Saturday, January 29, 2011

Recipe: Meyer Lemon Curd

In my opinion, the best thing about the winter months - aside from having a million & one excuses to make soup - is the return of citrus season.  Oranges, mandarins, lemons, grapefruits... every year I await these juicy orbs of liquid sunshine with the giddy anticipation of a 3-year old on Christmas.  The past couple of winters have been particularly plentiful, as friends & coworkers have generously passed down their surplus fruit to me, and this year is proving to be just as fruitful (ha ha).  Grapefruits, lemons, and even kumquats are making their way into my thumbtack-sized kitchen, filling it with bright, sunny colors and sweet, floral scents. 

One of my bosses seems to have a rather prolific Meyer lemon tree, so she's been bringing these sweet lemon-mandarin hybrids to the office by the bucketful.  They're usually gone within about 2.5 seconds, so I'm lucky to have been able to snag as many as I did recently.  And while I definitely want to do a photo makeover on my Meyer Lemon Cheesecake Shots with Candied Kumquats, I had different plans for this first batch of lemons: the first thing I'd make with them would be a lovely, creamy lemon curd.  Though regular lemon curd is delicious, I was eager to try a version using the slightly sweeter Meyer lemon, since the flavor would be slightly different, and the color just gorgeous (and you all know how much I like pretty food!). 

Fruit curds, much like jams, jellies and marmalades, are wonderful not only because they help preserve extra produce, but because of their versatility.  Once you've made a basic fruit curd you can use it as a spread for muffins & scones, or as a filling for pastries, danishes, and of course, pies.  And while it sounds like it could be a daunting venture, making your own fruit curd isn't hard it all.  Not to mention the fact that it's far more affordable than buying an $11 jar of it at some specialty store!  Sure, it requires a decent amount of stirring and a healthy dose of patience, but the end result is well worth it (and you get in a free upper body workout too... way to multitask!).

For this project, I decided to work with Alton Brown's regular lemon curd recipe and tweak it a bit to suit my needs.  I absolutely fell in love with how it turned out, and was happy to avoid the whole "strain through a mesh sieve" step that many lemon curd recipes call for, even if I wasn't able to use the double-boiler method Alton lists in his recipe.  Because I'm comfortable with canning I made sure my finished product went into some cute little jars, but if you don't have the right equipment or are just not sure about how to can properly, don't fret; this will keep just fine in the fridge for a couple of weeks.  But it's so darned tasty that I'm not sure it will last that long!

Meyer Lemon Curd (makes 2 8oz. jars; total cost per jar: ~$2.75)
(Adapted from Alton Brown's Lemon Curd recipe)

6 large egg yolks
3/4 c Meyer lemon juice
1 t finely grated Meyer lemon zest
1 c sugar
1 stick of butter, cut into small cubes

Combine the egg yolks, juice, zest and sugar in a medium saucepan and whisk together until smooth (this will help avoid chunky bits of cooked egg yolk).  Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture coats the back of a spoon (about 8-9 minutes).  Remove from heat and stir in the butter, one cube at a time, making sure that the butter melts completely before adding the next piece.

Pour the finished lemon curd into clean containers and either continue your usual canning process, or cover with a layer of plastic wrap that's been placed directly on the surface of the curd.  Serve on muffins or scones, or use as a base for a nice pie, and enjoy!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Recipe: Curried Israeli Couscous & Lentil Pilaf

There's really nothing like the security of a job to remove about a metric ton of stress from one's life, and I have to say it feels nice.  Sure, things are still tight because I'm still catching up on rent & other bills, but the light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer & closer everyday.  I won't be rollin' in dough, but at least I'll be able to breathe a little easier.  So as things slowly start to look up in Kimberland, my creativity and productivity are beginning to increase dramatically.  Not worrying about the mundane frees my mind to think about other stuff, like new projects, new adventures, and of course, new recipes.

Since I'm still dealing primarily with Bare Bones staples for few more weeks, I'm having fun coming up with new ways to make simple things like rice and beans - or in this case, Israeli couscous & lentils - as sexy as possible.  And there's no easier way to do that than with a few good spices and some help from a couple of colorful ingredients.  I'd been craving lentils for days and considered making my mom's lentil soup, but decided against it since she's so much better at that sort of thing, and because I might be able to sweet-talk her into making it next time she comes & visits (*waves* Hi Mom!).  I also had about a cup of Israeli couscous hangin' out in my cupboard, so I figured I could combine the two with some yummy spices and have an easy meal.

But a bowl of just couscous and lentils would look so sad, and... beige.  Beige food can be tasty, but it's not all that fun to look at.  And as I've said before, visually appealing food is part of "eating well"; it just makes you feel good to have a nice-looking meal, no matter how simple it is.  So, a few veggies, raisins and chopped nuts later, I ended up with a fantastic dish that was packed with flavor, color and texture, as well as healthy & balanced.  And for less than $5 for the whole recipe!  All it took was a little imagination and a few good spices.  That, my friends, is how easy it can be to eat well despite living on a teeny, tiny nano-budget.  :)

Curried Israeli Couscous & Lentil Pilaf (makes 2-3 servings; total cost per serving: $1.75)

1 c dried Israeli couscous
2 c, plus 1 c chicken or vegetable broth
1 c cooked lentils
1 c frozen peas & carrots, thawed
2 T olive oil
1/2 c diced onion
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 T curry powder
1/4 t ground cumin
1/4 t sea salt
1/8 t ground cayenne pepper
1/2 c raisins
1/2 c chopped almonds

Combine the couscous and 2 cups of broth in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat, cover, and allow to the couscous to simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the broth is completely absorbed.  Remove from heat, fluff with a fork and set aside.

