Monday, February 28, 2011

Dinner with friends, and a fudge SUCCESS!

After a whirlwind past week and weekend, I'm finally getting caught up and am excited to share with you how I spent my Valentine's Day! I don't know about you, but sometimes I just like an excuse to get dressed I invited some girlfriends over for a dinner party complete with fussy food (risotto!), sparkly dresses (sequins!) and decadent desserts (nutella!). I even busted out my chef's jacket to protect my dress while I pranced around the kitchen in heels. [Men, are you hearing this? I cook and I wear heels in the kitchen.]

All the ladies, minus the one taking the picture
For dinner, I stuck with some classic yet elegant basics. One package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts turned into fresh herb-seasoned chicken cutlets (halved longwise, pounded thin, flour-egg-breadcrumbs, air-dried on a rack over a baking sheet for 10 minutes, pan-fried), and they were served up with easy sauteed spinach and creamy risotto - both infused with a hint of lemon and garlic to tie it all together.

Not the most creative presentation...but delicious!
The star of the show on Valentine's Day has got to be dessert. I wanted to make sure I had two different things to offer my friends - one intense and rich and sweet, the other a little lighter but still satisfying. Martha Stewart's cranberry-almond biscotti (though made with whole wheat pastry flour) was a great Valentine's Day treat because of the pop of color from the red cranberries, and they were perfect for dunking in coffee. This other recipe, though - OH. EM. GEE. Probably the best fudge I've ever had, and more importantly, it turned out like fudge and not like dirt candy! SUCCESS! Thanks to Nnr for directing to me to Cookin' Canuck's hilarious blog post with the recipe from Giada.

Chocolate Nutella Fudge with Sea Salt
(adapated from Cookin' Canuck)

1 (14 oz. ) can sweetened condensed milk
1 t vanilla extract
1 heaping c dark chocolate, chips or chopped (I used 72% cacao)
1 c Nutella
3 T unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Sea salt, approximately 1/2 t

Line an 8x8 square pan or a pie dish with parchment and spray with cooking oil. Add the sweetened condensed milk, vanilla, chocolate, nutella and butter to a medium glass or stainless steel bowl. Place the bowl over a small saucepan filled with a few inches of boiling water, and stir with a spatula or wooden spoon until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth, about 5-7 minutes. Empty the mixture into the pan, and sprinkle the top evenly with the sea salt - depending on the grain of your salt, you may want to use a little less than the 1/2 t called for. Refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours. When ready, use the parchment to lift the fudge from the pan and cut into 3/4-inch squares. Note: limit yourself to 8 pieces of fudge per night, and bring the rest in to work when it gets too hard! :)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The end of the Pantry/Freezer Challenge

Someone once said that all good things must come to an end...and right now, that good thing is the Pantry/Freezer Challenge. Today's post wraps up my month-long personal challenge to cook exclusively from my pantry and freezer, only supplementing what I had on hand with fresh fruits and vegetables.

-I kicked things off with a veggie burger recipe inspired by my time in Americorps, when my 11 roommates and I learned to flourish on a tight budget by often substituting legumes and whole grains for more expensive animal protein.

-Even after one week, I noticed myself being more mindful of my food habits, and a little pizza party proved that you don't need fancy ingredients or lots of dough (hehe) to entertain.

-Next, I marveled at the wonderful recipe-healing properties of parmesan cheese when a barley risotto recipe doesn't turn out as expected.

-After a trip to Stanley's produce market, I learned that homemade gnocchi is not as daunting as it seems, and also...I need to buy a candy thermometer.

-Starting to see the light (at the back of my freezer, that is), I shifted my brain into autopilot and pulled together a tried and true classic for a weeknight dinner.

-Finally, the Chicago blizzard of 2011 begat an impromptu snow day, and thus an excuse for a hearty snack with a special spread.

I'm really glad I decided to take on this challenge. Beyond identifying some funny stockpiling habits (apparently I fear a shortage of hoisin sauce) and an obvious reminder to avoid impulse buying in the future (Alton Brown lost 50 pounds eating sardines, right?), the Pantry/Freezer Challenge reminded me of something important. I feel strongly that my food choices should reflect my ideals of eating a less meat-centric diet, supporting local agriculture, and avoiding unnatural ingredients, among other things - and by stepping out of the grocery store for the past month, it's helped me reconsider how much I spend, on what types of food, and where.

