Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Quick & Convenient Cranberry Sauce

Making a couple nights ago for E and another friend, I wanted to include a bit of color -- and to make the meal feel a little fancier than rice & beans (posts on this later). I have a ton of cranberries in the freezer (and plan to buy more) and thought a cranberry sauce would be lovely to go with -- color, a bit of tart flavor to go with slightly spicy beans, and plenty of all those good things that come from cranberries. And when I paired it with a bit of guacamole from an avocado I've had for a while and which finally ripened, I thought the presentation was pretty lovely.

But the cranberries: I also had a bit of frozen raspberry-lemonade in the freezer, from when a transient friend stayed here for a few nights and didn't want to repack it (or forgot about it?) in his cooler. That's kinda like orange juice in the traditionally cranberry-orange flavors, but a bit more...fun. Or so I hoped.

Turns out, that's a pretty okay combo and this cooked up, over medium heat in about 15 minutes. It didn't cook so long that the cranberries collapsed completely, which was also nice. Plumpish cranberries in cranberry sauce are, well, nice.

Cranberry Sauce
1/2 pound fresh cranberries
1-2 tablespoons (to taste, I used about 1 1/2) frozen raspberry-lemonade concentrate
2 tablespoons water

Combine all ingredients in a small sauce pan over medium-high heat for 3-4 minutes and then reduce heat to medium, stirring frequently, until the cranberries are soft, but retain their shape (about 15 minutes). Serve hot or cool.

Note: You can also keep this over "warm" for a while if you want, but make sure to check it from time to time to see if you need to add more water, so that it doesn't scorch to the bottom. You could cook it down for a while to create jam or preserves, if you wanted, but you will want to make sure that if you go this route you stir it often enough that it doesn't burn as the water evaporates.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Product Review: Salpica Mango Peach Salsa

I bought Salpica Mango Peach Salsa from my food co-op a couple of months ago with an immediate use for it -- only I wound up not needing it because what type of party needs three different (but similar salsa), especially when two are fresh? Not mine.

Anyway, I opened this salsa the other day, only to realize how runny it is. It's a bit like chunky, flavored tomato juice--which makes sense because filtered water is the second ingredient. The flavor is good (a little sweet, like it should be with fruit -- but did it also need sugar? Really? I don't think so) if you like slightly sweeter salsas, but that's not really my preference. I prefer the salsas that incorporate fruit without incorporating additional sugars. It's not particularly strong on onion or garlic flavors, for a salsa, or of the tangy bite of hot peppers, even though it's in the "Medium" hotness range. These are all things you should keep in mind if you're buying this salsa and have particular ideas about how bottled salsa should be.

However, I do appreciate that I can see evidence of roasting. And peaches and mangoes. And the occasional chunk of something like a pepper, tomato, or onion. But really, when I'm looking for salsa, I'm looking for something with more substance than this particular salsa, which I had trouble keeping on a chip--much less on veggies (which, is sometimes my preference -- like today, when I didn't really want corn chips).

The label claims "made in Texas" but my bottle, at least, is distributed from Illinois, which isn't so much of a surprise since this is where Rick Bayless (as an institution) is based and Salpica salsa comes through the Frontera supply chain. Either this is a horrible inefficiency or a marketing scheme. Anyone remember the "Made in New York City?? Get a Rope" commercial? There are a few versions out there, but when I was reading the label (more carefully at home so I could write this review than I did in the store) that's the commercial I immediately conjured.

It claims "no preservatives" and "all-natural," which are both technically true if you're talking about artificial preservatives, but most salsas contain preservatives -- citric acid in some form, usually -- especially ones that have been bottled. I'll take my citric acid and spare myself the case of botulism, thanks.


All in all, I might buy this salsa again. If it was on sale. And if the other salsas nearby didn't appeal, or if I was buying it with a specific salsa need -- I just can't think of what such a need might be.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Oven Roasted Chickpeas

It seems like a lot of bloggers recently (the past year or two, anyway, if that really counts as recent) have written about oven-roasted chickpeas. They're a good, high protein snack, moderately cheap to make (especially if you're not buying a can of them--or if you get said can on sale), and you can flavor them a lot of different ways for different tastes. They store well for hikes or trips to the zoo, they're easy to eat with fingers (making them good for kids, or for road-trips), and they're (depending on what you put on them) mostly or very "whole" as in non-processed.

The first time I read about these was about two years ago. The first time I tried them: about 18 months ago. The first time I tried freshly made ones, with Annie, last spring. I thought she'd blogged about it -- but then I couldn't find it on her site.

