I dream of Africa …

I long to go on safari anywhere in Africa. In 1986, I was a very impressionable seventeen year old. The movie “Out of Africa” – by Sydney Pollack with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford made an indelible mark on my life. It is my ‘Go To’ movie when I’m sick, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, or if I’m suffering the painful pangs of wanderlust. I put it on and recite the lines before they are spoken. I have the soundtrack and each time the waltz plays my heart aches just a little. It’s like a cozy sweater and reminder to keep dreaming of Africa. If you click on this image you can listen for yourself.

out-of-africa-gallery-5

Over the years I have had limited exposure to the foods of Africa. Growing up in southern Missouri did not afford many opportunities to experience real food and cultures of the continent. So, when we stayed at the Animal Kingdom resort I was thrilled to get some actual foods from Africa. I’ve even attempted to make a salsa they served for breakfast. It had dates, tomatoes, and onions. It was delicious.

Last week I was at Trader Joe’s and discovered a jar of Harissa Salsa. Ever the adventurer, I bought one. Tonight I am making a lentil and chicken dish with it. Chickpeas are a more commonly used bean for this I believe but I didn’t have any (plus they are not my favorite bean anyway). The salsa is tomato and cumin and a smoked chili flavor like chipotle but slightly different. It’s a bit spicy and a little bit will go a long way. TJ’s had organic multi-colored carrots and I used a purple carrot in it as well. Yummy! Try them!

The end result was delicious!

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Here is the recipe I followed: Spicy Harissa Chicken with Lentiles 

I suppose the moral of this story is … even if you can’t GO on safari literally, you can go there gastronomically. One of the many wonderful things the internet has afforded us is exposure to the rest of the world. You can order almost anything from Amazon and recipes are there to be had if only you look. Eat the foods from around the world. There are SO many amazing spices, herbs and foods to be had. Experience as many of them as you can. Life is short, grab as much of it as you possibly can!

 

Breaking out the birthday present from THE best mother-in-law . . . ever and Experimenting with Curry …

. . .  can be dangerous. I love the complexity of curry. It seems counter intuitive that so many spices put together into one mixture could produce such amazing flavors. It works thankfully. Curry is definitely a divisive spice. You either love it or hate it. My hubby likes curry, thankfully. My hubby is also patient with my experiments. I have made my own curries in the past but it’s time consuming and I didn’t have that kind of ambition or time last night so I broke out my favorite, “Sun Brand” Madras Curry Powder. This is my favorite blend.It’s layered with heat and sweetness.

This is my favorite blend. It's layered with heat and sweetness.

I rubbed in over my chicken breast and let it marinate like that for an hour or so. I put a tablespoon of it and a tablespoon of mango chutney into goat cheese to use as a spread on the chicken. I wish I’d had some dates to stuff it in but that’s a thought for the future, huh? I also made some whole grain Jasmine rice (my favorite) which I browned with shallots and garlic then cooked in chicken stock and low-fat coconut milk along with raisins and okra and yep … curry powder. The end result was quite tasty but my fella did not like the raisins (or now grapes as he called them). Hindsight is 20/20 right? I should have added them at the end of the cooking process. Oh well, LESSON learned.

My fantastic Mother-in-Law, Sue, sent me a Cuisinart Griddler for my birthday. I used it to make banana/whole wheat pancakes this weekend. It worked pretty well for pancakes but it didn’t seem to heat to evenly on the flat side. I gave it another try last night to grill the chicken.  I have to say, it worked pretty good. The chicken was scallopini’d so it only took a minute to cook it and since it’s non-stick there was no fat to speak of. I’m not sure how well it will work with a fat burger patty, guess I’ll have to try that out too sometime.  

cuisinart-griddler

So, the end result was very tasty. Simple too.

Curried chicken & rice with okra and raisins. Mmmm

Curried chicken & rice with okra and raisins. Mmmm

Is it sacrilegious . . .

