Sunday, November 27, 2011

Last-Minute Wheat Bread

(Ok, so technically this is a picture of my 5-minute wheat bread—but we ate the
Last-Minute Loaf already!)

Prep Time: Easy

Do you ever find yourself needing a loaf of good bread, but without the time to let it rise? I came up with this recipe (based on several others) the other day when I was in just that situation. From start to finish it takes about an hour. This recipe yields one medium-sized loaf, but you could easily double or triple (or quintuple!) it for more. This recipe is so quick and easy you don't even need to make it in a mixer.

1 cup warm water
1 T yeast
1/2 T table salt
2 T canola oil
1 1/2 T honey
2 cups wheat flour
1/2-3/4 cups white flour
Egg white (beaten); any desired toppings

Mix all ingredients together in medium bowl (I just do it with my hands—the dough comes together quickly and easily). Knead dough a few times until it is elastic and holds together (should only take about 60 seconds). Grease medium loaf pan. Shape dough into loaf (my preferred method is to roll it out on the counter and then roll the sheet up into a loaf) and press into pan. Brush top with egg white and top with any desired seeds, oatmeal, etc. With serrated knife, make 3-4 slashes in top of loaf (a lot of the rising will happen quickly as the oven heats, so this helps your loaf keep a pleasing shape through that fast rising!). Allow to rest on warm countertop or in oven (turned off) for about 20 minutes. Without preheating the oven, place loaf into oven and set oven to 350. Cook for 45 minutes (this includes the preheat time). Cool on a wire rack.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Poppyseed Chicken (Cream of Chicken Soup-Free)

Prep time: Easy (though a little harder than using a can of cream of chicken soup)

This is Mahon's favorite meal ever. I haven't made it a lot in the last two years because I've really stopped using cream of chicken soup base, and don't make a lot of casseroles at all, but I made it the other day for his birthday and came up with a way to do it canned-soup-free. It's still not what I'd term a "health food," and the Ritz crackers on top still (obviously) put it squarely in the camp of "processed food." Though I have to say, unhealthy as they may be, the crackers really make the meal. Seriously. So good. This recipe yields a small-ish casserole and would serve about 4-5 adults.

2 large chicken breasts, thawed and cubed
2 T butter
2 T flour
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 t parsley
1/2 t pepper
1/2 t salt
1/2 cup sour cream
2 T poppy seeds
1 sleeve Ritz crackers
3 T butter

Heat oven to 375. Cube thawed chicken and place in medium casserole dish. In small saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 T butter. Whisk in flour and cook, stirring constantly, till bubbly and thick (about 1-2 minutes). Whisk in milk and let cook another 2 minutes or so (mixture will thicken quickly; stir constantly to keep it smooth). Add chicken broth, parsley, pepper, and salt, and cook, stirring frequently, for 2 more minutes. Pour over chicken in casserole dish. Add sour cream and 1 T poppy seeds; mix everything together until creamy and well-combined. Cover dish with foil and bake for about 45 minutes, or until sauce is bubbly and chicken is cooked through. While chicken is cooking, crush Ritz crackers in medium bowl and add remaining 3 T butter and 1 T poppy seeds. (If the butter isn't soft, go ahead and stick the whole bowl in the microwave for about 30 seconds.) Mix everything together. When chicken is cooked through, remove foil and sprinkle cracker mix on top and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Serve over rice.

Blueberry Struesel Muffins (AKA, Best Blueberry Muffins Ever!)

Prep time: Medium (for muffins—still not that hard)
Source: Adapted from

Words cannot describe how amazing these muffins are! Everyone I have made them for has begged for the recipe. They are seriously delicious! I also have found that you can replace at least 3/4 cup of the white flour with wheat flour without changing the flavor or texture much. Since I don't usually have buttermilk on hand, I substitute it. My favorite combination has been using half regular milk and half plain yogurt—this combo makes the muffins SO incredibly tender and fluffy! I've also used soured milk (just under 3/4 cups milk with about a teaspoon of vinegar, allowed to stand for about 5 minutes) and that worked just fine. Also, I've adapted the original recipe so that it only uses 2 bowls instead of 1.

