Monday, November 11, 2013

Accidentally Delicious

It was the kind of evening when Twenty Minute "Rush Zumba" was simply out of the question. A week night in late October when the cold and the dark assembled, and schemed to bring in an early winter. The afghan practically unfolded itself and the teapot hissed at regular intervals throughout the eventing. 

The one pound of loose Hibiscus tea sitting on the counter arrived earlier that day, right in the nick of time. Tearing open the silver shiny air tight package,  Hibiscus bits poured into a tea canister and the two became fast friends. A multitude of pink and magenta hues popped through the glass, and Hibiscus aromas, now free to roam, made their way up my nostrils. The first floral whiff set off alarm bells.  I hadn't realized that what I ordered was a mix of floral and tropical. Being fruit tea adverse, I slowly regretted the purchase and wondered if it wasn't too late to reseal and order reliable Roobios, with its earthy flavor. But I closed the jar and put it on the shelf.

 So later than night when steam shot from the kettle, I scooped and bagged with curiosity. Now steeping in liquid, Hibiscus plumped like raisins. Water into wine I've often wondered about, but Hibiscus into water was a site of Biblical proportion. This was such a deep sea dive into pink that I wondered if, in drinking this warm elixir, I would become the true owner of the Elder Wand.

The first sip translated on the tongue as tart and tangy. Then it stuck to my cheeks. And socked me in the stomach. It was a true eye popper, with no tolerance for winter recoil. This drink, I thought, was really f**king good.

Soon thereafter, I craved a counterbalance to this aggressive tasting yet strangely comforting hot beverage. My mind roamed into the freezer, where another silver shiny bag awaited to be cracked open: a bag of Ghiradelli bitter sweet mini-chocolate chips. These lil' pups were sitting in the dugout for months, waiting for the day of chocolate chip cookies, and no such day had come. I unsealed the bag and a handful went in the hatch. The bitter and sweet bite brought comfort, as sugar injections often do. My tongue waded through a thick coat of intense chocolate, so dense it necessitated tongue movements akin to a self inflicted french kiss to come to a resolution. Bitter and bitter, bitter and sweet, sweet and sweet. ahhhh.

But a third mouthful of these mini devils on my tongue coupled with a big gulp of hibiscus, was when the whole thing unraveled. The chocolate abyss found its perk with a mouth puckering sip of tea.  And the tongue clicking flavor of the tea, when submissive to the domineering dark, took a more mouth friendly form.  All of these flavors folded together into one surprisingly perfect bite drink. Like a cheese course at the end of a meal, this was a full flavor experience and a satisfying night cap.

And such was the experience of the drink bite. It isn't for every night. But definitely for really cold ones. It was more than the pleasure of this experience, but the surprise. That night, it was a taste surprise in a cup that made life feel new. So may we welcome surprises, hibernate when we need to, and taste food that is truly good and accidentally delicious. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Zoom In on Hunger

Today is Food Bloggers Against Hunger day.

I had the itch to post a healthy affordable recipe, talk about strategies to stretch food dollars, and to spotlight spring as the time to bring the spice cabinet outdoors and into herb containers.

But having worked 10 years in the hunger and food security arena as a community dietitian and cooking teacher, thoughts turned into reflection.  I recall listening to Leah Chase, owner of the legendary Dookey Chase restaurant in New Orleans, at a Share Our Strength conference about 7 years ago. One year post hurricane Katrina, she talked about hunger and offered wise words: when legislators, service providers, and communities all sit down together and eat around one table, we will find the solutions we need.

During this brief but powerful visit to New Orleans, when streets were boarded up and the farmer's market was just reopening for the first time,  there was a unity and a pulse around food that was palpable in the streets. I began to understand the vision of Leah Chase during that visit.

Today, I reflect on how hunger in the United States is a quiet catastrophe that requires collective solutions. From Congress to corporations to one's own  kitchen cabinet, there are support networks to weave and strengthen so hunger doesn't continue to happen in our own backyard.

So this is my sketch on hunger "zoomed in." Just a snapshot of  food, connectivity, the kitchen cabinet, and the table, where everyone sits together, eats together, and finds solutions together.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Finger Lickin Good Ya'll

Leaning over the stove and dipping a perfectly browned chicken thigh through oily and salty pan remains. Sucking on bones, ripping off meat, and licking my fingers. It was a truly rockin' Friday night.

