Monday, December 27, 2010

Sloppy Joe? Sloppy NO!

Recently, during the all too short time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which this year flew by even faster with a new baby in the house I decided to take some dinner help from a can of Sloppy Joe mix. Touting a serving of vegetables in each portion, it seemed a home run.  A sure thing. What could go wrong?  To top it off the stuff was on sale at the store. But then again, I have a feeling it always is. Since dinner was coming out of a can, I even decided to lay off my health kick and bought white Kaiser rolls to go with the Sloppy Joes.  Why be a kill joy and try to offer up whole wheat rolls?

In the sliver of time I had between breastfeeding sessions, I browned some ground beef, cracked open a can of Sloppy Joe, mixed the two, and voila! Dinner was done.  Now, I did not grow up eating Sloppy Joes, but judging from the sheer Sloppy Joe induced glee of the kids I’ve babysat over the years, this stuff is like manna from heaven.  Plus my little one loves any kind of food that’s messy to eat. The messier the better, and what’s messier than ground beef mixed with tomato sauce, eaten with your hands? The name itself couldn’t be clearer about its messy nature.  I was so proud of myself when I delivered Missy’s plate, fully expecting to be able to sit back and let her have at it, whilst making a megabath worthy mess. I was already planning to stock up on ingredients for a healthier home-made Sloppy Joe mix that could become a staple of our dinner table.  I’m sure you, dear reader already know where this is headed. 

Missy would not even give it a try. I’m talking hysterical wailing, flailing arms and kicking legs.  Who would have thought food could elicit such a passionate response?  I know it’s supposed to take up to ten tries for a kid to accept new foods, but I’m not sure I’m willing to go through that kind of drama that many times.  What I didn’t get is this kid loves the main components of a Sloppy Joe: tomato sauce, ground beef, bread. None of the flavors were new and I didn’t think the veggies hidden in the mix could possibly come through strongly enough to be a turn off for the kid, but still it was a no go.  Even my fail safe trick of eating off mommy’s plate didn’t work (not fail safe anymore, I guess).  Maybe next time I need to try a deconstructed Sloppy Joe… Let’s see, freeze dried tomatoes, vegetable crisps, beef Carpaccio, and toasted croutons.  I think I’ve been watching too many cheffy shows. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Giving Thanks and Holiday Feasts

I both love and hate this time of year. I love it for all the cooking shows and magazines full of fall and holiday recipes (that I drool over yet never make). I hate it because those same shows and magazines are a painful reminder that my husband and I are separated from our immediate families by a great big ocean and hours upon hours of travel that costs a bomb.  Oops, maybe I shouldn’t use the words “travel” and “bomb” in the same sentence… In any case, it’s around the holidays that I really miss family.  To be sure, my husband has extended family who are all very close to us and with whom we have spent recent Thanksgivings and Christmases.  We also have our share of friends that have become an extended family of sorts. But still, when you’re bombarded with ads showing happy families gathering around the table and children returning home from faraway places while coffee is brewing in the kitchen, you can’t help but feel a little empty.  I was recently talking about this very thing with a friend of mine who finds herself in a similar situation to ours. As a recent transplant to a new city not only does she miss her family and friends, but she feels extremely isolated because it seems everyone around her is gearing up for celebrating the Holidays with large family gatherings.  My take on this is that being separated from one’s family is actually more common than we all might think and that these cheesy holiday ads represent an ideal and not a norm. Families are scattered these days due to employment, deployment, or because they just don’t plain get along.  And not everyone can afford to travel even if they wanted to. 

Now that we are a family unit of our very own complete with our two year old little missy and less than 2 week old little guy I think it’s time to start thinking of establishing our own holiday traditions, especially when it comes to food.  With my Finnish background and my husband’s Irish heritage we have lots of dishes and traditions to draw upon.  I realize that my timing is not exactly on point with Thanksgiving a day away, but I have to start somewhere.  Thanksgiving was going to be a bit of a throwaway this year anyway as my son was due to be born a week later, and then decided to throw us a curveball by showing up a little early.  Not only that but with my gestational diabetes, I didn’t exactly feel like partaking in any feasts.  So, there is no turkey thawing in our fridge and no plans for oodles of the traditional side dishes.  But still, I feel the need to do something special.  Now, some of you may be gasping in horror that there will be no turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, and biscuits in our household.  But really, is that necessary?  My husband doesn’t even like turkey, so what would be the point of making it, especially when you can’t seem to find any birds smaller than 20 pounds? 

This year, our menu will include a spiral ham, green bean casserole, Brussels sprouts, and potatoes of some sort.  Yeah, it’s pretty simple and not a lot of food but there are only three adults (with my mother here to help with the baby) and one very picky toddler, so why torture ourselves with loads of food to prepare and tons of leftovers?  And why put myself out cooking a feast when I am still recovering from giving birth and need to feed my baby every couple of hours?  Honestly, I’d rather spend that time bonding with my little man.  I am no Martha Stewart, so the ham is pre-cooked and just needs to be heated, the green bean casserole will be made with canned ingredients and the potatoes might, just might be a boxed mashed variety I have in my pantry (perhaps jazzed up a bit with cream cheese or something). The only fresh ingredient is the Brussels sprouts!  But the idea is to enjoy a nice meal with my family and contemplate the things for which we are thankful. Isn’t that what Thanksgiving is really about?  Oh, and since I do not have gestational diabetes anymore, there will be dessert; apple spice caramel cake (store bought). 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Grandma’s Finnish Meatballs

My mom arrived about a week ago to help me in the last few weeks of pregnancy, and the timing couldn’t have been better as I now have twice weekly prenatal appointments and there is just no way I could bring little missy with me.  As my due date nears, we are making plans for easy meals that my mom can serve to missy and that we can ideally make now and freeze for easy serving later.  I’m also interested in learning some of my mom’s recipes as I’ve always loved her cooking, even though she claims to not know what she’s doing.  Pretty much everything she ever served us was made from scratch, so in my book that means mad skills!

This afternoon while missy napped we made some simple yet delicious meatballs with a cool secret ingredient (that will not be so secret anymore).

