2. Put half the whipping cream, the yogurt, and the vanilla in a bowl. Whisk until smooth.
3. Put the remaining 1 cup whipping cream, along with the 1/2 cup sugar, into a small pan on medium heat. Stir until sugar dissolves and cream comes to a simmer.
4. Take the pan off the burner (or if you have a gas stove, simply turn the burner off) and add the gelatin (which will now be a solid squishy disc). Stir until dissolved. Add this mixture to the yogurt mixture in the bowl and whisk until thoroughly combined.
5. Divide between six ramekins or small cups (I used those little plastic chinet cups. I also only divided into 5, because that's how many people there were going to be, and it seemed silly to have one left over.) Refrigerate for a few hours until set, can be refrigerated overnight.
6. Make the strawberry sauce: combine sliced strawberries, sugar, balsamic vinegar, and a few grinds of pepper. Toss. Let sit for a while.
7. If you want to unmold the panna cotta, dip each cup into really hot water and flip it onto a plate, and then wiggle the cup around until it comes unstuck. You don't have to unmold it--in fact, for this recipe, I recommend against it, but if you want to you should definitely read at least through the picture captions, because it's important.

Step 2. This doesn't really require much explanation.

This is also step 2. See how it's nice and creamy and smooth? That's good. You want that.

Steps 3 and 4. When melting the sugar into the cream, it had a distinctly darker color and made the cream look very off-white. I think this is normal and okay, because it definitely didn't smell or taste burnt. Once you put the gelatin in (that round thing there), stir it gently as it dissolves and watch it disappear! It's like you did a magic trick.

I got a little worried when I saw the five individual cups and realized I needed to transport them, but a cupcake pan worked great! The cups were a little bigger than the...uhhh...cupcake-holes, but it held them upright and they survived the (very short) trip.

Uh...plop? I wanted to unmold them, but I expected that they'd hold their shape when I did. I'm not sure if this is my fault or the recipe's. The recipe said to refrigerate overnight, but I read a lot of other panna cotta recipes and they all said to refrigerate for a few hours. I went with a few hours. That might be the reason it plopped. However, I think it's much more likely that this is a recipe that is not meant to be unmolded--the ever-helpful Technicolor Kitchen posted a similar-looking panna cotta recently which called for 2 teaspoons of gelatin and said to use less if you don't plan to unmold it. (She also said that less gelatin tastes better, so maybe leaving it in the cup is the best option.) I want to try making this again and using the two teaspoons and see how it comes out. So: if you plan to unmold your panna cotta, you either need to refrigerate overnight or use more gelatin and I'm not quite sure which it is but I think it's the gelatin.

You may remember in my asparagus risotto post that I said I had two recipes from Epicurious that I wasn't satisfied with--granted, neither of the dissatisfactions had to do with taste, simply with their instructions. Assuming that the gelatin is the problem, I would have liked to see something saying to use a different amount to unmold it, especially considering that panna cottas are frequently served this way. Really, though? It tasted so good that I almost don't care. I'm going to try more gelatin just to see if my theory is correct, but if it's true that it doesn't taste as good, I'll eat my panna cotta in the cup from now on.

If you're serving this to kids or people with kid-like palates, you can separate out some of the strawberries after you add the sugar and before you add the balsamic vinegar and pepper. Mike and Mia both ate theirs with just cinnamon and sugar on their strawberries. It's super easy. It also probably doesn't need the amount of sugar I put in--the original recipe said to use one tablespoon, but I was worried that the balsamic would be overpowering and there wouldn't be much sweet. I loved it how it came out and though I would probably use a little less next time, I'd stay closer to my amount than theirs. I'm also not sure if the additional sugar is responsible for how soupy the strawberries got--does more sugar make strawberries bleed more? And is there a better word for this than "bleed"?

So, making this, I discovered two things: first, panna cotta is simple and delicious, and second, the strawberry and balsamic combination is really really good. I've only heard of it in terms of balsamic vinegarettes on salads with strawberries before, and it never occurred to me that the two would be so good on their own (well, with a lot of sugar).

