A New Standby

I’ll admit one thing to you today, and that’s this: I like to plan.  You probably know this by now, if you’ve paid attention. You probably know that we’re pretty on the ball when it comes to vacations, like last year when we drove down the Pacific Coast Highway. We had most of the hotels booked, a few points of interest mapped out, and just enough free time reserved for last-minute stuff, too. That’s the crux of it: planning is great, but in doing so, you need flexibility, too, or else you just screw yourself. You don’t want to screw yourself.

[I just read through the PCH post. What a crazy coincidence that we now live near all of that. That vacation totally rocked, and now everyday life does too (not that it didn’t before…). Also! the area around my poison oak did flare up again a couple of weeks ago, as some strange reaction to sunburn. That’s gone now, but man, was it weird.]

We’re heading on a couple more trips this fall, though they aren’t quite as lavish as last year’s. First, we’re invading my in-laws’ road trip and spending some time with them in Sedona for a long weekend, at which point I’m sure we’ll do some hiking, sight-seeing, and if things go our way, some wine-tasting (um. obviously.). Then, we’ll head back to Chicago for my favorite ex-co-worker’s wedding (and many hopeful reunions!), and start a road trip from the Midwest to the Deep South, ending up in New Orleans for the weekend. If you have any recommendations for St. Louis, Memphis, or New Orleans, send them my way. There will be barbeque, I’m sure. Maybe some honky-tonks, too.

As you might imagine, I’m also a kitchen planner. I’d love to be the person who grocery shops for individual dishes, but I’m just not. I’d spend too much money that way, and I’d have way too little time to actually cook if I stopped at the g-store on the way home every night. That said, I plan 3-4 meals each week, buy the ingredients, and stock up on a few standby items, for the days that an hour in the kitchen seems like too long, either because I exercised for a change, or because I got stuck in traffic, or when Chris decides he wants to work late (he does love working late!) and roll in at 8:30.

This is one of my standbys. Well, now it is, seeing as how I’ve made it exactly twice in a month. This is also perfect for those of you sweating your faces off in other parts of the country that aren’t northern California – you turn on absolutely no heat source to get this dinner on the table. You need only a few staples – something to fill, like lavash bread, or a pita, or even tortillas, and you need something canned, preferably chickpeas, but other beans would work too. And finally, greens; I’d suggest something other than arugula, which is what I had, but you be the judge. The rest of the ingredients can come and go as you have them, a true testament to the standing-by nature of this dish.

It’s a pinch hitter, really. Meant entirely for the days you haven’t planned – the days you want to just wing it. And by wing it, I mean hit the ball outta the park without even trying. Standbys are good like that.

Chickpea Wraps
Adapted from Super, Natural, Every Day; serves 4

time commitment: 20 minutes

printable version

ingredients
2 15 oz cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/3 c shallots, small dice
1/2 c celery, small dice
2 T fresh dill, chopped
1 t Za’atar (optional, I still have some)
2 T Dijon mustard
1 c Greek yogurt
1/2 t sea salt
1/2 a lemon’s worth of zest
1 T fresh lemon juice
4 pieces of whole wheat lavash or 4 whole wheat pitas
2 c mixed greens (whatever you have)

instructions
pour half of chickpeas into a large bowl and mash with a potato masher (or fork) to break up a bit. add remaining chickpeas, shallots, celery, and dill.

in a small bowl, whisk together the za’atar (if using), mustard, yogurt, and salt. toss chickpeas with most of the mixture. add lemon zest and juice; taste and add more lemon juice if needed.

spread remaining yogurt onto/into the lavash/pita/whatever you’re using. add 1/4 of the mixed greens to each piece of lavash/pita/whatever, and top each with 1/4 of the chickpea mixture. fold into a wrap and devour. if using pita bread, just devour.

More than Manwich

Having a food blog ultimately means that you care what your food looks like. You pretty things up, attempting to only post recipes of the dishes that are presentable, neat, and well-primped.

