Monday, June 28, 2010

The Farmers' Market: A Foodie Field Trip

My goal for this week is to encourage people to visit local farms and farmers’ markets. I know farmers’ markets are pretty easy to find in the city, with rows and rows of fresh artisanal products to choose from. For some reason, they’re a little harder to locate out in the suburbs. I find this puzzling. Don’t I live closer to the farms than the city folks? I guess the country bumpkins are expected to drive right out to the farm’s front door. This isn’t terribly practical.

Northport Village does host a farmers’ market on Saturdays, so I took a field trip this weekend to scope out the scene. Although it was a small group of vendors, the produce was straight-from-the-ground fresh. In a perfect world, we’d skip the supermarket all together and buy meat from local butchers and veggies from local farms. But, our world is far from perfect and life is far too fast-paced to be spending all day food shopping. It was over 90 degrees in New York this weekend and the beach was calling me!

If you do have the time, I highly encourage going the extra mile on occasion to find local produce. Not only are you supporting the local farmers instead of giant supermarket chains, but you’re getting the best possible product. I picked up some carrots that were literally the tastiest carrots I’ve ever had. They actually tasted like carrots instead of some orange-colored carrot impersonators. The farmer said they were just harvested the day before. You can’t beat it.

If you don’t have access to local farm stands, have no fear. Maybe plant a little veggie or herb garden at home. I live in a one bedroom apartment with a tiny railing outside that gets sun. I squeezed a planter box on the ledge with some cilantro, basil, thyme and chives. It’s neat to be able to snip off a little sprig when you need it. You don’t have to buy a whole bunch of herbs at the supermarket to use 3 basil leaves.

After the market trip I needed to come up with dinner. The carrots were so sweet on their own; I didn’t want to mask the flavor. I just tossed them in some olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted them in the oven for 20 minutes at 400 degrees. Simple. While the carrots were cooking, I grilled up a MARINATED SKIRT STEAK.

I came up with this marinade from ingredients I already had in the house. Marinating meat is a great way to pack in a lot of flavor without adding too many additional calories. Be sure to cut skirt steak against the grain for tender slices. Since it’s a fairly fatty cut, serving this with the simple roasted carrots kept the meal light and summery. So, hit the farmers’ market, turn your grill on and cook up some local deliciousness!

* Get cooking. Let me know what you think. Love it? Hate it? I’m interested in hearing your feedback and suggestions.

Skirt Steak on Foodista

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Joe's Pizza Project: South of the Border

I’m almost as addicted to food TV as I am to food itself. A few months back, our cable company temporarily dropped the Food Network. Gasp! The horror! I dragged myself to the gym just to watch it on the treadmill monitors, I was that desperate.

Although Food Network has since been reinstated, Top Chef on Bravo is definitely a favorite of mine. Are there any Top Chef fans out there? I make a point to route for the wacky and slightly obnoxious contestants each season. Spike Mendelsohn from Season 4 was pretty fabulous. On top of working in world-renowned restaurants and opening his own eateries, he contributes to a variety of other food outlets, like and Food and Wine Magazine.

I found this healthy recipe for MEXICAN PIZZA in the latest Food and Wine. It’s part nachos, part pizza and totally delicious. Pizza is the greatest after-work dinner. It comes together so quickly. My freezer is a stock pile of frozen whole wheat pizza dough from Whole Foods. If I’m looking for a quick fix dinner, pizza always fits the bill.

Instead of sauce, the Mexican pizza base is a delicious puree of black beans, roasted red peppers and spices. I was amazed at how much the puree tasted like refried beans with only a few vegetarian ingredients and very little salt. I was also surprised at how little cheese you needed to make this feel like a pizza. When I was looking at 3 ounces of grated cheese on my cutting board, I was tempted to grate more before even topping the dough with it. It just didn’t look like enough cheese. But, you really don’t need any more than that. The puree was rich enough without globs of cheese too.

The bean puree looks like a lot when you’re spreading it on the dough. I was afraid the pizza wouldn’t crisp up, so I shorted the beans. Next time, I’ll go for the whole amount. The pizza was a little dry where the beans were spread too thin. I’ll go for the gusto and follow what the Spike man says next time.

