Monday, July 27, 2009

Recipe: The Easiest Blackberries & Cream Popsicles EVER

So the company I currently work for has been sold and will no longer be in existence as of this Friday. Though many of my fellow coworkers have been told whether or not the acquiring company will be keeping them on staff, I am the only one who is still in limbo about her employment status. I could be employed with the new company permanently, I could be employed just long enough to train the other folks and be phased out, or I could just have no job at all come next Monday. The announcement was made at the end of last week, so needless to say, we were all blindsided by this. No one is giving me a clear answer as to my job status, and the whole thing is about to make me develop a nervous twitch. Nothing like the great unknown to make you feel like you're spiraling out of control, n'est-ce pas? I mean, I could have to change the name of this blog to Unemployed Girl Can Actually Eat, and that just doesn't roll off the tongue as nicely as the current title.

They say that when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade. Since I wasn't really in the mood for lemonade this weekend, I decided to make popsicles instead. Though my favorite desserts are homemade apple pie, cheesecake, and Grand Marnier souffles, I have always and will forever be a fan of frozen confections. Ice cream, sorbet, gelato, fro yo, you name it - if it's frozen & sweet, I will eat it. Because I have the best mom in the entire universe, I can have popsicles of any kind, as she bought me a great little popsicle-making set a few summers ago. I've been able to experiment wildly with different flavor combinations, and I could make an entire site devoted to these frozen concoctions if I were so inclined. Alas, one project at a time is good enough (especially since this project has about 14 satellite projects of its own), so I figured I'd bring my beloved PGEW readers a few of these recipes while summer is still here. The first one being Blackberries & Cream.

I'd hesitated about posting these because they just look a little strange. Then I thought: Darnit, there's just not enough periwinkle or lilac-colored food in this world, and that's just a shame. Summer food is usually bright with reds, oranges, and greens, but I think the darker colors of the world should have some face time, too. Besides, just a glance at these popsicles gives you an idea of their rich flavor. They're sweet with berries and so creamy it hurts, making this the perfect sinful confection to enjoy after a nice summer meal. Or, if you're like me and crave ice cream & other frozen desserts in the winter, you could enjoy them after a warm, comfy dinner. Regardless, you really can't go wrong with berries & cream, especially when they require all of 10 minutes to make (excluding freezing time). Those of you who've made ice cream or other frozen treats from scratch know that it's not always that easy. This, combined with the fact that you'll have flavored pops unlike anything at the store, and that only cost about $0.67/pop, make these desserts just a little sweeter. If one were to follow a traditional recipe for a creamy popsicle with fresh fruit, it would not only take a lot longer to prepare, but it would cost one a lot more than this recipe because of the many ingredients involved. Don't like blackberries? (shame on you! haha) No worries. Substitute your favorite berry instead and you'll be just as happy.

PS - Moms & Dads, get the kids involved in this one! Not only will you appreciate the extra help in the kitchen, they'll have a blast knowing that they've made their own dessert AND a complete mess of themselves in the process. (Okay, so maybe that last part isn't the best selling point to parents, but kids will adore me for this, hahaha.)

The Easiest Blackberries & Cream Popsicles EVER (makes 10 popsicles; total cost per pop: $0.67! Take that, ice cream man!)

1 basket (~ 1 1/2 c) fresh blackberries (you can use frozen ones, but only if you absolutely have to)
Juice of 1 small lemon
1 t sugar
1 can condensed milk (regular, not light! It will ruin the texture)

Rinse the berries well and gently pat dry. In a large bowl, combine the whole berries, lemon juice, and teaspoon of sugar and, using a fork or your (clean) bare hands, mash the berries until they've released most of their juice but still have plenty of berry texture. Add the can of condensed milk and stir together until completely combined. Place in popsicle molds, add sticks, and freeze for about 2-3 hours. Don't have a popsicle mold? Pour the berry & cream mixture into a couple of ice trays and you'll have twice as many pops that are even more user friendly for tiny tots. Either way, enjoy!

(For those of you who are extremely detail oriented, yes, I did add strawberries to mine. I only had a few left and figured it'd be a fun way to use 'em and not waste 'em.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Recipe: Tuna Stuffed Avocados

For a couple months now, one of my coworkers and I have been working out every day during lunch. From Billy Blanks Bootcamp to Pilates and ballet workouts, we’ve been very religious about the whole thing, pushing each other when we’re ready to give up, never letting the other quit. Unfortunately, I’m not seeing a darned thing changed on my stupid scale (WHY is this so hard after 30???), but I’m definitely seeing some great results in toning and overall slimming. I love being back in the exercise mode, but this week my buddy and I are taking it easy on the workouts so that we can take care of things that we’ve had to neglect over the past several weeks. Like actually eating lunch, among other things.

