30 July 2007

I've gone bananas.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a craving for banana bread. God knows why, because I don't actually like bananas, but there you go. Someone had posted a vegan recipe somewhere that looked pretty good, so I decided to go for it. I especially liked the idea of adding chocolate chips, because there's nothing like warm, melty chocolate in a baked good. The recipe only called for a single banana, though, and so I still had several left over. I decided to try a different recipe for the second loaf, and I wasn't nearly as impressed. The vegan version has a much more subtle banana flavour, which I prefer, and of course there's the bonus that the lack of raw eggs means you can safely lick the bowl. Both recipes are listed below for comparison.

Vegan Banana Bread

Preheat oven to 350. Grease the bottom of a nine-inch loaf pan. Mix together a cup of sugar, half a cup of canola oil, a cup and a quarter applesauce, a mashed ripe banana, ½ cup water, and a little more than a tablespoon vanilla. Then mix together 2-1/4 cups all purpose flour, 4 t baking powder, and ½ t salt. Add to the banana mixture a little at a time and stir until just incorporated. Fold in a couple handfuls milk chocolate chips and a handful of walnut and pecan pieces (you might want to chop the walnuts first). Pour into prepared pan and bake 50-60 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool 5 minutes in the pan before removing.

Regular Banana Bread

Place oven rack in lowest position and preheat to 350. Grease bottom of a nine-inch loaf pan. Mix together 1-1/4 cups sugar and ½ cup softened margarine. Stir in 2 eggs until well blended. Add three or four mashed ripe bananas, ½ cup milk (recipe calls for buttermilk but I didn't have any on hand), and 1 t vanilla. Beat until smooth. Stir in 2-1/2 cups all purpose flour, 4 t baking powder, and 1 t salt until just incorporated. Fold in a cup of chopped walnuts. Pour into pan and bake an hour and fifteen minutes or until the toothpick comes out clean. Cool 5 minutes in pan before removing, and cool completely before slicing.

26 July 2007

Fresh from the Cornfield

The other day I went to New Pi for some fresh produce, and I decided to buy a couple of red bell peppers. I'm not a big fan of peppers, or anything spicy really, but roasted red peppers are actually pretty good and I've been in the mood for some real summer food, something colourful and full of vitamins. I also bought a few ears of sweet corn, since they were only thirty-nine cents each and locally grown. Though most produce is expensive and hard to find in Iowa, corn is one thing we generally have plenty of.

Lately, I've been thinking so much about the corn, cherry, lemon basil, and jalepeno salsa I saw on another foodblog (can't for the life of me remember which one) so much I've practically been dreaming of it, but I wasn't sure I could really re-create and besides, I don't have a grill and I wasn't sure corn would actually char in the oven. So last night I took a look at the About.com Southern cooking site and scanned through the corn recipes there. I found a recipe for stuffed green peppers that looked pretty good, modified, and came up with the following. It was quite delicious, I thought, bringing out the natural flavours of the veggies well, and is of course quite healthy compared to, say, corn pudding or creamed corn.

Corn-Stuffed Red Peppers

Start with a couple of red bell peppers. Chop off the tops and remove the white membranes with a knife. Shake out the seeds or scrape them out with your fingers, but be careful with the knife because you want your pepper in tact. Put the peppers in a saucepan and cover with lightly salted water. Bring to a boil, boil five minutes, and drain.

Get about a cup of fresh corn kernels off the cob. I had three ears, so I just shucked them all and reserved the rest to fry with onions later. Throw in about a quarter of a small onion, diced, a small handful of diced grape tomatoes (or regular tomatoes would be fine), a tablespoon of flour, a scant tablespoon of margarine, a dash of salt and pepper, and a small pinch of cayenne. Mix together with your hands (or be good and use a spoon; I just like feeling my food).

