Friday, April 30, 2010

A little Spring Cleaning...

I've been reading the book The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin and have been absolutely loving it. In it, she describes her year-long quest to become happier by trying out small things, so that she could change her life and be happier, without actually changing her life (no running off to Italy or Bali for her!). There are so many different things she tried that are really thoughtful, and have really clicked with me. My favorite so far is the "one minute rule" wherein if a task takes less than a minute, just do it right then. It's only a minute! I am notoriously guilty of being too lazy to, say, fold and a sweater I tried on but decided not to wear, or place the newspaper in the recycling after I'm done. Sweaters end up in piles, newspapers strewn around the apartment. That's just me, but I'm trying to instill her rule (I obviously used kind examples).

Anyway, the book has been really inspiring so I thought I'd do a little Spring Cleaning to de-clutter my apartment. I only got through phase one, but I consider it the most important phase: my refrigerator.

This is what my refrigerator looked like:

It may not look that bad, but it was. I could barely fit anything into it and who knows how long some of those vegetables have been in there. So I started out by taking everything out and laying it out. Then throwing out some (half of) the stuff in there. (Please don't look at the piles in the background...)

Seriously, I found a Christmas cookie. Ugh. Anyway, I moved on. The smartest thing I did was order these little glass bowls with lids. They are the best! Seriously, you must make this investment - under $20 for twelve of them. I ended up putting a lot of things in them for the refrigerator, and not just leftovers, but things that come in flimsy plastic containers or leaky ones. I can't think of an easier way to store things like cheese, or that half lemon from last night's vinaigrette.

I took these bad boys beyond the refrigerator too - great for pantry staples like dried fruit, and so much easier than dealing with "resealable" (ha) plastic bags. Also, they double as serving dishes - much better presentation points for a glass bowl of olives than the plastic container they came in. (And you can then wash and save the plastic container for bringing lunch to work - much lighter to carry and no need for presentation points.)

But I digress. So I ended up taking out all of the shelves, wiping everything down, and then putting things back in nicely (in their glass bowls!). One thing I realized was that I could raise the upper shelf one level and still fit everything above, which gave me much more room in the middle section.

So far, I've been really excited about this and have kept everything nice and tidy. I even arranged the refrigerator door!

Wasn't I clever with my active dry yeast packets going next to the beer? Yeah, I thought you were impressed with my themed sections.

While I feel like I've added a big step in my happiness levels with this cleaning out, there is still a looming fear: the freezer. I shudder to think about cleaning that one out. Not a one-minute task.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Food for Thought & Baking for Good

Do you remember bake sales? As a child, I remember them being a highlight of elementary school. Not only was it exciting to buy a homemade treat, but it was thrilling to be on the other side of the table and spend an afternoon baking cupcakes with my mom. As a teacher, I was always a big fan of them. Not only do they encourage wonderful moments at home (learning to cook! A fun activity with family members!) but they teach a lot of great lessons to kids - counting money, buying and selling, donating to charity, and fundraising.

But with the recent onset of promoting healthy eating, which in general I am a huge supporter of, something has gone seriously awry with bake sales in New York City schools. School districts have allowed only certain items to be sold at "bake" sales, but the logic is off. Since homemade foods don't have exact calorie counts, they can't adhere to school rules on what can be sold. So homemade oatmeal cookies are out, and packaged foods, like Doritos, are in. Total catastrophe, right?!

Kim Severson recently reported on this issue - read the article here - and the writers in the Diner's Journal blog from the New York Times (which has recently gotten so fabulous, by the way) got together to encourage people to submit recipes of what they'd bake in a bake sale. What would I bake? Hmm... I'm absolutely obsessed with these cocoa brownies. Oh and I also loved these chocolate yogurt cakes. And these oatmeal spice cookies. And these easy chocolate chip cookies... I could go on and on.

There is another thing, however, that you can do if you love bake sales, that doesn't involve baking or protesting at City Hall. The girls over at Big Girls, Small Kitchen, are part of a Virtual Bake Sale, and are raising money for the Valerie Fund. By going to the Baking For Good website, you can purchase some yummy Peanut M&M Blondies, made by Cara and Phoebe, and the proceeds will be donated to the Valerie Fund, a New York-based charity that raises money for children with cancer and blood disorders. Click here to read more about it and to buy some of those mouthwatering blondies... it is the perfect dessert to have for a Mother's Day brunch or a picnic this weekend or (if you're like me) just to have around the house. And what a great way to hark back to the wonders of the bake sale!