 Truth is, I have been in a cooking rut lately. There have been small bursts of food inspiration over the past 4 months: homemade Pho and the accompanying excitement of soup condiments, waffle praise by my daughter, and Food Network inspired cran-choc cookies.

But the reality is that the mom and full time job combo have usurped my zest for cooking and I want it back.

 So, I am re-reading Julia Child's "My Life in France" (how many wonderful details I missed the first time 'round!), I scour Pinterest for "pin-spiration", and consult with an imaginary friend (who looks like Marcus Samuelson) to find out which condiments go well with meat and fish.

Really,  I very well know that wonderful food does not have to take hours to prepare. So Friday was when I remarried convenience with the culinary, and allowed myself to think outside of the box, while avoiding  a prepackaged meal from one.

A seven dollar jumbo pack of chicken thighs were grabbed during an impromptu Whole Foods trip and into the fridge they went. The cooking began during the evening hours, when my daughter was snuggled up with dad and her milk bottle. The rest of the story generally goes like this:

1910 Thighs into hot pan and upstairs for family time.
1930 Smells of chicken wafting- a good time for a status check. Thighs flipped and seasoning sprinkled (forgot to season beforehand, no time like any). Laundry folding time upstairs.
1940 Thigh check. Nicely browned. Check. 1/2 bottle of beer into pan,  put on lid, moist heat takes over.
1945 Failed attempt to put child to bed. Dad takes her, and i take cilantro, ginger, garlic, lime, salt, and oil and put in a mini processor. top chicken with the sauce, and lick fingers a lot.
1950 We eat, she plays, she goes to sleep, and we eat some more.

 True, I didn't get to savor the sizzles and smells as the chicken cooked,  but I did get my snuggle time in, as I leaned over that pan, savoring flavor and meat and salt, feeling like i made something good.

Here's a recipe-ish. I was not exact about this at all. That's why thighs are great.

3 TBS oil
9 bone in chicken thighs (skinless or skin on, your pref)
salt and pepper
season blend that's been in the cabinet way too long (i used jerk)
1/2 bottle of beer, any kind
Over medium heat, heat oil in large skillet. Season chicken with salt, pepper, and seasoning, and add chicken to pan. allow to cook 20 min uncovered or until golden brown. Cook 10 more minutes on other side or until golden brown. Add 1/2 a bottle of beer allow alcohol to cook off then cover 15 more minutes. Meanwhile, make sauce.

1 bunch cilantro
2 garlic cloves chopped
1 inch piece ginger juice
1 lime
4 TBS olive oil (an estimate)

Spread sauce on each piece of chicken and enjoy.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Curried Chickpeas for Jeremy

The fact that I have prepared warm, spicy, velvety, curried chickpeas twice this week says something about the spring season so far. But enough about the weather. . .

Last weekend, a very old and dear friend was in town and, after succumbing to the prospect of an oncoming cold, I decided last minute we'd stay in and I would cook. After making an out of town guest shlep across the beltway to my house during rush hour traffic on a Friday, dinner had better be GOOD, I thought.

But as I've tinkered with odds and ends ingredients over the years, a cooking mantra has stuck to me like fat drippings to an all clad pan: good doesn't have to mean complicated.

Since fate was left to the Friday night traffic, and the estimated time of arrival ranged between 25 to 60 minutes, ingredients came out of the pantry quickly. What took the longest to cook went on the stove first. Brown rice in one pot and onions in another.

(A note: when my students in cooking class openly resist those untimely ingredients like rice or dried black beans, I gently offer a new perspective in defense of these foods and the "cooking ahead" strategy: it's not YOUR time, it's the beans' time.")

By the time my friend came to the door, all ingredients were in the pot cooking and dinner was on its way.

The meal fed three and a half of us. Luckily the dish satisfied my two dinner mates with one helping. As for myself and my other pregnant half, we went back for a second bowl.

