Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Monday, November 5, 2012

Cranberry and Walnut Zucchini Bread

Hold the phone, shut the front door and get out of town. I never thought I’d use this word in my blog. But I suppose there is a first time for everything. Here it goes. The word is…vegan. I am not a vegan, nor do I intend to adopt a vegan diet. Sorry vegans; it’s mainly the whole idea of giving up dairy – not even the meat so much. But a lifetime without goat cheese, parmesan, and mozzarella seems deprived of joy.  However, I am now a believer that vegan recipes can be delicious! Let’s take that a step further.  I am now a believer that vegan recipes can actually taste better than their non-vegan counterpart.  I feel a little lash of Southern sacrilege saying that. But let’s say a Hail Mary and move on. All things in moderation, right? If there’s a recipe that can effectively cut down my daily consumption of animal byproducts and dairy, without sacrificing taste, I’m all for it!

Feast your stomachs on this recipe for cranberry and walnut zucchini bread. It is perfection. I never knew a baked good could taste so flavorful and moist without eggs and butter. Oh, that’s another word I don’t like. The word moist gives me the heebie jeebies. I made four loaves of this zucchini bread.  So far, I’ve managed to only eat one. The rest are in my freezer, waiting to be consumed with family over Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

I found this recipe on a food blog called Hell Yeah It’s Vegan, and used the base of it for my own.  I used dark brown sugar vs light brown sugar, and added in the dried cranberries and walnuts. Voila! Make these loaves ahead of time, put them in your freezer, and bring them out when you have guests during the holidays. They will thank you for it.

On the music side, I’m in love with this duet from the show Nashville. It's a cover of the Civil Wars' song "If I Didn't Know Better". I think Sam Palladio and Clare Bowen (actors) should just cut a record together because I would have it on repeat 24/7. This song is soulful and sultry. And with a haunting melody, you can appreciate the lyrics as well.

Furthermore, I see a strong parallel between this song and my feelings towards the zucchini bread. “If I didn’t know better”, I’d believe that because this is a vegan recipe it must be extra healthy. “If I didn’t know better”, I’d say that because there are vegetables in this bread, it cancels out all the sugar. “If I didn’t know better, I wouldn't have eaten an entire load by myself. "If I didn't know better...but, damn it, I do.”    

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Skakin' It Up with Tomato and Squash Casserole

Curse you autumn. You seduce my American Express card each season with chic accessories, and you know darn well no one loves to cover up their body more than I do in scarves, hats and jackets. We have to put an end to this dysfunctional relationship. It’s not you. It’s me. Hopefully when I learn some self control, we can be friends again.

Autumn is the one time of year where I’m just as captivated by its fashions as I am by its foods. Judging by my wardrobe and my pantry this season, I apparently want to be something in between a hipster and a hippie. For example, I have 20/20 vision. I wore glasses for a year in the 3rd grade and haven’t needed them since. So explain to me why I just ordered a pair of black, thick-rimmed frames by the name of “Sinclair”. I also have my eye on a cable knit beret from Urban Outfitters, a rucksack backpack and a graphic t-shirt of Brooklyn, NY.  It’s a good thing I’m not prone to facial hair, otherwise I might try to grow a handle bar mustache.

On the flip side, I have become fixated on eating local, organic produce and meats as much as I can. It all started when I friend of mine told me about two classes on Coursera through John’s Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health that offered an introduction to the US food system and obesity economics. Since registering for these classes, I have read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and David Kessler’s The End of Overeating. I’ve also watched several documentaries including:  Food, Inc., Forks Over Knives, and Food Matters. And now I’ve hopped on board the local food movement bandwagon. 

Let me keep this short and sweet, because I could easily preach you a sermon on this topic.  Know what you’re eating folks. I won’t go into the disturbing details of what happens in meat packing plants, how chickens are genetically altered to grow fatter in shorter periods of time and never see the sunlight, or how our typical supermarket produce is loaded with pesticides, fungicides and insecticides.  Let’s get back to the basics. Let’s support our local farmers and ranchers. Let’s be conscious of what we’re feeding our bodies. You know it’s coming…I have to say it…you are what you eat!