Today I thought I’d devote my lunch hour to working on the little surprise I have for you all (it’s coming next month!). Since I knew I’d have the whole hour at my disposal, I decided it would also be a fine day for making something different to eat for lunch. As usual, it’s quick, easy to prepare, and falls under the Look-I’m-Eating-Healthy-During-Regular-Business-Hours category. A slight twist on my Shrimp & Avocado Stuffed Tomatoes, these stuffed avocados pack a big protein & health fat punch that costs about the same as a mini-meal at McDonald’s but is so much better for you. Naturally, if you can find a great deal on avocados ($0.99/each or the killer TJ's deal of 4 for $3.49), your cost goes way down. Serve these on their own or on a bed of lettuce or fresh spinach, and you have the perfect summer work lunch. Prefer creamier tuna with your avocado? Instead of the Italian dressing alone, combine one tablespoon of nonfat plain yogurt with some of the dressing, whisk well, and voila! Creamy, but healthy tuna.

Tuna Stuffed Avocados (serves 1-2; cost per serving: $2.99)

1 large avocado
1 can of chunk light tuna in water
1/2 medium tomato
2 green onions, chopped
2 T Italian dressing

Chop the tomato and green onions and place in a bowl. Drain the tuna and add it to the chopped veggies. Add the Italian dressing and mix together well. Slice the avocado in half, peel, and seed. Place a couple generous spoonfuls of tuna in the hole left by the seed, drizzle with a bit of extra dressing if you like, and enjoy!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Recipe: Pineapple Chicken Lettuce Wraps

It. Is. HOT!!!

It's been 100+ degrees every day this week and it looks like we'll be stuck with this heat through the weekend. I don't know about you guys, but when it's this hot the only things I want to eat are giant, leafy salads and fresh fruit. Still, there are times when it’s so hot I don’t even feel like I can lift a fork (I’m sure you’ve all been there before!). This is why I’m ever-so-thankful that the lettuce wrap exists. I get my fair share of greens, there’s a yummy filling involved, and I don’t need flatware to eat ‘em, just grab it and chow.

Aside from my heat-induced lethargy, I decided to make this because I needed to make use of a giant pineapple I scored for a mere $1.49 (priced per pineapple, not per pound!) at my favorite Mexican grocery store. It’d been camping out in my refrigerator for about a week and I knew I needed to dig into it soon. In my freezer I still had some of the amazingly inexpensive chicken breasts I got at the same store, so I decided to play around with the two, though I wasn’t really feeling the whole hot stir-fry idea I’d originally thought of making. Since Safeway had a fairly decent sale on their butter lettuce the last time I went to pick up some kitty food, I realized I was saved from too much hot kitchen work (I only have one tiny window A/C unit for my whole apartment, so my kitchen gets REALLY hot in the summer) and decided to make some fun lettuce wraps.

You can definitely substitute leftover chicken and frozen/canned pineapple for the fresh stuff if that’s what you have on hand. I don’t want any of you to be spending extra money if you don’t need to! If you’re cooking your chicken breasts, simply season them well with salt, pepper, and a bit of garlic, and cook in a skillet as you normally would. Other than that, there isn’t much to note; this is healthy, very easy to prepare, and a nice change for a weeknight dinner. This would also be great as part of an hors d’oeuvre spread at a small party. Just make sure to stick with tossing the chicken mixture with the sauce as opposed to making it a dipping sauce. Lettuce wraps are great, but they can get a little messy when it comes to dipping. This way you have all the flavor and none of the mess. Now, on with the show!

Pineapple Chicken Lettuce Wraps (serves 2-3 with 2 wraps per person; total cost per serving: ~ $2.15)

4-6 butter lettuce leaves

1 1/2 c cooked chicken breasts, shredded
3/4 c pineapple, chopped into ½” pieces

2 serrano peppers, seeded, deveined, and finely chopped

Small bunch fresh cilantro, chopped

1/3 medium red onion, thinly sliced

1/4 c rice vinegar

1/4 c soy sauce

2 T honey



Rinse the butter lettuce and pat dry. To prepare the dressing, combine the rice vinegar, soy sauce and honey together in a bowl. Whisk vigorously until completely combined and set aside. In a large bowl combine the shredded chicken, pineapple, serranos, onion, and cilantro. Add about 3/4 of the dressing and toss together well. Assemble your wraps by spooning a generous amount of the chicken & pineapple mixture. Drizzle the tops of each with a little more dressing, roll 'em up, and enjoy!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Recipe: Steak & Zucchini Stuffed Portabellas

