27 April 2007

What to cook?

We are having the family over for dinner Sunday. What to cook? The weather is supposed to be sunny and warm, so it might be a good day to grill. On the other hand, I want something easy so that I don't have to 1) work hard all day and 2) can spend time with my guests instead of preparing dinner.

Some options I'm considering.

For starters, one of the following:
- crudite and not your average spinach dip
- cheese, crackers, nuts, fruit
- baguette toasts with mushroom spread
- pate and cornichon with crackers

For main course, one of the following:
1) fried chicken with potato salad and collards
2) pork loin roast with hashed sweet potatoes and creamed spinach
3) fish fillets sauteed with tomatoes, capers and olives, served with orzo tossed in lemon butter, and grilled asparagus
4) lamb kebobs, grilled zucchini and yellow squash, and rice mixed with grilled corn and mint

For dessert, one of the following:
- vanilla ice cream with bananas flambeed in rum and brown sugar (Bananas Foster)
- brownie with ice cream
- mixed berry clafouti
- sour cream cake with mixed berries
- strawberry shortcakes
- chocolate panna cotta

What do you think?

23 April 2007

Vegas, Baby

Just got back from 3 days in Las Vegas. Five of us were celebrating the 35th birthday of a very good friend. As the tv commerical will tell you, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." But I can tell you a few things:

1) See "O" at the Bellagio. It will be worth every penny you spend for the tickets. It is a complete enchantment. This is a production of the Cirque du Soleil for which they created and built a special stage. The stage in and of itself is fascinating. Sometimes it's simply a solid surface and other times it gives the illusion of people walking on water and other times, it is deep enough to entertain high divers and scuba divers!

2) Trattoria del Lupo at the Mandalay Bay serves excellent pizza and pasta by the chef and restauranteur, Wolfgang Puck. Through the glass window you can see the fresh pasta hanging like laundry from the drying racks. The prices are very reasonable.

3) The Buffet at The Wynn. I'm not usually one who enjoys a buffet but this is exceptionally good featuring standing rack of lamb encrusted in spices, prime rib, a Chinese station, an Italian station, a cold seafoods station, a dessert station (with loads and loads of bite sized selections), and more that I'm sure I've forgotten. It is $40 per person but take your time and enjoy it and get your money's worth.

4) Shopping at the Venetian -- many of the stores you would see in an upper-middle class mall but with a canal and gondolas and opera singers and street performers. When you walk into the shopping area, look up. The lighting and the painted ceiling will convince you that you are outdoors. Secondly, take a deep breath, and that too will convince you that you are outdoors. The air seems like fresh outdoor air, not the typically stale air inside a mall.

5) The fountain water show in front of the Bellagio is fantastically beautiful. The streams and jets of water dance in coordination to the music and runs every half hour in the evenings. It's romantic. Especially when the vibrant crescent moon hangs just so in the sky, just left of center of the hotel itself in the background on a clear and lovely evening.

6) Pamper yourself at The Bathhouse spa at The Hotel at Mandalay Bay.

The rest, I'm afraid, really needs to be left unsaid. ;-)

13 April 2007

Two meals this week

I last left off talking about Easter weekend and everything we had to eat and drink... well, not everything. I made dinner Sunday night. I don't know what to call it. It's was a baked rigatoni in bechamel with lots of vegetables.

To start out, I had chopped, blanched and shocked a whole head of broccoli, including the stems (trimmed and peeled the woody parts off first) and a bunch of asparagus. I put a box of frozen chopped spinach in the microwave for a couple minutes and cooked half a box of rigatoni. Once all that was prepped, I started a bechamel in a large pan. Bechamel is basically a roux with milk or cream. I livened mine up with a finely minced onion and some pasted garlic (used the mortar and pestle for this), made golden in the butter (about 1/2 stick) before adding the flour (about 1 1/2 Tbsp). After the flour is incorporated and absorbed well by the butter, no longer raw, add milk or cream (about 2 cups maybe?) until it thickens over med-low heat. I made mine not too thick by using little flour because, once off the heat, I added fresh ricotta cheese, which really thickens it up. To the sauce, I tossed in the broccoli, asparagus, spinach, pasta, and a hearty handful of frozen peas, salt and pepper, and mixed it all up with a wooden spoon. Put the whole mixture into a sprayed baking dish, and topped with a blend of freshly toasted bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. I put that into a hot oven for about 35 minutes and served it piping hot. And while I would normally think of pasta and bechamel as heavy and rich, it didn't seem so with all the veggies that were in it. This makes enough for 6-8 generous plenty portions. But think about that -- 1/2 a box of pasta for 8 portions and the rest is veggies.

Yesterday I knew I needed to cook but didn't really know what to make. I needed something super quick and easy because I was going to the gym in between work and home. I found a recipe on Everyday Food and, as I usually do, I adapted it.

