Female. Lives in United States/Illinois/Chicago, speaks English. My interests are Food, Restaurants, Cooking, Baking/Travel, Dining Out, Raising Children.
This is my blogchalk:
United States, Illinois, Chicago, English, Female, Food, Restaurants, Cooking, Baking, Travel, Dining Out, Raising Children.

Friday, October 22, 2004

On A Break

I've got a lot coming up in the next week, so I've decided to take a short break from blogging. I will be back in about 10 days with lots more recipes, restaurant reviews and other stories. We have family coming in to town today and I realized that I could either go all Bree Van De Kamp and frantically try and cook, clean, entertain and blog with guests in town or I could relax and actually enjoy the time we have with our family, unchained from the computer. As much as I like blogging and hearing from all of you, I decided that family time wins out.

I'm disappointed to have to skip the next "Is My Blog Burning?" event, but I'm looking forward to seeing what people come up with on the theme of terrines. I'll jump back in for the next IMBB.

Win and I have our 5th anniversary coming up and we've got something fun in store. Come back in about 10 days and I'll give you all the details.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Whole Wheat Zucchini Bread

One of Lima's playgroups came over this morning and I decided to make zucchini bread for the group. I figured that zucchini bread is tasty for the adults and it's also something that most parents wouldn't mind feeding their children. Plus, it's another way to sneak a bit of zucchini into the little ones!

I had never made zucchini bread before (I don't really know why; it seems like I'm baking some kind of cake or bread for a playgroup every couple weeks so you'd think I'd have tried it by now). Not having a recipe to refer to, I popped onto allrecipes.com, one of my favorite sources for recipes. This zucchini bread recipe, submitted by someone named Kristen, looked promising. It got great reviews from people who tried it, so I was game.

To mix things up a bit, I decided I'd make it a whole wheat zucchini bread. So instead of all-purpose flour, I mixed all-purpose and whole wheat flour. Here's the recipe with my flour change. Refer to the link above if you'd prefer a standard zucchini bread recipe.

Whole Wheat Zucchini Bread
Makes two 8x4 inch loaves

3 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups sugar
2 cups grated zucchini (roughly 2 small to medium-sized zucchini)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour two 8x4 inch loaf pans.

In a large bowl, beat eggs until light and frothy. Mix in oil and sugar then stir in zucchini and vanilla.

Combine flour, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder, salt and nuts in a separate bowl and stir into the egg mixture.

Divide batter into prepared pans and bake for 60 to 70 minutes, or until done. My loaves were done at exactly the 60 minute mark and I was happy that I didn't let them go longer because they would have been overdone.

The bread came out very well. It's got a really pleasant whole wheat taste underlying the zucchini, nuts and other flavors. I'll be curious to try this recipe another time using solely all-purpose flour. For this time, I think the whole wheat adds a nice depth of flavor.

I'm happy to report that this bread got rave reviews from my guests too. The moms couldn't believe how much their toddlers liked it and we actually had to put the bread away at one point to prevent the kids from totally stuffing themselves on it.

I must also say it was fun to grate the zucchini in my Cuisinart. I've had that machine for a few months now, but I never tire of watching it work its magic.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Garage Sale Loot and Cooking Limbo

Admittedly, this entry has only a little bit to do with food. I am just so excited about all the cool toys we got at a local garage sale this weekend I had to share. Check out the photo above to see what we got for a grand total of $18.00! My personal favorites are the Little Tikes workbench, the xylophone, the adorable ladybug-themed stroller, and the purple smiley-face mailbox.

Our Lima Bean really doesn't have tons of toys (because we don't want to spoil her and kids lose interest in them so fast anyway). Don't get me wrong, she has plenty---but our house doesn't look like a Toys 'R Us annex like so many other houses I've been to. She's happy with what she has, but lately I've thought her collection could use some freshening up. Time for some new excitement. A friend of mine has an absolute warehouse of gorgeous, fun toys in her basement playroom and she has gotten them all from garage sales. So when I heard a local church was having a kids garage sale, I was hopeful that I'd be as lucky as my friend has been.

So happy with what we got. And don't even get me started on Lima. She's loving this bounty of new toys, CDs, videos, and stuffed animals all in great condition. The workbench is her favorite right now; using the screwdriver fascinates her. She also loves dancing around with the Elmo doll and listening to the Sesame Street Travel Songs CD we got.

On to the food part of this entry...I've been in an odd sort of cooking limbo for the past few days. Win was travelling for a bit last week so I mostly prepared dinners that were things I like and Win isn't a fan of. Nice salads, random assortments of veggies and cheeses, and of course a huge bowl of macaroni and cheese one night. Ah, the decadence. Quick, good dinners but nothing that was worth blogging about.

