Beer Yeast Bread Experiments

Yeast Beer Bread

We have friends over from time to time, and people bring beer. Then they drink our craft beer and leave their not-so-delicious beer in our fridge. Leaving me with the quandary of what to do with it. I’m certainly not going to drink it for the fun of it. I’m not really into beer all that much so if I’m drinking it, it had better be good.

So I’ve been experimenting with cooking with beer (with mixed results). No comment.

And then I thought about baking with beer. I’ve been treated to some great beer bread over the years, but it never crossed my mind to try making any. Of course, why stop there?

Traditional beer bread is baking powder/soda based, and more like a savory coffee cake. I knew there had to be a decent yeast and beer bread recipe out there. (Well if you Google it, there’s lots, but they look sketchy even at best.) So I picked a few that looked promising and worked them together into one that seems to work for me.

First of all, ‘beer’ means a lighter beer. I’ve experimented with a porter and a few other darker beers, but it just didn’t go well. I have a bunch of Presidente left over from a recent party, and this seems to work just right.

Now, because I’m either super busy or secretly lazy, I’ve always owned a bread machine. Just to make the dough. Who would want to cook it in there and end up with that huge cube of bread? Yuck.

Yeast Beer Bread
Makes 1.5 lb loaf

12 oz. bottle of room temperature beer
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. dark brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp. salt
3 1/3 cups bread flour
1 packet or 2 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast

This is a long but almost labor-less process, so start off with pouring the beer into a bowl and whisking it a bit to get the froth out. Since my beer is all in the fridge, I have to let it sit out for an hour to get it to room temperature also. Then pour it into the bread maker bucket (remember to put in the little paddle if yours is detachable because that’s FUN to forget!). Then put in the ingredients in the order listed. Most bread makers tell you to put in all wet ingredients, then dry ingredients. But really who cares since you’re about to mix it all together.

Set your bread maker to dough only, then go about your life. Mine does this in about an hour, giving me plenty of time to check Facebook, do laundry, wash dishes, blog, etc. And I don’t have to fiddle with timing, checking, punching down, and resting it.

Just before the dough is ready, I get out a big bowl and oil the inside, and oil whatever pan or tray I’m going to use. This recipe makes very fluffy dough that gets out of hand, so I’m actually looking for an over-size loaf pan. Standard size just gives me a huge loaf with a giant bread-afro. When your dough asks to be let out, get your fingertips a little oiled so you can help scoop it out of the bucket and slide it into the oiled bowl. Punch it down a little in the bowl (I tend to overwork my dough which is bad bad bad), and then shape it into a loaf by gently tucking all of the corners and edges under for a smooth crown. Center this on a flat baking tray, or fit it into your loaf pan.

Cover this with a dish towel and set aside for an hour or until it doubles in size. And it will. Like the federal budget deficit during Ronnie’s first term.

Now, my oven and I have a hate-hate relationship, so I can only offer guidelines for baking. I put in a flat loaf on a tray at 360 for 25-30 minutes. For the loaf pan style, I go at 350 for about 40-45 minutes. To make sure it’s cooked through properly. Nothing like opening up a lovely loaf of bread to find it’s got a squishy middle.

Not only does this make a nice loaf of bread, it’s a great base for being creative with. Add ingredients to make it garlicky, sweet, cheesy, whatever. A few cloves of pressed garlic at the very beginning with the beer, some finely shredded basil leaves, some Italian seasonings, and 1/2 cup of pecorino romano, and you have some mighty fine bread there. Or dried cranberries, a touch of nutmeg and powdered ginger. Mmmmmm…

And you can split up the dough into smaller balls, roll them in garlic and oil before the last rise, and make dinner rolls. My next experiment will be using this to make cinnamon bun inspired rolls that don’t make your eyeballs want to fall out from all of the sugar.

Beer bread using yeast is unusual because beer naturally has a lot of yeast in it, so depending on the type of beer you use, you might end up with some super insane fluffy dough that crawls out of the pan while it’s baking (yes, I know from experience). And I have to make the observation that some of these recipes called for honey instead of brown sugar, which seemed to make the dough very unstable. Sounds yummy but not so practical.

I’m not all about the brands but I have to say that since I switched to Kind Arthur Flour Co. flour, I can absolutely tell the difference. Between the good quality flour, and the extra power of the beer, this bread is ridiculously easy and turns out really fluffy and soft. A little butter and good jam, and dig in while it’s fresh. It doesn’t get any better than this.

[Girl21]

The Humble Brussels Sprout

Brussels Sprout

Growing up, my mom always tried to make us eat well. No sugar, no preservatives, no junk food, the whole hippie food-style. The positive side of that is that I’ve been a vegetarian all my life, which I value. The down side of it is that I’ve been seriously traumatized by some foods.