But seriously, some things just taste better when they’re messy.

A taco, for instance, should always require a napkin, or your pants if you’re in a pickle. An ice cream cone full of decadent, rich dulce de leche ice cream with fudge on top should always leak through the bottom of the cone, through the paper liner, and down your hand as you eat it, licking furiously. A hot dog should always be stuffed so full that you can barely get your mouth around the whole thing, but when you do, mustard and/or ketchup (depending on where you’re from, I suppose) should almost always squirt from the other end onto the picnic table you’re eating at.

Sloppy Joes are the epitome of this very subject. By definition alone, they are an utter mess. The sandwich is packed, overloaded truthfully, and when the top and bottom halves are pressed together in an effort to take a hefty bite of both bun and meat, the mixture oozes from between the bread in an effort to escape its fate. But fear not – this is when tortilla chips, if you have them (fingers if you don’t), come in handy.

I am a closet fan (no longer) of the Sloppy Joe. I’ll tell you a secret: I used to buy cans of Manwich on the regular, probably as recently as 3 years ago, and I enjoyed every single bite of those runny, goopy, lovely sa’miches. I must have made them a lot, because eventually Chris decided to let me know that they “weren’t his favorite”, which is his nice way of saying he loathes them. Of course I’m stubborn, so I tried a couple more times, but eventually we had to put them to rest, and the Manwich cans were no longer a part of our monthly repertoire.

But now I’ve found the replacement, a sandwich to fill the void, the gap between those days of tofu and pasta. Meaty, hearty, unpretty, and totally messy – this is the solution to a problem I’d pressed out of my mind for quite some time. The best part? I can take a bite, beef splurting out between my fingers, and all the while I can rest assured that it won’t be the last time. The bonus? the ingredients are fresh, sans can, but still just as messy and delicious as I remember, and even more so.

Beef & Mushroom Sloppy Joes
adapted from Cooking Light, June 2011; serves 4-6

time commitment: 30 minutes

printable version

ingredients
1 T olive oil
1 lb ground beef
1 lb cremini mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 c onion, medium dice
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 c tomato paste (2 small cans)
1 t dried oregano
2 T red wine vinegar
3 T Worcestershire sauce
2 T molasses
1/4 t salt
3/4 t freshly ground black pepper
1 t hot sauce (Franks)
4-6 whole wheat hamburger buns, toasted

instructions
Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil; swirl to coat. Add beef; cook for 4 minutes or until browned, stirring to crumble.

While beef cooks, place mushrooms in a food processor; pulse 10 times or until finely chopped. Add mushrooms, onion, and garlic to pan; cook for 3 minutes or until onion is tender. Add tomato paste and next 5 ingredients (through salt) to pan; cook 5 minutes or until mushrooms are tender and liquid evaporates. Stir in pepper and hot sauce. Spoon about 1 cup beef mixture on bottom half of each bun; top with top halves of buns.

The Bare Necessities

If you’re living in an eerie space for up to a month’s time, maybe more, what things are necessary for your functioning?

As it turns out, my necessities were primarily kitchen-related. It seems that all those other things lying around our house weren’t that important after all. Although let’s be honest – I do miss my couch, but I couldn’t justify moving that big ol’ thing around.

Yes, I had all my oils and all my spices sent here to our temporary apartment. Don’t judge; it’s hard enough grocery shopping with an empty pantry and fridge, and having at least some of my regular items on hand certainly makes the temporary stay more bearable.

Also, Chris unpacked everything and alphabetized my spices prior to my arrival – he is definitely a keeper.

What else? Oh yes. I will also be lugging my Dutch oven over to San Francisco once our temporary stay is complete. It seems I couldn’t imagine being without it for that long, and that was probably a good decision, what with the 3 pots and pans they have at this apartment. Cheap ones, too.