Grandma’s Meatballs
1 lb ground beef
1 yellow onion, finely minced
1 package baby bella mushrooms, finely minced
2 eggs
2 tbs uncooked cous cous
Salt & pepper to taste

Sauté the onion and mushroom, adding salt and pepper to taste. Allow to cool.
Thoroughly mix sautéed onions and mushrooms, ground beef, egg, and cous cous.  Add salt & pepper if needed (you may heat up a sauté pan and cook a small amount of the mix to safely taste it).
Form ground beef mixture into meatballs of your desired size with your hands. Ours were approximately 2 tbs of meat, so pretty small. We got about 40 meatballs. 
Place meatballs on a baking sheet and cook in a 375 degree oven 15-20 minutes. Clearly cooking times will vary depending on the meatball size. 

Can you guess the secret ingredient? Yeah, cous cous!  The cous cous cooked up perfectly within the meatballs and took the place of the more traditional breadcrumbs.  If you think it’s an odd addition to meatballs, you don’t notice them at all texturally, but they definitely make for a more moist and soft meatball because you lose hardly any of the juices as the meatballs cook, as they get absorbed by the cous cous. 

Of course you cannot make meatballs without sauce, so we made a somewhat traditional brown sauce.  Now this is not quite like the Swedish sauce most of us are familiar with, but it’s not far off.  The big difference is the Swedes add nutmeg to their well known meatball sauce and the Finns do not use nutmeg as much in everyday cooking (it’s more of a Christmas spice).  Of course, you can certainly add it to the sauce if you wish.  Basically all you do is make a béchamel sauce incorporating any drippings collected from the meatball baking sheet and add some beef stock to it. 

Brown Sauce:
1 tbs flour
1.5 tbs butter
Meatball drippings
Milk (approx ½ cup) or cream (if you want to be decadent)
Beef stock (approx 1 cup)
Salt & pepper to taste (keep in mind that if you use salted stock, you may not need to add any salt). 
I apologize that some of the amounts are approximate as I pretty much eyeballed the ingredients as I added them to the sauce.  Of course depending on how much sauce you want to make, you can add more or less liquid.   

In a saucepan or sauté pan, create a roux using the butter, flour, and meatball drippings.  Cook until the mixture resembles wet sand (this will enhance the brown color of the sauce).
Stirring constantly, add the milk and allow the sauce to thicken.
Once the sauce has thickened, gradually add the beef stock, stirring continually to avoid separation. The sauce will look thin at first but will thicken up again as it heats up.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Add the meatballs to the sauce and heat them through. 
According to my mom you can give this a Russian twist by adding some diced sour pickles and sour cream to the sauce. 

What would you serve this with?  How about some simple boiled or mashed potatoes, egg noodles (a la a meatball stroganoff), or some lovely crusty bread, and of course your favorite vegetables?  I might add some pickled beets, but that’s my Finnish roots showing.  Now, this was a dangerous dish for me to be making with my gestational diabetes and I certainly didn’t think I could make a meal of them, but I still couldn’t resist tasting the end product. I mean a couple of small meatballs (with cous cous) with a little bit of brown sauce can’t have that many carbs.  Plus being in the last couple of weeks of pregnancy, that’s about as much as I can eat anyway!  Little missy was happy as a clam with her meatballs and even asked for seconds!  Well, she did the Oliver Twist thing, picking up her empty plate and holding it up to me. When I asked if she wanted more, she said, “more.”  Because my mom and I were lazy, we did not make the potatoes or noodles to go with the meatballs, so missy had hers with her favorite diced raw red peppers on the side.  Now, I mentioned earlier that we were planning to freeze foods but I would not freeze these in the sauce as I’ve read that a béchamel sauce will separate and just turn ugly when you freeze it.  So, if you are freezing, just freeze the meatballs on their own.  

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pork Roast with Fall Vegetables

We are a Costco family and every so often we will buy huge quantities of meat and portion it out and freeze it in our big chest freezer.  We’ve got fish, chicken (parts and a whole one), ground beef, pork, even a turkey ready to defrost for the holidays!  Of course using these cuts of meat does require some planning because of the defrosting, but I’m getting better at it and at least it gives me some time to make sure we have the fresh produce I want to serve alongside said meat. 

The other night I decided that with the weather cooling here in New England, it was the perfect time to do a pork roast with some lovely root vegetables.  I normally make my pork roast with a honey mustard glaze that also features brown sugar (that I’ve adapted from an America’s Test Kitchen recipe) but because of my gestational diabetes, glazes like that are off limits for moi! I decided to try a spice rub instead.  This was a purely experimental spice rub, but I am happy to say it came out rather tasty. 

Spice Rub:
Onion Powder
Paprika Powder
Dried Marjoram
Freshly Ground Black Pepper
I just eyeballed the amounts and shook some of each spice into a small dish but I’d say about a tablespoon of each of the spices and salt and pepper to taste would do the trick. 

I patted dry the piece of pork roast (approx 2 lbs), scored the fat cap with a diamond shape, and then patted the spice rub all over the pork (top and bottom).

I placed the pork fat side up in a ceramic baking dish and put in a 350 degree oven for approximately 1 hour. (I allowed the spiced meat to rest while I prepped the vegetables so everything went in at the same time and the meat was not fridge cold).  Of course cooking times will vary depending on the size of the meat and your oven.  I find that my oven always takes longer than recipes call for. I think I need to get it calibrated… 

I also get nervous about pork and chicken because of the risk of illness if not cooked properly.  I was shocked not too long ago when a server at a restaurant asked me how I’d like my pork chops cooked.  I looked at him dumbfounded and said “all the way.”  I mean what other way is there?  He informed me that these days you can have your pork done medium… Well, not for me, thank you very much.  I have since learned that there are acceptable temperature ranges for pork that are definitely lower than what your typical instant read thermometer is set to.  Still I get nervous, but I tend to cook my pork roast until it hits 160 degrees in the thickest part (still less than the 180 those thermometers want).  Feel free to weigh in on this issue, by the way.  Since pork does dry out very easily it is a bit tricky to find the perfect temperature.  Once the meat hits my desired temperature, I let it rest for about 10 minutes before I cut into it.  This is probably one of the hardest things to do as the lovely aromas of roasted meat waft through the house!  But if you want to preserve any shred of juices left in that meat, you need to let it rest!  I cut the roast into approximately half inch slices and returned them to the baking pan to soak up some of that lovely jus. 

