Soup's On!


This time of year I love to make soup.  Maybe it's because it's cold and dreary or maybe it's because many of the "soup veggies" (a.k.a. root cellar veggies) - potatoes, onions, dried beans, carrots, squash, cabbage, greens, parsnips - are in season.

Soup is nutritious and inexpensive and a big ole pot goes a long way (leftovers freeze well or make great lunches).  Consequently, we have soup a few times a week.  A big pot of veggie soup and biscuits is one of my favorites.  I start with V8, tomato juice or homemade stock, dried or fresh herbs (usually parsley, thyme and sage - sorry, no rosemary) and start adding an assortment of veggies - stewed tomatoes, corn, carrots, green beans, cabbage, onions, parsnips - I just keep stuffing whatever I have in the pot (this is a great way to get rid of levtovers too), add salt and pepper to taste, and simmer until tender.   

I often use dried legumes for added protein.  I either soak them overnight or simmer them on low all day.  Sometimes I cook double the lentils or beans and scoop out half, cool and freeze for a later date.  

Earlier this week I made navy bean soup.  It was nutritious, delicious and SUPER cheap!  I estimate I paid less than $3 for the whole pot.  $1 for the 28oz can of stewed tomatoes, $1 for the bag of dried beans, and less than $1 for the 1/4 cup of dehydrated onions, salt and pepper, thyme, and the hambone (stashed in the freezer after Christmas).
We also enjoy a big pot of beef and barely soup.  For this, I simmer about two pounds of beef shanks - usually three rounds of beef - in five quarts of water with three bay leaves and 1/4 cube dehydrated onions for several hours until the meat falls off the bone.  Next I skim off the fat and add the barley and cook until tender.  Lastly I add the shredded meat back in along with a 28oz can of stewed tomatoes, a T of worcestershire sauce and salt and pepper to taste (sometimes I add a couple beef or vegetable bullion cubes for a flavor boost).

Tonight, I experimented a little and came up with a real winner.  I started with some ham stock (left from Christmas) and enough water to equal about three quarts, 1/4 cup dehydrated onions and about three pounds (a dozen small) of peeled potatoes sliced into thin rounds.  I let the potatoes cook just until they began to break apart and added the last bit of the Christmas ham from the freezer - maybe 1/2 pound - chopped into small chunks and a pound of chopped mustard greens.  I simmered the soup until the greens were tender but still green and then stirred in 1/2 cup half and half, sprinkled in a little bit of kosher salt and about a t of white pepper.  It was delicious!

Soup is a great way to warm the belly, lighten the grocery bill and make the house smell great!  I say you start with a pot of water, add a little of this and a little of that and end up with a fabulous meal.  Those stone soup guys had it right (just remember to remove the rocks before serving). 

(P.S. I usually pair my soups with either cornbread made in my cast iron skillet handed down to me by my grandmother or drop biscuits that I like to bake in a muffin tin.)

It's only fair

Last time I talked about an unpleasant restaurant experience, so it's only fair I should take a moment to mention some good times here in VB.

My new all-around favorite place has to be Burton's Grill. Everything was perfect from the cleanliness of the place (bathrooms included - a true clue to kitchen appearance) to the presentation of the food.  And Burton's is a supporter of the latest and greatest trend in dining - Buy Fresh Buy Local (buylocalhamptonroads.org/)- where local eateries prepare dishes using local seasonal foods. This practice is good for one's health, the environment, and the local economy. Burton's Grill - among others - frequently features local farm fodder on their menus. I peeked at BG's monthly specials and - sure enough - there was butternut squash soup made from Cullipher Farms (my kids say cauliflower farms) veggies. (cullipherfarm.com/ -I can personally vouch for their collards and canning tomatoes.)


While I try to stay away from chains, I do have to admit my favorite dessert of late is found at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. Their Caramelized Banana Cream Pie is amazing. With its light, flaky crust filled with white chocolate banana custard and topped with caramelized sugar adorned banana slices...I've died and gone to sweet sugar heaven. (And, the service at Ruth's Chris is second to none. The waitstaff is consistently professional and honestly seems happy to take care of the customers. I noticed all of the servers - not just "ours" - likewise seem willing to help clear an empty dish or refill a glass.)


