Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Toast to the New Year!

I've never been particularly fond of champagne, though I've sipped plenty of glasses to ring in many a new year. It wasn't until I started working at my current job with all of its very educational wine tastings that I realized I don't, in fact, care for French wines, nor do I enjoy California wines. Both are too dry for me.

Italian wines, on the other hand, and for whatever reason, I find quite pleasant! So I was very delighted to be introduced to Prosecco, essentially the Italian equivalent to champagne. It is also sort of the latest trendy alternative here in the United States because it is less expensive (champagne is far more exclusive since it can only come from Champagne, France) and, in my opinion, a little sweeter and much more delicious.

Prosecco is a white wine, usually dry or extra dry, and sparkling. It comes from glera, or (surprise) “Prosecco” grapes, mostly grown in northern Italy. A band of traditional Prosecco growers is trying to get a protected designation of origin status, which means the name Prosecco will mean the same for northern Italy what champagne means for Champagne. Currently, Prosecco is also produced in Australia, Romania, Brazil, and Argentina.

The three main varieties of Prosecco that you will find in stores are brut, extra dry, and dry. I like all three, but my favorite is dry because it is the sweetest, though not as sweet as Asti, another sparkling Italian white wine that is another alternative to champagne. (The inventor studied the production practices in Champagne.) If you hate the dryness of champagne, or wine in general, I highly suggest Asti for your celebrations. It rather reminds me of soda pop in its bubbly sugary goodness, so I understand why many wine drinkers dislike it.

It has been suggested that mixing Asti or one of the sweeter Proseccos with grapefruit juice would make a tasty mimosa. Since grapefruit juice is less sweet than orange juice, it should blend better with the sweetness of the sparkling Italian wines. Orange juice would probably make it too sweet even for me!



Monday, December 26, 2011

Winter Feast

When winter at last takes its hold,
The ground grown firm with ice and cold,
The winds around our houses moan,
With hope to chill us to the bone.

But in the shades of early night,
Our kitchens glow with warm delight.
Out pour scents to thrill and to whet
Our appetites, but oh, not yet.

We gather 'round our tables all,
Before the chefs put out the call,
Because we all anticipate
The food that will soon fill our plates.

The sides are ready for the feast,
And next in line, the wild beast.
Now we give thanks for food well-made
(It looks so tasty when displayed).

The winter months, they may be lean,
The weather cold, the storms are mean,
But never fear, all will be good!
We're sure to eat delicious food.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Spinach Cheese Concoction

As usual, I am going through my cupboards, trying to use up the miscellaneous items that have been sitting around a while. This time, I pulled the half bag of frozen spinach out of my freezer and wondered what I could do with it.

The first thing I did was spray my large frying pan liberally with canola oil and dumped in the frozen ball of spinach with the burner on medium. After sprinkling in some garlic salt (because it's tasty), I spent some time breaking up the icy ball and spreading the spinach around so it would thaw evenly.

Satisfied that the spinach was ice free, I poured in maybe 1/4 to 1/2 cup of milk and stirred that into the spinach thoroughly. I then sprinkled over-top some flour to thick up the mixture, essentially making creamed spinach. 

And then came the most delicious part: the cheese. Once the creamed spinach was all mixed together, I shook out about three handfuls of shredded sharp cheddar cheese and stirred that together, as well, mixing in one handful at a time. 

You can eat this as a side dish or a main dish, as I did, since I wasn't very hungry after a long day at cookie-laden work. It can also be a simple spinach dip, or you could add eggs and bake it into a casserole or quiche. Use a low fat cheese if you are trying to watch calories. 

Spinach is a super food and has been called the healthiest food of all time (though that is most likely exaggerating). It is a great source of protein, vitamins A and K, and folate/folic acid. It also has a decent amount of fiber. It helps your body fight against heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, just to name a few. 

If you've never really tried spinach, perhaps it's a plant you should look at, and if you think you hate spinach, maybe you should give it another shot, just prepared in a new way. I'm glad I did! Or I never would have created this tasty, tasty spinach side dish. In fact, I think it's the best spinach dish I've ever eaten! I'm kind of sad that it's all gone.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Happiest Season of All

Unlike last year's cookie baking adventure, it was neither cold nor snowing when I had to walk to work to pick up the key ingredients that I was missing to make my gingerbread cookies. (I told you this would be a theme.) I did, however, need flour once again! No, that bag did not last me the entire year. There was at least one other bag in between then and now. I also needed butter, and this year, I have a microwave to melt it in! And fancy new smoke alarm detectors that have an off button I can push just in case the oven does start smoking.

Since the cookie dough had to chill for an hour in the fridge, I decided to simultaneously make dinner, more white chicken chili. Unfortunately, well into the chili cooking process, I realized I didn't have any cans of green chiles! So I ended up coming home from the store with one bag of whole wheat flour, two cans of green chiles, and a thing of butter. 

Guaranteed not to break!
...It broke.
Halfway through opening the second can of green chiles, the unthinkable happened. The freaking can opener broke! It was a hand opener (I haven't invested on one them new-fangled electric ones yet), and one of the metal pieces went flying under the toaster oven while the two main pieces fell apart in my hand... 

It's a good thing I have two of them! That could have been quite the disaster as I did not want to fight the crowds and drive to Meijer tonight. Thus dinner was saved and the cookie dough was assembled and put in the fridge to chill.

While moving things around in the fridge to make room for leftover chili, I discovered a little ball of sugar cookie dough leftover from when Kimmy made cookies a week or so ago. So I pulled that out and rolled it out with the rest of the gingerbread dough. I also used the leftover frosting we'd stuck in the fridge from the hexen haus. Since it dried solid on the house, I am hoping it will do the same on the cookies so I don't end up with smooshed frosting when I am forced to layer the cookies for easy transportation.
I think that I shall let the cookies thoroughly cool overnight and decorate them tomorrow when I am not working. It shouldn't take long as it isn't a large batch. In the meantime, I shall enjoy the sweet, spicy scent of gingerbread in my apartment.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Throwback

Last year I made a number of salads out of things like couscous and chickpeas. Lately, with all the cookies and candy up for grabs at work, I've been craving a healthier diet. Vegetables are veritably mouth-watering! And I've had this box of tabouli in my cupboard for some time, but tabouli by itself isn't very satisfying to me. So I decided to go to the store today and round out that salad with tomato, cucumber, and chickpeas.

First, that involved cleaning the kitchen, no easy feat with all the gyoza and other fried things we've been cooking lately. (Kimmy also made cookies for our friends as holiday presents. I'll be doing my holiday baking in a few days.) But still! A clean kitchen makes me happy, as does satisfying food cravings.