Roasted Fall Vegetables
1 Large Sweet Potato
2 Large Carrots
3 Medium Red Skinned Potatoes (any will do, this is what we happened to have handy)
1 Medium Yellow Onion
3 Small Parsnips
Garlic Cloves, left in the skin (I used 3, but you can use how many or little as you wish, or leave them out completely)
Drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (enough to coat all veggies)
Salt and Pepper to taste

I washed, peeled and cut the vegetables into approximately similar sizes.  The carrots being denser and taking longer to cook can be cut smaller, but I don’t mind a bit of crunch.  You can of course use whatever vegetables you like and whatever amount you like depending on how many you are cooking for and what your taste preferences are. 

I placed all the vegetables in a large roasting pan, drizzled the oil, added salt and pepper, and tossed everything to coat evenly. The pan went in the same 350 degree oven as the pork and cooked for about the same time.  Definitely keep an eye on the vegetables and give them a good stir a couple of times to allow for even caramelization (or to avoid burning one side).  And take them out if they are done before the roast and tent with some aluminum foil to keep in the heat. 

I used to peel my garlic when I’ve roasted veggies in the past and they always end up burning because they are just so darned small!  Since I’ve seen a few TV chefs roast veggies and actually throw in an entire head of garlic peel and all, I decided to give it a go, but since I am really the only garlic eater in the household, the entire head would just be overkill.  The 3 cloves with skin intact came out perfectly roasted, soft and sweet. 

As I mentioned earlier I was very happy with the flavor of the spice rub and the pork came out tasty and tender.  The fat tended to splatter and smoke a bit which set off our hallway smoke detector (which is super sensitive, mind you) whenever I opened the oven.  But that’s a common occurrence when I cook!  You can definitely remove the fat if you wish, but it forms a beautiful crispy dark brown crust that you won’t get if you do remove it.  If you are like my husband, you will just cut the fat off when you’re eating it. 

Unfortunately I got started with dinner later than I should have so, it was quite late for Little Missy.  I had to ply her with some red pepper pieces as she grew antsy waiting for the proper meal (she by the way loves raw red peppers, and I often offer them up as an appetizer of sorts while I’m making the main meal – a great way to sneak in a vegetable!).  Because the veggies were done before the pork, I just fed her the vegs when they were ready and then the pork came later.  But I find this a pretty successful way to feed her anyway as opposed to overwhelming her with too many flavors and options at once.  

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Breakfast for Lunch

I knew I was taking a big risk planning to make an omelet for the little one for lunch since the former queen of quiche and lover of all styles of egg has long been turning her nose up at anything to do with eggs (unless they are in cookie form…) but I thought maybe bacon would entice her to eat the egg… that and a healthy dose of ketchup. So, for lunch I offered up a thoroughly uninspired but filling cheese omelet, bacon, and Heinz vegetarian baked beans.

These beans are not quite like the smoky molasses beaked beans you or I might be used to but more like the ones you would find in the Irish section of the supermarket, in a sweet tomato sauce. My husband, being Irish refuses to try this version of his childhood favorite purely on nostalgic grounds. But for the price difference between an imported can of beans and a “home grown” can (both by Heinz, mind you) I see no substantial difference in taste. Of course growing up I thought the British version of beans was simply vile so there are no nostalgic memories of eating beans on toast at the kitchen table for me. My memories are more along the lines of forcing down the nasty concoction, which was all too frequently part of my school cafeteria lunch (I’m shuddering just thinking about it). I’m happy to say though that I have since expanded my palate to be able to enjoy these little tomato-ey legumes, particularly when served alongside a proper Irish breakfast (that will have to be another post).

The bacon, I am very excited to share is Stop and Shop’s Natures Promise brand, which is uncured, and nitrite and antibiotic free. I recently discovered it on the top shelf of the bacon display tucked away in the corner. I don’t know if it’s a new thing or if I’ve just never seen it before (since I don’t make it a habit to peruse the bacon shelf too often), but it has become a favorite. It has a nice but mild maple flavor and is not too salty. And of course the major selling point to me as a mom and mom-to-be was the uncured, antibiotic and nitrite free part. I can confidently feed it to my little one and eat it myself, knowing it is not harming us.

I have in the past struggled royally with making a decent omelet. The eggs always have seemed to fall apart and it’s turned more into a scramble with stuff in it. Recently I happened upon Julia Child’s PBS episode on omelets and had an epiphany of sorts. I was shocked to see simply how much butter she used in her omelet pan, but it really worked. Julia’s omelet slid nicely in the pan as she shook it, on that lake of melted butter and then slid effortlessly onto the plate. Whereas my omelets have always stuck to my non-stick pans, even with some oil. That was my problem; I never used enough fat. Silly me, thought non-stick actually meant food wouldn’t stick to it. So, a while back I thought, why waste that lovely bacon grease? Why not use it instead of butter for an omelet. I think I need to add a little disclaimer here that we don’t often eat bacon and omelets, so those of you who might be gagging at the thought of all that grease can relax. Also, with the pan hot enough, the eggs don’t soak up the grease and with enough practice you can slide the omelet out of the pan and leave most of the grease behind. You can of course wipe off some of the grease with a paper towel before making your omelet too. But I have to say that with the well oiled pan, I have not had a problem with the eggs sticking and I haven’t really even needed a spatula when de-panning (if that’s a word) except to just guide the omelet to fold over. My only downfall has been that I can’t seem to make my omelets perfectly pale yellow like Julia did, which is how they are “supposed” to be, but I don’t really mind a little brown on my eggs!