Prior to packing, I had a flashback to two summers ago in Hilton Head, easily recalling how shabby utensils are in furnished living quarters, and in light of said flashback, I quickly dug my old culinary school roll-up bag from the depths of a closet and loaded it up with all my favorite utensils, including my knife. That was definitely worth it, already. My knife needed sharpening, but thank goodness I packed my quick n’ easy sharpener too!

It seems I also can’t live without wine, because we brought all 3 boxes with us. We claim it’s because we felt more comfortable storing it here rather than a weird warehouse, but I’m not sure who we thought we were kidding when we used that excuse. Regardless of why, we’re already glad the wine is here.

Although the cooking has definitely taken a back burner, per se, having all my ‘necessities’ around has most certainly motivated me to toss a few ingredients together for dinner, especially since dining out nightly isn’t the best idea for these jeans I’ve been wearing every day that might bust at any given moment. So with that, another pasta dish has surfaced, this one loaded with kale, one of my favorite greens and meanwhile, my jeans (and my dignity) have been spared for yet another day.

Rigatoni with Kale, Bacon, and Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Adapted, barely, from Cooking Light, December 2010; serves 4

time commitment: less than 30 minutes

printable version

ingredients
8 oz rigatoni
5 c roughly chopped prewashed kale (~2 medium bunches)
2 slices center-cut bacon
1/4 c oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained, rinsed, and roughly chopped
1/2 t crushed red pepper
3 large garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper
1/2 t salt
1 oz Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shaved
2 T fresh lemon juice

instructions
Cook pasta in boiling water 8 minutes or until almost tender. Add kale, and cook 2 minutes. Drain in a colander over a bowl, reserving 1/2 cup cooking liquid.

While pasta cooks, cook bacon in a large skillet over medium-high heat 4 minutes or until crisp. Remove bacon from pan and let dry on a paper towel-lined plate; crumble and set aside. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add sun-dried tomatoes, crushed red pepper, and garlic to drippings in pan; cook 1 minute, stirring frequently. Add pasta and kale, reserved 1/2 cup cooking liquid, black pepper, and salt to pan; toss to combine. Top pasta mixture evenly with bacon and cheese; drizzle evenly with lemon juice.

On the Lamb

I’m sure you’re all just as ready as I am for me to be settled in San Francisco, right? It seems to be a hot topic in my life these days, and the move essentially dominates every conversation I have lately. I guess I can understand that; in fact, in some ways I feel like all I’ve done is think about and prepare for the big move.

And now, step 2 of that big move is here: we close on our house and move the F out of it.

I mean that in the kindest way ever, really I do. This condo means a lot to us and I’m sure when tomorrow comes and all its’ contents are packed into boxes, I’m going to burst into tears, which is sorta common lately. Again, in a good way. I like to think that crying means we’ve really, and I mean really, lived here. Made friends here, made a life here, really lived here. But selling a home is hard and stressful, I tell ya, and I will be glad when Step 2 has come and gone.

Which brings me to this next minor detail. I will be a little homeless this month. And I do mean a little, because I have some really great friends who have offered to let me shack up with them, so while I won’t be in my home, I’ll be in theirs. I’ll also be heading to another one of those conferences that I love so much, and even making an unplanned trip to California in an effort to start this job-hunting quest that is entirely inevitable.

As if I need to say so, I’ll be busy, and I might, might, be MIA around here. You’ll understand, won’t you?

For now though, there is this simply divine lamb burger we have to talk about before I head back out into condo-packing-and-cleaning land. I made this a long time ago, well a couple of months ago, and it is certainly one of my very favorite home-cooked burgers. Do you ever look at a recipe and say to yourself, “man, there is no way whatsoever that this dish can be anything less than super”? That’s what I said with this recipe, and it’s true. A really pungent French-Indian spice/onion mixture, called vadouvan, is made and mixed into the lamb, creating an über flavorful burger that just gets better when topped with a yogurt-mint sauce. I couldn’t stop thinking about this burger while eating another burger leftover for lunch today, and took that as a hint to take a break to tell you about it.