In a large skillet or pan, heat the olive oil.  Add the garlic and onions and saute over medium heat until the onion becomes translucent & garlic is fragrant.  Reduce heat to low, add the peas, carrots and raisins along with all of the spices, and cook for 2-3 minutes.  Next, add the broth & lentils, gently stir together, and cook for about 5 more minutes.  Finally, add the cooked couscous to the curry mixture and stir until completely combined.  Remove from heat and stir in the chopped almonds. 

Serve as a side to meats & poultry, or as a main dish with a salad, and enjoy!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The 2011 NASFT Winter Fancy Food Show - San Francisco, CA

The Winter Fancy Food Show.  If I had to describe this show in one word, I don't think I could.  Not only because I've always had issues with brevity, but because as a first-timer to an event like this, there really isn't just one word to capture the experience.  It's amazing.  It's crowded.  It's overwhelming.  It's BIG.


The NASFT (National Association of Specialty Food Trade), a non-profit trade association focusing on fostering interest, commerce & trade in the specialty food industry, hosts the Fancy Food Show twice a year.  Held once on the West Coast and once back East, the events showcase the latest & greatest products, companies and trends in the specialty foods & beverages industries.  Last weekend, the Winter Fancy Food Show was held in my favorite city, San Francisco.  After learning I could attend this great event as press, I took advantage of the holiday on Monday, and hitched a ride with my pal Catherine of Munchie Musings to get my food show on.

By the time we dealt with some minor parking headaches (welcome to SF!) and secured our press passes, the show was well underway and packed with people.  Catherine, who had attended the show last year, came prepared with a map highlighting the vendors she was most interested in meeting.  I figured it was best to stick with her since she knew the drill, and we started off with the exhibits in the North Hall, which featured the California regional exhibitors and the Natural & Organic Pavilion.  I was glad I hadn't eaten breakfast that morning, because the second we stepped inside, we were inundated with samples of everything you could possibly imagine.  Cheese, Filipino ice creams & frozen meals, gourmet marshmallows, chocolate, olive oils and specialty vinegars, health bars; you name it, we tried it, and that was just the first row of exhibitors! 

Just a few of the many awesome exhibits at the Winter Fancy Food Show

Somewhere between the chocolate with Resveratrol and the spicy fruit jellies, Catherine & I got separated.  Not having a single bar of signal on my phone in that part of the building, we weren't able to reconnect until hours later.  But this probably worked to our advantage, since we were both interested in checking out different things.  And being a first-timer, I wanted to make sure I wandered down every. single. aisle. in order to get the full experience.  It was such an overwhelming display of food & drink that if I were to cover them all, I'd have to write about 18 posts.  Instead, I'll highlight some of the trends & samples that caught my attention:
  • With my passion for everything spicy, I automatically gravitated to most of the booths having anything to do with hot sauces or salsas.  Though I tried some intensely hot salsas, I never did muster up the courage (or tolerance) to try the ridiculously popular Ghost Chili sauces.  But Ghost Chili was everywhere!  From straight Ghost Chili sauce to salsas combined with fruits to soften the blow of the extreme heat, Ghost Chili is definitely the chipotle pepper of 2011. 
  • As fancy mocktails are growing in popularity for those who prefer not to drink alcohol, so are the faux wines.  Gone are the days when sparkling apple cider was the only elegant non-alcoholic option to serve at a dinner party.  I saw many exhibits featuring non-alcoholic wines & sparkling beverages.  12 Noon to Midnight features sparkling beverages using different fruit & herb infusions, while Vignette Wine Country Soda actually uses the juice of the same grape varietals found in wines like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Rosé.  Even though I'm a huge wine lover, I could see myself being perfectly happy sipping on one of these sodas during a nice picnic or something.  Definitely a trend worth watching!
  • Herb-infused and palate-cleansing waters were also prominently featured at the show.  I had a fun "water tasting" at Ayala's Herbal Water, and tried several of their most popular flavors, including Ginger Lemon Peel, Clove Cinnamon Cardamom, and Lemon Verbena Geranium.  Not being a fan of most flavored waters currently on the market (I like my water to taste like water), I was happy to note that not only were they very refreshing, they still tasted like... water!  I got to take home a bottle & just discovered that Ayala's is also sold at the Sac Natural Foods Co-op, so I'll probably pick up a few bottles next time I can go play - er, shop there.
  • Ethnic foods were also quite popular, with on-the-go varieties like Sukhi's Naanwiches and frozen Filipino, Indian, and Persian meals, for those nights you don't want to go with the old Chinese or Italian standbys.  The ones I tried were all fantastic and tasted pretty authentic, so it should be fun to see these brands slowly make their way into more mainstream grocery store chains in the next couple of years.  
  • My beloved quinoa was everywhere!  From everyone's favorite whole-grain company, Bob's Red Mill, to the more restaurant industry-specific Roland Foods, and even smaller distributors like Zócalo Gourmet, everyone was extolling the virtues of the mother grain.  Zócalo Gourmet even showcased quinoa's smaller, cuter cousin, Kañiwa, which packs even more protein & nutrients than quinoa into its tiny amaranth-sized grains.  Definitely one to try soon!  But in general, quinoa was definitely the rock star of whole grains, even being used in some sensational salmon tapas made with Quely products by award-winning Chef Javier Soriano.  The quinoa obsession seems to be spreading everywhere!  

But the biggest highlight of my day was getting to meet the Barefoot Contessa herself, Ina Garten!!!  I was just wandering along, checking out all the different booths, when I saw an exhibit with some of her cake mixes, jams and curds.  When I looked up after sampling a bit of the lemon curd, I was blown away to find she was sitting right there, chatting away with one of the industry reps.  In my most undignified moment of the day, I gushed about how much I admired her work, gave her one of my business cards, and got an autograph & picture with her.  I'm used to doing this sort of thing after seeing one of my favorite bands in concert, but apparently my fan-girliness extends to celebrity chefs, too!

Poor Girl & The Barefoot Contessa
(I'm in the forefront b/c we weren't allowed to go back there with her, but this is still good enough for me!)