Today’s omelet was a simple Swiss cheese version made with 3 eggs and 3 slices of Jarlsberg, since momma was making enough for both of us. Little missy had about a third of it, while momma ate the rest. Missy’s slice was slathered with ketchup, just to be on the safe side. Maybe it was the ketchup, but she thought it was pizza. I wasn’t about to correct her because that meant she was eager to put the first piece in her mouth. Thankfully she kept eating it after that. The bacon she outright refused even when I tried to convince her that she was really missing out. But I think it’s a texture thing. The bacon is just too chewy. After most of the pizza omelet had been devoured missy turned her attention to the beans, which were in a separate bowl. I don’t know about you, but I have greater success when I present foods separately. This is when the messy fun began. She allowed me to feed her the first couple of forkfuls but then wanted to feel herself. At first she allowed me to guide her hand in stabbing the beans and moving the fork to her mouth but soon Little Miss Independent wanted to do it all by herself. She stuck with the fork for a little longer, managing to stab one bean at a time. Most of them even made it into her mouth. But soon she ditched the fork for her hands. Ah yes, sauce was everywhere and those slippery little things had a way of slipping onto her lap, where they wound up smushed under her butt. But you know what? The important thing was that she actually ate the eggs and beans. That was a small victory in and of itself.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Braised Carrot Soup

After my success with cream of broccoli soup I’ve been on the lookout for other soup recipes to get my little girl to eat those pesky veggies. Hannaford’s free monthly in-store magazine recently featured an interesting looking braised carrot soup recipe that met my requirements for cooking: short ingredient list and few steps. Carrots are another one of those veggies that Little Missy used to eat at the puree stage but has refused since then, no matter what form they took. Given that I had everything needed already in my pantry, this recipe was definitely worth a try. The recipe originally appeared in This Crazy Vegan Life by Christina Pirello and all ingredients are organic or natural, though I used regular stuff (perhaps I will write a post about the whole organic debate some day).

Braised Carrot Soup (serves 4, 25 minutes prep time)

4tsp extra virgin olive oil, divided

1 tbs balsamic vinegar (can be pricey but I buy the cheapest stuff I can find at the grocery store)

1 ½ tsp sea salt, plus additional to taste, divided (I just used regular old table salt)

6-8 carrots, cut into small chunks

½ yellow onion, diced

2 Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced (I used the red skinned potatoes already in my fridge)

Scant pinch of ground nutmeg

4 cups water

2 sprigs finely shredded fresh mint, leaves removed (the one item I do not stock, so I left this out, I substituted a shake of dried parsley)

· Process:
Place 2 teaspoons of oil, vinegar, and ½ teaspoon salt in large, flat bottomed skillet set over medium heat. Arrange carrots in oil mixture, avoiding as much overlap as possible.

· Cover skillet and listen closely for strong sizzle sound. When you hear this, reduce heat to low and cook until carrots are tender and liquid has become a thick syrup. 15 to 20 minutes (depending on size of carrots). I have to say here that there wasn’t much liquid to form a syrup. While the carrots were braising I peeled and diced the onion and potatoes.

· In large saucepan, place remaining 2 teaspoons of oil and diced onion over medium heat. When onion sizzles, add a pinch of salt. Sauté for 1 to 2 minutes. Add potatoes, nutmeg, braised carrots, and water. (I sautéed the potatoes for a few minutes before adding the carrots and water to allow carrots to cook completely and to develop some flavor in the potatoes. I also added a few shakes of curry powder to the potato onion mixture at this stage since I think carrots and curry make a wonderful flavor combination. Because the braising did not produce much liquid but definitely left lots of flavor on the bottom of pan carrot, I transferred the sautéed potatoes and onion into the carrot braising pan to make the most of those flavors. After adding the water, I added a tablespoon of no sodium chicken bouillon powder and a shake of dried parsley for even more flavor.)

· Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to low. Cook until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Season with 1 teaspoon of salt. Simmer for 5 minutes more.

· With ladle, transfer soup o food processor and puree until smooth. Return to pot and warm through. Serve garnished with mint.

This recipe produced a wonderfully flavorful, thick, deep orange soup. I would recommend serving it as a side with any meat dish. It can even make a nice complement to a sandwich or salad for lunch. The curry I added did not feature very prominently in the final product so in the future I’ll add even more, or even add some garam masala powder for a little more kick. Hubby’s one comment, which was preceded by, “well, you know I don’t eat soup,” was that it could use pepper. I added some freshly ground black pepper to my bowl, but left it out of the pot since I was making it for Little Missy and didn’t want to overwhelm her with the pepper.

Little Missy enjoyed the soup very much, and we even have a new word: soup! I think this soup could be replicated with a host of fall veggies like pumpkin or butternut squash and made more complex with the addition of other root veggies like parsnip and turnip and perhaps even some sugar free apple sauce or some diced apple at the sauté stage. One thing I loved about the recipe is that it does not call for cream or milk but still produced a nice thick soup thanks to the potatoes. I apologize for not having a photo to share. I certainly should have taken a picture of the carrots as they were braising as they developed a beautiful deep brown color from the balsamic vinegar. If you’re nervous about the vinegar, it is barely noticeable as a separate flavor but definitely adds some depth to the soup overall. If you’re adventurous you could try garnishing the soup with a drizzle of some good balsamic or olive oil. You could even add a dollop of sour cream if you wanted to make it richer, though it certainly is not lacking as it is. A final note about the prep time: the recipe says prep time is 25 minutes, but cooking time is around 45 minutes.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Baked Tilapia Two Ways (Hint: There’s Gold Fish in this one)

My cooking has been sidelined lately after a gestational diabetes diagnosis, which requires a strict low carbohydrate, no sugar diet. I’ve never been one to read labels or think too much about portion sizes, so getting used to this new way of eating has been difficult to say the least. I can’t imagine subjecting my family to the same dietary restrictions as I have, so I am still trying to figure out how to cook for myself and the fam without going absolutely stir crazy. One thing I will say is this new diet has been a huge eye opener in terms of portion sizes and how much sugar is in everything. Apparently a serving of ice cream is just half a cup, basically what you get on one scoop! In the first weekend on this diet, I actually managed to lose a little over 2 pounds, mainly because I was so freaked out about the carbs that I wasn’t paying attention to getting enough calories. That is not the best thing for a pregnant lady! This meal of baked tilapia represents my first attempt at cooking for all of us and actually making real food for myself, as opposed to cottage cheese and vegetable sticks! As with many of my other meals, I relied on the contents of my pantry and freezer for this one. I’ve tried making baked breaded fish before and the breading has always tended to slip off the fish in a mushy mess. On a whim a while back I decided to try ground up Gold Fish Crackers instead of bread crumbs, and voila! The breading stayed on and actually tasted good too!