For instance, brussels sprouts. Those little brassicas that look like adorable miniature cabbages. Most kids (and adults) would rather fish around in the kitchen sink drain and eat whatever they find there, than eat brussels sprouts. They probably had them prepared like my well-meaning mother did them, so that the final product was a squishy green fart.

I hated them for years, but when I hit 30, I decided to pretend to be a grown-up for a while and face my fears. Among other things, this meant trying brussels sprouts again. After a bit of hunting around, I found a good recipe for them and had a try. It was night and day. Instant convert to a brussels sprout fan in one bite.

The Man had his reservations when I first suggested making these for him. It took a little convincing, and the word ‘garlic’, for him to agree to have a taste. One bite. That’s all he would promise. And that bite was magic because he’s also a convert. I am not exaggerating here, even though I’m known to tell a tall tale or two.

I know you’re curious why they’re so delicious. You’re going to need a big frying pan and olive oil. Heat that up on medium heat with a good thick lake of oil (you can use butter, but it burns faster so watch it). Just salt and pepper, and about four or five cloves of chunky-cut garlic.

While the oil and garlic work their magic, slice the dry ends off the sprouts and cut them in half lengthwise from stem to crown. As soon as the garlic chunks start to get golden brown, scoop them out of the oil (The Man likes to eat these once they’re cool, like little garlic chips). Lay the sprouts in the pan, cut-side down in the oil, and then cover the pan.

In five minutes or so you’ll be able to stick a fork in them but they’ll still be bright green. When you take them out of the pan, you’ll see the cut sides are browned and crispy from the frying but the tops are still crunchy. The garlic oil has soaked up into the leaves like they’re sponges.

Serve as is, or with a sprinkling of grated hard cheese. They have a rich, nutty, cabbage flavor alongside the garlic, so I like to pair the sprouts with a nice plain rice or something fairly neutral. A small amount added to an ordinary dinner is ideal (they are brassicas after all and will make people play the trumpet if they over indulge).

Brussels sprouts have a good amount of protein, iron, B-vitamins, and fiber, and huge amount of vitamin C. Brassicas contain sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol, both of which are proving in tests to actively fight cancer. As long as you don’t boil your brassicas, you usually get the full effect of these nutrient-heavy veggies.

So, remember the secret to Brussels sprouts is garlic and olive oil, a quick trip in the frying pan just to sizzle them, and then a touch of grated hard cheese. Try it. How bad can it be? Just one bite?

[Girl21]

Stuffed Mushrooms, Easy Appetizer

Easy Stuffed Mushrooms

There’s that classic movie moment where a guy is shooting a gun and runs out of bullets. He looks at the gun as it goes ‘click’, and then proceeds to throw it at the guys rushing him. And we all know that is a stupid move. That is me with these stuffed mushrooms.

When The Man gets home from work late and he’s starving, I try to have something for him to snack on if dinner isn’t completely ready. I can hear his stomach rumble as he casually saunters into the kitchen under the guise of seeing what’s for dinner, his eye on the tortilla chips. I usually pull the mushrooms out of the oven and wave them at him with the same unrealistic hope as the guy that throws his gun when he runs out of ammo. It’s more nutritious than chips, and it keeps him busy trying to eat something delicious but super hot.

The fun thing about these mushrooms is that you can get creative and change the stuffing depending on what you have on hand. And you can make as many or as few as you need. And they are super easy to prepare.

I use baby bella mushrooms (immature portobello), but you could get away with any of the small capped mushrooms that have a thicker flesh and cup shape. Clean them and gently remove the stem. Pour a few tablespoons of olive oil into a baking dish, and sprinkle that with garlic powder, Italian seasonings, and black pepper. Carefully set the mushrooms top down in the oil so they are nestled together, then salt and pepper them again. I like to put a few drops of lemon juice into each cap, a sprinkle of more Italian seasonings, then a small chunk or sliver of fresh garlic.

If you have the pre-crumbled blue cheese, you can put a few good size chunks of soft cheese into each cap, or any kind of softer cheese would work nicely. Then on top of each little cup, lay a slice of melty cheese just to generally cover the top. Sharp cheddar is a standard, but if I have a gouda, I like that best. A little more garlic powder and pepper on top of the cheese, and maybe a dusting of parmigiana or pecorino. Pop that into a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes or until the cheese is bubbly and the caps look a bit wrinkled from the moisture baking off. Let them cool before tossing them at the hungry people rushing you for dinner.

Mushrooms are a good source of protein, as well as a few other vitamins and minerals. And then when you add good stuff like garlic, you’re practically a health-food nut when you eat these. (Keep telling yourself that!) Plus these are fast and easy but look great as an appetizer or finger food.

