Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Neely's Southern Sweet and Spicy Slaw

There is just something about my fascination with Southern cooking and watching Down Home with the Neelys on the Food Network. While a few of my food aficionado friends may beg to differ because the Neelys aren't professionally trained chefs, I stand by their  family-style cooking because not only do they own a barbeque restaurant (and I love barbeque), they are so funny to watch with their personal stories of Southern life and everything in-between. If I lived in Memphis, one thing's for sure, I'd be looking them up in the phonebook and inviting myself over for some dinners (or really any meal--heck, I'll even take snack.)

So last week, while on break at work, I was looking in the cookbook section and got that little flutter of excitement in my stomach when I saw the Neely's cookbook. The feeling was something on par with finding an extra present under the tree on Christmas or when a really hot guy smiles at you (especially if that really hot guy is Justin Timberlake.) Therefore, when I saw the book, I immediately grabbed it and headed to check-out. Having their cookbook was probably the closest I'd get to sharing a meal with them, which is such a shame because I totally know we could be best friends.

That night, I came home from work and decided I wanted to make something from the book that I could bring for lunch for a few days to work. I also wanted to make something easy and that wouldn't take a long time. Hence, when I came to the page titled,  "Sweet and Spicy Slaw" I knew that was it. The Neelys wrote that this slaw would be the prettiest, crispest and crunchiest--so I was hooked despite not being a fan of coleslaw. C'mon, how many of us have a bad impression of coleslaw? You know the kind from catered work parties that comes in plastic containers and is just green cabbage soaked with mayo. Totally gross. And totally bad for you.

This Southern sweet and spicy slaw seemed different because it looked like a great salad and side dish, not just cabbage and clumpy mayo. With most of the ingredients already in my fridge, I set out to start cooking Neely style (minus the giant pig jar of sugar of course.)  The first thing I did was wash and quarter a green and a red cabbage. Then I took the core out of both of the cabbages. Next, I was going to shred the cabbage in the food processor, but I couldn't find the right blade attachment. Not wanting to call my parents who were lunching in the city, I opted for chopping attachment instead. I then cut the quarters of cabbage into smaller pieces, popped them into the food processor and turned it on. When the cabbages were chopped, I emptied the contents of the food processor into a giant, blue glass bowl. 

After the cabbage, I peeled a yellow onion and placed that into the food processor to chop up. Just putting the chopped onion into the bowl made my eyes tear as if I was watching Miley Cyrus'  new movie, The Last Song. Onion aside, I peeled four organic carrots and chopped them up in the food processor too. Right about now, I was feeling pretty good about owning a food processor (or that my mom owned one) because this was sure saving me a lot of work. 


Now that the slaw was complete, I mixed it around and got out another glass bowl to prepare my dressing. For the dressing, I added one cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of mustard, 1/2 cup of mayo, 1 tsp black pepper, 1 tsp cayenne pepper, a pinch of kosher salt and 2 tbs apple cider vinegar. I whisked the dressing until it was mixed and then poured it over the slaw. When the slaw was covered with the dressing, I put plastic wrap over it and popped it into the fridge.

After the slaw chilled and marinated, I packed my lunch for the following day by putting trail mix, string cheese and a tupperware of the sweet and spicy slaw into a brown paper bag. Although it was almost time for dinner, I couldn't resist trying some of the slaw and it was amazing! I couldn't believe the flavor that was packed into the dish. It was sweet from the sugar, yet the slaw had a kick too it from the cayenne pepper. My nose started to run after several bites, but it just had great flavor. The colors were bright and the cabbage was crunchy. This slaw gets an A+, which I'm glad it did because the recipe made enough slaw for about fifteen people, so I'd have lunch for a few days. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Quesdilla Side: Guy Fieri's Black Bean Salad

Last night, my mom was making quesdillas for dinner, so I volunteered to put myself in charge of finding and creating the perfect side dish to a food I lived on in college. But what was I going to make ? At a Mexican restaurant, the normal side dish would be either refried beans, yellow rice or chips and salsa. But then, I remembered a few years ago my aunt made a delicious three bean salad, so what did I do? I hopped onto and typed in "bean salad" to search for the recipe that would match some homemade Mexican.

The picture of Guy Fieri's (the chef on the Food Network who makes cooking cool for "men") black bean salad looked delicious and was just what I was envisioning making. I had most of the ingredients for the dish at home except for green onions, a red onion, canned pineapple and canned corn. Therefore, I made a quick trip to the store and of course while I was out, I had to get an iced raspberry coffee with Soymilk from Starbucks as well!