Baked Tilapia

Frozen tilapia loins

Extra virgin olive oil, approx 1 tbs

Ground up Gold Fish Crackers, cheddar flavor. Approx 1-2 tbs per tilapia loin.

Pepper to taste

1-2 tbs butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place frozen tilapia loins in baking or lasagna pan

Brush lightly with EVOO

Sprinkle ground up Gold Fish crackers on each tilapia loin

Sprinkle freshly ground black pepper on each loin (there is no need for salt as the crackers are salted)

Place little nubs of butter on each tilapia loin (you can leave this out if you wish. I have made the dish with and without the butter)

For extra flavor, you can sprinkle other spices or herbs of your choice on the fish

Bake for 30-40 minutes or until the fish is tender and flaky

Since I’m not allowed to eat the breading, I covered my tilapia with lemon slices. This is a very nice alternative to the breading. The lemon kept the fish moist and delivered a nice fresh flavor to the fish.

I served the tilapia with baked butternut squash lightly sprinkled with brown sugar and pepper, quinoa cooked in chicken broth with peas, and roasted broccoli sprinkled with grated parmesan. The fish was well received by my daughter, and why not? She LOVES Gold Fish (she calls them Nemo). She wasn’t so keen on the quinoa and butternut squash though. I was not so surprised about the quinoa but she’s devoured the butternut squash before. Maybe I didn’t put enough brown sugar on it this time…I didn’t even try to give her the broccoli, which I made mainly for myself since the butternut squash would have been a no no with the sugar. I had never actually tried to roast broccoli before and I was pleasantly surprised by its nutty flavor compared to the typical steamed broccoli flavor. I prepared it by lightly brushing frozen broccoli florets with EVOO and sprinkling some black pepper on them. I added the grated parmesan when the broccoli came out of the oven.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Who wants pizza?

One of our staple freezer meals is pizza but I always hate the feeling of dying of thirst afterwards, not to mention the fact that you are limited to the few standard options for toppings that are available at your store’s freezer section. The other night I decided to go for it and make my own pizza dough. Not being one to really like planning ahead, waiting for up to a day for the dough to rise, as many recipes call for just isn’t an option for me. But I found a recipe by Giada De Laurentiis on that only requires a total of 3 hours of rising time. Now that I can handle. So it was actually in the afternoon that I decided to go for it, to have pizza for dinner.

For my hubs I made the typical onion and pepperoni. For myself I made something that I’ve been craving lately. A mix of toppings that my cousin and I would make weekly one particular summer in our teens: tuna, onion, and pineapple. A sort of variation on the Hawaiian, I suppose. For the tomato sauce I just used a store brand can of crushed tomato. I’m not a big fan of the prepared pizza sauces. They tend to be too salty and otherwise over seasoned. The plain crushed tomato has a clean bright taste that doesn’t distract from the other toppings. For cheese I used shredded mozzarella. The crust came out fairly thin but still chewy and not too dry or crunchy. The hubs gave his pizza a big thumbs up and actually devoured the entire 13 inch pie! I was very happy with mine and suffered major pregnancy related heartburn that night because I ate way too much. Missy was already in bed, so she got her pizza for lunch the next day.

I must say I was quite amazed when I was rolling out the dough and topping Missy’s lunch pizza. She also got a variation of the Hawaiian, with turkey breast instead of ham, and finely diced onions. For the half hour or so that it took to roll, top and bake the pizza, she was dancing around the kitchen singing, “Pizza, pizza, pizza!” It’s not like she gets pizza all the time. She’s had it maybe once before. I really couldn’t understand how she knew to be so excited about it. She even ran off to grab her baby doll and pressed the doll’s face into the oven window! With all that anticipation I was actually nervous when it was ready. What if she didn’t like it? Then what? Thankfully I didn’t have to find out because she devoured her slice and even nibbled on the edges of a second slice. In fact she was so enamored of the pizza that at dinner time, she started up her pizza song and dance again and I thought for a moment that she’d refuse to eat her fish sticks and veggie sticks (yeah, momma doesn’t cook for every meal). Thankfully though she did eat her dinner.

Even though making the pizza dough was quite a bit of work, since it makes enough for three 13 inch pizzas (or two larger ones) you could easily feed a family of three or four with one pizza and some sides and with the same effort make enough dough for two or three meals. Considering the pizza dough probably cost $2 at the most (it’s just flour, water, and yeast after all), it also makes for a super economical meal. Even your toppings won’t add that much to the cost. The recipe doesn’t mention anything about freezing, but I’m assuming you can put a ball of dough in a freezer bag and pop it in the freezer if you don’t intend to use it all right away.

Here is the pizza dough recipe and directions for baking.

Pizza Dough

Recipe courtesy Giada De Laurentiis

Prep Time:

15 min

Inactive Prep Time:

3 hr 0 min

Cook Time:





3 (13-ounce) balls of dough


· 1 1/2 cups warm water, 100 to 110 degrees F, plus extra as needed

· 1 (1/4-ounce) packet active dry yeast

· 5 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra as needed

· 1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt

· Olive oil, for drizzling


Put the water in a small bowl. Add the yeast and stir until dissolved.

In a large bowl, whisk the flour and salt together. Add the yeast mixture and stir until a soft dough forms. If the dough is too dry, add a little extra water, 1 tablespoon at a time. If the dough is too sticky, add extra flour, 1 tablespoon at a time. Transfer the dough to a floured work surface. With floured hands, knead the dough until it becomes smooth and elastic, about 10 to 12 minutes. Drizzle the inside of a clean bowl with olive oil. Put the dough in the bowl and cover loosely with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel. Set the bowl in a warm, draft-free place, until the dough has doubled in size, about 2 hours.

Using a fist, deflate the dough in the center and cut it into 3 equal-sized pieces. Form the dough pieces into 3 balls and put into 3 oiled bowls. Cover each bowl loosely with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel and let rest for 1 hour. Remove the dough and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for up to 1 day.