. . . to not serve Green Bean Casserole on Thanksgiving? It is the perennial side dish for the holidays. You don’t eat it any other time of the year and yet it’s kind of old and boring isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, I love me some green bean casserole, but admit it, what we really love are the French Fried Onions, yum. Green beans don’t get that kind of love on their own. The rest of the year you eat them steamed or sautéed but never swimming in soup and onions.  Green bean casserole, cranberry sauce and sweet potato smothered in marshmallows (eewww… who invented that mess?) those are the dishes that are only served between November and December, I’m not wanting to have them now. I might like to re-invent the soupy mixture from scratch. The thought of buying a can of Cream of Mushroom soup  is gross. It’s so easy to make béchamel sauce and healthier too. Perhaps I’ll tackle that challenge, hmmm . . . perhaps. 

I’ve been searching my Cook’s Illustrated back issues, cookbooks and websites for new and interesting ideas to serve on Thanksgiving. Mine will be small and intimate with just three of us to feed. Since Thanksgiving is an “event” and deserves special attention directed to it. I’m excited about putting together a concerted effort and meal for the day. The question is … what?

The sweet potato has had a renaissance over the last few years. I eat them regularly in a lot of different ways: mashed, french fried, hashed, baked and chips. They’re so healthy and naturally sweet it’s like a tasty treat you don’t have to feel guilty about eating. I found a recipe on Pinterest for Hasselback Sweet Potatoes. Doesn’t this look amazing? Clicking on the picture will take you to the blogger with the recipe for this amazing treat!

Maybe not Thanksgiving but soon!

What I’m wanting to do is make something memorable. My family has never been one with long-standing traditions. Growing up Thanksgiving was always at Granny’s. Now that she’s gone, I’ve moved away and my sister is now single we have to start new traditions. I’m sad not to see my parents and it’s hard to make it feel like a holiday when all the things I’m used to are no where to be found. It’s a new day though and D and I must forge new family traditions. Thankfully, my sister will be here and we can share time down our mutually changed lives. We are blessed.

There are a few things that will happen. My birthday is November 21, the day before Thanksgiving. I want cake. Red Velvet Cake to be exact. I haven’t made one in years and think it will be the dessert of the weekend. Derek wants Lemon Meringue Pie so that will be on the menu too. Sweets are easy.

D loves onion rolls so I’ll make those. The recipe I use was found in an issue of Real Simple magazine a year or so ago. I’ve made them several times and they are light, airy, packed with flavor and simply . . . DELICIOUS! Click on the picture for the recipe.

So, we have the unhealthy choices nailed down. The big question is what’s for dinner? I’m thinking Gumbo sounds good. It’s hearty, earthy and packed with goodies and flavor. If not gumbo then perhaps Surf and Turf. I kind of think a Chicken Pot Pie with phyllo pastry crust sounds pretty amazing too. There are so many choices and ways to go. That’s what I love about cooking and food. A thousand variations and combinations to meet all culinary dreams. What will you serve?

When the husband is away …

… I eat soup. He doesn’t understand soup. To him it’s just broth with too many vegetables and not enough meat. For me, soup is warmth, comfort and a healthy way to eat. Oh sure, there are unhealthy soups but I tend to make broth-based soups not creamy ones. Yesterday it was raining and cold so I broke out the stock left over from the baked chicken from last week. It took all day to make, which wasn’t exactly necessary but I wasn’t in a hurry and it seemed the prudent way to do it. The end result was a spicy Chicken Chili. Mmmm.

Spicy Chicken Chili

I’m excited about this particular batch of soup because I grew the tomatoes that went into it and I finally figured out how to use dried beans instead of canned. In fact, all of the ingredients were fresh in this and it is so very good!  The other tasty treat I made yesterday was a cheese crisp. I have been searching for a cracker recipe and finally found a cheesy recipe that sounded good. I used whole wheat flour and two different cheeses for a salty and crunchy cracker. Yum!