I’m stepping down from the pulpit now. Yesterday I went to Nashville’s farmers market where the baskets were overflowing with tomatoes, squash, zucchini, peppers, and apples…not to mention the crowds of people. I tend to get sensory overload in situations like this where I’m in the thick of mounds of fresh produce. It’s kind of like being in my favorite clothing store on the day where everything is an additional 40% off. My hands can’t grab things fast enough. Did you just say five pounds of zucchini and squash for $5? Yes, please! I probably spent about $30 and walked away with enough meat and produce to feed my face for a solid week.

So for dinner last night, I made one of my favorite recipes from my mom’s kitchen. It’s a tomato, squash and zucchini casserole. Served over a small bed of pasta, tossed in a little olive oil and basil, this meal is veggie-tastic. The caramelized yellow onions give it a hint of sweetness, and the squash/zucchini have a great crisp texture to them. Forget the pasta. Just hand me a fork, and I’ll eat it right out of the casserole dish. I made enough for two people last night, and there were no leftovers. So, I’ll give you the recipe that will feed 4-5. You can always cut back on the size if needed.

On the music scene, my latest love is Alabama Shakes. Brittany Howard, the band’s lead singer and guitarist, is the coolest chick in music right now - not to mention her voice is incredible. I love their sound.

Tomato and Squash Casserole Recipe:
NOTE: After you chop the tomatoes, squash and zucchini, leave them out to dry on paper towels for a few hours. Sprinkle a little salt over them and let it suck all the water out. This will help ensure that your vegetables are crisp and the casserole is not watery when you cook it. I left mine out to dry for about 2-3 hours. Just keep drying them off with paper towels and adding a little more salt as needed.

1/4 Cup of EVOO
3 cups chopped yellow onions (about 3 medium onions)
2 medium garlic cloves, minced (about 2 tsp)
1 lb yellow squash, sliced
1 lb zucchini, sliced
1 lb plum tomatoes, sliced
teaspoon fresh basil and/or thyme
ground salt and pepper
1/2-1 Cup of Gruyere or Parmesan cheese

 - Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Pour the olive oil in a pan over medium heat, and add the chopped onions. Let the onions caramelize until they start to turn brown (12-15 min). Within the last minute, add the minced garlic.
- Lay the onions and garlic on the bottom of a 9x13 casserole dish. Top your dried vegetables with fresh cracked pepper. Layer the sliced vegetables in the dish, overlapping each other a bit. Cover the dish with tinfoil and bake for 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes, remove the tinfoil. Sprinkle on the fresh basil/thyme and continue to bake (uncovered) for another 30 minutes. Within the last 10 minutes, add your freshly grated cheese so it can melt.

Monday, September 10, 2012

On Fire with Pappa al Pomodoro

My kitchen adventures this past weekend were far from ordinary. There were extreme highs and extreme lows of emotion, coupled with cooking success and failure. Riding the wave of my stellar shrimp and grits earlier that week, I decided to stick with the "southern" genre of foods and set my appetite on frying catfish. This is one of my favorite meals, and I was eager to make it on my own.

After a trip to Whole Foods, I came home to unwrap 3 beautiful catfish fillets on my spotless granite counter top. Fast forward an hour later, and there is a huge puddle of splattered hot oil dripping from the stove down to the floor. My first two attempts at deep-fried catfish have turned into deep-fried crap fish. My self-esteem sinks lower by the minute as my blood pressure rises by the second. I’m about ready to throw in the towel when my husband walks over to the stove, begins cutting the catfish into smaller pieces, dredging them in batter, and delicately laying them into the cast iron skillet. He’s the best. Whether dinner that night was a disaster or triumph, it matters not. I’m lucky enough to have someone whisper in my ear, “what matters is that you tried something new”. You win some you loose some. C’est la vie, non? 

