Random Thoughts on Cooking

Food trends for 2013–the year of sour

Child with limeSo 2012 was the year of bacon, cupcakes (or bacon topped cupcakes), kale, gluten-free diets, and locally farmed foods. What food trends will pop up in the New Year?

I’ve been looking through various sources online to see what’s in and what’s out (sadly, gourmet tacos may have had their heyday–except at my house, where they’re always in!).

Here are a few predictions from food industry insiders, along with a quick tip about how you can start being “trendy” right now:

 

SOUR. Yes, it’s the year of sour! (Fist pump here). My youngest will be thrilled. Santa gave her not one, but two bottles of pickles in her stocking and she couldn’t have been happier. Tip: Adding a bit of acidic twang to regular dishes is easy and instantly brightens the other flavors. I often squeeze a bit of fresh lime or lemon to dishes, smoothies, salads, just before serving.

 

SMOKE. Infusing everything from food to drinks with smoke is supposed to be big this year. We smoked our turkey this past Thanksgiving using hickory chips in our gas grill–tastE. Tip: Forget the bottle of liquid instant smoke which has a strange chemically taste if you ask me. I add a hit of Trader Joe’s Smoked Paprika to savory dishes.

 

VEGETABLES. Veggies are taking over the plate in 2013. They’re no longer stuck in the “side dish” category. We’ve been trying to add more vegetables on our dinner plates. Tip: Embrace Meatless Mondays and have an all-veggie meal once a week (or more!).

 

POPCORN. The kernels are taking over. Dig out your old air popper if you want to have a the “it” snack. Tip: I haven’t tried this yet, but it looks like fun–DIY microwave popcorn.

 

My official painting outfit--it gets lots of use!

My official painting outfit–it gets lots of use…

ELBOW GREASE. From theKitchn, my personal favorite ingredient for the year–elbow grease! Since I’m in the midst of updating my kitchen, I understand the appeal–and challenges–of using this ingredient. Tip: My old bathrobe serves as a quick cover when I have just a minute to paint. It’s easy to throw on over my regular clothes–and there’s nothing cooler than a woman in a blue-striped bathrobe with pink edges holding a paintbrush!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The secrets to great grilled pizza

I’m above average. Yup. Turns out that most Americans eat 46 slices of pizza a year. My guess is I average a few more. (One last fun pizza fact: in Japan, they top pizza with squid. We haven’t tried that yet.)

I’ve tried naan pizzas, rocky road pizzas, margarita pizzas, savory apple pizzas, you get the idea. For National Pizza Month–yes October is it!–I wanted to try something new. If you haven’t tried grilled pizza, now’s the time.

Here are a few secrets to turn out brick-oven style pies right in your backyard:

Bring the dough to room temperature. If you’ve made your dough from scratch, this shouldn’t be a problem. But I often buy pre-made refrigerated dough from our local Italian deli. I let it sit out for at least an hour so it’s easier to roll out.

Keep the dough a little thicker. I like my pizza crust fairly thin, but it’s hard to get it onto the grill grate when it’s too thin.

Use cornmeal. Lots of it. Once you’ve rolled out the pizza dough generously spread cornmeal under it. Use the cornmeal to slide the pizza onto a cutting board or a cookie sheet (I’ve got a flat one so the pizza slides right onto the grill).

Pre-grill the dough. To fully cook the crust–and to keep the topping from falling off–bake it on the grill for a few minutes, just until it gets stiff and then add your fixins.

Kids’ reactions: I let each of my kids make their own pizza. My teen made the favorite pie–fresh tomato slices, chopped olives, baby spinach, feta cheese, slivers of red onion, and a little drizzle of olive oil. Yum!

Who’s ready to start grilling?

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Sweetened vs. unsweetened coconut

Photo credit: Bob’s Red Mill Unsweetened Coconut

Have you noticed how your fingers feel sticky after handling sweetened coconut? Me too.

You might also have picked up on the biting, saccharine after-taste sweetened coconut tends to leave in your mouth. In the past, I’ve usually used sweetened coconut in recipes for two reasons 1) I couldn’t find unsweetened coconut at the grocery story and 2) sweetened coconut goes on sale for killer deals.

But I’ve turned a coconut corner. Lately I’m opting for unsweetened coconut–I find the flavor and texture are much more appealing.

What’s the difference between unsweetened and sweetened coconut?

As the name implies–it’s sugar! Sweetened coconut lays on the sugar to keep the coconut shreds soft while giving it a longer shelf life than the unsweetened variety. Take a look at the sugar content in a sweetened package (my bag at home had a higher sodium count than the figures I found online)–per serving (2 Tbsp) it has 5 grams of sugar and a whooping 60 mg of sodium. With unsweetened coconut, a serving (3 Tbsp) has only 1 g of sugar and 5 mg of sodium. What a difference.