1 large egg
3/4 c. buttermilk
1/3 c. canola oil
1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. sugar
2 3/4 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. table salt
2 tsp. grated orange or lemon peel (optional—I'm sure it's amazing but I usually don't have it, so I leave it out; sometimes I add a splash of lemon juice instead)
1 c. fresh or frozen blueberries
1 Tbsp. flour
1 Tbsp. sugar

Streusel Topping
1/4 c. sugar
2 1/2 Tbsp. flour
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 1/2 Tbsp. softened (not melted) butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray. In medium mixing bowl, combine egg, buttermilk, and oil and beat with a fork or whisk until thoroughly combined. Gently scoop flour, sugar, baking powder, zest, and salt into the bowl so that they lie on top of the wet ingredients. With your fork, gently whisk dry ingredients together; when they are somewhat combined, go ahead and mix everything (wet and dry) in the bowl together until just combined. In smaller bowl, mix 1 T each flour and sugar. Add in blueberries and stir together until blueberries are coated with flour mixture. (This helps keep your blueberries from turning the whole batter purple!) Fold blueberries into batter. Spoon batter into prepared muffin tin.

 In the same bowl that the blueberries were just in, add sugar, flour, and cinnamon for streusel topping. Cut in softened butter with a fork until topping is moist but crumbly. Sprinkle streusel over muffins (about 1/2-1 t. each). Bake at 400 for 18 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. Allow to cool on a cooling rack still in the pan for about 5 minutes, then transfer to the cooling rack by itself. (If you can resist eating one immediately out of the oven!) Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Pumpkin Bread

Rating: 5 stars (I am seriously considering getting rid of the whole rating system on this blog... I mean hello, haven't we figured out that ANYTHING I consider blog-worthy is at least 4.5???)
Prep time: Easy
Source: Various blogs, adapted by me

I discovered pumpkin chocolate-chip bread my first semester in college and immediately fell head-over-heels in love! I have used a recipe given to me by the neighbor who first introduced me to the stuff ever since, but I think that this recipe will be my new go-to recipe. It's moist, delicious, and is just as good the second day! I actually already dialed down the sugar from the original recipe, and I think I could subtract a bit more and it would still be delicious.

This recipe makes two tall medium loaves of bread (probably two flatter large loaves), or 24 muffins.

2 ½ cups white flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
(I usually change the flour ratios and do 2 cups wheat, 1 1/2 cup white)
2 cups sugar (I cut this down to as little as 1 1/3 cup)
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups pumpkin puree (not pie filling)
1 cup canola or vegetable oil
4 large eggs
2/3 cup water
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (optional)

Preheat oven to 350. I like to line my loaf pans with foil or parchment paper because they tend to slightly carmelize the outside crust of quickbreads like this, and I don't like that... but that's completely optional. Grease pan (or muffin tin). In large bowl, mix together water, eggs, oil, and pumpkin until smooth. Gently add dry ingredients on top of the wet ones (I do flour first, then sugar, then baking soda and spices) and sift together with a fork, then combine with wet ingredients. (This is my easy one-bowl solution to the wet mix/dry mix problem!) Fold in chocolate chips and pour batter into prepared receptacles. Bake for 20-30 minutes (regular-sized muffins) or 60-70 minutes (loaves), until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. This bread is delicious warm, and equally delicious after it cools! It also freezes REALLY well - just let it cool completely and then wrap it first in plastic wrap and then in tinfoil. When you're ready to eat it, let it thaw for a few hours at room temperature. This recipe is a definite all-around winner!

Lemon Spaghetti

Rating: 5 stars
Prep time: SUPER easy

This recipe is similar to the Rosemary Grilled Chicken with Lemon-Cream Pasta, but—dare I say—it is both simpler and better. Cream, lemon juice, olive oil, and pasta water combine to create an unbelievably light and delicious meal that takes 15 minutes or less to put together! It's a great alternative to picking up pizza on those nights when you just can't spend a lot of time on dinner. And in all honesty, I could probably eat this every day for a week (maybe more!) and still be in heaven. Divine, I tell you. Divine.

I usually do 1/2 or 3/4 of this recipe and it makes two meals for us. (The leftovers are great drizzled with a little extra olive oil before they're reheated!) Also, it's definitely a flexible, "go by taste" recipe, as I've indicated by my somewhat imprecise measurements!