Here’s how I did the soup. First the ingredients:

2 tbs olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 red bell pepper (roasted and diced)
2 carrots, chopped
14 oz diced tomatoes
2 medium jalapeño peppers, minced
2 large stalks of celery, chopped
6 cups chicken stock
1 cup dried white beans
1 bone in chicken breast
4-5 bone in chicken drumsticks (legs)
2 tbsp taco seasoning
2 tsp chipotle chili pepper
2 tsp cumin
2 tsp paprika
salt and pepper to taste

First things first: get your beans soaking. (see instructions above or read package instructions) OR use canned, there’s no rule here. Except remember the best rule of cooking: FRESH IS BEST!

1. In a large dutch oven (or soup pot) heat olive oil on medium.
2. Add chopped onions, carrots, celery, jalapeño peppers and cook until translucent.(apps. 10 min)
3. Add minced garlic and roasted bell pepper, cook until fragrant (appx. 30 seconds)
4. Add tomatoes, spices (cumin, chili, taco seasoning, paprika) and chicken stock stirring until spices are well mixed.
5. Add chicken pieces, cover and cook for 30-40 minutes. Remove chicken and set aside to cool.
6. By now your beans should be par-cooked so throw them into the soup and cover. Let cook at a rolling simmer for another hour. Taste to see if you need salt and the “doneness” of the beans.
7. Once the beans are done, shred your chicken and add back to the soup and let simmer on low for another 30 minutes to hour.
8. Taste. Season accordingly.

Serve with Avocado, fresh cilantro and a dollop of sour cream.

I’m just no good . . .

. . . at cooking fish. I don’t know why? I either over cook it, undercook it, over-season it or under-season it. Once, I did manage to cook fresh catfish. I used a Ruth Reichl recipe for blackened catfish. It was amazing. That was two and a half years ago. I blame it on the fact that it’s so hard to buy fresh fish in Kentucky. Oh sure, I could drive 50+ miles to Louisville to Whole Foods but that’s a lot of expense to go to and my husband just wouldn’t understand. So, I keep trying. I will not let this get the best of me. If you have any tips or great recipes please, help a girl out, would ya?

I have managed to conquer shrimp and scallops. I attribute that to the very short cooking times. It’s really easy to see when it’s properly cooked. It’s almost fool proof really.

So, chicken it is. We eat a lot of chicken. The challenge before me though is how to make it differently every time. If D had his way we’d eat it fried every time. Obviously that’s not doable. I’m so tired of chicken.

Oh man, this is one boring post. Sorry about that.

Did I tell you about all of the clams and mussels we ate in Italy? I’m telling you they were amazing. We had them on pizza, as au gratin, with pasta and by themselves happily steamed. There is a reason fresh is best. I can’t bring myself to buy clams or mussels here for just that reason. Fruits de la Mer was everywhere and we ordered it as often as we could.

fruits de la mer – photo from Flickr

I need to get off of my tuckus and be inventive in the kitchen. Right now all I’m thinking about it not eating sugar and white stuff until my birthday. I have eleven days to go. It’s been hard and I’ve not been entirely successful but I shall persevere.

Oh the food in Italy!

If you’ve read my earlier posts you may remember that my beautiful husband took me to Paris and Italy for our honeymoon. We spent eight glorious days in arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Amalfi, Italy – View from our hotel balcony. AMAZING!

See. What did I tell you?

One of my favorite parts of the trip, of course, was the food. Oh . . . the food.

Well, aside from getting food poisoning on the plane and throwing up four of the eight hour flight to Paris. There is nothing more romantic than holding both hands over your mouth while frantically looking for a bathroom in the Paris airport. If you’ve been there you’ll know that THERE ARE NO PUBLIC BATHROOMS in the airport and therefore you will have to toss your cookies up into the recycle bin while sympathetic tourists and employees stare aghast at your misery. Let me tell you that a cab ride in Paris with a stomach turning circles is NOT a good time. My first day in Europe was sadly marred by a tummy revolution but I would not let that spoil my attitude. I was in Paris after all. If one has to be vomitus, Paris is not a bad place to do it.