There are times when I really want to treat myself, even within my limited means. Though I received a minor financial windfall a few weeks ago (it was more like a breeze, but it still helped), I'm trying to remain as miserly as always, since money doesn't last forever, especially nowadays. However, I insist that this is no reason to ignore the desire for a delicious dinner. As I've shown you for almost a year now (can you believe it?), just because you're lacking copious amounts of money, doesn’t mean you have to be stuck with boring food. Today was a rather stressful day at work, so I wanted to let myself unwind with an old movie and a nice dinner. Though I'd originally planned on having something different (it will be the next recipe, so stay tuned), I couldn't resist the call of the lovely Portobello caps that I'd scored at Safeway when I was picking up kitty food yesterday. I also had a little flat of stir-fry cut steak that I knew I needed to use soon and thought I could make something of the two. Still, I needed another vegetable, something a little less dark & smoky looking, something with a little more crunch. Fortunately, my boss's wife had brought in some great zucchini from her garden, so I had all the starring roles of this dinner cast to perfection.

I love stuffed mushrooms in most forms; I've just never taken the time to play around and make my own. I remember it being a very big deal whenever my mom started making her special version of them, but those were usually served as hors d'oeuvres because they were made with regular white mushrooms. With my giant portabella caps, I knew I could make a meal out of them, and trust me, you will get full with one of these and a small salad. Rather than sticking with the traditional bread crumb & cheese mix, using some well-seasoned steak and some fresh zucchini makes this a healthy, hearty meal. A small amount of parmesan cheese gives the whole thing a sharp & nutty kick as well. Not a meat eater? Stick with the zucchini & parmesan, add a couple of extra veggies if you like, and you’ll have an equally delicious, filling meal.

Of course, the best part about these is the price. Let’s face it: portabella dishes are aren’t always that affordable if you’re eating out, and some recipes that include these great mushrooms may look delicious, but can really hurt the wallet because of the pricey ingredients. But as with many of my recipes, you can save yourself quite a bit of time and money by making use of any leftovers you may have. Steak and zucchini both make it on the tables of many people at some point during the week, so if you have any leftovers, be sure to keep this recipe in mind for a great way to use them. And even if you did buy all the ingredients just to prepare this meal, the cost per serving is relatively low and you will have plenty of those same ingredients to use for other meals. Remember, doing it yourself is not only great to get those creative juices flowing, it’s wonderful for the pocketbook!

Steak & Zucchini Stuffed Portabellas (serves 2; total cost per serving: $3.75)
2 large Portobello mushroom caps (3”-4” in diameter)
1 medium zucchini, chopped into ½” pieces
1 c lean steak, cubed
1 clove garlic, minced
1/8 t cumin
1/4 t salt
1/4 t fresh ground pepper
Pinch of paprika
1/3 c freshly grated parmesan cheese
2 T olive oil
Cooking spray
Couple sprigs of parsley for garnish (optional)

Preheat the broiler. Season the steak with the salt, pepper, cumin, and paprika, and grate the parmesan cheese. Set each aside. Spray a medium skillet with cooking spray (I use either olive or canola oil sprays) and add the garlic. Heat over medium high heat until garlic begins to turn fragrant, followed by the cubed steak. Quickly stir fry the steak for no more than 2-3 minutes. The pieces will still be pink inside, but because these will eventually be broiled, you don’t want to end up overcooking. Remove from heat & cover.

Lightly brush the bottoms of the Portobello caps with olive oil and place gill side down on a foil lined baking sheet (easier clean up!). When broiler is ready, pop the mushrooms inside and broil for about 3 minutes. Turn the mushrooms onto the other side, brush with a bit more olive oil, and season very lightly with salt & pepper. Broil for another 3 minutes. While they’re broiling, combine the cooked steak, zucchini, and 1/2 the parmesan cheese in a medium bowl and toss together until combined. Remove the mushrooms from the broiler, spoon a generous amount of the steak & zucchini mixture onto each one, top with a bit more parmesan cheese, and return to the broiler. Broil for another 4 minutes or so, or until the cheese has melted and is just beginning to broil. Remove from broiler and allow to cool for a couple minutes before serving. Garnish with a bit of parsley, serve with a nice salad, and enjoy!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Recipe: Meyer Lemon Cheesecake Shots with Candied Kumquats