Instead of lemon juice and garlic, try a base of tomato sauce (great if you’re already making pasta for dinner), pesto, or even a touch of ginger and thinly sliced apple (omitting the Italian seasonings and garlic for more pepper and lemon juice). I’ve put in thinly sliced fresh spinach, olives, fresh basil, caramelized onions, or even a few drops of hot sauce or mustard depending on the flavors of the main dinner menu. And of course you can play with the cheese options. Because cheese is always welcome.

They do store and re-heat well but are best served fresh out of the oven to a hungry audience. Have a peak in the package when you’re buying them so you don’t get the huge ones that will cause some poor sod to look like a trout while trying to eat the whole thing though.

[Girl21]

Vegetable Risotto, A Labor of Love

So much of the cooking I do is rushed, at the end of the day, tired, almost in a panic. A mad attempt to get a balanced meal together in the least amount of time. And it can’t taste too bad or be similar to anything else I’ve made in a week or so. This is the curse of two workaholic foodies living together.

It’s a very rare occasion I have the luxury of time and energy to focus on cooking. I fantasize about this while at work or rushing around on errands in the steaming sauna that is Florida. Not a mojito on the beach. Not a massage at an alpine resort. A few hours in my kitchen to actually cook at a normal pace. It is my meditation time. My yoga.

I recently committed to learning how to make risotto well and properly. The Man had been talking about it for weeks on end, and I his craving set off my craving. The style I am most drawn too includes a lot of ingredients and is filled with vegetables. It appeals to my fascination with one-pot meals. It’s not difficult, but it’s time consuming.

There are three stages of this, and it took me about two and a half hours last time I made it (two and a half lovely hours of peaceful meditation in my kitchen). Stage one is the broth. Stage two is the cutting and prepping of the ingredients. And stage three is cooking the rice.

Broth

You’re going to need about 4 cups of broth. If you don’t feel up to something fancy, you’re welcome to simply start with the prepackaged veggie bullion cubes. I usually add veggies to this broth, in a small pot on a back burner (it will simmer gently until you start making the rice, so keep it low and active).

Chop into big chunks an add to the broth: 1 big carrot, 3-4 stalks of celery, 1/2 onion, 3 cloves of minced or pressed garlic. I also add 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, black pepper, a touch of dried red pepper flakes, and a tablespoon of olive oil. Let this simmer for 30 minutes. Strain out the large veggie chunks and leave on very low heat while you start on the rice.

Prepping Ingredients

There’s a lot of cutting, peeling, and dicing involved here. I like to do this all at once and then separate the ingredients by when they’ll be needed so I don’t get my timing off. The Man says this is my German side coming out–the need to be organized and punctual in the kitchen. I hate when I’m still dicing something while something on the stove is swiftly overcooking. So I’m listing the ingredients here and grouping them by when they need to go into your big sauce pan.

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup rice (tradition calls for arborio, but valencia is much more affordable)
8 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/3 cup vermouth
2 stalks celery, chopped fine
1 cup mushrooms (baby bella preferred)

4 cups broth (from above)

1 cup kale, finely chopped into ribbons (about three big leaves, spine removed)
2 cup broccoli florets
1 large carrot, chopped small

1/3 cup parsley, chopped fine
1/3 cup grated hard cheese (pecarino romano suggested)
1/3 cup feta cheese, crumbled

Cooking the Risotto

It seems so much more complicated than it actually is. I find it very relaxing if I’ve prepared all of the ingredients already, since it’s just a long process of being here now. Keep your eye on how it looks and you’ll be fine. Once you’ve done it the first time, you won’t even need the instructions to the recipe. Just the list of ingredients.

You’ll need a large sauce pan with a heavy bottom, or a wide, deep frying pan. (I adore my 12″ Green Pan for this. We got our single pan at Target to try out the new greener non-stick surface, and it’s been great to work with.) Heat up the oil, and toss in the onions and salt over a medium heat. Cover and stir occasionally until the onions are glassy but not browning yet. Then you’ll add in the rice, garlic and pepper. Stir this occasionally also until it is well mixed up and starts to get a little toasty brown color on the garlic and onions, but not the rice.

Pour in the vermouth (yes, you can use regular white wine if you like, but vermouth has a slightly earthier flavor to it usually), and the celery and mushrooms. You’ll want to stir this up until the moisture is evenly blended throughout. Lower the heat to a medium-low heat, and keep the rice stirring every few minutes until the liquid is cooked off. You’ll see the rice is starting to get a bit gummy.