One of the things I believe in most is that eating healthy means eating real food. Desserts shouldn't come from a package - if you are going to treat yourself, treat yourself right and eat something homemade. You'll know what went into it (real butter, no preservatives, etc.) and enjoy it more. Bake sales (Virtual or in elementary school hallways) should encourage this and not shy away from it. Of course, we can't be eating brownies every day, but a treat that comes with life lessons for kids or a donation to a good cause is always welcome in my book.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tomato and Sausage Risotto

On Sunday morning, I (as usual) had a Barefoot Contessa episode playing while I was getting myself organized for the day. Ina was making a spring vegetable risotto, which caused Wright to immediately request risotto for dinner that night. I'd planned to make dinner family-style for a group of friends before we caught up on Lost (!!), so that seemed like a reasonable request, but I couldn't help groaning on the inside.

I've made risotto before, and while it's always a fun (though monotonous) adventure, I've never been completely satisfied with it. Sure, everyone else has loved it - but to me it ends up being kind of boring after the third or fourth bite. It becomes too vegetable-y, too mushroom-y, too risotto-y. I like to have meals where each bite is a little different. I really, really wanted to like risotto - it just looks and smells and sounds so good! - so I kept trying it, and was continually disappointed.

Until this recipe. This recipe took risotto out of the box for me. At first, I was a doubter. Sausage in risotto? Nah, couldn't work without tasting like meat glop. Canned diced tomatoes? Blah, salty and too tomato-y. Cooked spinach? Not my cup of tea. But I was proved wrong. The risotto was hearty, meaty, flavorful, and delicious - with none of the asparagus overload or constant mushroom mush situations I was used to. The spinach and basil helped it feel fresh and light, while the sausage (I used a mix of sweet and hot) kept each bite interesting.

Since we had a group of five, I doubled the original recipe and was glad I did - we actually did not have very much left. The recipe below should serve six. I also decided to punch up the flavor a bit by adding garlic and hot sauce in addition to the two sausages. I wouldn't be afraid to use all hot sausage, but of course, I'm not really a spicy person so I love the sweet. Now, I know what you are thinking, this is not the most ideal meal for a dinner party, as you are a slave to the pan for about an hour, but the end result it worth it (and it can be fun to give non-cooks a turn stirring!). The most important part is to have lots of fresh parmesan and basil on hand for serving. Oh, and keep stirring!

Tomato and Sausage Risotto
Adapted from Martha Stewart

2 28 oz. cans diced tomatoes (in juice)
1 large yellow onion, diced
1.5 lbs sausage, casings removed (hot or sweet Italian)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup freshly grated parmesan (plus extra for serving)
5-10 dashes hot sauce (optional)
1 bunch spinach, washed and stems removed
1 bunch basil, washed and julienned

1. Combine tomatoes with six cups of water and bring to a boil, then let simmer on the stove.
2. Sauté the onion in olive oil in a wide stockpot or pan (large enough to fit all of your risotto).
Once translucent, add sausage and let brown, then add garlic. Add about a teaspoon of pepper
3. Add rice to the pan and stir around, "toasting" the rice.
4. Add white wine to the pan. Stir and let reduce/soak into the rice for about 3-5 minutes.
5. Add about two cups of the simmering tomatoes/water to the pan and stir continuously, until all of the liquid has soaked into the rice. Continue to add the liquid, a cup or two at a time, until the rice is completely cooked through (about 25-35 minutes, be sure to test it by trying some!). You may have leftover tomatoes/water. Add salt and pepper to taste as you are stirring it.
6. Stir in parmesan, butter, hot sauce, and spinach.
7. Serve immediately in bowls, topped with extra parmesan and basil

Monday, April 19, 2010

Dinner Party Solution: Quiche

On Saturday night, I had a small dinner party at my apartment. I'm lucky enough to have an open kitchen, so whenever I host friends for dinner, I can cook and participate in conversation at the same time. (Technically, one can do anything in my one room apartment and participate in the conversation, but let's not go there.) The only problem is, I'd rather just relax and have fun - it's kind of a hassle to be chopping and prepping, steaming up the apartment with the burners on, and stockpiling your sink with dirty knives while you're trying to catch up with friends.

So, I've found a perfect solution - one where I don't even have to throw on my apron over my outfit - quiche. Simple, filling, and absolutely delicious when made well and with quality ingredients, this dish is ideal for dinner parties, both because of the way it is made and its flexibility - you can really fill it with anything, depending on whether your guests are vegetarians, meat-lovers, big eaters or not. There are plenty of ways to play around with it.

I made a mushroom and asparagus quiche for dinner on Saturday, and, paired with a simple green salad, it fed five of us (though we did finish off every last crumb...). With Maddie bringing appetizers, Rachel bringing wine, and Andrew bringing dessert, my preparations were a complete breeze, and we all had a great time. I had the quiche ready to go (and cutting boards, etc., put away) before they were due to arrive, and simply popped it into the oven when everyone was there. That gave us a perfect 45 minutes to one hour for cocktails, and took a load off my back with cooking while hosting!