But, alas, that break’s over, and there is trash to take out and clothes to pack. Aren’t you jealous?!

Oh! I should also say this, in an effort to appease you: I’ve updated the recipes (during another, er, break) so if you start to miss me, should I happen to disappear for a bit, there’s always a ton of recipes to fall back on..

Indian-Spiced Lamb Burgers with Yogurt-Mint Sauce
adapted from Cooking Light, July 2010; makes 4 burgers

time commitment: 1 hour or less, all active

printable version

ingredients
1  T  olive oil
3/4  c  finely chopped onion
1/4  c  finely chopped shallots
2  T  minced garlic, divided
3/4  t  ground cumin
3/4  t  ground coriander
1/4  t  ground cardamom
1/4  t  ground mustard
1/4  t  ground turmeric
1/8  t  ground red pepper
Dash of grated whole nutmeg
1  lb  ground lamb
2  T  finely chopped fresh mint, divided
3/4  t  kosher salt, divided
1  red bell pepper
1/2  c  2% low-fat Greek-style plain yogurt
1  T  fresh lemon juice
1/4  t  freshly ground black pepper, divided
Cooking spray
4  (1 1/2-ounce) hamburger buns
1 c thinly shredded red cabbage

instructions
Heat oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add onion and shallots; cook 15 minutes or until onions are golden, stirring frequently. Stir in 1 1/2 tablespoons garlic, cumin, and next 6 ingredients (through nutmeg); cook 1 minute. Remove from heat; cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, turn burner on high and place bell pepper directly onto flame. Turn with tongs until pepper is charred all over. Place in a zip-top plastic bag; seal. Let stand 10 minutes. Peel, remove core and seeds, and cut into 4 pieces.

Combine lamb, onion mixture, 1 T mint, and 1/4 t salt. Divide mixture into 4 equal portions, gently shaping each into a 1/2-inch-thick patty. Press a nickel-sized indentation in the center of each patty. Cover and chill until ready to grill.

Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Meanwhile, combine remaining 1 1/2 t garlic, remaining 1 T mint, yogurt, juice, 1/4 t salt, and 1/8 t black pepper in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Sprinkle patties evenly with remaining salt/pepper. Place patties on a grill rack coated with cooking spray; grill 4 minutes or until grill marks appear. Carefully turn patties; grill 3 minutes or until desired degree of doneness. Place 1 patty on bottom half of each bun; top each serving with 2 tablespoons yogurt mixture, 1/4 of cabbage, 1 piece of bell pepper, and top half of bun.

Keeping it Simple

I took a trip to San Francisco, my future home, this past weekend. I wonder when that won’t sound weird.

My cat took the trip with me, taking her first, and hopefully her last voyage across the country via a 747 loaded with passengers. She was relatively well-behaved, and fortunately she handled the situation much better than I’d anticipated, only meowing constantly during the drive to the airport and during the last hour of the flight. She even clung to me for dear life during the security walk-through, and here I was worried she’d claw and run away. Not too bad, really, all things in perspective.

We made it into the San Jose airport, Chris waiting at the baggage claim, and drove into Cupertino only to find that my cat’s sister, who’d taken the maiden voyage earlier in the week, was not nearly as enthused about big sis’ arrival as we’d expected she’d be. Growling and hissing throughout the weekend, she made sure to assert herself as much as possible, claiming her territory with a quickness and keeping consistent with that theme way after I’d left on Sunday.

Aside from the cat fights, literally, the weekend went just fine. I did realize that, the second I leave my husband alone for a week, he regresses to bachelor mode. Meaning, I opened up his fridge and after two weeks of living there, there were still 4 items in it: eggs, milk, crystal light, and Target brand shredded cheese (!). The pantry also held three distinct items: cereal, Frank’s hot sauce (for the eggs, silly), and cat food. The only thing missing is a case of Bud Light in the door, but I’m gonna chalk that up to him having a cold and being a little bit busier than he’s used to.