I meant to post this yummy dessert last month, but better late than never, right? When I was in San Jose for my high school reunion, I stayed with one of my best friends from high school. She and her husband had warned me to come prepared with some bags so that I could relieve them of their surplus of Meyer lemons. I thought they were exaggerating and figured I'd go home with maybe 10 or so, along with a few for mom. But when I went out to their trees, I was absolutely shocked! Both trees' branches were bending under the weight of the enormous amount of beautifully huge lemons. Each time I thought I'd cleared one branch, another million lemons seemed to appear. Needless to say, I left with at least 50 of these sweetly scented fruits, and I've been using them for a number of different things, from regular cooking to fresh lemonade.

Aside from the lemons, they sent me home with some lovely fresh oregano and some kumquats, which was a welcome surprise. I hadn't had kumquats in ages so I happily grabbed several, with no real clue about how I'd use them. Fortunately, my train ride back home to Sacramento is long enough so that you can do a lot of thinking, and it occurred to me that it might be fun to put the two together, since they're both from the citrus family. I figured a simple little cheesecake parfait made from the two would be perfect for summertime, and I was right. The tartness of the kumquats go perfectly with the lightness of the sweet Meyer lemon cheesecake, making this a creamy, yet refreshing dessert for a balmy summer night.

Because lemon trees can be rather common in many backyards across the country, try to take advantage of any fruit these trees may be bearing right now. Not only will you get better tasting produce, but you'll be saving yourself some money by not going to the store to pay for what you can pick on your own. Don't have a tree? Do what I did and relieve your friends or family of some of their excess fruit. In our fast-paced, instant-gratification society, we seem to have forgotten what it's like to share with our neighbors and friends. Have a little fruit-picking party and spend some time with friends while reconnecting with nature.

For those of you who don't have access to kumquats (though they sell them at most major grocery store chains), don't fret: you can acheive the same visual effect with some mandarin orange sections. Though you won't end up with the same tart v. sweet juxtaposition as you would with the kumquats, they'll still give a cool, juicy kick to the creamy cheesecake. And if you're worried about the logistics of cheesecake + tiny shot glass, stop this instant! This is PGEW-in-the-summertime cheesecake, which means quick, easy, and no-bake. In the sweltering heat of Sacramento (and other super-hot places like the South, Arizona, etc.), there's no reason to make matters worse by turning on an oven; save yourself some time and cut back on your energy costs by making this simple, creamy concoction. Lastly, don't limit yourself to regular shot glasses for this one! This recipe yields quite a bit of cheesecake, so you can use regular parfait glasses or small juice glasses to serve these if you prefer.

Meyer Lemon Cheesecake Shots with Candied Kumquats (yields enough for about 15 dessert shots; total cost per serving: ~ $0.85)

1 8 oz. package cream cheese, softened
1 can condensed milk (regular, not low-sugar)
1/4 c Meyer lemon juice
Zest of one Meyer lemon

30-40 kumquats (1-2 packages)
3/4 c sugar
3/4 water
1 T honey

Rinse the kumquats well and pat dry. Cut each one in half crosswise, remove the seeds, then cut the halves into quarters. Combine the water and sugar in a saucepan and heat over medium heat until the sugar has completely dissolved. Add the kumquats, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook for about 15 minutes, or until the kumquats have softened completely. Remove from heat and allow them to cool in their syrup for a few minutes, then separate them from the syrup. Set aside.

With an electric mixer, whip the softened cream cheese at medium speed until nice and creamy. Add the condensed milk and mix until completely combined, followed by the Meyer lemon juice. Mix for about 2-3 minutes; you will notice that the lemon juice will thicken your mixture significantly, which means it is almost ready to serve. Lastly, add the grated zest of one Meyer lemon and gently fold into the cheesecake mixture.

Assemble your parfait shots by layering the cheesecake and a small amount of the candied kumquats until your shot glasses are filled. Refrigerate for at least one hour, serve after a nice dinner, and enjoy!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Recipe: Garlic-Black Pepper Shrimp & Avocado Salad

I hope you all enjoyed your 4th of July weekend! I know I did, hanging out with mom, going swimming, and having yummy food, of course. My mom and I stuck with a south-of-the border theme and the food was wonderful, as was the company. But summer cookouts can be hard work, what with the prepping, the actual cooking time, the clean-up (my least favorite). For the next few days after constantly cooking, you just want to have something quick & easy to make. That's how I'm feeling right now, but you know I refuse to compromise on taste, which is why this recipe is one of my regular favorites.