I needed longer than the 10-12 minutes the recipe states for kneading the dough but then the recipe I scribbled down months ago said to use 4 cups of flour and 1 cup of water. I did end up adding several table spoons of water to make the dough smooth and elastic and it took quite a bit of kneading (maybe 20 minutes). I also added 1 tsp of sugar as food for the yeast to make sure the dough would rise. Here is a link to the recipe as well as a video of Giada making it.

Now you would think that the logical next steps in the directions would be rolling out the dough, topping it and baking it, but you need to search for a pizza recipe (as opposed to a pizza dough recipe) to get those steps. Giada has a recipe for a Caramelized onion, sausage and basil pizza that seemingly uses the same pizza dough. I haven’t tried it, but it sounds tasty. Here is the link for the complete recipe if you want to try it:

I have copied the relevant parts of getting the dough ready for toppings and baking it below. The way I see it, once you have the basic instructions, you can use whatever toppings you like, which is what I did for our pizza.


· Cornmeal, for dusting

· Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling

· All-purpose flour, for dusting


Put an oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F. Sprinkle a heavy baking sheet (without sides) with cornmeal and set aside.

On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough into a 13-inch diameter circle, about 1/4-inch thick. Transfer the dough to the prepared baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil (supposedly this prevents the crust from getting soggy from the toppings). Spread the [toppings] evenly over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border. Sprinkle the cheese on top. Bake until the crust is golden and the cheese has melted, about 15 to 17 minutes. Remove from the oven. Cut the pizza into wedges and serve.

Quite simple really. I feel like I can tackle other dough recipes now. And I have to say there is something quite rewarding about having your hands covered in flour and seeing these simple ingredients come together as a dough.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hamburger Helper Aint Got Nothing on Me!

I have to begin this post with a disclaimer. I have never actually made or eaten Hamburger Helper, so I don’t know exactly what goes into it, but I imagine from the ads that it’s some sort of pasta, ground beef, and cheese concoction. This meal was born out of a need to come up with something nutritious for Little Missy, having not managed to drag myself to the store as I intended. In my defense, it was super hot and humid, Missy had barely napped and the house was shrouded in blue tarp as our roof was getting redone (hence the lack of a nap, even though the lighting in the house made it feel like The Napping House), oh yeah and being 24 weeks preggo on top of all that hardly made getting to the store a tempting thought. So, it was another evening of peering into the pantry and freezer to come up with ideas. Lucky for me I always stock certain things that can be whipped up into acceptable meals. I always have different types of whole grain pasta, various frozen veggies, shredded cheese, frozen ground beef and turkey. So I decided to make a cheesy, pasta burger thingy with some hidden bonus veggies. Quick and easy! Actually it’s so simple that I’m almost embarrassed to post this but, then again not every meal has to be totally gourmet, right?

Ingredients (enough for 2-3 toddler sized servings):

Whole grain penne pasta (about 1 cup uncooked)

1 frozen beef patty

Frozen mixed pepper strips (half cup or so)

Shredded cheese (1-2 handfuls)

Salt & Pepper (to taste)

Ketchup (a couple of squirts)

Take out a frozen beef patty and allow to thaw on counter as you boil water for pasta.

When water comes to a boil, add some salt if you wish and add the pasta.

While pasta cooks pour frozen pepper strips into a microwave safe bowl, add enough pasta water to just barely cover the peppers. Microwave in 1 minute intervals until peppers are cooked (2-3 minutes). Most of the water will evaporate as they cook.

Once peppers are cooked, puree them in a mini food processor and set aside.

Put burger patty on a microwave safe plate, cover with damp paper towel and finish thawing it in microwave. This should only take about a minute. Transfer thawed patty into hot sauté pan and finish cooking it, breaking it up as you go along. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

When pasta is cooked, drain it (you can reserve some pasta cooking water in case the mixture is dry) and return to hot pan. Add the pepper puree, cooked ground beef (minus any grease) and mix with a couple of handfuls of shredded cheese and ketchup.

That’s it! All done, in about 15 minutes. For anyone wanting to try a vegetarian version, I have made this with red lentils instead of the ground beef. I just added a small amount of red lentils to the pot as the pasta cooked. The beauty of red lentils is that they don’t need to be presoaked and cook up quite fast. They are barely noticeable in the cheese mixture and add a nice nutty flavor and of course tons of protein. As it turned out Little Missy enjoyed both the ground beef and lentil versions of this dish, so it will be added to the repertoire.

This is very obviously a kid dish. However, you can easily make an adult version with the same basic ingredients. Picture pasta with pepper strips, shredded parmesan and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil for example. I have yet to test any grown up friendly recipes, but promise to post as soon as I do. Of course, if you’re like me, you end up eating what you made for the kiddos because the thought of making a second dish, even with mostly the same ingredients is just overwhelming.

Monday, August 9, 2010

I Feel Like Curry Tonight

A typical dinner related conversation in our house might go like this:

Me: “I feel like curry tonight.”

Hubs: “Where are we ordering from?”

But not this time. One of my dearest friends came over recently and we made curry together. She’s promised to do this for some time now but since coming over involves hopping a flight from Europe, I’ve had to be patient. Lucky me, she was in town for a week and we had a glorious time catching up and making delicious food. My friend hails from India and I was always jealous of her because she got to eat home cooked Indian food every day growing up. Not that I’m knocking my mom’s cooking, but eating authentic Indian food every day; there’s a serious drool factor there. Turns out home cooked Indian food is quite different from the creamy stuff you get at restaurants. It’s much simpler, much healthier. That also means that it’s much easier to make. And you know what? It’s so much more rewarding to eat!

