Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Very Casual New Year's Eve Plan

Holiday Party '09
One of my girlfriend's called me up a few weeks ago to stress the importance of getting together for New Year's Eve. Now, my schedule for the past and future months is somewhat up-in-the-air due to several factors beyond my control. My husband and I were itching to throw a holiday party, but have been unable to commit. So when my friend called, she had a very specific plan in mind that could take place anywhere really. It was something along the lines of "Can we just hang out and wear sweat pants or whatever?". Then she offered to provide the Carrie Bradshaw-esque Cup O'Noodles for sustenance. And how could I refuse?

My friend Cathy's NYE pants

At first I worried she would be unable to tow the oodles of noodles to Brooklyn which would be required by the hungry masses willing to sweat-pant it out for NYE. But we soon discovered that many of our cohorts have made other commitments, such as: falling down on ice in a fancy dress, hanging out with fabulous new lovers, spectating 1/1/11 nuptuals, and watching snow fall with in Western Massachussetts.

We are now 2 days away from the big little event, and are expecting just a few guests. The prospect at having a party started the menu-planning wheels turning, which reminded me of last year's cooking extravaganza which served dinner for 30 promptly at 11:30 at night (4 hours late). So I promised myself to take it down a couple notches this year in order to socialize more.

Bruschetta and Squash Skewers at Bunny Chow on NYE '09
I've actually spent more time figuring out what to make for this party than any of the larger ones I've thrown. The thing is I have about 5 or so confirmed guests, some "maybe's", and a few passing through during the evening. Dinner for 6 or so is easy, but this isn't really dinner, it's New Year's - typically a snacky spread type holiday. With some help from Fresh Direct and my husband, I began to put together a limited-work-required menu - until I realized that every single dish was centered around a dairy product like cheese or sour cream! My husband fails to see the problem with this.

Baked Poppers (recipe HERE)
I tried to find a balance between "This is way too much, you outdid yourself!" and "Where's the Beef?". I did try to minimize on meat products (and absolutely NO evil nitrates allowed), hence the cheese products. I hope it's not too unhealthy - but c'mon it's the holidays! After re-working my grocery order time and time again, and making sure to include my husband's requests, here is what I've come up with:

Fat-Free Ranch Dip w/ Carrots, Green Beans and Potato Chips (mix from a box)
Eggplant Caponata with Pita Chips (both store-bought)
Baked Jalapeno Poppers w/ Fakin' Bacon (fresh made)
Crostini with Onion-Rosemary Marmalade & Goat Cheese (catered/reheat)
Baked Ravioli with San Marzano Tomato Sauce: 
     with and without Organic Chicken/Turkey Sweet Italian Sausage slices  
     (frozen ravioli / packaged sausage / fresh made sauce)
Chilled Pineapple-Mandarin Vanilla Pie (assembled from store-bought items)

...and possibly the appearance of additional baked goods, such as sour-cherry brownies or sugar cookies.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Top 10 Posts of 2010

2010 flew by before I knew it. This has been an insanely busy, but freedom intensive, year. I somehow found time to shop the green markets, concoct new dishes, and travel to Switzerland, France, UK, Germany and even China. I dove into the world of Gardein (meat-like vegetable proteins) head first, opening a whole new world of cuisine for my husband, and reducing my own meat consumption significantly. So much in fact, that I decided to participate in Vegan MoFo and write only about vegan foods all November.

There's definitely a demand for delicious healthy food, and I hope I've shared at least some inspiration here. All all of my top ranking posts were vegetarian related. These were the top 10:

Vegetable and Sausage Wrap

I only wish I had time to attend more fun food events like that BBQ festival and Giada demo. The Red Hook ball field vendors are still on my to-eat list, as well as the hip food trucks cruising the city (see which ones I've been stalking on Twitter). I'd love to take an informal cooking class or two just for fun, and get more involved with the local farms and City Winery events.

Hopefully those resolutions work out next year. In the meantime, I'm already dreaming up new topics for 2011. You'll see more quick and easy meals here, focus on "superfoods" you'll actually want to eat, and an organized recipe index.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Crispy Chik'n with Wild Mushroom Sauce

OK, I know I haven't been posting much lately, but c'mon -just today I had a quick holiday party at work, did 45 minutes at the gym and then came home to make dinner. It's now 9:30pm on a Monday, I'm tired, full, and I really need a cookie.

This post is about my latest Gardein Chik'n creation, which was awesome awesome (yes I meant to write that twice), but the real news is I GOT MY HUSBAND TO EAT BROCCOLI. And like it! The trick was using broccolini - the hybrid relative of the larger, thicker, more bitter variety. All I did was trim, blanch and then roast it with a little olive oil and seasoning salt. It tasted like a cross between broccoli and asparagus, but sweeter.