My favorite "cheap eats" here in VB has to be The Beach Bully. We've been noshing on their fresh cut french fries (with cider vinegar), mile-high "regular" roast beef sammiches (medium rare, if you please) and beefy baked beans since they were served out of the little shack at 31st and Baltic. I don't remember what the price was then, but I know the aforementioned platter is still only $5.99 (a steal by any definition).

I really could write pages about yummy places to eat in Virginia Beach, but I don't want to wear out my welcome.  Before I go, I do have to add my two cents about Handel's Ice Cream located in Red Mill Commons (in the southern part of the city). All the ice creams are made daily on the premises with fresh ingredients (no bagged, pre-made mix for these guys). Dozens of carefully orchestrated flavors are available daily - and there are some meal-esque, heavy but amazing combinations including Chocolate Chocolate-chip Cheesecake Chunk and Spouse Like A House which is vanilla ice cream with peanut butter ripple and chocolate-covered, peanut-butter-filled pretzels. I have to add I think it a little bit pricey, but that doesn't stop me from walking down there several times troughout the summer (and the rest of the year for that matter) for a more than generous scoop of Chocolate Raspberry Truffle or Dolce de Leche. (P.S. Their frozen hot chocolate is my favorite non-ice cream treat).

Well, that sucked

Once in a while I get tired of cooking. Normally this would be a good opportunity to go out to eat. I, however, am hesitant to go out much. Despite what I’ve read and heard from my friend Angela, a health inspector, the reason is not because of the kitchen conditions (although I have walked out of more than a few places because they didn’t meet my personal health standards.) No – I don’t like to go out to eat because I am afraid of being disappointed. Now, this is going to sound snobby, but since I like to cook and fancy myself a gourmet (and am a bit of a penny pincher) I hate to pay someone to cook for me unless it is good – really good.
 
I am very, very picky regarding service, presentation, value and yes, the cleanliness, but most of all – I harshly judge the food. Few restaurant experiences have left an indelible impression on me. However, this week is restaurant week in Virginia Beach – meaning a select group of local eateries create unique specials and give a portion of their proceeds to the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia (www.foodbankonline.org/)– so we decided to go out to eat at one of the participating establishments and support the cause.

I like to use http://www.tripadvisor.com/ as a starting point and then carefully read other local reviews. In Virginia Beach, Burton’s Grill is currently ranked #1 (of the 708 VB restaurants ranked by trip advisor). I went there a couple months ago on a friend’s recommendation and can still taste the grilled mahi mahi topped with avocado salsa. Simply put, it was spectacular. #1 also means I could not get last-minute reservations for this evening, so I perused some of the other choices and settled on #12 – Icehouse Restaurant. With “awesome” service and “excellent” locally caught and grown dishes, Icehouse is touted as a “local’s favorite.” I figured I wouldn’t be disappointed. Well, I was wrong. Sorta.

I say sorta because I can’t really tell you whether or not the food was “excellent” – because we didn’t actually get to eat. We drank our ice cold beers and nibbled on our appetizers (which were rather good) and watched people come in, order, eat, pay and leave. Finally, almost an hour after our appetizer plates were cleared, we managed to wave down our waitress who seemed shocked to realize we hadn’t had our entrees yet. She explained our order “fell on the floor” or “got put out of order” – she wasn’t quite clear about what happened. Now, this isn’t a huge place. The main dining room has maybe 14 tables and we were right in the middle of the room. She regularly passed by our table, refilled our drinks and made one apology early on about the tardiness of our food and then, apparently, forgot about us.

Now, on my list of crappiest restaurant experiences, this falls in well below finding the (used) bandaid in a bowl of Ivar’s clam chowder but pretty much guarantees I won’t be going back.

Better luck next time...or not.


Oh! My Aching Rice Cooker!

Last night for dinner we had Korean and the night before - Japanese. Tonight… Japanese again. But wait…I am getting ahead of myself. First, I’d like to introduce you to my rice cooker. Twenty-one years ago, I lived in Hawaii next door to the best Thai cook I’ve ever met. Anne made foods for me I’d never dreamed existed let alone ever eaten – foods I now list among my absolute favorites: kimchi, som tum (green papaya salad), tom yung goong (hot, sour shrimp soup) and more. And, I often reciprocated. In fact, we started sharing a plate of our respective dinners with each other almost every night. (She told people I was the best “American food” maker she’d ever known.)