After boiling some water to make the tabouli mix, I chopped the tomatoes and cubed the cuke to the sweet tones of Abney Park, the Cog is Dead, and the Clockwork Dolls (absolute essentials to any steampunk playlist). The tabouli was supposed to sit in the fridge for an hour while it absorbed all of the water. However, chopping veggies and dancing around the kitchen didn't kill nearly enough time, and I was really hungry by then, so after about twenty minutes or so, I pulled the tabouli out of the fridge and gave it a poke. It was absorbed enough for me, so I poured in the cucumber, tomato, and can of chickpeas and stirred it all together.

I figure between the bulgur and chickpeas, I have a complete protein. That combined with the vegetables made for a very satisfying meal! And it was a heck of a lot better for me than I would have gotten at work. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Das Hexen Haus

How it's supposed to look.
Growing up, I'd never made or even really seen a gingerbread house. It was one of those things I heard about other people doing, people who only exist in myth and magazines. So when I started working for my current grocery store and saw that we sold gingerbread house kits, I immediately wanted to try it. Three years later, I finally did so.

Ever since I moved back to Michigan from California, I've been doing a ton of things that I've always wanted to do but hadn't yet done. Once my roommate Kimmy joined me, I gained the perfect accomplice. (My boyfriend Greg is a pretty good accomplice, too, but really he's a better instigator. Better than even myself.) Thus, when the gingerbread houses came in this year, I grabbed one for Kimmy and me to assemble. (She'd never made a gingerbread house either.) 

First, Kimmy sorted through the pieces of gingerbread to see how they fit together while I beat an egg, then added a box of powdered sugar to it to make frosting along with a sprinkling of lemon juice to "make it sticky," as instructed by the kit's instructions. Included in the box was a little fondant dog and three people, a boy, a girl, and an old woman with a cane. I was not surprised to find that the German instructions in the kit referred to this as a "hexen haus," or "witch's house." (Whoa, who saw that coming?)

Anyway, frosting glue mixed, pieces laid out, we were ready to assemble our house! I lined one of the little holes in the base with frosting, then stuck in the gingerbread pine tree. It promptly fell over. I held up the tree while loading the base with frosting. When I let go, it started to lean again. Fine. So I held it and blew on the frosting to coax it into drying. It kind of worked. 

Meanwhile, Kimmy set to work on the A-frame house. It, too, fell over. "Noooooo!! Haaaauuuuus!! Why, God!?" Kimmy screamed, and I snapped a picture. 
Nooooo!
We did manage to prop all the pieces against each other and kept the house upright. The frosting glue, however was not cooperating, and we ended up giving up trying to use it as glue and instead drizzled it all over everything pretending it had snowed. I tried decorating the tree with the little candies and gummies included in the kit, but they mostly just slid to the gingerbread ground. 

After a lot of goofing around and taking of photos, I uprooted the tree, drizzled on more frosting and took a bite. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great. It mostly tasted like a really tough sugar cookie with a slight ginger flavoring. Kimmy took a few bites out of the roof before putting the house back together. We couldn't determine the serving sizes of what we'd eaten because the nutritional information is for 1/25 of the assembled house, and we didn't feel like measuring.

Ta-da!
I suggested to Kimmy that next year, we make the gingerbread ourselves and build a lean-to. She countered with tee-pee, wigwam, longhouse, or - best yet - a gingerbread log cabin. I'm pretty sure all of these can be done, and I look forward to trying. Um, but maybe no candy grandma trying to eat candy children.

PS-
Kimmy checked the haus a few days later (we had it sitting on top of our fridge) and the frosting glue has solidified. That house is not coming apart now!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Best Mac 'n Cheese in America?

After talking to various friends and coworkers after moving to Ann Arbor, I learned that a number of shows from the Food Network and Travel Channel have been through town, featuring local restaurants on their shows. So one day, I searched on the internet for "food network" and "Ann Arbor," and discovered that my idol chef Alton Brown had named Zingerman's Roadhouse as making the best macaroni and cheese in America on his show in 2010 called America's Best: Top 10 Comfort Foods

I was warned that Zingerman's is both really good, and pretty pricey, so I avoided going there for over a year until earlier this week when I suggested it to my boyfriend. I knew that I was going to like the place as soon as I stepped inside. It's colorful, fun, and decorated with countless salt and pepper shakers, and the staff was friendly and available without being obnoxiously attentive.

Listed on the rather impressive drink menu, I found a Coke mixed with tart cherry juice from Up North that I could not pass up ordering. It was not your usual cherry Coke, that's for sure, but I still enjoyed it, and if you like tart cherries, I suggest giving it a try. Zingerman's thing is that they try to use all local (or at least in-state) sources, which I highly respect and appreciate. 

Much of the day I'd had a hankering for soup, but I wanted to try one of the five mac 'n cheeses. I didn't know what to order until Greg pointed out the mac 'n cheese is available as a side, so I ended up ordering the sweet potato and red pepper soup that was pretty tasty after I added a little salt, and a side of the basic Roadhouse Macaroni and Cheese. Admittedly, not what I generally think of when I think of mac n' cheese, but I still enjoyed the dish, and I think it would be terrific with chicken, so the next time I am there, I may have to order the Ig Vella Macaroni. 

Interestingly enough, it is not only the macaroni that comes in multiple varieties. For their BBQ sandwiches, Zingerman's also offers three choices of BBQ sauce. I am especially intrigued by the white turkey BBQ sandwich which has white BBQ sauce. I've made white chili, but I didn't know one could also make white BBQ sauce. I may have to order this next time with another side of mac n' cheese. 

Now, I did not order dessert, though I was sorely tempted by Ari's Donut Sundae, not only because a donut sundae sounds completely awesome, but Ari is the name of one of my favorite characters from one of the novels I've written (that really, terribly needs to be revised). One thing I was NOT tempted by was the Everything Is Better With Bacon Sundae, which had two forms of bacon on it. Behold:
I had to take a picture to prove it exists. 

Anyhoo, I definitely enjoyed what I had at Zingerman's Roadhouse and would not only like to go back for another round, but share it with friend and family. If you live int he Ann Arbor vicinity, or are passing through, give Zingerman's Roadhouse a try. I think it's worth the higher price.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Cookie Butter

An interesting item has just hit the shelves at my local Trader Joe's: cookie butter. According to Wikipedia, this is a relatively new and revolutionary product made from creamed speculoos, a type of flat, crispy cookie often made into cute shapes and eaten for St. Nicholas Day in and around the Netherlands. Cookie butter has the consistency and even color of peanut butter, but tastes like cookie. This means that that you can make everything, even simple toast, taste like cookie!

The side of the jar has a few suggestions, but in order to gather more ideas for uses, and because cookie butter had to be shared with the world, I brought the jar over to Game Night and opened it up for everyone to try.

