Wednesday, May 28, 2008

[Mostly] Shameless Self-Plugging

In addition to this blog as well as my other, more general blog (and, at the moment, sadly neglected), Wannabe Cowgirl, I have a couple of other presences on the web where you can find my writing and content. One is Foodbuzz, the foodie networking and resource site that I blogged about a short while ago.

Another major hot spot for my original published articles is Associated Content. This website has given some of the recipes from Muffin Love a home, such as my mini frittata recipe. That's not all, though! I have numerous publications there, many of them food-related, while others are not. Find recipes, reviews, and other fun articles by your's truly. In the spirit of (mostly) shameless self-promotion, here are a few of my articles, both food-related and otherwise, that have been published by Associated Content.

Food-Themed Articles

Fast and Fabulous Fourth of July Recipes -- Three delicious, easy, and nutritious recipes to grace the table of your Independence Day celebration.

Starbucks' Honey Latte: A Review of Starbucks' Newest Beverage -- I give my thoughts on the summer's newest espresso creation available at Starbucks.

Mother's Day Morning Meal Idea -- A collection of delicious and healthy recipes that make the perfect spring-themed Mother's Day brunch. My favorite dish from this bunch is for apple cottage cheese pancakes. Yum!

Surprising Eco-Friendly Moms with Green Mother's Day Celebrations -- Ideas on how to honor and celebrate a green-minded mom, from food to activities to gifts.

Special Mother's Day Picnic Recipes -- A group of recipes that are both tasty and portable whether you're using them to celebrate Mother's Day or not.

McCormick's Fish House & Bar: A Review -- I review the Denver, CO, seafood restaurant. Don't worry if you don't live in Denver, because there are hundreds of McCormick's restaurants locations nationwide.

Consorzio Mango Fat-Free Dressing: A Review -- In this product review I check out the fat-free mango dressing made by the same folks as Annie's Naturals products.

The New LUNA Tea Cake: A Review -- This time I take on the newest snack-time nutrition bar from the makers of the LUNA Bar.

Other Interesting Articles

How to Learn Yoga at Home -- I offer some advice on how to learn yoga in the comfort and privacy of your own home, reviewing the best books, DVDs, and other resources for such an endeavor.

Coast to Coast: the 10 Biggest Fourth of July Events in the U.S -- Ever wonder what the best places to celebrate Independence Day are? Here are my thoughts on some of the biggest events in the nation.

Play Typer Shark Online -- I review the best web locations to play and download the addictive cult game, Typer Shark.

Some of my other published articles include video game reviews, and watch for future content in the field of education as I have a number of lesson plans in the works. Also, more holiday menu and quick recipe ideas are on tap, as are additional yoga-themed articles. To stay updated, subscribe to my AC content feed by clicking on "Subscribe" here.

If you are a freelance writer and are interested in joining Associated Content as a content producer yourself, learn more here.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Throwing Down the Gauntlet: Raspberry Quesadillas

This month's challenge ingredients for The Leftover Queen's Royal Foodie Joust had me very excited from the start: raspberry, lime and almond. What a combination! What possibilities! The aspiring jouster could easily travel in a sweet or savory direction with equivalent success. My brain buzzed with an array of options. Chicken marinated in a raspberry-lime sauce and then stir-fried with fresh veggies, perhaps? Or raspberry-lime pancakes sprinkled with sliced almonds, or spread with almond butter? Of course, I couldn't resist at least toying with the idea of a brand new muffin recipe, but that seemed a little too easy.

My first attempt, although not a total failure, did not turn out the way I had hoped. Raspberry zinger cornbread sounded good in theory, and wasn't half bad in reality. I've tweaked the recipe, but I think that it still needs a little more development. Raspberry zinger cornbread pancakes sound delectable, so I may end up making myself some of those one morning for breakfast, or even as part of a breakfast-themed bento.

Foibles and failures aside, I did come up with a successful, healthy, and (if I may say so myself) pretty darn tasty entry for this month's Joust. I throw down the gauntlet, bite my thumb at you, and challenge all comers in a generally anachronistic manner with my June submission, raspberry quesadillas. Stuffed with a spicy homemade raspberry salsa and mozzarella cheese, these colorful dinners are fun and filling.

Raspberry Quesadillas

raspberry salsa (recipe below)
2 tortillas
2/3 cup shredded mozzarella
1/4 cup sliced almonds
6 black olives, sliced (optional)
sour cream (or alternative, optional)
cooking spray/oil

Heat a skillet or frying pan to a medium-high temperature, covering the cooking surface with cooking spray or oil of your choice. While the skillet is warming, fill the tortillas. Spread one half of each tortilla with 1/3 cup of mozzarella cheese, being sure to leave about 1/2 inch between the filling and the edge of the tortilla to prevent the cheese from melting out when you cook it. Spoon raspberry salsa over the mozzarella, again leaving a 1/2 inch buffer between the filling and the edge of the tortilla. Sprinkle 1/8 cup of almonds over the top of tortilla's filling, garnishing with sliced olives if desired. Fold the "empty" half of the tortilla over the top of the filling. (If your tortillas are particularly stiff, you can heat them on the skillet for a minute or in the microwave for about 15-20 seconds before filling them.)

Carefully transfer the uncooked quesadillas to the skillet, cooking for about 3-4 minutes. Flip, cooking the other side until the tortillas are just browned and the cheese has melted. Serve topped with more salsa, and with sour cream (or an alternative like fat-free quark, which is what I used), more olives, and any other garnishes of your choice.