One afternoon, when we were cooking together (she taught me volumes about Thai food and cuisine in general), she asked me how I made rice. Like the typical mid-westerner, I told her with a shrug, “In a pan.” My otherwise soft-spoken, mild-mannered neighbor suddenly smacked her hand on the counter and admonished, “No, no! That will never do!” She proceeded to explain why I needed an electric rice cooker as well as how to use it and how to take care of it. Shortly after that, I became the proud owner of a ten-cup Tiger rice cooker. I remember buying it because it was probably the most expensive thing I’d ever purchased – it was nearly $100 even back then. As with time, I most regrettably lost touch with Anne, but I still have my rice cooker…and it still steams like a champ.

So, this is what I’ve cooked the last few nights with the help of my overworked, aged but still kicking rice cooker.



The first night on this most recent Asian food kick I made rice and Oyaku Donburi (a Japanese chicken and egg dish served over rice) from a recipe in my Quick & Easy Japanese Cuisine for Everyone cookbook (available from amazon.com along with Quick & Easy Thai that I love so much most of the pages are falling out).

On Korean night, I made rice in my rice cooker, Daeji Bulgogi (spicy pork which technically I only cooked, as I bought the raw, marinated meat at my favorite Korean grocery) and Miyuk Gook. Also known as “birthday soup,” this highly nutritious seaweed soup flavored with sesame oil (which I most recently learned should be kept in the fridge once opened for optimum flavor) is served at birthday meals and - I was surprised to learn - to new mothers after childbirth.



Tonight I made curry. When asked about Japanese food, most minds probably picture sushi. However, I can attest to the fact that curry is way more popular in Japan than sushi. (Sometime I’ll tell you about the curry doughnut I ate there.) It is the ultimate Japanese comfort food. While some people make the curry sauce from scratch, many use the prepared sauce blocks that look akin to chunks of peanut butter fudge. I have the powder but rarely ever open the can - the paste blocks are just too convenient. I am partial to the mix made by S&B Foods although House Curry (called Vermont Curry in the states) is also delicious. All are available in mild, medium and hot variations. (Neat story and cooking information about curry at this link: http://www.sbfoods.co.jp/eng/currystory.html )

There are three primary ways to eat this Japanese variation of the Indian favorite: with dipping bread, over udon (a thick wheat-flour noodle) – boy, did I burn my lip eating this once – and alongside perfectly prepared rice (and not Minute Rice, Uncle Ben's, jasmine, or basmati – don’t even try to convince a Japanese person these deserve to wear the name “rice”). I made my curry rice with leftover roast beef, potatoes, onions and carrots just like it said on the box.  My kids were in heaven and there was barely enough for my husband’s lunch the next day.

I’ve decided, after three days in a row, to give the rice cooker a rest. Tomorrow night we are having sekihan using my bamboo rice steamer. I’ve already have the adzuki beans and sweet rice soaking.

Life Lists

I thought this info from the Good Eats "Live and Let Diet" episode was right on the mark.  It's AB's guide to healthy eating/living.  I wonder if I can follow this...

Daily
Fruits
Whole grains
Leafy greens
Nuts
Carrots
Green tea

3 time/week
Oily fish
Yogurt
Broccoli
Sweet potato
Avocado

1 time/week
Red meat
Pasta
Dessert
Alcohol

Never
Fast food
Soda
Processed meals
Canned soup
“Diet” anything


Smoothie Talker

I hate to eat breakfast, but I go to the gym and/or run in the morning and obviously need some sort of fortification prior. I am a faithful follower of Good Eats and was pleased to recently catch the episode, “Live and Let Diet.” In this show, Alton Brown made smoothies. Now, I have attempted to make them before and they are usually pretty good, but AB presented a fool-proof formula for smoothie excellence. His recipe uses four ounces each of juice and soy milk, four ounces of frozen banana, and four ounces each of three different kinds of frozen fruit. There before me was my solution – I would start my day with a fortified fruit frappĂ©.

I went to my favorite, Trader Joe’s, and filled my cart with frozen mango, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, organic bananas, organic soy milk (vanilla!), and Blackberry Crush 100% juice blend. When I returned home with my treasures, my kids descended upon the reusable shopping bags like flying monkeys from Oz tearing apart the scarecrow. “Smoothies!” they both shouted. “Are those for our breakfasts?!” Although it is wintertime and I prefer to send them off to school with a warm breakfast, I thought, why not.