Do you guys have any unexpectedly delicious combinations of flavors that you love? What are they?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Taste&Create: Spare Ribs

You may remember that, last month, I participated in a food-blogging "event" called Taste&Create and really enjoyed searching for recipes from my partner blog, My Year on the Grill. Because I had so much fun, I decided to do Taste&Create again this month. And APPARENTLY because I said I wanted to cook something else from My Year on the Grill, they paired me up with him again! Hah! (Actually, I think they do this randomly. I was happy, though, to have an excuse to cook something else he posted.) you remember how last month I said I was having a hard time deciding between two recipes, but then found an ingredient on major sale and that decided for me? Well, yeah, that sorta happened again. So, deja vu...except it's completely different this time. This time I made spare ribs.'s picture heavy, and there's not much of a recipe really (more like instructions), so this post will be mostly pictures that hopefully sort of tell you how to make spare ribs. And you should, because they're delicious and actually quite easy. And if you want BETTER instructions, check out Dave's post. He actually knows what he's doing.

Spare ribs were on sale for $1.99/lb. There was no way I was not going for that. This was a pretty small rack, around 10 dollars for the whole thing--there were some that were almost 30!

The first step, once you get the package open (which was actually sort of difficult), is to remove the membrane. I had no idea that ribs even had membranes, nevermind that I would have to remove one, but hey--I did. But, do you see that big slice in the middle of the rack? I didn't do that. They came with that. And it made the membrane-removal WAY more difficult than it had to be. Anyway, this step is super important (the membrane is tough and tastes gross and prevents your rubs from getting in), so do it right.

If you read Dave's post, you'll notice how he talks about "St Louis Style" and "Removing the Flap Meat." This picture here documents how I failed at that--my knife just wouldn't cut through the bones that were attached to the breast bone. And...

One random rib was really really long. I couldn't cut that off, either. I guess these weren't St Louis style at all, but I did get a good amount of flap meat cut off. (I don't know what the remedy for randomly long bones is except maybe a knife that cuts through bones.)

This was the other weird thing, except that I'm not actually sure it's weird at all. Some of the meat was just sorta hanging there and once I removed the membrane had big holes in it. Regardless of whether it's supposed to be there, it was pretty tasty, so I'd say leave this on. And, at this point, start removing all the unnecessary-looking pieces of fat. I ended up with a little bigger than a golf ball sized ball of fat. I took a picture but it grossed me out too much to post it, and I'd apologize, but it was gross.

Time for rubs! Rubs are important. You have a wet rub (the honey mustard) and a dry rub (the barbecue seasoning). You could use whatever you want, depending on what flavor you want your ribs to be--Dave explains more about different rubs and flavors in his post. For now, a spicy honey mustard and barbecue seasoning worked great, so I highly recommend them.

Apply your wet rub! I used about half the jar of honey mustard to cover these. And remember, it's a rub, not a sauce, so pretend you're putting sunscreen on or something and actually rub it in. Obviously it doesn't all rub in (and hey, I could be completely wrong about this rubbing thing) but I think that gets the flavor into the meat a little bit more. And yes, wet rub goes first.

Now apply your dry rub! This is pretty much the same principle. Sprinkle generously, rub until covered completely. Again, I used half the container here. I used the same two rubs on the flap meat that I'd cut off, too--if you're adventurous, you could try with different things, but I was more concerned with "oh no it's later than I realized get this in the oven" than "have some cool leftovers." (These were pretty cool anyway.)

Now it's time to bake them! Perhaps you're confused--"bake ribs? why would I do that?" Well, it's either bake them or smoke them, and I don't have a smoker. So I baked them. You can bake them for a fairly short time at a high temperature, but a low temperature for a long time will give you super tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs like you're dreaming of. Dave's advice was 225 degrees for about 6 hours, and don't open the oven door no matter how tempted you are. My oven is kind of a jerk and doesn't really do anything below 250 (it has the setting, but I think it turns off) so they were done after about 5 hours. A meat thermometer should read 170 degrees, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a good place to put a standard meat thermometer in these. When they finish, take them out, baste them with barbecue sauce (I used Sweet Baby Ray's Hickory and Brown Sugar) and bake them for another 20 or so minutes. They'll be less messy to eat and the barbecue sauce will be much nicer after some time in the oven. (OH! The other thing is to coil them up and skewer them and stand them up in a pie plate for better air flow while baking. It's a good idea!)