Raspberry Salsa

2 cups raspberries, fresh or frozen (I used frozen, and they worked great)
1/2 cup white beans (I used canned)
1/4 cup chopped white onion
3 tsp finely chopped jalapeno pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 tsp white sugar
3 T lime juice
2/3 tomatilla, chopped

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl, mixing thoroughly. Refrigerate for at least one hour to let the flavors blend, and preferably overnight (I let my salsa sit for 2 days, and it tasted great!). Perfect as a filler for quesadillas, this salsa also made a wonderful snack with Guiltless Gourmet's chipotle lime tortilla chips.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Lasso a Bento: This Week's Bento Round-Up

It's been an exciting week of bento-making. Not only have I managed to make a bento for every lunch this week, but I've also explored new tastes and even created several new recipes! The experimentation with new foods, techniques, and flavors is a blast, and one of my favorite aspects of using a bento box.

A quick word on future bento reports here on Muffin Love -- I've decided to post with a bento round-up toward the end of each week showcasing any and all bento meals from that time period. This is because I'm a little lazy and don't always feel like (or, more legitimately, have time for) posting daily on the state of the bento. Also, as much as I adore bento, this is not a bento-only blog (yet, anyway). I don't want it to become to bento heavy, but rather remain a little more well-rounded. With that settled, on to this week's round-up!

I continue to improve in packing more filling bento lunches that won't leave me feeling hungry. I still am leery of packing too many "heavier" items, though, like beans and non-fat-free carbohydrates, or a hard boiled egg with a bean spread. I need to get past this stigma, both to increase my own healthiness as well as the effectiveness of each bento. However, this week's array did see a marked improvement in space use and neatness. I began using waxed paper to keep messier items a little more contained. It's not a mess-proofing addition, but it does help quite a bit. Also. these bentos were all very satisfying in terms of taste, with one exception (see Thursday's box for some sadly soggy crackers).

Let me know your thoughts on these bento lunches! Try out my brand-new recipes and let me know how you enjoy them, as well as how you tweak the recipes to make them your own. I appreciate your feedback, lovely reader, as well as any suggestions from veteran bento-makers.

Sunday, Bento #8: Curried Hummus and Cukes

Bottom tier (top): 1 package wheat Melba Toast (5 crackers), 1 piece dried ginger, carrots, dried papaya.
Top tier (bottom): Curried hummus (hidden beneath the carrots) and cucumber and tomato salad with dried mint and fat-free quark.

Monday, Bento #9: Out-of-This-World Bento

Lid (top): 2 dried apricots
Top tier (middle): Tomatoes, fat-free cottage cheese with dried cranberries for the alien's eyes and mouth, carrots, the last of the curried hummus, and dried cranberries tucked around the cups.
Bottom tier (bottom): Fat-free cream cheese (in the little popsicle container), 1 slice of dried ginger, 1 package of wheat Melba Toast (5 crackers), and fresh French beans.

Tuesday, Bento #10: Asian Tuna Bento

Lid (top): 1 peppermint.
Bottom tier (middle): Fat-free cream cheese (in the popsicle container), French beans, and tomatoes (hidden beneath the beans).
Top tier (bottom): Asian Tuna Salad (see below for the recipe!), fat-free cottage cheese, tamari sesame brown rice crackers, and dried tropical fruit mix.

Asian Tuna Salad

Fish is a staple of authentic Japanese bento boxes. I wanted to try to incorporate more "real" bento foods into my lunch as well as increase my healthy proteins and fats. Since I have a number of cans of light tuna lurking in the darkest and most out-of-reach corners of my kitchen cupboards, I decided that a nice tuna salad would be a perfect way to accomplish this while making use of the aging (but completely viable) tuna. This simple recipe is perfect for a hot day (which Tuesday was!).

1 can tuna
1/4 tsp ginger powder
1 T fat-free quark (or plain yogurt)
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp curry
1/2 tsp lemon juice
2 T soy sauce, plus more to taste
1 T rice vinegar
diced cucumber and broccoli

Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl, stirring until thoroughly mixed. (Regarding the vegetables -- use as much as you like. I used one small 6 inch cucumber, and a couple of small florets of broccoli.) Refrigerate for at least one hour, then serve.

Wednesday, Bento #11: Asian Tuna Redux

Lid (not pictured): 1 peppermint.
Top tier (left): Applesauce, fat-free cottage cheese, and the rest of the Asian Tuna Salad.
Bottom tier (right): Tamari sesame brown rice crackers, raisins, and French beans.

Thursday, Bento #12: Almost Nostalgic Bento

Lid (not pictured): 1 peppermint.
Bottom tier (top): Tropical fruit mix, 3 Ryvita crackers (2 dark rye, 1 fruit flavored), with the two rye crackers spread with fat-free cream cheese and locally made huckleberry jam.
Top tier (bottom): 1 hard boiled egg (sliced in half and sprinkled along the cut with salt and pepper), dried cranberries and raisins, applesauce with cinnamon and raisins, and French beans and red bell peppers sauteed with balsamic vinegar, garlic, and basil (based off this recipe).

This is my sad, failed bento -- but at least it was not a completely lost cause! I enjoyed the top tier of the box immensely, although in the future I will add more balsamic and basil to the veggies. The crackers, however, were not so pleasing. One of my favorite lunches that I would make as a child were cream cheese and jelly sandwiches. Having inherited a jar of locally made (and incredibly delicious) huckleberry jam from somewhere (my parents? my in-laws? I can't remember), I decided to make my trusty sandwich of old, except using fat-free cream cheese and crackers. I've had cream cheese on these crackers before, and it has never failed me -- until now. In the past, I always ate the crackers straight away. With this bento, however, the crackers sat covered with cream cheese and jam for a few hours before I ate them. The result here was two soggy crackers covered with dessicated cream cheese and lumpy jam. In other words, not the nostalgic lunch I had hoped for. The idea is just fine; next time I will simply pack the spreads on the side.