Believe it or not, all of this was in just one hall of the gigantic show.  I took a short break to rest the toe, then made it over to the other hall, which featured the International Pavilion and all of the charcuterie and cheese one could possibly hope to sample.  This is where I stepped into a wonderland of all the things I only wish I could eat on a regular basis, while ambling along cobblestoned pathways in France or Italy.  Luckily, France, Italy, Spain, Wales, Argentina, Japan and even Tunisia were brought to me instead.

Since I'm a total francophile, the French exhibit in the International Pavilion is what I hit first.  I was in cheese heaven, sampling Brie, Camembert, Manchego, Roquefort, and a million others I don't remember.  It really seemed that most of the French exhibits were cheese, and with good reason!  But there were other fun exhibits, featuring specialty hors d'oeuvres, escargots that are frozen & ready to go after a few minutes in the oven (they were exquisite, by the way), and some lovely fruit purees that had undergone the molecular gastronomy process of spherification to make fruit caviar & fruit "injections".  I was hoping to sample some French wine, but either I was too cheesed-out to notice if they had any, or they just didn't bring those vendors to the show.
Clockwise from left: Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, artisinal chocolates, fruit caviar & Iberico ham.
AKA: Foodie Heaven

Fortunately, the Italians had brought all their best wines and olive oils, so I happily sipped and slurped my way through that exhibit after visiting France.  My absolute favorite wine of the day was this gorgeous Montepulciano d'Abruzzo from Tenuta I Fauri.  I won't pretend to know all the proper wine terminology, but the way I interpreted it, this deep ruby red wine was full of complex spicy & fruity flavors, and by far the best Montepulciano I tried that day.  Many of my fellow tasters seemed to agree, so that particular booth remained busy with folks from all over the world.  The olive oils were so many in number that I can't even recall all the brands represented, but I was in olive oil heaven!  I was also happy to note that a few of our California olive oils can give some of the Italians a run for their money.  

After Italy, I visited Spain and tried a bit more wine (fabulous) and Iberico ham (incredible), and trolled through the German, Japanese, and Welsch aisles, all of which cemented my belief that in the next few years I must make it a point to do some serious traveling.  I'm so into culture and food and the culture of food that it seems almost criminal to stay in one place for so long when there's so much out there to explore.

All in all, it was an incredible, overwhelming day that left me with very sore feet, but it was definitely worth the trip.  I think next year I'll go for a couple of days to make sure I can process it all more calmly.  But I made some great connections with some of my favorite exhibitors of the day, which means there should be several new product reviews coming in the next few months.  Stay tuned for those, and keep your eyes peeled for a couple new recipes!  Happy Weekend, everyone!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Recipe: Guacamole Omelette

Earlier this week I was working on a new crepe recipe, which got me thinking about some of my go-to recipes in the breakfast-for-dinner department.  Though there are a couple sandwich & crepe recipes, I realized that most fall into the omelette category.  Suddenly, I was overcome with an intense desire to have a giant omelette, and instantly regretted the fact that I'd just used my only omelette filling-worthy ingredients in the crepes.  Frantic, I started racking my brain for something I could throw inside: a lonely tomato?  My last scallion?  Cat treats? (Dear God, no!)

Fortunately, I remembered I had about four ripe avocados hangin' out in Big Bowl, courtesy of my local Safeway's killer sale on Haas avocados recently.  At just $0.77/each, how could I resist, right?  It took some work to get the right ones, since they were either too green or too ripe (bordering on spoiled).  I chose the ripest of the green ones and let them ripen slowly until they were just perfect and ready to use in My Favorite Avocado Salad or any number of dishes (in my book, avocados can do no wrong).  But this time around, I actually had the rest of the ingredients for guacamole, so I figured I'd whip up a fresh batch and make an old standby omelette that I'm surprised I haven't posted here yet: the Guacamole Omelette. 

There are several omelette recipes that use guacamole as a topping or main ingredient, so this is not some new omelette-rocket-science recipe.  However, many guac-omelettes or guac-scrambled eggs throw cheese into the mix, and while that's tasty, it also makes the dish much higher in fat.  Even for a cheese lover like me, the combination seems to be too rich.  This omelette cuts back on the bad fat and just leaves the good, healthy fats from the avocado, and is every bit as hearty & tasty as those using cheese.  While I like to make my guacamole from scratch, if you're pressed for time or out of an essential ingredient, feel free to mix some prepared salsa with your avocado for a fast "cheater guac".  Other than that, there's not much to note!  This is a quick, tasty omelette you can enjoy for brunch or breakfast-for-dinner, and if you keep an eye out for those avocado sales, it's wonderfully affordable to boot.

Guacamole Omelette (makes 1 omelette; total cost: ~ $2.75)

3 large eggs
1 t olive oil or butter
Pinch of salt
Salsa and sour cream (optional)

Guacamole
1 large ripe avocado
1 small Roma tomato, diced
1 T diced red onion
1/2 T key lime juice (regular lime juice will also do)
1/2 T finely chopped cilantro
Pinch of salt

Cut the avocados in half, remove the seed and peel.  Dice into large chunks, then combine with the rest of the guacamole ingredients in a medium bowl and mash together with a fork.  Check for seasoning and adjust according to taste.  Set aside.

Beat the eggs together in a small bowl.  Heat the butter or oil in an omelette pan over medium high heat.  Add the eggs and swirl the pan around until the egg is evenly distributed.  Cook until the omelette is set and there is only a small amount of unset egg left.  Remove from heat and allow the residual heat from the pan to finish setting the omelette.