What about baking with unsweetened versus sweetened coconut?

You’ll find that unsweetened coconut is drier than sweetened when you bake with it. You can up the moisture in unsweetened coconut by either adding a little water to the shreds before using it or if your recipe is moist enough (like with muffins), don’t worry about it. I often add coconut into a blender with other ingredients anyway so I don’t notice my cookies and muffins turning out any drier. BUT most coconut macaroon recipes do call for sweetened coconut. That’s probably the one recipe where unsweetened just won’t work.

Where do you find unsweetened coconut?

It used to be I could only find unsweetened coconut around the holidays–the checker at Trader Joe’s once told me it’s considered a “seasonal ingredient.” Humph. You can order it online from King Arthur but I’ve found many organic grocers carry it year round with other Bob’s Red Mill products. Now for it to go on sale–sorry, it does cost more than the inexpensive bags of sweetened coconut, but it’s so much fresher and tastier.

How about some recipes using unsweetened coconut?

How about my favorite chewy oatmeal cookies (add in 1/4 cup unsweetened coconut to the flour), or triple chocolate coconut banana muffins? I’ve also pulsed unsweetened coconut with panko (Japanese style bread crumbs) to coat pork tonkatsu and coconut shrimp.

Your turn–do you use sweetened or unsweetened coconut, or both?

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Guest post: Squid kid

My oldest about to eat a guava

My oldest did a guest post this week just in time for Mother’s Day.

Ever since I was little, I’ve loved food. From corn dogs to duck confit, I’ve always been excited to try it. Mostly because of my awesome parents, who encourage me to try new things. It’s sort of become the norm. Like it or not, you can’t say anything until you’ve at least tried a bite.

Getting my friends to understand this little philosophy isn’t always the easiest but the lunch table has become my place to share.  First I started with simple stuff, like homemade tortillas or Japanese candy and soon it became the thing at my table to see what I’ll bring.

And when I do bring something, I can never expect to eat it all, because an open package of food in front of hungry teenagers is doomed.

The best part, by far, about getting my friends out of their food comfort zone, is when they find something they genuinely like. Like when I discovered that my two best friends are appalled by the thought of coconut. That just wouldn’t do. So, I did what any good food-savvy friend would do, and brought in the chocolate banana coconut muffins my mom made. But, they didn’t know what was in it. Like usual, they helped me finish it of within a couple of seconds.

A couple days later, I couldn’t help but laugh when they both requested that I bring those muffins on a road trip we are going on. When I told them about the coconut in it, they both were amazed.

And getting to make cool food with my friends is so much fun! At their house, it’s not uncommon for me to be foraging through their fridges for any leftovers, and making dinner for us. I still remember when I used the pulled pork they had leftover and made spicy pulled pork nachos, with every cheese they had! And at my house, we got another spicy punch as we all made salsa with my mom.

Now, instead of “Let’s go to a restaurant,” I get to hear “Let’s go to Kayla’s house!”

And I love it, because food with a friend is always better.

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Cooking tip: Garlic pasta

Awhile back I posted about making Thai Coconut Soup from the Sriracha Cookbook. The recipe called for minced ginger, but feeling lazy I just put in a whole piece, peeled, on a skewer. I figured the ginger flavor would seep into the boiling broth and I could get out of mincing.

Making pasta the other day I thought I might try the same idea: put a large garlic clove into the boiling water and let the flavor give some zest to my plain-old penne.

Well I didn’t want to waste a perfectly good clove of softened garlic, so then I smushed it with a fork after the pasta was done and added it to my sauce. Often when I use raw garlic I tend to add it too soon or too late to sauces and sautes–either burning it (and trust me, burnt garlic is not tasty) or inadvertently leaving little, pungent uncooked chunks of garlic that surprise and repulse my kiddos.

Now as far as giving the pasta a garlic kick, well, didn’t happen. Or at least I didn’t notice any change in the pasta flavor. Ditto for my family. But I did like using the cooked garlic in whatever else I was making to go with the pasta like sauteed veggies, creamy sauces, or even smushed then mixed with fresh shredded Parmesan cheese and stirred into the pasta. One last idea: you can easily blend it with butter to spread on Italian bread.

Lately, I just toss the garlic in and fish it out once the pasta is cooked

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Foodie ideas from The North Carolina Museum of Art

Iris restaurant inside the North Carolina Museum of Art

My kids couldn’t join me on my trip to Raleigh and Fayetteville, North Carolina, for the Midwest Travel Writers Association conference. But, I’m trying to get as many ideas from my travels–and tastes–as I can to bring back and try with them.

Here are just a few from my stop at Iris, the North Carolina Museum of Art‘s restaurant where I had lunch. The seasonal menu had plenty of tempting dishes, but I always try to choose something I can’t do at home, so I went for the risotto. From the menu: farro piccolo risotto, lemon, thyme, dijon parmigiano-reggiano cheese garlic sauteed broccolini crispy fried leeks.