After a long nap and a long walk exploring the streets of Paris we found a bistro to have our first meal. I ordered a penne with gorgonzola sauce. WOW. There are no words to describe how very good it was.

a Paris bistro

Miraculous maybe.

The meal which stands out most for me was a mushroom risotto I had in Firenze. It’s flavors were layered and rich. The serving was huge and I honestly could have eaten more.  The trattoria was called Il Porcospino (the porcupine).

Il Porcospino Trattoria

It’s in a building older than the US. The restaurant is situated in S.Lorenzo neighbourhood, in front of Cappelle Medicee and is on the ground floor of Benci Palace built in the XVI century. It was beautiful!

We ate outside on the sidewalk and were seated next to (not surprisingly) Americans who were preparing to move there. They knew the wait staff and it was so much fun. We talked and drank to much and honestly had one of the best dates we’ve ever had. Here we would have the first Lemoncello of our trip.  We are converts. Yum.

So, the point to this blog was to tell you about my attempt to make risotto. Trader Joe’s had a box of Arborio rice with a recipe. I should have followed Cook’s Illustrated’s recipe.  It was good but lacked the depth and richness of Il Porcospino’s.

What I learned about the food in Europe. Ingredients matter. Fresh is best. Oh my goodness, yes.

Being spoiled is nice …

. . . and I am very good at spoiling, especially when it comes to food. I have been feeding my husband all his favorites this weekend, not because I want anything but because I have a strong need to be pleasing.

This morning we had biscuits and gravy. Turkey-sausage gravy that is, made with skim milk. It was tasty. I have to say, I make some mean biscuits. Buttermilk biscuits. Yum.

Perfect every time!

Here are the keys to making perfect biscuits every time. You’ll need:

2 cups of unbleached white flour.
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
4 tbsp extremely cold butter
2 tbsp cold Crisco
1 cup buttermilk

Have your oven very hot. 425 is ideal.

First: mix all your dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.

Second: Grate your butter into the flour using a large cheese grater and add in the Crisco in little bits. Mix GENTLY with your fingertips until it’s coarsely blended. Grab a rubber spatula and mix in the buttermilk. The dough will be slightly sticky but one cohesive ball.

Third: Flour the countertop and place the dough in the flour and gently knead into a flat disc. Press the dough flat and fold repeat this process no less than four times. Using an empty can (I used a tuna can) cut your biscuits out and bake in a greased (dark metal) baking pan.

Fourth: Bake for 15 – 20 minutes. Check them at 15 for brownness.

Fifth: Eat with gravy
or peanut butter and honey
or honey-butter
or lemon curd
or homemade preserves.
or just a shmeer of butter
or what ever trips your trigger.

The real challenge is not eating them all and this is NOT a low calorie biscuit.

I am not a fan of fall.

I realize this is an unusual sentiment. All over Facebook and Pinterest everyone is proclaiming their love of fall and all of it’s trappings. For me it’s just a reminder that cold is coming, the leaves are dying and we’re in for seven to nine months of brown. It reminds of school starting and, sad to say,  I never liked going back to school because summer was too much fun. It reminds me that winter is coming and bringing the cold. I truly dislike being cold.

I will grant that there are some good things associated with fall. I love bonfires, the fireplace and the one week of beautiful fall foliage. I do love the food associated with fall like the squash: pumpkin, butternut, acorn and spaghetti! I love the soups: beef stew, chili and chowder. I love baking pies and breads. It’s all wonderful comfort food that warms the body and spirit. I’ve posted most of my great soup recipes and pies. I suppose it’s time to branch out and try something new. My mother bakes a pear pie every year from her pear harvest. It’s delicate and sweet and a true treat.

I think next spring I’ll plant some fruit trees. Having just come from the Amalfi Coast in Italy I’m inspired to grow even more.

I took this photo while on my honeymoon in Amalfi, Italy. This is just one of the multitude of groves dotting the mountainous countryside.

