Thursday, May 8, 2008

Almost Vegetarian

I used to be--years and years ago--a vegetarian. Now that I am trying to get back into shape (or at least one that doesn't resemble a Jello mold), I am making some dietary changes. Incidentally, many of them are very familiar.

One thing I don't miss from my teenage years was the hostility I felt toward meat. It really made dinner with my family uncomfortable, and there's no damper for a dinner party than having some smug little brat making you feel so miserable for the food that you put so much time into preparing.

So for the most part, I am at this point primarily vegetarian. Breakfast usually consists of scrambled egg whites (again, I'm no purist), vegetable sausage links, and toast. The hospital that I work for also has a multitude of choices for meatless lunches. And most of the restaurants that I frequent have meatless options as well. (Hint: Try Ruth's Chris Steakhouse's grilled Portabello mushrooms; I am STILL trying to come up with something that even comes close.)

In fact, it's only at home (and at the occasional hosted dinner) that I ever do eat meat. The reason for this is that I don't see much sense in cooking two different meals for just two people, and it's just plain rude to turn one's nose up at a meal that someone has put so much time and effort into making.

However, since we are both trying to get into shape, I am learning to do more with leaner cuts of meat such as turkey and salmon. That way, even if I do eat meat during the evenings, it fits my minimal requirements--that it doesn't kill my diet, and (equally important) that it's enjoyable to eat.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Greek Olive Salad

4 Roma Tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 small can sliced black olives, drained
1/2 small white or yellow onion, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup Greek Vinaigrette salad dressing
1/3 cup reduced-fat feta cheese crumbles

This is a quick one that I came up with the other night. Mix well and refrigerate for at least one hour before serving. Serve with bruschetta or small slices of hot, toasted bread.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Experimenting with MSG

I'm just asking for a flamewar on this one, but after reading the research that has been done on the much-maligned food additive monosodium glutamate, I see no reason that I shouldn't use it in some of my own dishes.

The facts are that it's a synthetic form of a naturally-occuring substance, and its natural equivalents are still used in food under names like "Yeast extract", "Kelp (or seaweed) extract", and "hydrolized soy protein." Chemically speaking, the main ingredient is the same, but these food additives are incredibly common and receive little (if any) bad press. Since they are chemically identical to MSG, it doesn't stand to reason that the natural version would be safe while the synthetic version would not--in fact, if anything the synthetic should be safer as the material has fewer impurities and is standardized to a certain concentration (as the "natural" forms can vary wildly).

Since I want to cut down on my sodium (MSG has 1/3 the sodium of salt), I think it may be worth running a few experiments. Maybe when I make a few jars of spaghetti sauce this weekend, I can do a batch using a half-and-half MSG-to-salt ratio and do the other batch with plain salt as a control.

I'll let you all know how (or if) this works out for me.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Scorched Food

Every cook does it at one time or another. The marinara was cooking away merrily, I left the heat on too high, and before I knew it, the food had scorched. There's nothing quite like the sinking feeling that you might not be able to use your $50.00+ solid stainless pan again, because it'll likely never come clean and you may as well just throw it away.

No, I'm too cheap for that. And I'm too lazy to chip away at the burned tomatoes for hours on end. So today I looked at my pan and wondered if it still could be salvaged. As it turns out, easily.

The layer of scorched food was pretty thick--roughly 1/16 to 1/8 of an inch thick. So I filled the pan about an inch over the scorched spot, and added 1/4 cup of sodium bicarbonate. Common baking soda. I brought the water to a boil, stirred it a little, covered it and reduced the heat just enough to keep it boiling for about twenty minutes.

When I went back to check on it, the water was black. So I poured it out, thinking I could try something else.
But as I did, I noticed large chunks coming out from the water, and once it was empty, I realized that all but a few tiny bits of the scorched food came out. The rest came off with a little dishwashing liquid and water, with a couple of swipes of a cleaning sponge.

So before you get fed up and replace that expensive pan, try a little baking soda and water. For 20 minutes and $0.15 worth of materials, it's definitely worth a try!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Margarita Chicken

One of my experiments this weekend, and a quick throw-together dinner. I originally considered using rice, but couscous is great for this as it cooks much faster and does a great job of soaking up the flavors of the black beans, lime, and cilantro.

Margarita Chicken 1.0 (serves two)

2 T butter

1 T chopped fresh cilantro (or 1 tsp. dried)
2 tsp minced garlic
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/4 c. Margarita preserves (see below)
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
2 c. black beans, cooked
2 c. prepared couscous
3/4 c. water or chicken stock

Melt butter in skillet. Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper, saute until brown (about 9 minutes on each side over medium heat) and cooked through. Add preserves and garlic, then deglaze pan with broth or water. Stir in cilantro and raise heat to high, reducing mixture for about five minutes.