Whew, what does that translate to on your plate? A whole grain cooked like risotto, generously doused with Parmesan cheese, fresh lemon and hints of thyme and mellow dijon mustard. To the side, the tender broccolini, slightly cooked in butter and garlic, all topped off with thinly sliced, fried leeks (think gourmet French’s fried onions).

At home: I’m going to try using whole wheat berries more in savory dishes. My kids grind wheat berries for flour, but I’ve been meaning to try them

Farro risotto

toasted then tossed into salads. Maybe one of these days I’ll even try making them into risotto…

For dessert at the NCMA (you didn’t think I was going to skip it, did you?) I had the apple tarte

tatin with roasted cinnamon ice cream. Presented in deep white bowl with a web of spun sugar, the combination of warm apples and cool cinnamon paired perfectly. Now, if I were to try spun sugar at home, I’d like set off all the fire alarms with the smoke I’d create trying to get the cooked sugar to that just-right temperature where it was melted, but not burned.

At home: For all the flavor of this dish, without all the work, you could peel then saute apple slices in butter and sprinkle them with a little fresh lemon and cinnamon before serving. Instead of making cinnamon ice cream from scratch, soften vanilla bean ice cream until you can stir in ground cinnamon (I’d throw in a little nutmeg and a hit of cayenne too). Then you can either re-freeze the ice cream or serve it just after you mixed in the spices. Place the ice cream atop the sauteed apples and in lieu of the more dramatic spun sugar, my thought is to dress up each individual portion with a cinnamon stick.

Apple tarte tatin

Your turn: do you have a family favorite dish (or dessert) inspired by one of your travels?

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A world of chili sauces

On a dare my teen once drank a glass of Cholula, a vinegary Mexican hot sauce that’s spicer than Tabasco. She was used to dousing her food with the hot stuff anyway so it didn’t seem like a big deal to have a drink. She downed the Cholula in a few gulps, reached for a glass of water and then downed that too. I should probably mention that my middle child was the one who suggested the dare. And me? Well, I just sat back and watched the whole thing unfold.

This is NOT the way I’d suggest introducing your kids to hot sauce. My advice is to go gently. One dab at a time. Mix a little into stews or sauces to give them a bit of a kick. Add a drop or two to sandwiches. Why hot sauces? To put it simply, they give food an added dimension of flavor. They wake up your taste buds. Turn up the heat in your food by trying out one of these sauces:

Cholula sauce: This bright, deep orange-red Mexican sauce is thin and vinegary. Use it in place of Tabasco sauce on sandwiches or mix it into guacamole to turn the heat up just a bit.

Valentina sauce: Another Mexican hot sauce. But this one is slightly thicker and spicier than Cholula. I noticed a chef at Caffe Lola in Niagara Falls mix it into marinara and I’ve been doing the same ever since. The heat isn’t overpowering just enough to give you a tickle in your throat.

Chili Garlic Sauce: You can see the red peppers seeds right in this pungent sauce that combines heat and garlic. This Vietnamese sauce works well in Asian dishes. But you might also mix it with mayo to use it either as a dip for chips or a sandwich spread.

Sriracha sauce: The standard variety available in the U.S. has a building heat that envelops the middle of your tongue–and stays there. Mr. Squid is a huge Sriracha fan and sneaks it in whenever he gets a chance. The consistency is almost like ketchup and you can use it as you would ketchup. Just remember that it packs a kick. Use it in Italian, Asian, Indian, Mexican … well, you get the idea. This is one versatile hot sauce.

Frank’s RedHot sauce: I had to add one all-American favorite. This sauce is synonymous with the place where it was created: Buffalo. It’s a must if you’re making wings and it’s a perfect match with bleu cheese. I like to dabble it on salads that have creamy dressings too.

Your turn: What’s your go-to hot sauce–or do you prefer to go without the heat?

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Black out dinner

Ah, it was dinner by candlelight on Tuesday night. Now before you go thinking this was some romantic meal that I planned for Mr. Squid, truth be told I have a wind-drenched snowstorm to thank for our hours by candelight. That’s right, our power was knocked out for most of the afternoon and into the evening.

The occasional power outage doesn’t bother me. I’ve got my forehead camping light stashed in my nightstand and enough candles to keep things cozy when I need to use ‘em for light. And it just so happens that I’d already put dinner in the slow cooker earlier in the day so our meal kept warm even though the power went out a few hours before dinnertime.

