Why Aren’t You Eating?

Why aren’t you eating…julienne cut sun dried tomatoes

Sundried tomatoesSun dried tomatoes packed in oil are a regular addition to a variety of dishes at my house–from pasta sauces to enchilada sauce. I usually mix in the sun dried tomatoes with my hand stick blender so you never know they’re in there except for a deep, rich flavor.

 

But sun dried tomatoes on their own? I hadn’t tried that before. Then I had  a sprinkling of julienne cut sun dried tomatoes over my dish at La’Albatross, a fabulous restaurant in downtown Cleveland. French. They’re the only place in the city with their own fromagier, aka a cheese monger. (I know, I had to ask what a fromagier was, too.)

 

Since then I’ve been topping salads, pasta dishes, roasted vegetables, and more with julienne cut sun dried tomatoes. I’m hooked on Mariani Sun Dried Tomatoes. I find them in the produce section of the grocery store–chances are you can, too.

 

Lately, I’ve only been able to find the flavored varieties–basil and hot pepper I prefer them plain so I can play up the flavor however I like.

 

Packaged sundried tomatoes

 

 

 

 

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Why aren’t you eating…Trader Joe’s raspberry fruit spread

Raspberry fruit spreadWe go through at least a jar of Trader Joe’s Organic Raspberry Fruit Spread a week. Yeah, it’s that good. If you have a Trader Joe’s anywhere near you, I highly suggest you pick up a few. Even Santa likes it. He brought my teen a case of the stuff for her for Christmas–that’s all she wanted.

 

So just how do we go through that much raspberry spread?

•Mix it with plain, Greek yogurt for breakfast

•PBR sandwich–peanut butter and raspberry on whole-grain bread

•As a secret ingredient in my Chocolate Raspberry Truffle Cheesecake

•Cracker, sharp cheddar cheese, dollop of raspberry jam–perfect snack

•As a layer in our chocolate mini dessert parfaits

•Thin it with a little lemon juice as a fruit sauce for desserts

 

Adding a layer of raspberry jam in our chocolate mini dessert parfaits

Adding a layer of raspberry jam in our chocolate mini dessert parfaits

 

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Why aren’t you using…white balsamic vinegar

White balsamic vinegarLately, I’m adding a few swigs of white balsamic vinegar into most of my savory sauces and homemade vinaigrettes. Maybe it’s that I’m anxious for spring to be here but the sweet yet acidic flavor of white balsamic brightens up just about anything.

 

I usually get my vinegars at Trader Joe’s where they’re reasonably priced and good quality.

 

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Why aren’t you eating…coconut peanut butter?

coconut peanut butterI came across Earth Balance coconut peanut butter a few weeks ago at our local health food store and our house hasn’t been without it since. My teen likes to dip fresh or dried banana slices into the creamy variety or she spreads it on a pita for a quick breakfast.

 

I haven’t made my peanut butter cookies with it yet. But I’m thinking it would be great in Thai dipping sauces and stir fries too.

 

Besides the amazing flavor combo that is coconut and peanuts, I liked what I saw on the label: for the same serving, two tablespoons, regular peanut butter has 150mg of sodium while the coconut variety has only 95mg–that’s quite a salt savings (and my kids will never miss it). I haven’t seen the coconut peanut butter in any other brand than Earth Balance; I found it at Mustard Seed Market here in the greater Cleveland area, but you might be able to find it at your local store that carries organic foods.

 

Your turn: Are you a peanut butter fan? And if so, would you like a little coconut mixed in?

Banana slices and peanut butter

 

 

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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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Why aren’t you eating…freeze-dried fruit

Freeze-dried strawberries

Have you tried freeze-dried fruit? Or more to the point, have your kids? Freeze-dried fruit has a consistency akin to…well, Pringles almost. They’re light and airy. My kids like to press the fruit between their tongue and the roof of their mouth until it gets squishy. They make for great snacks too since they won’t weigh down your bag and they’re fun to eat.

