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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Cheating

Our dear friends Peter and Jen live in Seattle. And we don't get to see them nearly enough. Fortunately Peter's parents still live in the NY suburbs so each year they come East for Christmas. It has become a tradition for us to spend a day with them between Christmas and New Year's while they are out here visiting and this year is no exception.

The day has some must do activities: eating, talking, eating, a walk around the city of sorts, eating, talking, shoe shopping, and a dinner of Chinese food.

Usually I try to put together some yummy snacks for noshing on while we sit around our apartment and partake in the aforementioned eating and talking. This year, since we just got back from Mexico, I really didn't have time to prepare much. So I'm cheating. Well, it's not really cheating. It just made a nice juicy title for this post. I think of it as being very clever when there's no time to prepare and you are entertaining.

My standards include: salsa, hummus, guacamole, a few cheeses, some sausage, nuts, olives, various cut up vegetables, assorted chips (baked tortilla, pita, bagel), crackers and bread. Take everything out of the containers from the store and place the foods into your own pretty serving pieces. Voila - instant hors d'ouvres and you look like a genius.

This isn't exactly the frugal route as it's much cheaper to make all the dips and chips yourself. But time is money. And right now, I don't have much time.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Baby It's Cold Outside

My friend, Sarah, and I were recently having lunch on a typically cold and gray NYC day. We went to our local Mexican restaurant and decided to have the Chicken Lime Tortilla soup. It consisted of a passable chicken soup garnished with a lime wedge and tortilla strips. It really hit the spot on that frigid day but I felt it was missing something. So, of course, I decided to see if I could improve upon it myself. Because I'm always up for a challenge and what can go wrong with chicken soup?

Soon after that cold day, an e-mail from Sarah popped up in my in-box. It was a recipe for a variation of the tortilla soup that just happened to appear in The New York Times that day. I love coincidences. You can see it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/04/health/nutrition/04recipehealth.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y.

While I think this version sounds interesting, I really wanted one based on chicken soup. There's nothing like a good bowl of chicken soup (aka Jewish penicillin) when you're sick or missing your mommy or just damn cold. I tinkered around with my "traditional" soup recipe (generally reserved for Jewish holidays and bad bouts with the common cold) and came up with this version. Full disclosure - I did borrow the idea of nuking the tortillas instead of frying them since it cuts down on the fat and allows me to call this "healthy" too.

In keeping with my new favorite phrase the soup is definitely frugal and I think it's pretty freakin' fabulous. You can shred the chicken into the soup for a heartier meal. Or you can season it a little more and use it as a filling for quesedillas or the basis for a Mexican spiced chicken salad. Some of the guacamole from my previous entry makes a nice accompaniment with some chips, too.

I hope you like it. Oh, and have you guessed where I am yet?

Chicken Tortilla Soup with Lime
Recipe is coming - I swear! Cut me some slack - I just got back from vacation. Make some guacamole or cupcakes while you wait.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hasta la Vista (But first, have some guacamole)

We're outta here for the holidays. Jealous?


My in-laws have graciously given us the gift of Christmas in a warmer climate. And by "us" I mean my entire family of in-laws.

Not so jealous now, I bet.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love my in-laws. I pretty much hit the jack-pot with them. They are kind, generous, wonderful people. But 8 days with everyone is going to be... Let me try to be tactful here... Interesting.

I had planned to set up some posts to go live in my absence but, well, never got around to it. And I figure only about 3 of you actually read this thing so you'll manage.

Have a wonderful "whatever it is you celebrate" and I'll see you soon. This recipe should provide a huge clue as to where we'll be.

Guacamole
Serves 3-4 as an appetizer (or 1 if you're me and can't ever get enough)

Juice of one lime
2-3 TBS finely chopped red onion
1 small clove of garlic, very finely chopped (optional)
2-3 TBS chopped tomato; small dice (seeded)
As much chopped jalapeno as you want; small dice (the heat is in the seeds so it's up to you to determine how spicy you want this to be)
1-2 TBS fresh cilantro, finely chopped (I like my cilantro but I know it's very black and white for most people so feel free to use less or omit it altogether but you can't call it guacamole without it. I kid.)
2 ripe Haas avocados
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Note: Make sure all of your ingredients are prepped before you cut the avocados as they tend to brown when exposed to the air.