Mine sort of broke when uncoiled, but after hours of waiting, I felt victorious to take them out of the oven and prepare to serve them. This rack served 3 people with the flap meat as leftovers, and we were all very full.

Four ribs for me! These were the meatiest ribs I'd ever eaten--whenever I've gotten them at a restaurant, I've been fully capable of eating a whole rack (maybe only a half rack? I don't remember) but this was PLENTY of food. Dave says that if you're not used to leftovers from ribs, you're probably eating baby back ribs and not spare ribs. This is possible. Dave also says to cut between each rib before serving to be nice to the people who are eating, but when I tried to do that the meat sort of dissolved. Plus, part of the whole ribs experience is to cut them apart and wrestle with them, right?

So, there is my spare rib adventure! Remember that they take a long time to cook, and give yourself about an hour to prepare them before putting them in the oven (it probably won't take that long, but I'm slow), so if you want to eat at 7, you want to start these around noon or 1. If you eat at 5, you'll have to start around 10. Give yourself lots of time.

And, really, if you want to make them, take a look at Dave's post, because I'm pretty sure he's an expert on this and I'm just figuring out how it works. I'll be looking for an excuse to make them again (such as "oh hey they're on sale again!") and maybe play with some different rubs and perhaps get the St Louis Style right next time.

I hope everyone has a great weekend!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Asparagus Risotto

A while ago, a couple of the blogs that I follow posted recipes for asparagus risotto. I've never made a risotto before--well, not a REAL risotto--and I absolutely love asparagus, so of course I absolutely had to make it. I went searching for recipes all over the place. Though I didn't really know how to make a risotto, I felt very strongly that it should include more than a tablespoon of cheese and/or cream, yet that seems to be how most recipes write it. I finally found a satisfactory-looking recipe over on Epicurious, modified it a teensy bit, and got cooking.

This was my first experience that caused me to realize how much I've come to love cooking from blogs and sites like Recipezaar (now, where people who aren't professionals make the dish and write it up. The instructions are clear to those of us who didn't go to culinary school, and if we have a question, we can easily ask. Things like "turn the burner from medium to low" don't usually get left out. While I'll probably make this again sometime, I'll make it from the recipe I'm typing up here, not the one I followed the first time.

RECIPE: Asparagus Risotto

-1 1/2 lbs asparagus
-4 cups chicken broth (one box)
-1 tbsp butter
-1 large red onion
-2 cups arborio rice
-1/2 cup white wine
-2 tsp chopped fresh sage
-1 cup freshly grated romano cheese
-1/4 cup fat-free half and half
-water (about 2 cups)

1. Wash and trim the asparagus. Cut off the tips and set them aside. Cut the rest of the asparagus into inch-long pieces.
2. Combine about 2/3 of the asparagus with one cup chicken broth and one cup water in a blender. Puree and set aside for later.
3. In a large saucepan, melt the butter and sauté the onion over medium heat until tender. Add the rice and lower the heat to medium-low. Once the pan has cooled down a little, add the wine and stir until absorbed. (This should take about 4 minutes. If it takes less time than that, lower your heat more. If it takes longer, turn the heat up a little. The original recipe doesn't say anything about changing the heat so my first half cup of wine just cooked off immediately and I ended up using a whole cup and it was perfectly delicious, so if it cooks off too fast and doesn't actually absorb, don't worry about adding a little more.)
4. Add 1/2 cup broth and the chopped sage, again stirring until absorbed. Continue to add broth but the half cup, allowing each one to be absorbed before adding the next half cup. After about 15 minutes, add the asparagus pieces that you didn't puree, and continue adding half cups of broth. Once you've run out of broth, add two half cups of water in the same manner.
5. Increase the heat (back to medium) and add the asparagus puree. Stir often until absorbed.
6. Add the cheese and cream, stir thoroughly, and serve! Garnish with fresh sage if you would like.