I did change up the method slightly. I abhor anything that resembles a stewed tomato. There’s something about a wet, mushy tomato where the skins are all sliding off that just gives me the skeeves. Spike recommends topping the pizza with some chopped cherry tomatoes before cooking it. To avoid the soggy tomato situation, I threw the tomatoes on for the last 5 minutes of cooking so they softened up and heated through but still held their shape; just a personal preference.

The creamy beans with salty olives and cool sour cream make for a great combination of flavors and textures. It was “mexicany” without being an over-the-top, in your face, burrito fest. I cut the pizza in 8 slices (2 per person). I have to literally wrap up the leftovers and put them in the fridge before I even sit down to eat so I’m not tempted to over-do it.

* Get cooking. Let me know what you think. Love it? Hate it? I’m interested in hearing your feedback and suggestions.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Cast Iron Cuisine: Drunken Scallops

All of my cookware is non-stick coated. I know this certainly isn’t a pro chef’s first choice. Good thing I’m not a pro chef, because I love my Analon. Non-stick is perfect for cooks who shy away from using a lot of fat in their cooking and clearly, I’m that cook.

I used to coat my non-stick pans with a light spritz of Pam cooking spray. Not any more! That stuff is horrible. When heated to high temperatures, it can fuse to the cooking surface and ruin the coating on your very expensive pans. Eventually your non-stick cookware will end up sticking. Sticky non-stick frying pans are not only an oxymoron, but completely useless! A warranty on non-stick gear is actually void if you’re using cooking spray at all.

The benefit of using a cooking spray is that the product claims to be fat-free. Upon further investigation, the first ingredient on Pam’s ingredient list is canola oil. I don’t know how the FDA can list a canola oil product as “fat-free” on their labels, but they do. If it’s going to “add a trivial amount of fat” to my meal anyway, why not just stick to no-frills olive oil? I have a pump-action spray bottle that leaves a fine mist on the cooking surface. It’s certainly not a significant source of fat in your diet and my pans stay in pristine condition. Problem solved!

With that rant out of the way, some foods just don’t play nice with non-stick surfaces. At the top of the list would have to be scallops. Any time you want a crusty sear on something, cast iron is the way to go. I was poking around an antique store a few weeks back and bought a cast iron skillet circa 1922, but still in perfect shape. Cast iron needs to be seasoned (heated to high temperatures with fat rubbed into the surface) to develop a non-stick coating. This pan already had almost 90 years of someone’s Granny cooking on it, so I just needed to come home, clean off the antique store dust, add a little of my own fresh oil to the surface and get cooking.

I tried this recipe for SEA SCALLOPS IN WHITE WINE SAUCE. Apparently I’m becoming addicted to lemon juice, because I gravitate towards any recipe that includes it. The white wine sauce was very bright and fresh tasting. It was more of a “broth” consistency than a sauce, which was fine with me. Scallops are so sweet and delicate on their own. You don’t want some gloppy sauce to spoil the taste. This was just a nice little accompaniment. Be sure to pat the scallops dry and get the oil smoking hot to achieve the perfect sear. I also learned that you can’t crowd the pan. If the scallops release too much liquid, they’ll steam instead of searing.

I served 4 large sea scallops per person along with a side of PASTA WITH CREAMY ASPARAGUS SAUCE. I thought this was a pretty genius idea that unfortunately I can’t take credit for. I did make a few changes to the recipe, so I’m posting my own recipe card. A creamy pasta sauce is made from the pureed asparagus stems and parm cheese. It feels like a rich side dish without actually being very rich at all. I’m such a carb freak, I never think of pasta as anything but a main course. But here, you have a small amount on the side to satisfy the need for all things macaroni.

To sum up this rather long post, I think you’ll really enjoy this. The hum drum fish and veggie dinner has been kicked up just enough to make it special occasion worthy. It looks beautiful on the plate and the two dishes really compliment each other. Oh yeah, and Pam is awful.

* Get cooking. Let me know what you think. Love it? Hate it? I’m interested in hearing your feedback and suggestions..