Mediterranean Pita Pizza
4 six-inch pitas, split open
store bought hummous (or make your own; I used a roasted garlic flavor, store bought container)
3/4 lb ground lamb, browned and drained
12 kalamata olives, pitted
1-2 yellow bell pepper, sliced
couple handfuls of chopped flat-leaf parsley
feta cheese, crumbled

Preheat oven to 425 and spray two cookie sheets with spray oil. Lay the pitas cut side up on the cookie sheets. Spread each pita half with hummous, scatter on the bell pepper slices, kalamatas, lamb, parsley and cheese. Pop into the oven for about 15 minutes or until the pitas are crisp and the toppings are warmed through. Don't go by whether the cheese has melted or not because feta doesn't really melt. Makes 4 servings.

A good addition (or substitute for another item, such as the parsley) to this would be a box of frozen chopped spinach, thawed with all the water squeezed out. If you don't like lamb, you could use lean ground beef, turkey or chicken. If you like eggplant, substituting babaganoush for the hummous would be another good version of this. Adapt it. Make it your own.

09 April 2007

The Food and Wine Frenzy that was the Weekend

I love my brother-in-law and his wife and I love it when they come up from Charlotte, NC to visit us, but thank goodness the visits are usually short! No offense to them but, my god, we eat and drink a lot whenever they visit and by Monday I just feel like I need to fast and detox. They got a late start on Friday and didn't get up here until late, so we didn't get a chance to go to dinner together -- maybe a good thing.

As it turns out, our favorite wine store in Cleveland Park was having a tasting on Friday, as they always do, so we decided to pop in there and see what was going on and we needed a few bottles to restock for warmer weather anyhow. We tasted some beers from Bells Brewery (bought a 6-pack of the Amber Ale) and then about three wines from the very southwestern tip of Australia and two wines from the southeastern area of Australia. The two Yarraman Estate wines we tasted were both very nice and at a very nice price so we bought a bottle of each. The white was a combo of Semillon and Verdelho: dry, crisp, tart. Not quite as grapefruity as a NZ Sauvignon Blanc but very kiwi and citrus. The red was a combo Shiraz Merlot. With a couple good swirls of the glass, the tannins faded into the background and was smooth all the way. We then proceeded to buy another 16 bottles of various recommendations from Tony and things we have tried over the past year or so and know we love. And then we went for a late Vietnamese dinner.

Saturday I worked out and skipped lunch. The rest of the fam went to a place in Pentagon City that specializes in crepes. In the afternoon, we met up at the new Whole Foods Market in the Fair Lakes area of Fairfax, VA in the wine loft. The place is pretty cool but you can spend a fortune in there just tasting what's available. Select your wine, decide whether you want a one-, three-, or five-ounce tasting. Stick a glass underneath the spigot, insert your wine bar debit card, and press a button. It runs the gamut from very inexpensive to very (insanely) expensive and makes for a fun afternoon, as long as you don't have to drive!

Everyone came over to our house after that and we had some nibbles. My father-in-law had recently purchased a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon rated 98 points which he spent $100 for and he very graciously wanted to share it with all of us. So we each had a little bit of it with him. After a few minutes in the glass, it was delicious and lovely. I didn't write it down because I personally couldn't bring myself to spend that much on a bottle of wine. I've had others that were that good (to my tastes anyway) for about $20. I believe in affordable wine, especially for everyday drinking.

For nibbles we had:
- blanched and shocked asparagus spears with homemade mayo to dip in
- "Cheap Trick" cheese (I like to call it that but I got the idea from Jacques Pepin's Fast Food My Way) which is a blend of all the little bits of leftover cheeses you have in the fridge with a spoon of cream cheese, a little honey and some lime juice, brought all together in the food processor and then pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries folded in and spread on crackers
- toasted baguette slices topped with tapenade

We then all piled in the car and went to dinner. Yes, we ate again. Bamian, located in the bustling Bailey's Crossroads area, is a wonderful Afghan restaurant serving up delicious traditional foods including little dumplings filled with meat and covered in yogurt sauce with fresh mint, a bread pastry filled with savory and creamy potatoes, grilled lamb ribs, and stewed pumpkin. We had a delicious meal, courtesy of the parents - thanks again! We four "kids" then went off to a place called My Bakery, a Bolivian cafe. We ordered one pastelito to share and coffee and tea. A pastelito is kind of like a beignet if you have ever been to New Orleans, but it has cheese inside, so you get this wonderful combination of savory (salty from the cheese) and sweet from the dough and the powdered sugar, along with the crispy, crunchiness and heat from the whole thing being fried. Good thing we shared.

