Sunday, January 31, 2010

Marinated Olives – Romantic Food

With Valentine's Day approaching, it's time to start thinking about romantic food again. This year, I'd like to take a more playful, and more intimate, approach to romantic food. Let's talk tiny appetizers.

Why appetizers? Mostly because they're small, easy to make, and you can feed them one by one to your sweetheart between light, exploratory smooching.

Let's start with marinated olives. You can actually buy pre-marinated blends these days, but they aren't cheap. Some are actually pretty good, but others ... well ... let's just say they leave you wanting, but not in a good way, as in, “I want more.” Instead, they leave you wanting as in, “I want my money back.”

The fun part of marinating your own olives is that it's easy and relatively inexpensive. You really just need some herbs and spices, a little oil and an acid. You can add a little sweetness by adding some wine, if you want. This recipe combines the fruitiness of the wine and the acid by using balsamic vinegar, but feel free to try your own variations.

Equipment Needed
measuring cups and spoons
medium sized bowl or jar with a lid.

2 cups mixed pitted olives, drained if needed*
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)

Mix everything except the olives together in a bowl. Add the olives and toss. Cover and refrigerate for 1 or 2 days before serving.

Share them with your sweetheart as part of a romantic evening. If you don't have a sweetheart, snack on them while watching romantic comedies to kill the pain.

*Use a mixture your favorite black and green olives varieties. They can be plain or stuffed, whatever you like. Just avoid avoid the all too common “California” olives. These are actually green olives that have been chemically treated to make them turn black, and taste terrible when compared to other olive varieties. They don't have to be pitted, if you don't want, but it may ruin the mood if you're sweetheart cracks their teeth on them.

Photo by Yucel Tellici

Friday, January 29, 2010

Food Joke Friday - Chicken Soup

Moments before a famous Shakespearean actor was to perform Hamlet to a packed house in New York, he dropped dead. The house manager solemnly went onstage and announced, "We are sorry to bring you this news, but our performance tonight has been canceled due to the untimely demise of our featured performer."

From the back of the theater a voice cried out, "Give him some chicken soup!"

Startled, the stage manager cleared his throat and replied, "I apologize if in my grief I have not made my solemn message clear. The man is deceased."

Once again, but more emphatically the voice rang out, "Give him some chicken soup!"

Having had about enough, the manager bellowed back, "Sir, the man is dead. Giving him chicken soup couldn't possibly help."

To which the voice replied, "It couldn't hurt!"

Photo by Sanja Gjenero

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Winter Squash in Coconut Milk

Getting a HUGE banana squash from my Mom's neighbor was great, but now I have to figure out what to do with it. I used part of it for the carbonada, but what about the rest? Ah! Why not a squash in coconut milk recipe from Thailand?

Normally this recipe is made with butternut squash, but I think any hardy winter squash will do. The squash marries wonderfully with the coconut flavors. It's wonderfully sweet with a slight spicy kick and was a big hit with my family. Except for the Princess. She's five. She still won't eat much more than plain rice, peanut butter sandwiches, and cheese.

Oh, and candy. Lot's of candy. When we let her, and sometimes when we don't. Oddly, she also likes oatmeal, as long as it's smothered in peanut butter.

Let's do squash and coconut today, though.

Equipment needed
Baking sheet
Kitchen knife
Cutting board
Large saucepan or Dutch oven
Measuring cups and spoons
Slotted spoon

1/3 cup sweetened coconut flakes
2 pounds winter squash (such as butternut)
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1/2 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk OR 1 cup water plus 1 teaspoon coconut extract (not as good)
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (less if you have young children, or other sensitive mouths to feed)
1 tablespoon chopped parsley, or 1/2 teaspoon dried parsley (cilantro works great, too)
pinch of salt


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Spread the coconut flakes out in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake for 6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden and toasty. Set aside to cool.

Cut of the stem of the squash and peel, removing the hard outer bits. Cut in half and remove the seeds and stringy bits. Cut into 1 to 2 inch pieces.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, cooking and stirring until it starts to soften. Add the garlic and cook for one more minute, or until the onion is completely tender. Add the coconut milk, brown sugar, fish sauce and red pepper flakes. Stir until sugar is dissolved.

Bring the mixture to a boil. Add the squash and reduce the heat to medium low. Cover and simmer for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until the squash is fork-tender. Remove the squash from the saucepan using a slotted spoon and transfer to a serving dish.

Return the heat to high, bringing the remaining liquid to a boil, stirring constantly until thickened. If you use water instead of coconut milk, it won't thicken. You'll want to remove a small portion of the liquid, mix in a scant teaspoon of corn starch and return the cornstarch mixture to the pan to thicken.