I hope that I can keep moving in the right direction.

Anyone out there inspired to do a challenge of their own? Have any other challenge ideas for me? :)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Snow-day special

Finally a post for this week! I caught the flu last weekend, and have been fighting against it ever since with lots of sleep and tea and taking it easy. The sooner I can kick this bug to the curb, the sooner I can be back to cooking and feeling fantastic. But yes, folks - even with the flu, the challenge continues...

I whipped up this recipe during Snowmaggedon Snowpocalypse Thundersnow the third largest blizzard in Chicago history. We had all been encouraged to work from home that day rather than try to brave the weather and make it into the office - and I have to say that working from the couch, in my pajamas, in the comfort and warmth of my apartment sounded A-OK to me.

I did venture out to see the car graveyard on Lakeshore Drive at lunch...yikes!

I decided to make bread because in true Pantry/Freezer Challenge form, I had used up all other 'vessels' for my homemade nut butter - crackers, pretzels, etc - and was starting to judge myself for eating it with a spoon directly out of the jar. The easy, hands-off nature of this bread recipe is incredibly appealing to someone with a mild fear of yeast and kneading, like myself - and is much cheaper than getting a bread machine! Its crumb is moist, not too dense, and has great flavor, making it a perfect vehicle for just about anything.

I've made this successfully several times, with a number of options for substitutions based on what you have on hand.

This loaf didn't rise as much as usual (it was extra dry in my apartment) - but still turned out great!

No-Knead Whole Wheat Bread
adapted from King Arthur Flour

1 c lukewarm water (about 110 degrees)
1/4 c orange juice (or lemon juice, or water/lemon juice combo)
1/4 c olive oil (or melted butter, or veg oil)
3 T molasses (or honey, or maple syrup)
2 t yeast
1/4 c dry milk 
1 1/4 t salt
3 c whole wheat flour (or a mix of whole wheat and AP)
optional: 2 T ground flaxseed

Note: This recipe is not recommended if you do not have a stand mixer. The dough is quite sticky and thick, and is no match for a hand mixer's beaters.
Combine all the ingredients in the bowl of your stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment (not the bread hook), beat for 3 minutes on high. Scoop/scrape the sticky dough into a parchment-lined and greased loaf pan (8 1/2" x 4 1/2"), and cover with greased plastic wrap. Allow to rise in a warm place for 60-90 minutes, until the dough has at least risen to the top edge of the loaf pan. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and when it's ready remove the plastic wrap and bake for 20-25 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Pull the bread out of the oven and tent the top with foil so it doesn't get too dark, and return to the oven (rotated) for another 15-20 minutes. It's done when you can 'knock' the top and it makes a sound - but you can also stick in a knife to be sure :)

To make this blustery snow day extra special, I decided to turn some beautiful Stanley's apricots into a sweet accompaniment for my freshly baked bread.

Bonus Recipe: 
Makeshift Apricot Jam
(makes 1/2 c)

3 large ripe apricots, chopped
1 heaping T raw sugar
1 piece star anise
1 piece whole nutmeg
roughly 1/2 c water
1 T white wine
1 T lemon juice

In a 2-qt saucepan, add the chopped apricots, sugar, whole spice pieces and just as much water as necessary - the fruit shouldn't be covered, but almost (I used about a half cup) - and bring up to a simmer. Allow the mixture to simmer on low-medium low, stirring occasionally, until the apricots have softened and the water is evaporated - about 20-30 minutes (use the back of a spoon to test the doneness of the fruit - if it resists, it's not done). Remove the spices from the jam, stir in the white wine, and return to a simmer for another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice, and transfer to a heat-safe glass jar or container. Serve warm on freshly baked bread, or refrigerate for future use.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Thighs and fries

Hehehe. I'm a sucker for a rhyme.

Anyway, this latest endeavor of the Pantry/Freezer Challenge yielded a succulent supper in under 30 minutes. The chicken was moist and flavorful, and the potatoes were just crispy enough on the outside yet had still soaked up some of the chicken flavor. As much as I love to be adventurous and play around in the kitchen, sometimes after a long day I just want to tune out and get a no-nonsense dinner on the table. When I use timeless flavors (like garlic and herbs) and methods (like broiling), I can put my brain on autopilot. 

