Monday, June 30, 2008

Last Minute Jouster

Because I have been super busy with a new job and, at the moment, with a trip to my home state of New Jersey, my July entry post for the Leftover Queen's Royal Foodie Joust is somewhat delayed. Talk about last minute, posting on the final day of the month! The ingredients for this month's go-round are ginger, apricots, and butter. I do love the first two ingredients but tend not to use butter so much, so this was a little bit of a challenge for me. However, I did come up with a delicious dish. Behold the result: apricot hummus pockets!

Apricot Hummus Pockets

1 15 oz. can garbonzo beans

1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp cumin
1 tsp ground ginger
2 fresh apricots, chopped
1/2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp honey

1 whole wheat pita, halved
3 T apricot preserves
butter (I used Smart Balance)

Combine the garbonzo beans (including half of the liquid or adding 1/4 cup water), garlic, cumin, ginger, chopped apricots, lemon juice, and honey in a blender or food processor. Blend until the desired texture is achieved. Refrigerate for at least one hour to allow the tastes to meld.

Warm a skillet to medium heat, melting butter across the surface, using as much as needed. In a separate bowl, combine the apricot preserves and a pat of butter. Heat the bowl in the microwave or in a saucepan until the butter is mostly melted and the contents easily stir-able. Brush the mixture over each side of the pita halves, then crisp the pitas on the skillet. When the pitas are just beginning to brown, remove them and fill with the apricot hummus. Serve as is for a cooler meal, or return to the skillet and continue to warm the pitas for another 2 to 3 minutes. Serve immediately.

This makes two pitas, with enough hummus to include in a couple of days' lunches with crackers and some carrots. This amount of hummus would probably fill 6 to 8 pita halves for those cooking for a larger crowd.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

I'm Back, With Bulgur

Hello, blogosphere! So...I haven't been the most faithful blogger of late, have I? This time, however, my excuse is a good one -- I got a job! A real, honest-to-goodness full-time employment with a local private school's summer camp. Meaning that, for the next two months, I'll be nine-to-five-ing it with the best of the work force. For a person who currently holds three additional part-time positions that don't produce nearly enough hours even between them, this is a huge step up in the world. Not only that, but I enjoy working with kids and my fellow staff members. I feel all grown-up again!

However, that also means that I have less time for other things. This includes coffee dates, cleaning, cooking, writing, and, of course, blogging. Sadly, my blogs (and Flickr account) have become sadly neglected. Right now, I'm on a week-long vacation in my birth state, New Jersey, so at least I'll be able to catch up somewhat. Expect more sporadic postings throuh mid-August once I return to the west, though.

I won't leave you empty-handed with the conclusion of this posting, plucky reader. A few weeks ago, I made a wonderful bento filler, spiced bulgur pilaf. Bulgur is a whole grain in the form of cracked wheat, which means it's super healthy and delicious to boot. With this recipe, I added the tang of the east to the natural woody taste of the bulgur.

Spiced Bulgur Pilaf

1 cup water
1/2 cup bulgur
1 T cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp cumin
1/8 tsp tumeric
handful of raisins

Bring the water to a boil. Pour over the dry bulgur in a separate bowl. Add the raisins and half the cinnamon, without stirring. Cover immediately with a plate or some other tight seal. Let it stand for 20-30 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed.* Sitr to fluff the grains, then mix in the remaining spices.

*I ran into some trouble in this phase since I kept lifting the plate during the cooking process to check the bulgur, and thus released the heat, steam, and pressure. Be patient and leave the plate in place! If you can't, or the mixture gets too tepid, microwave the bowl for a minute or two and then continue to let stand, replacing the plate once you remove the bowl from the microwave. Patience is a virtue, or so I'm told.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Living La Vida Local: A Cooking Challenge!

Summer is nearly here, if only in name as the Montana weather has been very chilly of late. One of my favorite summertime activities is to visit the weekly local farmer's market. Once a week, two food markets and one goods market spread across the downtown. People sell their home-grown produce, hand-created wares such as clothing, pottery, and photographs, and prepared foods like organic bratwurst.

When I attend the market, I mostly am drawn to the atmosphere. I get such enjoyment from wandering through the busy market, snapping photographs of the visitors, vendors, and what's for sale. Normally I don't buy much, but one of my favorite produce items that arrives at the market later in the season are freshly picked huckleberries. Now, I have never purchased any because I always felt unsure as to what I would do with them. This year, however, I have resolved to buy a little bag of the berries, if only to eat with my morning yogurt, banana, and cereal. Yum! Huckleberries are unique to the northwest, if not specifically to Montana. In fact, outside of Mark Twain's book, I had never heard of huckleberries until I moved here. I didn't realize that they are an actual fruit and not just a creative name.

