Friday, October 29, 2010

Poor Girl: Unprocessed - Why I'm Glad I'm Out of Project Food Blog

Confession:  For the past six weeks, I have felt like a complete sell-out.

I entered the Project Food Blog competition because I could really use $10,000.  Not that others couldn't benefit from such a healthy sum of money, but in terms of actual need I think I have everyone beat.  I'm flat broke, unemployed, and might have to live with my mom for awhile if things don't start looking up soon.  Ten grand would have certainly made things easier for me.  But I also went in fully knowing that I probably wouldn't win (even though I hoped I would).  Not because I'm a pessimist, but because once I read the way the judging worked - 50% of the points coming from the judges, 50% coming from Foodbuzz Featured Publishers, with a lone Readers Choice Award given to one contestant per round based on the public vote, rather than taking into account the votes of the public as the other 50%, considering they are the true readers & traffic-builders for every blog - I knew this would be more about popularity than actual quality content or what the general blog-reading world really thought.  Still, I needed the money, and against my better judgment I entered at the last possible minute.

Now, I know some folks who read this will think that these statements are those of a sore loser who didn't make it through to the next round.  That's cool and they're entitled to their opinions.  But I'd like to state for the record, loud and clear, that is not what this post is about.  If anything, I couldn't be happier about having my weekends and my sanity back, the worry of what the heck I'd come up with for each challenge and wondering what areas of my fridge & cupboards might magically provide extra food for this thing blissfully gone.  But I am sore about something: I am sore at myself for losing focus, for having my love of food blogging clouded by the distant possibility of $10,000.

At the International Food Blogger Conference this summer, we talked a lot about "selling out" and remembering why we all wrote our respective blogs.  It was nice to be surrounded by people who felt as passionate about food and writing as I do, and it reminded me of why I started PGEW in the first place: I started it for me.  Because I like writing, I like cooking, and thought it would be interesting to put them together and see what would happen.  Then I started getting a bigger audience and I started writing for them and me, because what I was doing seemed to be helping people.  I honestly never expected it to take off the way it did, and I am always elated whenever I receive a positive review, comment or email that thanks me for this recipe or that, or for helping folks save money.  That's what I've thrived on these past two-and-a-half years, and what I consider to be the best part about my PGEW endeavors.  

But once I entered Project Food Blog, my time and my sanity were pretty much sucked out of me, leaving me to post nothing but PFB related posts, tweets and Facebook updates.  Don't get me wrong: it did force me to reach into the deepest recesses of my mind to come up with stuff I never dreamed I'd cook because certain prompts were given for each challenge.  But in the process, I let my PGEW-ness go, and that sucks.  I'm already creative enough as it is, and I wanted to post other things but I couldn't!  Partly because my brain was cluttered with ideas for the next round, but mainly because I just couldn't afford to use the food I did have on hand on "extra" posts because I might need it for the next round of the competition.

Then it hit me: "extra" posts???  Since when are my standard recipes & tips "extra"?  The competition should have been the "extra" in all of this, not the other way around!  In the creating, the posting, the photo-editing, and the shameless vote-soliciting (though I do have to admit I was getting rather good at that toward the end, lol), I temporarily lost track of what this blog is about: it's about me, my financial struggles, and how I go about making my meals the one bright spot in my otherwise stressful life.  It's about helping others find their inner chef and their inner smart, frugal shopper.  It's about showing the world that it is completely possible to enjoy food that both looks and tastes good, yet doesn't cost an arm and a leg because it's made with real, accessible ingredients that anyone can afford.  It is not about winning a contest!

And so today, when I saw that I did not have a little trophy icon next to my entry for the sixth round of Project Food Blog - for which I almost killed myself as I went out in a huge storm with a raging flu - I actually breathed a huge sigh of relief.  At first, my reaction to the news that I had not advanced to the next challenge seemed strange to me: shouldn't I be upset, especially after all the hard work I put into this friggin' thing?  Shouldn't I be pissed off that I am still sick because I was determined (or stupid) enough to finish my Round 6 post regardless of how sick I was & how horrible the weather?  I could have copped out and taken my picnic to my backyard, but I didn't.  I competed properly and took my chances by traveling in the howling wind and heavy rain.

But then a big grin spread across my face when I realized that I was free!  Much like the month of unprocessed foods I've been enjoying for October: Unprocessed, I'm free of things I don't need.  Free from all that pressure, so I can write what I want to write, within my own parameters & deadlines.  I'm free to spend some time on another $25 Shopping Cart with some of the money generously donated by you fine readers, and come up with something simple, but comforting, from the purchases I'll make.  I'm free to enjoy my weekends without the stress of another entry, so I can clean my closets and play with my cats whom I've neglected so cruelly this whole time (which is probably why StuKitty got into the PFB cooler to begin with.  Doesn't that picture scream "NOTICE ME!!!"?).  Heck, I'm even free to get over this friggin' flu!  I'm just Poor Girl again, with no expectations other than providing quality written content, tips and recipes for myself and for my readers.  

I am Poor Girl: Unprocessed.  Free of the idea of $10,000 and some minor fame.  

Some might say that I'm just not good at competing, and in a way they're probably right.  I take competition very seriously; maybe too seriously.  Once I'm in that mode, I'm stuck in it, the rules, deadlines and entries my blinders, so that I can't see anything but the contest and its final prize.  But that kind of focus is also what makes a good competitor, and I'm happy I was able to make it as far as I did considering some of the food bloggers I was up against.  And though I already know I'm good at what I do and so do you fine readers, the fact that the editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine was reading my blog for the past 6 weeks and thought I was good enough to keep advancing to this point is also pretty damned awesome.

Still, I feel better now, even if I won't be $10,000 richer by December.  I feel cleansed in a way, and doubt that I'll ever do something like this again.  I'm just not the NOTICE ME!!!!!! type, and that's okay.  I get more than enough validation from my readers.  Money that will be quickly spent on mundane things like rent isn't quite as gratifying as knowing I saved a mom from trying to figure out what to feed her kids, or that I helped someone lose 15 pounds just by changing the way she ate.  The simple things are what mean the most, and I'm glad I have the time to focus on them again.

Besides, as much as I love competing against others, I'd much rather work on goals that involve me competing against myself.  Like finishing up the first couple chapters of the real PGEW book that should be published sooner rather than later...  ;)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

PFB #6 Recipe: Red Quinoa, Apple & Cranberry Cake with Homemade Cream Cheese Frosting

This recipe is part of the meal I created for my Round 6 entry for Project Food Blog.  To view the entire post and vote for me, please click on the following link or use the widget on the left sidebar.  Thanks so much! - Kimberly

In all the time I've had PGEW, I don't know that I've had so many requests for a recipe to be posted in such a short time, and I must say it's very flattering!  Granted, most of my posts are recipes, so I know most of you are used to that instant gratification after reading through all my rambling prose.  But some of these Project Food Blog posts can get rather lengthy (you know I'm a tad verbose... it's part of my charm, tee hee), and except for my chocolate dinner party post, I think my Grains, Trains & Gallons of Rain post was my longest one yet.  Since we're supposed to try keeping our PFB entries to 1000 words or fewer ("try" being the operative word here), and because I felt like death after heading out into that storm for my photoshoot & picnic, I decided to post the two new recipes separately.  I recently posted my Spicy White Bean, Beef & Amaranth Soup with Tomatoes & Kale, and now I'm finally semi-conscious enough to post the long awaited cake recipe.