Layer the couscous on individual plates, top with 1 c. of black beans. Place chicken on top and pour half of the sauce on each chicken breast. Serve with a salad, if desired.

This is a quick and easy dinner for two that takes about 20 minutes in the kitchen. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Carne Diem

Yes, that's right. Meat day. Yesterday, we went shopping for the meats that we normally use during a month. We tend to get those at once, then package and freeze them for later use.

We live pretty close to two great places for getting meat: The local Sam's club is where we get the bulk of our chicken and salmon: In this case, we bought two bags of chicken--one of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and one of boneless, skinless thigh portions. These make up the bulk of our dinners, and I just leave them in the bag in the freezer. We also bought two very big salmon fillets--almost two pounds each.

We also live very close to an actual butcher--which can be hard to find these days. We bought four pounds of ground chuck, two pounds of breakfast sausages, two pounds of lamb steaks, a couple of stuffed pork chops, and two fillet mignon. In short, with the salmon and the chicken, a whole month's worth of meat.

Once we got home, we split up the ground beef and sausage into one-pound portions, vacuum-packed them with our home sealer, and popped the majority of them into the deep-freeze for later.

What's the point of this?

Quality. Vacuum-sealer bags are (to me), expensive, even if you use the off-brands. You can reuse many of the bags after washing them, but I kind of shy away from that as I tend to worry about not getting the bag completely clean. Nonetheless, it's worth it--since you can take advantage of bulk prices for meat, you can usually pull your resources and get a better deal on the more expensive cuts. Factor in the cost of the sealing bags and you're about breaking even, but as a result you've got more variety of better cuts of meat to use.

Another point is time. I like cooking impromptu--from the hip, as chef Cat Cora calls it. Having a variety of meats in my freezer at any given moment gives me a much bigger playground in the kitchen. We have chicken for most of our meals, beef if we're in the mood, and if we just want something different, there's always pork, fish, or lamb. Since we both work full-time, and are both full-time students as well, it can be hard to go out and get groceries during the week. This takes care of that.

This is a really good idea for someone that doesn't live close to a real butcher or to a bulk dealer (like Sam's). Get a deep freeze and a vacuum sealer; for about $400-500 up front, you'll find that buying meat once during the month will save you a lot of trips to the store, will improve the quality of what you get, and can give you a lot more variety in your diet.

Tandoori-Inspired Grilled Chicken 1.2

This is one of my quick-and-easy meals, using some of the staple ingredients that we tend to keep around the house. Curry paste is one that I realize most households don't carry; look for it (not the powder or the sauce) in the international foods section at your grocer. Add a dab of marmalade or chutney to the top of the chicken, and you've got a great main course.

I think you all will really like this recipe; the hot curry paste seasons the chicken exceptionally well, where the yogurt cools it a little and seals the juices into the chicken. The citrus juice slightly tenderizes the chicken and adds just a hint of its own flavor.

This is also one of the meals that I tend to make even if we're not having it, so that it can be packaged up as pre-made lunches. Either serve it with steamed rice and vegetables, or if you're feeling really adventuresome, with a couscous-based falafel (recipe forthcoming). If you're doing the falafel as a premade lunch, remember that it should be served cold or at room temperature, so try to package it separately.

Tandoori-Inspired Grilled Chicken 1.2

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, defrosted
3 T Hot Curry Paste
1 1/2 C Plain Yogurt (low-fat is fine, don't use fat-free)
1 T lemon or lime juice

Whisk together the curry paste, yogurt, and juice in a glass or plastic bowl with lid. Once it is well-mixed, add the chicken breasts, turning to coat well. Cover the chicken breasts and let them marinate in fridge, about one hour.

Preheat grill to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Reduce heat under the chicken as much as possible (Since my grill has three separately-controlled heat panels, I leave the one on the right on high, cooking over the other two, which should be off). Lay chicken pieces on the grill, basting each with an additional tablespoon of marinade. Close grill and let cook for 10-12 minutes. Turn over and cook an additional 10-12 minutes.

Note that if you don't have a grill, or just don't want to bother with firing it up, that's not a problem. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and bake the chicken in a baking dish for 30-40 minutes, until chicken is cooked and tender.

Serves four.

Margarita Preserves, v.1.0

As promised. But since I was too lazy to remove the rind last night, I decided this would be far too bitter as a marmalade. So I end up removing the rind and peel during cooking, and adding pectin to compensate, kind of like a jelly. Since it was still bitter, I added some salt to cut the bitterness. The resulting jelly reminds me a lot of margaritas, and I think you'll really enjoy it.

