Friday, January 18, 2013

Recipe: Spicy Beef & Sweet Potato Tacos

As I get more settled into my new job and schedule, I'm finding more ways to streamline my day, especially when it comes to meals. Gone are the days of being able to keep a big bag of supplies in the break room fridge and coming up with different concoctions whenever lunchtime arrived. Now I'm all about packing lunches, prepping for meals a few days in advance, and trying to come up with sensible things to eat after work. I feel like the mother of a kindergartner at this point, such is the need for constant prep work!

The hardest part has been making the switch from fun & exciting dinners to fun & exciting lunches. After years of working the 8-5 circuit, not having the evenings free is a little strange. I miss celebrating things like Taco Tuesdays, and breakfast-for-dinner gets really confusing once you start having it around 2am (because at that point, isn't it just breakfast again?). So, I'm making small lunchtime changes here & there to allow these little traditions to continue, only on a less elaborate scale.

I threw these puppies together a few days ago on a whim, chucking the more time-consuming sweet potato hash with poached eggs I'd originally had in mind for some quick tacos instead. Going in a sweet potato-less direction was not an option, as it appears that they're my first I'm Obsessed With You, Dear Ingredient of 2013, so I figured I'd cook them up with some ground beef I had defrosting in the fridge for a simple taco filling. But let me tell ya, these are anything but simple when it comes to flavor.

Easy to prepare and quick to assemble, these little guys are packed with spices and a little heat for kick. Earthy, smoky cumin, spicy cayenne pepper, and a couple dashes of smoked paprika take an otherwise tasty taco filling to a whole different level. The mild sweetness and velvety smoothness of the sweet potatoes help to tame a bit of that kick, so if you're a little on the shy side when it comes to spicy food, you should be just fine with these.

Served street-style on small corn tortillas with plenty of chopped onions and cilantro for garnish and crunch, just two or three of these make for a delicious, yet effortless lunch. Because I get home so late these days, I try to have dinner options in place before I leave so I don't have to start from scratch when I get home, and this recipe turned out to be perfect for this new practice. I made a big batch of filling, had the fresh veggie toppers all chopped up and ready to go, and all I had to do is reheat and serve. If you're pressed for time and looking for meal-related time savers, you'll definitely want to bookmark this one.

Before we check out the recipe, I wanted to point out how keeping your spice pantry stocked, even with the very basics, can make all the difference in the world when you're cooking. As you can see here, what could have been a good dish is now a fun one, alive with exciting flavors. Except for the spiced paprika, which I actually happened to find at my beloved Trader Joe's for a mere $1.99 (!!!), the ingredients used to take the taco filling from meh to OMG are quite simple and relatively inexpensive.

Of course, you could just go the taco seasoning packet route and save yourself some measuring time. But you'll be spending way more in the long run and won't have the ability to tweak those flavors until they make your taste buds sing. Keeping basic herbs & spices on hand opens up a world of possibilities, and with some of the shopping suggestions in Tip #2, you should be able to create a decent spice pantry of your own without breaking the bank. Once you find out what works for you and you commit to keeping those herbs & spices well-stocked, there's no limit to what you can do, even with the most basic ingredients.

Okay, it's recipe time! Let's check it out. : )


Spicy Beef & Sweet Potato Tacos (makes about 4-6 two-taco servings; average cost per serving: $1.50)

Ingredients
1 small sweet potato, cut into 1/2" cubes (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
1/2 c chopped yellow onion
1 T cooking oil
1 lb ground beef
2 T tomato paste
1/4 t ground cumin
1/4 t ground cayenne
1/4 t smoked paprika (regular paprika works just fine)
Salt & pepper to taste
8-12 small (4") corn tortillas
Chopped onion & cilantro for garnish
Salsa or pico de gallo (optional)

Directions
1. In a large skillet or fry pan, heat the oil and add the garlic & onions. Cook until just fragrant and slightly translucent. Add the chopped sweet potatoes and cook for about 5 minutes, until they start to soften slightly and just begin to brown.

2. Add the ground beef, tomato paste and seasonings, and fold gently into the potatoes & onions. Cook the meat until completely browned and the sweet potatoes are tender. Check for seasoning and adjust according to taste with salt & pepper (and a little more cayenne if you're up for it).