I spent more time preparing food for friends. I had some friends over for a playgroup one morning and made this cinnamon swirl coffee cake. Tasty!

Then I made this chicken and rice dish to take over to my friend who just had a baby. She said they liked it and had enough left over for a second meal, so I was pleased it'll cover them for two nights. With a new baby in the house and a toddler already running around, any extra home-cooked meals are nice, even leftovers.

We've got more visitors coming in to town soon, so now I'm in the menu planning process. This week will include a few trips to the store and some thinking about what to stock the fridge with and what dinners to prepare. I'll keep you posted on what I come up with.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Pecan-Crusted Chicken Salad

I love my weekly e-mail from Top Secret Recipes. If you don't know them, Top Secret Recipes tries to track down the recipes to popular restaurant dishes so that you can cook them at home in your own kitchen. I have been obsessed with this kind of thing ever since I was a little girl and a man came on The Phil Donahue Show (see, this was back in the pre-Oprah era) and showed off how he could make a hamburger at home to taste just like a McDonald's Big Mac. I hadn't even had a Big Mac before, but I thought the concept of copying fun restaurant food at home would be really cool. This guy showed off all kinds of restaurant duplicates and Phil Donahue swore they tasted just like the real thing. I quickly told my mom about it and being the good sport and great mom that she is, she made the recipe for biscuits that are supposed to taste just like the cheddar cheese biscuits at Red Lobster. They were really, really good and I do think they tasted like what is served at Red Lobster. So ever since then, I've been quite intrigued by anyone who says they have the "secret recipes" behind popular restaurant dishes.

A couple weeks ago, Top Secret Recipes sent out a recipe for T.G.I. Friday's Pecan-Crusted Chicken Salad. According to the e-mail, this salad is one of the top picks at Friday's. I hadn't had it before, but the list of ingredients sounded great---dried cranberries, mandarin oranges, bleu cheese, pecan-crusted chicken breast, and a balsamic vinaigrette. What's not to like there?

I know Win's mom loves dried cranberries and mandarin oranges and this salad sounded like something she'd be up for. So we prepared it one night when she visited. Apparently, T.G.I. Friday's serves the chicken on top cold, but we decided we'd like it warm. Also, the recipe suggests pan frying the chicken in a very shallow amount of oil. My fry guy, Win, decided deeper oil would work better so we added much more than Top Secret Recipes suggested. So what follows is our interpretation of this dish. It should be pretty close to the original, just with our slight twists on it.

Pecan-Crusted Chicken Salad
Serves 4

4 chicken breasts
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans (for chicken breading)
1/2 cup corn flake crumbs
1 cup milk
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup all-purpose flour
at least 1.5 cups canola oil
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
4 teaspoons dijon mustard
4 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup dried cranberries
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans (to sprinkle on salad)
2 heads romaine, chopped
2 stalks celery, sliced
2 11-ounce cans mandarin orange segments, drained
1/2 cup crumbled bleu cheese

1. First, let's get the chicken started. Pound each chicken breast to a reasonable thickness (about 1/2 inch is good). Combine 1/2 cup finely chopped pecans and corn flake crumbs in a shallow bowl. In another bowl, combine milk and beaten eggs. Put flour into a third bowl. Coat each chicken breast with flour. Then dip the flour-coated chicken breast into the egg and milk mixture, then coat the chicken with a thick coating of the pecans and corn flake crumbs.

2. Preheat 1/2 cup of canola oil in a large skillet over medium/low heat. As mentioned above, Win actually used much more oil than that---you use whatever you feel is best for you. Saute the chicken for 3-4 minutes per side or until golden brown.

3. Here's how you do the vinaigrette. Combine 1 cup canola oil, balsamic vinegar, mustard, sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a blender. Blend on low speed for just a few seconds to mix thoroughly. Pour into a small bowl and add the minced garlic. Chill until you are ready to use the dressing.

4. When you are ready to make the salads, toss romaine and celery with 3/4 cup ofthe balsamic vinaigrette. Arrange the romaine on 4 plates, then sprinkle the dried cranberries, brown sugar and 1/2 cup finely chopped pecans on top of each salad. Sprinkle about 1/2 can of drained mandarin orange segments over each salad, followed by about 2 tablespoons of crumbled bleu cheese. Or, be like me and just go crazy...pile it on in all its yumminess. Slice the chicken and top each salad with the equivalent of one chicken breast.

This dish is great. Very easy to make and it's substantive enough to be a real meal, without being too heavy. The combination of fruit, bleu cheese and pecans sings and the balsamic vinaigrette is outstanding. I'll definitely use the recipe for that vinaigrette again in other salads. I can see why this would be a popular order at T.G.I. Friday's.