The first thing we did when my friend arrived was take a run up to the Indian grocery near my house. Walking in is quite an experience as the aromas of spices and fresh herbs and vegetables hangs heavy in the air. For me this is a little bit like going home since I grew up in Singapore and these aromas and “ethnic” groceries are quite familiar for me. (As a side note, for those of you keeping track, my heritage is Finnish and I grew up in Singapore – Foodie Heaven, as Anthony Bourdain calls it. Bourdain hasn’t been to Finland as far as I know. Gordon Ramsay has and he wasn’t impressed. Though I respectfully disagree with Ramsay’s opinion, the two countries definitely represent culinary extremes! But I digress.) We picked up some red and green peppers, carrots, fresh cilantro, garam masala, cardamom pods, paneer (Indian cheese), and fresh roti (Indian flat bread). We headed to my regular grocery for some chicken, where we decided to save money and buy a whole chicken. In any case, chicken on the bone is definitely the way to go for flavor and tender, moist meat. Our plan is to make a chicken curry and vegetable paneer.

Ingredients for Chicken Curry:

Whole Chicken, broken down or chicken pieces of your choice (how much depends on how many you are feeding)

Plain yogurt (enough to cover the chicken)

Garam masala powder

Curry powder (generic turmeric based powder)

Cinnamon powder

Cumin powder

Powdered ginger (fresh is of course OK, but we were lazy)

Garlic, minced (2-3 cloves, or to taste)

Onion, diced

Can of crushed/diced tomatoes (I like to use fire roasted, for extra flavor)

Vegetable oil for sautéing

Fresh cilantro (2-3 sprigs roughly chopped and a few left whole for garnish)

Salt to taste


I don’t have a whole lot of experience in breaking down chickens though I’ve seen it done both on TV and in person. I have the theory down, it’s just the practice that’s a little iffy. It looks so easy when someone else does it yet somehow it still turns into a bit of a struggle. For example, the whole concept of popping out the tendon just doesn’t translate into practice all that well for me anyway. Luckily I am not one of those people who cannot handle meat on the bone, so I happily attacked the bird while my friend tackled the veggies. I managed to hack off the drumsticks, thighs, wings and breasts and they don’t look too mangled. We also cut the breast pieces crosswise into two and separated the thigh from the drumstick to allow for more even cooking. I threw the carcass into the freezer for a soup.

Marinate the chicken pieces in yogurt and curry powder (overnight is best but even the time it will take to prep the veggies will be enough).

Wash, peel, and dice veggies, and dice paneer. Mince garlic.

Heat oil in a dutch oven or large pot. Sauté onion, garlic, ginger, garam masala, cumin, and cinnamon. Add the chicken pieces and allow to brown. The spice amounts are all to taste. We used a couple of generous shakes from each jar (maybe 1-2 tsp). As the spices cook, the flavors develop and each spice adds a different layer of flavor. Tasting as you cook and adding more spices isn’t a good idea as you may end up with an overwhelming flavor once everything is cooked. Garam Masala adds a lot of heat, so 1 teaspoon might be enough. Curry powder is a mixture of many spices and varies from brand to brand. It is usually milder so you can add around 1 tablespoon and then adjust according to taste as you get more familiar with your palate and cooking with spices. Cumin has a very smoky flavor, so 1 teaspoon is probably enough. We decided to keep things more mild because of our Little Missy’s delicate palate. I have to admit my friend (the expert) handled the spicing and her approach is “a little of this, a little of that.”

Once the chicken has browned, add the tomato, cover, lower the heat and allow to simmer while you prepare the other dishes. Give the chicken an occasional stir.

Add the cilantro at the very end of cooking and add salt to taste.

Ingredients for Vegetable Paneer:

1 Red pepper, diced

1 Green pepper, diced

1 Onion, diced

3 Carrots, diced

One package of paneer, cubed

Curry powder

Garam masala powder

Cumin powder

Oil for sautéing

Salt to taste

Optional: can of crushed tomatoes

The beauty of this dish is that you can use any vegetables you like. This also means that it can easily turn into a variety of side dishes once you have the method down.

Heat some oil in a deep sauté pan. Add garlic, onion and spices and allow to cook. Add carrots, peppers, and paneer. You may add a can of tomatoes or a little bit of water. We poured about half a cup of water into the tomato can for a little flavor and put that in the vegetable and paneer mixture. Cover the pan, lower the heat and allow to cook while you make the rice.

Ingredients for Aromatic Rice:

Rice (I use regular grocery store brand Jasmine rice)

Cardamom pods (5-6 or to taste)

Cinnamon (a few shakes)

Whole Cloves (1 tsp or to taste)

2-3 Bay leaves

Oil for sautéing


Heat some oil in a pan, add your desired amount of rice and sauté, mixing all the time so rice doesn't burn. My friend and I had never actually done this but since her mom always sautés her rice, we decided to try it out.

Add water according to the rice cooking instructions (ie. twice as much water as rice). My friend’s mom will just eyeball the amount of water and never goes wrong. I always measure and end up having to add water before the rice is done. So, we decided to emulate mom and eyeball the water and cook it until done (not necessarily for the 20 minutes as instructed). Guess what? It worked! We added cardamom pods, opened to allow the seeds to come out, cloves, cinnamon, and the bay leaves, covered and let the rice simmer (approximately 20 minutes).

When everything is ready to serve heat up the roti in the microwave for about 30 seconds under a damp paper towel. The beauty of the chicken and vegetable dishes was that they were able to simmer away while the rice cooked and everything was ready at the same time. As my friend puts it, food is always cooked “to death” in India, so allowing stuff to simmer away until you are ready to eat won’t kill the flavor. Actually it’ll probably make it tastier. Of course you don’t want to overcook the rice! All in all the chicken cooked for about an hour, while the veggies took about half an hour. I have to apologize since I have no photos of the finished product. We served ourselves straight from the stove top and scarfed our food down without pausing for a photo opp. Also my friend and I were far too busy catching up as we cooked to stop and take photos (plus there was absolutely no need to immortalize what I did to that poor chicken).

We had a delicious meal that evening and an even more delicious lunch of leftovers the next day since the flavors just continue to develop with time. Little Missy didn’t have a chance to taste it until lunch and I am happy to report that she enjoyed it. The lesson here is to not be afraid to offer flavorful dishes to your little ones (as long as they’re not packed with heat). I definitely plan to incorporate cooking with spices into my repertoire.

In parting, I have to say cooking with my dear friend was loads of fun. There were plenty of “remember when” moments and it was a nice way to catch up, definitely better than sitting in a restaurant. Finally, I have to give a huge public thanks too to the hubs for keeping Little Missy occupied while we cooked.