3. Heat the tortillas on a griddle or skillet. For the softest tortillas, lightly moisten your hands with water and pat both sides of each tortilla until it's just damp. Place on the griddle and cook over medium heat for about 45-60 seconds on each side. Place on a plate and keep covered with foil until ready to serve. For crispier tortillas, spray your griddle with cooking spray or add a small amount of oil, then add the tortillas. Cook until warmed through and slightly browned around the edges.

4. Assemble those tacos! Grab a couple of tortillas and place a generous spoonful of the beef & sweet potato mixture inside. Top with chopped onion and cilantro, serve with a side of salsa if you like, and enjoy!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Recipe: Cranberry-Pistachio Oatmeal-Quinoa Cookies

I hate to admit it, but this (er, last) year I could not get into the Christmas spirit until about 10pm last Saturday night. Between all the craziness I've already been dealing with this year both healthwise and financially, providing what's essentially hospice care for my sweet kitty, Hana, and adjusting to the new schedule of my new job (it's hard going from diurnal to nocturnal when you're no longer a young whipper snapper, lol), I completely forgot to feel festive.

It’s sad, really. Usually, once Thanksgiving is over, I’m in hyper-Christmas mode, donning Santa hats and jingle bell rings whenever I get the chance, and busting out the holiday decorations by no later than December 1st. But life seriously kicked my ass in 2012, and if it hadn't been because of all the Christmas parties going on at work, and the fact that my mom was coming to rest after her post-surgery return to work, I would have been blindsided by Christmas.

Fortunately, it all worked out. At the restaurant we finished an absolutely jam-packed week that left us all exhausted, so it was nice to spend some quiet time at home with my mom. Those of you who've been following the blog for awhile know that when she and I hang out, cooking and baking are always involved, so naturally we took advantage of our days off to get some of that done.

While she set about whipping up some incredible piña colada cupcake concoction (it's okay to be jealous... I'm jealous of myself and all the treats I get whenever she comes over), I decided finally to add another notch in my baking-with-quinoa belt by making quinoa cookies. Not quinoa-only, per se, as I'm still working on a recipe that pleases me in that respect, but something just as awesome: a chunky but moist cookie, mild in its sweetness but simply exploding with fun textures.

The goal wasn't to make a holiday cookie - really, all I wanted to do was bake to take the chill out of the air and the stress out of my hear. But because of the seasonal favorites of cranberries and nuts, and the added festive look of the red quinoa, these worked out nicely for our holiday dessert spread. But these are definitely year-round cookies, so don't feel like you have to bookmark these for this new year's holiday baking frenzy. Like my strawberry-banana quinoa muffins, I have the feeling these are going to be on heavy rotation for me as pre- or during-work snacks.

Though the title might suggest that this is a rather involved recipe, its deceptively simple to make, especially if you're like me and are used to cooking up decent sized batches of quinoa to have on hand. My plan was to work on a new savory red quinoa recipe for the new year, but quinoa is a funny thing once it cooks, yielding far more than you needed for the recipe in mind. This is one of the biggest reasons I harp about quinoa as a PGEW Bare Bones staple - like pasta and rice, the finished product it yields makes this ancient grain a sound culinary investment. The fact that it also packs an awesome nutritional punch makes it an even better choice, with its range and versatility making this one of the most valuable ingredients around (in my kitchen, at least).

But back to the cookies...

Using whatever chunky, chewy and crunchy things I had on hand, I whipped these together fairly quickly, despite the elbow grease expended on the actual mixing, now that one of my mixer's attachments has walked away from my kitchen (where the heck is that thing?). Even with the added arm workout, prep time for these only came out to about 10-12 minutes tops, which is an added bonus. Baking can be so much fun, but I feel like I can only enjoy it when I have a full day of nothing else to do, so it's a rare joy to find one I can put together in less than an hour.

I used cranberries and pistachios in my cookies because A) I love that combination, and B) that's all I had on hand, but I know these would be amazing with almonds or pecans instead. The dough itself is very mild in flavor, so you don't have to worry about these being overly sweet. With the rolled oats and the fun pop! of the quinoa, if you're a fan of textures like I am, this is definitely the cookie for you!

