Monday, January 31, 2011

Japchae - Korean Noodles with Vegetables (Vegetarian/Vegan)

Japchae is one of, if not THE most popular noodle dish in Korea. Also known as chapchae, it's made from sweet potato starch noodles (called dangmyeon), which are stir-fried with vegetables, soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil. Most recipes for japchae will call for beef (or even leftover bulgogi), but I prefer to leave mine vegetarian. In addition to being a good vegetarian meal, since the dangmyeon are gluten-free, japchae is a healthy meal for those with gluten sensitivity. 

Japchae is typically served as a side dish or on a bed of rice (bap), but I find it filling enough for an entire meal. The only ingredient that might be difficult to find are the noodles; here in Birmingham, I am able to buy dangmyeon at most of our Asian markets. However, if you cannot find these noodles, you can substitute cellophane noodles (maifun/saifun), which can be found in the Asian section of most grocery stores (I've even seen cellophane noodles at Wal-Mart). 

This is a great, healthy recipe that takes under 15 minutes to make. The measurements are only a suggestion; feel free to substitute different vegetables, or add meat, tofu, kimchi or even omelet strips. Actual cooking time is only around 5 minutes; the hardest part of this recipe is the vegetable prep. 

Friday, January 28, 2011

Broccoli, Sun-Dried Tomato & Mozzarella Frittata (Vegetarian)

I'm a huge fan of one-pot cooking; less pans means less cleanup. However, some one-pot meals can look unappetizing; casseroles and stews can get tiring after a while. Not only am I a fan of one-pot, but I'm also a big advocate of using cast iron; I now own only cast iron and stainless cookware and have gotten rid of all of my nonstick pots and pans. Cast iron is GREAT for one-pot/pan meals, like one of my all-time favorites, frittata.

Frittatas are an egg-based dish similar to omelets & quiches, but fluffier. They're also a perfect "clean out the fridge" recipe - you can add pretty much anything to a frittata and have it turn out well. Frittatas can be made with breakfast sausage and cheddar for an easy breakfast, or made with spinach, asparagus and pancetta for a great dinner. This frittata recipe is the perfect easy weeknight recipe; everything is baked in a single skillet in the oven. 

That's mozzarella oozing out, NOT egg white.

Vanilla Chai Mix

Chai is a tea beverage that has been growing in popularity over the last several years. Though "chai" simply means "tea" in most South Asian countries, we use the term to describe what is actually "masala chai" or "tea with spices". 

What we call chai is typically a strong brewed black tea, combined with spices, sweetener and milk. Intended to be served as a hot drink, iced chai drinks are quickly becoming popular. I personally love Bolthouse Farms' Vanilla Chai Tea (though I cringe at the pleonasm of "chai tea"), but it's fairly pricey. Most coffeeshops offer various forms of chai, but again, the price is expensive. Luckily, it's really easy to make your own vanilla chai mix - this recipe yield over 6 cups of mix, and only a few Tbsp are needed to enjoy your very own cup of vanilla chai. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

How to Cook Quinoa (Vegetarian/Vegan)

Quinoa (pronounced "keen-wah") is often called a grain, but it's actually the seed of a plant related to amaranth, grown in South America (the Incas held it as sacred & worshipped it). Quinoa has an extremely high protein content, contains balanced essential amino acids, is a good source of dietary fiber and minerals and is also gluten-free. It also has a low glycemic index, making it a great substitution for high-GI foods like short-grain rice. 

Quinoa purchased in bulk has a natural coating of saponin to protect the seed; this coating is bitter and needs to be removed. If your quinoa has a waxy coating, simply soak the quinoa in water for 2 hours, then change the water and soak another hour. Then, rinse thoroughly in a fine-mesh strainer under cold running water. Most boxed quinoa has already been cleaned for convenience; the bulk quinoa that I buy locally has been cleaned, so I simply rinse the quinoa for 1-2 minutes in a strainer under cold running water.  