First up was pita bread, and it was delicious. We even spread some cookie butter on pieces of pita and microwaved them for a few seconds to melt the butter. This didn't change the flavor so much as sharpen the sweetness and alter the consistency. Conclusion, melting cookie butter makes a great dip and can be drizzled over other things like ice cream.

Next we had club crackers. This had that ever popular salty/sweet thing going on, but mostly just tasted like cookie since club crackers are rather on the bland side. Still, it was an enjoyable and easy snack.

Similar to the salty crackers, we then dipped in some pretzel sticks. This is actually one of the suggestions on the side of the jar, but I thought it sounded terrible. I am surprised and pleased to report that it actually was pretty good. I had previously tried spreading cookie butter on a pretzel croissant (also obtained from Trader Joe's), which was tasty, but not quite as delicious as when I spread cocoa almond spread on them, another new product found at Trader Joe's. (And about damn time, too. I have been in mourning for their long-gone hazelnut spread.)  

The next morning, my boyfriend made silver dollar pancakes, and naturally we spread the cookie butter on those, as well. Phenomenal! Is there anything that cannot be improved??

Well, actually, the jar suggests spreading it on celery. I'm really not too sure about that....

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Crêpes 'N Things


The item pictured above is literally something that my boyfriend dug out of his basement. I believe he said someone bought it at a garage sale for cheap in the hopes of using it, which I don't think ever happened until he put it in my hands. (Well, after a few months of putting it in my hands, and it had a brief stay in my roommate's trunk before settling on top of my microwave for a while.)

Despite popular belief, the dated box is right: crêpes are fun and easy! We made them in high school French class on a monthly basis using a free-standing electric griddle. You just need patience. And, in this case, about three rounds of trial and error.

We start with the basics: 3 eggs (4 is better, but all I had was 3), one cup of flour, a tablespoon of melted butter, a couple more tablespoons of sugar, 1 cup of milk, and 1/4 cup of water.

Technically, this is a dessert batter recipe, but since I was running out of sugar, I wasn't able to put in the full amount, and I find that crêpes made without any sugar at all are far too bland to be really tasty. Other recipes I've seen also call for vanilla to add a little flavor, or less eggs and more milk, which would also change the taste.

After thoroughly blending together all of my ingredients in my large mixing bowl, I poured it into my glass pie pan, the perfect size for this "Nordic crêpe pan." Here is where the learning process began.

I first preheated the stove to medium heat, then dipped the smooth, even side of the cold crêpe pan into the pie pan of crêpe batter, lifted it out, flipped it over batter side up, and quickly placed it on the stove. Batter ran everywhere. After letting it cook, I flipped the pan over onto a plate and waited for the crepe to fall off lie it was supposed to. No dice. I tried poking it with a fork to help it on its way, but no luck there either. So I scraped it off with the fork, rinsed the pan in the sink to remove all remnants, and began again.


This time I tried spraying the surface of the pan with canola spray to see if that would help. When I pulled the pan out of the crêpes batter, barely any of it stuck. Another no-go. I went ahead and put the pan back on the stove and drizzled batter over-top. Again, batter ran everywhere, but it mostly stopped short of the edges because the hot pan had immediately started to cook it. Ah-hah! The crêpe also flipped out onto the plate without any problems.

For my third try, I did not spray the pan, but left it empty on the stove a few seconds to be sure it was well warmed. I then dipped it into the pie pan of batter and put it on the stove. Perfecto! (Minus that one time when the pan was too hot and started cooking the batter in the pie pan, but that was well into the process and only a minor mishap.)

Once I had a few made, I called the boyfriend into the kitchen to start experimenting with fillings. We had fig butter, which is basically the stuff they put in the middle of Fig Newtons, honey apple butter, peanut butter, and the thimbleberry jam and black currant jam that I had bought in the UP this past summer. Sadly, no Nutella, my favorite, though I did get to try Trader Joe's new cocoa almond butter yesterday, which is totally going on the next batch of crêpes that I make.

(As a side note, if chocolate nut spreads are your thing, as they are mine, I highly recommend a trip to Cost Plus/World Market. I've not only picked up chocolate hazelnut spread from them, but cappuccino and a white chocolate hazelnut swirl that was wonderful! It depends on the store, but there is usually a good variety of chocolate spreads to choose from.)

Eventually, there came the point where the crêpe pan would no longer pick up batter from the pie pan, so I took most of the remaining batter and drizzled it over the crêpe pan on the stove. Batter ran everywhere. There is a reason I did not scrub the stove clean before I began cooking. This foray easily doubled the mess.

When I folded this last crêpe into quarters after filling it with peanut butter and honey apple butter, it rather reminded me of Cthulhu. I'm sorry that I did not get a picture of it. It was too tasty.

In conclusions, this "Nordic crêpe pan" thingie was not as difficult to use as it seemed (there was no instruction booklet). It just took a little vision and patience. And probably some previous experience with crêpe making in the more usual way with a frying pan.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Another Asia Night

As is often his wont, my boyfriend decided to make stir fry for game night dinner this past Sunday. Since I don't do pork or beef easily, he made chicken stir fry and asked other people to bring complimentary items. My roommate brought rice, and I decided to swing by Trader Joe's and pick up some of their frozen chicken gyoza.

Trader Joe's gyoza and I have a rocky history. My first roommates in California raved about how delicious it was, so I naturally gave it a try. I was disappointed. Granted, the gyoza I was used to from Japan was not chicken, but I had since bought gyoza from the Chinese markets in Kalamazoo that were chicken and just as tasty. (Incidentally, if you would like to read about the difference between the original Chinese jiaozi and Japan's variation gyoza, click here.)

I generally love Trader Joe's. They're cheap, avoid the added chemical crap that has infested our daily food, and have offerings that I just can't find anywhere else. I am far more adventurous with food now than I was before Trader Joe's. All true. However, I dislike most of their Asian cuisine offerings (though their mandarin chicken really is the bomb), and can't help feeling they consistently fall short of authentic Japanese food. 

So while living in Mountain View, I was more content to walk the ten minutes to the nearby Chinese market on Castro St to buy my beloved gyoza. I moved away from Mountain View, though, and have often had little alternative to buying gyoza from Trader Joe's. I don't know if my tastes changed or the recipe did, but I am now decently fond of the chicken gyoza from Trader Joe's and can usually get it to cook the way that I want it.

Except for Sunday. I wasn't using a stove that I am used to, nor was I using my usual cooking oil or pan, any of which could have been contributing factors to the gyoza not browning no matter how hard I tried. I still have a bag and a half of the dear little dumplings in my freezer, so obviously I will get a chance to cook them again. Next time, I think I will take Wikipedia's advice and boil the gyoza first, then put them in a fry pan with oil. I think I can get them crispier that way. 

