Thursday, July 28, 2011

Italian Ranch Chicken

Looking through my recipe collections a few weeks ago, I found a few old favorites and some that I never got around to trying out. I made a shopping list and picked up ingredients for both. The first new recipe that I decided to try was Oven Ranch Chicken. I honestly don't remember where I found this recipe, but after searching for it online, I found the above linked, so I am guessing I copied it down from the back of a bread crumb box (though not the one pictured here; that has another recipe on it). 

The two major substitutions I made (who follows recipes to the letter these days?) were dark meat for chicken breasts because we used the bag of chicken breasts up before I got around to making this recipe, and Italian bread crumbs for regular breadcrumbs, which I feel was a most excellent replacement with just enough added flavor so as to not ruin the yummy ranchness of the ranch dressing packet. Also, unlike the one that I linked to, my recipe didn't call for buttermilk ranch, which I don't much care for anyway, nor did I use light sour cream because it uses sugar to replace the fat, a huge health no-no. 

Other than my MO substitutions, this recipe went off without a hitch. I thawed the chicken in the microwave, rendering it more malleable for smothering in sour cream and then seasoning mix, and baked it for 35 minutes, which was probably a little too much, actually, though these pieces of chicken were a bit thinner than the chicken breasts were, which may explain the lesser time required.

Since I had the day off, I decided to start this meal with a small romaine lettuce salad drizzled in garlic flavored olive oil with some shredded cheddar cheese sprinkled over top, and accompanied the chicken main dish with some creamed carrots that I made from scratch with canned sliced carrots. I also cut some of the butter with that fabulous garlic olive oil, though I couldn't taste it in the finished product. (That isn't saying much. It takes a lot of garlic for me to be able to really taste it.) Ooh, also, also I used freshly dried parsley from my own parsley plant, step one in my attempt at having a baby herb garden.

Though the chicken did taste a bit salty, I didn't mind as it made up for the surprisingly bland (this time) carrots. It isn't often I get the chance to make a complete meal from scratch, and this one was extremely satisfying! 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Match Made in Heaven

Recently, a new product appeared on the shelf of the local Trader Joe's: 100% Spanish Organic Extra Virgin Garlic Flavored Olive Oil. Amazing does not begin to cover the rich, earthy flavor of this heaven-sent oil. If you are used to cooking with Italian olive oil, or even Greek, this Spanish variety may taste a little funny to you, but I emphatically state that it is worth the try!

I first tasted this olive oil drizzled over a turkey club wrap that was sadly lacking much flavor on its own. Perked it way up! Then I decided to make another batch of my Greek summer salad using this olive oil as the dressing along with dry feta rather than feta already swimming in oil (it was cheaper and, I think, tastier). 

For my next trick, I decided to saute some sliced endives (that I had forgotten about while on vacation) in the garlic olive oil. I sprinkled on a little salt and pepper and magnifique! I would have preferred to use endives, onions, mushrooms, and peas, but I was feeling a little lazy.

Not only do I intend to use this as a replacement for regular olive oil in pretty much every recipe I can come up with, it is encouraging me to use olive oil in ways I never would before, such as the above mentioned drizzle on a turkey wrap, or as dressing on a salad (normally, I only go with ranch). 

There are many brands that offer this blend out there, but Trader Joe's is the cheapest I've found, and is also unique because it is Spanish olive oil, giving it an earthier flavor. I imagine Whole Foods would also carry one, or even your local farmers market. If you like garlic and you like olive oil, do yourself a favor and give this beauty a try!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Eggplant Con Queso Round 2

I haven't made this recipe for this blog, but I have made it before, and this time around, I tried to make some improvements. Here is the recipe as it is written:

1 eggplant peeled and diced 
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup diced toasted bread
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning

For starters, I never peel my eggplant. There are far too many nutrients that I just don't want to throw away with the peel. 

When I made this dish the first time, I really did make toast and then dice it, which turned out to be a mistake in my (and my roommate at the time's) opinion. The bread ended up soggy from the water in the eggplant that escaped during the baking process. This time, I decided to try Italian bread crumbs because I still have so darn many of them! I think that this wasn't a terrible move, but I should have scaled back on the amount. Maybe half a cup instead of one.