Now, because these have relatively pricey ingredients like pistachios, cranberries and quinoa, they're not as uber-cheap as, say, a sugar cookie recipe. But that doesn't mean this has to be a $15 recipe. Paying attention to and using what you have on hand, and using some of those ingredients wisely (like splitting batches of cooked quinoa into different recipes) can help keep those costs down. You might not have cranberries but maybe you do have raisins, so you can use those instead. No nuts? No problem? They're not an absolute requirement, and you'll still have plenty of fun texture to play with without them. With a recipe like this, it's okay to goof around with the additions; as long as your basic cookie dough recipe is measured out properly, you can take liberties with those add-ons.

How else can you keep a cookie recipe with so many healthy, happy things so affordable? Keep an eye on those Bare Bones staples! As I delve further into the world of baking, I realize those little guys don't only come in handy for regular meals, but for fun baking projects, too. A silly "discovery" really, because it's not like I didn't already know this. But when you're not used to baking regularly, a lot of those ingredients seem to fade into the background until they're actually needed.

It's been worth taking a closer look at them, though... Those oats don't have to suffer through another life sentence of breakfast-dom; that quinoa can turn into almost anything from what I can gather; and all that dried fruit that usually goes into salads or pilafs when I"m the one doing the cooking? It can actually go into something fun like a batch of cookies! Who knew, eh? ; ) Think outside the box, repurpose the familiar, and you'll be amazed at what kind of kitchen magic you can conjure up.

Have fun with this one, folks! And if you end up using different fruit & nut combos for your cookies, let me know what you come up with in the comments below! I have the feeling these will be just as versatile as those sweet little muffins. : )


Cranberry-Pistachio Oatmeal-Quinoa Cookies (makes approx. 2 dozen cookies; average cost per dozen: $2.50)

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups flour (whole wheat or whole wheat white are okay)
1 t salt
1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1/4 cup raw sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar (packed)
2 T honey
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup cooked quinoa (red or white is fine)
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup chopped pistachios

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 375°. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or silicone baking mat and set aside. In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder, and stir well. Set aside.

2. In a separate, larger bowl, combine the butter, sugars, vanilla extract and honey. Using a wooden spoon and some serious elbow grease, beat the hell out of them until they know who's boss* (or until creamy). Add the eggs and whip together until light & fluffy (about 2 minutes).

3. Add the flour to the butter/sugar mixture about 1/2 cup at a time, mixing well between batches. Next, mix in the oats, followed by the cranberries and pistachios. Lastly, fold in the cooked quinoa gently, making sure all ingredients are evenly distributed in the dough.

4. Spoon 2-tablespoon sized portions of dough onto your cookie sheet, about 1" apart. Bake for 14-17 minutes until golden brown, then allow to cool on a wire rack. Grab a couple of cookies and a glass of milk, and enjoy!

*A simple electric mixer will also do just fine. : )

Recipe: Brown Rice-Quinoa Pilaf with Butternut, Mushrooms & Kale

It seems to have become PGEW tradition for me to start off each new year with a quinoa recipe - two quinoa recipes, actually. It might have started way back in 2009, my first PGEW New Year. I was feeling rather prolific that morning, despite all the champagne consumed the night before. I wanted something tasty but much more healthy than what I'd had earlier that week, so I cooked up a large batch of quinoa and whipped up two totally random dishes. They ended up being some of the most popular dishes of that year and the a new tradition was born.

And with good reason. 'Tis the season to be focusing on health goals, eating more healthfully, and all that jazz. As I've said time and time again, quinoa is a wonderful staple to keep around, not only because of its high yield and versatility, but because of its nutritional values as well. In an effort to restock my freezer with new supplies for the beginning of the new year, I like to cook up big batches bare bones staples like quinoa, so that I can portion them out and freeze for later use.

But before freezing must come experimenting, so I divvied up some of my most recent batch between my Cranberry-Pistachio Oatmeal-Quinoa Cookies and this new little pilaf I've been thinking about for days. I'd played around with an easy quinoa pilaf over the Christmas holiday and liked the result so much, I started coming up with other flavor combos. I had a good idea in mind but didn't want to use up all my quinoa for this dish, since I was eager to getting the freezing & stocking portion of my day out of the way.