1 lb spaghetti, linguine or fettucine (it's good on small noodles as well, but the silky sauce really is best on something long and stringy!)
1/4 cup lemon juice (extra if desired)
1/4 cup heavy cream (I tend to go a little easy on my 1/4 cup of cream)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3-1/2 cup grated parmesan
Black pepper
Fresh or dried basil

Bring salted water to a boil on stove; cook pasta until noodles reach desired tenderness. When noodles are finished cooking, reserve about 1 1/2 cups of the pasta water and drain the rest. Leave the noodles in the strainer in a minute and combine lemon juice, olive oil, cream, pepper, and one cup of the pasta water in the pot. Boil for 2 minutes over medium-high heat, stirring a few times to get everything combined. In large bowl, toss together pasta, sauce, and parmesan (reserving a little bit to put on top). Taste a noodle to see if you want any more lemon juice; you can also add more pasta water if you want the dish looser. Garnish with basil and remaining parmesan.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Peach Smoothie

Rating: 5 stars
Prep time: Easy

A perfect, simple, tangy peach smoothie!

Peach Smoothie

3/4 cup plain yogurt
1 large peach (1 1/2 regular peaches)
1 T orange juice concentrate
1 T sugar
4-8 ice cubes

Blend until smooth, adding ice until your desired thickness is reached. May need a little more sugar if your peaches aren't naturally super sweet. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 17, 2011


Rating: 5 stars
Prep time: Hard (but really, not that hard!)

When I was born, I had tons (and I mean TONS) of black, black hair. My family called me the "Gonzalez baby," saying I must have been switched at birth with a Mexican family's child! Maybe that's why I love homemade Mexican food. Then again, maybe it's just because my dad served his mission in Mexico and so I grew up eating traditional Mexican fare! Either way, these tamales were superb. Don't let everything you read about tamales being "tricky" scare you. These take some prep work, but they turned out perfect the first time I made them! This recipe is my own, after I spent about a day reading everything Google had to say about making perfect tamales.

4 cups masa harina (Mexican corn flour)
1-2 cups broth (I used beef broth made from roast drippings and my rotisserie chicken stock—and then when I ran out I used a little whey from the queso fresco I'd made earlier that day!)
1 t salt
1 1/3 cup softened/room temperature butter (or lard, if you have it!)
2 t baking powder
1 package dried corn husks

You can use whatever fillings you like, honestly. Traditional tamales usually have some sort of meat and chilis, but the possibilites are endless. They even make sweet tamales in Mexico. I did two fillings when I made them, both very simple and easy to whip up—for the first one, I took about 1/2 of a leftover pot roast and mixed it together with some queso fresco. Done! For the other filling, I boiled a chicken breast and then shredded it, added in about 2 ounces of cream cheese, and some seasonings (chili powder, cayenne pepper, cumin, black pepper, salt). They both turned out great! I don't like things very spicy, so if you want a "hot" tamale, use spicy peppers or more dried chili powder/cayenne pepper!

Put about 2 dozen corn husks into a bowl to soak. In a large bowl or stand mixer (I used my Kitchenaid with the paddle attachment, but a sturdy set of hand beaters would work too), cream together butter and salt with about 1 tbsp broth until it's smooth and beginning to look "fluffy." Add in masa, baking powder, and about 1 cup broth. Mix on medium until everything comes together. The final consistency you are looking for is sort of like dry peanut butter - it won't be greasy, but it will be soft and spreadable. Add more broth as needed. You will want to keep "whipping" the tamale dough for several minutes even after you have the right broth ratio; the more you whip your dough, the lighter and fluffier your tamales will be. To test if the dough is ready, take a small ball of dough and place it in a cup of warm water. If the ball floats, it's done. If it sinks right to the bottom, you need to keep whipping. (I probably whipped for about 4-5 minutes total). 