Like I mentioned in my original post, I got the inspiration for this cake from reading through some of Heidi Swanson's less traditional quinoa recipes on 101 Cookbooks.  I'll never forget the first time I read her Quinoa Skillet Bread post - I thought it was the most ingenious thing I'd ever seen done with the mother grain (until she posted those darned cookies...) and knew I was nowhere near discovering all the wonderful things I could do with quinoa!  Since I was working solely with the ingredients I had on hand and had already made a big batch of red quinoa for my picnic's entree, I decided to put those leftovers to good use and make a nice dessert.

Not being a baker, I'm very pleased with how this one turned out in terms of texture: moist with a dense crumb that was still delicate enough to break apart easily.  Though I'm used to having sweeter cakes, I found it rather refreshing that this one tasted extremely... wholesome.  It wasn't sugary or artificial tasting in the least!  The addition of the tart apples and sweet cranberries made up for the lack of sugar in the actual crumb of the cake, and the frosting provided all the sweetness I needed to finish things off.  Frankly, if there had been more sugar thrown into this it would have ruined the cake entirely. Take note: this is not supposed to taste like nasty grocery store cakes or even decent bakery ones!  This cake is rich with the hearty nuttiness of the quinoa and, except for the evil frosting on top, makes you feel 100% not guilty for enjoying this protein-packed dessert.

To top it all off, it's absolutely gorgeous when you slice it!  It won't look like much at first, but believe me and the pictures I've posted: this cake is bursting with autumn colors & flavors, and is a great way to celebrate the colder months without a lot of the guilt associated with traditional desserts.

Red Quinoa, Apple & Cranberry Cake with Homemade Cream Cheese Frosting (serves 8-10; total cost per serving: $0.75)

Cake
1 c whole wheat flour
1 c cooked red quinoa
3/4 c raw sugar
1/2 c (1 stick) butter, melted
1 T vanilla extract
3 eggs
1 t baking powder
1 large Granny Smith apple (or other tart variety), chopped into 1/2" pieces
1 c dried cranberries

Cream Cheese Frosting
1 8 oz package cream cheese, softened
1/2 c (1 stick) butter, softened
1 c sugar (powdered is preferable for the proper texture, but if you only have regular sugar, that will also work)
1 t vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Lightly grease a 9" round cake pan and set aside.  In a medium bowl, sift together the flour & baking powder.  In a separate, larger bowl, beat together the eggs, sugar and vanilla extract until smooth.  Slowly add the flour mixture in small batches, whisking together in between batches to ensure everything is properly incorporated.  Add the melted butter and mix to combine.  Next, add the red quinoa, folding it into the mixture gently.  Finally, add the chopped apple and cranberries and mix together well.  The batter should be thick but smooth.  Pour the batter into the greased cake pan and bake for 35 minutes, or until the center is no longer wet when tested with a toothpick.

While the cake is baking, prepare the frosting.  Using an electric mixer on low speed, beat the cream cheese & butter together until smooth.  Add the sugar & vanilla and beat until creamy.  Set aside.

When cake has finished baking, remove from oven & cool on a rack for 10-15 minutes before removing from pan.  Frost with a generous amount of frosting, slice into 8-10 equal pieces, and enjoy!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Plea from a flu-ridden Poor Girl...

Dear Everyone Who Wants To See Me Have My Own TV Show,

Now, don't get too excited; we're not quite there yet (though there have been a few casting producers who've contacted me over the past couple months).  However, I've done one real video for PGEW TV (the others are slideshows, but still worth the watch) and the next round of Project Food Blog will allow me to create another one, this time, with me cooking something up in my teeny, tiny kitchen.  That's right, folks!  For all of you who have emailed or commented or tweeted or Facebooked (yes, I just conjugated a noun... may the English grammar gods forgive me for that!) about wanting to see me prepare something on TV or video, the post for Round 7 will make your wishes come true!

HOWEVER.......

I cannot get to Round 7 without your help!  This is why I need for you to vote for me for my Round 6 post: Grains, Trains & Gallons of Rain, in which I almost killed myself by heading out into yesterday's crazy storm and almost converting my current flu into something worse.  Those of you in the greater Sacramento area know that yesterday was awful in terms of rain & wind, and I was in NO condition to go out there!  Alas, I am extremely dedicated and determined to keep advancing through this competition, so I went anyway and had a lovely (albeit soggy) picnic.

So if you would like to reward my flu-induced insanity or would just like to see me do the video post next week, please vote for me for Round 6!  You can read my post and vote for me here or click on the lovely little widget to your left.  And if my bribing you with promises of PGEW videos didn't convince you enough, perhaps I can bribe you with another piece of cake.  After which I will be seriously considering a career in dirty politics, because my "vote for me" posts are getting more & more shameless!  :)

Seriously though... I really want to win this thing and could so use that $10,000 prize, so I would greatly appreciate your continued support to help me reach that goal.  You've helped get me this far, right?  ;)

Thanks so much, everyone!

Love,
Kimberly (aka Poor Unemployed Really Sick & Sniffly Girl)

PFB #6 Recipe: Spicy White Bean, Beef & Amaranth Soup with Tomatoes & Kale

The following recipe is part of the picnic lunch I created for Round 6 of Project Food Blog.  To read the entry and vote for me to advance to Round 7, please click here.  Thanks in advance!  - Kimberly

It's a good thing I made such a big batch of this soup yesterday morning because it's all I've been able to eat today.  As you know from my post for the sixth challenge of Project Food Blog , I got hit with the flu Friday night and have spent a pretty miserable weekend because of it.  I literally forced myself to crawl out of bed and cook up a storm during yesterday's storm, and except for the red quinoa cake I made (yes, that recipe is coming, too!), this was my favorite part of the meal.  No offense to my Spicy Red Quinoa with Shrimp or anything; I really liked having that dish, too.  But I've had that before and this was a new soup so chock full of yummy goodness that I have to say it's even better than the quinoa.  Plus, it warms one up from the inside beautifully, which is always a nice bonus if you're not feeling too well.

I'll keep the intro for this short, since I already waxed poetic about it in yesterday's post and I know you all want to read about the cake (SO many requests for that recipe!  Yowza!).  Basically, this soup is a play on traditional Tuscan-style soups that generally feature cannellini beans, kale, and sometimes some Italian sausage.  I didn't have any cannellinis left, so I used freshly cooked navy beans instead, and used some of my Hearst Ranch Beef winnings for my ground beef.  Since this was extra lean flank steak, it kept the fat content to a bare minimum while still packing in plenty of flavor.  Some fresh tomatoes from the Whaley Farm helped my broth taste rich & comforting, and the amaranth I threw in towards the end added an interesting nutty flavor.  Some amaranth soup recipes call for it to be thrown in there much sooner and in greater quantities, but I didn't want to have a gluey, mushy soup; rather, I was looking for the tiny grains to complement the other flavors & textures subtly, which is exactly what it did.  For those non-meat eaters out there, feel free to omit the beef as it will be just as hearty & delicious without it.

Let's check this one out before I dive into another bowl!