The recipe calls for the eggplant to be layered with the cheese and bread, then the remaining three ingredients are stirred together and spread on top followed by another layer of cheese before baking for 30 minutes at 300 degrees. In both my attempts at this dish, they were more dollops that would not be spread, and this latest try, I ended up doubling the amount of sour cream and seasoning in my attempt to create an all-covering layer. I still ended up with dry patches that were strange in the mouth with crusty bread crumb bits. 

I think I discovered a solution when re-heating leftovers in the microwave. Rather than layer all the ingredients, mix them together in a giant bowl so that everything is coated in the sour cream mixture evenly. Then spread it out in a baking dish, perhaps sprinkle on some breads crumbs and cheese, and bake. 

I really like this dish and I would like to make it again sometime. I might use store-bought croutons next time and see if that works any better than the diced toast, though I think the bread crumbs will be fine if I just use a smaller amount and ignore the whole layering business. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

All Hail the Mighty Kale

According to Wikipedia, "kale is considered to be the most nutritious vegetable in the world." It is also pretty easy to grow, and was a popular plant to cultivate in little box gardens when I lived in San Francisco. (It thrived on our patio despite my roommates' best efforts to the contrary.) Even so, I don't believe I had ever actually tried kale until a wine tasting at work during which we were served kale chips. 

"Kale chips?" I thought. "Who on earth thinks of these things?" The same people who thought to dry seaweed and wrap it around rice, I suppose, as kale chips are quite similar in taste and texture to dried strips of nori

The first step to making kale chips is getting yourself some kale. Some grocery stores sell it in bags much like pre-cut lettuce for salads, but if you buy it from the farmers market like I did, or pick it from your own garden, you will need to rinse and chop the leaves yourself. (Not hard.) 

Once you have the chopped kale all together in a large mixing bowl, drizzle on enough olive oil to coat the leaves, but do not saturate them. Then sprinkle on some salt, toss, sprinkle on a little more salt (salt to taste), and toss again. 

Next comes the tricky part: baking. Spread the kale thinly on a cookie sheet. Thinly is the key here. If the leaves are too bunched together, they won't crisp. Do bear in mind, though, that the kale will shrink some as it loses moisture. Bake at 350 degrees for between 10 and 15 minutes. The edges should be slightly brown. 

Another word of warning. When I made these, they were crispy and delicious fresh from the oven and for some time after. Once I put them in Tupperware and transported them to another location, however, they turned soggy and were slightly less tasty. If you make kale chips, I suggest baking them at the location where you intend to consume them.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tea Time

A new trend has been sweeping America, and I, for one, am all for it: tea. When I lived in San Francisco, one of my brief roommate's had a girlfriend who worked for Teavana, and for Christmas that first year, she got us a bag FULL of different loos leaf teas. It remains one of the best presents I've received in my adult life. So delicious... Each bag included instructions for how best to brew it and how long to let the tea sit in the water for maximum tastiness, something I had never encountered before. So educational...

Move over, coffee houses, and make room for the tea shops! Strangely, despite living in the Bay Area for as long as I did, I never visited one of the many and varied tea shops in the City. My first trip to a tea shop was on my second date with my boyfriend when we met up at Goldfish Tea in Royal Oak, MI. I arrived first, and as I sat in the foyer to wait for Greg, I realized the music being piped over the store stereo system was awfully familiar... Wait, was that really Jonathan Coulton?? Yes, yes it was. And not only that, the girl behind the counter who took our order was wearing a Legend of Zelda Tshirt. Geeks, I love you! 

At Goldfish, they put the tea in the pot or cup for you, then hand you your order along with a timer. When the timer goes off, you remove the tea leaves, then drink the delicious brewed liquid. I ordered a lovely jasmine tea, one of my favorites because it is not only delicious but delightfully aromatic. I forget what Greg got, but I tried some and I remember liking it, too. The atmosphere is fantastic and beautiful if you enjoy Asian things like I completely do. In my opinion, it fell short of tacky, thank goodness, though it is a tad cluttered (which I also enjoyed, actually).