Spoon the guacamole onto one half of the omelette and fold over the other half.  Slide onto a plate, garnish with salsa & sour cream if desired, and enjoy!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Review: Hong Kong House - Sacramento, CA

Hong Kong House on Urbanspoon
As much as I love brown-bagging it, there are times when I'm in such a hurry in the mornings that I forget my lunch at home, causing me to flounder around in a sea of quick stop eateries.  Not that I don't know what's out there or anything; I just find that lunchtime choices are either overpriced or nothing but fast food.  The general area where I work doesn't have very much to offer within walking distance, so if I should forget my lunch, like I did yesterday, I'm left with three choices: McDonald's, Stonebrooks (a former Lyon's), or this relatively new place called Hong Kong House.  Since the service at Stonebrooks has been extremely slow the few times I've been taken there, and the McDonald's on Watt & Manlove is particularly bad, I decided to see what the new kid on the block was like.

The first thing I noticed was how spotless the place was.  I know that this restaurant is relatively new, but other eateries that have previously inhabited Suite 1 at 8887 Folsom Boulevard have never been quite as clean right after the noontime lunch rush.  Though there were several people eating in the dining room or waiting for take-out orders, every other table was clean or being cleaned, and the floors were immaculate.  The ordering counter was well-stocked with plenty of menus and bottles of soy, Sriracha and sweet chili sauces, with white boards featuring their daily specials propped up beside them.  I was greeted warmly by all three staff members at the counter, and they patiently waited while I perused the menu.

The selection is pretty much what you'd expect to find at most quick-stop Chinese restaurants.  There are more than a dozen all-day specials featuring an entrée, choice of side, and an egg roll, their prices ranging from $5.95 to $7.95.  Appetizers, soups, and a la carte entrée items fill the rest of the menu, as well as combination plates & dinners.  Since it was my first time there, I figured it would be good to try one of the 1-person combination plates in order to sample a few different items.  Personally, I would have preferred to play mix & match with the items listed in each combo plate, but as there was a $1 substitution fee, I decided to stick with what was offered.  I chose plate #C - which included Szechuan beef, sweet & sour chicken, chow mein, and paper-wrapped chicken - grabbed my tall glass of ice water, and found a free table to set up camp.
The "one-person" combo.  Apparently they had André the Giant in mind as that person.
How will I ever finish all of this???

I'd barely had time to take a few sips of water and check my email when my order arrived.  And when I saw what was brought to me, I almost fell out of my chair.  Truthfully, I was expecting a styrofoam sectional plate with a couple tablespoons of each food item nestled in each little compartment; you know, the standard Chinese fast-food fare.  Instead, I received a lovely flower patterned plate piled so high with steaming hot food, I could have fed myself and a pro-football team with it!  I had never seen so much food for such a wee price ($7.50), and I was instantly overcome with fear and uncertainty as to how I was going to tackle it.  One bite at a time seemed to be my best bet, so that's where I started.

Since everything was fresh out of the wok and super hot, I decided to let the paper-wrapped chicken appetizer cool a bit, lest I burn myself with steam.  The sweet & sour chicken had the obligatory safety cone-orange colored sauce, but I found it to be a little less overwhelming in flavor than some sweet & sour sauces I've had in the past.  The chicken had just been cooked and tossed in said sauce, so the texture was exactly what a quality sweet & sour dish should be: saucy and slightly crispy, as opposed to soggy and chewy.  There  were plenty of crisp onions & peppers, and large chunks of fresh pineapple, making this a pretty solid venture as far as sweet & sours go.  I felt the Szechuan beef was by far a much better dish, with tender pieces of flank steak & crisp veggies tossed in a slightly spicy Szechuan-style sauce.  I would have preferred the spicy heat factor to be cranked up just a couple of notches, but otherwise I found this one to be quite delicious.

Next, I decided to open up one of the packets of paper-wrapped chicken and was very pleased with what I found inside.  At many quick stop Chinese places, you'll find about 4-5 tiny pieces of desiccated, soy sauce-bathed chicken that have become one with the foil paper in which they were cooked.  At Hong Kong House, you're presented with foil packets of large, tender chunks of chicken & scallions which have been tossed together in a reasonable amount of sauce, then steamed to perfection.  I think the addition of the scallions made all the difference in the flavor of this popular appetizer, and it actually inspired me to give something similar a go in my own kitchen sometime.  Lastly, I tried the chow mein.   The noodles were accompanied by plenty of veggies and was not overly seasoned with soy sauce, but I found them to be just a tad too greasy for my liking.  It wasn't a bad side dish, and I did enjoy the sesame flavor undertones; I just would have preferred something slightly less oily to go with all the saucy entrées I had on my plate.

My plate, after I'd been working on it for several minutes.
Clearly, I'll be eating this for the next 10 days...

After a few bites of each entrée and side, I was officially stuffed.  Perhaps it was all psychological because my mountain of food just seemed to grow with every passing bite, but whatever the case, it was entirely too much food for me.  I was happy to learn that they were armed with plenty of take-out containers & bags so I could take the rest of my lunch home.  But even though I was stuffed, I was still pretty satisfied at the value of my food: hot, fresh, tasty, and so much of it that it seemed unfair to charge so little (though I'm not complaining!).  I love it when I can stretch out one restaurant meal into a couple, and this "one person" combo plate might even stretch out to three.

Overall, I found my first visit to Hong Kong House to be quite enjoyable.  Clean restaurant: check.  Friendly staff: check.  Good Chinese fast food: check.  Value: triple check!  I probably won't make it a habit to go there as it's not the sort of thing I like to eat on a regular basis, and going out for lunch just wastes too much money.  But as far as quick-stop Chinese eateries go, I liked Hong Kong House much better than the larger chain restaurants, and will go back if my own homemade lunch ends up being left behind.  Only next time, I think I'll stick to the 1-item-and-rice specials.  Now that I know what their portion sizes are like, I think that might be a much safer option for a grazer like me.  But if you have a gigantic appetite or have several mouths to feed this is definitely one of the best food values in Sacramento.  You'll get what you paid for, and then some!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Recipe: Udon Noodles with Edamame, Peppers & Mushrooms in Ginger-Garlic Broth

Whenever I'm on the road to recovery after being sick, I get these massive feng shui attacks where I just have to deep clean everything and rid myself of all that is unnecessary.  I don't know why, or if it even happens to anyone else, but I like the end results because even my nano-apartment can appear spacious after I'm finished.  Last weekend I went on my first cleaning rampage of 2011, throwing away all evidence that I'd ever had a sinus infection, and reorganizing cupboards & closets while Hana & StuKitty looked at me with questioning eyes, in the hopes that they might be allowed to "help" (which in Cat means "get in the way & play").