Unwrap soaked corn husks and spread out on the counter. Take a spoon (or wet hands) and spread tamale dough, about 1/4" thick, on the lower (wider) half of the corn husk (you'll want 1/4-1/2" of room on all three sides). Place a generous tablespoon of filling in the center of the dough. Bring one side of the husk and fold it over the filling (you'll want it to just barely cover the filling). Bring the other side of the husk over the filling as well, so that the sides meet or just barely overlap. (I actually was pretty meticulous and made sure that my dough seamed together on my tamales, but you don't have to be that anal if you don't want to!) Fold long (narrow) end over so that it covers the seam you've just made and makes it a nice little package. Place open side up in a steamer (you want them to all be standing up vertically, packed together). Note: The corn husks are all different sizes—at least mine were. So don't expect your tamales to be totally uniform in size!

Steam for about 40 minutes. The tamales should not be standing in any water, however, MAKE SURE THAT YOU ARE REPLENISHING YOUR WATER IN THE BOTTOM REGULARLY. Probably more often than you think you need to! I thought I got to it soon enough, but I ended up MELTING THE BOTTOM OF MY POT! So if you're not using an actual tamale steamer, be sure you're not too far away from the stove!

Serve with sour cream and, if desired, salsa (and/or chili sauce, which is the traditional topping—but remember, I don't like spicy!). This recipe yields somewhere in the vicinity of 2 dozen.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Rice And Beans

{Picture coming soon!}
Rating: 5 stars
Prep time: Easy

This spring, I've been trying to incorporate a few meatless meals into our lives for health and budget reasons. So far, this is the only meatless meal (it's not really "vegetarian" since it has chicken stock in it) that my meat-and-potatoes husband approves of. It's a simple dish, but one so packed with flavor that it's hard to stop eating! It would also make a great filler for tacos or stuffed peppers.

1 clove garlic
1 T olive oil
1 cup rice (I always use brown—you can also replace the rice with quinoa, which is delicious!)
2 cups chicken stock
3 cups black beans
1/2 cup corn (cooked)
1 bell pepper, chopped
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 tsp. chili powder or mexican spice blend (I use a tex-mex blend that has chili powder, cayenne pepper, and other things)
1 T lemon or lime juice
1/2 t dried cilantro

Finely chop garlic. In medium saucepan, sautee garlic in olive oil until garlic is just barely beginning to brown. Add rice and sautee for a minute, then add chicken stock. Allow everything to come to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to medium-low (it should be higher than a simmer, but not a full boil). Cook for about 20 minutes, or until the rice has absorbed the liquid. Add all other ingredients and cook for another two or three minutes. Serve hot.

Zebra Brownies

{Picture coming soon}

Rating: 5 stars
Prep time: Medium (Still easy, but a little more involved than a box of brownie mix)

Cream cheese "zebra" brownies have always been my very favorite kind of brownie. I have been wanting to make some for weeks, and having company for dinner tonight gave me the excuse I needed! I adapted this recipe from a few different recipes, and it turned out perfectly. I may never be able to go back to brownies out of a box again!

1 (8 oz) package cream cheese
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg

1 stick butter plus 2 tablespoons
1 cup cocoa
1 cup sugar
1/2 t. salt
1 1/2 t. vanilla
4 eggs
2 c. white flour
1/2 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350. In medium bowl, beat cream cheese with electric beater until soft. Add vanilla, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1 egg and cream together until smooth. Set aside. In medium saucepan on stove, melt butter. Mix in cocoa and stir until combined. Remove from heat and add sugar, salt, vanilla, eggs, flour, and chocolate chips. Stir until combined. Pour into a greased 9x13" pan. Drop spoonfuls of cream cheese mixture over the top of brownie batter and use a knife to swirl the two together. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center is no longer gooey. Enjoy... and try not to eat too many!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Making Chicken Stock From Rotisserie Chicken

Over the past few years, I've experimented with making more and more things from scratch... but until recently, I had never made my own chicken stock. I decided about two months ago that that was going to change! Inspired by a method on "Our Best Bites," I used a rotisserie chicken carcass to make some truly delicious chicken stock. I plan on doing this once a month for, oh, the rest of my life! I don't know if I can go back to bullion cubes!

I tweaked the original method a little bit. Here is how I did it:

1 rotisserie chicken carcass, picked clean of meat (I picked all the meat off and then used it in meals throughout the rest of the week)
1 medium onion
1 potato
A few cloves of garlic, peeled
Fresh ground pepper, coarse
LOTS of coarse salt
Rosemary, parsley, thyme, bay leaves, basil (and really, whatever spices you feel like!)