That being said, I felt the need to make dinner Friday night. For one, I hadn’t cooked since our big party, which I should remind you was only a week ago so that isn’t really that long. But second, I felt the need to make that temporary apartment feel a bit more homey, and buying olive oil and pasta was a good start.

Let’s just say that the kitchen is lacking a few amenities, but it’s by far stocked with enough tools to make do. Needless to say, it’s a kitchen where you have to keep things simple, and I’m ok with that for the next few months. Heck, I don’t even know if I have it in me to churn out some of these 10-step dishes I’ve talked about in the past, even if I wanted to. Moving is hard work, that’s for sure. But even so, there’s always pasta, and that means a lot.

Spaghetti & Meat Sauce
serves 4

time commitment: less than 30 minutes

printable version

ingredients
1 T olive oil
1 lb ground organic pork
2 16 oz jars pasta sauce (I used San Marzano tomato-basil)
salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
1 box spaghetti

instructions
in a skillet, heat olive oil. toss in pork and cook until browned. dump in pasta sauce, add salt and pepper, and bring to a simmer.

meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook spaghetti for about 10 minutes, or until al dente. drain, and serve with above meat sauce.

Easy Does It

It seems that the month of February has begun to fly by much more quickly than I’d anticipated. Six weeks ago, we were finally talking openly about our big move, and at the time it was a bit surreal; there was certainly more talk than action those days. Shoot, the only action, per se, was putting our condo on the market, and when we did that we thought it may be the last of the pieces to fall into place, if ever – despite it being the first physical sign that we were, in fact, moving.

But miraculously, that so-called mountain of a task has turned out to be more of an ant hill, as the condo has (fingers crossed) been sold, pending some final paperwork and such. With that, an earlier-than-expected close date has ensued, and a couple more temporary moves have been added to the moving equation.

Chris starts his job tomorrow, and as I type he’s packing his suitcases to begin the journey we thought would never get here, but in contrast it snuck up on us and smacked us silly. This first week without him will be easy, because he’ll be back late Thursday night, at which time our condo, our home for a couple more weeks, will be filled with friends and we’ll party throughout the weekend, celebrating all the Chicago days we’ve loved and all the San Francisco days we’ve yet to encounter but will almost certainly love, in time, as well.

Needless to say, the past few weeknights have been spent in bars, in restaurants, at ‘one more’ wine class – a valiant effort to clear our Chicago bucket list, and the attempt was largely successful. But in doing so, the kitchen here has been barren, so much so that yesterday the dishwasher was full of coffee mugs rather than plates, spoons rather than forks and knives, and no tupperware symbolizing a hefty week of leftovers.

I usually relish the idea of a potluck party, an event I take advantage of fully by digging through my recipe clippings/ideas and whipping up something I’ve been eyeing for a while, like the arancini, but couldn’t find a reason to make at home. But on Thursday, I had no clue what I’d bring for the Friday event, and I quickly searched the recipe pages of a few blogs I read, easily tossing out any recipe that would take more than 30 minutes and involve any worrisome ingredients that might require special grocery store trips. I was even starting to wish I’d RSVP’d as maybe, so I’d have the opportunity to back out gracefully.

But I was reminded of our sort-of mottos for the past few weeks of craziness – take things one step at a time, don’t let the large details get to you; easy does it. It seems to work for lots of life’s issues – moving, house-selling, looking for new jobs, and even potlucks.