To prepare the avocados:
  • Cut around them the long way to divide in half and expose the pit. CAREFULLY (this means you, Josie) insert a large, sharp knife into the pit and twist it slightly. The pit should come loose and dislodge from the flesh as you pull out the knife.
  • Gently bang the knife on the edge of a counter or sink to remove the pit from the edge of your knife. Repeat with the other avocado.
  • Score the inside of each half of avocado into a checkerboard - be careful not to cut through the skin.
  • Using a spoon (a regular soup spoon works best), slide out the avocado pieces by inserting the spoon between the flesh and the skin.
For the guacamole:
  • Mash the avocados until they reach your desired degree of chunkiness. It's all about you!
  • Add in the lime juice, onions, garlic if using, tomato, jalapeno if using, and cilantro (oh, go ahead, use it).
  • Stir to combine.
  • Season with a generous amount of salt and pepper.
Guacamole will keep well for a day or two (but you if you have any left over you clearly did something wrong). To prevent browning make sure that you cover it tightly with plastic wrap and that the wrap is touching the entire surface of the guacamole.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mama Is a Little Too Busy to Post Original Content Today

This picture has nothing to do with today's post. It's the delicious salad I made on Thanksgiving: arugula, roasted butternut squash, fennel, pomegranate seeds, toasted pecans and a maple vinaigrette. I am posting it here so there's something sorta pretty to look at when I don't have any recipes and related pictures to post. It also reminds me that before I got sucked into the black hole of daily life I made some pretty good food once in a while.

I'm up to my eyeballs in a bunch of projects along with getting ready to go away and trying to write thank-you notes to private schools. For those of you who don't live in NYC with a child to educate consider yourselves very lucky that you'll never engage in this process. I can tell you, no lie, that I didn't work nearly this hard to get myself into Cornell. But I love NY. No, really, I do. I just love complaining, too.

Anyhoo...

In the absence of anything to post - here are a few sites of interest that I enjoy visiting - some food related and some not (and in no particular order).

http://borowitzreport.com - Hilarious political satire/commentary.
http://www.inpursuitoftea.com - A great site for delicious tea and enough information about tea to earn you a degree in, oh I don't know, Tea-ology.
http://eater.com - News and commentary on the NYC restaurant scene.
http://thepioneerwoman.com - Fascinating look into a life so vastly different than mine. Don't miss the cooking section - it's fabulous.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com - I'm a raging liberal. So sue me.
http://foodblogsearch.com - An excellent source for recipes that have been tested and critiqued.
http://ecookbooks.com - The name says it all, no? And, if you order $40 worth of stuff you get free gifts - like excellent coffee (or so I am told - Thanks, Sarah!)

Those should keep you busy for a while. I'll be back with your regular dose of recipes mixed with a soupcon of snark, tomorrow.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

It's a Green(Card) Christmas (now, with pictures)

My friends, Sid and Nancy (yes, you read that right), are having a holiday party tonight. Sid recently received his Green Card (hence the name of this post and their party theme) and to celebrate I decided to make some green food and bring it with us to the party. Although I recently learned that Green Cards are, in fact, no longer green. Thank you, Google.

What did we do before the Internet when we needed to know something IMMEDIATELY?

But I digress.

Most green foods are healthy and this was for a party. A holiday party. I wasn't going to bring grilled asparagus (although I did provide a recipe at the end of this post). I wanted to make something Festive. Fun. Delicious. Calorie-laden. So I made these:

These cupcakes are chocolate-y but not overpowering and, despite the two cups of sugar, not too sweet. They stand up nicely to almost any kind of icing - especially those that tend to be rich and/or sweet.