With my ingredients on the table along with my mom's food processor, a spoon, a giant bowl, and a cutting board and chopping knife, I began to assemble to salad. The first thing I did was drain and rinse two cans of black beans, and two small cans of sweet corn before placing them into the large bowl. Then I cut up my red onion before I realized half of it was rotten, so I threw half in the garbage and chopped the other half in the food processor. After the red onion, I put the green onions in the food processor and then added them to the bowl.

Fieri's recipe called for two Roma tomatoes, but I opted to leave them out of the recipe as well as switch the 1/4 cup of diced red bell pepper to one roasted red pepper and a half of roasted orange pepper that I had in the fridge and chopped up. Using a roasted pepper gave the salad a better texture and flavor. The orange in the salad really made it pop, so I decided because I had enough organic carrots in my fridge for an army, to shred up a carrot in the salad to mix it up! I also added the entire can of diced pineapple into the bowl, but I wish I had chopped the cubes in half because they looked rather large.

Now that the salad was put together, it was time to make the dressing--to which I made some changes. Instead of using the juice of 1/2 a lime, I used a full lime and then the zest of the lime for additional flavor and color. I also substituted the 3 tablespoons of honey for three tablespoons of agave nectar, which tastes exactly like honey and has a low glycemic index. (This means you won't get a high sugar rush followed by a crash.) It also has less calories, dissolves quicker and is a little sweeter than sugar.

Then the dressing called for 4 tablespoon of sherry vinegar. Not having any in the house, I added 2 1/2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar instead.
In addition, I added only a dash of salt instead of a tablespoon, a few cranks of ground black pepper and opted to forget about the pinch of ground cumin and cilantro because my mom isn't a fan of the latter.

I mixed all my ingredients up making sure the salad was coated with the dressing and then plated a generous portion of the salad in three white, square bowls. I put plastic wrap over the salad and placed the bowls into the fridge to chill until dinner was ready.

This recipe gets an A+ because it is a great side dish you could have with Mexican food or even bring to a barbecue! The black bean salad was delicious! Not only is it very healthy for you, but the flavors came together incredibly. Luckily, I had an entire container of the concoction left over, so I couldn't wait to have some for lunch the following day.

The only downside to the recipe was that Fieri said the prep time was only 10 minutes, but it took me 25 to put it together because you have to wash and chop all the veggies! But, on a brighter note that night, I brought some over to my friend's house to try and her mom asked me if I bought the salad or made it because it looked just like the one they got from the store!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Making Banana Dessert

At Costco, a bunch of bananas is $1.32. I have two bunches in my kitchen that are ripening faster than the amount of smoothies I can make. I've already been using one banana in my smoothie instead of my usual half to prove to my mom that I'm not wasting the fruit. Solution? Why, make a banana dessert of course! (One that would use three giant bananas specifically.) But, what to make?

I seriously lacked banana inspiration. I browsed through the recipes in the Top Chef: The Quickfire Cookbook (2009) and found only two with bananas I could make-- one was a banana chocolate pie and the other a banana mousse. However, neither recipe spoke to me, and when I type spoke to me, I mean I didn't end up getting my usual craving of wanting to eat the photograph right out of the cookbook. I would be making either recipe to just use the bananas, but they didn't have "Eat Me" written on them like those little teacakes in Alice in Wonderland.

Therefore, I took a break from the Top Chef cookbook, made some French vanilla coffee with some vanilla soy milk (yes it was four p.m. and I was falling asleep.) Then with my coffee, I logged onto (home of the Food Network's web site), typed "bananas" into the search box and then searched for a dessert to make out of the 955 results.

Right away I knew it...Paula Deen! Comforting, Southern, and just oh so perfect for a rainy, gloomy Sunday. But, I needed to have all the ingredients in my kitchen because I really didn't feel like making a trip to the food store--so that was my Top Chef Quickfire Challenge. Good thing the cameras weren't on because I was make-up free with a pony tail and wearing grey yoga pants and an over-sized bright teal t-shirt from Forever 21.