Spoon the filling into your peppers and pack down so that they'll stand up on their own. As you can see, I didn't really have a small enough dish for this, but it worked fine sticking them in the corners. They came out not quite full, so you could use slightly larger amounts than I did; I wasn't really measuring. Bake at 350 for 35-45 minutes. I only did 35 and the corn was a teeny bit crunchy, though still good; I would recommend tasting your corn to make sure it's tender but don't burn yourself. Also I think this dish would be good drizzled with balsamic vinegar, but I decided to keep it simple this time.

I Scream, You Scream

Every time I see a recipe for some exotic flavour of homemade ice cream on a food blog, I get slightly tempted. But let's face it. I do not have the time or energy to make ice cream. It's like bread, or pizza, or pastry. I could do it, but come on. Instead, I indulge massively in the store bought stuff. I've always had a weakness for ice cream. I love weird and wacky flavours, but I'm not adverse to some old-fashioned chocolate or vanilla, either. So, in honour of summer, the season where I literally have two servings of ice cream a day on average, I bring you some of my favourite places to eat ice cream, and while we're at it some of my favourite types to buy at the store.

Dane's: Dane's is a local thing, so I won't spend much time on it, but you've really got to appreciate an ice cream stand that is located on a patch of grass behind a bloody service station, and features a convenient picnic table for customer satisfaction. In all seriousness, the ice cream is amazing, full fat deliciousness. I usually get a Twister, which is a blended thing like a Blizzard or a McFlurry, but the soft serve is legendary.

Goodberry's: If you're ever in North Carolina, run don't walk to this ice cream institution. They call it "frozen custard," and it's creamy and delicious. They have other things on the menu, but we only ever get the Carolina Concrete, which is ice cream that despite being very, very creamy does not fall out of the cup when you turn it over. It's obviously very dense. My old standby is the mint chocolate chip, and you really can't go wrong.

Cook Out: I think this is also a Southern chain. They do hamburgers and hotdogs and it's drive through only, but despite being a vegetarian I still go for their thick old-fashioned milkshakes. They have about fifty flavours, and my favourite is the cherry cheesecake. There are actual hunks of cheesecake and whole tart cherries in the cup—only downside is, you actually have to suck the stuff through a straw.

Cold Stone Creamery: Cold Stone and Marble Slab are two chains with the same basic concept—pick ice cream, put on cold slab of marble, mix in random crap, serve—but I prefer Cold Stone because of its menu suggestions. Yes, you can pick anything you want to mix together, but they really do have some nice combinations, and it's generally going to be better than anything you come up with. Be warned, though. The ice cream is extremely rich, as are the mixings, and no matter how many times I tell myself that I'm a big girl and can get the medium, I wish I'd have gotten the small. The birthday cake remix is a perennial favourite of all my friends, but I like to try a different thing every time.

Francesca's Bakery: This is a favourite dessert place in Durham, North Carolina, that I have to include because they have what is perhaps the best gelato in the country. It really is amazing, and I like that they have vegan options.

Capanna Coffee: Another favourite gelato stop, this one in Iowa City. Their gelato is a bit expensive for my tastes, but it's superb, especially the tiramisu and espresso flavours. The free pirouette cookie is a nice touch.


Blue Bunny: I discovered this brand in Iowa City, and I'm not sure it's available outside the Midwest. That said, it really is the best reduced fat ice cream I've found. The reduced fat version is called "Hi Lites," and the Cookies and Cream and French Vanilla versions are so good I can't actually tell that they're reduced fat. The only vanilla I like more is Breyers, and that's vanilla bean rather than French so you really can't compare. I also really enjoy their small gelato containers, just about two servings. The pistachio is quite impressive, though I'm so so on hazelnut.

Ben & Jerry's: You can't beat a classic. My long time favourite is Cherry Garcia, but in college I became rather addicted to the chocolate one with the peanut butter core. It's kind of weird fully frozen, but if you let it melt a bit it's amazing. Also very good is the Dublin Mudslide, but I'm not sure it's available in the States.

