Thursday, October 30, 2008

Enough Already!

Is there anyone else all wrapped up in this election hoopla? I can’t help myself. I haven't been so excited to vote since…ever! I got my ballot in the mail 2 Saturdays ago and delivered it promptly to the post office the following Monday. Boy, did it feel good!

But I need this to be over so I can get on with my real life. What I find particularly curious is that there are still undecided voters out there. Really? Really? Five days before the election and you don’t know where you stand? We only have two parties! Are you going to wait until the last minute, just in case something comes up and sways you one way or the other? Maybe in the next five days the Repubs can tie Obama to Osama Bin Laden. There must be some dinner party Obama is not telling us about. Or maybe Sarah Palin will actually express a coherent thought. Please, I’m begging, just go back to Alaska and we’ll pretend like we never heard of you. Or maybe McCain will stop talking about Joe the Plumber long enough to explain why his idea about the government buying up and renegotiating default mortgages is not socialist. I wonder if McCain thinks it worse to be called a socialist or the "C" word? And if I get one of those robocalls, can I report the RNC because my name is on a do-not-call registry?? Maybe they’ll get a big ol’ fine and Palin will have to return the other half of the spiffy duds she doesn’t donate to pay it. If they're still short, the Repubs can always borrow money from Warren Buffet at 10% interest. Can you see why I’m all wrapped up in it? The McCain campaign is a train wreck but I just can’t look away.

Am I being snarky? You betcha! Can’t help it. That’s how I respond when people insult my intelligence. The McCain campaign is desperate and it shows with their latest antics.

If you’re still undecided, I doubt you’ll know by Tuesday. So just listen to me and vote for Obama. If you are decided, get out there and vote! Do it early, if you can. Let’s wrap this up so we can all get on with our lives.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Regional Recipes Round-up #1: Greece!

It's round-up time and we're going to Greece!

As I’ve said, Greece is at the top of my list of vacation destinations. I imagine warm weather, relaxing days at the beach, dining al fresco. If your imagination needs a little help, check out Wandering Chopsticks' posts about her travels to Corfu and neighboring islands. The pictures alone are enough to take you there.

Of course there’s also the food! Why Greek food is so under represented here in the States is baffling. We love Italian food and Middle Eastern food, but some how Greece got lost. It’s a wonderful cuisine, showing the influence of its neighbors yet distinct in its own right. Take a look at the submissions:

Giouvarlakia from [eatingclub] vancouver. A classic Greek meatball soup seasoned with fresh parsley and dill and finished off with a lemon and egg mixture to thicken the soup. Just give me a piece of crusty bread for dipping, and I’m set. Perfect for taking the chill off these cold autumn days.

Pastitsio from Wandering Chopsticks. A layered, baked pasta topped with béchamel. This is ultimate comfort food, no matter where you’re from. Also check out WC’s other great use for béchamel. Trust me, your family will love it.

Greek lamb burgers from Columbus Foodie. Move over beef! This is lamb seasoned with fresh mint and oregano, then topped with tzatziki and black olive mayonnaise. If you're not yet a fan of lamb, this is sure to convert you!

Little shoes from me. Eggplant “shoes” stuffed with lamb, seasoned with fresh parsley, mint and garlic, then topped with creamy béchamel. A delicious and fun presentation!

I think you’ll agree, these were great entries. Thank you so much to all who participated! And did you notice a theme (besides being Greek :-)? Each one of these dishes is a hearty, family-friendly meal. The perfect way to introduce your family (and yourself) to Greek cuisine.

Now, I’m sure you’re all dying to know where we’re going next, right? It was a hard choice. I mean, there are a million places I’d love to visit and to have to narrow it down to just one? In the end, I chose JAPAN, land of the rising sun.

I hope you’ll join in! Read more about the rules here. Don’t worry, it’s a very short list! Wandering Chopsticks will be hosting this time. Please send submissions to her by midnight, November 15th at wanderingchopsticks(at)gmail(dot)com. If you would like to host in the future, please contact me and I'll put you on the list.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Pan-fried Udon Noodles with Beef, Broccoli and Shiitakes

As promised, I’m posting the recipe for pan-fried udon noodles, a dish that I submitted to Citymama’s $10 dinner challenge. Your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you! I made this dish for under $10! You can read the original post here. Who says flavorful, healthy, low-cost meals can’t be had anymore?