The first Paula Deen recipes with bananas that came up were: Mom's Banana Dessert, Banana Pudding and Chocolate Banana Pie. I got tingly all over just looking at the picture of the Chocolate Banana Pie, because I knew exactly how I wanted to plate the dessert. I was going to make it sans the pie! The downside was I was going to loose my own Top Chef Quickfire Challenge because I didn't have all the ingredients. (In my defense, Robert Irvine of Dinner: Impossible always bends the rules. Like the time he secretly sent someone to get seafood for a dinner that was supposed to use ONLY the ingredients available inside a theme park.) So throwing on my Adidas black jacket and running shoes, I went to King Kullen to pick up heavy cream, ricotta cheese and cream cheese. Nine dollars later, I was home and ready to make my dessert!

When I got home the first thing I did was put 15 oz of fat free ricotta cheese into my mixer along with two bananas, 8 oz of fat free cream cheese, 1/2 cup of sugar and a 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract. I blended the ingredients until smooth and then slowly added in 3/4 cup of cocoa powder as it was mixing. When the mixture was creamy, I tasted it and felt it needed more vanilla. I added an extra 1/2 teaspoon of the extract and then another 2 tablespoons of sugar.

Now the Chocolate Banana Pie was completed, but I didn't want to plate it as Paula Deen suggested into mini pie crusts, so I choose to use two champagne glasses and four martini glasses. I filled the bottom of all six of the glasses with crushed ginger lemon cookies that I put in the food processor. Then I filled the glasses with the chocolate mixture before making homemade whipped cream that I swirled on top of the desserts.

I finished off the desserts by sprinkling more of the crushed ginger lemon cookies on top and then decided to caramelize the third banana to use for decoration. To do this, I sliced up the banana and then rolled each piece in sugar before placing them in a frying pan that I sprayed and had on medium heat. When the bananas were done (about five minutes), I decorated two of the desserts with them before I realized that because they were hot, they would melt my whipped cream. I decided to let the rest of the bananas cool before I plated them.

While I love Paula Deen because her show cracks me up, I didn't really care for this dessert too much so I would give it a B+. The Chocolate Banana Pie didn't have the pudding consistency I was hoping for due to the ricotta cheese as the base. It also didn't have a strong banana flavor so I should have used three bananas in the pudding itself instead of two. The recipe may also have been better if I layered it like a parfait in the glass with a layer of caramelized bananas, pie mixture and then cookie crumbs. I think that the parfait style would work better so its not just so much pudding and that the bananas would stand out having the pudding compliment their taste. If I were having a party, I would have plated the dessert in shot glasses instead of martini glasses because it was a very thick, rich dessert.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Dinner: Caribbean Style

Because my new job starts this week (woo-hoo), while my friends will be enjoying the sun, the closest I will get to a vacation is brushing on some bronzer and watching The Office episode where Michael Scott goes to Jamaica and comes back to the office with his new mantra of "Island Living," a braid and some steel drums. At least if I couldn't go to the Caribbean, I could cook with some island flavors and bring the Caribbean into my kitchen (minus Michael Scott.)

I wanted to make dinner that was simple, affordable and yet packed with flavor. So, I automatically thought chicken, plantains and coconut rice! The first thing I did was head on down to Compare Foods despite my intimation with the chicken feet in their meat section or the prickly cactus in the produce aisle. Because it was freezing in the store, I raced in and out spending less than seven dollars! I picked up four ripened plantains for $1.99, three thin chicken breasts (perfect for frying) for $3.00 and a can of evaporated milk for $1.50. I already had the rice and coconut milk in my pantry at home along with all the other ingredients like flour, panco and eggs. The meal would only take about ten minutes to prepare and be ready to eat within a half-hour.

A few years back, when I was at the peak of "expanding my bedroom library," I was buying books left and right. During this phase, one of the bargain books that I bought was Quick Fix Meals: 200 Simple, Delicious Recipes to Make Mealtime Easy by Robin Miller (2007) from Barnes & Noble. I've never seen her show or heard of her, but a cookbook is a cookbook; there were pictures and the book had the Food Network seal of approval--so into my library it went! In the book, I learned how to make coconut rice, so I prepared my rice based on what I remembered from her book.

To start cooking the rice, I boiled 3 cups of lite coconut milk in a pot. When it was bubbling, I poured in 1 and 1/2 cups of jasmine rice, put the lid on and turned the burner down to warm. I then put the timer on for 25 minutes and stirred the rice every five minutes so it wouldn't stick to the bottom or burn.