Eyeing the pot of brown rice that had just finished cooking on the stove, I had an idea I'm ashamed I hadn't thought of earlier. Put the two things together, for crying out loud! It makes sense, right? The rice helps to stretch the use of the quinoa even further, helping to spend less on the mother grain, while the quinoa lends extra protein and nutrition to a familiar staple. A few vegetable additions later and voila! Dinner is served.

I'm still in seasonal cooking mode, so I made use of this ridiculously adorable butternut squash I'd been hoarding for a couple weeks. Along with tender, meaty mushrooms, and some bright green kale for color and crunch, this quickly became a fabulous one-dish meal. And because I'm throwing dried cranberries into everything these days (holy recent bulk sale, Batman!), I added a few of those at the very end, for even more color and an added zing. I realize some folks might find this addition a bit odd, so I've left them as an optional ingredient in the recipe, but if you'll trust me on this one, try it with the cranberries first. They really kick things up a notch!

Though I'm used to making a lot of these one-dish meals, I have the feeling I'll be making a lot more of these this year. With the new work schedule, my dinnertime is way off, happening either around 3pm on the train headed there, or at around 1:30am, once I've tended to the furchildren and soaked my sore feet. Having this sort of thing on hand to take with me to work or have on hand to reheat quickly after my shift is over is an absolute lifesaver, so if you struggle with the same kind of hectic day, you'll love what's coming this year. Just commit to setting aside a few hours of just one day to get a lot of your prep done - like cooking and freezing staples like rice, beans and other grains - and you're good to go.

Back to this dish, though... I love it. I had two bowlfuls of it the first time I made it and smiled happily with every bite. You can tell that it's good for you with all that healthy nuttiness lent by the quinoa and brown rice, but it's not like typical "health food". It's more like health comfort food: a big, hearty dish that's both filling and filled with great flavors. The sweetness of the squash, the crunchy green flavor of the kale, all those mighty, meaty mushrooms - everything comes together beautifully. As I've mentioned before, it makes a fantastic meatless entree, but it's also a wonderful side for lean cuts of chicken or pork. And while it's meant to be served hot, I just snuck a bite from the bowl in the fridge and found it's pretty darn tasty cold, too!

Enough babbling! It's time to check out the recipe. Here's to a much happier and (hopefully) healthier year for all of us! Happy New Year, everyone! : )


Brown Rice-Quinoa Pilaf with Butternut, Mushrooms & Kale (makes 4 servings; average cost per serving: $1.50)

Because the main components of the dish are relatively mild in flavor, I felt it was important to incorporate some acidity, in order to bring out their full flavor potential. While the savoriness of the onions & garlic go a long way, a bit of balsamic vinegar added to the mushrooms enhance both the flavor of the mushrooms, and that of the dish as a whole. If you feel it's a bit too "tangy", reduce the amount to 1/2 tablespoon and you'll be set.

Ingredients
2 T olive oil, divided
1 small butternut squash
1/2 c chopped red onion
1 t minced garlic
1 T balsamic vinegar
1 8 oz. package white or cremini mushrooms
1 c (packed) chopped kale
1 1/2 c cooked brown rice
1 1/2 c cooked quinoa (red or white is fine)
1 c dried cranberries (optional)
Salt & pepper to taste

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 400°. Line a baking sheet with foil and set aside. Peel, seed and chop the butternut squash into 1" cubes. Toss the squash with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and a bit of salt & pepper, then place on prepared cookie sheet in a single layer. Roast for 15-20 minutes, or until tender. Remove from oven and set aside.

2. Heat a large skillet over medium heat and add the remaining olive oil. Add the garlic and onions and sauté until fragrant and softened. Next, add the mushrooms and balsamic vinegar, and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Turn off the heat, add the chopped kale, and mix well. (The residual heat will wilt the kale so that it's tender.)

3. Combine the brown rice and quinoa in a bowl and mix until both ingredients are evenly distributed. Toss this into the mushroom & kale mixture and mix well. Next, add about 1 1/2 cups of the roasted squash and mix in gently. Lastly, mix in the dried cranberries (if you'll be using them).

4. Check for flavoring and adjust according to taste with more salt & pepper if needed. Serve as a one-dish meatless entree, or as a hearty side to lean proteins, and enjoy!

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