Friday, Bento #13: Lentil-licious Bento

Top tier (top): Spicy lentil dip (based on this recipe), Saucy Veggie Sautee (see below for the recipe), and applesauce with a happy face of raisins (the face is meant to represent a girl as my submission for this week's Zodiac challenge for Bento Challenge -- my astrological sign is Virgo).
Bottom tier (bottom): Carrots, cucumbers, 1 package of wheat Melba Toast (5 crackers), and a lone tomato.

Saucy Veggie Sautee

Inspired by the sauteed beans and peppers of Thursday's bento lunch, I was sure that I could come up with a better recipe. Wanting more of a bite than what the balsamic lent the vegetables, I opted for a more Asian-tasting mixture of sauces. My initial taste test indicates a thumbs up for this recipe, but I'll hold reservation until after I eat the contents of this bento. This recipe is of the splash-and-dash, meaning that I didn't measure ingredients but added a little of everything until it tasted good. I approximated the amount of each ingredient that I used, but don't worry too much about the actual amounts as the ratios are more important. I'd love to hear if you add anything else to this recipe, and how it turns out! Use your best judgment, trust your taste buds, and have fun with this one.

Fresh French beans, trimmed and chopped (1 cup)
Sliced fresh carrots (1/4 cup)
Low sodium soy sauce (2 T)
Rice vinegar (1 T)
Ginger (the spice, but use what you have on hand) (1/4 tsp)

Sautee the vegetables over medium to high heat in a pan or skillet greased with oil or cooking spray. Cook for 3-4 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender but still retain their color.
Add the soy sauce, rice vinegar, and ginger. Stir and cook for another minute, then remove. Serve or store as needed. Makes 1 small serving.

Whew! That was quite the round-up! With about two weeks' worth of bento creation under my belt, I'm still having fun, and my head is bursting with ideas and new recipe possibilities. Who knows what exciting inventions will pop up in next week's bento round-up!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Indigo Smoothie: A Quick Recipe

It's hot here in western Montana! Biking through my round of errands yesterday left me sweaty, thirsty, and a not a little crispy with sunburn. This quick and surprisingly purple tropical smoothie hit the spot perfectly!

Indigo Smoothie

1/2 cup diced canned, unsweetened pineapple
1/4 cup pineapple juice (from the can of pineapple)
1/2 cup apple sauce
1/4 cup frozen blueberries (fresh is great as well -- use what you've got on hand!)
1-2 handfuls ice cubes (according to how textured, cold, and fluffy you like your smoothies)
1 tsp frozen orange juice concentrate (or 1/4 cup orange juice)
2 T lime juice (or more to taste)

Blend until smooth. If you'd like a little more substance, try adding 1/4 cup of skim milk or vanilla yogurt, or perhaps half of a banana. Be sure to drink your smoothie from a glass so as to better delight in its vivid color!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Thanks A-Latte!

I am a coffee drinker. Black, espresso, lattes, cappuccinos, hot or cold, flavored or otherwise -- I enjoy it all. My favorite caffeinated beverage is a skim super foamy cappuccino, and by that I mean that I want just shots topped by about sixteen ounces of foam which I then proceed to eat with a spoon. Yum!

Recently, however, I have been drinking more super foamy lattes instead, which is about half foam and half milk and espresso, in order to get some more calcium in my diet. Plus, they're just plain tasty, especially with a little almond or caramel flavor. If I get a flavored latte, I tend to stick with those flavors as I don't really feel sure about some of the others, like coconut or raspberry. They just don't sound appealing when mixed with coffee.

Last week, while I was ordering my morning latte, a curious new addition to the coffee shop's flavor list caught my eye -- sugar-free pancake. Pancake? In a latte?

Now, don't get me wrong, I love a good stack of Saturday morning blueberry pancakes, sticky with syrup. But a pancake-flavored coffee? It sounds as improbable as the peanut butter coffee syrup that has been languishing in the kitchen at one of my workplaces for over a year now, virtually untapped.

Simultaneously captivated and vaguely disturbed by the idea of a pancake latte, I decided to ask one of the baristas. How could I not? Well, apparently the barista who added the special flavor to the list did not mean that it tastes like actual pancakes. Instead, he or she meant to convey a brand-new maple addition to the menu.

Remember how I mentioned my healthy love of maple syrup-doused pancakes? As a Vermont maple syrup fanatic and lover of all things maple flavored and scented, this revelation found me soon sipping a super foamy "pancake" latte. (Incidentally, it occurs to me that maple muffins might taste divine! I will have to explore this matter in the future. It is obviously a burden that I must shoulder for the good of society. Obviously.)

The latte tasted pretty good, especially for a sugar-free flavor. Also, I only ordered half a shot of flavor as I'm not too fond of aspartame and the related death that the sweetener seems to encourage. Sugar-free cancer? No, thank you. But I will partake of a pancake, a.k.a. maple, latte with pleasure. Yes, please!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Bento Round-Up, With a Side of Hummus

My bento lunches for the rest of this past week treated me well. They gave me the opportunity to explore not just one, but two fabulous new recipes, and they filled my belly fairly well. With all of these, I would probably add a few nuts or a slice of cheese in the future. A fellow member of LiveJournal's Bento Lunches group suggested that I try using a traditional bento dish, rice, in my box. I do want to attempt brown rice onigiri -- my brain likes the idea of a tuna or apricot filling, or perhaps tuna-and-apricot -- but at the same time, the process is rather intimidating. Especially as I find rice difficult to prepare well plain, let alone throwing in the additional task of molding it into little balls of healthy-grained delight.