I adapted the recipe to get about 3-10oz servings from each. Thus far, we have indulged in these two delights:

 Orange-Mango

• 8 oz vanilla soy milk

• 8 oz orange juice (with calcium)
• 2 small frozen bananas (about 6oz)
• 8 oz frozen mango

Mixed Berry
• 6 oz vanilla soy milk
• 6 oz Blackberry Crush
• 2 small frozen bananas (about 6oz)
• 6 oz frozen strawberries
• 6 oz frozen blueberries

Nutritious and delicious! I wonder what other combinations I can whirl up. I’m gonna need a bigger blender!



Parchment paper - not just for the Magna Carta

I may have just entered into a whole new realm of cooking. I saw a minute of a cooking show yesterday featuring salmon fillets cooked in parchment paper and was intrigued as I tend to occasionally - albeit slightly - overcook fish. The theory is all the moisture stays inside the packet steaming the food.  I may have heard about this supposedly foolproof method for cooking fish before but never paid it any mind. Tonight I did.

Photo by Susan Wenzel 
I bought four nice wild-caught Pacific salmon fillets (only wild will do) and began to consider my options. The tv chef I watched had topped the salmon with salt, pepper, haricot vert (fancy talk for real skinny French green beans. Haricot is French for “bean” and vert is French for – you guessed it – “green”) and some other stuff. I had the beans in the freezer, and a couple of my own ideas.

I tore off four big pieces of parchment paper and coated each piece of salmon on both sides with about ½ T olive oil. I put one fillet per piece of paper and sprinkled on a little Fumee de Sel Chardonnay Oak Smoked Sea Salt (from The Spice House) and a few grinds of Tellicherry peppercorns (my new favorite). I topped each with about a dozen of the whole green beans and a few super thin round slices of sweet onion (done with my Benriner Japanese Mandolin Slicer ® that does an awesome job on fingers too – but that’s another story).




I folded together the middles of each parchment and twisted shut the ends then popped all four fillets in the oven on a cookie sheet at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.

The finished product was attractive, moist and, more importantly, delicious. I can only imagine the possibilities for parchment cooking. Probably almost any kind of fish (whole or fillet), shrimp, even scallops would work – and the topping choices would be endless – fresh or dried herbs, sundried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, lemon slices, garlic, capers, spicy mustard, chives, cilantro, lemon grass, Thai chilies...yum.

P.S. Check out this cool way to fold the parchment. (Although my method worked just as well.)  http://cookingfortwo.about.com/od/maindishes/ss/enpapillote.htm  

Did I mention cleanup is also a cinch?  I'm sold!


Yellow Flag!

I cry foul! Taco Bell gets penalty flag from me! Today I saw a commercial for the Taco Bell Drive-Through Diet ®. Initially I thought it was a Saturday Night Live skit; sadly, it is real. Fast food has its place, and an occasional taco isn’t going to kill anyone…I’m no Taco Bell hater…but a whole DIET based on eating crap?! Come on.

If one wants to lose weight, eating Taco Bell is certainly not the best way to go. They suggest this is a valid diet because the items on the “diet” menu have “less than 9 grams of fat.” Go ahead. Check out the rest of the “nutrition” information for the “taco diet”: http://www.tacobell.com/fresco/nutritionGuide.html   

Let’s examine the “Fresco Crunchy Taco.” It only has 7 grams of fat (the selling point) and 150 calories! Wait – let’s do the math. 9 calories per gram of fat x 7 grams of fat = 63 calories from fat (Taco Bell’s information states 70 calories from fat). According to this, 47% of the calories from this “diet” food is from fat. (Oh, and did I mention 13 grams of carbs, 20mg of cholesterol and 350mg of sodium?)

Stop the presses!!  I just read the disclaimer on the bottom of the page. And, I quote:

“DRIVE-THRU-DIET® IS NOT A WEIGHT-LOSS PROGRAM. FOR A HEALTHIER LIFESTYLE, PAY ATTENTION TO TOTAL CALORIE AND FAT INTAKE AND REGULAR EXERCISE. TACO BELL'S FRESCO MENU CAN HELP WITH CALORIE REDUCTIONS OF 20 TO 100 PER ITEM COMPARED TO CORRESPONDING PRODUCTS ON OUR REGULAR MENU. NOT A LOW CALORIE FOOD.”