Mushroom and Asparagus Quiche
1 pie crust (homemade - see below - or store-bought/frozen)
1/2 bunch of medium- sized asparagus, trimmed
1/2 pound of baby bella mushrooms
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 eggs
1/3 cup of heavy cream or whole milk (your choice, but heavy cream is better)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 large shallot
3 oz. grated gruyere cheese (approximate)

1. Set a pot of water to boil and preheat oven to 375.
2. Slice mushrooms roughly and sauté in olive oil over medium heat for about ten minutes, until they are soft and dark
3. Cut asparagus into 3/4 to 1 inch slices, including the tops. Blanch in the boiling water for about one minute, then remove and add to pan with the mushrooms.
4. Mix mushrooms and asparagus together and place into pie crust, spreading out evenly.
5. Whisk eggs, milk, salt, and pepper together, then pour over the vegetables until the pie crust is filled (you may have extra).
6. Thinly slice the shallot and spread on top of the quiche, then spread grated cheese on top. Add a sprinkle of salt and some fresh ground pepper on top.
7. Bake at 375 for 45 minutes to one hour, until it is golden brown on top and set in the middle.

Note: This recipe can be altered in many ways. Any vegetables (leeks, spinach, broccoli, etc.) can be used, just prepare them as you would normally before putting them into the quiche. Sausage is a great addition, simply remove the casing and brown it on a sauté pan before adding it (same with ham, bacon, etc.). My mom makes the simplest and most delicious quiche with just bacon (chopped and sautéed) and multiple cheeses - some mixed into the eggs and some on top for browning.

Easy Pie Crust
2 sticks of butter, frozen or very cold
2 cups of flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons (or more) ice water

1. Cut butter into small pieces (or use a grater).
2. Using your hands, mix butter into flour, until there are only pea-sized pieces of butter.
3. Add salt and toss.
4. Slowly add ice water, mixing until the dough comes together (I usually have to add more).
5. Form into two disks, wrap each in plastic, and refrigerate for 30 minutes (or freeze the extra at this point)
6. Roll one of the disks out into a large circle (larger than your pie pan) and then place into the pan.
7. Blind-bake for about 15 minutes at 350 (I use tin foil and dried rice or beans), then for another 10-15 minutes without the weights.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Recipe Index!

"Bookshelf 11" by Jane Mount

I started this blog when I graduated from college as a way to keep in touch with friends and write about the adventures I was hoping to encounter. At first, I stuck with my theme of "Art, Food, Travel, Life" and wrote pretty evenly about each of those topics. In fact, I just realized that the first six months or so of my blog was mostly focused on art reviews! Random!

Well, times have changed. I've moved from Charlottesville to New York, and now that I work in the art world, I don't really have too much desire to write about it extra-curricularly. At least not all the time. In fact, I've started to focus more and more on a hobby that I was just starting to pick up when I left college - cooking.

Perhaps you've noticed that my blog is now almost entirely devoted to food - mostly to my adventures in the kitchen, but also to my adventures in eating it. I've become really involved in and passionate about food and cooking, to the point where it's become a major part of my life. Everyday I think about upcoming meals and different things to try out in the kitchen; I devour cookbooks, magazines, and cooking blogs, trying to soak up as much information as possible. I love cooking. And eating.

Okay, I've gone sappy. I'm not quitting my job and becoming a cook or anything. All I have to announce is that I've created a "Recipe Index" for the website - accessible through this link, as well as the one on the left side of the page. I really came up with the idea because I was having trouble searching through posts for old recipes and pictures, because of course none of my titles match up to whatever food I was making, and I realized that if you, dear, mysterious readers, ever wanted to make something that I've talked about on this site, well, it might be difficult to find it. So I hope this helps!

Oh, and by the way, this does not mean I'm going to devote the blog solely to cooking. I know there are readers out there who, (ahem, Bowen) do not even like my cooking posts, and that's okay! I'll try to keep it mixed, but it's hard when I spend so much time eating and cooking...ha, maybe I should add "exercising" to that list...

Back Forty Spring Cheese Dinner

I am embarrassingly addicted to daily e-newsletters; I subscribe to a multitude - DailyCandy, The Zoe Report, Tasting Table, Tasting Table New York, A Sharp Eye, Grub Street, Politico Daily Playbook, Who What Wear, and the list goes on - you name it, I get it. Or I'll sign up immediately after finding out about it. I don't know what it is - the excitement of getting so many emails, perhaps - but I really enjoy reading them all. It helps me feel current, and many point out really great events going on in the city, like the Spring Cheese Dinner at Back Forty, which I was lucky enough to attend last night.

I've waxed poetic about Back Forty before, so I won't bore you with my obsession. (Yes, the main image of me on this website was in fact taken at Back Forty). The dinner last night paired spring cheeses from Saxelby Cheese with various beers from Chelsea Brewing Company. It had me at cheese. It had Wright at beer. Immediate RSVP.