Kentucky isn’t ideal for lemons but I can certainly plant an apple, cherry or peach tree. I get so frustrated going to the market to buy fresh peaches only to come home and they are bland and mushy. What a treat it would be to pick fresh peaches every summer and fall.

The olive trees grow wild all over the country too. I would have loved to pick a bunch to bring home but I haven’t the first idea of how they make them edible. We did see a couple men harvesting them outside our hotel. That was really fun.

I also must tell you about my amazing husband. He spoiled me rotten by even taking me to Europe. He then managed to add to the spoiling by buying me a belt, two handbags, two pairs of shoes and two bottles of aged balsamic vinegar, one is 12 years old and the other is 20 years old. If I work up the courage to open and eat them I’ll let you know.

Home Grown!

I grew these on my back deck and I can’t wait to make some guacamole with them.

There is something very satisfying about growing your own food. I am less tempted to let home grown produce spoil in the fridge. I just wish my tomatoes and peppers would all ripen at the same time. This is the fourth tomato I’ve harvested. They are very sweet and mild. Yes, I have tried to eat raw and by themselves. My stomach still rejects it. So, I’ll cook with them and I’ll get the nutrition another way. The peppers are very spicy hot. In fact, I should probably use gloves with them because last time my fingers stung for days after chopping them. I suppose I’m gonna make some guacamole with these. I just wish I had some of those avocado’s cousin Julie grows.

I didn’t tell him until after he had a few bites down.

My D is not a fan of veggies. Oh, he’ll eat any veggie I put in front of him . . . if it’s fried.  He will eat broccoli, salad and the occasional green bean without the batter or cheese but that’s about the limit to his culinary range. Needless to say, I cannot be frying veggies every day and quite frankly, to me, that’s kind of a sacrilegious thing to do to a perfect summer vegetable. I, on the other hand, can eat almost all veggies, except for turnips and beets, eww. So last night I thought I’d test his mettle completely with black bean and mushroom burgers.  I researched several different recipes on the internet and most of them were some variation of the same thing. Curiously, my favorite cookbook, Cook’s Illustrated, was completely devoid of any meatless burger, which was highly disappointing. Anyway, I’ve made veggie burgers before with broccoli, carrots, zucchini and they are delicious but very time consuming.  However, I had never attempted a bean version. What I came up with didn’t take long at all. In part, because of my food processor, well actually . . . now that I really think about it, because of my food processor but not everyone has one so if you want to you can do it all by hand. I’m certain this recipe could be tweaked in a million ways depending what tastes you want at the time. I made mine with an Italian bent but they would be wonderful with curry or Spanish flavors. In fact, just thinking about it makes me want to go make some curried burgers with goat cheese and mango chutney. I suppose I should use lentils in that case, huh? **Note to self: Add lentils to your grocery list.

So, here’s what I used:

1 small onion
1/2 medium orange bell pepper (any color will do)
1 large garlic clove
1 carton mushrooms (crimini or white)
1 can black beans
1 tbsp whole grain dijon mustard (I love Trader Joe’s)
1 tbsp tomato paste
3/4 cup Italian bread crumbs
1 egg
3/4 cup parmesan cheese
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
3 tbsp chopped parslay
a pinch of salt
black pepper to your taste

The first thing you’ll want to do is rough chop your onions and pepper then throw them in the FP (food processor) with the garlic clove and finely mince. Pour that mixture into a large mixing bowl. Next, put the mushrooms and black beans (rinsed) into the FP and chop until finely minced, then combine with the onion mixture. Add all the remaining ingredients and mix until well combined (you may need to use your hands).

Make into patties (about six) and before pan frying them lightly dredge them in flour and Italian breadcrumbs. Cook until browned then place in the oven for 10 minutes with goat cheese on top to melt.

Yum.

I served these with couscous and kale sauteed with bacon, onions and a farm fresh egg (just like Granny used to make). It was so good I may make this every night.

Black Bean and Mushroom Burger with warm goat cheese served on Couscous with Kale sauteed in Bacon and Onions and Egg.