Spicy White Bean, Beef & Amaranth Soup with Tomatoes & Kale (serves 6-8; total cost per serving ~$1.45)

8 c water
5-6 large tomatoes, diced (or 2 14 oz. cans diced tomatoes)
1 lb extra lean ground beef
1 c cooked navy or cannellini beans
1/2 c amaranth grains
1 c chopped fresh kale
1 c diced yellow onion
2 T olive oil
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 T sea salt
1 t rosemary
1 t oregano
1 T crushed red chile flakes
Salt & pepper to taste

Heat a large soup kettle and add the olive oil, garlic and onions.  Cook over medium heat until fragrant and the onion starts to turn translucent but doesn't brown.  Add the salt, chile flakes, rosemary and oregano, and saute for one more minute.  Next, add the ground beef and cook until just lightly browned, about 4 minutes or so.  Add the tomatoes and water and bring to a low boil.  Simmer uncovered for 5-6 minutes to allow the flavors to incorporate, then check for seasonings and adjust according to taste.  Add the amaranth, stir and continue to simmer for another 6-7 minutes.  Add the kale, remove from heat and let stand until the amaranth turns translucent and the kale becomes tender.

Garnish with extra pepper or chile flakes, serve alone or with warm, crusty bread and enjoy!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Project Food Blog #6: Grains, Trains & Gallons of Rain

It's that time again!  Voting for Round 6 of Project Food Blog is now open!  You can cast your votes for me now at the following link, or you can use the widget on the left sidebar.  Be sure to do so soon!  Voting closes at 6pm Pacific Time on Thursday, October 28th.  Thanks for all your support thus far, and I hope to see you in Round 7 for another edition of PGEW TV!  - Kimberly

Ahh, rain.  Those of you who know me well know that I despise the rain.  Well, let me take that back: I hate walking in the rain.  If it's outside my window and I'm all bundled up in my favorite blanket with a cat softly purring on either side of me, I find it to be rather beautiful.  But having no car, the rainy season is definitely on the bottom of my list of fun things to experience.  And of course it would plague me during this sixth "Road Trip" round of Project Food Blog!  Alas, I have a competition I'm trying to win, so I wasn't going to let falling wet stuff stop me from getting this post up.  And like the US Mail, I braved the the blustery, soggy rain, all bundled up, armed with a raging flu, umbrellas, jackets, cold medicine for the aforementioned flu and, of course, my cute little Project Food Blog cooler.  Sans cat this time.

As many of you saw last week, StuKitty was the first one to try out the Project Food Blog cooler,
leaving little room for the food...
That's better!  Now off to weather the elements...
Good thing this thing's waterproof!
Obstacles...

It's funny... I actually had some trouble coming up with things to do for some of this particular round.  Not that I've lost my creative edge or anything; the day that happens is the day this blog ceases to exist, as that's what keeps this thing going!  But in a flu-induced haze coupled with cold med fog, it's a little harder to think.  Not to mention the huge obstacle some folks aren't dealing with: MONEY, or the lack thereof.  While I would have loved to embark on a ton of crazy culinary adventures that would whisk me away to far away lands for this particular post, my health and paltry pocketbook would only allow me to do so much.  Light rail would have to be my fair chariot if I wanted to go anywhere.

For yet another challenge that requires us to work on a full meal, from starter to dessert to beverage, I had to think really hard to figure out what I could do that would fit into Poor Unemployed Girl's ever-shrinking budget.  And the location?  For a minute there, I thought the most exotic I could get would be to picnic next to my urban garden in the backyard.  Then, as if clubbed on the head with an epiphany stick, I realized the best way to go was not only to shop from my cupboards for some bare bones staples as I usually do, but shop for my picnic destination from one of the fine locations here on the Downtown grid.  Perfect!  I would create a menu based on some of delicious, nourishing grains and enjoy them in the rich historical setting of  one of my favorite parts of the capital city: Old Sacramento.  Fantastic photo opps of history all around me and history on a plate.  Perfect!

Or at least it could have been, had there not been a hurricane a-swirlin'...

Waiting for light rail in the great hurricane of oh-ten.
Okay, so it was just a mild storm, but I'm from California & genetically predisposed to be anti-wet stuff.

A quick jaunt through the Amtrak station under I-5, and voila!  You're in Old Sacramento...

Planning my picnic...

Anyway... really?  A grain-based menu?  How boring is that?  Au contraire, fair readers!  Whole grains and rices are ridiculously versatile and can be turned into some incredibly delicious meals.  You regular PGEW readers have seen some of the grain-based dishes I've made over the years and you know they're far from boring.  My quinoa repertoire alone illustrates just how much you can do with one cup of the mother grain and 18 pounds of creativity.  I decided to make the most of the large amount of red quinoa I had in my cupboards (honestly, I think I prefer it to regular quinoa), and try something new as well, by trying my hand at cooking with amaranth, another tiny little grain with a nutritious punch.

Amaranth, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is another one of those uber-versatile grains that has been used for centuries in South American and Mexican cooking.  From popping the tiny seeds like popcorn for a nutty snack and using it in breakfast bowls, to making hearty salads and even candy with it, this protein-rich ancient grain can be used in a variety of different ways.  Quinoa, my favorite grain ever, is also packed with protein and good carbs, making it a completely nutritious option for anyone.  Though it may seem expensive to some, it actually yields a great amount of cooked product, and because it has so many essential nutrients, I find that it's a very cost-effective way to nourish myself by just adding a couple things here & there.

So my idea was to have this whole "ancient grains meet Old Sacramento", working the whole historical angle as I'd mentioned earlier.  I was going to take all sorts of fabulous photos showcasing the rich history in Old Sacramento, the lovely Sacramento River and its amazing steam boats.  Food wise, I thought I was all set too: except for my dessert, which I'd actually had planned for weeks, I was going to make all sorts of new ancient grain-based dishes.  Then the weather took a turn for the worst, I got the flu, and my menu was completely redesigned to suit my sick-person needs.  I ditched the 77 salads I'd had in mind and decided to go with warm, comforting, nourishing foods.


The Setting...

When the weather is nice, I find myself visiting Old Sacramento on a regular basis.  It's a great escape right in my own backyard, with plenty of historical buildings, great shopping, some of Sac's finest restaurants, and of course, the beautiful Sacramento River.  After visiting the Old West, one of my favorite things to do is head south on the river walk, take some photos of and from the golden Tower Bridge, and loop around back into Old Sac before heading home.  If I have some extra dough, I like to stop off at The Delta House for some of their amazing fish tacos and do some people-watching.

Alas, everything except for that last bit had to be scratched off my list because it was just way too blustery and wet.  I now completely sympathize with photographers and film makers who have to do crazy outdoor shoots because it is NOT easy!  From the wind blowing things all over the place, to the rain drops on my camera lens, to my wet, wet shoes (*sob*  I hate having wet feet!), to the mean lady outside that falafel place glaring at me for sitting at "her" table even though there were 11 empty tables around me, this was probably the hardest photo shoot I've ever done.  The only good thing was the way the light was diffused by so many clouds; I actually liked most of my shots because of that!  So people were looking at me funny and my nose was runny; I was determined to make this soggy picnic work!