Oh yeah, then there was Sunday, Easter Sunday. It's our family tradition to eat lunch at a Greek restaurant on Easter Sunday. For the past few years we have very much enjoyed the Athena Pallas restaurant. They serve traditional Greek Easter bread, the special Easter soup (which I think is kind of an avgolemeno [egg-lemon] soup with the addition of organ meats of chicken), a roasted lamb, grilled sea bream, roast suckling pig and various other specials for Easter. I ordered the Greek Salad for my main course and just had one bite of the galaktibouriko, a phyllo pastry stuffed with fresh custard and drizzled with orange blossom honey and nutmeg.

And there ended the feeding frenzy that was Easter weekend 2007. Well, not really because I made dinner. That entry is for another day.

02 April 2007

Taco Pizza

If I were a certain television personality whose books are strategically located everywhere these days, I might say, "Yum-o!" but since I'm just me, I say, "Yum!"

We are all often conscientious about what we eat, cautious of the pounds we're adding to those hips when we have a slice of bread or a sliver of cheese. I was kind of craving a taco salad the other day and pizza at the same time and thought to myself that I couldn't really afford to splurge twice in one week. So I came up with this ingenious idea to make a taco pizza. OK, so it's one really big splurge that is probably equivalent of two, but I feel better knowing that I only splurged once. Get my logic?

For the pizza crust, if you have a bread maker, do this from scratch. If you don't have a bread maker, buy a ready made crust.

For the bread maker version, try this recipe for Cornmeal Pizza Dough from The Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook by Beth Hensperger:
1 1/2 C water
1/4 C olive oil
3 2/3 C unbleached all purpose flour
1/3 C medium grind yellow corn meal
2 1/2 tsp bread machine yeast
Put it into the bread maker, set to the Pizza setting. This usually takes about 90 minutes. While the bread maker is doing the hard work, prep your toppings.

1 can refried pinto beans
1 package of shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 8-oz container of low fat sour cream
2 ripe avacados, peeled, seeded and chopped, mixed with a generous pinch of salt and a good squeeze of fresh lime to keep it from turning brown
Fresh tomato salsa (see below)
Taco meat (see below)
A generous handful of scallions and cilantro, rough chopped
Shredded iceberg lettuce

Fresh Tomato Salsa:
2-3 large ripe tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped
1 bunch scallions, chopped (use a larger portion of whites than greens)
a handful cilantro, chopped
juice of 1 lime
2-3 serrano peppers, chopped (adjust heat by leaving in seeds or not or somewhere in between)
minced garlic to taste
a generous pinch of salt
a less generous pinch of sugar

Gently mix this all together in a bowl and let the flavors meld at room temperature. In fact, do a melding dance in the kitchen while you imbibe a cerveza in anticipation of the taco pizza. Refrigerate leftovers (as if there will be any). Or just use your favorite jarred salsa... but know that is a total cop-out.

Taco meat:
Lean ground beef (you could probably substitute ground turkey or chicken if you wanted a healthier version)
a lot of salt (after all, that is what makes taco seasoning in a packet taste so good)
a bit of garlic
onion powder (or use fresh finely minced if you prefer)
a lot of cumin
a little hot sauce such as Texas Pete or Tabasco
some good quality chili powder (ancho or chipotle or a combination of those would be nice)
maybe a half can of Rotel
(or just do the meat with a packet of taco seasoning)

Brown the meat thoroughly with either the packet or all the seasonings. The important thing about the seasoning is to make the meat taste seasoned enough to permeate through the pizza crust, beans, sour cream and avacado. The reason to call it a taco pizza is because you are supposed to taste "taco". So season well. Drain completely in a colander until the mixture is dry. Set aside.

Some assembly required
(Those are the dreaded three words at our house during the Christmas season!)
Spray a jelly-roll pan with oil and put your pizza stone on the lower rack in the cold oven. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Farenheit. When the dough is done, place it on the prepared jelly-roll sheet and shape it to cover the entire sheet, making sure the edges come up on all four sides. Prick the dough with a fork all over. Bake on the middle rack about 12-15 minutes. It won't be completely cooked but should start showing signs of doneness; don't let it get too brown. Remove from oven, but leave the oven on.

Open your refried beans and spread them evenly over the crust. Top the beans with shredded cheese. Top the cheese with taco meat. Put the whole thing back into the oven until the crust is done, and the cheese looks melted and gooey, maybe another 3-5 minutes or until the look of the crust makes you feel like you can't wait another second to eat it.

Next, spread that sour cream all over and sprinkle with your chopped avacado, scallions and cilantro. Using a slotted spoon to drain all the liquid off, scatter your chunky fresh tomato salsa all over. Cut that taco pizza into pieces and serve each piece with some shredded, crunchy iceberg lettuce.

After you eat this, you will not want to go back to regular ol' pizza again! Yum.

Note: Because the toppings tend to be moist (like the salsa and the sour cream), I recommend inviting some friends and trying to eat it all up while it's fresh. Leftovers are okay if you drained the meat and the salsa really well, but will probably only be good for one day and then your crust starts to get soggy. If you end up with leftovers, relive your college days and have some cold (taco) pizza for breakfast.