And so I present Muffin Love's premiere event and food challenge: Living La Vida Local. This summer, why not try to cook locally? What I mean by that is to prepare a meal in which at least one major ingredient is locally produced. For example, in if you were to make a meatloaf dinner, perhaps the beef would come from a farm close to your home or you purchased the vegetables for the meal's side from a local market -- or both! If you don't have a farmer's market, check out smaller non-chain grocery stores or natural food stores. Both often have locally grown food.

But why use local foods in meals at all? you may be wondering. Locally produced food hasn't been transported across the country and so is the freshest food that you'll find without growing it yourself. Also, it tends to be altered or treated with fewer, if any, chemical and pesticides. Plus it supports your local businesses, and you can see directly where your money is going. It's so wonderful to give the small time farmers a boost in the world's cut-throat mass food production business.

If you would like to participate in this fun and eco-friendly event, simply email me the following information at escagnel04 (at) yahoo (dot) com (that 0 in "escagnel04" is a zero and not the letter "o," by the way):
  • Your name
  • The name of your dish/meal
  • A link to your blog post about the dish (or, if you don't have a blog, a short description of the dish), including a recipe
  • Your blog's name and URL
  • A link to an optional photo (it must be uploaded to an online storage/sharing service like Flickr) that measures no larger than 240 x 160
That's all! Post the Living La Vida Local icon in your blog post, and download various sizes here. Participation will be open for just over one month, meaning that I'll be closing entries on July 15, 2008.

Monday, June 9, 2008

An Old Favorite a New Way: The Triple Dog Dare Challenge

This month, Toontz of Okara Mountain issued a challenge to the cooking community. Realizing that there are some foods that she has no experience with simply because she's never thought to try them, she issued the Triple Dog Dare to challenge us to try a new kind of fruit along with her sometime during the month of June. Being a huge fan of fresh fruits and vegetables, I wanted to participate.

On my next trip to the grocery store, I ran into a slight snag. Because I love fruit, there isn't much fruit that's easily available that I haven't both tried and enjoyed. Anything more exotic is out of our price range, so I had to get a little creative with the terms of participation on this challenge. While browsing the bulk foods section of the local natural foods store, I decided to try out some dried strawberries. I adore fresh strawberries, but I have never run into their dessicated counterparts much before.

The dried strawberries found their way into one of my bento lunches this week. I felt a little nervous -- the berries did not look appetizing in the least, but instead were shriveled and sticky and a rather morose brown instead of fresh strawberries' vibrant crimson. Still, I ate one. And then another. And then . . . well you get the idea. Dried strawberries are pretty good! Not as good as the fresh incarnation, of course, but still enjoyable by their own right. They tasted tangy and sweet, and not at all like the little turds they unfortunately look like. I did care much for how the crunchy seeds lodged in my teeth, but that's a hazard in eating any strawberry, dried or otherwise.

My verdict? Dessicated strawberries get a thumb's up in my book, and I'll definitely eat them again. Many thanks to Toontz for expanding my fruit horizons in such a fun way!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Free-Form Salad Creation

I have previously blogged about how I find soup-making to be a very artistic and free-form act. It's so much fun to add a little of "this 'n' that" and then discover the results. Creating salads is a similar process for me at times. Take this salad, for example. The Best Husband Ever and I were headed to a potluck barbecue last week, and I was commissioned for some kind of a vegetable contribution. I knew that I had quickly ripening spinach on hand, as well as a good haul of apples that were not getting any younger. I decided to make a sweet and cider-y salad.

That is not what I ended up with. At least, not exactly. Instead, I turned out a slightly more savory spicy apple salad. Was it what I had planned? Nope. But was it good? Did it turn out okay? You bet! More than just okay, in fact -- I actually got some compliments at the barbecue, and the burger master even asked about the dressing's ingredients. However, since I had not measured a thing, I could only give him a rough estimate of what went into this salad.

And that, dear readers, is what I am going to leave you with. This is not a rigid recipe by any means, but a guide to start your taste buds firing in a general direction. If you want to try something else, go for it! All of the ingredients, especially the spices, are according to your personal tastes and needs. This recipe is fun and makes a refreshing summertime dish, so don't be afraid to get creative.