Our dinner? One of my favorites because it’s simple, healthy and easy enough to make with limited visibility. I add four frozen boneless, skinless chicken breasts to the slow cooker along with two jars of pasta sauce (per Cooks Illustrated picks, I’ve been using Classico lately). That’s it. Let it cook on low for five to six hours and then make a pot of pasta to serve with it. Luckily, we have a gas range so I was able to light the burners no problem and even made some garlic bread for dipping.

You’ll notice the strange blue glow in the picture above. That’s not my camera flash, but the light from my forehead flashlight.

Your turn–has anyone else been without power lately?

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Cookbook Review: The Parchment Paper Cookbook

Nearly back-to-back parent teacher conferences. Somehow the day I planned to make the stuffed chicken breast recipe from The Parchment Paper Cookbook fell on the same day I had about 20 minutes at home between conferences.

Originally, I had intended to take my time figuring out how to neatly fold the parchment paper like the examples in the cookbook, it didn’t quite work out that way: Instead my pepper shaker was poised between the pages showing how to fold the paper while I madly cut each chicken breast in half and then squished the stuffing inside.

My twisting technique ended up looking more like a king-sized tootsie roll than the neat folds described in the cookbook. I was sure that the sauce was going to leak out and I was going to have a messy plan to clean up despite the books plug that these are ‘no pots, no pans, no mess’ recipes. It didn’t. No leaks! The chicken breasts turned out moist with stuffing cooked inside and coated in a light, mustard sauce, despite my lack of folding skills. I’m looking forward to trying more recipes, especially the s’mores crepes. I’m including my tweaked recipe of Stuffed Chicken Breast from The Parchment Cookbook by Brette Sember. You can find more of her recipes at NoPotCooking.com. And for easy dishes for Thanksgiving, there’s even a 99-cent ebook of no-mess recipes available through November 19th.

Recipe: Stuffed Chicken Breast

Prep time: 20 minutes (or less:)

Servings: 4-6


Ingredients

3 chicken breasts

3 tablespoons walnuts

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 teaspoons olive oil

3 tablespoons chopped ham

3 tablespoons bread crumbs or panko

6 teaspoons chicken broth, plus 4 tablespoons reserved

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary

2 tablespoons white grape juice (or chicken broth)

3 teaspoons Dijon mustard

3 teaspoons cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon white Balsamic vinegar (optional; any light vinegar will do)

lemon (optional)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Cut three 20-inch pieces of parchment paper.
  3. Line your baking sheet with foil (just in case ).
  4. Put the chicken breast on the parchment and carefully make a slit into the side, careful not to cut all the way through.
  5. In a small food processor, chop up the nuts with the ham, rosemary, garlic then toss in the olive oil, 3 teaspoons chicken broth, bread crumbs, paprika and salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Divide this mixture equally among the slits in the three cut chicken breasts.
  7. In a small bowl combine 4 tablespoons chicken broth, white grape juice, vinegar, cornstarch, and mustard. Divide and pour equally on the three chicken breasts.
  8. Fold the parchment according to the instructions.
  9. Bake for 20 minutes.
  10. Open the packet and serve. I also squeezed a little fresh lemon over each chicken breast.

Recipe note: This recipe was originally to serve one, but I tripled it for three chicken breasts. My chicken breasts happened to be pretty big so I cut them in half for serving (it took about 10 more minutes to cook too). Also, I poked a digital meat thermometer right through the parchment and into the meat so I knew when it was done. I fixed wild rice and green beans to go along with the chicken.

One more note: I wanted to thank Brette Sember for passing along a review copy of her latest cookbook–she has two more in the works!

Don’t forget to check back in tomorrow when I’ll be announcing the winner of the Hardwood Oak Cutting Board Giveaway.

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Dinnerware tips from socks

Photo credit: Target.com

Sock trend update: mismatches are in. Thank goodness! I know, I’m probably one of the few diligent sock watchers out there. But here’s the deal, with three school-aged squid-eaters around my house socks disappear and reappear on a regular basis. And despite my push that socks come in two colors–white and black, which are easy to mix and match, my kids go for socks with various designs, colors, sizes. Inevitably these socks come in packages with one pair of each design. Once you’ve lost one of the set, the other used to be doomed to either become a sock puppet or a dusting cloth.

No more–mismatched socks are all the rage right now. Watch any episode of iCarly to confirm that not only are clashing socks in, but mismatched patterns with clothes too. (Note to self: I was ahead of my time when I used to wear plaid shorts with striped shirts in middle school.)

So what does this have to do with your dinner table? Time to mix and match. Red plates, green, yellow, white, different patterns, sizes, use ‘em all in one setting. Especially when guests come over. Hey, even the experts at Fashion Week are calling clashing ‘in’: ‘Rainbow Colors: The New Neutral.’ Love it. Not that I’m a style-watcher (did you see the comment about middle school?!), but any excuse to let my kids get creative in the kitchen from the food prep, right down to the plate settings.

Your turn: Do you mix and match your place settings?

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