Freeze-dried fruit has a completely different consistency than dried fruit. If only I could freeze-dry at home! But the way the process works is that the fruit is flash frozen, then put into a vacuum chamber to remove the frozen water by converting it directly into a gas. The leftover fruit is drained of 75-90% of its water content but loses few of its nutrients. Also, freeze-dried fruit doesn’t have any added preservatives or sugars and it’s low in calories too. My serving of strawberries, which is a decent 2/3 cup, has only 45 calories, 4 grams of fiber and 1 gram of protein. Not bad.

I’ve been noticing freeze-dried fruit popping up in store aisles from Costco to Target, Trader Joe’s to Walmart. But the small packets you find at the grocers can get pricey (it’s true that freeze-dried fruit tends to be more expensive in general but it lasts forever). I order my freeze-dried fruit in bulk online from

I found these at Costco

Emergency Essentials. You can try the freeze-dried fruit combo, which includes bananas, pineapple, peach, mango, strawberry, and raspberry, all 2-ounce cans for $39.95. My favorite is the mango, which come as little squares that taste kind of like good-for-you versions of Lucky Charms marshmallows. I’ve noticed the strawberries and raspberries tend to break into little pieces. I don’t let the fruit powder go to waste, I use it in smoothies or fruit sauces.

Your turn: Have you tried freeze dried fruit? What did you think of the flavor and texture?

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Why aren’t you eating … Pocky sticks

It’s a Pocky stick invasion. That’s right it used to be you could only find these Japanese treats at an Asian market. But now I’m seeing them pop up at my neighborhood grocers too (hint: look in the Asian food section or they’re sometimes stashed with the candy).

For Pocky newbies, here are the basics:

  • Pronounce it pock-e, not how I sometimes say it to rhyme with hockey
  • These are biscuit-like sticks that are coated in with a variety of flavorings, like chocolate and strawberry
  • In a well-stocked Asian grocery store, you might be able to find Pocky sticks coated with crazier flavors like green tea, sweet milk, cookies ‘n cream and more
  • Don’t buy just one box of Pocky sticks, get a couple since you’re likely to go through them quickly
  • These make for great on-the-go treats as long as they don’t sit in the bottom of the bag–they crush easily

Ready to try Pocky sticks? Or are you already a Pocky fan?

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How to use cotija cheese

Photo credit: sigmafoodsusa

“That cheese I like,” is what my middle daughter calls cotija (coat-eeha) cheese. She sprinkles it on nearly everything. And for good reason: the cheese has the sharpness of grated Parmesan, but not the bite. While the crumbly cheese  originated in Cotija area in the state of Michoacan in Mexico, I’m finding it more widely available in grocery stores in the U.S.

Here’s what you need to know about using cotija cheese:

When do you use cotija cheese?

Sprinkle it on salads and Mexican dishes. Oooo, and it’s also good on roasted vegetables and to garnish soups.

Can I use it in place of Parmesan cheese?

I wouldn’t. Cotija is saltier than Parmesan, so a little goes a long way. I find that it’s creamier, smaller, and softer too. BUT, I would use a little bit of Parmesan cheese as a substitute for cotija in Mexican dishes. The Americanized versions of enchiladas, tostadas, and tacos are often coated with bland, cheddar cheese. Why not try making your dish a bit more authentic (hey, and tastier) by adding a bit of grated Parmesan on top and not using any other cheese?

Where can I find it?

cojita-coated tostada

Your best bet would be to look at a Mexican grocers, but large supermarkets may have it too.

Is there anything else I should know?

Like grated Parmesan, cotija cheese lasts for months when it’s refrigerated, so no rush to use it right away. Also, cotjia cheese doesn’t melt. It’s often called, Mexican Parmesan.

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Cooking with anise and fennel

Sometimes labelled anise or fennel in the produce section

New Year’s resolution alert: yup, I was getting into a little food rut in December (possibly a happily induced sugar coma) so I’m refocusing myself on what I enjoy most–trying new foods or playing around with old ones and encouraging my kids to do the same.

Ingredient: anise or fennel

So let’s start the new year off with anise. You’ll find anise hanging out with the Swiss chard and spinach in the produce section. It looks almost like a giant-sized green onion with stalks that have small pieces gutting off that reminded me of dill.