Mexican Apple Salad

baby spinach
apple, chopped
cucumber, sliced
yellow pepper, sliced

fresh jalapeno pepper, diced
fresh cilantro, chopped
fresh garlic, diced
fresh lime, sliced
chili powder
black pepper
cayenne powder
apple cider vinegar
balsamic vinegar
lime juice

In a large bowl, combine all the produce, excluding the spinach. In a smaller bowl, mix up the spices and liquids. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and mix well. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Just before serving, toss the spinach into the mix (otherwise I find that the spinach gets limp and slimy). For an extra-cool kick, garnish with a dollop of sour cream (or alternative) and a few additional sprigs of cilantro.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Yummy Yogurts

In one of my earlier posts this week, I mentioned some exciting yogurt discoveries I made while grocery shopping at Safeway. Normally, my yogurt of choice is Dannon's Light & Fit fat-free vanilla yogurt. It makes a great breakfast when stirred up with berries (I use a frozen mix of blueberries, raspberries, and marionberries), sliced banana, and cereal or granola (my morning carbohydrate of the moment is Kashi's Go Lean Crunch).

While shopping at Safeway a little while ago, however, I spied a unique and intriguing flavor of a single-serve cup of Lucerne yogurt -- Green Tea Mango. This discovery led me to investigate the Lucerne (which is seemingly one of Safeway's store brands) offerings more carefully. I found a number of tasty sounding yogurts, but the only other one that I took home along with the green tea mango was a cup of Banana Cream Pie yogurt.

While the Green Tea Mango was more bland than expected, but still not half bad, the Banana Cream Pie flavor definitely pleased my palate. In the past I have tested out combination banana yogurt flavors -- strawberry banana, for example -- as the idea of banana and yogurt together is a happy one for me, as evidenced by my daily breakfast fare. However, I never could find a straight banana yogurt, and the combinations I did try never hit the spot in the banana department. Until I tried the Banana Cream Pie flavor, that is! A wonderfully creamy addition to one of this week's bento lunches, this yogurt earned top marks, especially in pulling off a true banana flavor.

My success with Lucerne's Banana Cream Pie led me to try a more ambitious -- in my opinion -- concoction from Dannon, Lemon Chiffon. Now, lemon paired with dairy does not sound as yummy as the banana option, but I felt open and optimistic. Thankfully, I did not come away disappointed. The tang of the lemon is somehow perfectly compatible with the smooth taste of the yogurt. I suppose I shouldn't feel too surprised as my favorite LunaBar flavor is lemon, which was another eye-opener to me when I discovered that I liked the seemingly unlikely combination of lemon and granola. Perhaps lemon is much more versatile than I ever thought possible. At the very least, it makes an excellent addition to my bento lunches, and one that I will certainly reprise in the future.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Blogging Happy, Healthy Bones

In honor of May's National Osteoporosis Awareness Month, Susan over at Food Blogga hosted a bone health event. Beautiful Bones: An Osteoporosis Food Event cataloged calcium-rich dishes submitted by bloggers far and wide. Interested in the foodie blogosphere's answer to osteoporosis? Well, the wait is over! Head over to Food Blogga and check out the massive list of recipes that Susan has compiled. Be sure not to miss the Muffin Love submission, Mini Spinach Frittatas.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Brand New and Tried and True: A Bento Round-Up

It's just about time for another bento round-up, I believe. My bento lunches from last week ran the gamut in terms of new recipes vs. good stand-bys, and creativity vs. efficiency. I ended up with quite a few of the same or similar lunches over the course of the week as I had a lot of that lentil spread I made the previous week to use up. However, I did make up for that fact by also trying out a couple of new recipes, including one for noriben, marking my first true attempt at a traditional Japanese bento component.

I have been wanting to include brown rice in my bento lunches for quite some time now, but I've either been pressed for time in the morning (exacerbated by my lack of lunch planning the night before), or I have crackers that I need to use up. However, I had also seen Just Bento's recipe for noriben, and it seemed like a simple recipe with which to ease myself into more typical Japanese bento meals. I wanted to try it. And so . . . I did! I made very plain noriben with just brown rice and nori seaweed with soy sauce.

Making the noriben and then packing it in the bento box the night before, the creation looked and smelled good to me before I put the box in the fridge. The next day, however, I found that the topmost layer of rice was a little crunchy, which I think means I should have used more soy sauce. Also, the seaweed was soggy. It was supposed to be, but I think I should have torn it into smaller pieces before layering it with the rice so that it would be easier to eat. Overall, my first authentic bento recipe didn't quite turn out as successfully as I would have liked, but it wasn't half-bad, either, especially since I rarely make rice in general.

I also began including lunch meat roll-ups in my bentos this past week. The Best Husband Ever and I purchased a massive bulk package of sliced turkey and ham at Costco for sandwiches for him, so I figured that I'd better help out or he will never get through the entire package before the meat goes bad. Having seen and heard about other bento fans making little meat roll-ups as part of their boxes, I decided to give it a shot. Taking a piece of turkey or ham and spreading some fat-free cream cheese down the center, I place a little fresh spinach or dill pickle on top of the cream cheese before rolling the meat up into a tight spiral. I then cut the spiral into four pieces, spearing them on a toothpick and placing them in my bento box. Not only are these roll-ups an easy-to-prepare source of lean protein, but they're surprisingly delicious. I felt a little skeptical when I first heard about the cream cheese, but now I'm a believer!