Step 2. I took about 12 pictures of this and this was the least blurry one. Sometimes I think my camera hates me.

The rest of Step 2. It looks like those green smoothies that I buy at the store, but I wouldn't drink this. Just set it aside for now.

The rest of the asparagus, after 2/3 of the stalks were pureed. The only reason to separate the tips is to not puree them, so if you want to toss them in the bowl together now, that's okay. You probably don't even need a separate bowl to begin with.

Step 4. I loved how the red onion had a nice pink color that contrasted with the sage (and, later, asparagus) but most of the color disappeared after cooking for so long. Oh, well--it tasted delicious.

Still step 4--this is right after I added the asparagus. I'm glad I used the hugest pan I had, this made a TON of food!

Step 5: Asparagus/water/chicken broth puree added, and I'm now very worried that my pan will overflow if I stir too vigorously. Epicurious seems to think this takes 3 minutes to absorb. Like I said earlier, I like to have some direction about the heat. Mine did well after taking a while to absorb, so I guess it's okay.

Everything is added! It's ready! WOOOOO! Notice how the onions don't look nearly as pink anymore? After some refrigeration they lost their color completely.

The 'eat' step. It was rich and thick with plenty of asparagus flavor but it didn't overpower the grilled chicken that we ate it with. It's very warm and perfect for a cooler evening.

So, there's my first risotto! I was pretty happy with it, and I had leftovers for quite a while, which was nice. One night my mom and I had the leftovers with poached eggs, thanks to Kevin over at Closet Cooking. (I forgot where I'd seen it when I decided to try it, but went and found his post afterward. He deserves credit for such a perfect combination!) My mom was skeptical; I was not--the runny yolk complemented the creamy risotto perfectly and made for a great light meal. (Not that the risotto itself doesn't make a delicious light meal, of course.)

Given the amount of risotto I had left over, unless you're serving at least 6 people, I would probably recommend cutting this recipe in half or freezing half of your leftovers--the last of mine went bad before I could eat it! I was very sad about this. Now, though, I have a bag of arborio rice and an idea of how to make risotto, so I'll be looking for more tasty recipes. I think it would be fun to make this with three colors of asparagus--green, white, and purple. It would be so pretty!

Okay, so I've voiced my opinions about where I like to cook from. How about you guys? I'm assuming that if you're reading this you're not averse to cooking from blogs, but do you have difficulty with cookbooks or "professional" recipe sites? I'm sort of nervous about using epicurious again; both recipes I've followed have been less than ideal in the way of instruction, and I'm not sure there's anything I'd want to make that couldn't be based on something in one of the blogs I read. What do you think?

Oh, and I've also started a new thing with the comments. I'm not quite sure how it works, but I've enabled commentluv, which means that if you have a blog and leave a comment it'll link back to your most recent post with a title. I think it will also let me reply to comments directly, but I'm not sure. Let me know how you like it!

Asparagus (  蘆筍 in Traditional Chinese) on Foodista

Friday, July 16, 2010

Wheatberries for Breakfast!

I don't post a lot of breakfasts on here. A long time ago, I posted a recipe for banana pancakes that I just titled "Breakfast." This isn't because I was too lame to come up with a good title, honestly (not that I really put much thought into them in the first place)--it's because I never really expected to have another breakfast to post. I don't really eat breakfast; I like to sleep late and I'm not usually hungry when I wake up, so I don't usually feel like getting up and cooking up a storm. It does happen, but rarely. Add to this that I'm not a huge fan of most quick breakfast foods--I hate cereal, toast is boring, I don't drink coffee, I dislike the texture of oatmeal and its relatives. (Cereal's the worst--for some reason, if I'm not hungry or only a little hungry and I eat a bowl of cereal, I end up feeling much more hungry afterward, as if it just reminded me that there's space in my stomach for food.)