The recipe below is for a savory (and very garlicky -- now there's a surprise) roasted chickpea. I started with dried chickpeas that I soaked for about 24 hours before cooking in lightly salted water. They cooked up very quickly though, about an hour and then roasted for about 40 minutes at 375 degrees--the same temperature I needed for baking brown rice. Convenient!

The chickpeas came out crispy on the outside, some a little soft on the inside, and because I live in a fairly dry environment, they didn't go soft again too quickly -- a complaint I saw others making on other blog posts.

Garlicky Oven-Roasted Chickpeas
12 ounces cooked chickpeas
1 tablespoon (or a little less) olive oil
1/4-1/2 teaspoon garlic powder (to taste)
1/4-1/2 teaspoon onion powder (to taste)
Pinch salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix all ingredients together in a bowl and then spread on a foil- or parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake  about 40 minutes, stirring 2-3 times during the cooking process to avoid scorching.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Baked Brown Rice with Red Pepper Flakes

I love Alton Brown's baked brown rice, in part because I've never screwed it up, and in part because it saves pretty well if I don't finish it. But I never want a full recipe, so I usually cut the recipe in half. And I add pepper flakes (and sometimes dried herbs) most of the time, because 1) they're super pretty and 2) they add nice flavor.

This recipe is also pretty easy in that it requires almost no attention once you pop it in the oven--as long as you don't forget about it. Another major plus, especially at the end of the work day. Here's how I do it:

Baked Brown Rice with Pepper Flakes
3/4 cup brown rice
1 1/4 cups water
1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter (I often use olive oil instead, and this would make it vegan)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme/oregano/fines herbes (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Dump the rice into an 8-inch square baking dish, or into a small casserole dish (I use a tiny dutch oven). Add the butter, salt, pepper flakes, and herbs if using. Bring the water to a boil and then pour it over the rice. Stir to combine. Cover the dish tightly with foil or an oven-safe lid, and then bake in the oven for 1 hour. Fluff the cooked rice with a fork and serve.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Garlicky Pinto Beans & Rice

Sometimes, for me, a simple meal is just what I need to focus on taking care of myself a little better. This isn't to say that I haven't been taking care of myself--but when I'm stressed, or tired, or feeling conflicted I don't always eat as well as I could or should. It's times like these that I need the reminder that easy foods can taste amazing and that there's a lot of cooking that can go on with my immediate supervision.

This is a simple dish of pinto beans and brown rice, meant (for me) to be a cleansing meal. Not Cleanse, like the fad diets, just a means of eating and living intentionally. I soaked the beans while I was at work, then stuck the rice in the oven when I got home, and turned the beans on to simmer while I walked the dog, cleaned the kitchen a little, and generally tried to focus on doing things that would help me feel better.

For the rice, I used a variation on Alton Brown's oven-baked brown rice, which I'll post about soonish.

Garlicky Pinto Beans
1 cup dry pinto beans, soaked for at least 8 hours in lightly salted water* if you've got the time (otherwise just cook them longer)
1/2 cup chopped onion
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon pureed chipotle, or more to taste
3 cups water or veggie broth
At least 1/2 teaspoon salt*

Combine all ingredients (including soaking water if you've pre-soaked--just try to adjust the amount of water/broth you add to equal about 3 cups total liquid) in a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat so that the beans will just simmer. When the beans are tender (about 40 minutes, depending on how long they soaked and how old your beans were) adjust salt if necessary.

*Don't add additional salt until you've tasted the cooked beans if you used salted soaking water.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Toffee!

Now that we've all had a little time to recover from the sugar-shock of the winter holidays, let's talk about candy. Specifically, toffee. I first had a variation of this toffee when a co-worker brought it in to a staff meeting. Hooray for buttery, sugary goodness during the holidays -- or something like that.

Toffees are made by boiling sugar (or molasses, apparently) with butter. The version presented here is akin to English toffee -- which according to my research pretty much just means that it uses almonds. The sugar-mixture needs to reach "hard crack" stage for hard toffees, which is what this recipe creates. This means getting the heat up to about 300-310 degrees Fahrenheit, so please be careful when you make this recipe. It needs attention, a lot of stirring (or more effectively, whisking), and precision. However, I label it "easy" because it doesn't take long and it's pretty forgiving if you err on the side of not getting it hot enough. If you scorch your sugar, I can't help you as much.

My version actually doesn't use almonds because almonds aren't very much in my budget -- and because I'd rather just eat the almonds I happen up (my current bag of almonds was a generous gift) than toss them into toffee. That being said, I've made this now with cashews "bits and pieces" as the store calls the cheaper cashews (cashew brittle style) and peanuts (very much like peanut butter), as well as chocolate covered. I also add vanilla, which the original recipe doesn't call for, mostly because I love the smell of butter cooking with vanilla and it adds just a hint of flavor at the end.