Quinoa is cooked exactly like rice, in a 1:2 ratio with water or broth (for a more al dente texture, use a 1:1 1/4 ratio). Once cooked, it has a fluffy texture and a mild but nutty flavor. Quinoa can be cooked on the stovetop or in an electric rice cooker, and only takes about 15-20 minutes. I like to mix quinoa into salads, pilafs, or even mixed into vegetarian-friendly burgers with lentils, mushrooms or black beans. It's also great as a breakfast, mixed with honey or maple syrup and topped with fruit or nuts. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Creamy Sausage Crescents

Refrigerated crescent rolls are a ridiculously easy way to make a great snack food for football games, parties and potlucks. Most people are familiar with "pigs in a blanket", but these creamy sausage rolls are a little bit different - a buttery, flaky roll, filled with a creamy sausage filling.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

EASY Salsa (Vegetarian/Vegan)

I hated tomatoes when I was a kid; I'm not sure when it happened, but I luckily grew out of that childhood hate and now absolutely LOVE tomatoes. Here in the South, we take our tomatoes seriously; summer meals require a plate of sliced tomatoes, sliced Vidalia onions, and fresh banana peppers. Summers here mean stopping at roadside stalls and buying ugly homegrown tomatoes, blood-red and juicy inside. A weekend isn't complete without buying a roadside tomato (slicing it with a Case knife) and making a tomato sandwich with a schmear of mayonnaise and a sprinkling of salt & pepper. 

Now, you CAN find tomatoes year-round in any grocery store. They're typically sad, orange little hothouse things; mealy inside and completely void of any flavor. No wonder most Italian recipes always call for canned tomatoes, put up when tomatoes are in season and at the height of their freshness and flavor. Summers for me involve receiving homegrown tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers from my parents (the area they live in is known throughout the state for their tomatoes) and spending hours on end hovering over a boiling water bath canning tomatoes, sauces, relishes and salsas.

Sadly, I've exhausted the supply of salsa I canned last summer. And, with my beloved Chicago Bears going into the NFC Championship game this weekend, I NEED football snacks. Luckily, you can still make great salsa with canned tomatoes - this recipe is very similar to a restaurant-style salsa. Make it a day or two ahead of time to let the flavors get to know each other a little better before serving. Then, simply serve with chips, or use the salsa as a sauce for chicken, enchiladas, fajitas, etc.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Egg Salad

Egg salad is one of those "love it or hate it" sandwich fillings. Personally, I love it. I hate seeing egg salad sold prepackaged in grocery store delis when it's incredibly easy to make at home. It's a great way to use up boiled eggs and is a welcome break from lunchmeat sandwiches or pb&j's. 

I didn't feel that egg salad needed a recipe, but I have had several people ask me how to make it. So, here it is! 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Pimento Cheese - A Southern Staple (Vegetarian)

Pimento cheese is basically the pate of the South. It appears at numerous Southern weddings, big or small, is enjoyed by millions on Wonder bread over the kitchen sink or a paper plate, and is a tradition in Augusta at the Masters Tournament.

But what IS pimento cheese? Pimento cheese (or, as we pronounce it, "puhminna cheese") is simply a mixture of shredded sharp cheddar (or even Velveeta!), mayonnaise and pimentos, seasoned with salt and pepper and blended into a creamy or chunky spread. It is unthinkable to buy premade pimento cheese from the grocery store here in the South; everyone has their own recipe. 

Restaurants here serve it in grilled cheese sandwiches, atop burgers and BLTs, or simply mounded atop a lettuce leaf with water crackers and crudités. I enjoy it simply as a sandwich on whole-grain bread (even though it's tantamount to blasphemy not to use white bread), or as a spread served with buttery crackers.