Curried Chickpeas
Serves 2-3

2 Tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon oil
1 onion chopped
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1 Tablespoon black mustard seeds
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
3 cups cooked chickpeas (if using canned, drain and rinse first)
2 cups canned diced tomatoes, plus 1 cup juice drained and reserved
1 1/4 cups light coconut milk
2 1/2 Tablespoons curry powder
1 Tablespoon ground coriander
pinch red pepper flakes
cilantro garnish (optional)

Heat 2 Tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add onions and salt, cook until tender. Move onions to one side of pan, add remaining 1 teaspoon oil and black mustard seeds. Cook until mustard seeds make a popping sound and mix in with onions. Mix in tomato paste and cook 3 minutes. Add chickpeas, diced tomatoes, tomato juice, coconut milk, and remaining spices. Heat until mixture bubbles and cook 10 minutes or until sauce thickens.

Serve over rice.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Getting Fresh with your Food

This is the season of anticipation.

The smell of mulch wafts down the street, birds deliberate atop treetops and bushes, sending down encouraging chirps to baby buds, and seed packets get pulled out of the freezer to be tested for viability.

The mouth anticipates as well. As the palette turns its nose from hearty soups, root vegetables, and velvety flavors that sustained it through the winter months, it turns to lighter fare and the fresh flavors that compliment spring lettuce, spinach, and sugar snap peas.

But, as we say at work when plugging in plans to the calendar year. . . we're just not there yet.

So last week, I decided that if my food couldn't be fresh, then I would have to bring fresh to my food. The theme was faux fresh Mex.

To bring on the fresh, I started with a favorite cooking strategy, "component cooking." Make a mixture of xyz, and throw it into several dishes throughout the week.

Frozen peppers and corn were roasted, mixed with black beans, freshened up with a cilantro lime vinaigrette and chopped avocado (throw in an avocado to anything, and i'm somehow transported to a beach in san diego), and the cooking began.

This Faux Fresh Mex filling created a delicious dinner salad (with tofu added for more protein) and fish tacos that were superb.

While my fresh flavor additions were quite unlocal, walking to the market to greet Virginia farmers is a mere month away. So at least as my pregnant feet swell up in size this summer and bulge out of my flip flops, my carbon footprint will be under control.

Here's the fish tacos:

1. Roast veggies

1 bag frozen corn (16 oz)
1 bag frozen peppers (16 oz)
Roast corn and peppers in 400 degree oven for 30 minutes.

2. Make veggie and black bean mixture

2 cups of roast veggie mix (above)
1 15 ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 avocado diced

3. Make Cilantro Vinaigrette

1/2 cup cilantro
3 TBS olive oil
4 limes, juiced
4 TBS apple cider vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Combine in a blender or food processor. Stir into veggie and black bean mixture.

4. Cook Fish

2 Tablespoons olive oil
12 ounces tilapia
salt and pepper
garlic powder
1 can chipotle chilis packed in adobe sauce
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
1 Tablespoon water

Heat an electric skillet with olive oil over medium high heat

Sprinkle salt, pepper, and garlic powder on both sides of fish.

Combine 3 Tablespoons adobe sauce, 1 Tablespoon tomato paste, and 2 Tablespoons of water.

Add fish to skillet and cook 4 minutes each side. Add tomato paste mixture and cook 3 more minutes.

5. Assemble Tacos

6 soft corn tortilla shells
1 romaine heart

Heat 6 corn tortillas on a skillet or in microwave for 15 seconds.

Fill corn tortillas shell with fish, romaine lettuce, and black bean veggie mixture.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sunday Supper

A grilled cheese fixation hit hard last week.

While innocently conversing with colleagues about the wonders of good melted cheese sandwiched in between toasty buttery bread, I found myself, like a deer caught in the headlights, face to face with a craving.

When a craving arrives, it doesn't knock softly, rather, it seems to transfix and woo me into submission. But like Harry Potter's Patronus is to a dementor, my deep breathing and mindful food/memory associations turn a craving into what it really is: something else. On that grilled cheese day, it worked.

But then Sunday came, and with it, rain, and more grilled cheese cravings. So I interpreted the steady stream of precipitation and gray coldness as a sign from a higher power that grilled cheese was destined to be made for Sunday supper. And tomato soup too.

The soup is made with straightforward tomato flavor. While more finessing is in store for this dish, I found it to be a very tasty sidekick to my sammy.