Once your vermouth has cooked off, you’re going to pour a little more than 1 cup of the broth you made into your pan and stir it into the rice. Cover it and stir every few minutes until the liquid is absorbed. It’s going to be sticky now. Pour in another cup or more of the broth, and repeat the cover/stir treatment until the liquid has been absorbed again. This should take about 15 or 20 minutes each time.

Now one last time, pour the last of the broth (should be about a cup and a half) into the rice and stir. But before you cover it this time, cover the rice with the kale, broccoli and carrot. Now put the lid on and the veggies steam for a few minutes before stirring them into the rice and broth. You could use practically any veggies for this as long as they aren’t too soggy (like tomatoes), and are cut so they cook uniformly. There’s nothing like raw potatoes mixed with mushy broccoli, so chop your veggies with cooking speed in mind.

As soon as the last of the broth is being absorbed, and your green veggies look bright and just perfectly crunchy/cooked, turn off the burner and add in the finely chopped parsley and the cheese. Stir it all up and cover to give the cheese a minute to get friendly with the rice. Usually you would just use a hard cheese for this, like parmigiana or romano. (We used some Spanish roncal sheeps cheese, which is strong and delicious in risotto.) I think using just a little softer cheese adds a touch of richness and flavor, so I like to include feta or gorganzola as well. But you can easily leave this off. I don’t know why you would, but you could.

Risotto is a great side dish, but adding the veggies like this makes it a meal in itself. You could bring this to a pot luck dinner. Reheat it for leftovers. Or just stand there with a few friends and forks and eat the whole thing while talking in the kitchen. It pairs perfectly with wine, but choose a simple table red rather than something with a big flavor that will compete for attention. We also like to make a delicious spritzer of limeade, ginger ale, fresh mint, and muddled berries (from frozen) that goes well with this at dinner parties. With or without vodka, of course.

[Girl21]

My BFF Kale

Kale

Wild brassicas! My BFF, kale, goes back a long way and has been intimately connected with many vegetables over the years. There’s photos online, and I even hear there’s video of her mixing it up with some Irish potatoes. Not to mention the hot water she was in over in East Africa. She’s not all bad though. I promise.

Kale is one leaf on the cabbage (brassica) family tree, and she’s been used in traditional dishes as far back as the middle ages. Name any part of the world, and chances are there’s some local stew or soup or drink that requires kale. She’s often referred to as farmer’s cabbage, but that doesn’t mean she’s a common trollop.

In fact, kale is rich in anti-oxidants and a list of vitamins and minerals. As long as you don’t boil kale, you’re good to go. Cook her almost any way you want to, but boiling her reduces her nutritional content exponentially. If you’re feel like a challenge, you can even try her raw. I wouldn’t recommend that. She’s a tough broad sometimes, so you have to warm her up a bit to get her in the mood.

Oh la la… Well the truth is, I was never a big fan of kale. It’s very similar to collar greens, and being a transplant to the South, I was over-exposed to collards, and quickly decided they were not for me. They were tough, soggy, bland, and leaked all over everything else on the plate.The few times I’d been faced with kale, it was just as exciting. Blegh!

But just like I’ve renewed my friendship with brussels sprouts, I have reconciled with kale. Sprouts are less versatile than kale though, so I prefer the curly, leafy lady when I’m looking for a good dose of vegetable nutrition in meals. I just wash them, cut out the main spine of the leaves, slice them up into thin ribbons, and toss them into whatever I’m cooking for dinner–soups, fry-ups, pastas, stir-fries, and steamed veggies. I have a friend who freezes kale and crumbles it into her smoothies. Which is not so far-fetched since kale gets a bit sweeter after being frozen. Try it to see if you like it better that way.

The best thing to remember is to cook it only until it’s soft and turns bright green. It has a strong flavor and needs to be mixed with other strong flavors. I especially love it in a garlicky Italian soup, or a stir-fry with lots of ginger or peanuts. If you look around the world at traditional kale dishes, you can see most people agree with these rambunctious flavor combinations.

Across Europe it’s popular to combine kale, potatoes, and spicy sausage in dozens of different ways. In Japan they juice it. In eastern Africa they cook it down with coconut milk and peanuts. It’s a key ingredient in Brazil’s national dish. And don’t get me started on those wacky Germans. Thanks to the interwebs, I now know all about a region in Germany where they celebrate kale with an ominously named Grünkohlfahrtkale tour. Please note that Grünkohlfahrt does end in fahrt, and it WILL make you do just that. Remember that kale is in the brassica (cabbage) family after all.

[Girl21]

Universe Smoothie

Universe's Best Smoothie

When you’re single, there’s that thing that’s just not very fun to do alone on a regular basis. Cook.