For the Chik'n I made a sauce from wild mushrooms, which we ate with my favorite Barilla Plus spaghetti. We still can't get on the wagon with whole wheat pasta, but I consider this the best compromise since it has Omega-3's.

Crispy Chik'n with Wild Mushroom Sauce
4 oz wild mushrooms (shiitake, cremini, oyster), sliced
1/4 C flour
2 T bread crumbs
dash of dried Oregano & Thyme
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 C yellow onion, diced (1/2 small onion)
1-2 T margarine (*omit or substitute w/ oil for vegan)
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1/3 C white wine
1 C Vegetable Stock
Salt & Pepper to taste

1. Combine flour, bread crumbs, oregano and thyme in a bowl and dredge each filet to coat.

2. Heat butter and oil in a skillet and sauté the filets over medium heat until browned on each side, and remove.

3. Add a bit more margarine if needed, and the garlic and onions. Cook 1 minute. 

4. Add mushrooms and a splash of the wine. Stir and cook about 5 minutes until softened.

5. Add the remaining wine and vegetable stock and cook about 2 minutes until it starts to thicken. Add salt & pepper if needed.

6. Nestle the filets onto the sauce, so the top stays crispy. Simmer another 2 or 3 minutes to heat them through.

7. Serve with pasta or noodles. Add red pepper flakes for heat if desired.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Seitan Tikka Masala

Tonight's experiment was using seitan in place of chicken in tikka masala. I found the recipe at Eating Well, and I stuck to it despite what seemed like massive amounts of onions, garlic and ginger.

The sauce turned out pretty good - our only complaint was that it should be blended together before adding the cream and protein, so it is not so chunky. As one reviewer had suggeted, I tried using fire roasted tomatoes, but I think it just made the flavor a bit more complex than it needed to be. I also had to substitute milk for cream, since I could not find any. I think vegan cashew cream would make this sauce really nice.

As for the seitan, it's certainly no replacement for chicken. Tofu might work ok, since it would soak up the sauce, but I'm not really a fan of eating piles of tofu. I think that potatoes would make the best vegetarian substitute for the chicken, so I guess that would be Aloo Tikka Masala.

The verdict? It's still easier to find a good tikka masala at a restaurant, at least here in NYC. I think I'm still jonesing for my favorite creamy tomato sauce, which means we have to head uptown to our old 'hood to get the paneer makhanwala from Bawarchi. It's the best - last we checked, they actually got a chef straight from India to do the cooking - so I don't have to feel at all guilty for my inability to recreate the dishes at home.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Effortless Vegan Butternut Squash Apple Soup

The main reason I don't make butternut squash soup more often is the prep work. I hate hacking it open, and peeling the stubborn skin around all the curves. And just when you think you're done, you have to peel apples too. Pre-cut squash is much more expensive, but saves a lot of time and frustration. And you know what else? The apples are basically turning into applesauce anyways, once boiled and puréed, so you might as well just cut to the chase and use pre-made applesauce too.

There are several ways to make butternut squash soup. You could do a sweeter soup with pumpkin-pie type spices. You could use garlic, ginger or curry spices for a more savory soup. But my favorite is just in between - a little bit savory and a litte tart-sweet from apples. It highlights the flavor of good squash better. Adding a bit of cream is also an option, but not necessary. I compromised this week by using up some vegan cashew-cream I had frozen long ago. It adds a nice creaminess, and protein, without the dairy fat.

Effortless Vegan Butternut Squash Apple Soup
*allow about 1 hour**approx. 6 servings*

5 Cups cut Butternut Squash (2 - 20oz packages)
Olive Oil, Salt, Pepper
*optional for non-vegan: 2T margarine (omit for vegan)
2 medium yellow onions, roughly chopped
4-6 Cups Vegetable Stock (Organic, comes in a box)
1 Cup plain Applesauce (2 "snack pack" containers)
3/4 Cup Cashew Cream (or 1/2 C heavy cream or whole milk)

If using cashew cream:
Add about 2 Cups of raw cashews to a container, and add cool water to just cover them. Soak several hours, preferably overnight, in the refrigerator. Puree in a blender until smooth and creamy like milk. Any extra can be reserved and used a few days later, or frozen for about a month or so.

1. Heat oven to 400F. 

2. Arrange squash chunks on a large baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Toss with your hands to coat. Season with salt & pepper and bake about 30 minutes until softened and starting to brown. Set aside when done.