While I was busy working on one of my kitchen cupboards, I came across some non-perishables I'd forgotten I still had.  Way at the top were some seasoned panko crumbs, some baking powder, and a couple of packages of udon noodles.  I squealed with delight when I saw the noodles, causing StuKitty to run off just as he was calculating the proper angle at which to launch himself onto the second cupboard shelf.  I couldn't be bothered with his snark, though.  I had UDON!!!  Not that I wasn't happy to find the other items; they just didn't hold the immediate promise of a yummy new dish.  Panko I've played with many a time, so I stored that away for future recipes, and the baking powder was good for later use, too.  But the noodles... ohhh, those were going in my belly immediately! 

And so, the following soup came together quite beautifully.  I had random udon noodles, ridiculously cold temperatures to deal with (even though it's the middle of January), and a pesky sinus infection that will insist on making me sound like my very own orchestra wind section.  All three were perfect excuses to make a big batch of soup!  Santa's gifts of Grocery Outlet gift cards had allowed me to buy some frozen edamame, mushrooms, and even a giant red bell pepper, as well as a decent sized block of tofu; all things that would go quite well with my noodles.  Some homemade veggie stock brought down from the freezer, plenty of garlic & spices, and I was all set for a fabulous soup that would not only warm me up and fill me up, but would help relieve some of those awful sinus symptoms I'd been dealing with for days.

Just a couple of quick notes on this one: by all means, use fresh ginger if you have it!  They didn't have any at G.O. so I had to stick with ground ginger.  It works fine in a pinch, but freshly grated ginger can only make this soup better (and far more effective if you're using it for medicinal purposes).  You can certainly play around with the veggies in this one, but I like the way the colors & textures of the edamame, peppers and mushrooms play off of each other.  It makes this a very lovely soup to look at, and as I've mentioned before, part of "eating well" in my world is enjoying aesthetically pleasing food.  Lastly, if you're not a big fan of tofu, no worries!  Try some cubed chicken or a few shrimp instead.  And if you're looking to stick with a vegetarian soup sans tofu, the edamame still provides plenty of protein.

The best part about this soup?  Not only is it cheap and oh-so-delicious, it is also super quick & easy to make.  So if you're pressed for time after a long day at work, this would be a fabulous solution for a tasty, nutritious dinner.

Udon Noodles with Edamame, Peppers & Mushrooms in Ginger-Garlic Broth (makes 4-6 servings; total cost per serving: $1.40)

2 c vegetable stock or broth
4 c water
Large handful of udon noodles
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 t ground ginger
1/2 t cayenne pepper
1 T cooking oil
1-2 T low-sodium soy sauce
1 c frozen shelled edamame
3/4 c sliced mushrooms
3/4 c red bell pepper strips
1 c cubed extra firm tofu
1/4 c chopped scallions

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat.  Add the garlic & ginger, and cook for about 1-2 minutes, until fragrant and the garlic just begins to brown.  Next, add the vegetable stock and water, and bring to a boil.  Toss in the noodles and cook until the begin to soften but still have some of their crunch, about 5 minutes.  Add the edamame and cook for about a minute, then add the mushrooms, peppers and tofu.  Allow the soup to simmer for another 2-3 minutes, then add the soy sauce and stir until combined.

Serve generous portions of soup in bowls or soup mugs, top with fresh scallions, grab those chopsticks, and enjoy!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Recipe: Red Quinoa Pudding with Cranberries & Golden Raisins

Oh boy, here I go posting two quinoa dishes back to back at the beginning of the year like I did in '09.  What can I say?  I love the mother grain and it's a wonderful way to start (or continue) eating healthy in the new year.  Since I'm an official "ruler" for the January Rules challenge over on Eating Rules, I thought it would be fun to really showcase how fantastically delicious eating whole grains can be, while keeping with the Poor Girl tradition of making the most of what you have.  Literally.  These last two quinoa recipes were made from the same cup of dried red quinoa and have given me a good four days' worth of tasty, nutritious meals.

Now, I've sometimes been known to create some dishes that are a little bit off-center, particularly when it comes to using quinoa.  That's partly because I'm sometimes left with odd ingredients that don't always seem to go well together, but mainly because quinoa just so darned versatile.  Today's recipe is definitely on the unique side and shows off that versatility beautifully.  This super-nutritious grain can be used it in salads, breakfast bowls, baked goods, you name it!  I've done so here on PGEW many a time.  After making the Red Quinoa & Asparagus Salad with Toasted Cumin Vinaigrette earlier this week, I wanted something sweet to make use of the rest of my quinoa.  And as I was looking to make a non-baked dessert with these leftovers, rice pudding seemed like a great model to follow.

Gleaning inspiration from a few cookbook recipes & old arroz con leche attempts, this is what I ended up making.  Part breakfast, part dessert, this dish is sweet, satisfying, and quite easy to prepare.  While some rice pudding recipes require an egg or two (and I'm sure eggs wouldn't hurt the end result for this one), I found that the quinoa's own residual starches, combined with the sweetened milk, created enough of a thick, pudding-like consistency.  I added cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger to give the pudding some warm, comforting undertones, and added plump golden raisins and dried cranberries for extra sweetness & texture.  Though you can cook up a batch of quinoa specifically for this recipe, you can also put your leftovers to good use and make this dish with those instead.  Because quinoa is so filling and packed with protein, I find that smaller portions of this pudding are best, making for a satisfying breakfast, snack, or dessert that will help keep you full.  Let's check out the recipe!