There’s something unglamorous about eating black beans from the can while standing over the kitchen sink. You could always invite yourself over to couple-friends houses for meals, but they tend to catch on eventually and move without telling you where. If you’re on a budget, eating out is not an option. And no, anything with a drive-thru is not food. So what to do? I engineered the universe’s best smoothie to combat the drudgery of eating alone while single. It’s simple, nutritious, tastes good, and isn’t very expensive per serving.

Of course, it’s now a stand-by meal on a rushed morning, great for that after-workout protein shot, and ideal for the hot, hot summer months when the stove is the enemy. It’s easy to double up to serve two also. <3 <3 <3 [gratuitous smootchie love hearts to The Man]

Feel free to juggle the ingredients of course (alternatives and additions suggested below), but put these in the blender in this order to prevent a peanut butter mess:

1 cup yogurt (vanilla; or plain and a tablespoon of honey, yum!)
1-2 tablespoons peanut butter (real peanut butter of course)
1 banana
1/3 cup frozen fruit (cherries, or berry mix)
2/3 cup orange juice

Blend until frozens are integrated. Yum!

I sometimes put 1/4 cup of oatmeal into the blender first to chop fine, and then add back into the mix with the OJ. A friend freezes kale and crumbles it into hers for added healthiness. Another friend stealthily adds veggies to her toddler’s. If you are ridiculously organized and creative, you can make your own yoghurt, pick and freeze your own fruit, juice your own oranges, and become an apiarist. Don’t laugh. My dear sweet sister is amazing like this, but it’s sometimes exhausting to watch her get through her day.

For the yogurt, I prefer Stonyfield Farm when I’m feeling super optimistic, or Dannon natural vanilla. When I start reading the ingredients list of simple products and they are more than five items long, it makes me nervous. What is it and why does it need to be in my food? This is becoming one of my tedious rants in my old age, I suppose.

Because bananas can be tricky and people have issues of too-ripe or too-green (I think bananas are only edible while still bright yellow with only a few freckles, but people have very strong opinions about this), I suggest waiting until a bunch are the right age for you, peeling them and breaking them into chunks, and freezing them stored loosely in bags so they don’t become a solid lump. That way you can toss them into your smoothie as needed and not end up with bananas that look like a cat snuck up onto your kitchen counter and did its business.

Once again, here is something on our ‘Cooking’ list that has nothing to do with actually cooking. I do cook, believe it or not. But as we hurtle towards summer and all of its steaming glory, I look for ways to avoid sweating like a priest at a Boy Scout convention. So keeping the stove off is a priority. It’s tough to do this and still get all the necessary daily nutritional requirements in a form that is also tasty. I love food, and I love eating yummy food. But I also put a priority (especially as a vegetarian) on eating responsibly.

[Girl21]

Lentil Bulger Salad

Lentil Bulger SaladNot only am I a vegetarian, but I live in the south. Why am I bringing this up? It’s hard to get a good protein in every meal. And it’s equally hard to get interested in cooking on a hot day. So what to do?

I’ve been fine-tuning and evolving my lentil bulger salad recipe, a solution to both issues. Frankly, this recipe will probably continue to evolve for years to come, but this is how it stands at the moment. Easy to make, since it involves very little cooking or technique. Yet full of flavors that make your mouth happy about salad.

First you need to get about 4 cups of water boiling in a medium pot, and set a half cup of bulger in a heat-friendly bowl with some kind of lid (I’m such a slacker, I use a bowl with a plate to cover it). Really, this is the most actual cooking you’ll be doing, so don’t complain.

Once the water comes to a boil, scoop out a half cup and pour that in with the bulger. Stir up the bulger a bit and plop the lid on, and leave that for 30 minutes. Hard work so far, right? The rest of the water in the pot should still be boiling. Put a half cup of dry lentils in the water, and a half teaspoon of salt (check your lentils to be sure they’re the ones that don’t need to be soaked overnight). Bring the lentils back up to a boil then turn down to a fast simmer for 30 minutes or until they get to chewable consistency. I like the lentils a bit al dente, but some people prefer them soft.

Meanwhile, on your chopping block…

You need to gather and dice, chop, grate, press:
1 small thumb ginger, grated on a microplane
2 medium carrots, grated
4 or 5 cloves of garlic, pressed
1 medium onion, diced small
1 1/2 cups parsley, chopped fine

I personally don’t like all of the stems of the parsley in my mix, so I take the time to pinch off the leaf bunches from the major stems and chop up just the leaves pretty small. A good medium-size bunch of (Italian!) parsley will make up a loose cup to cup-and-a-half.