Here in Birmingham, we are privileged to have 3 amazing restaurants owned by James Beard award-winning chef and restaurateur Frank Stitt: Highlands Bar & Grill, Bottega Restaurant & Cafe and Chez Fonfon. My recipe for pimento cheese is somewhat adapted from "Miss Verba's Pimento Cheese" from Stitt's stellar cookbook "Frank Stitt's Southern Table: Recipes & Gracious Traditions From Highland's Bar & Grill"

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta Fazool)

Pasta e fagioli literally means "pasta & beans", and is a traditional meatless Italian dish. It's also known as "pasta fazool" from the Sicilian slang term. Typically, pasta e fagioli contains white beans such as cannellini beans as well as a small pasta. Nowadays, most restaurants do serve it with some form of meat, as do I. However, the soup is just as good & hearty without the meat. 

This soup varies greatly in different regions and in different restaurants. Typically the base remains the same, with various diced vegetables and diced tomatoes or even leftover tomato sauce. My version contains two kinds of beans, ditalini pasta and mild italian sausage. This is a great recipe for cleaning out the fridge or pantry, but be warned - this recipe makes a LOT. However, the ingredients are fairly inexpensive, so this is a great meal to make over a weekend to save for weekday lunches. 

Friday, January 14, 2011

Kohi Zeri - Japanese Coffee Jelly

Kohi Zeri, aka Coffee Jelly, is a popular summertime desert in Japan. Most Japanese desserts are nowhere near as sweet as the ones we're accustomed to here in the US; coffee jelly is simply a lightly sweetened, strong coffee, combined with agar agar to form a gelatin. Immensely popular, kohi zeri is sold in most restaurants in Japan as well as in almost every konbini (convenience store). 

Agar agar, also known as kanten in Japan, is a great vegetarian substitute for gelatin, as it is made from an algae. Unlike gelatin, it does not need to bloom, and creates a firmer gel with a better bite texture. Agar agar is also used in panna cotta and can be substituted in equal quantities for gelatin. You can find agar agar in almost any health food stores; here in Birmingham I have seen it at both Organic Harvest as well as Whole Foods. However, it is also available at any Asian market, and is usually MUCH cheaper. 

Agar agar also makes amazing Jello shots thanks to the firmer texture. 

In addition to agar agar powder, stores may also carry agar agar flakes. I try to avoid the flakes, as the powder tends to dissolve MUCH better and gel better. Agar agar is also used in molecular gastronomy in place of sodium alginate to make mock caviar; I will be posting a tutorial on this very soon.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Homemade Dulce de Leche

Dulce de leche is a milk-based caramel popular in Latin American countries. It has a thick consistency and is traditionally made by sloooooowly simmering milk and sugar until the milk evaporates (also known as the "Maillard reaction"). Dulce de leche is great with cookies, atop cakes, spread on toast, or by itself straight out of the jar. 

Not too runny, not too thick...PERFECT!

You can buy cans of dulce de leche in most grocery stores (check the ethnic aisle) or any Hispanic market. Or, you can make it yourself at home with just a single ingredient and a little bit of patience.

Friday, January 7, 2011

"Koolickles" - Kool-Aid Pickles

Popular in small, predominantly African-American Mississippi Delta towns, Koolickes are simply dill pickles that have been allowed to soak in a strong mix of Kool-Aid and brine. Koolickles combine two flavors well; sour and sweet. Their popularity is soaring; the New York Times wrote a great article about these pickles, and they even received a nod from Alton Brown on his show, "Feasting on Asphalt". 

Not willing to drive over to Mississippi for a 50-cent pickle, I decided to try my hand at making Koolickles at home. Almost every recipe that I found called for "red" Kool-Aid; not being sure which flavor "red" represents, I went for a combination of cherry and tropical punch.

If curiosity gets the better of you and you'd like to make your own Koolickles, the process is really simple. Honestly, the hardest part is making room in the refrigerator for the pickle jar! 