The second tea shop I've ever visited is called Tea Haus and is located in Kerry Town in Ann Arbor, just a few doors south of the Food Co-op. A few coworkers had been raving about it at work and insisted I had to go, so when Greg came to visit me on another of our early dates, I suggested Tea Haus, which turned out to be rather different from Goldfish. 

When we first walked in, I thought, "I don't feel dressed well enough for this place." It looks fancy, but the small staff is extremely friendly and helpful, and the menu is actually not expensive at all. Greg got the scone plate for around $5, and I ordered the English Quickie, a three course afternoon tea with your choice of three finger sandwiches, a scone with three different spreads, and a dessert of your choice, which rotate daily. I got earl grey creme brulee on that first visit as my dessert because DEAR GOD, IT'S EARL GREY CREME BRULEE. One of my well-loved teas and my absolute favorite dessert combined in one dish! <3 <3 <3 The lady who made it overheard me describing it to Greg and poked her head out of the kitchen (the place is not that large) and told me that she had just come up with that idea that morning and wanted to see if it would work. I answered that it worked beautifully, and we chatted for a bit, which I found delightful.

I went back to Tea Haus with Kimmy after our visit to the farmers market last week, and my friend Rachel joined us for a quick treat before she had to go into work. Kimmy and I ordered an English Quickie each and shared a pot of earl grey, and Rachel worked with the waiter to get some finger sandwiches of cream cheese and smoked salmon which I don't believe are strictly on the menu.

The way that Tea Haus serves its tea is different than Goldfish. Rather than hand you a timer, Tea Haus brews the tea in the kitchen and brings it out to you when it is done. I am honestly fine with either way. The timer seems a bit gimmicky to me, but I know that it's quite popular at many tea shops these days, perhaps to set them even further apart from coffee houses.

If you are in the Kalamazoo region, a "hidden gem in Portage" is ChocolaTea, located south of Schuring Rd on Westnedge Ave, which serves tea, chocolate, and coffee. I have not yet been, but my mother loved it, and the pictures online look beyond fabulous. The patio is built out over Portage Creek, so you may enjoy the passing water while sipping your beverage of choice.

If you know of any other tea shops in Michigan, let me know! I would be delighted to give them a try.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Market Day

Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
"Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy...

The above is the opening to Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti. I did not go to a goblin market, but I did finally have the chance to visit the Ann Arbor farmers market in Kerry Town for the first time since the warm weather has embraced us. (Though the market is open every Wednesday and Saturday year 'round, predictably there is not a lot offered in the middle of the winter.) 

There are so many things I love about farmers markets. They are always so bustling and full of every kind of thing: fresh fruit, vegetables, home-baked pies, fresh bread, handmade bags and jewelry, cut wild flowers, pickles, jams, friendly people, and great deals, just to name a few. My first purchase was a cherry fritter from a table selling all manner of breads, and Kimmy bought a loaf of sourdough. She also picked up a pint of black cherries, which were sweet and delicious!

We kept seeing people walking around with snow cones, so after I picked up two bunches of kale for $5, we set out to find the origins of the mouthwatering snow cones. We did not find them, but we did come across a cart selling lemon ice, which is almost as good in my book. I bought one made from Michigan cherries and Kimmy chose the raspberry (origin unknown) which was surprisingly sweet to me and full of flavor. The cherry ice was delightful and quite refreshing as the day was already growing hot.

After thoroughly wandering the market, we went inside to check out the Kerry Town Markets and Shops. I absolutely adore Hollander's with all their gorgeous paper products, and Spice Merchants is the best place in town to find every kind of spice. They also have teas!

While we were there, we learned of an art day that happens on Sundays. We will definitely have to check that out! Maybe one day we can have a booth at the farmers market selling our crocheted and knitted items, and possibly this art day as well. Huzzah for alternative methods of money-making.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Picnics With Friends

I have been living in Ann Arbor now for very nearly a year, and in all that time never once had a party at my place. That all changed last Monday, the fourth of July. At the suggestion of my adventurous friend Rachel, Kimmy and I decided to host a picnic party at our apartment, utilizing our spacious and lovely courtyard. It was a grand success!