Once the rice was cooking, I peeled and sliced up the plantains and put them onto a baking sheet covered in foil. After watching a chicken competition on the Food Network where a contestant made plantains, I tried to remember what she did so I could produce the same dish in my kitchen. I thought she poured a half of a can of evaporated milk over the plantains and then sprinkled them with brown sugar, so I did the same before I put them in the oven at 300 degrees and crossed my fingers they would be mouthwatering and I could almost taste their sugary gooeyness.

Now, it was time for the chicken! I floured the chicken and then dipped the cutlets in eggs before coating them in a breadcrumb mixture of panco, shredded coconut and chopped almonds with a dash of all spice and nutmeg. Into a frying pan they went until they were a nice crispy brown. Could it get any easier than this?

This dish gets an A- because it didn't all come together and could be improved. While the chicken was the best part of the meal because the flavors really popped and the little bit of coconut in the breading went very well with the creamy rice, it needed a sauce. Perhaps a mango inspired chutney would have worked amazing with the dish and been even more Caribbean. The dish also needed some kind of green vegetable. Avocado anyone? Plus, I thought the rice could've had more coconut flavor if I infused it with some shredded coconut while it was simmering!

Furthermore, I really should have looked up a recipe for plantains because although they tasted okay, they were a bit chewy and the evaporated milk started to burn in the oven and the smell wasn't very pleasant--kind of like Michael Scott playing "Hot Hot Hot" on the steel drums. So for now, I'll take my Caribbean dish and begin my own version of "Island Living" as I eat seconds! Now, off to find that bronzer....

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Making Meringues Inspired by Jamie Oliver

When I was at the library the other day browsing for new cookbooks, I came across Jamie Oliver's book, Cook with Jamie: My Guide to Making You a Better Cook (2007). Since, I love looking through cookbooks and this one had tons of photographs, I added it to my pile despite not being a fan of Oliver's persona or cooking style (traditional British with a strong emphasis on game, ie duck, rabbit, lamb, etc.).

Enjoying the break in the gloomy weather this weekend, I sat outside and looked through Oliver's cookbook. While it was definitely not my cup of tea, I was intrigued by his dessert section on meringues. In part because I just read a recipe from Cooking Light magazine for a coconut cake that instead of frosting called for Italian meringue in the middle of the two cake layers. Prior to the recipe, I didn't even know there were different types of meringues!

So what I did like about Oliver's book is that he broke down the types of meringues and gave pointers for making the low-cal, light and fluffy dessert treats! The three types of meringues Oliver mentioned were cooked meringues, Italian meringues and French meringues. The recipes in his book are for French meringues, which are the easiest because you do not need to cook them over the stove, so you can use a mixer.

To make my first batch of meringues, I cracked six eggs and put the egg whites into my mixing bowl. I then put the mixer on medium for ten minutes. Oliver wrote that the egg whites should form stiff peaks before you add the sugar. They should be so stiff that you could lift the bowl over your head and nothing would fall out of it! Since I wasn't putting a bowl over my head, I put a spoon into the bowl and held the spoon upside down. When none of the egg whites dripped off, I knew it was time to add the sugar.

Oliver said to gradually add one cup and five tablespoons of sifted superfine sugar while mixing. However, I only had about 3/4 of a cup of superfine sugar and I was too lazy to sift the sugar so I mixed regular sugar with superfine sugar and just made sure there were no lumps! I put my mixer on high and let it mix for ten minutes before I noticed the change in texture as the egg whites were now a glossy white. It was done when I rubbed the mixture between my fingers and it felt smooth.

When the mixture was smooth, I moved the bowl to the counter and flavored the meringues to have a hint of chocolate raspberry essence. To do this, I folded in some raspberry extract, red food dye and two tablespoons of cocoa powder. Then, I put the meringue mixture into a piping bag and made some swirls for cookies and inverted swirls to use for bowls onto two baking trays covered in wax paper. I placed the trays into a 300 degree preheated oven for one hour.

When the meringues were done, I took them out of the oven and I noticed that some of the swirls had cracked. Upon tasting them, I also realized that the smaller the meringue, the better because after one bite the top caves in and the meringue gets crummy. On the other hand, all of the bowls I made came out perfect so I was going to use them to create my dessert!

Looking at a combination of Oliver's recipes for a fruit meringue and floating islands, I decided to make my own whipped cream that I would spoon into each of the meringue bowls. I poured my leftover heavy cream (from the penne a la vodka) and added sugar and vanilla to taste and whipped it in the mixer until a cream was formed.