Usually I toss all of these ingredients into a bowl and set it aside. You also want to get your seasonings together. I love having little glass ramekins around for this. Not because I look like I’m on TV, but because it keeps me organized and I don’t forget an ingredient so easily. Anyhow, in a small bowl or ramekin, you’ll need:

1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
(or 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning if you hate curry… boo!)
dash of cayenne

And don’t forget to get out the two most important things… lemon juice and olive oil. If you’re feeling luxurious, fresh lemons are always preferred, but I’m usually not, so I use a good quality pre-squeezed juice. Olive oil is also up to your preference. A good friend who is kind of OCD about this advised me to look for ‘first press’, ‘cold pressed’, and ‘organic’ when choosing olive oil as you’re getting the better stuff (but more on that later).

Also a word about curry powder (I can go on for pages but will not), I highly recommend going to a specialty store for curry powder, and trying different kinds until you find what you like. Traditionally, every family in India has their own blend of spices to make up their curry powder (kind of like plaids in Scotland). So, all curry powder is not the same. It varies in spiciness, sweetness, and strength. And that yellow stuff you buy in your grocery store might do in a pinch (pun intended… haha, I kill me!), but it’s not something you want to have as your go-to curry. In this instance, I’m using a somewhat mild curry blend, but if you have a strong one you like, maybe pull back to a bit less than 1/4 teaspoon or it might drown out all other flavors.

Okay… so that’s all of the cooking out of the way and your kitchen isn’t boiling hot. You might be a bit sweaty from all of the chopping, but that just means you need to work out more. And here’s how…. mixing!

Un-lid your bulger and fluff it up a bit. I have a lovely wooden spoon I spent way too much money on at one of our local arts and craft fairs, but it’s so sexy and sleek, I love to use it for most mixing situations (yes, I’m also a kitchen geek). Drain your lentils and mix them into the bulger with about 1/3 cup of olive oil. Add your seasonings, and mix some more.

Add your carrots, parsley, garlic, ginger, and onion here, and mix up a bit more. I notice the pressed garlic and the grated ginger tend to clump up, so it takes a bit of trying to get these mixed in evenly. Then add in about 1/3 cup lemon juice (I sometimes also add a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar if I’m feeling fancy). And… yes, continue mixing. Firm but broad strokes so you mix everything up instead of turn your lentils and bulger into paste.

I like to set this aside for about a half hour to marinate and get all yummy. This gives me a minute to lay down a bed of lettuce on a plate, dress it with a little pepper and lemon juice, and grate some feta cheese (optional). Do what? Those dense blocks of salty feta you can get are delish but what do you do with them? I love to gently grate it instead of get the crumbled version.

Easily the most complicated part of this dish is plating it. You have to very carefully plop a pile of your lentil bulger salad on the middle of your lettuce bed and drop some grated feta on top of that. For an added flounce, I like to add some green olives on the side, or maybe some flatbread toasted up in the oven for a few minutes. Voila! Yum for the tum, protein, and no overheated kitchen.

The other bonus of this is that it’s one of those fabulous dishes that actually gets better after sitting in the ‘fridge over night.

Yes, yes, yes… you might be poised to comment about the lack of tomatoes like in a traditional tabouleh salad. Keep your pants on and step away from the comment area. I get a rash from fresh tomatoes so don’t ever look for them in any of my recipes. If you want to add tomatoes to this, I’d suggest cutting back on the lemon juice a bit and using about half of a tomato, diced small. And don’t tell me about it.

[Girl21]

Finger Meals Fast

Only Martha Stewart and other aliens are always prepared for guests. The rest of us get get caught off guard by last minute guests or find ourselves feeling inadequate in the kitchen. If you live close to a decent grocery store, you can always come up with a classy spread after a ten minute dash around the deli and produce sections.

I have to say I’m quite practiced at this by now. I host a book club at my house (much to The Man’s amusement on those nights he’s home to witness the ladies’ gathering) and twice a month have to rush through the store on the way home from the office. A couple sorts of cheese, some savory crunchy things, some seasonal fruits and veggies, and some sweet tidbits… you’re gold.

Keep in mind the crowd you’re entertaining when choosing you yummy little bits and pieces. People used to potato chips and orange cheddar cheese are just not going to be game to try the Roaring Forties blue cheese. On the other hand, fresh fruit is usually a good option for just about any group. And of course you’re limited by your local grocery store.

We’re lucky enough to live near a Publix and Ward’s. We went to Upstate New York last summer and I was introduced to Wegmans, so my world has never been quite the same. Never the less, I shop at Publix happily because you can get a decent selection of fresh deli and bakery things. Plus the added Greenwise sections mean some good healthfood options. And of course I like Ward’s because it’s a locally owned business that has great local produce, super-healthfood sections, and a fun selection of wine and beer (that I can spend too much time perusing). And they stock the best coffee in town, Sweetwater Organic Coffee.