History never sleeps in Old Sacramento!
And I suppose I shouldn't be complaining about wet feet when she's in a DRESS! 
Some of the shops in Old Sacramento...

Coulda passed for a real "old time" photo had it not been for this sedans parked in front... note that "Trail  Mix.net" is next to "Candy Land".  That's like putting Weight Watchers next to a Krispy Kreme, right?
All the Old Sac buildings are all dressed up for Halloween
Old trains in the Old Sac rail yards.  Some of these are still used for tours throughout the Old Sacramento area...
Like the "Spookomotion" tour, complete with haunted house runs and spooky conductors dressed as ghouls.


The Food...

The full spread of delicious, whole grain goodness.
Yes, even the cake is good for you!  Except for the frosting, of course. ;)

I'm a big fan of having spicy things when I'm dealing with colds, etc., since the heat helps to decongest my nose and scratch that itchy throat.  To start off my menu, I went with a hearty soup with a rich tomato-y broth, lean ground beef, white beans, amaranth, and plenty of fresh kale (my latest I'm-obsessed-with-this-ingredient victim).  Sort of a play on Tuscan-style soups which feature the beans and the kale in a comforting broth.  I added a generous amount of crushed red chile flakes to amp up the spicy heat factor, and sprinkled the slightest amount of amaranth into the soup as it neared the end of the cooking process.  It was the first time I'd cooked with amaranth without using it in some sort of porridge or salad, so I was intrigued & pleased to see how the tiny grains turned into almost transparent little spheres that added just the right amount of nutty texture to the soup without overpowering the well-seasoned meat and rich broth.  The tender kale, also added towards the end to retain its crunch and not turn a mushy brownish green, added a lovely contrasting color to all that tomato-y red goodness.

Spicy White Bean, Beef & Amaranth Soup with Tomatoes & Kale

Hot, tomato-y, beefy, amaranth-y goodness!

For my entree, I decided to make things easy on myself and go with a PGEW-reader favorite: my Spicy Red Quinoa & Shrimp.  This recipe is not for the faint of heart as it is muy picante, but it's ever-so-delicious and really unclogged my sinuses.  Hearty, nutty red quinoa is mixed together with shrimp & peppers that are sauteed in a super spicy cayenne & red chile sauce.  The quinoa helps to balance out the fire of the sauce, and the shrimp add a lovely, tender sweetness.  And because I'm currently obsessed with it and I love the aesthetics of it, I served this spicy dish atop a bed of barely blanched kale.  It added some more of that much-needed nutrition as well as a lovely texture.  I was definitely beginning to feel quite warm, but rather full after such a wonderful start to my meal, so I put my leftovers back in ye olde cooler and decided to tackle dessert.

Spicy Red Quinoa & Shrimp with Tender Kale
Hearty deliciousness on palm leaf plate...

Mmmm.... dessert.  The most important meal of the day, in my opinion.  But how the heck was I going to tackle this with wholesome grains?  Red quinoa to the rescue!

Red Quinoa, Apple & Cranberry Cake with Homemade Cream Cheese Frosting

Gleaning inspiration from my favorite food blogger, Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks, I decided to use the rest of the giant batch of red quinoa that I had prepared and use it in a baked dish.  Definitely a departure from what I normally make with quinoa, which usually amounts to salads and the occasional breakfast bowl.  This time I decided to put it in a cake bursting with crisp apples and tart dried cranberries, and pardon me for saying so, but that was a stroke of GENIUS on my part!  Maybe the cold meds helped to inspire such a creation, maybe I'm just getting better at what I do, but I have never felt this good about eating cake in my entire life.  It was super moist with a slight nutty flavor lent by the quinoa, and the fruits just screamed of autumn in my mouth.  Finding a random block of cream cheese I'd forgotten about, I made a homemade cream cheese frosting to top my lovely quinoa cake creation, which rounded out the entire experience beautifully.

It's just so pretty once it's sliced!  And that frosting....... *faints*

I really should have brought the whole cake; one slice was NOT enough!

So what did I have to wash down all this ancient grain goodness?  I kept with the whole southern hemisphere theme and decided to make agua-panela, an old, old drink made of raw cane sugar and typically consumed in countries like Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.   Made with panela or piloncillo (as they call it in Mexico), this block of raw cane sugar is melted in hot water, accented with a touch of lemon juice and sometimes, if you're very lucky a shot of rum to further warm the tummy and soul.  I was not that lucky, but the hot lemony-sweet drink was just what I needed to keep me warm enough to take a few more pictures in the pouring rain & crazy wind.

Agua-panela... warm, sweet, and comforting

I didn't have the chance to get all the great photos I wanted from Old Sac because of such inclement conditions, but I was still able to get a few cool shots of trains and awesome old buildings (and then I had phun with Photoshop, as you might have noticed.  Everything is so much better in sepia!).  It wasn't the perfect picnic, and I'm absolutely soaked to the bone and should get out of these wet clothes in short order, but I feel nourished and warm on the inside.  Not to mention both ridiculously proud and ridiculous in general, for having been so dedicated to finish off this challenge despite the flu and bad weather.  If there's one thing Project Food Blog really brings out in a blogger, it's determination to finish that post and sit back with the satisfaction of yet another awesome challenge under one's belt.

With another piece of cake.

Home & dry at last after a long, stormy day and ready for a nap.
Come to think of it, this cooler doubles as a nice pillow...

*    *    *

If you enjoyed this post for Challenge #6 of Project Food Blog, please take the time to cast your vote for me starting at 6am on Monday, October 25th!  Thanks so much to all of you who have supported me this far, and I look forward to dazzling you with an awesome video of Poor Girl in the kitchen (finally!) for Round 7, should I make it that far!  Thanks for reading!  - Kimberly


10/26/10 Update: Because this post was already so lengthy, I posted the recipes for the cake & the soup separately.  You can also view the recipe for the Spicy Red Quinoa & Shrimp recipe here or in the archives  :) K

Monday, October 18, 2010

PFB Round 5 post is up! Time to vote for PGEW!!!


Hey, everyone!  This is just another friendly post to let you know that voting for Round 5 of Project Food Blog is officially open!  If you haven't checked out my Pu-pizza post, where I remixed the traditional Salvadorean pupusa and turned it into a pizza, please do so here (or just scroll down to the next post).

To cast your vote, head on over to this link and click on that little heart until it turns red!  :)  You can also use the widget on the left sidebar.

Thanks in advance, everyone!   Gotta run!

Lv,
PG

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Project Food Blog #5: Pu-pizza! A Salvadorean Spin on Everyone's Favorite Pie

Voting for Round 5 of Project Food Blog is now open!  Please take the time to cast your vote for PGEW by following this link, or by using the widget in the left sidebar.  Every vote gets me one step closer to the next round, and maybe, just maybe, I'll be your Next Food Blog Star!  Thanks so much! - Kimberly

I've talked a lot about my Colombian roots here on PGEW.  From a traditional carne con hogao (not my finest photographic moment but the flavor of that sauce is dead on and cannot be rivaled by most Colombians!) to last year's After Thanksgiving Colombian Tapas Party, among other things, I have mentioned my Colombian side a lot on ye olde blog.  But there is also the other half of my heritage, my dad's side: El Salvador.  That's right: my daddy is from the beautiful capital city of San Salvador, and even though I am not as familiar with the actual country as I'd like to be (it's sooo on my list of places to visit!), I am definitely familiar with the food.