Let me tell you about my toffee "oops!" that happened with the last batch I made, specifically to send to a friend. I haven't been able to find my candy thermometer, even though I'm pretty sure it moved with me. And I don't have a different type of food thermometer. That means I have to eye-ball the confection getting to the right temperature. Fortunately, I've made candies before  and successfully made this toffee twice without thermometer. Unfortunately, I felt rushed and impatient. I didn't let enough of the water boil off or allow the temperature to climb quite high enough. The result? Even after the toffee sat in the freezer for several hours while I played frisbee with a friend, it didn't get hard. I felt grumpy.

I broke the toffee into bits and threw it back in my pan with just a sprinkle of water to encourage it to dissolve, then heated it slowly (medium heat) until it melted entirely before turning the heat back up to medium-high and stirring often as it bubbled furiously at me. The toffee bits had already been coated in chocolate, but this didn't seem have a negative effect. The next time I spread it on my cookie sheet and stuck it in the freezer, voila! I had hard toffee, just like I wanted--even if it did look a bit dark from the chocolate that also got stirred in.

So, the moral of that story: if it's under-cooked after you freeze it, just melt it and cook it again. The toffee would have been fine if I wanted soft, slightly-grainy pralines you so often find in certain parts of the southwest -- but wouldn't ship as well.

Since I don't keep corn syrup around, I used agave nectar. You could also use Lyle's Golden Syrup or honey.

Toffee Brittle
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon agave nectar
1/2 pound butter
1/4 teaspoon salt

Optional
5 ounces slivered almonds, OR
3/4 cup peanuts, cashews, or other nut/seed
Chocolate (about 2 ounces)

In a heavy-bottomed, medium-sized saucepan, over medium-high heat, combine sugar, butter, vanilla, water, and salt. Stir frequently until everything has melted and the sugar has dissolved. As the mixture begins to bubble and rise within the confines of the pan, switch to a whisk if you have one (this will pop more of the bubbles) and whisk rapidly until the mixture begins to thicken, darken, and pull away from the sides of the pan*. Stir in the nuts, if using, and leave on heat, continuing to stir for another 1-3 minutes. You want the mixture moderately thick.

Pour onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and smooth with the back of a spoon or spatula. Break up bits of chocolate and drop them on top, if using. They should melt pretty quickly**. Place baking sheet in freezer and allow to freeze until hard, about one hour. Remove from freezer, and (carefully) break toffee into bits using your hands. Store in an air-tight container.

*If you have a candy thermometer, stick it in as you're just starting to melt everything together and adjust it so that it does not touch the bottom of the pan. When the thermometer reaches just below 300 degrees, add the nuts.


**Hershey's candy bar melts really well, but -- it's Hershey's. I used Hershey's kisses twice because E had so many around the house from Christmas, but the last time I made it, I topped it with an organic FT dark chocolate. It didn't melt as well, but worked fine.
Toffee with Chocolate & Peanuts

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Coconut Ice Cream in a Bag + Regular Ice Cream in a Bag

At work, later this month, we'll run a quick Make-Your-Own-Ice Cream activity. We'll do some "make ice cream in a bag," and some with liquid nitrogen. It should be pretty fantastic. Today though, I'm only going to talk about making ice cream in a bag.

The process is pretty simple -- add milk/cream, sugar, vanilla/cocoa together in a zip-close sandwich bag & seal it, put that bag in another sandwich bag & seal it, and then put those in a freezer bag (I use quart, but most website seem to suggest gallon-sized) and add ice (you'll need a fair amount) and rock salt. Seal the freezer bag and shake until you get ice cream the consistency of soft serve. It takes 7-10 minutes and gloves come in handy because your hands get cold.

Coconut Ice Cream
You'll notice the double-sandwich bagging. If you buy cheap baggies (and even if you don't) there's a good chance one of them will break. Who wants salty ice cream? Probably not many people. The double-bagging helps prevent that, though it's not fool-proof either. When I made my batch of coconut-milk ice cream, the bag definitely split (but I also added more than I'm telling you to add, which was probably part of it, since as you'll remember from science classes, things that are water-based expand when they freeze.

The difference between these, aside from the taste and lactose? The coconut milk ice cream turned out a lot...grainier...than the ice cream made from regular milk, especially after I let it get really cold in the freezer overnight. However, if you're looking for a lactose-free option, it works pretty well and tastes a lot like the commercially-made coconut-based ice creams.

This is a fun recipe to make with kids and is something that you can do on your own (at least it's a little workout before you eat your ice cream? At least you know what goes into the ice cream?) if you're just having one of those days when something cold and creamy really appeals. 