If you're wondering why one of the chicken breasts in the photo above isn't like the others (sing it with me, Sesame Street fans...), it's because I decided to cook the fourth breast for Lima. She theoretically isn't allergic to nuts and it should be fine for her to have them at this stage, but I decided to be a bit cautious and just cook her chicken in a flour and egg batter. Of course it was fried in the same pan as the nuts, so I'm not being THAT careful...but you know what I mean. Lima enjoyed her chicken breast cut into very small pieces for several meals.

I'd highly recommend this dish. It's easy, delicious and would be good for a lunch or dinner. Check out Top Secret Recipes too. Most of the recipes I've seen them do come from popular US chain restaurants, which I know may or may not be appealing to you. Although I haven't tried most of the dishes they have recipes for in the actual restaurants, I'm always intrigued when I see a particularly good-looking one.

Friday, October 15, 2004

One Pumpkin, Many Uses

I think I mentioned that October is my Month of Houseguests. First we had Win's sister, her husband and their 2-year old son here for a few days. Then a couple days after they left, Win's mom came for a visit. More family is on the way, but before they get here I wanted to take a minute to share a pumpkin tale.

Our Lima Bean loves pumpkins. She calls them "pa pas" and she can spot a pa pa practically a mile away. We'll be in the car driving and she'll say "pa pa." Sure enough, I look and she's pointing out the window at some pumpkins stacked up in front of a store. Or we'll be taking a walk and she'll want to stop and see every pumpkin on every doorstep.

Given Lima's newfound pumpkin love, we decided it would be fun to take her to a pumpkin patch (well, really more of a city streetcorner pumpkin lot) when Win's mom was here. Lima was SO excited to get to walk around amidst all these pumpkins and she regularly bent down and kissed them. She tried to lift some of the big ones but when that didn't work she decided just to say "sit, sit" and try and sit on top of them instead.

We decided to take two home. One big one and one tiny one that Lima calls the "baby pa pa." She routinely carries the "baby pa pa" to the park with us and on stroller rides. As we were paying for our purchase, I mentioned to Win's mom that I bought Lima a pumpkin at the same lot last year but that she was so small she just sat in her stroller and stared at me while I did it. Certainly no talking or running around back then (she was only about 5 months old at the time). This triggered a memory about last year's pumpkin that I had forgotten.

Do you know what I did with last year's pumpkin? I went all Martha Stewart on it and got so many uses out of that thing even I can't believe it. First, we just enjoyed having a whole, uncarved pumpkin around as a pretty decoration. Then a couple weeks later I decided it was time to carve the pumpkin and make a jack-o-lantern. I did that and roasted the seeds with some sea salt for a tasty Sunday afternoon snack. I quickly decided that the pumpkin flesh was too good to waste though...I had a baby Lima in the house and she was at the "new solid food eater" stage where she'd eat very small portions of fruits and veggies.

So I thought to myself, when will Lima ever get to eat pumpkin as an infant? They don't sell it in jars. This is my chance! I carved up that pumpkin, cooked and pureed it, and Lima had meals for weeks.

Pureed Pumpkin Baby Food
Take one small to medium pumpkin and wash it well. Cut it in half and remove all seeds. Cut each half into a couple smaller pieces to fit into a microwave-safe dish.

Place pumpkin and a bit of water (about 2-3 tablespoons) in a microwave-safe dish. Cover with plastic wrap and cook 13-15 minutes on high.

The pumpkin will be very hot when it comes out of the microwave. Let it stand 5 minutes. It's ready when it's a bit tender when poked with a fork.

Scoop out all the pumpkin meat and put it in a blender or food processor. Add about a half cup of water and puree. Add a little more water as needed to ensure that the pumpkin puree has a smooth texture.

Take your puree and spoon it out into ice cube trays. One small to medium sized pumpkin should fill about 2-3 ice cube trays. This translates into roughly 24-36 one ounce servings.

Cover your ice cube trays with plastic wrap and freeze overnight. Remove the frozen pumpkin cubes from the trays and store in plastic freezer bags. Now you have lots of pumpkin servings frozen and ready to go. When you want to use one, just remove a cube from the bag and defrost it in the microwave for your baby.

A few notes on this recipe:
If your child is of an age where they can have spices added to their food, it might be nice to add a bit of ginger, nutmeg or cinnamon to the pumpkin before you cook it. Lima was too young for that at the time, so we did just straight pumpkin puree.

You could also mix the pumpkin with other pureed fruits or vegetables, such as apples or pears. That might taste good and provide a more complex, sweeter taste. Again, be sure your child is ready for that.

Finally and most importantly, I am not a pediatrician so obviously consult with your own doctor before making this or any baby food recipe. As you all probably know, babies become ready to eat solids at different times and foods that might be safe for some babies aren't necessarily safe for all.