Sea Scallop on Foodista

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Very Berry Crisp

My husband is a complete pie addict. The first Christmas we were married, he gave me a cookbook called “365 Great Cakes and Pies.” Hint, hint! So far, I’ve only made a grand total of two pies from the book. Talk about a let down! A whole pie is an awful lot of dessert to have sitting around a house occupied by a chronic calorie watcher. So, I tried to come up with something that would satisfy both a pie lover and diet guru alike.

Every time I go out to eat in a restaurant, if I manage to save room for a few bites of dessert, I always go for the fruit option. I love chocolate, but it’s really rich after a big meal. For some reason, fruit feels lighter to me. I’m sure this is all in my head, but I’m fine with entertaining a delusion or two.

When you’re making dessert at home, a fruit crisp is a lighter alternative to a traditional fruit pie. It’s also much quicker and easier to prepare. Instead of the fruit being completely enveloped in crust, there’s just a light sprinkling of crunchy topping.

I decided to try a MIXED BERRY CRISP since berries are in season right now. Berries are also the best choice for low-carb diets. On top of being low in sugar, they’re rich in vitamins and antioxidants. When I made this the first time, the fruit was really soupy and runny. I tried it again, lightly tossing the berries in cornstarch. That did the trick. The filling was still warm and gooey, but didn’t run all over the plate.

I make a mini portion in a 16oz ramekin that serves two. This way, we eat it once and it’s over and done with; going, going, gone. No tempting leftovers to test my willpower. Dessert should always be thought of as a treat. This is intended to be lighter than a pie, but it’s still dessert and should be enjoyed sparingly.

The crisp is more of a method than a recipe. You can swap out the berries for any fruit you like. You can add or decrease the amount of oats or sugar to your taste. Feel free to double or triple the recipe and make it in a large baking dish for a big group. I topped my crisp with a scoop of light vanilla ice cream. Whatever you decide to try, I guarantee you won’t miss mom’s apple pie (too much)!

* Get cooking. Let me know what you think. Love it? Hate it? I’m interested in hearing your feedback and suggestions.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Indian Cuisine, It Ain't Just Curry

I’m an Indian food newbie. I can handle samosas, tandoori and tikka masala, but beyond that, I need some assistance. I came across a recipe in Food and Wine mag a few months ago and clipped it out. I work in the magazine industry, so I HIGHLY support buying a real-deal printed magazine and using some old school scissors to cut out ideas. I re-worked the recipe slightly to cut back a few calories, but I thought this was a great way for a novice like me to enjoy the flavors of Indian cooking in a familiar and accessible Americanized format.

The resulting INDIAN SPICED CHICKEN BURGER WITH SPICY PEANUT SAUCE was extremely flavorful. I’ve never tried to make a chicken burger before. I just assumed that ground chicken would be dry and tasteless. I always grab ground turkey instead. How I thought chicken would be lack-luster but turkey would be “wow” is beyond me. They’re both birds after all!

I used regular ground chicken instead of ground chicken breast. The biggest challenge with a poultry burger is keeping it moist. Having some dark meat in the mix certainly helps. Chopped onion and in this case, a little olive oil in the patties also keeps the meat juicy.

I guess this recipe is actually an Indian/Thai hybrid. The spicy peanut sauce is similar to Thai satay. I always opt for natural peanut butter when a recipe calls for it. The typical Jif and Skippy-types all contain added oil and sugar. Peanuts are perfect on their own. Why spoil a good thing? I also used light coconut milk. The recipe only calls for a very small amount, so by all means, feel free to use the regular stuff. I flipped over the can and when I saw the fat content in the regular, I opted for the light.

The combination here is really interesting. The burgers are spiced with garam masala, an Indian spice blend. It isn’t “hot” spicy, but it’s a pretty strong spice flavor. The overall effect is a tad sweet, so I added some heat to the sauce for a kick. I topped the burger with lettuce for crunch and served it alongside some fresh corn. If you’re nervous about trying new ethnic flavors, this would be an easy place to start.

* Get cooking. Let me know what you think. Love it? Hate it? I’m interested in hearing your feedback and suggestions.

Garam Masala on Foodista

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Behold, The Power of Steam!

En Papillote (French: "in parchment") is a method of cooking in which the food is put into a folded pouch or parcel and then baked.