Pour the thickened liquid over the squash in the serving bowl. Sprinkle with the toasted coconut and chopped parsley.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

If you can find it at your local market, purple kale, along with a cilantro or parsley leaf, makes a pretty garnish for this dish. I like serving it with peanut butter pasta.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Carbonada (Argentine Beef Stew)

A new year and a new site design deserves a special new recipe to kick things off. Why not a hot plate of Carbonada to keep you warm on a cold night?

Carbonada is a classic home-cooked beef stew from Argentina. Being one of the world's major beef suppliers, so it's no surprise the people of Argentina would develop some incredible beef recipes. Argentine cuisine has evolved distinctly from other Latin American countries due to the influence of Italian, Spanish, French and other European dishes.

With Carbonada, chunks of beef are slowly stewed with vegetables native to Argentina: tomatoes, potatoes and corn. Sometimes dried or fresh fruits, such as apricots or pears, are added, although in this recipe, I left them out.

I wanted to make this a cold weather recipe. While all of the ingredients can be found in our grocery stores during winter, not all of them are in season. I also wanted to make it easier to use ingredients normally found in long term food storage so, you'll see notes about using both fresh, and canned versions of some ingredients.

Equipment Needed
Large saucepan with lid
Kitchen knife
Cutting board
Can opener
Measuring cups and spoons

1 pound beef *stew meat
1 1/2 yellow onion
6 oz. winter squash, such as butternut or banana squash (about 2 cups, cubed)
3 medium tomatoes or one 16 oz. can diced tomatoes
12 oz. fresh or frozen corn, or 1 15 oz. can corn, drained
1 medium sweet potato**
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon sugar
3 3/4 cups stock (beef or chicken)
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and ground black pepper as needed
Parsley to garnish

First, there's some prep work to be done. Rinse and dry the stew meat. Season with a small amount of salt and pepper and set aside.

Peel and finely chop the onion, and set aside.

Scoop out the seeds from the squash, along with any stringy bits, peel, and cut into 1-inch cubes. Set aside.

If using fresh tomatoes, remove the stems and roughly chop. You can remove the seeds if you like, but I don't. If using canned tomatoes, drain them and set aside.

Thoroughly wash the sweet potato and cut the pointy ends off (save them for making stock). Prick the potato all over with a fork and microwave on high for 1 minute to start the cooking process. (The other ingredients will cook faster than the potato will, so we cook the potato a bit, beforehand, to make sure the squash doesn't overcook before the potatoes are done.) Being careful not to get burned, cut the partially cooked potato crosswise into 1-inch thick rounds, leaving the peel on. Cut each round into quarters and set aside.

Now, let's get down to business. Heat the olive oil in the sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add the beef and brown it completely. Transfer the beef to a dish and set aside.

In the same saucepan, add the onion, along with a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to medium and saute the onion until soften and slightly browned. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, sugar, and stock. Stir just until the tomato paste is dissolved. Add the bay leaves.

Turn the heat up to high, bringing to stock mixture to a boil. Return the beef to pan. Add the corn, squash and sweet potato. Stir a bit, and then cover the pan with a lid. Leave it on high heat. Once the broth comes back to a boil, remove the lid and skim off any foam from the top. Reduce the heat to medium-low, put the lid back on, and simmer for approximately 20 to 25 minutes.

At this point, check the potatoes to see if they're done by sticking them with a fork or skewer. If the skewer goes through easily, they're done. If not, cook for an additional 5 minutes, and check again.

Season to taste with additional salt and ground black pepper.

Makes 6 servings.

I like serving this with rice, but you don't have to. A hearty sourdough bread would be great, as well.

*Stew meat is cut and cubed from cheaper, tougher, cuts of beef. After long stewing times, though, it becomes quite tender.

**Some recipes call for regular white potatoes or a combination of sweet potatoes and white potatoes. I prefer this dish with sweet potatoes, alone.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Thai Meatballs and Noodles

It's not just the German's and Italians that like to marry meatballs with sauce and noodles. The people of Thailand enjoy it, too.

I've been getting into Thai cooking more and more, of late. Having a good Thai restaurant just a few minutes away to inspire me doesn't hurt, either. Not living in Thailand, or a large city, it's hard to find the ingredients in the original Thai recipes I'm using as a base, or at least ingredients that don't cost and arm and a leg. I've modified the original recipe to make it easier to make with ingredients that are readily available at my local grocery store.