But still, I do want to give onigiri a go. Perhaps tonight is the night -- my kitchen is clean, I've got some time. It's really too bad that a) I'm feeling lazy, and b) I don't feel much like thinking about next week yet. Even though "next week" officially begins in less than four hours. While I maintain my illusions of weekends and vacation-y goodness, on to the bento round-up! These are my last three bento lunches from the past week. If you have thoughts, suggestions, or tips, please share them! I can (and will!) use all the help I can get.

Wednesday -- Bento #5

Bottom tier (left): 1 package of wheat Melba Toast (5 crackers), tropical dried fruit mix, and chipotle salsa in the little container.

Top tier (right): 3 mini spinach frittatas with fat-free quark, fresh French beans, and fat-free cottage cheese.

Thursday -- Bento #6

Bottom tier (left): 1 light rye Ryvita cracker (hidden by the beans), French beans, tomatoes, dried apricots, and dried cranberries (hidden by the tomatoes)

Top tier (right): 2 more Ryvita crackers, 4 mini spinach frittatas (hidden by the crackers), and frozen mixed berries (they were no longer frozen when I ate them, and rather soggy and goopy, although not bad).

Friday -- Bento #7

Bottom tier (left): 1 package of wheat Melba Toast (5 crackers), fresh carrots, and dried cranberries.

Top tier (right): Curried hummus and a cucumber and tomato salad.

This is the most delicious bento I've put together so far, and that came as such a surprise. I don't traditionally seek after Indian/curry flavors, and this bento is heavy on that type of taste. I assembled both the salad and the hummus the night before I packed this lunch up, and when I had finished both dishes I didn't feel too impressed with either one of them. Apparently, though, an overnight stay in the fridge is exactly what they needed to allow the flavors to really meld into my most satisfying and scrumptious bento to date.

The salad is based off this recipe from Just Bento, except that I used 2 T fat-free quark instead of the yogurt, and curry powder instead of the podina masala powder. It was so fresh, light, and crunchy, and absolutely delicious! As for the spread, I had been wanting to try making hummus for quite some time, so I seized the day and made a batch just for my bento lunches. Using this intriguing recipe from AllRecipes as a guide, I made a few changes and continue to be highly excited by the results. I still have about two-thirds of the batch left, and I can't wait to use it in next week's bento boxes! It goes wonderfully with both the carrots and the Melba Toast that I packed them with in this bento.

Curried Hummus

1 can garbonzo beans
1 1/2 garlic cloves, minced
2 t curry powder
3 T lemon juice
1/4 cup water
hot sauce to taste

Combine all the ingredients and blend, blend, blend! Refrigerate for at least an hour, or overnight. Serve with crackers, pita chips, veggies, or just eat it with a spoon at any temperature.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Frittata: It's What's For Lunch

With each day's fresh attempt at packing a bento lunch, I find that I am having more and more success. I'm getting better at using the small space within the bento economically as well as increasing in the nutritional efficiency of each lunch. The mess factor is even decreasing, which gives me a warm, happy feeling when I sit down to a non-gloopy afternoon meal.

Still, due to the rectangular shape of my particular bento box, it seems difficult to find foods that will fit together well inside. I wanted to pack slices of frittatas, but the usual circular frying-pan shape of the food didn't seem to jive well with bento packing. After poking around on All Recipes, I found a wonderful recipe for mini frittatas baked in muffin tins. Miniature egg muffins? What could be more perfect for a bento box? Not much, I surmised, and quickly whipped up a half batch.

Not only were these frittatas incredibly easy and fast to make, but they are incredibly healthy. I made mine with fat-free cheeses and egg substitute, reaping the calcium and protein benefits without the extra saturated fats. (For other calcium-rich dishes, check out Food Blogga's Beautiful Bones challenge.) Prepare these with whatever kind of cheese floats your boat, and feel free to experiment with different vegetables as well. Red bell peppers and onions with cheddar cheese sounds tantalizing, as does broccoli with mushrooms. Try spicy variations or Asian style frittatas -- the possibilities are truly endless for this versatile dish.

Miniature frittatas are perfect for any food occasion. Pack them up for lunch as I did, or serve them as finger foods for a light afternoon tea or snack. (For additional tea menu items, check out the Skinny Gourmet's Spring Tea Party event!) They can serve as a fast breakfast or as a side dish at dinner time. Go bananas! (Incidentally, doesn't a peanut butter and banana frittata sound intriguing?)

For some reason -- probably due at least in part to the fact that I made these somewhat late at night -- this recipe yielded seven mini frittatas. I believe that it should actually have made six slightly larger frittatas. Next, time, I will double the recipe and make twelve so I can pack four at a time in my bento, a number which seems to serve me best in terms of both nutrition and space.

Mmmmini Spinach Frittatas

3 oz. chopped spinach
2 T quark (or sour cream)
1/2 cup cheddar
1/4 cup mozzarella
2 eggs
1/8 cup milk

1/8 tsp hot sauce
1/2 tsp cumin
1/8 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp lemon juice
1 T dried cilantro
1 1/2 T salsa

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

With a fork or whisk, beat the eggs, milk, hot sauce, salsa, and spices well. Stir in the cheeses, spinach, and quark, mixing thoroughly.