If you, my dear readers make sense of these recipes and try them out, please let me know how they come out!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Steamed Veggie Dumplings Recipe

Sometime back I saw an ad on Nick Jr. for recipes inspired by the shows on the channel. One of the more intriguing ones was a recipe for Steamed Vegetable Dumplings from Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, one of Little Missy’s favorite shows. I decided to give these a try. Dumplings can definitely be a good way to add veggies to a picky toddler’s repertoire. Last week I actually went to the grocery store with a list (a rare feat) and a meal plan. Sadly all the produce I wanted to get looked really sad and wilted. I’m talking limp, brown edged cabbage, wrinkly peppers, and slimy mushrooms. I was so dejected by this initial disappointment that I quickly slipped back into my typical shopping mode of just getting the things we always get with no specific meal plans. Sigh.

I found myself back at the store the other night to pick up a few things and decided to take a look at the produce. It was looking better and I tried my best to remember the ingredients for the dumplings. The next day, after Little Missy zonked out after a marathon play session in the park, I figured I had my best chance to tackle these dumplings. It’s not easy to cook with a toddler underfoot.


· 2 cups finely shredded cabbage (I used Napa)

· ½ cup finely diced firm tofu

· ¼ finely chopped red pepper (I used sweet red pepper, not sure if they meant hot peppers…)

· 2 scallions sliced thin

· ¼ cup finely chopped water chestnuts

· 1 ½ tbsp soy sauce

· 1 tbsp chopped cilantro (I used 1tsp dried. I just don’t cook enough to get a bunch of the fresh stuff)

· I clove garlic, minced

· 1 tsp minced fresh ginger

· 1 tsp sesame seed oil

· Freshly ground pepper

· 48 wonton wrappers


· Combine all of the ingredients in a medium sized bowl until well blended together (except of course the wonton wrappers…)

· Line a cookie sheet with wax paper. Place several wonton wrappers on a clean work surface. Spoon about 1 heaping teaspoon of the filling into the center of each wrapper. Brush the edges with warm water. Fold over the wrapper and pinch to seal the edges. Place the filled wontons onto the prepared cookie sheet. Continue with the remaining filling and wrappers.

· Place several of the wontons onto the bottom of a bamboo steamer, about ½ inch apart. Arrange more on another layer of the bamboo steamer.

· Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Place the bamboo steamer over a pot of simmering water and cook until the juices are clear and the meat is cooked through, about 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer the cooked dumplings onto the prepared sheet pan and place in the oven to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining wontons.

· When ready to serve, transfer to a serving platter. Serve with additional soy sauce.

This is the recipe exactly as it appeared on the Nick Jr. website. I’m not quite sure where the meat comes in to the vegetarian dumplings. I’m guessing this was an editing oversight. It’s hard to imagine any kind of meat being cooked in 10-12 minutes. And I’m not exactly sure how you’re supposed to see clear juices when steaming these things. Maybe the recipe was copied and pasted from some meat wonton recipe, which would explain the interchanging use of wonton and dumpling.

When making the filling, I left out the ginger and water chestnuts, not being a fan of either ingredient. I also left out the garlic simply because I couldn’t see it cooking through in the 10 minutes and didn’t really want to serve raw garlic to Little Missy (or eat it myself). While the recipe doesn’t specify the kind of cabbage to use, I decided upon Napa mainly because it’s more tender and would wilt if not cook faster and is more palatable even when uncooked. I also thought with a milder taste, it would be easier for a picky eater to stomach.

I struggled a little when assembling these suckers. At first I put too much filling in each wrapper. The delicate wrappers tore as the cabbage poked through and the edges didn’t really stick together. I ended up putting a scant teaspoon (as opposed to a heaping one) in each wrapper and then crimping the edges with the tines of a fork to make sure they stayed sealed. Since I don’t own a bamboo steamer, I used a regular steel steamer that I placed inside a pot of steaming water. What this meant was I was only able to steam 6 of these at a time, so it ended up being a slow process. The dumplings became rather sticky as they cooked and were difficult to peel off the steamer and also stuck to my rubber tipped tongs. As a result, a few of them tore. Perhaps they wouldn’t stick to a bamboo steamer. Also a few of the dumplings opened up a little. But all in all, the end result was satisfactory for a first attempt. I did not put them in a warm oven, but just let them cool on a serving platter. They actually became less sticky as they cooled (and the surface dried a little). I found that the filling part shrunk considerably as the dumplings cooked, so the “pastry” to filling ratio was rather large. I think this may be resolved if you give the filling a quick stir fry to wilt down the cabbage. That way you can put more filling in each dumpling. This would also allow you to add minced meat to the recipe and not worry about it being raw.

These dumplings turned out quite mild but had a pleasant taste of soy and sesame. I am sure that had I included the ginger and garlic they would have added some kick. I’m not sure how the crunch from the water chestnuts would contrast with the otherwise soft filling (but then, that crunch is precisely what I find off putting about water chestnuts). If you are preparing these for a more adventurous eater who can handle stronger flavors you could add some heat with crushed red pepper flakes. You could also play with flavors with your dipping sauce. I added a little bit of the sesame oil to the soy sauce and it gave the sauce a little more depth. You can also let the filling sit a little before assembling the dumplings to allow the tofu to marinate in the soy sesame oil. The filling might benefit from some acidity from a little rice wine vinegar. This recipe yielded 38 dumplings for me. It was a time consuming recipe mainly because of my small steamer. I started steaming as soon as I had enough to fit in the steamer basket and then continued to assemble as each batch steamed. All in all I spent about two hours making these.

My little taste tester was a little skeptical at first. She has issues with chewy gummy texture, which these dumplings tend to have. The edges were especially chewy, so I ended up biting off a corner and then letting her eat the rest. The filling was very crumbly and the dumplings were a little too delicate for her to feed herself but she did enjoy chomping down and tearing off bites of dumpling as I held them for her. I think I will experiment with other fillings to try to incorporate more vegetables and flavors to these dumplings and figure out a way to make them more sturdy in the hands of a toddler.