In large stock pot, place chicken carcass, root vegetables, and seasonings. (Don't skimp on the salt... and plan on adding still more later. I had Mahon periodically taste the stock, and he kept adding a ton!) Fill pot with water until your water depth is about 3 inches over the chicken. Bring to a boil on high heat, then turn to low and cover. Simmer at least 3 hours (I tasted mine after about 2 and then added more salt and spices) or until broth is a rich golden color and has lots of flavor. (Note: I usually start mine in the morning and leave it on all day. The longer it simmers, the more nutrients and rich flavor it has!)

Strain all ingredients through a colander. I got about 20 cups of stock out of this! To store it, I froze it in various containers—one that held about a quart (I later used that big container to make chicken noodle soup) and several pint-sized freezer jam containers. I also filled three ice cube trays with stock, let them freeze, and then transferred the stock cubes to a ziploc freezer bag. Each cube was about 1/8 cup, and they were GREAT for anytime I needed a cup or less of stock—I could just pull out a few cubes and let them melt in whatever I was making!

Creamy Chicken Noodle Soup

Rating: 5 stars (Mahon literally just ate this for breakfast!)
Prep time: Easy-medium

My mom taught me to make chicken noodle soup with a can of cream of chicken in it to make it a little bit creamy. Lately I've been making my own chicken gravy (recipe to come soon) instead of cream of chicken soup, so I don't have any on hand anymore. I wanted a way to make my chicken noodle soup still a little creamy, so the other night I did some experimenting. Mahon pronounced this "the best chicken soup" he'd ever eaten, and we both were practically licking our bowls by the end! The tiny hint of chili powder gives it just the barest, most subtle kick and helps round out the flavor beautifully. If you want it less creamy, halve the roux mixture and add a little more broth or water.

5 cups chicken stock (I used homemade—it really made a HUGE difference!)
2 T butter
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1/2 bell pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, diced
1/4 cup flour
1 1/4 cups milk
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
1-2 stalks celery, sliced
1 chicken breast, boiled and chopped
About 1/2 cup small pasta or egg noodles
1/8 t chili powder
Salt and pepper

In medium saucepan, melt butter and sautee onion, pepper, and garlic on medium-high heat until just barely brown (about 2 minutes). Add 1/8 t. chili powder. Add in flour and stir quickly to combine. Cook a minute or two, until mixture is thick and bubbly. Turn heat down to medium, add in milk and stir to combine. Cook, stirring constantly, for about three minutes or until mixture is thick and bubbly. (Cooking hint: This is called "making a roux", pronounced "roo." A roux, or basic white sauce, is the basis of a lot of recipes!) Add in chicken stock and stir until stock and roux are well-integrated. Turn heat down to medium-low and add carrots, celery, chicken, salt, and pepper. Cover and let simmer for about 20 minutes, or until carrots are just barely tender. Turn heat back up to medium-high, add pasta, and cook until pasta is done. Serve with bread (we made a version of the 5-minute boule using about 1/2 wheat flour, and it was delicious!). A great rainy day meal!

Freezer instructions: Omit milk and freeze; add milk while cooking after freezing.

Strawberry Vinaigrette

Rating: 5 stars
Prep time: Super easy

Someone gave us some beautiful garden spinach the other night, but since we haven't eaten much salad in the past year (it hasn't done well with my stomach issues) we didn't have any dressings on hand. Though Mahon and I are both diehard Ranch dressing fans, we wanted something quick and easy the other night to eat our spinach with. We both also happen to be diehard fruit vinaigrette fans, so I took a few nearly-dead strawberries in our fridge and whipped up this strawberry vinaigrette! It turned out PERFECT, and was so easy to make!