When I was younger we regularly used to visit a Salvadorean/Mexican restaurant in Mountain View, CA, called El Calderón.  There, we were treated like family, since Lita, the owner, had known my dad since he was a teenager, new to the United States and ready to take on the restaurant world.  As he worked his way up the restaurant business ladder, he eventually ended up mentoring her and gave her business advice she still uses to this day.  So, because of these ties, he and my mom were like adoptive children and I was like a granddaughter to her, and visits to El Calderón were always filled with extra guanabana, lots of hugs, and plenty of lively conversation and laughter.  

Like most Salvadorean restaurants, El Calderón boasts a hefty menu of specialties from the motherland, namely the pupusas.  For those of you unfamiliar with pupusas, they're pretty much the delicacy of El Salvador, though other versions are served in places like Guatemala and Honduras.  From what I understand, those versions are nowhere near what the real Salvadorean pupusa should and could taste like, so if you're going for the real thing, be sure to get it from a true Salvadorean.  

If you've never tried them, pupusas are basically thick, cornmeal tortillas filled with either cheese, loroco (a type of cactus flower), frijoles (beans), chicharrón (deep fried pork or beef), or any combination of those (combinación).  Think of it as a thick quesadilla with the surprise wrapped up in the middle.  To me, that's what makes a pupusa special: instead of being able to see the filling by just flipping it open as you would a Mexican quesadilla, the fun is on the inside.  You're presented with this humble looking, fat little tortilla, and you end up with a cheesy, meaty center; sort of like discovering the cream center in a Twinkie (only far more delicious and infinitely less artificial).  Pupusas are usually accompanied by curtido, a pickled cabbage & carrot salad that some folks refer to as Salvadorean sauerkraut, as well as the smooth salsa roja found in many traditional Salvadorean restaurants.  One lends a bit of fire, the other cools things down; both offer just the perfect flavor accents for these delicious cheesy treats. 

So when I was faced with remixing a pizza recipe for Round 5 of Project Food Blog, I couldn't help but think of the pupusa as inspiration.  I wanted to do something truly unique and get more familiar with the other half of my heritage in the kitchen.  Playing around with pupusas seemed like the perfect way to accomplish this.  Pupusas are doughy and cheesy, and have all the makings of a perfect stuffed crust, which has become quite popular in many pizza houses today.  So I decided to use that as the "stuffed-crust" base for my pizza.  Naturally, I couldn't exactly go completely traditional with this one, since I was aiming for a more pizza-sized pie (pupusas are generally 5"-6" in diameter), so I didn't get to practice the fun hand technique that goes with making the real thing.  And let me tell you, after some scary moments almost losing my entire crust to my very hungry kitchen floor, I was beginning to think I should have opted for the more traditional sized crust instead!  Still, I perservered; this had to work, darnit!  It took some planning to figure out how to tackle the logistics of cooking the darned thing, such was the hugeness of my "crust".  With some luck and determination, I managed to get the entire 11" monster cooked without breaking it!  I was uber-proud of myself, especially since I didn't have another pair of hands to help me transfer the thing to & fro.

Now, even though I like having the pupusa "surprise" in the center, for this particular dish I figured I could use some of the most popular fillings as toppings instead, with a little extra cheese sprinkled on top for good measure. I made my own refried beans (because frankly, even the vegetarian canned version scares me) to use as a spread, and cooked my own chicharrón out of lean beef instead of pork because A) that's all I had and B) I prefer the flavor of beef to pork, especially in chicharrón form.  For the finishing touches, I sprinkled some curtido on top to add a tangy coolness and crunch and served some salsa roja on the side, just like they serve at traditional pupuserias.

The end result of all this work?  A tantalizing pu-pizza!  It even sounds like fun, doesn't it?  Let's check it out.

Pu-pizza! (serves 4-6; total cost per serving: $3.25)
Should you want to make regular pupusas, these ingredients work just fine!  Just make them much smaller, and stuff the "toppings" inside if you want more than just cheese, and you'll be set!  

Pupusa "Crust"
2 c corn flour/masa harina 
2 1/2 c warm water
1 t salt
1 1/2 c shredded Monterey Jack cheese or Queso Oaxaca
1 t olive oil

Prepare the masa by adding the water and salt to a large bowl.  Slowly add the corn flour/masa harina and stir together until you have a thick paste.  Continue working the masa until it begins to firm up and you can knead it and form it into two large balls.  Line a large board with a sheet of wax paper.  Place one of the masa balls on the lined board and begin to flatten it into a large disc (about 10" in diameter).  Repeat with the next ball of masa.

Heat a large skillet until completely hot.  Brush lightly with oil and carefully transfer one of the discs of masa into the skillet.  Add the cheese, taking care to stay in the center and leave about 1/2" of space from the edge.  Transfer the second disc of masa on top and pinch the two together lightly (don't burn yourself!).  Cook over medium high heat for about 8 minutes on each side. 

Homemade Refried Beans
1 c dried pinto beans
2 quarts water
1 c finely chopped yellow onion
1 T salt
1 T cooking oil
1/2 t cumin
1 t ground black pepper
1/4 c chicken or vegetable broth

Soak the beans in water for at least an hour, then drain.  Cook in the 2 quarts of water until tender, about 45 minutes.  Drain and set aside.  In a large, deep skillet, heat the oil and add the onion.  Cook over medium heat until the onion is translucent, then add the beans, salt, cumin and pepper.  Continue to cook until the beans begin to break down and split apart, about 20 minutes.  Add the broth.  Using a potato masher or the back of your cooking spoon, smash about half the beans until they reach a paste-like consistency, and leave the rest intact. Remove from heat and set aside.  

Chicharron de Res (Beef Chicharron)
In Latin America chicharrón recipes vary from household to household.  This is my version of the kind of chicharrón that is commonly used in Salvadorean pupusas.  It's a much finer, minced version which lends itself to stuffing into traditional pupusas without the risk of ruining the dough.  As a pu-pizza topping, it lends just the right amount of smoky texture to accompany the homemade refried beans and all that gooey, melty cheese.

1 lb lean beef (flank steak, London Broil, etc), cut into thin strips
1 T salt, divided
1 t ground cumin, divided
1 t crushed red chile flakes (optional)
1 T + 2 T cooking oil

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a medium skillet over medium high heat.  Add the beef strips and season with 1/2 tablespoon of salt, 1/2 t cumin, and the red chile flakes.  Stir fry for about 5-6 minutes, or until the beef is completely cooked through.  Remove from heat and allow to cool for a few minutes until it is warm but still easy to handle.  Using a good knife (or a food processor if you're pressed for time), finely mince the cooked meat.

Heat the remaining oil in a medium skillet and add the minced meat.  Cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  The end result should be nicely browned, crispy meat.  Drain on a plate with paper towels if desired (some folks like to keep the oil to keep things moist), and set aside.

Curtido (Salvadorean Pickled Cabbage Slaw)
No pupusa is complete without a generous side of curtido!  This pickled cabbage & carrot slaw lends a lovely tangy flavor that seems to enhance the rest of the pupusa, while adding just the right amount of lightly crunchy texture.  No pupusas?  No worries!  This is also delicious over some regular rice & beans.