Citrus Salad w/ Feta and Mint
inspired by Smitten Kitchen; serves a party

time commitment: 30 minutes

this is a perfect winter salad, and it’s gorgeous for a dinner party, which is where mine was utilized. you can use any combo of citrus you want, really whatever looks pretty and isn’t full of seeds. adjust amounts based on number of guests – this will serve a large group or make for great leftovers.

printable version

ingredients
1/2 red onion, chopped into very thin slices
1 pink grapefruit
1 yellow grapefruit
2 blood oranges
2 cara cara oranges
2 T fresh mint, chopped into strips
4 oz goat’s milk feta cheese, cut into small cubes/chunks
1 T red wine vinegar
extra virgin olive oil (amount varies – see recipe)
1/8 t dijon mustard
fresh ground pepper
kosher salt

instructions
put onion strips in the bottom of a mesh strainer and position strainer over a medium-sized bowl. peel outer rind away from each citrus fruit, using a smallish knife, removing all the white pith from the fruit. cut each piece of fruit into 1/4″ thick wheels and layer citrus over onions in the mesh strainer (juice will slowly collect in the bowl and ‘pickle’ the onions slightly). let sit for a few minutes to drain a bit.

arrange citrus wheels neatly on a large platter, and top with onion slices. top with mint and feta. to the bowl of citrus juice, add red wine vinegar and enough olive oil to double the amount of liquid (probably ~2-3 T). add mustard, salt and pepper and whisk to create a citrus vinaigrette. pour over fruit prior to serving.

Getting Fresh

Now that the big secret’s out, we can get back to this backlog of recipes I’ve been wanting to talk about for ages but wasn’t able to since there’s been about ten thousand things on my mind.

And let there be no doubt, there are still at least 9,000 things on my mind, but nonetheless, enough space has been cleared in my brain where I can talk about food again. Cooking it is another thing, but fortunately I have a pretty big backlog.

I don’t know about you, but one of the first things that comes to my mind when I think of California (my future state of residence!!) is all the fresh food. The words fresh and local will be a little different in the Golden State than here in the Midwest – word on the street is that people grow oranges, and lemons, and maybe even avocados there! I’m hoping real hard to land a place with a lemon tree in the backyard, and if not, you best believe I might plant one myself, even with my horrible track record of growing things.

This is certainly a recipe that should fit well into any season, but it’s usually in January or so when I really crave something light and fresh in between all the stews and chili. Plus, with having a constant meat rotation with the CSA, I find that I need a good excuse to have some fresh fish that isn’t something coming from my freezer. This is a good, easy answer to all of those things.

And I never turn down a taco, or an avocado, or salmon for that matter. All things that make moving to the West Coast even more exciting, if truth be told.

Chipotle-Rubbed Salmon Tacos
Adapted from Food & Wine, March 2010; serves 4

time commitment: ~30 minutes

printable version

ingredients
salsa
1 Granny Smith apple—peeled and small-diced
1/2 cucumber—peeled, seeded, and small-diced
1/2 small red onion, small-diced
1/2 small red bell pepper, small-diced
1 1/2 T champagne vinegar
1 1/2 t sugar
salt

2 T mayonnaise
2 t fresh lime juice
2 t chipotle chile powder
2 t finely grated orange zest
2 t sugar
1 lb skinless wild Alaskan salmon fillet, cut into 4 pieces
1 T plus 1 t extra-virgin olive oil
8 corn tortillas
salt
1 Hass avocado, mashed
zest from 1 lime

instructions
cut up all ingredients for salsa. toss with vinegar, sugar, and salt. can be prepared in advance and refrigerated.

preheat the oven to 350 F. In a small bowl, whisk the mayonnaise with the lime juice. In another small bowl, combine the chipotle powder with the orange zest and sugar. Rub each piece of salmon with 1 teaspoon of the olive oil and then with the chipotle–orange zest mixture. Let stand for 5 minutes.

Wrap the tortillas in foil and bake for about 8 minutes, until they are softened and heated through.

Meanwhile, heat a grill pan. Season the salmon with salt and grill over high heat until nicely browned and just cooked through, about 3 minutes per side.

Break salmon into small chunks. Spread the mashed avocado on the warm tortillas and top with the salmon, and salsa. Drizzle each taco with the lime mayonnaise and serve right away.