Someone made the comment that this dish looked sensual. That gave me a good chuckle.

This is a versatile recipe and you can use any vegetables you choose. Same goes with the meat or you could leave it out all together. I do recommend the shiitakes though. They really add a nice flavor and texture. The udon noodles also have a nice texture and they are just fun to eat in the same way spaghetti is fun to eat. I think kids and adults alike can enjoy this dish.

Pan-fried Udon Noodles with Beef, Broccoli and Shiitakes
Serves 3 to 4
  • 1 package dried udon noodles (usually sold in 8.8 oz packages) or about 1 pound fresh udon noodles
  • 10 ounces chuck steak, sliced for stir-frying
  • 2 tsp cornstarch
  • ¼ cup + 1 tbs mirin (keep divided)
  • ¼ cup low sodium tamari (or 3 tbs regular soy sauce)
  • 2 tsp sugar (more to taste)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tbs minced ginger
  • ½ pound broccoli, cut for stir-frying
  • 1 ounce dried shitake mushrooms
  • 1 tbs sesame seeds, toasted
If using dried noodles, boil them first for about 3 or 4 minutes less than indicated on the package. You’ll cook them further when you stir-fry them. Drain and rinse them with cold water. Allow them to drain well and toss them with a little oil if you aren’t ready to us them right away.

Soak the mushrooms in boiling water until they soften up. Squeeze them dry and set aside until needed.

In a small bowl, combine the sliced beef, cornstarch and 1 tbs mirin. Mix well and allow to marinate for 10 minutes or so while you prepare the other ingredients.

Make the sauce by combining the remaining mirin, tamari and sugar. Stir well to dissolve the sugar.

Once all your ingredients are ready, heat a wok over high heat. When hot, add about 1 to 2 tbs oil (try refined sesame oil, it’s appropriate for stir-frying). When it gets really hot, throw in the marinating meat and garlic. Quickly stir-fry until just no longer pink, but not until done. Remove from the wok and set aside. Add a little more oil if necessary then add the ginger, broccoli, and mushrooms. On top of that add the cold, drained noodles. Stir-fry without over-stirring for about 2 minutes. The noodles should begin to take on some color and the broccoli should begin to soften. Once the noodles are warmed through, add about half of the sauce and allow the noodles to absorb it. Covering the wok helps this go a little faster. Then add the beef back in and the remaining sauce. Once the sauce is absorbed and the beef is cooked through, you’re done!

To serve, sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Regional Recipes: Little Shoes!

I want to remind everyone that I’m hosting Regional Recipes this month, and the region is Greece! If you want to join in, you still have a few more days. The deadline for submissions is October 15th and I’ll post the round-up on the 20th. You can read more about it, including the rules, here.

My submission is Greek stuffed eggplant, also known as “little shoes,” because they look like shoes (surprise!). This is probably my favorite of all the Greek dishes I have tried. Well, this and moussaka, which are basically the same thing.

My favorite part of this dish is the bechamel sauce on top. If you are familiar with it, you probably agree it’s one of those standard sauces everyone should know. It’s perfect for topping so many different casseroles. It's got a mild, buttery flavor, but once you get the basic recipe down, you can begin to incorporate different flavors. In fact, I did a version with chopped spinach that was very delicious. I'll try to get a recipe up in the near future. In the meantime, enjoy the "little shoes".

Little shoes
Inspired and adapted from The Best Traditional Recipes of Greek Cooking (1995 version)
  • 2 medium-large eggplants
  • 1 pound ground lamb or beef
  • ½ onion, chopped
  • 1 bunch parsley, chopped (mint, oregano, and basil also work well)
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 cups crushed tomatoes
  • 1 tbs tomato paste
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 tbs crumbled feta cheese

For the béchamel:
  • 6 tbs all purpose flour
  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • 3 tbs butter
  • 2 ½ cups hot milk (low-fat is fine, but no nonfat)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • salt (I used about 1 tsp kosher salt, could have used more)
  • fresh ground black pepper
  • pinch of nutmeg (about ¼ tsp)

Some people prefer to hollow out the eggplants before cooking them, but I find it easier to do when they are softened. Whether you do it before or after cooking, it’s going to take some patience to scrape out the pulp without tearing into the skin. You want to end up with a nice “boat” with about ½ inch of pulp still attached to the skin. If you do decide to do it before, you’ll still need to bake the boats before filling them to ensure the eggplant is sufficiently softened at the end.