1 small head of cabbage, shredded
2 quarts water
1 large carrot, grated
1 small yellow onion, sliced
1/2 c white vinegar
1/4 c water
1 T salt
1 T dried oregano
1 t freshly ground black pepper

Blanch the cabbage in the 2 quarts of water for no more than 30 seconds.  Drain, rinse with cold water, then drain again.  Place the blanched cabbage, and the rest of the ingredients in a large bowl and mix together until completely combined.  Cover and allow to marinate for about an hour at room temperature before refrigerating (this is crucial to ensure the proper flavor).  Place in airtight glass containers and refrigerate until ready to use.

Assemble your pu-pizza:
Preheat the oven to 450°.  Spread about 3/4 cup refried beans in an even layer on the pupusa crust.  Sprinkle with extra grated cheese and place in the oven for about 7 minutes, or until the cheese has melted.  Remove from oven.  Sprinkle the pu-pizza with chicharrón, then drizzle a generous amount of salsa roja on the pizza.  Lastly, sprinkle liberally with drained curtido.  Cut into individual slices, serve with extra salsa & curtido if desired, and enjoy!

*   *   *

Eso si que estuvo delicioso!  (That was sure delicious!)  But I couldn't possibly leave without dessert, especially now that I was taking that culinary trek to El Salvador.  There are too many sweets to ignore in both of my mother countries, so I wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to enjoy some of what Central America had to offer; with a South American twist, of course.  I decided to make dessert pizza inspired by a couple of traditional sweet Salvadorean dishes: platanos con crema (sweet plantains with cream) and quesadilla Salvadoreña (Salvadorean coffee cake).  The sweet plantains are usually served on their own as a side to pupusas and yucca con chicarrón, while the Salvadorean quesadilla is enjoyed with coffee for dessert.  I decided to tweak the quesadilla recipe a bit before combining the two, and ended up with a dessert completely my own!  And I must say I am more than pleased with the result!  With some extra queso fresco and a guayaba (guava) sauce, this is sweet, moist, cheesy, and 100% delicious.  This is so sinful it almost hurts!  Here's how to make this happen in your own homes.

Salvadorean Dessert Pizza with Platanos y Guayaba (serves 4; total cost per serving: ~ $2.50)


Salvadorean Quesadilla "Crust"
1 c rice flour
1 t baking powder
1/2 lb grated queso fresco (parmesan cheese can also be used in a pinch)
1 1/4 c sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 c milk
1 stick (1/2 c) butter, melted

Topping
1 medium ripe plantain, chopped
1/2 t cinnamon
1 T brown sugar
1/2 c guava paste
1/4 c butter, divided
1/4 c water
1/4 c queso fresco, crumbled

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Sift the flour and baking powder together into a medium bowl.  In a separate bowl, combine the grated cheese, eggs, sugar and milk, and beat together with an electric mixer until smooth.  Add the melted butter and mix to combine.  Finally, add the flour mixture in small increments, whisking together to combine in between.  Your batter should be thick and creamy.  Pour the batter into a greased 9" pie pan and bake for 25 minutes, or until the center is dry when tested with a toothpick.  Cool on a rack for another 15-20 minutes before removing from pan.

In a small skillet, melt the butter and add the chopped plantains, cinnamon and sugar.  In a small saucepan, melt the rest of the butter and guava paste together over medium low heat, thinning with water as you go along.  Cook for about 10 minutes or until the mixture is smooth and spreadable.

Assemble your dessert pizza by spreading a generous amount of guava sauce on the Salvadorean quesadilla.  Spoon the sauteed plantains on top, sprinkle with plenty of queso fresco, and enjoy!

*    *    *

Once again, I'm ever-so-grateful to Project Food Blog for squeezing the best out of me as a food blogger.  Before this, I would have never thought I could make pupusas at home, let alone the mammoth variation I put together!  I know it's a bit different, and I'd had other ideas about what to make for this particular challenge, but I am SO glad I chose to honor my heritage and tackle some Salvadorean cuisine with a couple of twists!  It required a bit of effort but it was definitely a delight to finally have pupusas - or a variation thereof - in my own little home.  Now that I know it's not as scary as I thought it would be, especially because I was inducted into the world of pupusa-making by tackling something even crazier like one 11-inches in size, I am all for making these for myself from now on.  That and the fact that I could eat my weight in curtido and never get tired of it, of course!

As for my dessert pizza, I am beyond thrilled with how it turned out.  The tweaks I made gave me the texture I was looking for: dense, smooth, and slightly custard-like (the traditional Salvadorean quesadilla is slightly more cake-y in texture).  The toppings were just wonderful, with each flavor complementing the next, and the slightly sweet "quesadilla" making the perfect base.  I have the feeling I'll be making this one a LOT during the winter!  It's a comfort-food with a slightly tropical twist; what's not to love?

Thanks for taking the time to read this entry!  I hope it gave you some insight into a different culture whose cuisine is often overlooked.  I'm so glad I finally represent both sides of my incredibly rich heritage on PGEW, about which I'm extremely proud!  Gotta love pizza for being one of those foods that you can tweak in almost any unique way you can think of; and I have to admit this is about unique as it gets!

If you enjoyed this Project Food Blog entry, please take the time to cast your vote starting Monday, October 18th at 6am Pacific Time.  All of your support has gotten me this far and I'd love to make it to Round 6 to show you what else Poor Girl can do.  I'm off to enjoy some of my dessert pizza now.  Thanks for reading!  - Kimberly

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Tomat-u-cation: Working at the Whaley Family Farm

Unemployment is unfun.  While some may consider it a vacation, when there's absolutely nothing to fall back on, it's nothing but days of perpetual stress and despair.  Wondering if or when the phone will ring with the promises of the ever elusive job interview; wondering where the next dollar is going to come from; wondering which is more important: gas or electricity; wondering if one should start packing in case that eviction notice will be served in the next few weeks...  Blech.  I'm hoping something pans out in the next couple of weeks so that I can feel human again, knowing there will be money coming in so I can keep my tiny little cave of an apartment.  I hate feeling this stressed and anxious all the time; it's not good for my body and certainly not good for my soul.

So when my former choir mate, Milt, asked if I could help him with some tomato harvesting and packing on his farm last week, I jumped at the chance.  I needed a day off from the daily pressures of life and I couldn't think of a better way to escape than spending a day surrounded by my favorite fruit-mistaken-for-vegetable: the tomato!

As you might have read in my post for the most recent challenge of Project Food Blog, I have a serious tomato addiction.  From offering former co-workers extra admin help or even a few quarters if they had a tomato on their person when I was faced with none for lunch, to suffering through inferior canned tomatoes during the winter just to get my fix, I have a serious problem when it comes to these fruits.  Yes, they are good for me, but really... an obsession that severe cannot possibly be healthy for anyone.  So, spending a day at a real tomato farm could be viewed as a sort of immersion therapy: getting me close to the source of my obsession in the hopes of decreasing said obsession.  Sorta.