Pour into six greased (I used canola oil cooking spray) regular-sized muffin cups and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until browned and slightly crispy on top. Remove from the oven and let stand for 5 minutes. Serve warm, or refrigerate for tomorrow's lunch.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

How Not to Make Cornbread

Ah, cornbread. The perfect combination of the sweet and the gritty, of comfort and strength. I always think of cornbread personified as a kind cowboy -- tough and rugged, and curiously gentle. I don't know how it works, but the bread's (and the cowboy's, I suppose, to really force the analogy) rough texture combined the light honeyed taste just do. Wonderfully, cosmically, without fail.

Except for my most recent loaf. Over-baked, bland, and broken, the cornbread that emerged from my oven earlier this week in no way embodied cowboy-incarnated perfection. It's sad, really, because cornbread is not hard to make. In fact, I've produced several loaves and batches of corn muffins to great effect. Throw a little butter or honey onto a warm slice of cornbread and you're golden, both literally and otherwise.

But not this time. I blame it on my own overzealous ambition. I wanted to make cornbread, with a twist. Cornbread that really popped. Cornbread that was different, brilliant, a shining light in the cornbread community.

This month's ingredients for the Royal Foodie Joust, hosted by The Leftover Queen, are raspberry, lime, and almond. Fruity, nutty goodness, eh? My brain hummed and percolated, until I decided -- wouldn't those ingredients taste great folded into a loaf of cornbread? A little sweet, a little savory, it seemed like a sure success.

The loaf, along with the two sampling muffins for myself and the Best Husband Ever (I wanted to give the loaf of bread to my wonderful mother-in-law), looked really lovely as it went into the oven. Raspberry zinger cornbread crusted in almonds -- it couldn't fail. The lime with the cornbread reminded me of Mexican-style tastes, while the raspberries seemed to lend color, sweetness, and extra zing. The almonds would add sustenance and a beautifully crunchy top crust, I thought. With a little lime zest grated over the top of the bread, I closed the oven and waited with great expectation.

The two muffins finished baking first. Setting one aside for the hubby, I settled down to enjoy my Joust-winning raspberry zinger corn muffin. Warm and steaming and full of plump, pink raspberries, the muffin tasted -- pretty good. Not bad, to be sure. But not amazing. Not brilliant. Not zipping with limey tang as I had thought. Instead it just tasted like cornbread with some raspberries thrown in.

Darn. What happened? In hindsight, I think the failure in terms of taste is due to a deficit of limes. Next time I will put at least one whole lime into the batter in addition to the two tablespoons of lime juice. Also, the sprinkling of lime zest didn't seem to add much, if any, flavor as I trouble grating the rind. It came off sort of gloopy instead of as the crisper curls that I expected.

The loaf of cornbread still baked away in the oven. It seemed to be taking much longer than its usual twenty-five-ish minutes. Perhaps I was just feeling hasty, eager to practice some yoga and get on with my day. I poked the warming bread with what felt like an eternity of toothpicks, but they continued to come out sticky. After about forty minutes, I decided that enough was enough and removed the cornbread, setting it to cool in its pan for a few minutes before attempting to move it to a cooling rack.

Upending the loaf, which at this point seemed overly brown and crispy on top, was a mistake. Everything seemed to be going well until half of the bread dislodged and uncooked batter poured out. I yelped, righted the pan, and hastily stuffed the now mangled bread bake into the oven, where I let it bake for another twenty minutes or so.

The final result was more than salvageable. Only the bottom of half of the loaf had fallen out, so I could passably disguise the mistake. Also, it all tasted pretty good, and didn't come out too dry. I could still gift it to my mother-in-law, although with same sadness as she -- and any mom, really -- deserves a non-crippled loaf of cornbread. Still, it seemed like a waste to do anything else with the forlorn bread. She was, as always, gracious and exclaimed over it regardless.

But is the cornbread worthy of the Joust? I really don't think so. It doesn't truly embrace or show off the combination of raspberries, lime, and almonds in a unique way. So another attempt is in order for June's Joust for me. I was toying with the idea of cornbread pancakes with raspberry, lime, and ground almonds, or perhaps almond butter, but at this point I don't know if I'm up for another cornbread adventure or, as the case may be, misadventure. For now, enjoy this updated and not-bad-at-all recipe.

Raspberry Zinger Cornbread

3/4 cup cornmeal
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 t baking powder

1 cup skim milk
1/4 cup applesauce
1/4 cup egg replacer (or 1 egg, or 2 whites)

1 cup raspberries
1 whole lime, chopped, rind removed
2 T lime juice
1/4 cup sliced almonds

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Combine the dry ingredients. Add the milk, egg, applesauce, berries, lime, and lime juice. Stir until fully mixed.

Pour into a bread pan or a muffin tin. Sprinkle almonds and grated rind from the lime over the top of the batter, covering the entire area.

Bake for 20-25 minutes for muffins, or 40-50 minutes for a loaf, or until the top is golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Of Beans and Bento

I am starting to get a handle on how to effectively pack a bento lunchbox. On Monday I found myself working my mall-bound retail job, so I needed something that I could eat without too much fuss while standing, grabbing bites in between helping customers. So I ended up with a quick and rather light lunch. The bottom tier held one cup of fat-free cottage cheese, which is a favorite easy food of mine. In the top tier I put a package of Melba Toast, which holds five pieces per pack. On top of that I piled French cut beans, carrots, and tomatoes. I rounded the meal off with an apple. This bento was successful in terms of low mess factor, but I also felt pretty hungry by mid-afternoon. Next time I will add some nuts or other protein.