As for the grilled cheese, the best guidance I can offer is just get some good cheese, bread, butter, and a frying pan, and you're on your way to grilled cheese heaven.

What I enjoy about eating this dish is that the tomato soup is light and zingy, while the grilled cheese is buttery and satisfying. This combination of light and substantial pairs well with March weather, when Spring is quite indecisive.

Tomato Soup
Makes 4 cups

1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 Tablespoon butter
1 1/2 large onions sliced
1 tsp salt
1 28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes with juice
1 cup low sodium chicken broth
3 large cloves garlic, diced
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

In a medium sized soup pot, heat oil and butter over medium heat. When butter melts and is frothy, add onions and salt. Cook 30 minutes on low heat or until onions are golden, stirring every 10 minutes. Careful not to burn onions. Add tomatoes, chicken broth, garlic, and pepper flakes, bring to a fast simmer, and cook 15 minutes. Blend together (immersion blender is great here) until soup is smooth.

Grilled Cheese
(Makes 4; one sammy for dinner, one for lunch)

3 Tablespoons Butter, softened
6 slices Good bread, sliced evenly
12 ounces of your favorite cheese, sliced evenly

Heat a large non-stick frying pan (preferably one that has a lid) over medium heat. Butter one side of each bread. On unbuttered side of one piece of bread, lay cheese slices evenly. Close sandwich with second piece of bread, buttered side on the outside. Assemble remaining sandwiches. Cook one side until golden and flip. A few times during cooking, cover with a lid to encourage steam and get the cheese melting.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pregnant Lentil

Some time has gone by since the last Red Lentil blog post. But offline, there has been plenty of cooking and experimenting over the past year. I've tinkered with gluten free, vegan, holiday recipes, and the like. But now, I'm really hungry.

With pregnancy, eating and cooking have taken some interesting twists and turns. My poor kitchen has been insulted by looks of repulsion and acts of neglect, while innocent foods (in my case mushrooms and waffles) have been blindsided by my sudden hatred of them. But having since moved on from the initial gagging stage, a new found passion for cooking has descended upon my kitchen. Now, when something gets cooked on the stove, I delight in being ravenous, feel eating satisfaction deep inside my bones, and find revelation in recipes as I never have before. For me, this is pregnant cooking.

While stories over the next six months will be about pregnant cooking, it will still very much be about just plain ole cooking. We're all hungry, we all need protein, and we're all too tired to cook. So now that I am more tired, more hungry, and need protein and iron like a fish needs water, let's see what comes out of the kitchen this time.

This morning its was a protein smoothie.

The day I went to the store in search of protein powders, I was shaking inside. As the body seems to be speaking in code when pregnant, it took about a week to decipher what the "shakies" meant. Was it low blood sugar? Nah. Withdrawal from caffeine? Nah, I keep green tea to a minimum. Protein. It had to be protein. So off I went to the store. I searched the shelves of Whole Foods like I was trying to find a missing shoe from the closet. Finally, one appeared with ample protein and no added sugar or flavoring.

(Eating chicken for 3 days straight also did help the "shakies," which was the body's way of saying, "Get some vitamin B12 stupid!" But that's for another blog entry).

With this smoothie, I've gone with simple, fast, and tasty. There are plenty of enhancements and explorations to be made, but that's what weekends are for. As I drink this before heading off to work, I not only indulge in the protein, I indulge in a flavor that, to me, is reminiscent of vanilla ice cream.

Protein Smoothie
Serves 1

1 frozen banana
1 Tablespoon creamy natural peanut butter
2 TBS protein powder (I use natural brown rice protein powder)
1 cup soy milk
**2 tea iced cubes (can use green tea, twig tea, or an herbal fave)
agave to taste (optional)

**Steep your favorite tea, freeze in ice cube trays, enjoy in your smoothie!
Combine in a blender until smooth and enjoy! If needed, add more liquid for desired thickness.

A note about the blender. I keep it close by so it seems less of a chore to remove it from the cupboard. And a quick rinse immediately afterwards (dried crusty smoothie is not fun to clean) means a smoothie the next day is more likely in the cards.

Roughly 22 grams of protein to start the day isn't bad.

Now what's for morning snack. . .