While we knew we'd be in for a treat, we definitely underestimated how delicious, informative, and fun the dinner would be. Not only did the chef work with both Saxelby's and Chelsea Brewing Company on the pairings and dishes, Anne Saxelby and the brewer from CBC were on hand to tell us about what we were tasting and answer any of our questions! It was fantastic.

Anyway, the point of this post is not to rub in the fact that I was at this amazing dinner, but as a reminder that events like these are so easy to pass over and hit "delete" on. But so often they are beyond wonderful and truly worth it - we really could not have been happier (or more full!) when we left Back Forty last night.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Back in the Kitchen... and baking bread!

It felt so good to be back in my kitchen making a mess and cooking up a storm this weekend. I was beyond thrilled to hit the Farmer's Market for the first time since February (eek!) but the sunshine didn't exactly mean great produce - I left with two small herb plants and a large bunch of peach blossoms. Oh so beautiful, but not exactly the bundle of joy (ahem, spring vegetables) that I was hoping for. I need to keep reminding myself that it is only April!

What I did set out to do this weekend, though, was bake bread. I know I haven't really written about it on the blog, but over the past few months, I've been honing my bread baking skills, inspired by Jim Lahey's no-knead method. While I had cut out Mark Bittman's article on his method way back when I lived in Virginia, I didn't actually spring to action and try it out until I read about it again on Big Girls, Small Kitchen.

I followed along with their description (the pictures were much more helpful than my deteriorating newspaper cut-out) and could not believe the results. Not only did it work, it worked fabulously and (what felt like) effortlessly on my part! I was blown away, and instantly addicted. I could barely hold myself back from sprinting to Barnes & Noble to buy Jim Lahey's book, My Bread. (Side note: the James Beard Foundation just named this book one of the top baking cookbooks of all time).

The book is absolutely beautiful. Lahey writes with a real passion for baking, and explains everything in great detail, without becoming overly scientific or complicated. His goal is to inspire the everyday cook (like you and me!) to become comfortable baking their own breads, to dispel the fears surrounding bread-baking and encourage us to appreciate homemade, artisan bread. Well, it worked in my apartment.

Taking Lahey's suggestion, I spent a couple of months working on his basic recipe, simple white bread. I tried to incorporate whole wheat sometimes, and tested out a few different flours and yeasts, really just getting used to the process and how it all should look and feel throughout. This is tough because many of his recipes are very tempting - cheese bread!! - but I stuck to my guns and waited until I felt comfortable to take the leap into more out of the ordinary breads, like the one you see pictured here - Pan co'Santi, or Walnut Raisin bread.

The wait was well worth it. My walnut raisin bread was, if I do say so myself, out of this world. I almost melted when I heard is loudly "singing" as it cooled. Maybe it was being back in the kitchen after a month away, maybe it was knowing how many loaves of bread I'd gone through to work up to this point, or maybe it really was just that good - whatever the reason, I was in heaven eating this bread. I am thrilled to be baking again.

I'm going to lead you over to Big Girls, Small Kitchen to get started on your bread baking, as that is the description that I used before I bought the book. Keep in mind that this method takes 12-24 hours, so think ahead about when you are going to be able to bake the bread. Good luck! Link

Monday, April 12, 2010

On Cooking for 25

Over Easter weekend, my godmother had a casual dinner party... for 25 of us. The four families that made up most of the group (mine included) have been friends for decades, so we always have a blast getting together, and dinner at her house in Charleston has becoming something of a (wild) tradition. Needless to say, we always plea with Nancy to let us bring something or help out, but she is ever gracious and seems to pull these large dinners off as if she were throwing together a meal for two.

I've mentioned her chili before, which is always a safe bet when feeding a large group. This year, however, we had lasagna. Yes, she made lasagna for 25, which included a handful of growing and hungry 20-something boys, and acted as if it was no big deal. At one point, a guest noticed that Nancy was pulling out the multiple lasagnas... and was absolutely stunned to see that they were all homemade. Cool as a cucumber, Nancy responded: "Well of course. The way I see it, I could have used store-bought lasagna and served it on my china, or I could make the lasagna myself and use paper plates. I hate washing dishes."

And there you have it, folks. How to pull off a dinner party for 25? Pick your battle - cooking or dishes.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Some highlights from Bruges

Bruges, which was the first stop on our trip, is an absolutely lovely medieval town in Northern Belgium. We were lucky enough to be there on two beautiful days, and we thoroughly enjoyed exploring the cobblestone streets, riding bikes along the canals, and even taking a boat ride!

Bet you didn't know I could ride a bike!

Of course, a highlight was visiting Cafe Vlissinghe, a pub that has been in business since 1515!! We enjoyed a beer in the back garden and had a blast dueling it out on their bocce court.

I let him win.