I met up with Milt last Friday and we ran a few errands before heading to his farm, including a brief stop at the Elverta Market to buy some fresh eggs and check out some insanely adorable baby chickens (a couple of which I was tempted to stuff in my pockets to take home).  The Whaley Farm is situated just outside of Sacramento in a small Sutter County town called Pleasant Grove.  Here, suburbia gives way to quieter, rural roads, and soon enough you've escaped to an area where life is enjoyed at a slower pace and the simple things that the Earth bequeaths upon us are the most enjoyable.  The air is cleaner, there's no noise; it was definitely the refuge I was seeking.  A quick tour of the farm revealed three separate gardens that boasted a large variety of beautiful produce, from cucumbers, zucchini, okra and pumpkins, to peppers, melons, basil, culantro (not cilantro!), and, of course, tomatoes.

Milt is well-known in this area for the incredible variety of heirloom tomatoes he grows and provides to some of Sacramento's best restaurants.  From Purple Russians to Green Zebras, Ceylons to the teeny, tiny currant tomato, his farm has them all.  They're organic and 100% delicious, so much so, that Milt recently placed in Kendall-Jackson's Heirloom Tomato Festival for some of his pink and purple beauties.  Some of these, like the Japanese Black Triefle, which I'd never seen before, absolutely blew me away by their lovely colors, incredible textures, and of course, their flavors.  I already felt like I'd earned a lifetime of education within the first hour of being introduced to some of the lesser known tomato varietals.  And then I got to learn what goes on behind the scenes of an actual tomato farm.

I started off by working where Milt felt I'd be most comfortable: the kitchen.  Because his farm produces so many tomatoes, some of which aren't always customer-worthy in terms of aesthetics, Milt processes some of these into tomato juices and sauces.  He had a giant kettle of tomatoes ready to be turned into juice, so he had me process them through a food mill to get rid of the peels and seeds, which would go towards a wonderful compost pile situated on the eastern side of the farm.  The end result of all that milling?  Pure, delicious tomato juice that can be used in a variety of ways, from the simple refreshing drink, to the lovely fresh-from-the-garden gazpacho that I couldn't resist whipping together.

Next, I worked on packing recently harvested cherry tomatoes for a delivery that was to be made the next day.  Taring out scales, weighing individual baskets, and a lot of calculator math is involved in the first part of this process.  Then comes the fun, and admittedly difficult part for me: packing.  Seriously, Poor Girl?  Putting several little cherry tomatoes in a beautiful rainbow of colors is hard to do?  YES!!!  Because while my job was to pack them, all I wanted to do was eat them!  Fortunately, I got my fix with the "splitters" - the smaller, riper cherries whose skins split because they can't hold up to the weight of the other tomatoes on top of them.  Some splitters went toward the compost pile or for a nice treat for the goats; the others went right in my mouth.  After a short cuddle session with Yoda (one of the family cats) and a quick, gentle spray of water to wash off the farm dust, these pretty little baskets of cherry tomatoes are ready to go.

The rest of the day was filled with chopping up more "rejects" for sauces and juices and picking a couple baskets of more lovely little cherry tomatoes, after which I was invited to stay and join Milt & his family for a nice dinner.  I was sent home with a bottle of delicious local Cabernet and a giant bag of my own heirloom tomatoes, which, of course, I turned into that fabulous arrabbiata sauce that helped me advance to Round 5 of Project Food Blog (woo hoo!).

I was asked to come back & help this week and worked on some of the same tasks, as well as new ones like dehydrating tomatoes for some delicious "fruit leather".  We tried a new spicy tomato juice recipe, using some of Milt's culantro (a distant cousin of the more famous cilantro) and some insanely spicy tiny orange peppers, which I believe might be tepins, but I'm not 100% sure.  Regardless, they pack quite a punch on the heat scale and made this juice something V8 could only dream of being!

I'll be helping Milt for the rest of the harvest season on a part-time basis, pickin' more 'maters, cooking up random dishes and making deliveries.  It's been a wonderful experience thus far and I'm truly grateful to Milt & his family for opening up their hearts and home to me during an otherwise gloomy time in Kimberland.  And if the photos I've shared so far weren't enough to convince you that working in such a place can be both inspiring and calming at the same time, here's a li'l slideshow of some of my favorite shots for you to enjoy.


Monday, October 11, 2010

It's that time again! Please vote for PGEW on Project Food Blog!

Wanna see a REALLY cool pizza recipe???  Then you'll need to head to the following link and VOTE for yours truly!

I know, I know, I've fallen to some new lows and am starting to channel my inner politician, bribing you with promises of supercool, unique pizzas so that you'll vote for yours truly.  But you see, if you don't vote for me now, I will not advance to Round 5.  And that 5th round challenges us to do something crazy with something 97.9% of people around the world enjoy: pizza!  I won't divulge what that special pie will be like, but rest assured it will be different from most pizzas you've seen in the past.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand: I made arrabbiata sauce!!!  FROM SCRATCH!!!  And I went ahead and did the PGEW-unthinkable: I posted each and every single step of the process.  You regular readers know that I like to tell a story and accent it with a couple of photos, not post a ton of pictures with a couple of captions here & there.  But this challenge made us post a step-by-step photo tutorial of a recipe or process of our choosing, and I decided to glean inspiration from the pile of heirloom tomatoes I scored from my day of harvesting & processing tomatoes on my friend Milt's farm (you Facebook & Twitter folks know what I'm talking about, and a new post about the experience will be up soon!).  From vine to table, I made sure to show all of you how to make a perfect spicy pasta sauce from real, fresh tomatoes, not the inferior canned kind.  You'll learn how to process your tomatoes so that you can store them for future use, or turn them into an amazing sauce.  Either way, they're all real, and if you're struggling with how to preserve the last of your summer harvest, this is a good way to do so.

To vote for PGEW, please click on this link, or follow the prompts from the Project Food Blog widget on the left sidebar.  Your vote will get me closer to getting that coveted Reader's Choice award (c'mon... I haven't gotten it yet?  I know you guys are voting!), and one step closer to the final round & grand prize of $10,000, which you all know I could use!

Thanks in advance, and stay tuned for a lovely picture post, a restaurant review (where I got to eat for free, of course), and a couple of brand new recipes!

Love,
Kimberly

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Project Food Blog #4: From Vine to Table - Penne with Heirloom Tomato Arrabbiata Sauce

Voting for Round 4 of Project Food Blog is now open!  Your votes and support have helped me get to this point, and I'd truly appreciate it if you could help me go one step further to Round 5!  I have a fabulous pizza idea to share with all of you for that challenge.  :)  Please cast your vote today using this link or the widget on the left sidebar.  Thank you so much!  - Kimberly

After a solid week of hearing, "Sorry, we're not hiring right now," I was beyond stoked to find out I had made it through to the fourth round of this competition (thanks so much to all of you who have helped me get this far!).  It was just the news I needed to perk up my wilted spirits.  But the news also left me beyond stumped when it came to deciding what to do for this next round because it is way outside my comfort zone.  This week's challenge is called "Picture Perfect".  Well, I like taking pictures of food, so that seems easy enough.  Then they hit me with this: create a step-by-step instructional photo tutorial.

*gulp*

Sure, it might seem easy to some so my panic may appear to be a bit ridiculous. But I'm one of those "writing-centric" bloggers who paints pictures with her words and uses photos to accent those words, not the other way around.  I am a natural story-teller and I love that my writing engages my readers and keeps them coming back for more.  That and the fact that I live alone with two cats whose paws don't sport those ever-so-handy opposable thumbs to help with the in-progress shots, made this challenge even more intimidating to me.  For days, I stewed, I fretted, I tossed and I turned, trying to decide what exactly to post for this particular round of the competition.