Thankfully, Monday night's dinner made up for lunchtime's lack of protein. I had a can of pinto beans languishing in my cupboard that I felt the need to put to good use. Since the weather here in western Montana has been gray and dreary since the weekend, I decided that some hearty chili was in order. I created this recipe with a mind to using not only the pinto beans but also the quickly ripening onions and spinach that were lurking at the the bottom of my refrigerator. With a tangy chipotle salsa base, this dish was filling, healthy, and all-around yummy. Most exciting to me, however, was the fact that this is one of the first -- if not the first! -- recipe that I created completely on my own without consulting websites, blogs, or cookbooks for ideas and advice. I'm quite proud of the result! I even managed to record it, instead of my usual "add a little of this 'n' that" approach to cooking off the cuff. I served the chili with tortilla chips and garnished it with shredded cheddar cheese, and a little fat-free quark for me and sliced olives for the Best Husband Ever.

The leftover pinto bean chili made it into my Tuesday bento lunch. And . . . the leftovers, eaten at room temperature, tasted even better than the previous night's dinner served fresh from the stove! The flavors of the salsa and spices really soaked into the beans and veggies. I sprinkled on a little shredded cheddar (in the green bunny cute -- can you say cute? -- and a plop of quark (in the pink popsicle container that says "fruit") and scooped away with Guiltless Gourmet blue corn chips. Yum! French cut fresh beans and a pear rounded off the meal nicely.

This is by far my best bento to date. Not only was the meal delicious, but the contents generated little to no mess. The chili isn't soupy at all, so I could pack it into the box's bottom tier quite densely without any seepage. My only complaint is that it further stained the box's white tier median orange. I will have to look into stain removal techniques. Again, however, I think I needed a little more nutrition from this lunch, perhaps in the form of more complex carbohydrates or, as with Monday's lunch, a few nuts. Still, my bento ninja skills continue to improve, and I'm having a blast at the same time.

Rainy Day Pinto Bean Chili

1 can (15.5 oz.) pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup frozen corn (feel free to use fresh)
1/2 cup fresh spinach, chopped
1/2 cup fresh mushrooms, chopped
1/2 cup fresh tomatoes, chopped
1/4 cup white onion, diced
1/2 yellow pepper, diced
1/2 carrot, diced
1/2 tomatillo, leaves peeled off and diced

1 tsp dried cilantro (or use a good handful of the fresh herb)
1 T minced fresh garlic
2 T lime juice
1 T balsamic vinegar
black pepper to taste

1 cup salsa (I used Old El Paso's Fresh Mexican Style Smooth Chipotle)
cooking spray

1/2 cup shredded cheddar (or monteray jack) cheese
sour cream (or a substitute like quark)
tortilla chips
sliced olives

Coat a nonstick frying pan or skillet with nonstick cooking spray (I use Pam's canola oil spray). Over medium heat, saute the garlic and vegetables, stirring often. After about five minutes, add the beans, salsa, lime juice, and vinegar. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat slightly and cover. Simmer until the vegetables (especially the carrots) are softer but still retain their color. Serve, topping with tortilla chips, cheddar cheese, and any other garnishes that you desire. Serves two large meals, or three slightly smaller portions -- perfect for tomorrow's lunch!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Bento Deux, and a Review

I'm in this, folks. This bento thing, I mean. I continue to be very excited about the opportunities that bentos provide for for: a) improved health and nutrition, b) time-thrifty lunches, and c) super cuteness (also known as "kawaii" in Japan). Unfortunately, bento box packing is apparently not as easy as it first appears. After ogling the delicious and adorable bento creations at sites like Just Bento, Lunch Bucket Bento, and Lunch in a Box, I figured that I would be whipping up freezer-fulls of onigiri (rice balls, often filled with a fish and wrapped in seaweed) and other portable goodies in no time.

But my first attempts at bento building have not yielded as much success as I would like. My first bento was a decently filling meal of leftover chicken tortilla soup, Guiltless Gourmet chips, and a tiny salad. However, I felt hungry within an hour or so, and I ran into trouble with the soup spilling out of the box's bottom tier.

This time around I was determined to pack more economically. The bottom tier of the bento housed a spinach salad with tomatoes, broccoli, mushrooms, and balsamic vinegar -- okay, so that's not so economical in terms of both space and nutrition. But I did pack the top tier much more efficiently. I filled one side of the top tier with a half cup of fat-free cottage cheese. The other half I crammed with two slices of baked tofu, dried fruit, and more mushrooms, all separated by pieces of nori seaweed. I think this box ended up being quite good in terms of space usage, although I probably should cut down a little on the veggies and incorporate some kind of a grain, such as crackers or rice. The issue with this bento, however, was that of mess. The pink divider in the top tier is removeable, so juice from the cottage cheese seeped underneath it and made the fruit and tofu rather icky. Also, the seaweed was damp and soggy by the time I ate it from both the cottage cheese leakage as well as its close proximity to the sticky tofu. The resulting meal disappointed me, and it was also tricky to eat without making a mess of myself.

Part of my lackluster bentos is, I know, due to my current status as a bento newbie. But I do lay some of the blame with the box. Purchased from Sugar Charms, this 620 ml box is just about the cutest thing I've ever seen. According to the nutritional requirements that govern bento box sizing, a female of my age needs a box that holds 600 ml. However, that is without adding 200 ml for greater height and activity levels. In short, I think I picked a box that is just a bit too small. A poor choice on this unititiated gal's part.