However. I have recently discovered a breakfast that is delicious, filling, healthy, and really really easy to throw together if you plan ahead. As you may have guessed from the title, it involves wheatberries. As I said in my previous post, wheatberries, once cooked, last about a week when refrigerated--this means that all the planning ahead that is required is to boil up a bunch of wheatberries over the weekend and you've got breakfast all week! So, here you go, and it really could not be any easier:

RECIPE: Wheatberry Breakfast
-about 1/2 to 3/4 cups cooked wheatberries
-2 or 3 scoops of all-natural chunky peanut butter (I use Teddy brand and love it. As for the chunky, I hate chunky peanut butter in any other form, but the crunch is great in this.)
-honey, probably about a tablespoon

1. Get out a cereal bowl. Pour the wheatberries into it. Add the peanut butter and drizzle the honey on top. Mix.

I'd just opened this jar of peanut butter--it's way easier to mix when it hasn't been refrigerated yet, but I must say I prefer cold peanut butter.


Okay, how easy is this? You get protein from the peanut butter, fiber from the wheatberries. The honey keeps the peanut butter from being too sticky and is super tasty. The chunks in the peanut butter are excellent with the texture of the wheatberries. And I bet you could throw some fruit in there if you wanted, too! Apples or bananas would probably be delicious.

What do you guys eat for breakfast? Do you throw something together quickly or cook an actual meal in the morning? Or do you rush out the door and stop for coffee and a breakfast sandwich on your way to work? (I must admit, that's how I usually get by when I have to be somewhere in the morning.)

Have a great weekend, everyone! I'll be back with another update early next week :)
wheatberry on Foodista

Friday, July 9, 2010

wheatberry salad

I've been terrible about blogging this week. Every day I think, at some point, "Oh, I'll write a blog post today!" and it hasn't happened yet. This may be because Mike brought his Wii over to my house and I've been playing Zelda, or possibly because it's been so hot that I didn't want to do anything but complain about how hot it is. It's been pushing 90 all week, even in the middle of the night, and I don't enjoy this kind of weather. (I also hate cold weather. Hooray.)

I was going to write a bit about what wheatberries are, but when I went to Foodista to find a widget to put on the bottom of this post, I found that they didn't have a page about wheatberries (and therefore no widget) and I had to write one myself. So, if you're curious, click on the foodista widget at the bottom of this page to see what I wrote up over there. The cool thing is that if I'm wrong about something, or know something you don't, you can edit it! It's kind of like a wikipedia for foodies, which is awesome, except people can freely edit recipes other people post and I'm not sure how I'd feel about that.

Anyway, wheatberries make awesome salads. I first discovered them when a little bakery/cafe down the street from my house (literally a 5 minute walk) carried a wheatberry salad. Mike and I used to buy it whenever we were there as a side for whatever else we ate. Unfortunately, this little shop closed down and I can no longer buy wheatberry salad there--so I learned to make it! The last day I went there, I asked the guy who worked there what goes into the salad, and he listed a whole bunch of things, and I tried to commit them to memory so I could replicate it at home. This is what I ended up with. I'm not including amounts, because you might say "I don't really like a lot of uncooked red onion" or "hmm I want a LOT of carrots!" and also because I didn't measure amounts. I feel that, ideally, you want to end up with about the same volume of vegetables as you have of wheatberries.

Oh, the important things about wheatberries: the hardest part is finding them, but if you're fortunate enough to have a Whole Foods nearby they sell them in bulk for under two dollars per pound. They triple in volume after they're cooked, so don't cook too many at once unless you want a ton of extra wheatberries (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, as you'll see next time I post which will hopefully be soon). Lastly, you have to soak them overnight before cooking them, so if you want to make this, plan ahead!