I was just about to launch into a daunting step-by-step tutorial on the intricacies of doro wat, when the giant pile of heirloom tomatoes I'd just scored from my choir mate Milt's farm caught my eye.  Of course!  I could make an incredible pasta sauce completely from scratch, using real tomatoes instead of those inferior canned ones.  Not everyone has access to some of the spices needed to make that Ethiopian delight, and I wanted to post something that anyone, regardless of cooking skill, could try at home.  Since I'd already had my heart set on something spicy and had a couple of perfectly hot little peppers growing in my own little garden, I decided to make a fiery arrabbiata sauce to go with some freshly cooked penne.  Once again my berbere spices were put away and I set about making a completely different, but equally delicious spicy dish that featured what I consider to be one of the most perfect foods on the planet: tomatoes.

I love tomatoes like a little kid loves cake and I can never, ever seem to get enough.  Legend has it that when I was a wee tot just out of my first day of pre-school, my two biggest complaints were: A) there were no swings in the playground, and B) there were no tomatoes in my salad at lunchtime.  I still consider both of  these to be capital offenses and I actually suffer through tomato withdrawals whenever they're not in season.  You know, when those waxy, bland, pink excuses start invading the produce department at local stores and you're left wondering if what you just ate was even a distant second cousin to the tomato.  And there actually used to be times when I'd would ask coworkers if I could bum and/or buy a tomato off them if I happened to be faced with tomato-less lunch fare (Oh, dear God, I can't believe I just admitted that).

So a day at the Whaley Farm was pretty much like a day at Disneyland for me.  There, I helped Milt pick, process and pack a veritable rainbow of different tomatoes, from Lemon Boys to Green Zebras to Purple Russians.  After a full day of working behind-the-scenes at a tomato farm and enjoying a lovely dinner with Milt and his family, I was sent home with my own large bundle of fine heirloom tomatoes.  I had every intention of just eating them on their own or throwing them in salads, but a thick, rich arrabbiata seemed like a much better idea.

Arrabbiata means "angry" in Italian, and the sauce was dubbed with this name because of the fiery addition of hot peppers.  There are a ton of recipes out there for making this with canned tomatoes, but that almost seems sacrilegious to me; why do that to a pasta sauce when you can make one the right way?  Sure, processing your own fresh tomatoes takes a bit more time and you get to make a glorious mess in the kitchen while doing so; but the end result is completely worth the effort.

So without further ado in the "words" department, let's check out how to make a delicious arrabbiata sauce step-by-step, from vine to table.

Penne with Heirloom Tomato Arrabbiata Sauce (serves 4; total cost per serving: $1.95)

6-8 lbs ripe heirloom tomatoes
3 small hot red chiles, finely chopped
4 t crushed red chile flakes
1 c finely chopped onion
3 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 t dried oregano
2/3 c dry red wine
1 T salt
1 t sugar
3 T olive oil
1 T chopped fresh basil
3 c cooked penne pasta (preferably whole wheat, but white will also do in a pinch)
Salt & pepper to taste


First, pick your produce...
Lovely ripe tomatoes from the Whaley Family Farm...

The best ones like to hang out toward the bottom of the vine...

Ridiculously cute - and hot - peppers from Poor Girl's urban garden...

The last of my sweet summer basil...

Heirloom tomato heaven!

Next, start preparing your mise en place...

Chop 3 large cloves of garlic...

... and about 1 cup of onions (preferably yellow)...

... and, of course, those fiery little peppers.

Then, blanch the tomatoes...


Start boiling water in a large pot or soup tureen...

Prepare a large bowl or other receptacle with ice water (the more ice, the better!)...

Score the bottoms of each tomato with an "x" shaped cut (this allows the boiling water to penetrate the tomato more easily, facilitating the separation of the skin for easier peeling)...

Using a slotted spoon, gently add the tomatoes into the rapidly boiling water and blanch for no more than 60 seconds...

After 60 seconds, or when the tomato skins begin to separate from the flesh, remove the tomatoes using your slotted spoon and dunk them in the bowl with ice water. 

Allow the tomatoes to cool in the ice water for about a minute or so, then move to a separate bowl for the next step.

Peel & seed tomatoes...
Tomatoes are kind little fruits: they will start doing the peeling for you...

(Peeled tomatoes awaiting seeding & chopping)

Slice the tomatoes in half, remove the seeds, and make a glorious, tomato-y mess...

Proudly survey your mise en place...

Chopped tomatoes, peppers, garlic, onions, dried oregano, salt, crushed chile flakes and, of course, red wine.
You're ready to start cooking!

Begin cooking the sauce...
Heat a large pot over medium heat.  Add the olive oil, garlic and onions...

...followed by the fresh chiles, crushed chile flakes, salt, sugar and oregano...

Next, add the wine...

... and, of course, the tomatoes!

Stir until well combined...

... and simmer over medium heat for 15-20 minutes, or until you have a thick, chunky sauce.

About 10 minutes in, start to cook the penne...
The sauce is pretty awesome on its own, but it's best when paired with some penne pasta...

When pasta is cooked, drain and drizzle generously with olive oil for extra flavor and to prevent it from sticking together.

Finish the sauce...
During the last 5-7 minutes of cooking, add the fresh chopped basil and stir together; check for flavor and adjust accordingly with salt & freshly ground pepper...

Soon afterwards your arrabbiata sauce is done!  Thick, rich, spicy, tomato-y perfection!

Serve...
Remove from heat and place in a separate, pretty bowl and stare at the remarkable fruits of your labor...

Serve a generous amount of sauce on a heaping plate of freshly cooked penne
and garnish with extra sprigs of fresh basil...

Take one last picture because you're completely obsessed with the natural beauty of this dish....

...and enjoy!

'Nuff said.

Whew!  Mission accomplished!  As you can see, I stayed true to my regular PGEW style and pretty much deconstructed my usual recipe method by adding pictures.  Though the lighting in my kitchen is rather horrendous and the batteries in my "good" camera died right before I set about working on this post, I still think I was able to clearly convey the process of making a homemade pasta sauce from fresh tomatoes.  Like I said before, it's one thing to make a pasta sauce "from scratch" using canned goods; it's quite another to make it from scratch.

And even if it took me a few hours to do all of this by myself, working as both chef and photographer (cooking with your non-dominant hand while trying to properly engage the shutter button with the other as cats wind between your legs trying to trip you because you've ignored them all day is definitely what I'd call a "challenge"), I must say I'm proud of the fact that I was able to do it all by myself with my own two hands.  From the picking to the processing to the photographing, everything in this post is 100% me; no special equipment or anything.  Just Poor Girl doing the best that she can with what she has on hand.

And you know what?  That's what my blog has always been about: making the most of a potentially scary situation.  I hope it inspires you to do the same in your own endeavors!  Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this recipe post, please take the time to cast your vote for PGEW starting at 6am Pacific time on October 11th.  As always, I will provide a special post with a link to the voting page, but you can also vote for me by using the widget on the left sidebar.  Thanks in advance!  - Kimberly

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