Chocolate Cupcakes with Peppermint Buttercream
Yields 24-28 standard sized cupcakes
Cupcake recipe adapted from Hershey's

For the cupcakes:
2 cups sugar
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
3/4 c cocoa powder (unsweetened)
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup boiling water
  • Pre-heat oven to 350F. Line 2 twelve average capacity muffin tins with the liners of your choice.
  • Stir together the dry ingredients in a bowl that will accommodate the entire recipe.
  • Add in the eggs, milk, oil and vanilla and beat on medium speed of mixer 2 minutes.
  • Stir in boiling water (the batter will be very thin - so thin you'll think you ruined it).
  • Fill the cupcake liners 2/3 of the way.
  • Bake 22-25 minutes (it was exactly 22 minutes in my oven but times may vary).
  • Allow to cool before icing.

For the frosting:
3/4 c unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), softened
1 box (4 cups) confectioner's sugar
3-4 TBS milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp peppermint extract
Green food coloring - optional (unless of course these are for a party where the theme is GREEN)*
8 standard candy canes, crushed (place in a Ziploc bag, pound with a rolling pin and voila)
  • Combine the butter and 1/2 of the sugar in a large bowl. Mix on medium to combine well.
  • Add in the remaining sugar, milk and extracts and mix on medium until combined.
  • Add in coloring if desired (or required)
  • To beat out any bubbles that might appear in the icing and prevent a smooth finish (if you care for one) take a wooden spoon and sort of "mash" the icing until there are no more air bubbles visible.
  • Icing keeps, covered in an air-tight container, 3-4 days.
To assemble:
  • Ice each cupcake with the icing building up a slight rim or lip at the edge.
  • Gently roll the edge in the crushed candy canes (spread them on a plate for easier access)
.

*Note: When it comes to food coloring I prefer the gels to the liquids. They are easier to deal with, more precise and produce more vivid colors (full disclosure - they're also more likely to stain as evidenced by my green fingernails -which are fine now). They are available in limited colors from Williams-Sonoma (www.williams-sonoma.com) or a variety of colors from Wilton (www.wilton.com).


As promised:
Grilled Asparagus with Lemon and Parmesan
Yields 4-6 portions as side dish

This recipe is a family favorite and a great "go-to" for a quick side-dish on a busy weeknight. It's also elegant enough to serve at a dinner party (I vaguely remember attending those in another lifetime) or holiday dinner.

1 1/4 lb asparagus (a good sized bunch - think 5-6 stalks per person)
1-2 TBS olive oil
Zest of one lemon
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
A few TBS of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • Preheat the oven to 400 F.
  • Wash asparagus and dry thoroughly (any excess water will result in steaming and we don't want that).
  • Trim off the tougher ends of the asparagus - you can either break them individually at the point where they bend or just line them up and chop off about an inch or so from the bottom (guess which method I use?).
  • Toss the asparagus with the olive oil, lemon zest and salt and pepper to taste (I like these salty but remember the Parmesan will add more salt at the end). This step is great for child involvement - they'll love the tactile experience of the oil.
  • Place the asparagus on a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer, leaving room between the stalks so the air can circulate.
  • Roast for 20-25 minutes or until the asparagus starts to brown, shaking the pan once or twice during the process.
  • Remove from oven, place into a serving dish and sprinkle on the Parmesan cheese which will melt from the heat of the asparagus.
  • Leftovers (if there are any) are great on their own, served cold, chopped into a salad, mixed into cous cous or quinoa, tossed with pasta, as an addition in a quiche...

Friday, December 12, 2008

You Are What You Eat, Part Deux

"Dollar 'value meals' at fast food restaurants may not be such a bargain when you look at the potential health costs. Many of these low-cost menu items are packed with fat, salt, cholesterol and processed meat..."

Really? Who knew? I'm shocked. SHOCKED to learn there's a bunch of unhealthy crap in fast food.

Must be a slow news day. But it is topical.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/12/health/10meals.html?_r=1

You Are What You Eat

Read those labels. http://www.nutritiondata.com/

There's some scary stuff in the foods we eat. Look for foods low in saturated fats and high in soluble fiber. Eat your veggies. Drink a lot of water. While I'm at it - when was the last time you exercised?

I know I sound like your mother. But I am a mother. I'm obligated. And remember I gave you a recipe for cookies yesterday; I'm just evening things out. Maybe it's guilt. I don't know.