Anyhow, two things to keep in mind in these situations, SIMPLE and FRESH. Wait … three things… YUMMY! For a base, try getting a loaf of herb bread or a whole grain baton (yes, the long bread), which you can slice up and pop in the oven. Try a jar of pre-made pesto to slather on the bread first, topped with some deli sliced gouda and crumbled gorganzola. Or just sprinkle the slices with salt, pepper, italian herbs, and garlic powered, then cheese. Just toast them in the oven long enough to melt the cheese and let some corners get a bit golden. A box of Triscuits or some other whole grain crackers are also good if you’re in a hurry or want a variety.

For savories, if you have an olive bar, absolutely go a little wild. Even toss in some garlic stuffed and blue cheese stuffed options with the usual oil cured and kalamata. If you can find some Castelvetrano Sicilian olives, these bright green beauties are delish. Or splash out on a few nice jars of olives off the shelf. Try a jar of asparagus and artichoke hearts for a little texture.

Fruits and veggies are great balance, and besides a little cutting and arranging, are very little work. I usually go for some Granny Smith apples and whatever is in season… peaches, cherries, grapes, or pears. And for veggies it’s a no-brainer to grab some carrots (always organic carrots!), celery, cauliflower, broccoli, and maybe a pretty sweet pepper or two. I’m biased against tomatoes, but feel free to get some little cherry or grape tomatoes if you see some nice ones.

I left cheese for last because it’s the best place to go completely berserk. I could go on and on about cheese, but there are some safe bets to please the most people. Cheddar–no not the orange variety–is possibly the most obvious choice because you can easily chop it into chunks, it has a good texture, and its sharp but not overpowering flavor can pair with just about anything on the table (go for the sharpest version you can find… we like the Racer’s Edge Cabot since you can find it easily). I also usually grab a block of swiss if I can find it (I like Amish swiss) or even some Mexican queso fresco.

If you’re feeling adventursome, try a round of brie (or even goat brie). Keep the brie simple by unwrapping it, slicing the rind off the top and putting it in a shallow glass or ceramic oven-safe dish, drizzling it with olive oil and baking it at 350 for ten minutes. [In the above picture we had some cheese curds, and a super yum Humbolt Fog goat cheese.]

Notice I didn’t go on about wine or other drinks here. That’s pages of rambling. For my book club ladies I usually go for a mild red wine, maybe a chard if I’m looking to change it up a bit. I love a nice tempranillo in the $7-10 range. Or my standard seems to be a bottle of Our Daily Red (fantastic at about $7 a bottle). Basically you want to go for something the most people will be comfortable drinking, and something you like.

A little chopping and slicing, and some attention to arranging the goodies, and you can set up a nice little spread in less than 30 minutes. It’s fresh food that’s also kind of healthy, and it’s fun and easy to eat while talking and drinking. And of course it’s tasty!

[Girl21]

Desserts: Shrikhand

Low fat desserts…

No! Come back! Low fat desserts are not horrible. I swear.

Okay, so it’s not a German chocolate cake, but it’s simple, it’s easy, and it tastes good. And yes, it’s pretty low in fat since it’s basically yogurt with some spices and a bit of sugar and maybe fruit.

Shrikhand is a dessert from India where many dishes are milk-based and most are pretty rich. Ghee is the best part of butter and it’s in everything. Except this dish of course.

You’ll need only a few things, and as ever, good ingredients make all the difference. First of all choose a good yogurt, preferably natural, organic, whole milk, etc. Yes, pick the highest fat content type. I love the cream top style from Stonyfield. You’ll want a 32oz/2 lb container for this. It serves about four people.

You’ll need about a 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of ground cardamom. If you don’t know if you like cardamom or not yet, I’d use a smaller amount because it’s easy to use too much. Cardamom is great in coffee by the way. If you use a French press, sprinkle some in with your ground coffee before you add the hot water. Tasty!

Confectioners sugar is easy to come by. You’re going to need about a half cup of finely ground sugar because the yogurt will be too dry and cold to dissolve regular sugar well. Got it? Half a cup. Once you have made it a few times, you could adjust up, but the sweet tends to overpower the other flavors.

And last but not least, saffron. Possibly the most expensive single substance on the planet by weight. Never cheap-out on saffron. It’s just not worth it. The good thing about saffron is that it goes a long way, so you only need a little. You can get Spanish saffron pretty readily. Look for the highest percentage of red saffron strands you can find or afford. The red strands have the most flavor; yellow has less. If you can get your hands on Indian saffron, consider yourself lucky and pay whatever price is asked. You only need about five threads of saffron for this recipe.

I’m going to shamelessly plug one of my favorite spice catalogs for a minute, and you’d best pay attention because they’re good people and have a good selection of reliable-quality spices. Take yourself over to www.penzeys.com and request a catalog. I always buy online, but the catalog covers a good deal of what they have and has fun recipes to try out. They know spices and they know customer service.