RECIPE: Wheatberry Salad
-Red onion
-Green onion
-Green pepper
-Fresh parsley
-Balsamic vinegar
-Extra virgin olive oil
**NOTE: Everything (except the wheatberries and dressing) is optional!**

To cook the wheatberries:
Soak the wheatberries overnight in a lot of water. Drain and rinse them. You'll need a fine mesh colander for this--if it's got bigger holes, you'll lose some, or they'll plug the holes and you'll never get the water out. The next day, as early as possible, boil them. You'll need a very large pot to do this--everything I could find said to cook them in a 4 cups water to 1 cup wheatberries ratio. (I'm not sure how important that is, since they didn't absorb nearly that much water, but when I'm given a specific ratio I stick to it.) Boil them for about an hour, until you can eat one and it has a fresh pop on the outside and a soft creamy rice-like texture inside. Let them cool and refrigerate them. If you didn't give yourself a lot of time, you can chill them quickly by running cool water over them. I strained the wheatberries out of the pot, put them back in the pot, filled with cold water, strained again, etc, for about four changes of water before they were cool enough to stick in the fridge for a while.

To make the salad:
Chop all the vegetables into really small pieces--no bigger than your pinkie nail. Add them, and the craisins, to the wheatberries. Mix until thoroughly combined. Drizzle some balsamic vinegar and olive oil over the salad and mix again. Serve immediately, or chill. The salad can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week. And it's delicious.

Wheatberries. Don't they kinda look like popcorn kernels? I highly recommend that, before making the salad, you eat a small handful on their own--they have some excellent flavor by themselves.

Salad! Serve it with some grilled meat, or bring it to a party, or just eat it on its own. You may notice a lack of craisins in here--I completely forgot them, and I wish I hadn't, but Mike doesn't like them all that much and was thrilled. See? Everything is optional.

There are a lot of ways to make wheatberry salad, and you could probably add pretty much whatever you want and it would taste good. But this is really excellent and I urge you to try it out if you can find wheatberries anywhere--it's really simple, super cheap, and you can make a big batch and have lunch for a week!

I seem to be developing an affinity for summer salads. Though most of them are good any time of year, the vegetables are usually fresher around now, and I love having a cold meal that's filling and nutritious, especially when you don't have to cook anything (which this can be, if you keep cooked wheatberries around. I'm tempted to.) Do you have a favorite summer salad? I'd love to hear about it!
wheatberry on Foodista

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Sausage Stir-Fry with a side of Nostalgia

One thing that frustrates me as a person who likes to cook is the barrage of questions that I frequently have to face when feeding new people. "Where did you learn to cook?" "Where did you get this recipe?" Sometimes it isn't questions so much as assumptions--"Wow, your mom did a great job teaching you to cook!" The questions and assumptions on their own wouldn't be all that bad, but people always seem so disappointed in my responses. I learned to cook from reading cookbooks and following the directions. When I didn't know what something meant, I looked it up. More recently, I've expanded my skills using online tools (such as other blogs or sites like Recipezaar). Chances are, I found the recipe online; I think I have a total of two "old family recipes" that I can toss together from memory in my repertoire.

My point here is that, no, my mom didn't teach me how to cook, and I don't think that's a bad thing as so many people seem to. Why is it that everyone always seems disappointed when I say I got a recipe online, or that I taught myself with the help of numerous cookbooks and weeks of my life staring at the computer screen? My mom isn't a bad cook (though she would probably tell you otherwise)--I quite like her cooking, and when she does cook I think it's excellent, but she doesn't love it like I do. We never spent time in the kitchen when I was little with her showing me exactly how she makes a pie crust, and I think it's okay that I found out from a book.

However, the passion and interest must have come from somewhere, and that credit goes to my dad. He never really taught me a recipe, because I'm not sure if he ever really followed a recipe, but I do remember him busy making something for dinner and asking me if I could pit the olives, which was my favorite job because I ate most of them. (I got yelled at for this. Sorry, Dad.) He would chop up peppers for a stir fry and give me slices so that I could learn how much sweeter red peppers are than green peppers. There were nights that my mom and brother and I searched the refrigerator and cabinets and pantry for something to make for dinner, finding an old tomato, some peanut butter, three or four gallons of milk, huge jars of spices, and nothing else. Somehow, on these nights when there was nothing in the house and we were all too lazy to go grocery shopping, my dad could come home and whip up some simple, excellent meal out of our total lack of ingredients.