Those sly dogs! They did say “diet” and not “weight loss program” in their ad, didn’t they? Diet, by definition, can mean the following: food or feed habitually eaten or provided.



Well, bust my britches! (pun intended) I guess I have to take it all back. Technically speaking, eating primarily Taco Bell can be called a diet! Hells Bells - I’m going to market the Twinkie ® diet! They also have 150 calories and only 4.5 grams of fat!!






Yeah, right

I saw these at Williams-Sonoma today and fell in love.  I couldn't find a price, though.  Guess I don't want them after all - not for $179 at least!  Yikes! 

http://www.williams-sonoma.com/products/sku6572820/?pkey=cmixing-bowls-measuring-cups%7Cbkwmixbow

Ghosts of Christmas Past


My kitchen is haunted with ghosts of Christmas past. On the counter are five kinds of cookies, candy canes, assorted chocolates, a third of a German stollen, half of a really good homemade rum cake, and most of a fruit basket. There are even more in the refrigerator: half a ham, three kinds of cheese, part of a vegetable tray, salami, and a bunch of goodies left from our New Year’s Eve antipasto platter. The holidays may be gone but their leftovers are not.

Normally, I do not have a problem dealing with leftovers – a large pot of soup is a good way to get rid of all kinds of things. I am the Queen of Srevotfel, as my husband would say. (That’s leftovers spelled backwards). But, an army couldn’t finish all of these. I made an Alton Brown style quiche for dinner with some of the ham, heavy cream, fresh mushrooms and cherry tomatoes from the veggie tray, shredded “English cheddar with caramelized onions,” and a bit of nutmeg (from whole nutmeg grated with my NEW Microplane ® grater – thank you Santa). (http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/refrigerator-pie-recipe/index.html)

I sealed up the rest of the ham and it’s bone separately and froze them for dinners future and the girls can have the fresh fruit, veggies and cheese and crackers in this week’s lunches (I always pack their lunches, as I think school lunches are overprocessed, overpriced, salty, fatty, non-nutritious trays of crap)

Now, I haven’t a clue what to do with all these cookies. Can I put them in a quiche?

Duck!

For New Year’s day I made roast duck, twice-baked potatoes (baked, split and through the ricer then mixed with roast garlic, Amish butter, heavy cream and aged cheddar and topped with a dollop of sour cream), stuffing (I cheated - Pepperidge Farm herbed but with stock I made from the duck neck and guts the day before) and maple glazed baby carrots (steamed carrots tossed with a T of Amish butter and a T of maple syrup from our friends in Highland County, VA). 

AFTER I planned the duck dinner, I realized January 1st was also the day Ohio State (my team from birth) was scheduled to play the Oregon DUCKS in the Rose Bowl. Of course, the jokes soon ensued. As we know now, the Oregon Ducks went the way of our dinner - duly roasted and consumed. But, I digress.


I am not intimidated by a different or difficult recipe and even once made real Peking Duck (bicycle pump and all – thank God no one came over when it was hanging on a hanger in my kitchen all day and night. All the work was worth it, as it was absolutely delectable!). So, I was recently intrigued by Alton Brown's roast duck recipe (as follows): http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/roast-duck-with-oyster-dressing-recipe/index.html


This recipe involves “koshering” the duck prior to roasting. Silly me – I always thought the salt was called kosher because it is, indeed, kosher. I learned from AB it is called “kosher salt” because it is used to prepare meats in the kosher method draining the blood in accordance with Jewish law. The flaky form of kosher salt coats the surface of the meat unlike the cubes of table salt which dissolve more readily and draw out too much moisture. (Speaking of salt, as a treat, I purchased a little bag of very expensive smoked fleur de sel – $17.95 for 6oz - from The Spice House. I ration it carefully, but is absolutely delicious sprinkled on a perfectly grilled filet mignon.) http://www.thespicehouse.com/spices/fumee-de-sel-chardonnay-oak-smoked-sea-salt

The duck was tender and juicy with a wonderful, rich flavor and the family loved it (proof positive - there are no leftovers)  I doubt I will make it again, though, as I found it to be a little on the salty side. But, I am my own worst critic.

(P.S. I had coffee this morning topped with perfectly frothed milk. I got an aerolatte ® milk frother in my stocking. I absolutely love it! Please note, don’t turn it on before you put it in the milk. Waahoo!)