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Greek Salad Dressing

I love Greek salads. Well, more like I love the dressing. I like to make my own "Greek" salads with some "spring mix" salad, crumbled feta, and maybe some olives and a pepperoncini pepper or three. Rather than buy salad dressing at the store and get something with added sugars or preservatives, I make my own dressing. It takes less than 5 minutes, and I know exactly what's going on my salad.

Kitchen Basics - Butchering Larger Cuts of Meat & Saving Money

I try to be savvy when shopping for groceries; I know when the local grocery store ads come out (on Wednesdays,!) and I check them online. I use a store rewards card whenever possible. I pay special attention to meat prices, as the difference between two well-known grocery chains around here is amazing; sometimes it is a difference of over $1.00 per lb! 

One of the easiest ways to save money on meat is to buy a large cut of meat and butcher it yourself. All it takes is a little knowledge, a good knife, and, of course, room to store the meat. A local butcher shop offers monthly meat deals on large cuts of meat, and, if you have a freezer, you can really rack up the savings. 

I recently purchased a boneless pork loin at Sam's Club, and, after viewing some videos online, butchered it down into multiple cuts. From a loin weighing just over 6 lbs, at just under $2.00 per lb, I was able to butcher my own thick-cut chops than run anywhere from $4.00 to $5.00 per lb here in the stores, in addition to a roast, thin breakfast chops, butterflied chops for stuffing, and some cubed pork meat. For only a few minutes of work, I saved a LOT of money. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Kitchen Basics - Hard-Boiled Eggs

Hard-boiled eggs are the foundation to many great dishes, from Cobb salads to that great Southern picnic/holiday classic, deviled eggs. Of course, they're great on their own as a snack, sprinkled with some coarse salt or maybe a few drops of a good hot sauce. Hard-BOILED is a bit of a misnomer, since you don't actually want to boil the eggs - unless rubbery whites and a dusty green yolk is what you're after.

Creamy yellow yolk; not dry, greenish & mealy...

So many people don't know how to correctly boil eggs; do a simple online search and you'll find millions of results on how to perfectly cook a hard-boiled egg. This method is the one I have been using for years, and have always had great results. 

Hummus (Vegetarian/Vegan)

Hummus is a wonderful, creamy spread or dip made from chickpeas. In fact, the word "hummus" is arabic for "chickpeas". Knowing this, I cringe when I see recipes for "hummus" made from a bean other than chickpeas. I've seen recipes for edamame hummus, black-eyed pea hummus, and even white kidney bean hummus. Nothing against these recipes, as I'm sure they're quite delicious, but technically they shouldn't be called "hummus".

While on my soapbox about hummus, another pet peeve of mine is the thick, chunky hummus often sold in grocery stores. The texture bothers me, as I prefer a much smoother consistency. The perfect hummus here in Birmingham, hands down, is at The Pita Stop. However, instead of getting hummus to go, I can now make my own here at home.

Smooth & creamy, not thick & chunky.

Hummus can be eaten on its own with pita, crackers or vegetables, or can also be used as a mayonnaise/mustard substitute in a sandwich. Not only is it amazingly easy to make at home, but the chickpeas make hummus a healthy option; full of protein, dietary fiber and vitamins, including iron and vitamin B6.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year! Slow-Cooker Black-Eyed Peas & Collard Greens

Happy New Year! Here in the South, you HAVE to eat pork, black-eyed peas and collard greens for a good year. The tradition of eating black-eyed peas for luck dates back to the Civil War, when General Sherman's troops destroyed all of the southern crops except for the humble black-eyed pea, which was used back then to feed livestock. The peas (which are actually technically a bean) represent coins, and the collard greens represent paper money. Cornbread always appears with beans & greens, and is often said to represent gold.

Would you rather have these or the coins?

I like to prepare my black-eyed peas and collard greens just before bed on New Years Eve; I use a large slow cooker, adding smoked sausage as my pork. Nothing beats waking up on New Years Day to a house smelling of collards and peas, and having a hearty meal ready to serve.