I never learned to be quite that resourceful, unfortunately--I either plan a meal out and go to the store and get everything I need, or I don't plan a meal and I go to the store wandering around until I find something that inspires me. I also never learned the knife skills that my dad tried to teach me; they're getting slightly better than they used to be but it still takes me at least 6 minutes to chop up a pepper. (I'm getting good at carrots, celery and rhubarb, though.)

So...nobody really taught me how to cook, and I find my recipes wherever I feel like, but I think my dad taught me how to play with my food and enjoy my time in the kitchen. He taught me to triple the garlic in any recipe I read and to like pepper far more than is perhaps healthy. And, without him, I never would have learned to buy twice as many olives as I planned to put in a dish. This recipe is based on one of those things that he used to come home and throw together, leaving the rest of us wondering where the ingredients came from but in the end quite satisfied with our meals. It's quick, simple, and delicious.

RECIPE: Sausage and Pepper Stir-Fry

-1 package of sweet Italian sausages (usually contains 5 or 6) (If you'd like, use half a package of sweet and half a package of hot for some more variety--freeze the rest!)
-1 or 2 green peppers
-1 or 2 red peppers
-2 tomatoes
-1 large onion
-a whole lot of garlic
-some cooked pasta (homemade if possible!)
-ground pepper (or whole pepper in a grinder) (I like to use peppercorn medleys instead of just plain black pepper, but I don't really know what the difference is, so use whichever you prefer)
-extra virgin olive oil
-freshly grated romano or parmesan cheese

1. Heat some olive oil in a large frying pan. Once it's hot (a drop of water sizzles and evaporates immediately), add the sausages whole. Fry on each side for a few minutes, until lightly browned and partially cooked through. When you're not tending to the sausages, chop the peppers and onion (and, of course, garlic).
2. Remove the sausages from the pan and slice them into medallions. (If you don't fry them whole first, they won't slice properly and you'll get sausage-balls with little strips of sausage casing, and you don't want that.) Return to the frying pan. Lay as many flat as possible.
3. Fry the sausages until cooked through, flipping occasionally. Once they're done (or mostly done, since they'll still be in the pan) add the peppers, onion and garlic. Sauté until slightly softened, but still crisp enough to crunch a little when you bite it--you don't want soggy vegetables.
4. While the peppers and onions are softening, chop the tomato. Once everything else is done, add the tomato and a a few grinds of pepper, stir, and cook until the tomatoes are hot.
5. Serve over a bed of pasta with a generous amount of cheese to top each dish. Make sure to get some of the juices from the pan onto your plate--they're excellent!

Tasty sausages!

Yum! Mike and I use a ton of vegetables when we stir-fry--that's a BIG pan full of them. We usually end up thinking that we should have used less, but we never do the next time, and we fill up on healthy food and don't have room for ice cream. (Which is really sad--there's key lime and graham cracker gelato in the freezer that we keep being too full to eat.)

That looks like a ton of food, but it's mostly a pile of vegetables. We used leftover homemade whole wheat noodles, which wasn't true to my childhood memories at all but they were perfect with this dish.

I was originally going to post this on Father's Day, but then I had to go to my cousin's graduation party, and then I forgot about it, and then I realized that I never really posted anything for Mother's Day and I didn't know if it was okay to post something for Father's Day and not Mother's Day, and THEN I figured, well, my dad was always the cook, so it makes more sense, and I also gave my mom an awesome scarf and baked her a pie. So, consider this a very belated Father's Day post. (I think he also deserves credit for my tendency to cook with peppers, tomatoes and onions.)

How about you guys? Did you teach yourselves to cook, or did you have a parent or grandparent to show you the ropes? Any family recipes?

I hope everyone (well, everyone in the US) has a great 4th of July tomorrow--we're going to my family's annual grilled-meat-fest (seriously: sausages, steak tips, burgers, hot dogs, grilled chicken, and it's all too good to pass up--I think I'll skip breakfast).
Sausage on Foodista