Once the cream was spooned very gently into the bowls, I made a berry compote that would act as a drizzle. The tartness of the berries would also contradict nicely against the sweetness of the whipped cream. To make the compote, I chopped up frozen strawberries and put them into a pan on warm along with some frozen blueberries and raspberries. I then added about a 1/4 cup of sugar and a few drops of lemon juice. When a sauce was formed, I drizzled it over the whipped cream filled meringues.

To top off my creation, I attempted to make spun sugar. This is done by heating up (and constantly stirring) one cup of water and one cup of sugar in a pan with a candy thermometer. When the temperature reaches 325 degrees, the mixture turns to carmel. I then took the pot (as Oliver suggests) and put it into cold water to stop the carmel from cooking. When the carmel was just right, I tried to flick it onto oiled waxed paper. When I flicked it, little shreds of sugar that looked like string came off the fork hardened. I was not able to get much spun sugar and definitely need more experience working with the sugar, but I did decorate the dessert with a little bit of the sugar I made and some hardened carmel.

I give this dessert an 'A' because it was also very simple to make and doesn't require many ingredients (sugar and eggs only!) Making meringues was fun, but not a task I would do without a mixer. However, I felt the meringues I made tasted like hazelnut instead of chocolate so I might want to play around with the flavors and colors next time. I would also make smaller meringue cookies to eat, but the bowls came out fine! I really enjoyed the flavors of the whipped cream, berry compote and crunchiness of the meringue because it was light and delicious! There is so much to do with meringues that next maybe I'll make Eton mess!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Getting Stuffed with a Twist on Lidia's Stuffed Mushrooms

Tonight, I'm having leftover penne a la vodka, but because there isn't enough for a dinner serving three, to spice it up, I decided to make another dish to go along with the heavenly pasta. While perusing Costco yesterday for frozen berries and bananas for my morning smoothies, I saw a good deal on baby bell mushrooms--$3.99 for a whole container full. I grabbed the first one and put them into the cart with stuffed mushrooms on my brain. Only several aisles up, I realized that my mushrooms were full of a white-fuzzy mold. I'd say thats a few "ahhs" short of delicious. So back to the refrigerator aisle I went to get the perfect container of mushrooms. After Costco, I went to my local food store and picked up a red pepper because I knew the rest of the ingredients I had at home.

When it came time to cook the mushrooms, I used the stuffed mushroom recipe my mom uses when she makes the yummy appetizers from Lidia cookbook, Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich (2001) on pages 18 and 19. You can also get the recipe from Lidia's Italy's web site, Stuffed Mushrooms. However, I never use a recipe as is, I like to make it my own--and that's the fun of cooking (not baking, trust me on that one).

The first thing I did when I was ready to cook was pop open the mushroom container, then using three or four damp papertowels, cleaned the dirt off the tops and stems of about 24 mushrooms. This took about fifteen minutes because I also pulled out the stems of the mushrooms and placed them on a cutting board while the clean mushroom tops went onto a foiled and sprayed baking sheet. (I cook mine differently than Lidia, who suggests pouring a mixture of chicken broth and white wine into a baking pan and then placing the mushrooms in the liquid in the pan.)

Once the mushrooms were lined up on the foil, I began to make the stuffing! I finely chopped up the mushroom stems, one red onion (instead of Lidia's suggested 1/2 cup of shallots), one red pepper, and then I decided to add some chopped fresh spinach leaves into the mixture. I placed the vegetables into a skillet that was on medium heat with olive oil. Once the onion and veggies were browned, I stirred in some fresh ground pepper, a dash of parsley, a 1/2 cup of panco (Japanese bread crumbs) and a 1/2 cup of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

When all the ingredients were well blended, I stuffed the mushrooms on the pan and placed them into a 400 degree oven for 25 minutes. Lidia wrote 425 (which was way too hot) for 20 minutes in her recipe. When the timer went off, I took the tray out of the oven, let the mushrooms cool and plated three mushrooms on each plate of penne. I also ate a few while waiting for dinner.

Overall, I give these stuffed mushrooms an 'A' because they were very easy to make. They could also be even easier if you put all the ingredients into a food processor as that would save time chopping the vegetables. The downside of this recipe was taking the time to clean the mushrooms. It was so much work! But, I'll be making these again to bring to Easter dinner along with some red velvet cupcakes!