3. In a large stockpot, heat 1T of olive oil (more if vegan) and 2T margarine. Sauté onions until translucent.
*The idea is that a little bit of fat enhances soup's flavor - so it is preferable to use margarine. I wouldn't use Earth Balance, it has a strange flavor that I'd hate to see overtake this soup.

4. Add squash and enough vegetable stock to cover it. Simmer, covered, 15 minutes, and remove from heat.

5. Using an immersion hand blender or regular blender, puree the soup until smooth. Stir in the applesauce and season with salt & pepper as needed. 

6. Return to low heat and add cashew cream. Cover to avoid getting splattered with eruptions - it happens fast! Serve when heated through.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Persimmon Pudding Cake with Sour Cherries, Chocolate and Pecans

Delicious, moist, loaded persimmon cake
Just because I haven't been posting, doesn't mean I haven't been trying. It's just that the results of my experiments lately have been less than note-worthy.

I must say, though, that the husband was glad to see vegan month end (even though he himself is vegetarian). He threw half a tub of Earth Balance in the trash and said he never wanted to see that oily disgusting flavored crap in our house again. He has a point. It really isn't that good. Dear food powers that be, please try again, as you have not yet succeeded in providing us proper vegan butter products.

The recent unwritten posts, in order of Olympic standing are as follows:
Pretty red quinoa. Just pretty, nothing more.
The Bronze medal, by default as there were only 3 contestants, was tonight's Butternut Squash Quinoa. I added roasted butternut squash, green beans, pine nuts, ginger, garlic, onion and lemon zest to red quinoa. This was my first time cooking quinoa and my husband hated it. I didn't find it so repulsive, but according to him, it doesn't really matter what you do with it, because he feels he's chewing on mustard seeds and they're getting all stuck in his teeth. Superfood, schmuperfood - you probably won't be seeing much more quinoa from me once this box is gone.
Burrito? Quesadilla? Burritadilla?
Taking the Silver, we have the BBQ Chicken-less Burrito-Quesadilla. I meant to make burritos, but once I piled the Gardein shreds, brown rice, black beans (cooked with adobo, garlic, ginger and onions), tomatoes and sour cream on tortillas, I realized they were too small to fold closed. Oops! So I just folded them in half and browned them on both sides in a skillet. They were alright. Although, again, my husband really has something against healthy grains and didn't care for the rice. When I made a burrito-bowl out of the leftovers the next day and microwaved it for lunch, it was awesome. The burritadilla was just trying to hard.

The Gold winner of recent trials was the persimmon pudding cake. I really didn't know what to expect when I finally decided on a persimmon pudding cake recipe to use the two Hachiya Persimmons I had bought without realizing they are used in baking. I just thought they would be another pretty salad topping, but found out that if you eat them before they are mushy, they give you cottonmouth. No, not first hand. I always google before I bite.

I froze the pulp from the 2 persimmons, since they decided to get mushy immediately before we left for our Thanksgiving trip. With all that waiting and scooping and freezing I invested in this new fruit, I was not about to mess it up with a major experiment. Especially because as I've said, I'm no baker, I'm a cook.

The persimmon pudding cake kept popping up in my googles, so I suppose this would be the most classic way to enjoy baked Hachiyas. So I started with that in mind, trusting a recipe at Simply Recipes, and made a bunch of changes to incorporate ingredients I had on hand for an ever-so-slightly healthier version of the gooey cake.

If I hadn't researched, I might have thought I needed to bake the cake more - it was very moist and almost raw-like in the middle. But the cherries I added were warm and juicy, and the chocolate chips were like mini molten pockets of sweetness. If you like underbaked chocolate chip cookies (you know who you are), you will like this cake!

Here's how my version goes:

Persimmon Pudding Cake with Sour Cherries, Chocolate and Pecans
1-1/2 cups of Hachiya persimmon pulp (puree with immersion or regular blender)
2 eggs
1/2 cup apple sauce
1/3 cup butter (3/4 stick), melted
1/2 cup fat free sour cream
1/2 cup unsweetened soy milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon all spice
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup chopped dried sour cherries
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Heat oven to 400F. 
Prepare a 7"x11" glass baking dish with non-stick spray.

1. Mix together all the wet ingredients from pulp to vanilla.
2. Mix together all the dry ingredients in a separate bowl, from flour through spices.
3. Combine wet and dry and mix until moist. Add the nuts, cherries and chocolate and stir together.
4. Pour into baking dish and bake about 50-60 minutes. Serve warm. 
Add whipped cream or ice cream if desired, but not necessary.
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