Another fun new recipe that I tried out this week was the Carrot-Raisin-Pineapple Salad from The Book Lover's Cookbook by by Shaunda Kennedy Wenger and Janet Kay Jensen. A fun cookbook that I found and perused at the local public library, it's full of recipes inspired by dishes or meals described or eaten in literature. As an avid and passionate reader (and writer!) I couldn't resist the book, and in paging through it found this unique little recipe. I don't remember what work of fiction inspired it, unfortunately. It was pretty tasty, although a little dry on top as the juices all sank to the bottom of the bento box. However, that could be because I used diced pineapple instead of crushed since that's what I had on hand. Try it for yourself and see how it turns out.

Carrot-Raisin-Pineapple Salad

4 cups grated carrots
1 cup raisins
1 20-oz. can crushed pineapple
1 T lemon juice
1 tsp cinnamon

Combine all the ingredients and chill for at least 2 hours before serving.

An additional component of the bento lunch that I included the above salad in was a cup of fat-free Green Tea Mango yogurt. Made by Lucerne, which seems to be one of Safeway's brands, I spied the intriguing flavor and had it try it. It sounded so unlikely -- green tea in yogurt? And then to throw mango in, too . . . like I said, I had to try it. The yogurt wasn't bad, although it was a little less sweet than I expected. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, but I'm not sure if I'll try it again. Thankfully, Lucerne manufactures quite an array of these less traditional yogurt flavors, so I'm excited to try another. Like banana cream pie yogurt, for example, which you'll be able to read my thoughts on soon in an upcoming post.

So that's the round-up, folks! A bunch of tasty and filling -- if somewhat repetitive -- bentos as well as an ambitious attempt at an authentic bento filler and a brand new salad recipe. What a week!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Democratic Chili

Here in Montana, the Democrats' campaign efforts are coming to a head as the primary election takes place today, June 3. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have made several visits to various cities and towns, and Bill Clinton just finished up a round of stumping engagements on the behalf of his wife. Starting this past weekend, local campaign volunteers for both presidential hopefuls were out and about in full force. Obama supporters set up information tables at the local farmer's markets before marching down one of the main streets lead by a pair of bagpipers. Those promoting Clinton staked out corners at busy intersections today, urging passing cars to "honk for Hillary."

I'm not all that interested in politics. An independent voter, I won't be participating in tomorrow's primary election. John McCain is looking better and better to me, especially as I've often said during elections past that I would definitely vote for him should the man ever run. This year's election looks like it will be my chance. But honestly, I'm woefully uninformed about the pressing issues. None of the candidates are all that impressive.

As for local politics, it looks like Obama is all set to sweep Montana. He led Hillary in a late May poll by a whopping 52 percent to Clinton's 35 percent, and it doesn't look like that lead is about to falter at today's primary. (Read more about the presidential hopefuls' western Montana campaign efforts in my featured AC news article!) It will be interesting to see which candidate will get the nomination, but I'm honestly not too concerned. I don't know that I'd vote Democrat this year regardless of the primary outcome. At the same time, I can't say that I'll definitely vote for McCain either.

What I do know is that Obama has one good-looking family chili recipe working for him. A food reporter for our local liberal newspaper, The Missoula Independent, interviewed Obama for last week's issue. In the short Q &A session, the candidate discussed his thoughts on the Farm Bill, the rise of obesity in American of all ages, and most of the secrets of his family's tried and true chili recipe. From the look of it, the chili sounds pretty darn tasty -- the red wine vinegar intrigues me. Plus it seems like a recipe that would be easy to tweak, either by making it diet or vegetarian/vegan friendly, or adding your own special ingredients to the concoction. For example, I would make the recipe a little lighter by using canola oil cooking spray instead of olive oil, and either use lean turkey or replace it with white beans to contrast the red kidney beans. Try the Obamas' recipe out and play with it yourself! For the rest of the interview with Obama, visit The Independent.

The Obama Family Chili Recipe

1 large onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
Several cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound ground turkey or beef
1/4 teaspoon (each) of ground cumin, ground oregano, ground turmeric, and ground basil
1 tablespoon chili powder
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Several tomatoes, depending on size, chopped
1 can red kidney beans

Sauté onions, green pepper and garlic in olive oil until soft. Add ground meat and brown. Combine spices together into a mixture, then add to ground meat. Add red wine vinegar. Add tomatoes and let simmer, until tomatoes cook down. Add kidney beans and cook for a few more minutes. Serve over white or brown rice. Garnish with grated cheddar cheese, onions and sour cream.