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.