See what I mean? I had a totally Martha Stewart moment last year when I not only used my pumpkin as a decoration but then turned it into homemade baby food for Lima. And that was some stock of baby food...I probably fed that kid pumpkin for a month! She liked it very much at the time. Now, at close to 18 months, she'd look at me like I was crazy if I put pumpkin puree in front of her.

So this year I don't think I'll be carving the pumpkins. Lima loves her in tact "pa pas" too much. Maybe we'll just paint faces on them or leave them au natural. Since they're already so kissable in Lima's mind, we probably don't need to do much to make them any better.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

New "Is My Blog Burning?" Web Site

For anyone who's interested in following food blogging events but having trouble keeping track of when they are, there's a new web site to help you sort it all out. Check out Is My Blog Burning?, the web site dedicated to tracking:

-Is My Blog Burning?, created by Alberto of Il Forno
-Wine Blogging Wednesdays, started by Lenn of Lenndevours
-Sugar High Fridays, conceived by Jennifer of The Domestic Goddess

Here's what's cooking:
-IMBB 9: IMBB 9 happens October 24. The theme is terrines and it's hosted by Derrick of An Obsession with Food.
-WBW 3: Let the wine flow on Wednesday, November 3. This month's host is the Seattle Bon Vivant and she's chosen Australian Shiraz as the theme.
-SHF: I don't see another Sugar High Friday listed yet, but hopefully one will happen soon. We can always use an excuse to cook something sweet.

Time to start thinking about my terrine...

Moms Night Out: Fondue at The Melting Pot

Last week, my friends and I had another Moms Night Out. As I've mentioned before, we try and get together one night per month without husbands and babies to hang out, talk and do dinner at a place where we normally wouldn't take our children. This month's pick was The Melting Pot, a fondue restaurant. Cooktops on your table with sizzling pots of cooking oil and melted cheese? Not right for the toddlers. But absolutely fun and delicious for the moms.

The Melting Pot has restaurants around the country. Win and I went to one in Atlanta a few years ago and loved it. The Chicago location is new and has been open for about two months. It's downtown in an interesting location; it's in the basement of a building, right next to a tanning salon. Despite the odd location, the decor inside is lovely and full of warm tones that make you feel cozy as you dive in to your fondue.

There were four of us at dinner this time. The Melting Pot has an extensive wine list and we ordered a Shiraz-Cabernet from Australia to start. This was a very good wine and it complemented our meal well.

When it came to making our fondue choices, things got complicated. You know how when you go out with your spouse or partner you have a set rhythm and can kind of anticipate how you'd like to order as a couple? Well our little foursome didn't have its rhythm down so it took us a while to select from The Melting Pot's array of fondue dinner options. As you can see from their menu, there are a number of complete dinner packages you can order and these will include all courses from cheese fondue all the way to dessert fondue. There's a lot to pick from. Then once you have that decided, you have to select the cooking oil or broth in which you'd like to cook your entree. We all love to eat and were excited about the many options, so we deliberated for a while. After we made our decisions though, the fun could begin.

We opted to go with two of the Fondue for Two dinners. These included a cheese fondue, salad, and an entree fondue. For our cheese course, we selected the cheddar cheese fondue and the traditional swiss cheese fondue. Both were outrageously good, served with fresh fruit, a selection of breads, celery, carrots and cauliflower.

We had California salads for the salad course. These were field greens, tomatoes, walnuts and bleu cheese topped with raspberry walnut vinagrette. Fresh and delicious, but of course less fun than the other courses because there was no fondue involved and this night was all about the fondue.

Then we moved on to the entrees. We ordered the Signature Selection and the Surf and Turf. The Signature Selection included tenderloin, shrimp, teriyaki marinated sirloin, chicken and salmon. The Surf and Turf included twin lobster tails, filet mignon, and portobello mushrooms. Both were served with an array of delicious sauces and a large bowl of fresh vegetables to dip into our cooking broth. For our cooking style, we chose the Coq Au Vin broth, a French herb flavor, and the Mojo Fondue, a Caribbean, citrus flavor.

Once we had our majestic display of raw meats and vegetables in front of us, we went to town loading up our fondue forks and cooking our dinner. Fondue is always so much fun because of its novelty and this meal was no exception. We all commented how entertaining it was and we all loved every bite of the food.

When presented with the tempting dessert fondue menu, we couldn't say no. We ordered a pure dark chocolate fondue and the Flaming Turtle, which was milk chocolate, caramel, and chopped pecans, flambeed tableside. Both were served with heaping plates of fresh fruit, cheesecake, brownies, and marshmallows. Dipping those desserts into the rich, warm chocolate was beyond heavenly.