But let’s be honest. No one wants to end the weekend on a loss. So, Sunday afternoon, I break out the big guns: the barefoot contessa’s “Back to Basics” cookbook. I knew Ina Garten had a recipe that would put me back in business. I chose her recipe for pappa al pomodoro – a rustic Italian tomato soup that’s thickened with ciabatta bread and garnished with home made croutons and pancetta. It was perfection. The flavors were so hearty, and this soup is even better the second day. Sautéed onions, carrots and garlic lay the foundation for this recipe. Whisking the ciabatta into the soup of plum tomatoes and chicken stock give it a real creamy flavor and chunky texture. Definitely add this to your list of soups to make this fall. Click here for the recipe.

Alicia Key's new single "Girl on Fire" is the tune to my culinary victory dance. From a fried fish job gone wrong to a heart-warming soup, I turned that frown upside down with this recipe for pappa al pomodoro. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Shrimp and Grits

Tuesday marked my first day back at work after a leisurely 4 day weekend. And, as most working folk know, the first day back after a holiday weekend means you hit the ground running to catch up from days off. As soon as I got home, I turned on the lights, dropped my bags on the floor and went straight to the refrigerator for a Corona. Hmmm. We must have finished the Corona the night before. No worries; I'll have a glass of wine. Except there is no wine. Looks like I'll make a gin and tonic. However there are no limes! What will I do?

You might read this and wonder if these are signs of a drinking problem. False. Or you might read this and completely relate to the fact that one of the best ways to take the edge off of a busy day at work is a little alcohol (not exercise). Just enough to take the tension off your shoulders and put work behind you. So, I grab my reusable Target tote (trying be green) and head to the local liquor store where I choose a fine $12 bottle of cabernet sauvignon and head home. Crisis averted, dear friends.

Now let's get down to the real reason why I'm writing this post: last night's dinner. I am crazy about shrimp and grits, as any true South Carolinian would be. If it's on the menu, I order it.  I'm also quite particular on the taste. I like the roux to be simple in ingredients and packed with flavor. And I hate when it's served as more of a soup instead of with a spoonful of grits in each bite. The grits should also be thick and creamy. My theory in why most people do not like grits is because they've not been properly prepared. Any who is any Southerner's authority on cooking grits? Their mama (or grand mama). As mine put it, the 5-minute quick Quaker grits actually take 30 minutes. Stir frequently and add water as needed. Grits are corn; you can watch the pot of grits rise and pop as they cook. When the popping rhythm and frequency subside, it's a good indication that the grits are done cooking.

I've actually never made shrimp and grits at home, and this holiday weekend presented the perfect opportunity to get back in the kitchen and expand my portfolio of recipes. As if the 5 star rating and 146 rave reviews on Tyler Florence's "ultimate shrimp and grits" weren't convincing enough, Mr. Florence can do not wrong in my book. And he did not disappoint. Last night's shrimp and grits was hands down as good (if not better) than any I've had in a restaurant. And it was easier to make than the grits! The inclusion of andouille sausage, cayenne pepper and hot sauce bring the heat and Cajun spice into the mix. The roux keeps it classy with minced onion, garlic, chicken stalk and bay leaves.

I just want to take this dish to all my neighbors and say, "Here you go. You're welcome." Making this recipe last night was just what I needed to kick my cooking confidence up a notch (or ten)! If you're feeling a little adventurous or want to experience a true southern meal, make this version of shrimp and grits. You won't be sorry. My only variation was making Quaker grits (see above) versus Tyler's directions.

Shrimp and grits is a low country dish that, when mixed with The Drifter's "Under the Boardwalk", brings about memories of coastal Carolina summers and easy living...with a hint of sophistication.

Tyler Florence's Ultimate Shrimp and Grits - click here for the recipe.