Haagen Dazs: This is another brand that was available in college, so I've sampled quite a few of their flavours. My favourite is Mayan Chocolate, as I really have a thing for the combined flavours of chocolate and cinnamon, or chocolate and red pepper (if you're like me and you're ever in Raleigh, go to a place called Crema on Fayetteville Street downtown and try an Aztec drinking chocolate—you'll be glad you did). I also love the Baileys, White Chocolate Raspberry Truffle, Pineapple Coconut, Chocolate Peanut Butter (again, eat slightly melted), Vanilla Swiss Almond, and Vanilla Bean flavours.

Ciao Bella: I recently discovered this brand of gelato and sorbet, and I'm in love. So far I've only tried the pistachio and coconut version, but they're both out of this world. Not exactly healthy, but hey, it's worth the splurge.

Tofutti: I'm surprised how much I like the little Tofutti ice cream sandwiches. I'm a huge ice cream sandwich fan, and they definitely don't taste like regular ice cream, but it's still a good taste. My favourite is the mint chocolate chip.

22 July 2007

I say potato...

Since Friday morning's "skillet," I've had a hankering for homemade fried potatoes. I've never made such a thing, but there's a first time for everything. Admittedly, I am very much a "recipe cook." I don't make things up, even though I suppose I have a fairly good handle on ingredients and what goes well together. I just don't trust myself to come up with ideas from scratch, so I tend to play with existing recipes, sometimes adjusting them enough to come up with something semi original. This time, however, I was determined to make something entirely from my own head. I considered an accompaniment of scrambled eggs or pancakes, but this was actually pretty good on its own. It looks extremely simple, I know, but humour me. It's a big step!

Rosemary and Feta Fried Potatoes

This "recipe" came of necessity from what I had lying around in my kitchen. I had the last of a bag of baby red potatoes to use up, some onions that I'd already cheater-cooked in the microwave for nachos, and the last of a container of feta that wasn't really enough for gratins.

I've got to say, my hatred for peeling potatoes runs nearly as deep as my hatred for chopping raw onions. Not only is it tedious and time consuming, but my neck always gets a crick from peering down at the things. Today the problem was slightly worsened by a green tint just under the skin of some of the potatoes, which my father informs me can lead to food poisoning if consumed. I normally peel potatoes with a knife, but I decided to use the potato peeler that the kitchen faeries left, as it has a rather nice rubber grip. Anyway, it took twice as long, but I managed to get rid of all the green, and then chopped my potatoes up into small, but not-so-even pieces.

I started with a tablespoon of margarine over medium-high heat in a non-stick frying pan, and added my potatoes. After a while, the pan was looking a bit dry, so I went ahead and threw in the onions, which were rather oily. That did the trick, and everything started sizzling nicely. You can use more oil and make the cooking less active, but with something like this where I'm adding multiple ingredients, I don't want to have to use the paper towel pat method to get rid of excess oil. So I sucked it up and went with the constant stirring method, which is more fun anyway. I don't know why, but I really like stir-fry.

The potatoes were taking a while to get any colour, so I upped the heat a bit closer to high, and once they started to brown, added a generous sprinkle of salt, some ground pepper, and chopped rosemary. I think the total cooking time was about 15 minutes, and I had to keep tasting to see if the potatoes were tender. Once I got them where I wanted them, I dumped the feta (about two or three tablespoons crumbled) and immediately removed the pan from the heat, continuing to stir to coat the potatoes with the cheese. It melted up quite nicely, and tasted wonderful. Still a bit oily, but not nearly as bad as some dishes I've made lately. I did this with about ten rings of onion and about six or seven baby potatoes, which made two servings, but obviously you can make however much you need. Bon appetit!

20 July 2007

I probably shouldn't be admitting this on a blog my mother reads (hi, Mom!) but today I had my very first hangover. Well, it was bound to happen sometime, right? I always thought it was pretty counterintuitive to eat greasy foods when you're feeling sick the morning after a drinking binge, but it turns out that they are just as amazing as rumoured.