The one slightly odd part of our evening was that our service was a bit off. Our waitress was rather overenthusiastic and almost hyper when explaining the menu to us, but then repeatedly made jokes about wanting to quit her job throughout the evening. She was a capable server and very helpful, but her comments to us were a bit bizarre, as we all noted. In a real gaffe, the coffees that my friends ordered didn't arrive until after the whole dessert fondue was done. At that point no one wanted them (since dessert was totally over), so they just sent them back. Annoying slip-up on Melting Pot's part, but they more than made up for it by giving us our dessert for free (a $24.00 value). Our table didn't make a fuss over the coffee at all, so I was pleased to see that Melting Pot management took that extra step to make the mistake up to us.

The other famous fondue place in Chicago is Geja's Cafe. Geja's has been around for a long time and they also serve delicious fondue. When I got home and told Win about my night, he asked me which I thought was better---The Melting Pot or Geja's. Basically, I think the food is top quality at both. Similar fondue offerings and both were fresh and delicious. Geja's has a more intimate atmosphere with live music in the restaurant some nights. The Melting Pot feels a bit more like a "corporate restaurant" and has live music in its bar area, not the main section of the restaurant. So it's really a toss up for me...I guess if I had guests coming in to town I'd send them to Geja's because it's not a chain and it's more of a Chicago landmark. But the food is excellent at both and I'm sure I'll go back to Melting Pot in the future too.

So it was a great Moms Night Out. The one disappointment was that one of our friends had to miss the dinner. Why, you might ask? She was in the hospital having her second baby! Oddly enough, this woman was the one who organized the dinner and chose Melting Pot because she had never gone to a fondue restaurant before. She was eager to try it before her second child came along and she got even busier than she was with just one little one at home. Well, that little baby decided to come out a few weeks early and cancel her Mom's fondue plans. So my friend missed a wonderful dinner (that she planned for us!) but got a gorgeous, healthy baby girl instead. She's quite happy with the results and doesn't mind missing fondue after all.

The Melting Pot
609 N. Dearborn
Chicago, IL 60610
Telephone: (312) 573-0011

A note about the photo above: This Melting Pot logo was taken directly from The Melting Pot's web site and belongs to them. I get to take a break on Moms Night Out and that sometimes includes skipping the photo taking.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Lima's Best Gift Ever

You might remember that I mentioned that last week Win's sister, her husband and their son came for a visit. While they were here, we also had the pleasure of Win's Aunt Judy coming in to town. She happened to be in Chicago for a totally unelated reason and it was great that she got to see so many of her family members in one shot.

Judy came to our house for dinner one night and she brought our Lima Bean and my nephew the cutest little children's aprons and cooking utensils. My nephew's apron is a masculine red with trucks on it and as you can see from the photo above, Lima's is girly pink with cupcakes and other sweets adorning it. Each apron had a mini whisk, spatula, rolling pin and wooden spoon tucked into the front pocket.

Lima squealed with delight over this gift and sat on the floor pretending to stir things in a little green plastic bowl for about an hour. She also happily marched around the kitchen with her wooden spoon clenched in her teeth, smiling broadly.

I honestly have never seen her this happy. This was her best present to date. So is our little Lima on her way to being a domestic goddess? Watch out, Nigella.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Prickly Pears Gone Very Wrong

It all started when I saw these little green gems at the market. The sign above them touted them as green cactus pears. "Green cactus pear?" I thought. "What is a green cactus pear? Is it the same thing as prickly pear? And how do you eat it?"

I was intrigued and so I took my two little friends home. After doing some research, I found that a green cactus pear is indeed just another name for a prickly pear. This site provided some helpful information on how to store, cut, and eat them.

Armed with this information, I checked out some prickly pear recipes online. When we lived in Boston, I'd routinely get a fresh prickly pear margarita at Cottonwood Cafe. This drink was so good, as was the rest of the food there, incidentally. So I know I like prickly pear margaritas and I assume I'd like all sorts of other prickly pear beverages.

Given that, I decided I wanted to taste the fruit more completely and not have it pulverized by a blender into some sort of cocktail. One serving suggestion I found said that lime and cream make nice accompaniments to prickly pear. So I cut open the fruit:

And served it with whipped cream, a splash of fresh lime juice and a sprig of mint on top.

Yuck. To be honest with you, this did not taste very good.

On the prickly pear: I was impressed with how easy to peel it was. After cutting into it, the outer "shell" almost pops off. So that was much easier than I expected. It was extremely seedy inside and although a few web sites recommend eating the seeds, I found them to be too crunchy to tolerate beyond the first couple bites. The fruit's flesh has a really unique berry and melon flavor, which is pleasant, but the overall texture isn't ideal.

On the lime and whipped cream: The lime and whipped cream did complement the prickly pear flavor ok, I guess, but this was still a very weird dessert.

So what I learned from this experiment was: Prickly pear margaritas are good. Prickly pears doused with lime and whipped cream are bad.