Red Quinoa Pudding with Cranberries & Golden Raisins (makes 6-8 servings; total cost per serving: ~$1.25)

1 1/2 c cooked red quinoa
2 1/4 c milk
1/3 c brown sugar
1/4 t ground cinnamon
1/8 t ground nutmeg
Pinch of ground ginger
1/2 t vanilla extract
1/2 c dried cranberries
1/2 c golden raisins
1/2 c chopped almonds (optional, for garnish)

In a medium saucepan, combine the milk and brown sugar, and whisk together well.  Add the cooked quinoa and cook over medium low heat for about 15-20 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened and is the consistency of a rice pudding.  Stir in the vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg and cook for another 2-3 minutes.  Finally, add the cranberries and raisins, and stir to combine.  Remove from heat and allow the warmth of the pudding to plump up the berries & raisins for about 1-2 minutes.

Serve in small ramekins or bowls and garnish with extra dried fruit & chopped almonds.  Serve warm or chilled, and enjoy!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Review: Ten 22 - Sacramento, CA (Dine Downtown Preview)

If you live in or near Sacramento, one of the best things to look forward to in the new year is Dine Downtown Week.  Every year during the first week of January, some of the downtown area's finest restaurants offer a special three course menu showcasing new dishes or tried & true favorites for just $30 per person.  I absolutely love this event and when things aren't so tight, I try to check out at least one of the featured restaurants.  After all, who can resist the opportunity to try out some of Sacramento's best restaurants without breaking the bank, right?  Unfortunately, these past couple of years haven't left me with enough breathing room to do this, so when I was invited to attend a special preview dinner at one of these fabulous restaurants, I was beyond ecstatic.  Definitely not a bad start to the new year!
As I've done each year, I checked out all of the Dine Downtown menus.  It's just something I like to do, not only to mentally salivate over every dish listed, but to glean inspiration from what professional chefs are doing in their kitchens.  Most of this year's menus looked fantastic, but the one that really stood out to me was the one for Ten 22 in Old Sacramento, and I blame this entirely on the lamb entree.  I still haven't gotten over the lamb pops from last summer's IFBC reception, so any excuse to feed this obsession is good enough for me.  Throw factors like "espresso-braised", "bone marrow mashed potatoes" and Swiss chard into the mix, and I'm pretty much sold.  Though the other entrées sounded delicious, I wanted something more unique for this experience.  A quick glance at the items for the other two courses assured me that my friend Rich and I would have plenty of choices to satisfy both of our distinct tastes in food.

Situated right in the middle of Old Sac, Ten 22 is easily accessible from most freeways in this general region.  Inside, the light, modern decor plays off the original rustic brick walls of the building, giving the space a bright, open feel with plenty of charm.  A rather impressive wine section located to the left of the host's area instantly tempts you with rows upon rows of lovely looking wines, and the full bar at the right appears perfectly stocked with all the best spirits.  We were greeted warmly by our seating hostess, who gave us our choice of an open table in the middle of the room, one of the regular booths, or something a bit more intimate.  We chose a booth near the buzzing activity of the bright open kitchen, and next to what appeared to be a private dining area or extra seating area for busier evenings. 

Our friendly server arrived almost immediately and started us off with warm bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, while we perused the drink menus.  As was to be expected, they offered a wide variety of wines, and their beer selection also looked quite formidable.  House cocktails priced at $9 each featured well-known classics and some more exclusive cocktails, like the Hombre martini (made with Skyy vodka, Rose’s lime juice, sweet & sour and fresh jalapeños and a touch of cilantro).  Though that seemed like an interesting choice, Rich & I stuck with more traditional drinks.  He ordered a nice ale, and after a couple of recommendations from our server, I chose the ZD Pinot Noir.  We put in our orders for our first course, opting to share one of each of the dishes offered on the special menu. 

While we waited, Executive Chef Jay C. Veregge stopped by to welcome us and offered to answer any questions we might have.  I told him I pretty much had my heart set on the Espresso-Braised Lamb Shank, which he assured me was an excellent choice, telling us it was one of the most popular dishes Ten 22 had to offer.  We asked him about the Maple-Brined Pork "Rack" Chop, and he explained that it was pretty much a tender pork chop with the bone attached, similar to rack of lamb.  As this is the only kind of pork that Rich likes to eat, and it was paired with fabulous sides like buttermilk mashed potatoes and roasted broccoli flowers with wild-sage butter, his choice was also confirmed. 

Chef left us for a few seconds and our first two dishes - the Frito Misto with Calamari and the Roasted Tomato Bruschetta - were brought to us.  The bruschetta was lovely to look at, with ribbons of fresh basil decorating the generous amount of roasted tomatoes & fresh mozzarella slices that topped the perfect-looking toastettes.  The three generously topped servings sat in the middle of a lavish drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, adding an extra pop of color and more flavor to the bruschetta (seriously... that was some of the best olive oil I've had in a long time).  Chef stopped by again briefly to see what our selections had been, and he explained to us that the fresh mozzarella was actually house-made, making me even more excited to try it.  It was a solid appetizer, with the roasted tomatoes lending a slightly different flavor & texture than the usual fresh tomatoes found on most bruschetta, and the cheese a wonderfully creamy indulgence. 

The Fritto Misto surprised me in that it was a much larger portion than I expected.  This was to be a recurring theme in our meal, which satisfied both Rich and me. Often times we've gone to nicer restaurants only to find that the portions are so small they're no longer even chic-looking.  Ten 22 just lets you enjoy the food, piling your plates high with all the good stuff.  We both remarked at how nicely the calamari was cooked - not overdone & rubbery, but not soggy, either.  The green beans, carrots, and sweet red peppers were also fried to perfection, and nothing felt greasy or heavy in the least.  Served with a side of fresh arugula & carrots, a wedge of lemon, and a Sriracha-garlic aioli, this was another solid appetizer which I would highly recommend. 