Here’s how I do it:
Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise and sprinkle each face liberally with salt to draw out some of the bitter juices. Let the eggplant halves sit for at least 15 minutes. After that time, rinse off the salt and pat dry. Rub a little oil on the faces and roast them skin side up in a 350F oven until tender but still able to hold it’s shape, about 30 to 45 minutes. If the skins start to burn, tent with foil. Once the eggplant is cool enough to touch, scrape out most of the pulp (keep a little attached to the delicate skin) and reserve it. Try not to rip the skin! It needs to be able to hold the filling.

In a large skillet over high heat, add a little olive oil and brown the lamb with the onions. Before adding the remaining ingredients, you may wish to drain off some of the fat, if there seems to be an excessive amount. Add the reserved eggplant pulp, garlic and tomato and tomato paste. Allow the filling to simmer until some of the moisture is evaporated. Don’t let it get too dry, though! Add salt and pepper to taste. Don’t be shy with the salt, I think I used at least 1 tsp of kosher salt and I think I should have used more. When you turn off the heat, add the chopped herbs. Adding them at the end preserves their flavor so you’ll actually taste it in the filling.

Arrange the eggplant in a baking dish and fill them. Set aside while you prepare the béchamel sauce.

To make the béchamel sauce, melt the butter with the olive oil in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add the flour and whisk to make a roux. Cook the roux for 1-2 minutes, but don’t let it brown. Then slowly add the hot milk while whisking vigorously. The mixture will clump, but keep whisking and it will end up smooth. Add the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Remove from the heat briefly and whisk in the eggs. Put it back on the heat and cook over low for maybe another 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Watch that the bottom doesn’t burn. The sauce should be thick, like a pudding. Adjust flavor with salt. Another option is to add 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese. When the sauce is done, spread it over the filled eggplant. If you can’t use the béchamel immediately, transfer it to a heat-proof container and press some plastic wrap on top to keep a skin from forming. Don’t wait too long to use it either. When it cools it will be quite thick and gelatinous and difficult to work with.

Sprinkle 1 tbs of the crumbled feta on top each “shoe” and bake in a 350F to 375F oven until heated through and starting to brown on top, about 30 minutes or so. Allow to cool for 10 or 15 minutes before serving. It’s best warm, not piping hot.

Depending on the size of your little shoes and the side dishes you serve (salad, roasted potatoes or bread are perfect), one half will probably be enough for each person.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Tasty Meal for Under $10!

Citymama’s $10 food challenge has been quite eye opening. I knew that I could make a delicious dinner for my family within that budget, but I was curious to see how far that would really take me. Would I be able to squeeze in more than just an entrée? Would I have to cut out the meat? I was surprised at what I found.

The dish I decided to make was pan-fried udon noodles. I made this dish a couple of weeks ago using beef, shitake mushrooms and broccoli, but of course I didn’t calculate how much it cost. I assumed it would put me over the $10 limit, so I decided to do it with tofu this time. We’re trying to eat less meat anyways. As it turns out, made with tofu, broccoli and carrots, the dish came in at $5.64, well under the $10 limit. With over $4 left over, I could squeeze in a simple salad (lettuce and cucumber sprinkled with sesame seeds) with nice a miso dressing. A balanced, tasty meal for $10!

Since I came in far under budget with the vegetarian version, I wondered how much it would cost to do it with beef. My preference is to use grass-fed beef (chuck steak), which cost $5.99/ lb at Whole Foods. The same cut of conventional beef at Safeway was $5.29 / lb. I expected the difference to be bigger. The big surprise, though, was Safeway’s price for stir-fry cut beef, over $7/ lb!!! It definitely pays to cut it yourself. Besides, they use a machine to cut the beef, rather than purposely cutting against the grain. Big no no, unless you like tough meat. Long story short—using 10 ounces of grass-fed beef still kept the price under $10 ($8.24 to be exact). Not enough left over to squeeze in the salad, but as Hubby pointed out, enough for a beer with his meal.