The garbage disposal ate more of this dessert than I did, but it was still fun to experiment. Next time I get a prickly pear urge, I'll fire up the blender for a margarita.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Homemade Baby Food Cooking Class Offered in Chicago

This one's for the moms and dads in Chicago with new babies:

I know a lot of new parents want to make their own baby food for their children but aren't sure how. It's actually incredibly easy, but if anyone wants more professional instruction The Chopping Block and New City Moms have teamed up to offer a class on this topic.

Homemade Baby Food Cooking Class
The Chopping Block Cooking School
4747 North Lincoln Avenue Chicago, IL
Thursday, November 4, 2004
10:00 – 11:30 AM
Cost: $30

For more information, contact:
New City Moms, LLC
1658 North Milwaukee Avenue, #198
Chicago, IL 60647
Phone: 773.486.3952
Fax: 773.276.7176
Email: info@newcitymoms.com

I'm not affiliated with either organization nor do I have experience with this particular class. I'm just passing this info along since I know a lot of new parents interested in the topic. If you're interested in making your own baby food but don't want to take a class, I'd recommend the book Super Baby Food by Ruth Yaron. That has plenty of recipes and tips in there to get you started.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Pasta al Cartoccio: Spaghetti Baked in Parchment Paper

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that I love Foods of Italy by Giuliano Bugialli and that since I hadn't cooked any recipes from it in a while, I wanted to dive back in to this gorgeous book. First, I made Filet Mignon with Vegetable Sauce. Next, I decided to try a pasta and I selected Pasta al Cartoccio (Spaghetti Baked in Parchment Paper).

One of the main reasons I selected this dish was that I had never experimented with cooking pasta in parchment paper before. I know parchment paper is widely used when cooking fish, as Jamie Oliver demonstrates so frequently on his shows, but I hadn't even heard of it being used with pasta. According to Bugialli, baking the spaghetti in parchment paper allows the pasta to absorb the flavors of the dish while remaining moist but well baked. I was intrigued and excited to test this out.

The recipe below is based on the one found in Giuliano Bugialli's Foods of Italy.

Pasta al Cartoccio
Spaghetti Baked in Parchment Paper
Serves 4-6

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled but left whole
2 cups canned imported Italian tomatoes, drained
salt and black pepper
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
coarse-grained salt
1 pound ripe fresh tomatoes
25 sprigs Italian parsley, leaves only
30 large black Greek olives, pitted
1 pound dried spaghetti, preferably imported Italian

Heat the 1/4 cup of oil in a saucepan over medium heat. When the oil is warm, add the garlic and saute for 2 minutes. Discard the garlic and add the canned tomatoes to the pan. Let simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occassionally. Season with salt and pepper and add the red pepper flakes.

Pass the contents of the pan through a blender or food processor. Return the sauce to the pan and reduce over medium heat for 10 more minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand until needed.

Meanwhile, bring a medium-sized pot of cold water to a boil and simmer the tomatoes in it for 3 minutes. Remove the tomatoes and plunge them into a bowl of cold water. Peel away the tomato skin on each. Quarter the tomatoes and seed them. Put the tomatoes into a bowl and let stand until needed.

Coarsely chop 10 sprigs of parsley and finely chop the remaining parsley, keeping the two types separated.

Cook your pasta. Cook it for just a few minutes less than needed to get it to al dente. Bugialli suggests 5 to 10 minutes instead of the usual 9 to 12 minutes, depending on the brand. Remember, you want to undercook the pasta a bit now because it will soon be wrapped in parchment and baked.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and spread out 4 to 6 pieces of parchment paper on your counter. I decided to make 6 servings, so I obviously used 6 pieces.

When the pasta is ready, drain it and add it to the bowl with the tomato quarters. Add the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil, the olives, the prepared tomato sauce and the finely chopped parsley. Mix all ingredients together well. Here's a photo of my sauce before mixing it with the pasta:

Divide the contents of the bowl according to the number of servings you are making. Place each portion on a piece of parchment paper and close tightly. Place the packages in a baking pan and bake for 15 minutes. Here is a look at three of my parchment wrapped pasta bundles:

Remove the packages from the oven and place each on a warm plate. Open each package and sprinkle some of the coarsley chopped parsley over each serving. Here's how mine looked when I unveiled it:

And here's the final, plated presentation:

This dish is delicious. The spaghetti is moist overall, but occassionally I'd bump into a bite that tasted a little more baked and slighty firmer. This slight contrast in textures was nice. The pasta absorbed the flavors and the sauce beautifully and the fresh tomatoes and parsley gave the dish a really clean, light feeling. It's important to note that this dish isn't swimming in sauce; rather each strand of pasta is lightly coated with sauce and some of the sauce seems to have absorbed into the spaghetti itself. The olives added another delicious dimension to the taste.