1/4 cup mashed strawberries
Just under 1/3 cup vinegar (we used red wine vinegar because that's what we had; I would imagine it would also be good with white wine vinegar, balsamic, or maybe even apple cider—anything but regular white, probably)
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Honey to taste (I probably used a little under a tablespoon)

Mash strawberries with fork until they are well mashed and separated, but not pureed. Add vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper and mix vigorously with a fork until liquids are combined. Add honey a little at a time until the dressing reaches the desired flavor—it shouldn't be sweet, but it shouldn't be take-the-roof-of-your-mouth-off sour, either. Add more salt and pepper if desired. Serve over any kind of salad—it was to die for on our fresh spinach!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Cream Cheese Won-Tons

Rating: 4 stars
Prep Time: Easy

The other night while making eggrolls, we had several pasta sheets left over after the eggroll filling was all gone. Rather than stick them back in the fridge, I decided on the spur of the moment to imitate an appetizer we had had at (where else) Panda Express once—cream cheese won-tons. They were very easy, and the cream cheese went surprisingly well with the fried wrapper. We dipped them in soy sauce and the zing of the sauce was a great complement to the mildness of the cream cheese.

Eggroll wrappers cut in fourths (or won-ton wrappers)
Cream cheese
Canola/veggie oil for frying

Scoop a small dollop of cream cheese into the center of each won-ton square. Wet fingertip with water and dab on opposite corners of square. Bring opposite corners together and push to seal. Do the same thing with remaining corners. (Essentially, you're trying to draw all four corners into the center and seal the sides. You'll end up with a neat-looking little package.) Alternatively, if you're using won-ton wrappers, you can wrap them according to the directions on the package.

Fry in oil over medium heat, or when oil pops when water is dropped in, but isn't smoking much. Drain on paper towels. Serve with your choice of dipping sauce.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Chinese Eggrolls

Rating: 5 lick-your-finger and steal-your-neighbor's plate stars
Prep time: Medium

This recipe is pretty versatile. If you're making it for a large family or group, add more ingredients; if you're making it for just two people, use the given proportions or add less. For Mahon and I, we usually end up with somewhere between 7-10 eggrolls, which is plenty for the two of us (they are big!). Also—as far as I know, Chinese eggrolls are usually made with cabbage, but I don't usually have cabbage on hand so lately I've just been putting spinach in these instead. It's delicious.

1 package egg roll wrappers (the big ones)
1-2 chicken breasts, boiled and shredded
2 large handfuls of spinach or about half a head of cabbage (chopped)
1/2 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and grated
1-2 cups mung bean sprouts (probably about a package)—really it just depends on how much you like bean sprouts!
1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
Soy sauce
Paprika, if your husband is addicted to it like mine is
Canola or vegetable oil for frying

In large skillet or wok, heat a little olive oil. Add in onions, spinach/cabbage, carrots, and chicken. Season with garlic and paprika (if using). Stir-fry all ingredients on medium-high heat for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until onions are beginning to be soft and spinach (if using) is wilted. Splash in a few teaspoons of soy sauce. Once the onions and carrots are crisp-tender, add in the bean sprouts and sautee for another minute or so (not long or your bean sprouts will become limp and uninteresting!). 

Remove from heat. Fill a smaller skillet with about 1-1 1/2" of canola oil and heat over medium-ish heat, until it pops if you drop water into it, but isn't smoking a ton. While oil is heating, fill eggroll wrappers according to package directions. We've found that we like long, thin eggrolls more than short, fat ones.

Fry eggrolls until evenly golden-brown on both sides. Serve warm, with sweet and sour or soy sauce to dip in. Try not to eat too many!!!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lemon Cheese/Paneer/Queso Fresco

So this is my new thing: making cheese. Because I haven't yet invested in things like rennet and cultures, I've been limiting myself to a very simple "lemon cheese" (also called "paneer" in India and "queso fresco" in Mexico). You can also make it with vinegar, if you don't have lemon, though I haven't tried it yet. The cheese is VERY simple and incredibly delicious. Serve this next time you need appetizers for a party and I can assure you, you will wow everyone!

1 quart whole milk
1/4 cup lemon juice (I used the kind from a bottle)
(Any other desired herbs/spices)

Line a colander with cheesecloth OR loose (clean) cotton. I just used cotton—in fact, I recommend it for this cheese, since it has small curds. If you use cheesecloth, use 2 or 3 layers to make sure the curds don't slip through. If you want to save the whey from your cheese, set the colander inside a bowl so that the bowl will catch the whey when you strain the cheese. (Whey is apparently really healthy and can be used in baking. I don't honestly know much about it, except that every cheese recipe I've seen has talked about saving the whey!)