I should note that I don't normally drink much, and I just had a two-month drinking hiatus to avoid immediately becoming an alcoholic upon starting law school. I think this was wise, as I saved an awful lot of money and drinking really is a big thing out here, but when presented with a bottle of 1915 Jack Daniels Gold Medal whisky to celebrate the return to alcohol, I went a wee bit overboard. The funny thing is, my friends actually thought the stuff was bottled in 1915, which I was a bit sceptical on, seeing as how whisky that old would be worth hundreds of dollars in most cases. It turns out it was actually bottled in 2002, but hey, five-year old whisky is still respectable. This still tastes like Jack, but it's incredibly smooth and has a wonderful buttery taste. It's a limited bottling, so I probably won't be sampling the stuff again, but that's okay. Once was enough.

So this morning a group of us went to the Village Inn for breakfast before class. The restaurant is basically like a Denny's or a Friendly's, but the roof is a hideous shade of teal and the sign is a hideous shade of orange, which is in my opinion an excellent combination. I'm not huge on breakfast food, but something about what I ordered really hit the spot. I had a veggie skillet, which was basically homefried potatoes with some veggies and cheese, two eggs over easy on the top, and a side of pancakes. Sometime I'll do a pancake post, but I have to reluctantly admit that I've always had a guilty pleasure preference for nice, fluffy white flour pancakes like you get in diners, whereas my Daddy always makes whole wheat flour griddle cakes that are infinitely better for you but to me always had a bit of a burnt taste. They're all right drowned in syrup, but today's pancakes were so much tastier.

Now, of course, I have a desire to replicate this, so I'm considering doing a bit of a potato thing myself tomorrow. I have about ten red baby potatoes leftover from the other night's rosemary and caper recipe, and an onion I really need to use soon. I was thinking of trying something fancy with sherry but I think I'll just do a simple fry up with rosemary and salt, maybe even scramble some eggs. I don't think I'm quite ready for pancakes, but we'll see. The scrambled eggs should be interesting. I'm horrible at them, and though my roommate Katherine tried to teach me in Ireland, I'm highly sceptical. I'll let you know how it goes.

19 July 2007

If you couldn't tell by the title of this blog, I have a bit of a thing for mushrooms. For some reason, mushroom dishes just tend to turn out right for me. I strongly suspect that this may have to do with the fact that I have a knack for choosing ideal marriage partners for mushrooms—namely sherry or white wine, sour cream, and fresh time—or if I just like mushrooms, but no other ingredient so often gives me a dish that I really love, not just basically enjoy.

Last night, I decided to give mushrooms stroganoff a go. I had purchased a couple of handfuls of fresh organic cremeni mushrooms from New Pioneer, but I didn't have anything specific in mind for them. I was first introduced to the taste of cremenis when I worked for Panera Bread, where I sometimes did evening shifts making Crispani, a kind of very thin crust pizza. We used cremenis and shitakes on our wild mushroom pizza, and though the cremenis were chopped and roasted beyond the point of any recognition, and then frozen in large blocks to be thawed and used on the pizzas, they were pretty darned good.

I was a bit sceptical about these particular mushrooms. They looked lovely, and they were a bit cheaper than shitakes, but still significantly more expensive than plain pre-sliced and packaged white mushrooms. I've heard that a cremeni is basically a small portabella, but I wasn't sure how well the distinctive portabella taste would hold up after chopping and cooking and throwing in a pot with onions and garlic and white wine and sour cream.

To be honest, I'm still not sure. It might have been just as good with plain mushrooms, but it was quite good, and I'm willing to give the cremeni some credit. The recipe below is basically what I had in my file with some slight adjustments, but I think I had a bit less than two pounds of mushrooms. I didn't change any of the other measurements but the sour cream, of which I maybe used ¾ of a cup. I also didn't bother with the large heavy saucepan this time, due to the reduced mushroom quantity. The kitchen faeries (also known as the guy I'm subletting my apartment from this summer) left me a really nice heavy medium saucepan, and I'm okay with that.