Another thing that I don't particularly like that Trader Joe's sells is their gyoza sauce. It's too spicy for me and just doesn't, in my opinion, go well with the gyoza (though would probably pair well with jiaozi). So I made my own! Most of the recipes I found had the same ingredients as Trader Joe's, so they wouldn't do. I decided to be simple and mix together soy sauce and rice vinegar. In the past I have sweetened soy sauce with sugar, but it was fine without sugar this time, and tasted pretty authentic to me. (It was closest to what I remember having with my gyoza in Japan.) 

Despite its non-crispiness, everyone at game night ate the gyoza and said it was good (though roomie was sad at the lack of crisp, as was I), so at least it performed its function. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Open Season on White Chicken Chili


This has nothing to do with Thanksgiving, but everything to do with the season. It's getting cold! There has been plenty of soup making, but I've lately started craving something similar: white chicken chili. If I have even ever made white chicken chili, it's been a very long time. My friends and I used to get it from the soup cafe that sprung up every Wednesday on the campus of Western Michigan University, then later we sometimes made it ourselves with ground turkey. (Making it white turkey chili, an entirely different chili altogether.)

After getting off work tonight, I grabbed an onion, a couple cans of white kidney beans, diced chilies, a frozen bag of pre-cooked grilled chicken strips (worth it when you're short on time), and a bag of shredded Mexican blend cheeses. I wasn't sure of all the ingredients, but that sounded like a good start. Even after checking a few recipes online, I found I didn't have all the required ingredients, so I just went with that I had.

First things first, I made cornbread from a boxed mix. (Using my new mixer. <3)

Then, in my large frying pan, I combined half the onion, then diced, and generous sprinkles of ground cumin, garlic powder, and dried parsley (because I mysteriously don't own oregano) in a bit of olive oil. After that browned a bit, I added the two cans of diced chilies In a separate pot, I put two cans of water and a packet of condensed chicken broth and brought it to a light boil. To the broth I added the two cans of white kidney beans, drained and rinsed. While that simmered, I ripped up the thawed chicken strips and added them to the chilies mixture.
I added half a can of water to the beans and broth because it didn't look like enough liquid. That, of course, made it apparent that I needed the Big Pot, so I pulled that out and combined into it the pot of beans and broth and the skillet of chicken, chilies, etc.

I don't like spicy things, so the only kick in this chili was from the green chilies. After scooping a square of cornbread into a bowl, ladling in some chili, then sprinkling shredded cheese over-top, I was pretty pleased with myself. And the taste was pretty much exactly what I was looking for.

Thus ended a many months long craving.  

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thanksgiving Special (Early Edition)

Since I was informed that my family is having a non-traditional Thanksgiving dinner this year, and we've been getting in all kinds of Thanksgiving fare at work, I decided to make a small Thanksgiving-esque dinner for myself and my roommate Kimmy a couple weeks early. Also, this is my 100th blog entry, so I wanted to make it something big!

1/4 cup butter, 4 cups water,
seasoning packet
The first thing I did was buy a box of Trader Joe's cornbread stuffing and a tub of stuffing starter mix, which has cut up celery and onions with herbs mixed in. The box of cornbread stuffing also has an herb packet, so it was very herby and delicious when I mixed it all together in the pan. The steps for the stuffing casserole went like this:
  1. Preheat oven to 350F
  2. Pour 4 cups of water, ¼ cup of butter, and the cornbread mix's seasoning packet into a glass bowl and microwave for about 5 minutes until butter is melted
  3. Spread cornbread croutons and stuffing starter mix into a large casserole dish, mixing carefully
  4. Pour microwaved liquid mix over dry mix in casserole dish, mixing very carefully until croutons are moistened
  5. Bake for around 35 minutes
croutons & stuffing starter mix
I didn't have the money to buy turkey, sadly, so instead I took six chicken tenders out of the freezer, placed them in a frying pan of butter, parsley, celery salt, and garlic powder simmering in some water. When the chicken was cooked through, I added flour to the broth to thicken it into a delicious gravy.  

chicken, 1/4 cup butter, water, garlic powder,
parsley, celery salt

Happy Thanksgiving!
I do believe this is one of my tastier dinner creations. With the addition of the baked acorn squash that I had made previously, I felt I had a solid, well-rounded meal. The chicken tenders provided more than enough protein for my day, and squash is high in antioxidants. (Also vitamin A, so expectant mothers, please take note and monitor your intake carefully.) 

Since stuffing is my favorite Thanksgiving dish, the leftovers did not last long in my refrigerator, alas! I guess that means I will just have to make more. Oh darn! Next time, I may add some Michigan-grown dried cherries for my sweet tooth and in honor of my home state, which not only supplies most of the tart cherries in the US, but squash, as well. (Mm, I live in a tasty state.) 

One more blog entry before it is Thanksgiving for reals! I wonder what I should make next.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Acorn on the Outside, Pumpkin on the Inside

 

So many weeks ago that I've lost track, I bought an acorn squash because I remembered my mother baking them when I was growing up and they were tasty. I've never cooked squash before, so I didn't know that this squash was horribly unripe. Thus the waiting began... Finally, I was able to cut into the darn thing and my quest for learning how to cook this thing began.

I'd been given all kinds of advice from friends, coworkers, and customers on how to do thing, which, of course, I promptly forgot when confronted with the task. I figured the best course of action was to follow the instructions that the squash had written on it. This meant preheating the oven to 350 degrees F, then pulling out the big knife to persuade the squash to freaking be cut in half already. 

Once the splitting open was accomplished (the squash, not me), I was mildly surprised to find its innards looked and smelled exactly like the pumpkins that I had carved for Halloween. I wondered briefly if I baked the acorn squash seeds and salted them would they taste as good as pumpkin seeds, but decided against that and instead scooped them into the trash. 

The sticker on the squash instructed me to assemble brown sugar, pecans, and butter (which I left out on the counter to soften while the squash baked). I didn't have pecans, but I did have slivered almonds and walnut baking pieces. I decided on the walnuts because they are closer to pecans than almonds are, and should soften up nicely in the brown sugar and butter goo. 

Placing the two squash halves into a large baking dish shell-side out, I poured in a little water and put the squash int he oven. 45 minutes later, it was finished and I flipped the squash halves over then dabbed butter, brown sugar, and a sprinkle of walnut pieces into the hollow cavities. I waited for them to cool a bit before scooping some into a bowl and mixing it all together. 

The flavor was delicious!! I totally understand why acorn squash is often used as a main dish of Thanksgiving gatherings. The squash was so naturally sweet that it probably didn't need the help of the brown sugar, but melted butter over warm squash to me is absolutely mouthwatering. The walnuts served to enhance the innate nuttiness of the squash, added some texture and protein. 