After a quick trip to the powder room, I returned to find that our entrees had just been brought to the table (making me feel a bit like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction).  They both looked so amazing that neither of us could wait to dig in, and I (im)politely had to smack Rich's hand away from his dish so that I could take a few photos.  "Can you smell that?" he asked me as my camera snapped away.  Honestly, I couldn't with my raging cold, but he assured me it smelled "friggin' amazing" and told me to hurry up so we could eat. 

While he dug in to his "really buttery" mashed potatoes, I just stared at my plate, overwhelmed by the size of my dinner.  Again, Ten 22 doesn't seem to believe in tiny, artsy-fartsy portions; they want to feed you, and feed you well.  If Rich's pork rack chop was huge, my lamb shank was straight out of a renaissance fair's food court!  It was enormous!  Flanked by heaping portions of Swiss chard and bone-marrow mashed potatoes, and swimming in a pool of luscious espresso pan jus, this was just the indulgent meal I had hoped to receive.  The mashed potatoes (which I was looking forward to as much as the lamb) had a lovely texture and were complemented quite nicely by the bits of bone marrow that had been rendered from the bone of my lamb shank.  The wilted Swiss chard was soft but not mushy, and went wonderfully with the espresso pan jus.  And the lamb...... oh, the lamb!  It was beautiful, tender, and absolutely made better by being braised in rich, dark espresso.  And because I had plenty of pan jus to dip it in, each bite was juicy and filled with that deliciously smoky flavor. 

Rich, who is a power eater, inhaled his maple-brined pork with gusto, proclaiming repeatedly that this was a far better meal than some others I've taken him to in the past.  While I savored my lamb & potatoes slowly, I noted that his pork looked juicy and perfectly pink, not overdone & dry.  He said the maple glaze really made the dish in his opinion, and I was allowed one bite of the tender meat & sauce.  It was another clear winner, and if it hadn't been for the lamb on the menu, I could have easily seen myself ordering that dish. 

But there came a point when I just couldn't eat any more.  It was just so much food, and the wine, bruschetta, calamari and bread had helped to fill me up just a bit.  Since I'm a firm believer in saving room for dessert, I reluctantly pushed my plate aside, hoping like crazy that they'd let me take the rest of my ginormous meal home with me.  Sure enough, they did, and our server swiftly returned with my giant box of food in a cute little bag (brown bags with handles are always cuter than the regular kind).  When we were asked what we wanted to try for dessert, we both ordered the same thing: Chocolate Fondant Cake.

I tend to shy away from chocolate cakes at restaurants and though the other choice of Mango Panna Cotta looked perfectly delightful, it didn't seem like the right dessert to enjoy after our meals.  And after hearing Chef's description of the cake, the idea of a light panna cotta just couldn't hold a candle to the promise of rich Valrhona chocolate.  We made a very wise choice.  Layers of moist dark chocolate cake alternated with sinfully rich, thick layers of what seemed to me like more of a ganache-fondant hybrid.  Garnished simply with three luscious raspberries & a small sprig of of fresh mint, this was a fantastic end to a satisfying meal.  And though it went beautifully with my small glass of port, it was, again, just too big for me to finish.  So home it went along with my lamb for me to enjoy the next day.

Overall, I really enjoyed my experience at Ten 22.  There have been plenty of mixed reviews about this restaurant, and I was glad I finally got the opportunity to check it out for myself.  I felt our server was swift, friendly and attentive without being overly so, and he seemed knowledgeable and confident about his recommendations to us.  Chef Veregge was very down-to-earth and I appreciated his attentiveness and openness to suggestions.  In fact, when I mentioned that there were some things on the restaurant's website that were not working, he immediately went to the person in charge of that task, and when I got home that night, the fixes had already been made.  If this is a reflection of how things are handled in the back of the house, Ten 22 is in great hands.  Our dinner certainly proved that, and I'll definitely be back once I can comfortably afford to enjoy a night out again.

Hopefully, Ten 22 will become a regular fixture in the Dine Downtown line up in years to come.  But rest assured that all of the restaurants that are participating this year have fabulous menus to offer and are definitely worth a shot.  Be sure to check out any of the more than 30 participating restaurants during Dine Downtown Week, which runs from January 7th to January 16th*.  It's a great way to check out some of Sac's best dining experiences without breaking the bank.

*Reservations highly recommended.

Ten 22 on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Recipe: Red Quinoa & Asparagus Salad with Toasted Cumin Vinaigrette

The new year always makes people take a closer look at their health in general, whether it's regarding weight loss, quitting smoking, or just exercising more for better health.  I fall into the latter category, especially because my health & overall klutziness have been so bad that I've fallen out of my former groove.  You regular readers know that except for the occasional evil dessert, I eat rather decently both nutrition and portion-wise.  After all, what I post here is what I'm currently eating at home.  But I have to admit that the constant stress of unemployment and being threatened with eviction caused me to feel depressed and entirely too terrified to worry about exercise.  I seem to be the poster child for how the stress hormone, cortisol, can affect a person: get me in a negative stress situation like near-homelessness and I grow a gut; remove me from that situation and I drop inches & pounds just by blinking.

The proof?  I honestly haven't done anything different recently, aside from having a real, full-time job, and already I've dropped six pounds in two weeks!  Though we all know I can eat well, I just haven't been motivated to move well until now, so this is pretty awesome.  But it doesn't mean that I'm going to lapse into some crazy brie en croute eating frenzy.  I may enjoy my guilty pleasures, but overall I prefer eating healthfully in spite of my financial woes.  And because I know many of you have come to view my site as a guide for how to do just that (thank you!!!), I refuse to start off the year with something baked, sweet, or otherwise "evil".