Since I'm already on my soapbox why don't you check out this Op-Ed piece from Thursday's NYT? http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/11/opinion/11kristof.html?_r=2

We need to support the small, local and/or organic farms that strive to improve the quality of our food and our lives. It's time to move away from corporate dominated agriculture and the influence of lobbyists. If they have their way one day, instead of ingesting actual food, we'll be taking high fructose corn syrup intravenously. Yummy.

OK - I'm exaggerating. But you get my point.

I'll be back with recipes tomorrow.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Frugal but Fabulous*: Holiday Cookies (and random musings)

Those of you who know me well know that I am the biggest Christmas loving Jew you'll ever meet. Imagine my delight in marrying a man who was Christian and Chinese. For the last 12 years I have not only been able to maintain the tradition long established by my people (Chinese Food + Movies = Christmas) but I also get *presents*. Really, it's the perfect storm of holiday goodness.

And, we can't forget Chanukah. A holiday the celebrates the wonders of oil. Presents and fried food. We Jews know how to par-tay.

Aren't the holidays wonderful? Sigh.

In the spirit of the season I give you my favorite cut-out cookie recipe. These cookies are easy to make and kid friendly, cost very little and are a great way to get into the holiday mood. They also fall under the Frugal but Fabulous banner: they make excellent and festive holiday gifts (think co-workers, teachers, your friendly US postal employee, etc.) in these trying times.

Don't worry about how they look. Just enjoy the process of making them. And, if you're making these with children, just savor the time you spend together.

Next time I will take step by step pictures. Cut me some slack, please. I'm new to this!

Everyone into the kitchen: it's time to get baking!


Basic Cut Out Cookies
Yields approximately 4 dozen 3" cookies

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 TBS baking powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon (optional)
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened so they yield to the touch, not melted
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla


  • Preheat oven to 350 F.
  • Combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon (if using) and salt in a bowl. Mix well and set aside.
  • Cream butter and sugar together until very pale yellow and fluffy.
  • Add in egg and vanilla and mix to combine well.
  • Add in dry ingredients in 3-4 additions, mixing well in between each.
  • Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface and knead to bring the dough together - it should be smooth.
  • Divide into 3 equal parts and flatten each into a disk. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap or parchment paper. Chill for at least 1/2 hour before rolling and cutting out shapes. Can be frozen at this point and used at a later date. Just place the wrapped dough into an air-tight container.
  • Roll out to between 1/8 and 1/4" (1/4" are sturdier and easier to transfer to baking sheets). Either roll on a surface you don't mind coating with flour or roll between two pieces of parchment paper (much easier!!). Scraps can be chilled and re-rolled but will be a little tougher the more they are rolled.
  • Bake 8-10 minutes, on ungreased sheets or sheets lined with parchment, until lightly golden.
  • Cool on a wire rack and decorate if desired.

To decorate:
Option 1 - mix 1 egg yolk with 1tsp water and food coloring and "paint" the cookies (using watercolor brushes) before baking
Option 2 - lightly dab cookies with water and sprinkle on colored sugar before baking
Option 3 - once cooled completely ice with royal icing (1 box confectioner's sugar, 3 TBS pasteurized dried egg whites ("Just Whites" brand is carried by most grocery stores in the baking aisle) 4-8 TBS milk and 1 tsp vanilla, lemon or almond extract. Combine dry ingredients and then, using only 4 TBS liquid to start, blend together. The icing should be slightly thicker than Elmer's glue). Icing can be piped on using a pastry bag and tips or by placing in a Ziploc bag and cutting off a very small piece of a corner. Icing will harden on the cookies if left to dry overnight. While icing is wet you can sprinkle on colored sugar which will also dry. Icing takes well to coloring.

Note: These bake up the best when they're very cold before going into the oven. I usually refrigerate them for 15 minutes after I have cut them out before baking. This way the edges are very neat and the cookies don't spread when baking.

*Shout out to Debby for the catchy name. Check out her cool website at: http://www.debbygansphotography.com/

Wednesday, December 10, 2008