Coconut Ice Cream in a Bag
1/2 cup coconut milk (because this is what I usually buy -- vanilla would work fine too)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon sugar

Rock Salt
Ice cubes (I used about 1/2 pound, maybe a pound of ice)
1 quart-sized freezer bag
2 zip-top sandwich bags

Pour coconut milk, vanilla, and sugar into one zip-top sandwich bag, squeeze out most (but not all) of the air, seal. Place this bag in the second zip-top sandwich bag, again squeezing out most (but not all) of the air. Place both of these bags into the freezer bag, add ice to pretty much fill the bag (you may need to add more ice after some of it melts if your coconut milk hasn't turned into ice cream) and add 2 tablespoons rock salt. Seal the freezer bag and shake the bag vigorously until the milk turns the consistency of soft serve (about 7-10 minutes; add more ice and rock salt if necessary). Remove the bag with the ice cream in it from the other two bags, cut off one corner, and squeeze into a bowl to serve.

***


Ice Cream in a Bag
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon sugar

Rock Salt

Ice cubes (I used about 1/2 pound, maybe a pound of ice)
1 quart-sized freezer bag
2 zip-top sandwich bags

Pour milk, vanilla, and sugar into one zip-top sandwich bag, squeeze out most (but not all) of the air, seal. Place this bag in the second zip-top sandwich bag, again squeezing out most (but not all) of the air. Place both of these bags into the freezer bag, add ice to pretty much fill the bag (you may need to add more ice after some of it melts if your milk hasn't turned into ice cream) and add 2 tablespoons rock salt. Seal the freezer bag and shake the bag vigorously until the milk turns the consistency of soft serve (about 7-10 minutes; add more ice and rock salt if necessary). Remove the bag with the ice cream in it from the other two bags, cut off one corner, and squeeze into a bowl to serve.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Perfect Space

Lately, a friend and I have been talking a lot about something we both find rather elusive, something we're both looking for in the places we live now (halfway across the U.S. from each other) and that we'll look for wherever we respectively end up next. In short, we're looking for community.

When I moved this time, I didn't want to start over and I resisted it as long as possible -- I planned to move to a large Midwestern city, live with a close friend from grad school, and be within 10 miles of nearly a dozen other people I knew. I'd be starting over yes, but I'd start over with a pre-established network. But then, I had trouble finding a job. And I had trouble imagining myself in that Midwestern town, in much the same way that I struggled to imagine myself in the south. A friend got a job on the west coast. A different friend visited family there, and said to me, not long after, that I'd love it in the West.

So I applied for things westward, hoping mostly to have something by the time my lease ran out in the Midwest. And I did wind up with something -- something that meant moving to a new town, for a new job, where the closest I was to anyone I knew was an eight-hour drive.

Some days, I think the move, the starting over, have all been good for me. I love my town, I love the ability to get partway up a mountain in a matter of minutes. I enjoy what I'm doing, at least most of the time. And the people here are friendly, incredibly friendly, and very welcoming of new people--something I didn't expect and still haven't learned to react to in the easy-confident way of the people around me.

Other days, I'm incredibly lonely. I haven't formed the depth of bonds with anyone here that I felt so quickly with a friend from the Midwest (the one I would have lived with in that large Midwestern city). I haven't found many people who seem engaged in the things I'm engaged in -- or even their own things, a distinct lack of passion resonates from so many people I meet. And it's easy for me to focus on these things, to call them up when I'm feeling lonely, and to criticize them. But the truth is this: I came from a self-selected community of people more or less like my self, people who also have crazy Google searches (depending on what they're writing about or thinking about, or just read), who read a lot, who want to at least do no further harm even if whatever it is we're doing this year isn't actually doing much good. And even though these people have a lot in common with me, and even though I love them and miss them, when I'm really honest with myself, part of the problem with finding community here is that I'm looking for a community to step into, rather than to build a community, rather than to seek these connections, to grow and evolve with people.

When I remember this, I feel less discouraged about living here, less melancholy, and also less like I want to move again. But again, when I'm honest with myself, I know I will move again, at least once and that breaks my heart a little because I've never felt so quickly happy in a place -- especially in a place where I rarely cook, bake, or eat with anyone else.

***

When I moved West, my friend Brenna made me and our friend Rachael mix CDs for the road trip. On both our CDs she include the Avett Brothers, "The Perfect Space." I didn't listen to this song though until Rachael came for a visit and we drove to a nearby national park. That visit from Rachael was what I needed, at a time when I needed it, and in many ways felt very healing for me.

I want to fit in to the perfect space,
feel natural and safe...