Kimmy and I provided hamburgers, hot dogs (both turkey and non), pulled barbecue chicken for sandwiches, and some assorted beverages. Friends contributed delicious pasta salad, a fresh blueberry crumble, corn on the cob, an amazing cheesy artichoke dip with chips, crackers and cheese, cookies, and many other wonderful things. I'm going to highlight two things here because they were quite popular and I'm biased like that. And no I didn't make them.

One of the things I love most about my boyfriend is that he cooks. I used to live in a house with two guys whom I did most of the cooking for, and in another house in which two different guys did most of the cooking for me. I preferred the latter living situation. Don't get me wrong, I love to cook, as this blog can attest, but it's nice to trade off every now and again, and even better to share recipes and cooking tips.

For our fourth of July party, Greg made a key lime pie that impressed certain of my friends from work so much that they unanimously and separately agreed that he is a keeper and I need to keep him. (We also established that I do not love him for his money. But I digress.)

Greg also made Brazilian Lemonade, which is really more a limeade since it is made with limes because, according to this site, "Brazilian lemons look and taste more like common limes." The recipe he followed is located here, and is great for its visuals and casual voice. We lacked a blender, however, so Greg just hand squeezed all the limes into a pitcher. Everyone who was there from my work insisted I copy down the recipe and bring it in with me, which proved somewhat difficult after I discovered his print-out half-dissolved on my kitchen counter. So I'm posting it here! Hey! 

Since the lemonade-sans-lemons only called for half a can of sweetened condensed milk, Greg left me with the remainder which I later poured over blue moon ice cream. It was delicious. When I was in Japan, probably every ice cream parfait that I consumed included sweetened condensed milk. When I asked why this particular topping, I was told "because it's American." Okay... Sure... We also regularly pile steamed kernels of corn and sliced cooked carrots over-top our bun-less hamburger patties. (Seriously, if you are ever in Japan, stop at the nearest Big Boy restaurant and order the Big Boy. You will see that this is truly what they believe we eat.)

Even if the origins of drizzling sweetened condensed milk over ice cream and shaved ice is obscure, the practice is delightful and surprisingly incredibly tasty. I recommend it! In fact, I still have much of the can left in my fridge and I am without ice cream. I think a trip to Meijer is in order! Huzzah!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

America's Pastime: Casseroles

Casseroles are amazing things. Take a bunch of stuff, dump it in a pan, then bake it for 30-45 minutes on 350 degrees. A balanced meal in one steaming package. Brilliant! The really handy things about casseroles is I can make one on my day off, then have meals for the rest of the week. And since my hours have gone way up at work, having food at the ready is especially useful. 

At the request of my roommate, I returned to an old recipe that my mother gave to me, almond chicken casserole. I made this once when Kimmy and I were living together in Azusa, CA and she has never forgotten it. The requirements are as follows:

2 cups uncooked long grain rice
1/2 T butter
4 T chopped onion
2 cups diced celery
3 cups cooked chopped chicken
1 cup mayonnaise
1 can cream of chicken soup
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1 cup bread crumbs
2 T butter

I thought this would be something quick and easy to make before heading into a late work shift. I was mistaken. I realized rather quickly that not only did I need to coo the rice, but also the chicken. I also needed 2 cups of rice, and the instructions on the bag were for 1 cup. I had chosen brown basmati because it is the one brown rice that I actually enjoy, but I am less certain of how to cook brown rice. So rather than try doubling the amount of rice and water (my old rice cooker taught me that this is not always possible, especially with the more cantankerous brown variety), I cooked one cup of rice in two pots. 

While that was simmering away, I thawed the chicken in the microwave, cubed it, and cooked it in my little frying pan in batches since there was so much and my stove was already half taken up by rice. Not a huge problem doing all of this together, but time and space consuming. 

The only thing I really substituted was a can of cream of mushroom soup for cream of chicken because I already had two cans of it sitting in my cupboard that my mother had given me countless months ago. It gave the casserole a different flavor, but not an unpleasant one in my opinion, and Kimmy - not a mushroom lover like myself - enjoyed it just the same.

I also used Italian bread crumbs because that is what I had on hand. It also added a different flavor - a delicious flavor. I think this tasty trend will be continuing since the almond chicken casserole fed us for truly most of the week. (And before that it was a tuna noodle casserole made by Kimmy.) 

I guess casserole is my new theme?