Enter today's recipe. There are times when even I surprise myself with what I can do with very little, and this recipe is a good example of that.  I can't seem to stop proclaiming how good it is to... no one in particular (StuKitty & Hana just don't care what goes on in here unless kitty treats are involved... ingrates).  As I mentioned in my final recipe of 2010, Santa was kind and gave me some gift cards to Grocery Outlet, so I was able to buy a few new things that would augment my paltry kitchen contents, namely veggies.  Though I prefer them fresh from the farmer's market, the frozen variety (and certain canned) do get me through the winter months.

With a decent amount of red quinoa to play with and my newly reorganized spice rack reminding me of all that cumin seed I had on hand, I decided to make a smoky, zesty vinaigrette to complement the flavors & textures of the veggies and quinoa.  The result?  Absolute quinoa salad perfection!  Tender asparagus, sweet corn & peppers, crispy scallions & shallots mixed together with the mother grain and tossed with that smoky vinaigrette is just what the doctor ordered for a fabulous start to healthful new year eating.  And after dusting off my beloved pilates videos, I'm confident I'll be seeing my pseudo-six pack in no time at all - for a lot less than many folks are paying for at gyms or weight loss centers right now!  Woo hoo!

Red Quinoa & Asparagus Salad with Toasted Cumin Vinaigrette (makes 3-4 servings; total cost per serving: $2)

2 c cooked red quinoa (regular quinoa is also fine)
6-8 medium asparagus spears, cut into 1" pieces
3/4 c red pepper strips
3/4 c sweet kernel corn
1/2 c finely chopped shallots
1/2 c chopped scallions (whites & green tops)

Toasted Cumin Vinaigrette
1 T whole cumin seed
1/2 T ground cumin
1/4 c key lime or lemon juice
1/3 c apple cider vinegar
1/2 c olive oil
1 t honey
Salt & pepper to taste

Heat a dry skillet over medium heat and add the toasted cumin seeds & ground cumin.  Toast for about 1-2 minutes, or until fragrant, stirring constantly to avoid burning.  Remove from heat and allow to cool.  Combine the oil, key lime juice, vinegar, honey, toasted cumin, and salt & pepper, and whisk together vigorously until mixed well.  Set aside.

In a large bowl combine the quinoa, asparagus, corn, peppers, shallots and scallions and toss together.  Add the dressing and mix well.  Serve immediately or refrigerate for about 30 minutes to allow the flavors to incorporate, and enjoy!

Monday, January 3, 2011

New Year, New Look (a.k.a. What's in Store for January)

Happy New Year, everyone!  I hope you all enjoyed the holiday's festivities safely and with plenty of friends, family and good food.  I had a great time ringing in 2011 with Ms. Munchie and friends at one of my favorite spots in Sacramento: the Shady Lady Saloon!  One of these days I'll have to do a proper review of this awesome speakeasy in the heart of Midtown, but for now I'll just tell you that they always do New Year's Eve right and make the best Sidecar in Sacramento.  Anyway, it was a fun-filled night and the rest of the weekend was quiet & relaxing (except for finally getting hit by a stupid cold... first one of the winter season, though!  Not bad!).

Now, I don't know if it's the security of having a decent job or if there's just something different about 2011, but even with a cold I feel lighter & happier than I did a mere month ago.  I've been wanting to tweak a few things on ye olde blog for a few weeks now, and I thought this would be the perfect time to do that while I brighten up the place a bit.  Don't worry, most things are still the same!  Things are just a little lighter & brighter with a couple of new tools to help you make the most out of your PGEW experience.  Here's what's new and what's in store for this first month of 2011...
  • As I mentioned before, I've brightened things up slightly without straying too far from the last design.  The signature deep blue is still there in the logo, but the rest of the blog is not as dark as before, helping to make the pictures pop out a bit.  I fixed some of the issues with the text of the actual blog posts so that weird spacing issue should be gone now.
  • After a few headaches trying to figure out the logistics of the newsletter, I'm finally able to get it going!  (Thanks, Amir at StreamSend!)  Just type in your email in the box located in the left sidebar and you're good to go (and don't worry... you will not be spammed, nor will your email be sold to anyone).  You'll get your first PGEW newsletter this week.  :) 
  • Continuing with the apparently-I'm-not-as-tech-savvy-as-I-thought theme, I have also been having some issues getting the PGEW - To Go! Vol. 2 ebook ready for distribution.  I think I'm getting down to the bottom of this mystery, and should be up & running fairly shortly.  I won't make any promises as to the exact date, but it will be in the beginning of January for sure.  To those who have emailed me about this, thanks so much for your patience!
  • On to something I do know how to do well: cook & eat!  I have a fabulous red quinoa recipe in the works, so look for that one this week.  And with the help of gift cards from Santa & other generous souls, I'll be able to shop for some new bare bones staples & a few "fun" items here & there! 
  • Speaking of bare bones staples like whole grains & legumes, my good friend Andrew of Eating Rules has a new challenge for us this January!  You might remember him from his popular challenge, October: Unprocessed, but the premise of his blog is actually to follow just three simple rules.  To find out what those rules are and to take the January Rules challenge, head on over to Eating Rules.  And as an official "ruler", I'll also be writing about my personal experience on the challenge in certain recipe posts (and on Facebook & Twitter) throughout the month, so you can follow my journey right here on PGEW.
  • Lastly, I am obsessed with doing photo makeovers of some older PGEW recipes!  When I was playing around w/the changes I was both horrified and amused at how the very first recipe photos looked.  Now that I'm better at taking pictures, I want to give some of those tasty old school recipes the food porn shots they deserve.  I'll be doing these photo makeovers throughout the year and you can look for a couple of those starting this month.
That's all for now, folks!  Have a fantastic January!

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