Shrikhand IngredientsSo back to shrikhand… and the weird things you’ll need to “cook”. (Yes, there is no actual cooking involved here, so it’s actually a kid-friendly recipe.) You’ll need a small mixing bowl, a medium mixing bowl, a spatula or wooden spoon, a two-by-two foot section of cheese cloth, and a metal strainer.

The best thing is if your strainer fits over your bowl leaving a space of a few inches underneath it. Because, well, here goes…

Line your small mixing bow with the cheese cloth. Bring all of the edges out neatly because you’re going to be wrapping this up around the yogurt in a minute. If you chose cream top yogurt or other creamy style, you’ll need to mix it up as much as possible so it’s pretty even consistency. Pour the yogurt into the bowl/cheese cloth, then pull all of the edges of the cloth up tight around it like a little hobo running-away bag. You can tie it off with twine, ribbon, twist-ties, what ever. I twist it up and use one of those wooden clothes pins because I find them very handy in the kitchen.

You’ll see fluid already escaping the fabric. This is the excess whey, and the more you drain off, the better your shrikhand will be. Carefully plop this cloth covered yogurt in the strainer you’ve propped in your medium bowl. The whole goal here is to let the moisture drain off the yogurt, drip through the strainer, and collect in the bowl. So you can check every hour or so and pour out the whey in the bowl as it collects.

Put bowl, strainer, and yogurt in the fridge like this for at least four hours to drain. The more ‘natural/organic’ your yogurt, the faster it will drain. Four hours is minimum. I usually let it go over night, or at least 8 hours. Like I said, the more moisture you drain out, the better the shrikhand is. You’ll even consider re-tying the top because the body of the cloth-covered yogurt will contract.

After your shrikhand is drained, pull it out of the fridge and unwrap it. It’ll seem more the consistency of soft cream cheese. Roll it around gently in your hands to get it all off of the yogurt off the cloth, then scoop it into a mixing bowl. First the 1/2 teaspoon of cardamom. Then roll the saffron threads between your fingertips to break them up a little and drop them in. Mix this up and return to the fridge for about a half hour. Add the powdered sugar and mix well, then return it to the fridge for another half hour. Mix one last time and you’re good to go.

Always serve shrikhand chilled. I like to serve this in a bowl with fresh fruit. Peaches are great because they don’t overpower the subtle saffron flavor. Or drop some mango puree in there with it and a drizzle of honey. If you get it thick enough, you could pretty much ice a cake with it, which could be fun. This is great to serve after a spicy Indian mean because it’ll cool off your guest’s sizzling tongues and offer a gentle flavor after the big fireworks of curry.

You can find many variations of shrikhand flavors depending on what gets mixed in. Mango puree is great as long as you drain and press as mush fluid out as you can. Or finely chopped pistachios is another traditional addition. I suggest having fun with it. Just go for lest wet additions and you’ll be okay.

If you want to save it over night, you’ll see it continues to separate. Just pour out the excess fluid and stir it up. Good for a few days in the fridge.

[Girl21]

Pesto Asparagus Sandwich

Pesto Asparagus SammieGarlic herb focaccia
Stone ground mustard
Pesto
Sliced cheese… Muenster, provolone, mozzarella, swiss, etc
Marinated asparagus

We love easy meals that taste like they came off a trendy SoHo bistro menu. And a sandwich that takes two minutes to assemble is a fantastic option for picnics, pool parties, and impromptu lunch work-dates.

We can usually get all of the ingredients we need at our local grocery shop. (Buy local to support community businesses!)

Start with a light bread, preferably herbed or flavored. I love this rectangular focaccia made by a local bakery. If you’re looking to assemble in a hurry, make sure to pick something already sliced!

Mustard varies by personal taste, but we like a stone ground, medium flavor style. Something with a good flavor that won’t take control of the sandwich. As for pesto, those little good-quality jars in the gourmet or health food sections are guilty little pleasures. After all, fresh is best, but who has the time or resources often?

Slather opposite sides of your sammie with the mustard and the pesto. Then apply a layer of your preferred cheese. We use Muenster, provolone, or swiss because it’s fairly easy to find pre-sliced and good quality. We settled on Boar’s Head Muenster last time and it was perfect.

Before you seal up your sammie, slide in a few stalks of marinated asparagus for texture and flavor. Look for the right kind of jarred asparagus though because it can be very bad if you go the cheap route. Look at the heads to make sure they’re still intact so you don’t end up with mushy asparagus slugs.

Suggested accompaniments: blue corn chips, black bean humus, and dry cider or real ginger ale.

Mwah! Delish!

[Girl21]