There's not much to it, really. It's just a combination of shrimp, avocados, and other fun ingredients, drizzled with a simple, yet flavorful white wine vinaigrette. The shrimp are given a savory kick of garlic and lots of fresh ground pepper, making this salad anything but boring. It's beautiful to look at, and pretty good for you as far as dinners go. I've had similar salads at major restaurant chains and have enjoyed them just as much as I enjoy mine. However, I still prefer mine for one big reason: price. Even at lunch menu prices, a salad with shrimp will cost you at least $7. The PGEW version, including the white wine vinaigrette, costs a mere $3 serving. You can feed two people for less than the price of one restaurant salad. And it takes only 15 minutes to make! The most you'll spend on any one thing is the few minutes required to thaw the shrimp (if you're using frozen shrimp). Perfect for a warm summer evening after a long day's work.

Garlic-Black Pepper Shrimp & Avocado Salad (serves 2; total cost per serving: $3)

3 c butter lettuce
20-25 large fresh-frozen shrimp
1 large avocado
1/2 c cherry or grape tomatoes
3 green onions, chopped
1/8 t freshly ground pepper
Couple dashes of salt
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1 T olive oil

White Wine Vinaigrette
1/3 c grapeseed oil (or another light oil like canola)
1/4 c white wine vinegar
1/4 t herbes de provence (your favorite aromatic herb mix will work if you can't find HDP)
Fresh ground pepper
Couple dashes of salt

Thaw the shrimp in a bowl of cool water for about 5 minutes. Peel & devein if needed, then rinse and pat dry. Season with the pepper and salt, and allow to sit for a few minutes. Prepare the vinaigrette by combining all the ingredients and whisking vigorously. Rinse the lettuce and dry in a salad spinner. Place an equal amount of lettuce on a couple of large dinner plates. Slice the avocado and arrange it on each plate, then toss in the tomatoes. Add the chopped green onions, then set the plates aside.

In a skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and carefully cook for about 30 seconds. Add the shrimp and stir-fry until they are completely pink and have begun to curl. Spoon an equal amount onto each pre-assembled salad plate, drizzle with plenty of dressing, and enjoy!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What's In Store for July - and a 1 question survey!

I've always loved the month of July. Summer is in full swing and the 4th a reason for a double celebration as it's my dad's birthday. I remember having some wonderful family cookouts over the holiday weekend, with my dad taking over the dinner portion of the evening and my mom dominating on the dessert front. Amazing shrimp & steak kebabs, giant salads full of every vegetable you could imagine, and cheesecake. Lots and lots of berry covered, creamy, dreamy cheesecake, with patriotic decorations, of course. So it's with great pleasure that I welcome the month of July and all the good things it will bring to the PGEW front.

~ The produce in stores and farmers markets is just phenomenal in the summer. With summer break from choir finally here, I know I'll be stuck at my farmers market under the freeway every Sunday, just to enjoy some of what summer has to offer, so stay tuned for a lot more veggie & fruit-based recipes this month.

~ For those of you local to Sacramento, be sure to check out Sacramento Wine & Dine Week, which runs from July 4-12. Fifty of Sacramento's most popular restaurants will be pairing up with regional wineries to bring local diners some great 3-4 course meals with appropriate wine pairings for $50 and under. I’ve checked out some of these menus and they look phenomenal! The best part is that there are about 15 participating restaurants whose menus are in the $35 range; for dinner and wine, this opportunity shouldn’t be missed! Check out SacramentoWineAndDine.com for menus and details.

~ I’ve always been a fan of popsicles and other frozen desserts, and this is just the right time of year to enjoy them! (Though, admittedly, I do end up craving more ice cream in the winter than I do in the summer. Does anyone else have this problem?) I’ll be sharing a couple of frozen confections with you fair readers, so you, too, can be in on my Easiest Creamy Popsicles Ever. :)

~ In honor of my daddy and his birthday this month, I’ll be posting a couple recipes that he’s made in the past, as well as some from El Salvador, where he was born. Should be a lot of fun!

~ I have an interesting little plan up my sleeve right now, and it shall remain secret for a little longer; however, I need your help. I’d like to know: What's your favorite PGEW recipe? (or if you have more than one, that works too). If you could please share that in the comments section, or post on my wall if you’re on Facebook, I’d greatly appreciate it! I promise you’ll get more details soon.

That’s about it for now. Now get out there and enjoy the summer! :)

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