Equipment needed
Large skillet or wok
Kitchen knife
Large pot or Dutch oven

12 oz. dried, wide egg noodles
6 cups water
1 tablespoon salt

For the meatballs
1 1/2 pounds ground pork or beef
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried mint
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
4 teaspoons fish sauce or low sodium soy sauce
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon feel seeds, crushed
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon cooking oil (peanut or canola)

For the sauce
1 pound bok choy (about 1 medium-sized bunch)
Small piece of fresh ginger (about 1 inch) or 1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 medium carrot
2 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce or low sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon dried mint

Make the meatballs, first. Combine the meat, basil, mint, ginger fish sauce, garlic, cinnamon, fennel and pepper in a large bowl. Mix until well blended. Shape the meat mixture into small balls, about the size of a ping pong ball. You should be able to make around 30 of them.

Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok over medium heat. Add the meatballs in a single layer and cook for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until nicely brown all over and no pink is left in he middle. You'll need to do this in batches.

Remove the meatballs with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to drain the excess oil. The meatballs may be prepared in advance and refrigerated for up to 2 days, longer if you freeze them. Just make sure to thaw them before using.

Now you can start cooking the noodles. Bring 6 cups of water to a boil in a large pot or Dutch oven over high heat. Add the noodles and salt. Cook until al dente, and drain in a colander.

While the noodles are cooking, you can start on the sauce. Cut off the root end of the bok choy with a kitchen knife. Separate the stalks, rinse well under running water to remove any dirt or debris, and drain. Starting at the root end, cut the stalks and leaves into 1/2-inch slices and set aside.

Peel the fresh ginger piece, if using, and cut into julienne strips. Cut the carrot into 2-inch lengths, and cut into julienne strips, or half-moon slices. Set aside.

Heat the same skillet or wok you cooked the meat in (if you didn't prepare the meatballs in advance) over medium heat. Add the chicken stock, brown sugar, fish sauce, ginger and mint. Heat and stir until the sugar dissolves.

Add the cooked (and thawed if frozen) meatballs and carrots to the stock mixture. Bring it to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for about 10 minutes or until the meatballs are heated through. Add the bok choy and simmer 4 or 5 minutes longer, until the stalks are crisp tender.

Once the noodles are done, drain and transfer them to a large serving dish and pour the meatball mixture on top. Garnish garnish as desired.

Makes 6 servings.

Monday, January 4, 2010

How to Make Quick Baked Beans

It sounds strange, but believe it or not, you can make baked beans in less than an hour. Sometimes, necessity is the mother of invention, even if it seems like a hill of beans.

This last Sunday, Writer Girl and I faced Sunday dinner alone. Neither of us were feeling well – her head hurt from staying up too late reading; my butt hurt from falling on the kitchen floor – so we left church meetings early and didn't attend the “Souper Sunday” soup eating get together afterwards. With the rest of the family eating Church soup, we had to fend for our injured selves. What were a couple of people, who ached on either end, to do for a quick Sunday dinner?

Now, don't hate me because I'm lazy. Instead of creating a big meal, which neither of us were up for, I combined two side dishes, a semi-protein and a dressed up vegetable, and called it good. We could butter up a roll or something if we really wanted some carbs. Which I did later, by the way.

The first was a quick version of Boston Baked Beans. I like baked beans, but I don't like how long they take to make. We had a bunch of canned “pork and beans” in our pantry, so I came up with this.

Equipment needed
Can opener
Measuring cups and spoons
Casserole or other baking dish

2 (two) 16 oz. cans, pork and beans
1/2 pound bacon, chopped into small peices
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon prepared mustard
1 tablespoon molasses
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
dash of salt
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese (optional)

Preheat he oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cook the bacon in a skillet over medium heat until nicely crisp. You may need to do this in batches to not overcrowd the pan. Drain on paper towels.

Mix the bacon with everything else, except the cheese, in a casserole or baking dish.

Yes, Virginia. Take the beans out of the can first. We don't want the cans, just the contents.

Don't bother using a mixing bowl. It only dirties an extra dish, and who needs that? Not me. Spread the mixture around so it's smooth on top.

Bake, uncovered for 30 to 40 minutes, until the mixture is bubbly. Remove from the oven and adjust the salt and pepper, adding more if needed. Sprinkle the cheese, if using, evenly over the top. Let it cool for 5 or ten minutes, melting the cheese, and serve.

Makes 4 to 6 servings, depending on what you're using it for.

If the canned pork and beans have quit a bit of liquid, drain some of it off before putting it in the casserole. To be honest, I don't know if these were the exact measurements or not. I was measuring by eyeball the whole time.

Photo by Daniel West