The yield may vary; this time I netted four pint-sized jars and a half-pint.

Jason's Margarita Preserves 1.0

10 large limes
4 C water
5 C sugar
2 3-ounce packages liquid pectin
1/2 C lime juice
1 T salt
4 drops blue food coloring
15 drops yellow food coloring
1/2 shot tequilla (optional)


Slice limes into thin slices. I use the food processor for this. Put into large plastic bowl with lid and cover with water. Refrigerate overnight.

Transfer lime mixture to stockpot. Heat to boiling over high heat, stirring frequently. Stir in sugar and salt.

Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until lime mixture is very soft and most pulp has fallen off the rind, about 1 hour. With strainer, remove remaining lime pieces. If desired, add the tequilla. Bring mixture to boil and stir in liquid pectin, reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add food coloring, if desired.

Meanwhile, prepare five 1-pint canning jars with their lids and bands for processing. This can be done in a water bath, but I prefer to use the pressure cooker.

Using jar funnel, pour resulting marmalade into jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Wipe the rims and cap with lids, leaving rings 1/8 turn from closed. Gently place into pressure cooker, two or three at a time, and close lid to cooker. Once cooker reaches pressure, reduce heat to maintain pressure and process for 15 minutes. Depressurize cooker using vent method and carefully remove jars. Let stand upright on a wire rack undisturbed for 12-24 hours.

If a jar doesn't seal after two attempts in the cooker, then let it cool and put it in the refrigerator. This one's yours to try first.
Yield: 3 1/2 pints

Green Pepper Jelly v.1.0

[Reposted from my other blog's post, dated yesterday]

Today, I've been a little distracted as I am dealing with a sick one here at the house. Still, I like having projects to do--even though the house needed to be relatively quiet for the sick one.

My solution today was canning. I have a six-quart pressure cooker in my kitchen and a ton of jars and new lids and rings sitting in the garage. So, while I went to get medicine at the grocery store, I stopped and bought a few extra things: Two boxes of liquid pectin, two bell peppers, and about 12 limes. I sliced up the limes thin with the food processor; they'll be used for making marmalade tomorrow and are soaking in the fridge in water overnight.

Tonight was time for pepper jelly. Here's my recipe:

Jason's Pepper Jelly v 1.0
(Yes. I number my recipes because it allows me to keep up with changes.)

2 Bell Peppers

3-4 T crushed red pepper flakes
3 1/2 C sugar
3/4 C white vinegar
2 3-oz pkgs of liquid pectin
3 drops green food coloring

Seed the bell peppers and drop into food processor with vinegar. Grind well. Pour into saucepan (I used my 4-quart casserole pan for this; the high sides make it harder to splash out and the narrow base reduces chances of scorching). Add sugar and bring the mixture to boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. In the meantime, prep 6 half-pint jars in the pressure cooker, along with lids and rings.

Once the ten minutes have finished, take out the jars and invert them onto a wire rack. As jars dry, stir pectin and food coloring into pepper-sugar-vinegar mixture. Raise heat to boil, then simmer 1 more minute. Pour into jars, leaving just under 1/4" headway from the top. Wipe rims and top with lids, loosely capping with rings. (I tighten them, then go back 1/4 turn).

Put these (gently) back into the pressure cooker. Add hot water to just cover lids and put the lid on the pressure cooker. Raise to pressure (mine is I assume 10 PSI, but 5 should do fine) and reduce heat to maintain pressure for 15 minutes. Let it cool of its own accord, then once it has depressurized open the lid, carefully moving the jars to the wire rack.

You should hear those popping noises in no time, indicating that you have a sealed jar. Any that don't seal overnight should be refrigerated.

I'll put up a picture when I get time; tomorrow I'll be putting up my first attempt at lime marmalade.

Let's Play in the Kitchen!

This blog is a spinoff of my personal blog. Politics and philosophy are also passions of mine, but it can be a real turnoff for people that aren't accustomed to debate or questioning cherished ideas.

The kitchen, on the other hand, is another story. Every good interviewer knows that if you want to find out what a person is really like, don't interview them on the set or in the parlor, interview them in the kitchen. And it's a very potent symbol--that is where the foods are made that bring us as families--no matter how diverse--together.

This blog is my own contribution, where I'll be documenting some of my own culinary experiments. While I've been called a gourmet and a professional cook (nevermind that I've never been trained or worked in that capacity,) the truth of the matter is that I am just a guy that likes to play in the kitchen.

And if you like to play in the kitchen too, then you're more than welcome to help yourself to the ideas in this blog. Being able to follow directions for a recipe is one thing, but I'm hoping that these will give you a basic framework to play with making your own culinary masterpieces.

Bon appetit, and let the games begin!

--Jason B.