Flavor

Mild licorice. Now here’s where it gets a little confusing: anise and fennel are not the same vegetable, although from what I’ve found you can use the two interchangeably in recipes. They have a similar flavor, although fennel is said to have a stronger licorice hit. When thumbing through recipes, I’ve often found fennel on the ingredient list, but not as often in the produce section.

Not to confuse the matter even more, but there is also a spice used typically in Asian cooking called anise, or star anise that looks like a dried flower you can grate and use in stir-fries or sweets. For a complete discussion about anise, I found WHFoods.com a good primer.

How to use anise or fennel

I’ve just started playing around with this new-to-me ingredient. So far, I’ve used it as a filling along with French entrees, like pairing it sauteed mushrooms as a filling in buckwheat crepes (recipe to come) and in Italian dishes that are already packed with vegetables. But you can also slice it thin to add zing to salads or coleslaw.

It was Compari on the Park‘s chef Zachary Yaquinto that got me to try anise–his recipe for fagioli calabrese calls for fennel, but since I could only find anise, I thought it was worth a try.

Wash the vegetable thoroughly before removing the feathery stalks from the bulb. Chop the bulb in half and then slice thin to use in the fagioli calabrese. I saved the top to use as a garnish. But you can also use them as you might fresh herbs–I’m thinking they’d be excellent in a homemade vinaigrette. Note: the licorice flavor is stronger when it’s used raw and becomes sweet when sauteed.

Kids reaction

The first time I made the pasta fagioli calabrese with the anise my teenager noticed the licorice undertones right away–and didn’t like them. She still ate it, but mentioned she’d rather have less anise and more spinach (I know, more spinach? I think I’m actually raising my kids to love spinach as much as I do). The next time I served it, my oldest didn’t even notice the anise. And my younger two who hadn’t liked their pasta mingling with so many other ingredients had no comment on the anise but were diligently trying to pick out any red peppers they found. By the end of the meal my oldest professed this was ‘one of her favorite dishes.’ Beyond the anise, the other big winner in this meal was the white canneloni beans (my substitute instead of butter beans). The combination of sweet anise, little tube pasta, beans, spinach, Parmesan cheese, and Italian sausage went over well with my crew (even if I had to eat all the red peppers my youngest two corralled to the side of their plates).

Your turn–have you cooked with anise/fennel? What did you think?

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Why aren’t you eating…kumquats

Nagami kumquats

Kum-what? I let my 13-year-old chose something new for us to try in the produce section. Her find–kumquats. As you can see from the picture, they look like oranges in the shape of a grape. But apparently there’s a debate as to whether they belong in the citrus family or deserve their own designation. I say kumquats are in a category all their own.

They taste exactly the reverse of what you’d expect (and you eat them whole). The sweet outside rind encases the wickedly sour fruit inside. It was fun to watch my kids give ‘em a try. My middle daughter kept asking, “Are you sure you eat the skin too?” It wasn’t until she bit in that the sour punch hit her. Instant pucker face.

You can eat kumquats like you would grapes (although 2 or 3 and I’d had enough sourness) and/or experiment with them to add a sweet-sour taste to different dishes. To use them in other dishes, cut them in half and remove the seeds then add them to a blender to create a puree. My puree went into some kumquat cookies (I’ll pass along the recipe next week), but if you had any leftover–which I didn’t–I was thinking you could freeze them in small packets and use them to add a zing to barbecue sauce, a viniagrette, so many possibilities. Now I just need to get more kumquats!

You can thank China for the kumquat. Their name means, “golden orange,” and they’re often given as gifts around the Lunar New Year since they symbolize prosperity. In the U.S., there are generally two varieties, the Nagami, which I tried, and  the sweeter, juicier, rounder, Marumi. Doing a little research, I found there are also several kumquat hybrids, like the Limequat–you guessed it: lime + kumquat; and the Calamondin–stumped? tangerine + kumquat. I’m going to have to keep my eyes peeled (sorry, couldn’t resist the lame pun) to find the hybrids.

Your turn–Ever tried a kumquat? Did you like it?

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