I believe squash has just made its way into my Thanksgiving feast as a staple, and I will definitely be baking squash again in the future. I am anxious to see what else I can do with it, and also to try the other varieties out there. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme (Gluten Free Corn Stuffing)

Continuing with the Thanksgiving theme, I thought I would next turn my attention to gluten free stuffing. Since I've already made gluten free paczki, I figure gluten free stuffing has got to be a snap!

First, I went to Trader Joe's and checked their cornbread stuffing mix. Sadly, premade cornbread stuffing is chock full of gluten. I didn't think it would be that easy, but I at least had to give it a try. Next, I went to the internet where there are a large number of gluten free recipes.

The easiest thing seems to be to simply use gluten free bread, like the blocky brown rice bread I often see as the gluten free offerings at many grocery stores. Not awful, but not awesome, at least in my opinion. (I haven't tried, but I'm fairly sure I could hammer a nail into the wall with one of those things.) Still, this isn't a bad way to go. Just cut up the bread into bite size pieces, add some chopped celery and onions, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, or just follow a recipe like this one here at Serious Eats.

My absolute favorite kind of stuffing, though, is cornbread stuffing. And corn is naturally gluten free! That is where this recipe comes in. Though honestly, there are a number of items that I would leave out, like any and all nuts, and I am really not sure about the hard boiled eggs. Still, it's simple, and most importantly corn stuffing-- I mean gluten free. (Gluten free corn stuffing.)

Stuffing is another thing that is easily made vegan, and happily so. The first time I ever had sausage in stuffing was during a tasting at work, and it was so disgusting that I had to spit it out. Let me tell you, I was one sad panda. I love stuffing! How could anything make it so terrible? But I am assured that sausage is a popular additive, and I respect other people's tastes even when I do not share them. If that is your thing, and you are trying to go vegan or just vegetarian, there are plenty of usable soy-based sausages out there.

I don't believe in soy-based fake meat, however, so I am now wondering how Trader Joe's potato-based masala veggie burgers would work in a vegetarian stuffing in place of sausage. It'd probably be pretty tasty! One of these days, I may have to give it a try just for the sake of curiosity, but for now, I am perfectly happy with my gluten free corn stuffing. Yum! 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Side Adventure


I plan to devote November's blog updates to alternative Thanksgiving dinner dishes, but I had to take a quick break before fully diving in and tell everyone about this fabulous restaurant that Kimmy and I stumbled upon called Pilar's Tamales on Liberty at Stadium. The place is tiny, but uncluttered, with fun festive colors and an El Salvadoran flag on the wall. Plus the staff couldn't be friendlier!

The menu is simple, decently priced, and packed with delicious options. Kimmy ordered the special #2 which was comprised of one pupusa, curtido, casamiento, and fried plantains. I also got the curtido because I ordered two chicken pupusas and refreshing hibiscus iced tea to drink. Included with her meal, Kimmy got horchata. Both lunches were around $10 each.

Okay, here is a breakdown of what all those words mean for those who, like me until relatively recently, are not familiar with Salvadoran food.
  • Pupusa: thick, handmade tortillas filled with cheese and occasionally meat and/or refried beans
  • Curtido: fermented cabbage slaw in vinegar traditionally served with pupusas
  • Casamiento: fried rice and beans

Horchata takes a little more in-depth explanation. It is a beverage with dozens of variations in many cultures all over the world, but I am going to deal specifically with Mexico, since that is the region Kimmy is used to, and El Salvador. In Mexico, horchata is basically rice milk with cinnamon and occasionally vanilla. In El Salvador, it is primarily made not from rice, but morro seeds. “Other common ingredients include ground cocoa, cinnamon, sesame seeds, nutmeg, tigernuts and vanilla. Other nuts that may also be used include peanuts, almonds and cashews. Because of these ingredients, the horchata is usually strained before serving” (Wikipedia).

If you've never tried Salvadoran cuisine, or are homesick for SoCal, and are in the Ann Arbor area, I highly suggest a trip to Pilar's Tamales on Liberty. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dairy Free Green Bean Casserole

I can't believe it's November already! In a job like mine, that means one thing: Thanksgiving. Since I haven't made anything new lately, I thought that I would kick off the season with a recipe I did two Thanksgivings ago.

One of the guest's at my Thanksgiving dinner was lactose intolerant, so I decided to see if I could make a green bean casserole milk free. The usual way of making green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup would not work, so I had to search harder for a new recipe. I found it on the Food Network's website, Alton Brown's Best Ever Green Bean Casserole.

If you read the ingredient list, you will see that it calls for half and half. Obviously, this wouldn't do, but I knew that Trader Joe's sold a dairy free soy creamer, so I picked some up, gathered my ingredients together, and dove right in.

Making green bean casserole from scratch is really not as complicated as it may seem. I did cheat a little by skipping the French onions from scratch, using pre-made canned onions instead, but the point was not to make green bean casserole from scratch, but to make it dairy free, which the canned onions were. I also used a butter substitute rather than actual butter.

As I said, this process was really very simple, and didn't take much time at all. (Not nearly what I feared it might, anyway.) The resulting casserole was heavy on the mushrooms, which I found wonderful! But I am a huge fan of mushrooms, so if you don't like mushrooms, maybe green bean casserole from scratch is not for you.

But! If you ever need to make a dairy free or vegan green bean casserole, this is totally the recipe for you. Just substitute vegetable broth for chicken, and it's as vegan as you please.  

Monday, October 31, 2011

Pumpkin Cookies and Cyber-seeds

Long ago, I remember making sugar cookies from Bisquick. I don't have Bisquick now, but I did have Trader Joe's pumpkin pancake and waffle mix which is kind of like Bisquick, but pumpkin flavored. So I decided to give it a go and looked up Bisquick sugar cookie recipes online. 

I chose this one to follow, but substituted butter for shortening because I don't believe in using shortening so never keep it around. I also used half & half instead of milk because I need to use it up before it goes bad. Of course, I used the pumpkin mix rather than Bisquick, and I left out the nuts because that sounds disgusting to me. I didn't have time to chill the dough, so I also ended up adding an additional 1.5 to 2 cups of flour at the very end to thicken it up. I don't think this affected the flavor at all, though it did lighten the orange tint to the dough a bit. 

The bones of the skull and crossbones didn't want to come out, so I ended up making a lot more cauldrons and beakers/turkey legs than skulls. The first batch ended up a little burned because the recipe's recommendation on baking time was about 3 times too long. I decided I'll just save those cookies for my grandfather when I see him next week. This is what my mother and I always did when I was little because my grandfather prefers his food to be burned (unless it's beef, in which case he likes it still mooing). We speculate this is because his mother had a woodburning stove and blackened everything, thus he was raised on well-done food. 