Broiled Garlic-and-Herb Chicken Thighs and Oven 'Fries'
(serves 2, with leftovers)

4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of any extra fat (F)
1 medium russet (or other baking) potato, cut into wedges
1/2 oversized sweet potato, cut into wedges
2 cloves garlic, minced (keep each clove separated)
2 T fresh herbs, chopped (keep each T separated)
1/4 c olive oil (2 T separated)
salt and pepper

Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil, and preheat your broiler (mine doesn't have a tempt - it just says 'broil'). In a bowl, add your potato wedges, 2 T of olive oil, 1 clove of minced garlic, 1 T of fresh chopped herbs (I used rosemary and oregano) and salt and pepper, and toss everything together until the herbs and garlic are distributed and the potatoes are well coated.

Unceremoniously dump your potatoes onto the baking sheet and spread them out in one layer.

In the same bowl, add your chicken thighs and the other T of oil, herbs, clove of garlic and salt and pepper. Toss to coat them well with everything, and also dump these unceremoniously onto the baking sheet in one layer (hey - we're tuning out, right?)

Nice autopiloting, people. That was the hardest part of this recipe. Stick the sheet in the oven and broil about 17-20 minutes, until the thighs and fries are cooked through (on a thermometer the thighs should read 165 degrees - or just give one a little cut and peek inside).


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A sweet potato success and a fudge fail

Today I've hit the two-week mark of my Pantry/Freezer Challenge, and I'm just starting to see the bottom of my pantry drawer and the back of my freezer. This challenge has really helped me refocus on being mindful in the kitchen - about what I buy and how I prepare it.

After a trip to the local produce mart (an amazing place called Stanley's, where you can buy a whole bag of fresh fruits and veggies for under $10!), I came home with a mutant sweet potato I was itching to use for something special.

The spoon is there for your benefit, so you can see what a colossal tuber I acquired.
That something special turned out to be whole wheat sweet potato gnocchi. Why? Well, I'd never made gnocchi before, and I like eating it, so I wanted to try to make it - without using any 'special' equipment (food mill, ricer, etc). Also, I knew I could get away with using only half this sweet potato and still have enough leftover for another meal (coming later this week!).

Paired simply with sauteed portabellos and sage-infused browned butter, this homemade, healthy gnocchi was simply delicious.

Whole Wheat Sweet Potato Gnocchi
(serves 2; makes about 30 gnocchi)

1 1/2 lb sweet potato, peeled (or part of an oversized one)
1 t olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 t fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1/2 t salt
nutmeg (to taste)
1/2 c whole wheat flour
1 egg, lightly beaten

Cut the sweet potato into a few large chunks and roast on a foil-lined pan with the olive oil at 350 degrees until soft, about 30-40 minutes (this step can be done a few days in advance). Place the potato chunks in a medium bowl, and add the minced garlic, rosemary, salt, and nutmeg. Using a potato masher, mash the potato and the spices well until well mashed, broken down and combined. It's okay if the mixture still seems a little coarse, it doesn't have to be a fine puree. Add the egg and incorporate into the potato with the masher until the mixture is wet. Now, using a spoon, add the flour a few tablespoons at a time, mixing to combine after each addition. You want the resulting dough to still be soft, but not so wet that it sticks to the bowl and the spoon and your hands. Don't worry, this recipe is forgiving.

When you've used up all (or almost all, depending on how it feels) of the flour, place the dough in a medium/large plastic bag - this is our makeshift pastry bag, and is way easier than rolling out and cutting the dough. Move the dough to one corner of the bag and cut off the end. Squeeze the dough out of the corner of the bag and use a sharp knife to cut it off in one-inch sections, directly into boiling, salted water. Cook the gnocchi for 3-4 minutes, until they float to the surface.

The finished gnocchi, with mushrooms and sage-brown butter. Yum!

Marshmallow Fluff No-Fail Fudge

So the real P/FC part of this meal was the dessert. I wanted to use up a half-jar of Marshmallow Fluff I've had in my pantry forever for some fudge to bring into work, in celebration of my coworker passing the US Citizenship Exam (congrats on being able to read the sentence, "Where is the White House?", Athos!). However, contrary to its name, this no-fail fudge failed me. Or I failed it. Either way, I set out for fudge, and this is what I got:

Chocolate dirt candy. Let's just say I played it off as congratulatory 'ice cream topping' rather than fudge.