Mushroom Stroganoff

As always, start with the chopping, as it will make your life easier. I always do onions last because they make me cry—I tried a tip from my friend Andrew this time, namely leaving the onion in the fridge for a few hours before chopping, but it didn't work so well. Anyway, start with a couple of pounds of mushrooms. You can just wash and slice them, but I sliced and then coarsely chopped to avoid big unwieldy slices. Next, peel and chop a couple of garlic cloves. At this point you can go ahead and get a pot of water boiling for the pasta, and put a tablespoon of margarine in a large heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. I started closer to medium and then turned it up a touch when I added the mushrooms. While you're waiting for your margarine to melt, thinly slice a large onion, keeping rings in tact or slicing them in half if you prefer. You could use a Vidalia, but I didn't and the sauce still had a rather pleasant sweet taste. I think a sweet onion might put it a bit over the top.

By now your margarine should be melted, so throw the garlic into the pan and sauté 30 seconds. Add the onion and sauté another two minutes. Keep an eye on your water, and when it boils throw in some pasta. I went with linguine, but I think egg noodles would be just about perfect. After two minutes, throw in the mushrooms. You want to stir fairly frequently at first to avoid sticking, but after five minutes or so the mushrooms will start to juice out and it won't be necessary. At that point I turned the heat up a little closer to high, just to encourage my juices to start evaporating. The recipe says ten minutes, I think it was closer to twelve or fourteen, but that was okay because it gave me time to drain my pasta.

Anyway, when the mushrooms are tender and the juice is almost all gone, you can drop the heat down to medium and add a tablespoon of flour. Stir it all around and cook for about a minute, then add half a cup of white wine and continue to stir frequently for three minutes or until it thickens considerably. Turn the heat off and stir in a cup of sour cream and ¼ t nutmeg, then salt and pepper to taste. I didn't use much salt or pepper. The recipe suggest tossing the pasta in with the sauce, but I just dump it on top and sprinkle with a bit of grated Parmesan.

The other mushroom recipe I just can't sign off without conveying is for a mushroom caviar, delicious on pasta (I like penne) or baguette or you can even just eat it with a spoon. It's amazing, and though it can be a bit of a pain to break out the Cuisinart, it is entirely worth it. The recipe comes to me from my friend Bizzy in Baltimore, who is an amazing cook, but I believe she got it from a cookbook. I'm not sure which one.

Mushroom Caviar

You'll need a food processor to do this right, as it's a smooth caviar and you'd have to chop everything up really small to achieve the same effect. Start with a small onion (or several shallots). Slice small enough to fit into the feed tube if your processor has one and then feed through the shredder blade. It'll come out very watery, so I don't recommend using the chute attachment if you are using a Cuisinart. I tried once and it was very, very messy. Melt a tablespoon of butter with a tablespoon of olive oil in a large pan or pot over medium-low heat. Once melted, add the onions. While they're cooking, slice some mushrooms (or pre-slice), and feed about ten ounces of them through the shredder blade (that's a pack if you're buying pre-packaged). I like to chop the mushrooms up a bit before shredding to avoid really long, stringy bits. If your mushrooms start looking like linguine, you'll want to pre-chop.

Once the onions are looking soft and translucent, but not brown, add the mushrooms. Stir frequently for the first five minutes or so, but once they start juicing out you can watch them less carefully and cook up some pasta or toast some bread to serve this stuff on. You'll also want to chop up some fresh thyme if you've got it. When the mushrooms are darkened and most of the juice has evaporated, add a tablespoon of thyme, or a teaspoon if you're using dry. It will make a difference, and I really prefer fresh. Also throw in a splash of your booze of choice. I prefer sherry, and white wine is also good. Wait for the liquid to cook off again, and then take the pan off the heat. Give it a couple of minutes to cool and then stir in a scant half cup of sour cream. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Incidentally, in the wintertime you can make this a soup by preparing the caviar exactly the same way and then stirring in milk until it's the consistency you want. I've never tried this, however.

18 July 2007

Let There Be Blog

Since I started going on exciting trips to Europe when I was fifteen, my family always commented on how my travel journals were all about seventy percent devoted to what I ate. My photos, too, are often about half pictures of food. I don't know if I'll be able to keep up a food blog with any regularity, but I'd like to try. Please, if you have any tips about food photography, let me know, because that is by far my weakest point.

So, let the blogging begin!