While the cookies were cooling, waiting to be decorated, I separated out the pumpkin seeds from the pumpkin mush of the Cyberkin that I had carved for the jack-o-lantern contest at work. (I had wanted to do something geeky, but a dalek pumpkin seemed too complicated in the few hours I had to carve it, and I rather prefer cybermen anyway, so I made a cyberman pumpkin instead. For the non-geek, both daleks and cybermen are from the BBC series Doctor Who.) 

I usually prefer to let my pumpkin seeds dry overnight, or at least give them a few hours, but again, I was short on time, so I laid them out on paper towels to soak up as much moisture as possible after washing off the remaining pumpkin guts. Then I spread them out on the cleaned cookie sheet, set the oven to 350 degrees, sprinkled salt over the cyberkin seeds and put them in to bake for a little over 10 minutes. My oven is not the greatest, so the seeds on the outside turned brown and crispy and the inner seeds stayed a little on the mushy side. Still a pretty tasty snack, though, and packed with protein

I hope everyone has a glorious Halloween! Happy haunting from CK and the Cyberkin!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Dinner's Ready!

Since I haven't been feeling very well, my appetite has been almost nil, and I am still not doing a lot of cooking. There is an acorn sitting on my counter (still) that I don't think is ripe yet, but it's hard to tell.

Friday was my day off, so after getting cider and donuts, picking out two pumpkins to carve on Sunday, and a bit of shopping, Kimmy and I returned home, put on my VHS of Legend and she made baked lemon pepper chicken strips while I made Zatarain's red beans and rice. We decided we needed an actual vegetable instead of just a starchy side dish, so I also microwaved some broccoli sprinkled with garlic salt. And then I thought I might add some shredded cheddar cheese for extra flavor.

I was pretty happy with this meal when Kimmy made a brilliant suggestion: sprinkle cheddar cheese on the red beans and rice. She also put cheese on her lemon pepper chicken, but I decided to leave that dish uncheesed.

Since Legend was over at that point, we next turned on Labyrinth while we feasted. And for dessert, we had Valu Time fudge swirl vanilla ice cream – I'm sorry, I mean “frozen dairy dessert” – which we bought earlier at Meijer for $1.99. It tasted like those little individual ice cream cups we got as ids at various school functions.

I also had some sweetened condensed milk in a squeeze bottle that I bought from Trader Joe's. When I was in Japan, I often had ice cream sundaes and parfaits with sweetened condensed milk drizzled over-top, and it was delicious! I've only ever seen it in little cans before, which is mostly useless since all recipes I've ever used that called for sweetened condensed milk only asked for a few tablespoons. So not only can I use this on ice cream (probably its main purpose), but should I come across (or seek out) recipes that require condensed milk, I'll have just the right amount!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mix It Up

Candy apple red!
As I said before, Thursday last was my birthday, and one of my presents was a shiny new Kitchen Aid 9 speed digital mixer from my generous friend Robin! It has 4 attachments for mixing, kneading, and whisking purposes, and a little bag in which to keep them all together. Ohh yeeaah!

Robin is somewhat infamous for her baking, including her yearly pumpkin bread that she sends out every year around Thanksgiving. (And I am always thankful for pumpkin bread.) One day, I may try my hand at making pumpkin bread from scratch myself, but for now I will make do with the boxed mix that finds its way to the shelves at Trader Joe's every autumn. It isn't as good as Robin's, but it's still pretty darn tasty, and I happened to have had a box in my cupboard when I unwrapped my birthday present.

Thus, waking up on Sunday morning, exhausted from my busy weekend, was a little like Christmas. I had already unwrapped the present and gleefully taken all of the items out of the box, but on Sunday I got to use it.

What I like about the box mixes from Trader Joe's is that they are super easy, requiring only a few simple ingredients (and also not filled with chemicals that I can't identify). After blending it all together with the mixer, I was delighted to find the runny batter was smooth, free of lumps, and I could just tell these muffins were going to bake up so much fluffier than they had when I beat the ingredients together with a spoon. I was not disappointed.

While they were baking, Kimmy kept an eye on them and I ran out to the store to pick up some frosting. I had wanted to get a cream cheese frosting and some tubes of colored frosting to decorate the muffins with, but I had trouble finding what I wanted, and I was very limited on funds. I ended up picking up just one tub of vanilla frosting, spooning some into a plastic baggy with a tiny bit of the corner snipped off, and doodling on the muffins. I made jack-o-lantern faces, ghosts, a bat, and attempted to make a werewolf that looked somewhat ambiguous in its animal features.

They were all pretty delicious. I am now wondering if I can use this pumpkin bread mix to make pumpkin whoopie pies. It never hurts to try! (Or it hasn't yet.)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Meat on a Spit

Thursday the 20th was my birthday, and I didn't do a bit of cooking. To give myself a break and to indulge in a recurring craving, I headed over to Haifa Falafel on Washtenaw east of M-23 and spent some birthday money on a chicken shawarma and french fries. I also got a can of pop called Sun Drop, which I am unfamiliar with, but the can informed me was bottled by Dr Pepper, one of my favorite beverages (Japan suffers severely from the unavailability of Dr Pepper), so I figured it was worth a try. And it turned out to be delicious! But back to the shawarma.

I was first introduced to shawarma via Shawarma King near Western Michigan University's campus in Kalamazoo, MI. (I highly recommend the lentil soup. My mouth waters at the memory.) California is sadly lacking in shawarma, but the east side of Michigan is swimming in it! And I greatly rejoice in its easy access. Haifa Falafel was recommended to me by a friend shortly after I moved to Ann Arbor, and I was not disappointed. It has become my local go-to restaurant for this simple yet amazing Middle Eastern fast food. 

Shawarma is very similar to another of my favorite foods that I sorely missed while living in California: gyros (pronounced "yeer-ohs" in case you aren't familiar). They are both made with special rotisserie meat that is shaved, then wrapped in a flat bread with vegetables and special sauces. In Germany, they are called döners, and I ate an awful lot of them while I was there. All of these words - shawarma, gyro, döner - are variations on words in different languages that all mean "turn," a reference to the way the meat is roasted on a rotating spit, and each has specific sauces unique to their originating cultures. They are also all tasty as hell!

Mediterranean food is definitely dueling with Japanese as my favorite cuisine. If you ever have a chance to try a shawarma or a gyros, I doubt you will be anything short of in love.