I do have some gripes about the box itself, though. One is the sealing of the box's tiers, or rather the lack of sealing. I thought that, when assembled, the tiers would vacuum seal just like Tupperware containers. They don't. As a result, the chicken tortilla soup of my first bento spilled out unless I was very careful. Because I often bike around town and so will carry my bento in my backpack where I can't guarantee that it will remain perfectly upright at all times, this is a problem. Also, the white parts of the box seem to pick up stains like crazy. The tortilla soup left a little residue inside one lid, and I've also had fresh carrots turn the underside of the lid orange. Finally, the shape isn't really ideal for the types of foods I feel drawn to prepare. A larger, flat box seems like a better choice, or something that is rounder in shape. Time will tell on that count, I suppose!

All troubles aside, however, I remain excited about my bentofication! I may have to upgrade to a larger box, but I'm going to stick with this one for at least a little while longer and see how it goes. Besides, how could I abandon a bento that's this adorable?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Got Bento?

I am not unemployed. In fact, I currently hold not one, not even just two, but three jobs. All three, however, either are substituting/on-call positions, or do not offer regular or dependable hours. (As a point of interest, when asked what I "do," I answer that I substitute teach, among other things. My professional goal is to teach upper elementary full-time.) As a result, it often feels like I am unemployed.

On days when I find myself jobless, I pursue my other professional interest, writing. I write fiction and poetry in addition to blogging here, at my other blog, and writing for Associated Content and Foodbuzz. I am trying to be, well, professional about writing. At the moment I am working my way through a first-pass revision of my National Novel Writing Month 2007 manuscript, which is exciting and challenging.

Something that I have noticed, however, is that regardless of what I am working on, I write best from about 9 or 10 in the morning through the afternoon. You can often find me holed up in a cafe with a latte, my laptop, and a notebook and pen. At lunchtime, however, I naturally get hungry. But because I don't normally pack a lunch, there's not much I can do to remedy the situation besides return home to eat. Once I've eaten, I usually feel rather sluggish and tired and it's extremely difficult for me to get back to the business of writing. Thankfully I tend to hold off eating until closer to 2 o'clock in the afternoon so I don't loose as much time as if I ate at noon, but it's still proves troublesome.

Enter the bento. A bento (or obento, if you prefer the more formal term) is a meal that's served in a box, originating in Japan. Basically, it's a small box crammed with food (healthy, nutritious food, of course!), typically in the ratio of 3 parts grains (such as rice, noodles), 2 parts vegetables, and 1 part protein (including meats and fish, eggs, and soy foods like tofu). A bento lunchbox is efficient in terms of space as well as nutrition, and is a great tool for portion control. Just Bento and Lunch in a Box are a couple of my current favorite bento resources on the net.

After ogling the tantalizing and delicious bento porn available through Flickr's many bento-themed groups, I decided to get my mits on a box and a few packing supplies. One order from Sugar Charms later, and I found myself the owner of the cutest little bento box you ever did see. I felt ready -- lunch times would now find me chopstick-ing it with the best of the bento community.

My first bento was a rather sad affair. I didn't realize quite how much space vegetables would take up in the small box, and how much more aware I needed to be regarding packing nutritious and sustaining foods. Meaning that stuffing half the box with salad does not a filling meal make. In addition to a tiny spinach salad with tomatoes and broccoli and raspberry dressing, I packed leftover chicken tortilla soup and Guiltless Gourmet blue corn chips. Tasty, but nowhere near enough food. I am going to have to look into either packing more nutrition-dense food in a more compact and space-saving manner, or investing in a larger box. Or, perhaps, both. My lunchtime adventures have only just begun, however, and I am very eager to see how both my bento skills and my writing work ethic develop.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Buzz Buzzing About Stir-Fry

Many of the food-related sites and blogs that I frequent are members of Foodbuzz. Food what? you may say, scratching your noggin. Foodbuzz is, in the producers' own words, "the first-ever community site devoted exclusively to food and dining content—an unparalleled resource for searching, surfing and sharing with fellow foodies everywhere." Think of it as a Facebook or MySpace devoted solely to recipes, food-based reviews, and restaurants.

To make a long-ish story a little shorter, I joined up with Foodbuzz, and soon found myself recommended by Anne to become a featured publisher there. Thank you, Anne! (Also, additional thanks for teaching me what a noseminer is. This is truly an indispensable and inspired gem of knowledge!)

I'm having a good time connecting with other chefs and foodies, especially those I've already brushed virtual elbows with on other sites and forums. Check out my Foodbuzz page, which has both content from this blog as well as a few new items that you won't find here. And while you're there, I would love and appreciate your vote of confidence if you find my content worthy!

In terms of cooking, I continue to find myself putting together a number of tasty stir-fries. They seem to be mostly chicken-based as I still am focusing on enhancing the protein in my diet. I find it rather amusing, however, that I choose chicken since I usually feel horrified at the thought of touching raw chicken with my bare hands. It's worse than raw egg! I don't mind the feeling of raw chicken against my skin. Rather, it's the disease factor that grosses me out, specifically in the form of salmonella. Once I've touched the raw chicken (or egg, as the case may be), it will be quite some time before I feel comfortable nibbling finger foods no matter how much I scrub my hands with soap and hot water. I'm sure it's quite silly, but hey -- that's me!

Raw flesh aside, I have thoroughly enjoyed the chicken stir-fries that I've made for dinner recently. My first attempt was a honey chicken stir-fry based on a recipe I found on Allrecipes. I didn't tinker too much with this one -- I just nixed the cornstarch (I didn't have any, didn't feel like buying any, and felt nervous about substituting with two teaspoons flour, which is the usual stand-in for cornstarch) and served the stir-fry over absolutely delicious peanut noodles made by my friend Ed's mother.