Now, all that said, I must also say that this dish did require quite a bit of time and effort for the ultimate result. Don't get me wrong: The dish is superb. It tastes great and looks beautiful. But it did require many pots and pans and a longer time to prepare than many other spaghetti dishes due to the additional baking step. It was a lot of fun to experiment with this recipe and I was delighted with the result, but I must also say I've made other pasta dishes that ended up with as tasty a result with much easier preparation and clean-up. So by all means please try this dish; it's delicious and I think most people would find it quite good. Be warned though that you probably don't want to try it when you're tight on time or if your family is standing by clammoring for food; this is not a dish that can be rushed.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Wine Blogging Wednesday 2: Spanish Reds

It's time for another installment of Wine Blogging Wednesday! This month, Alder of Vinography is hosting and he's selected Spanish Reds for our theme. I love red wine, but usually drink Italian reds, so it was fun to get back into something Spanish.

While I was planning to make a special trip to a wine shop to select something interesting for this event, I stumbled across a red at Trader Joe's that I decided I'd try. It's Abrazo Del Toro Tinto 2003. According to the description on the bottle, the wine comes from Carinena, an area with Roman and Moorish influences. This region is famous for its "El Cierzo" dry winds that they say enrich the climate and maintain the health of the vineyards that contribute to this wine. The bottle promised the wine to be a "rich and delicious blend with lush flavors of ripe red fruits and truffles."

So I decided to give this wine a try because:
1. It was Spanish
2. It was red
3. It was really inexpensive ($4.99)
4. It was there and conveniently available for purchase
5. Who doesn't like the "lush flavors of ripe red fruits and truffles"?

The Abrazo Del Toro was very good and had a rich color and nice aroma. Smooth, full-bodied and very pleasant. I can't say that I tasted the fruit and truffle essence, but it's sometimes hard for me to discern underlying flavor notes in wine. What I was most curious about was whether or not I'd be getting a good bottle of wine for this incredibly cheap price and I must say that it was quite good. I'm clearly not a wine expert, but I think this wine could hold its own in a comparison with some more pricey bottles.

Abrazo Del Toro is recommended with hearty meat dishes, pasta, pizza and cheeses. We paired it with steak and enjoyed it very much.

I recently read an article in The Wall Street Journal by Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher where they discuss how "Americans are getting past the snobbery of wine and discovering (it's) simple pleasures." Wine doesn't have to be expensive to be good, nor does it have to be sipped in crystal glasses to be savored. I completely agree with this philosophy and was pleased that this Spanish red supported that line of thinking.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

A Perfect Family Meal: Chicken with Rice and Vegetables

I took a few days off from posting because Win's sister, her husband and their 2-year old son were in town this weekend. We had a great time with them and it was so nice for their little boy and our Lima Bean to get to play together a bit. We hit the Lincoln Park Zoo and caught the last Cubs game of the season, among other things. While I did some cooking this weekend, we did eat out a lot, sharing all of our favorite neighborhood places with them.

The first night they were here I cooked a chicken, rice and vegetables dish that I want to share with you. I love this dish because it's delicious, it's simple, and everyone who's had it likes it. I whip this one out a lot when people with small children are coming over because kids usually like chicken and rice and the dish is flexible enough that the cooking can be slowed down or sped up to accomodate my guests' schedules if, let's say, their baby suddenly needs to be nursed or their toddler has to take an unexpected nap. This dish isn't so fragile that changing the timing on it ruins it.

Chicken 'N Rice
Recipe by Linda Eppedio, a family friend
Serves 4

4 chicken breast halves
1/2 cup bottled Italian salad dressing
2/3 cup uncooked rice
1 can (2.8 ounces) French-fried onions
1 bag (16 ounces) frozen broccoli, carrots, water chestnuts, and red pepper
1.75 cup chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning

Place chicken in an oven-proof pan. Pour salad dressing over chicken. Bake uncovered at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove from oven. Place rice, vegetables, and 1/2 can onions around and under chicken. Combine broth and seasoning. Pour over chicken. Bake uncovered 25 minutes. Top with remaining onions. Bake 2-3 minutes longer. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Doesn't this recipe feel so 1950s? Every time I go to the store to gather up my French-fried onions I feel very retro. I promise you that this recipe has been a hit with every group I've served it to though. This time around, I served the chicken dish accompanied by salad, peas, biscuits and extra rice just in case anyone wanted more. For dessert, I kept things simple and served tea, chocolate chip cookies and some of the white chocolate fudge I had frozen earlier in the week.

If you're looking for a dish that's delicious, easy and (hopefully) enjoyed by children too, give this one a try. Also, it makes great leftovers. I know...I ate our leftover chicken and rice for both lunch and dinner today.