I know this isn’t a new or innovative cooking style, but it’s new to me and I wanted to share the results. I thought a flaky, white fish would work best, so I picked up a filet of cod. It’s a sturdy fish that doesn’t disintegrate or turn to smoosh when it’s cooked. A relatively low fat content makes it a healthy choice. To top it off, it was on sale. Bingo!

The French might use parchment for their pouch, but I opted for good old-fashioned aluminum foil. I tore off a huge sheet and started building my dish. I seasoned the fish with salt and pepper, topped it with dill and parsley leaves, then a few thin slices of lemon. After drizzling with olive oil, the meal was ready for its wrap treatment. Seal the foil pouch tightly on all edges leaving a little cushion of air for steam to develop. Place your neatly wrapped pouch on a baking sheet with a little water in the pan. Cook on 400 degrees for 12-15 minutes; easy squeasy.

I thought this was going to be bland. How can something that cooks so quickly have time to develop any real flavor? I was wrong. The fish steams in the pouch and stays super moist. The lemon and herb flavors really came through. I loved it. Plus, no butter, no breading, no complicated preparation, just a really tasty piece of fish. You can easily swap out the ingredients and try different combinations to keep it interesting.

I borrowed a grilling cookbook from the library (I know this is insufferably nerdy, but whatever!) and found a recipe for marinated and grilled zucchini. Well, it sounded delicious. I spend half an hour putting together a marinade that called for a dozen different ingredients, let it sit in the fridge for an hour as instructed, but after cooking, I didn’t taste ANY of those complicated steps.

The grilled flavor was great and I topped the zucchini with some parmesan cheese and chopped scallions. Those two ingredients really added something. Skip the complicated marinade. Cut the zucchini in half, brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill about 5 minutes on each side or until tender. Sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese and chopped scallions. An easy side dish for an easy dinner.

* Get cooking. Let me know what you think. Love it? Hate it? I’m interested in hearing your feedback and suggestions.

En Papillote on Foodista

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Picnic Perfect Muffins

I’d like to officially welcome summer 2010 to Long Island! One of my all-time, absolute favorite things in the world to do during the summer is take my Saturday morning breakfast to the beach. What’s better than a picnic on the sand with some crashing postcard-like waves in the background? This may sound cheesy and cliché for a Long Islander, but it never gets old.

Of course I have to search out the perfect spot to set up my blanket, far away from screaming children, blasting techno music or chatty teenagers. A picnic is supposed to be peaceful! I try to pack as light as I can manage. Lugging a huge, overstuffed cooler for miles takes some of the fun out of the trip.

What’s a delicious breakfast treat that fits in a small lunch box and doesn’t require a lot of major condiments or assembly? Muffins! Sadly, muffins are not terribly good for you. The next time you’re in a deli or bakery, check out the muffin flavors; chocolate chip, DOUBLE chocolate chip, coffee cake, apple cinnamon. They all sound (and inevitably taste) like dessert. Don’t get me wrong, I love dessert, but starting off the day with something super sweet has me headed down the wrong path before 9AM.

Unfortunately, the day I made these CRANBERRY-ZUCCHINI MUFFINS, it rained. Bummer! So I had a picnic in the living room instead. I was looking for a lighter muffin recipe to try and stumbled across this one online. It’s apparently from Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook. I happen to think that Martha Stewart is some sort of android. Anyone who would hollow out gourds and string them together to make a party lantern freaks me out. But the woman is a baking expert, so I trusted her on this one.

The zucchini has the same effect as it does in zucchini bread. The muffins don’t actually taste like zucchini, but they stay nice and moist without having to add a whole lot of oil. The cranberries pop in the oven and add a sour, gooeyness that I just love. If fresh cranberries aren’t in season, the frozen ones work just fine.

This recipe is just sweet enough. The muffins don’t taste like dessert and I found them to be surprisingly filling. I’d like to take a second crack at the recipe, replacing some of the white flour for whole wheat and some of the white sugar for brown. I’ll keep you posted on how the substitutions work out. In the meantime, think of these as a treat. They certainly aren’t as bad for you as the oversized, over-sweetened bakery variety. Just don’t overindulge.

* Get cooking. Let me know what you think. Love it? Hate it? I’m interested in hearing your feedback and suggestions.

Muffin on Foodista