My next stir-fry creation was a little more ambitious, and again incorporated peanuts (or really, peanut butter, which I love) in addition to the chicken. Hurrah for protein! I enjoy making these stir-fries because they're the perfect combination of vegetables, grains, and protein, and they taste wonderful. Also, they're fast -- I don't think I spent more than thirty minutes on either one of these stir-fries.

Try one of these recipes, and I don't think you'll be disappointed. If you don't like peanut butter, go ahead and leave it out. And get creative by experimenting with various sauces and spices as well as trying out different kinds of produce -- pineapple is a wonderful option, and I'm toying with the idea of some kind of pear stir-fry. Raisins, dried apricots, and both dried and fresh cranberries also make fun additions. If you come up with a to-die-for combination, let me know because I'm sure that I will want a taste!

Peanutty Chicken Stir-Fry

1/2 cup water
2 T peanut butter
4 teaspoons lime juice
1 tablespoon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
salt to taste
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, diced
6 cups frozen stir-fry veggies
1/4 cup raisins
oil/canola oil cooking spray
1 cup cooked brown rice

Combine the first 9 ingredients, either mixing by hand or in a food processor until smooth. (I whisked the sauce by hand, which makes for a chunkier result but less dish washing in the end, in my opinion.)

In a large nonstick wok or skillet coated with a generous layer of cooking spray OR 1 teaspoon of hot oil, stir-fry the diced chicken 5-7 minutes, or until the juices turn clear. Remove chicken and keep warm.

In the same wok or skillet (recoat with spray if you're not using oil) stir-fry the vegetables and raisins until crisp yet tender. Return the chicken to the pan. Pour the sauce over the chicken and vegetables and bring it to a boil. Cook and stir for 1-2 minutes. Serve over hot cooked rice.

Serves two, with perhaps a little leftover for breakfast! If you're anything like me, peanutty chicken sounds like a far better way to start the day than cereal. Enjoy!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Smoothies Make the World Go 'Round

Or at least, they help my little corner of the world turn a little more smoothly. (Ha! Smoothie -- smoothly . . . it's funny! Right . . . ?) Inspired by Susan's lovely Jolly Green Smoothie, I decided to try blending up a green smoothie of my own. Why? Because of the green, of course! I was tickled by her verdantly hued drink and couldn't resist putting together my own version. Behold the result -- a frothy, colorful, and surprisingly delicious and beverage that can serve as breakfast (add extra yogurt or milk if you opt for this route), dessert, or a snack. Susan mentioned that she couldn't taste the spinach in her own green smoothie at all. I was surprised to find that this is absolutely true. Don't believe me? Try it yourself.

Palm Tree Green Smoothie

1 handful fresh baby spinach
1 handful ice cubes
1/4 cup fat free vanilla yogurt
1/2 cup pineapple juice
1 T frozen orange concentrate
1/2 cup applesauce
1/2 cup pineapple chunks

Other tropical tidbits that would complement this concoction include coconut milk (or any kind of milk, really), banana, mango, pear, and papaya. Get creative and go nuts! (And, come to think of it, macadamia nuts might make another good addition here!)

Blend, then sip away, preferably with one of those colorful curly straws tucked into the smoothie alongside a tiny paper umbrella. Close your eyes and imagine that you're sun-bathing in the Caribbean.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Eggs: [Usually] Incredible and Edible

I really enjoy cooking with egg replacers (my favorite brand is made by Wilcox Farms, available in bulk at Costco). They have all the good parts of eggs without having the not-so-good cholesterol and fats. If you're looking for a little more protein, however, egg replacers just don't measure up to the real thing.

Egg replacers find their way into my diet most often in the form of scrambled eggs with melted fat-free cheddar. As I am cooking In Pursuit of Protein, however, I thought I might prepare real eggs in a manner that is outside my usual repertoire. I always enjoy a good hard-boiled egg, and they are easy enough to make a batch of and store, although the little buggers can sometimes be quite tricky to peel.

Enter the deviled egg. Ah, you feisty culinary creature. During my college lunch times, you could often find my friends and I sitting around a dining hall table peeling the shells away from hard-boiled eggs, whipping some mustard, mayo, and relish together in a bowl, and making deviled eggs. Easy, fast, and nutritious, you can't go wrong with these little guys.

I wanted to try something new, however, and put a little twist on the traditional deviled egg recipe. Musing about an eastern-style deviled egg (think curry and cinnamon tastes) or something a little spicier (chili pepper and cayenne, anyone?), I wandered over to The Leftover Queen message board and posed my questions to the lovely folks there. After some discussion, I decided to try out a Moroccan-leaning spiced egg.

After hard-boiling an egg, I sliced it in half lengthwise and removed the yolk. I mixed the yolk with 1 Tablespoon of quark (a sour cream substitute), a little vanilla yogurt, 1 diced dried apricot, a pinch of cinnamon, and a teeny dash each of cardamom and nutmeg. Once the concoction was thoroughly blended, I stuffed my egg whites with it and chowed down.

Sad to say, I wasn't all that impressed with the result. The yolk mixture felt a little dry, so I probably needed a little more yogurt or quark. The dessicated nature of the apricot probably did not help in this respect. Also, the egg lacked that lovely bite of tang that traditional deviled eggs get from the mustard and paprika. If I were to try this concoction again, I would probably include a little curry powder or mustard. However, as fun and fast early-morning cooking romps go, I am not completely dissatisfied with the adventure.