On to new things tomorrow though! We have a busy month of visitors ahead. Win's mom is our next guest and she arrives in two days. I'm off to plan my menus for her visit and get my grocery list ready...

Monday, October 04, 2004

Thai Chicken Salad with Figs

A couple days ago, I bought a darling little basket of fresh figs on a whim. I was at Stanley's, my favorite source for inexpensive produce here in Chicago, when they caught my eye. I didn't know what I'd do with them, but they looked fun and I knew we'd find something interesting.

Win hopped on the web to check out some fig recipes and we both agreed that the California Figs web site had some interesting options. After some discussion, we agreed that the Thai Chicken Salad with Figs recipe was our winner. This recipe calls for dried figs, but we decided that fresh should work just as well, if not better.

Thai Chicken Salad with Figs
Recipe as seen on Californiafigs.com
Serves Six

6 tablespoons fresh lime juice
¼ cup honey
3 teaspoon light soy sauce
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, crushed
2 teaspoon fresh gingerroot, very finely minced
2 cups shredded, cooked chicken
1 cup California dried figs, stems removed, and cut lengthwise into eighths (Note: I used fresh)
2 green onions, thinly sliced
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
½ small cantaloupe; seeded, pared and cut in julienne strips
1 sweet, red pepper; ribs and seeds removed, cut in julienne strips
1 small cucumber; peeled, seeded, and cut in julienne strips
Assorted mixed salad greens
Mint sprigs for garnish

Combine lime juice, honey, soy sauce, pepper flakes and ginger in medium bowl; mix well. Add chicken, figs, onions and mint; toss to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate for one hour. Stir occasionally. Here is how my salad looked at this first stage before putting it in the refrigerator:

When ready to serve, combine cantaloupe, pepper strips and cucumber with marinated chicken and toss gently but thoroughly. See below for how the dish looked with the addition of these items:

Line serving bowl or salad plates with greens and arrange mixture in center. Garnish with mint sprigs if desired. See the photo at the top of this entry for a look at our plated salad.

This salad is excellent. It's very fresh, light and full of flavor. The citrus, ginger and mint bring out a lot of nuances in the chicken, fruits and vegetables. It's also nice that this dish is rather healthy, and low in fat, sodium and cholesterol.

I commented to Win that this would be a great dish to make for a lunchtime get-together because it can be prepared a bit in advance of guests' arrival and then just plated when ready to serve. It's delicious and makes a pretty presentation, but it's low maintenance enough to allow the host to enjoy his or her guests and not be trapped in the kitchen.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Sugar High Fridays: White Chocolate Fudge

Jennifer of The Domestic Goddess recently came up with the brilliant idea to host Sugar High Fridays: The International Sweet-Tooth Blogging Extravaganza. The tasty theme for this first installment is white chocolate.

My husband, Win, loves white chocolate. I like it, but I do prefer dark chocolate to white. I rarely bake with white chocolate, so this theme made Win a very happy man. Since he's the white chocolate fan in the house, I decided to look for recipes that were very Win-esque... meaning, the richer, creamier and more white chocolatey, the better.

This train of thought led me to fudge. Win adores fudge and it's something he has maybe once a year. I had never made it before and decided this would be a great time to experiment and treat my husband to a dessert tailor-made for him.

I found a great recipe on allrecipes.com that sounded promising. It was submitted by a woman named Vicki who called it "the white chocolate lovers' equivalent to heaven." Others who had tried the recipe also gave it rave reviews, so that was all I needed to see and I was off and running.

White Chocolate Fudge
Recipe submitted by Vicki to allrecipes.com
Makes 2.5 pounds (40 servings)

1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese
4 cups confectioners' sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
12 ounces white chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup chopped pecans

Grease an 8x8 inch baking dish. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, beat cream cheese, sugar, and vanilla until smooth.

In the top of a double boiler over lightly simmering water, heat white chocolate, stirring until melted and smooth.

Fold melted white chocolate and pecans into cream cheese mixture. Spread into prepared baking dish. Chill for 1 hour, then cut into 1 inch squares.

At the one hour mark, my fudge was still a little too soft. Delicious, but it needed a bit more time to chill and set more firmly. So I kept it in the refrigerator for another hour or so and then tried it again. This time it was perfect.

This recipe is quite simple to make yet the results are delicious. The white chocolate fudge is so rich, creamy and sweet, it's hard to stop at just a square or two. Since fudge usually freezes pretty well, I left half the recipe out for us to nibble on and froze the other half to serve to guests I have coming this weekend. So not only was this first edition of Sugar High Fridays: The International Sweet-Tooth Blogging Extravaganza fun to participate in, but it also helped me to get one dessert ready for my guests a little in advance.