Monday, October 17, 2011

One of the Most Horrible Things I Can Imagine

A customer came in tonight and bought three packages of bacon ends and pieces. When asked what she was going to do with them, she answered that she was making bacon jelly, which she further stated she intended to spread on hamburgers. (A manager also suggested spreading it on grilled cheese sandwiches.) I was, well, horrified. Bacon jelly!? We speculated later that it must be similar in preparation to the pepper jelly that we sell. Simmer the bacon pieces down to a fatty goo, then make jelly out of it, I suppose. 

After a good amount of searching on the internet, I came across a blog post about bacon jam, which is close, but not quite the same thing as jelly. The primary difference between the two is that jam is made from the whole of the edible bits of usually fruit, but I guess in this case, the entire slice of bacon. Jelly is made from the juice, or greasy fat juice from cooing down the bacon. I cannot find a recipe for bacon jelly, only bacon jam. Perhaps the customer meant jam and not jelly, or she is knowledgeable enough about jellies or has a recipe that has yet to find its way onto the internet. 

I guess I can see the appeal of a bacon spread for a cheeseburger or hamburger, but other than that, I am somewhat horrified by the thought. I think I prefer my bacon whole and unsugared. Also in turkey form as I have trouble eating pig products. 

I realize this wasn't me making anything, but this is a food and word blog, so I am allowed to just write about random things that come my way as well. If anyone has a bacon jelly recipe, please post it in the comments. I am intensely curious how this works.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Revenge of the Soup

I recently discovered the tomato and roasted red pepper soup at Trader Joe's. I don't usually go for peppers, even roasted red peppers, but not only is this soup delicious, but it is incredibly versatile. As this is soup season, I thought I would further share some of my discoveries.

Since this is at heart a tomato soup, it can, of course, be enjoyed alone or with simple garnishes such as a dollop of sour cream or shredded cheddar or Parmesan cheese. To lend some heartiness, a can of corn is quite tasty, or a cup or two of mixed vegetables.

Tortellini is also a wonderful addition! If you cook the tortellini in the soup rather than add it before serving, it ends up with a consistency much like Chef Boyardee, but tastier and probably healthier if you use fresh tortellini without preservatives and such. Ravioli, or any stuffed pasta, would also work well.

I heard that a coworker uses this soup as a base for sauces, adding a can of tomato paste as a thickener. It never would have occurred to me to use a soup like this to make my own pasta sauce, but in the future, I may have to give it a try. The roasted red pepper gives it a natural sweetness and cuts down on some of the acidity I find in the tomatoes.

I think meatballs would be great, too. Perhaps a big crock pot of meatballs simmering in tomato and roasted red pepper soup for a Halloween party or Thanksgiving. Oh, the endless soupy possibilities!

Monday, October 10, 2011

More Rogue Cookery

At this point I am pretty sure that I can make food out of the most disparate ingredients hanging around a kitchen. Recently, I took a trip to my mother's house in Kalamazoo, which took about an hour and forty minutes due to traffic, and by the time I arrived, I was hungry. 

If there is one thing I can always count on finding in my mother's kitchen, it is pasta! Lasagna, spaghetti, fettuccine, penne, macaroni, and egg noodles were all present. I picked fettuccine. Sure, there was half a jar of pasta sauce in the fridge, but there was also mayonnaise and an open bag of frozen peas in the freezer. I found a can of tuna in the cupboard, but decided against it. I also left the unopened bag of frozen corn alone, since that would just be so much more starch.
I learned from reading the bag of peas that peas are high in vitamin C. Wha? The internet confirmed it. Peas are also high in fiber, iron, and a dozen other nutrients. Sweet! (They're that, too.) So I tossed the frozen peas into the pot of water, then added fettuccine when the water finally started to boil. (What do you know, a stove that takes longer than mine!) 

To the completed pasta, I added a scoop of mayonnaise for both flavor and as some moisture. But wait! You may be saying. Isn't mayonnaise really bad for you? Not really, no. For one, it's not chemical soup that is going to make your insides rot and lead to an early death. Second, it's a good source of vitamin E, which has been linked to a lower risk of stroke.

After that was all stirred together, I drown it all in a grated Parm-Romano blizzard for deliciousness and some added protein. The cheese melted once it was mixed into the warm pasta, and the mayo helped keep it from clumping.

And there you have it, another thrown together dish that was yummy, short on ingredients, and easy!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Brussels Sprouts... with Cheese!

I discovered a few years ago while living in California that I actually like Brussels sprouts! When smothered in cheese. Otherwise, I find them actually a bit too peppery for my taste. Still, I generally like them, and sometimes buy a pound to keep in the freezer.

Brussels sprouts are a member of the cabbage family that date back possibly as far as ancient Rome. They contain high amounts of vitamins A and C, folic acid, and fiber. At this time of year, yay for vitamin C! Brussels sprouts also fight cancer, and I am always about that battle.

For whatever reason, my body has been craving vegetables lately, so I decided when I got home from work the other night that I would finally cook up that frozen bag of sprouts that had been hanging around for more than a couple of months. (Right next to the spinach.) 


I found a few recipes online for Brussels sprouts in cheese sauce, some I could have even cooked with what I had on hand, but each required nearly an hour of cooking, which my tummy was not willing to wait for. So I decided to throw the whole one pound bag of frozen whole sprouts into a large frying pan with some olive oil and let them thaw/cook. When they were about halfway done, I sprinkled on garlic powder, salt, and a little bit of black pepper, then let them finish cooking. Turning off the burner, I took three squares of sliced Muenster cheese - my favorite! - and lay them over the sprouts in the pan. Once the cheese was melted, I stirred it all together so the sprouts were thoroughly covered, then scooped them into a bowl and chowed down. 

I think the sprouts cooked for a hair too long as they were just a bit too soft, but this is the first time I've cooked them in a pan (I usually steam them in the microwave), and I wasn't quite sure how to tell they were finished. Well, other than repeated poking, which is more or less what I did. 

Hopefully I can make Brussels sprouts in cheese sauce sometime, but it will probably have to wait a while. So many recipes to conquer! And there's an acorn squash sitting on my counter that is asking to be next.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Garlicky Spinach with Almonds and Polenta

My roommate Kimmy has recently had an interest in Brazilian food, which I did back in March. I don't have the money to do a full grocery shopping trip yet, so I am still in the process of using what I find in my kitchen, which includes a pound of frozen spinach. This brought to mind the garlicky collard greens that I made, so I thought that I would make a variation of that. 

First I set 2 tablespoons of butter to melt in the large skillet with some olive oil drizzled around it, because butter and olive oil is freaking delicious. Then I added a generous sprinkling of garlic powder, followed by the remainder of my dried onion pieces, and splashes of salt and pepper. After the onion bits browned, I added a handful or so of slivered almonds that I totally forgot that I had!