One way I keep costs down is to shop around. Whole Foods and Safeway are convenient for me, so that’s where I end up the most. I’ll make a trip to a big Asian supermarket (usually Fubonn or Uwajimaya) every couple of weeks or so. I could get a lot of my Asian sauces at the other two, but I rarely do. Asian products are cheaper at an Asian market. Here is an example. Mirin costs $3.58 for a 17-oz bottle at Fubonn. At Safeway and Whole Foods it’s $5.49 and $8.99 for only 10.5 ounces, respectively. I once saw Sriracha for $5.99 for a 28oz bottle at a local supermarket, but it’s only $2.58 for the same size at Fubonn. It’s smart to get to familiar with your local ethnic markets, no?

If you 're interested to see the cost breakdown, click on the file link 10dollarchallenge.doc.
You'll see the prices I paid, the amounts I used and where I got the item.

If you want more $10 meal ideas, check out Citymama’s site in the next couple of days to see the round-up.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Are you up for a food challenge?

Citymama is doing a $10 challenge and I’m going to play along. The idea is to make a nutritious meal for a family of 4 for $10 or less. I want to make something that is reflective of the food we eat, rather than making just anything that I know will come in under $10. Not completely decided yet, but it will probably be some kind of stir-fry with either rice or noodles.

Think you can do it? Great! Check out her post for details.

This food challenge has got me thinking about the price of food these days. I have definitely been watching what we spend on groceries. I watch for specials and buy the store brands more often. A couple of weeks back, one of my local grocery stores (I have 4 within 2 miles of my home) had my favorite brand of pasta on special, $0.99 per box, down from $2.49. They put a limit of six, so I went back twice that week and bought six boxes each time. I think I was being smart, but you may think I’m crazy. Either way, I saved $27!

I was in another one of my local stores yesterday. One of the items on my list was bagels, but I just flat out refused when I saw they were $4.99 for a bag of six. Just plain ol’ bagels. Nothing fancy. Not organic. Talk about highway robbery! I ended up not buying them. I would rather wait until I visit one of the other stores, where I knew they’d be at least a dollar less.

What about you? Do you watch what you spend on food? How? Are there foods you don’t buy as often or have stopped buying because of price? I’d love to know.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Succulent Pineapple Chicken

If you thought I agonized over getting a gas grill, you haven’t heard me go on about getting a pressure cooker. On the one hand, I know that using a pressure cooker is a lot more green than having my stove turned on for 3 hours to braise pork shank. Could you imagine, pork shank done in less than 1 hour? Think of all the extra time I'd have to waste!

BUT...I’m scared of freak explosions. Please don’t roll your eyes! It could happen.

HOWEVER...I shoved my fear aside and just did it. Bought a pressure cooker. Yes, I did!

AND...I love it! I’ve made carnitas and a stewed pineapple chicken. The pork took less than 1 hour and the chicken took a little more than half an hour from prep to table. And no freak explosions! Seriously folks, this is the way to go!

This stewed chicken was so delicious. The chicken was fall-off-the-bone tender and the sauce had just the right amount of heat, sweetness and saltiness. Our family really enjoyed this dish and I think yours will too.

Succulent Pineapple Chicken
Feeds 3 or 4 adults
  • 6 skinless chicken drumsticks or thighs (also works well with 1.5 lbs pork butt or country ribs)
  • ½ cup fresh pineapple, chopped or crushed (canned pineapple in juice is also fine!)
  • 1 healthy knob ginger, grated
  • 5 to 10 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 shallot, finely sliced
  • 1 tbs brown sugar
  • ¼ cup low sodium soy sauce (or 3 tbs regular soy)
  • 1 ½ cup chicken stock (water is also fine)
  • whole jalapeno(s) sliced lengthwise, to taste (optional)
  • salt, to taste
Rub a little oil on the chicken. Brown it well on a very hot pan. Once the chicken is browned, transfer it to the pressure cooker. Add the other ingredients. Give it a quick stir, lock the lid and following your manufacturer’s instructions for cooking. For my cooker, I ended up cooking for 13 minutes (after pressure built up) and let the pressure release itself, about 10 minutes. If you use pork chunks, the cooking time will increase. Follow your manufacturer’s guidelines.

You can achieve the same results by braising on your stovetop or in your oven (325 to 350F), but it will probably take over an hour.

To serve, I removed the meat from the bone into a deep serving dish. I concentrated the sauce a bit by simply reducing it over high heat, then poured it over the chicken.

Perfect served with steamed rice (and extra sambal oelek on the side!).