Apparently slivered almonds brown quickly when simmered in butter and olive oil, and they sadly became a little too done. But everything mixed together with the spinach (and let to simmer more while the spinach thawed and cooked) was otherwise quite lovely. If/when I make this again, I'll have to keep a closer eye on everything as it cooks. Fresh spinach would probably also be a better choice since frozen spinach tends to turn out on the mushy side.

A few weeks ago, I bought a thing of polenta on sale at World Market because it was super cheap and I had never had polenta before (that I could think of). I didn't want to get too fancy with it for my first try, so I ended up slicing it and frying it in olive oil to go with the spinach and almonds mixture. Ended up being a llittle bland, but not too bad.

Not the best lunch I've ever had, but I did succeed in using the odds and ends of my kitchen once again to make two interesting dishes. I think the polenta would be a wonderful ingredient in a dessert, and intend to look that up later. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Homemade Soup

I decided to continue with my investigation into the Maya by playing a PBS special on Netflix called “Cracking the Maya Code.” And while that was loading, I poured two cups of water into a pot on the stove, added one packet of condensed chicken broth, a generous amount of garlic powder, and a few shakes of dried onion. (Of course, this is easily made vegetarian by omitting the chicken broth.)

Letting that simmer on the stove on medium for a few minutes filled my kitchen with the beautiful aromas of garlic and onion. Bliss! Next, I went through my surprisingly well-stocked freezer for vegetables. Into the pot went a handful of frozen broccoli, then a fist or two of frozen mixed veggies (from Meijer, so no lima beans).

Mostly vegetables at this point, I returned to my Maya documentary and let the mixture continue to simmer on medium-high, hoping to saturate the water with tasty vegetable flavors in addition to the base of weak chicken broth. After a bit, I added a few splashes of salt, pepper, parsley flakes, and celery salt, then let it simmer longer. I also added a little more water – about ½ a cup – because the vegetables were taking up so much room in the pot.

I looked through my recipe book for a simple dumpling recipe, which I found and then decided not to make. I was just feeling too tired and was nearly ready for a nap. Curling up on the couch, watching the cracking of Mayan hieroglyphs, and sipping some veggie soup sounded like enough to me.

The flavor turned out to be rich and savory, despite such a simple makeup, and took only less than half an hour to make.

Incidentally, while I was enjoying my homemade soup, I learned of the beauty of the Mayan written language. Not only could a scribe express himself in words, but with many sounds being represented by a different glyph, he could also show off his artistic flair. Brilliant! It rather reminds me of calligraphy, or illuminated manuscripts. The writer in me dances with glee! I wonder if the internet has a Mayan alphabet tutorial I can immerse myself in... Maybe I will uncover some Mayan recipes for future blogs. I wonder if they made soup.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Gone Bananas

Many, many moons ago, I put three bananas into the freezer to one day be made into banana bread. Lately, my roommate Kimmy and I had been discussing banana bread, probably because the bananas in the freezer were not only black, but shriveling in on themselves. Since I've been feeling sick lately, unable to stay at work more than 6 hours at a time, I decided to take it easy and sleep as much as possible last weekend. But when I started to feel a little better, I put on a NatGeo documentary on the pre-classical Maya (what? I'm a nerd) and flipped through my recipe books for a banana bread recipe. Finding a very simple one requiring 7 ingredients that I happened to have on hand, I decided to push my energy and give it a go.

The first ingredient is a ½ cup of shortening, which I refuse to use because it's indigestible by the human body, so I substituted butter instead. I sat on the floor in front of the TV and creamed together the butter with one cup of sugar, then added two eggs, one at a time, then the three shriveled bananas (thawed in the fridge over night and squeezed from their gushy peels) followed by dashes of baking soda and salt.

Once it was all thoroughly mixed together, I sprayed canola into a glass bread pan and poured in the gooey mixture. Before popping it into the oven for 35 minutes on 350 degrees F, I sprinkled some brown sugar over-top. I considered also shaking on some walnut pieces that I've had in my cupboard for about a year, but I decided against it because I don't much care for nuts in my baked goods. (Yes, I realize that sounds like a metaphor. One I may have to use in a story some day.)

I am very pleased that I was able to make yet another tasty item from the odds and ends of my kitchen. (And to learn that the pre-classical Mayan civilization, often historically thought to be a myth, was likely brought down by deforestation.) I haven't gone grocery shopping for quite some time now in order to force myself to seek out the things lost to memory and hiding in the dark corners of my cupboards. Or on the shelves in plain sight. Whatever. I think next I shall make soup. It's the only thing that's been sounding good lately. And, as they say, tis the season!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Behind Chinese Take-out in America

Inspired by my two recent blogs, I Say Tomato and ...Awesome Chinese Food, and having been told all of my life that what we eat here is totally not what they eat there, I decided to investigate Chinese food in America. 

It turns out that a lot of what we generally think of as Chinese cuisine is based on Southern, or Cantonese, cooking. Chunks of meat and vegetables, rich sauces, fried rice, even dim sum come to us from this region of China where stir frying is quite popular. However, being in a foreign region with different ingredients available (fresh is key, here), some substitutions are made. Broccoli, carrots, and layered onions are not native to Chinese cuisine. In China, they use so-called Chinese broccoli, a leafy cousin of Western broccoli that has a more bitter flavor, daikon, a large radish, and green onions, respectively.

The northern, colder, drier regions of China (including Beijing), where wheat is the staple rather than rice, give us the familiar wheat noodles, "pancakes," and dumplings. Lots of onion, garlic, soy sauce, and oyster sauce (which I need to add back to my repertoire). 

The eastern, or Shanghai, region of China uses both rice and wheat and a lot of seafood due to its proximity to the ocean. They also grow sugar in this region, so the food is often sweeter than elsewhere and includes pastries that I desperately want to try now. 

The new popular trend in American Chinese restaurants is Szechuan, the western region of China, which offers up some heavy spices introduced to China via the Silk Road from India. I immediately think of Szechuan chicken, which I cannot eat, and which the internet tells me is not nearly as spicy as it would be in its native home. 

While reading through Wikipedia's entry on American Chinese cuisine, I found a quote from a Chinese restaurant owner in Massachusetts that Chinese food in America is "dumbed-down" for the blander American palette, and does not constitute a cuisine all on its own. He also says, "American Chinese restaurants typically try to have food representing 3-5 regions of China at one time, have chop suey, or have 'fried vegetables and some protein in a thick sauce,' 'eight different sweet and sour dishes,' or 'a whole page of 20 different chow meins or fried rice dishes.'"

I feel better educated going into a Chinese restaurant in America now. Hopefully knowing the basics of the four main regions of Chinese cuisine will help me make tastier choices. (Szechuan is right out.) 

For further quick reading, check out Four Regions of Chinese Cuisine and Chinese Regional Cooking Styles.