In double-boiler (if you don't have a double-boiler, find a metal or glass bowl big enough to sit on top of one of your existing saucepans and use that!) heat milk over medium heat, stirring frequently, just until milk begins to have frothy bubbles around the edges and in the middle (DO NOT let it boil). For those with a thermometer, this is really anywhere between 100-180 degrees. As soon as you start seeing these frothy bubbles, remove the top part of your double boiler (pot or bowl, as it may be) and set on a hot pad on the counter. Let it sit for 15 minutes; it will maintain a temperature of over 100 degrees this whole time. Once the 15 minutes is up, pour lemon juice into milk and stir it all up with a spoon. You will start to see the milk thicken and separate almost immediately. Stir for a few minutes until the milk is fully separated—you will see stringy white curds and watery yellow/green whey. Once milk is separated, pour into lined colander. (Because I use cotton and not cheesecloth, I let the cheese sit in the colander for 3-5 minutes so it's not still swimming in whey when I hang it.)

Once most of the whey is strained off, gently draw the corners of your cheesecloth/cotton into the center and tie them together with a string. Hang the string from something in your kitchen (I use a kitchen cabinet knob; I've also seen pictures of people using their sink faucet), with the whey bowl underneath to catch the drips. Let your cheese drain 30-60 minutes, depending on whether or not you want a creamier or a dryer texture. (Using my cotton, I let my cheese drain for 60 minutes and it is perfect—creamy and spreadable, but not quite as creamy as, say, cream cheese.) If you are going for crumbly queso fresco to use in Mexican recipes (it's great on top of refried beans!), let it hang 2 hours.

Once the cheese is done draining, gently untie your bundle and scrape the curds into a bowl. At this point, if you want savory/salty cheese, add salt to taste. (Err on the side of too little, as the salt flavor will get stronger as the crystals dissolve and the cheese cures.) You can also add in any other herbs/spices/flavorings that you'd like to at this point. Once everything is mixed in, take the back of a spoon and press the cheese gently into the bottom of the bowl so that it is one cohesive unit, rather than a lot of loose curds. Cover and refrigerate for at least a few hours; the cheese is best the next day, after its flavor has had a little time to mature, but about 3 days down the road it loses flavor. For queso fresco, don't press the curds into the bowl - just stir in the salt and let them remain loose and crumbly.

Enjoy! It's SO easy and SO delicious! I also think it tastes a little bit like chevre goat cheese, which I love.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Easy Asian Noodles

I love Asian noodle dishes, but I've never had good success at replicating authentic Asian-style noodles (which I LOVE!!!). The kind that you can buy packaged up in the grocery store really don't taste anything like the real thing... plus, they are pretty expensive!

I started using packages of ramen noodles in my stir-fry in my early college days as a cheap Asian noodle substitute. I would just boil the noodles without the seasonings, drain, and throw them into the stir fry to be seasoned by whatever sauce I had in the wok. The only problem is that, in my opinion, you can always taste that distinctive "ramen noodle flavor" in your finished dish. I've seen some recipes that use regular spaghetti noodles, which is also fine, but gives your food that Italian semolina flavor.

A few weeks ago, I was making string bean chicken (seriously, one of our new favorites!!!) and didn't have any rice to serve it with, so I pulled out a package of ramen noodles instead. Struck by a bit of inspiration, after I had drained the ramen noodles I put them back into their pot and added in a generous shake of soy sauce. I let them marinate about five minutes, until I was done with the string bean chicken, and then I threw them in the wok and coated them with the string bean teriyaki sauce.

It was amazing! They still don't taste like authentic Chinese noodles, but they also don't taste like ramen. (I would say they're about on the level of what you would get at a Panda Express-type place.) This is definitely the cheapest, yummiest noodle solution I have come up with to date. Now whenever I make a stir-fry with noodles, I let them marinate for about five minutes in soy sauce before adding them into the wok and coating them with my stir fry sauce. It makes a delicious stir-fry, WITHOUT feeling like you're just eating jazzed-up ramen! (Even though, you know, you are.)


Saturday, January 15, 2011

String Bean Chicken

Rating: 5 stars
Prep time: Easy

One of our favorite restaurants is Panda Express. I know, I know... it's neither the healthiest nor the most cultured place to eat, but we love it! Last week we ate there. One of the dishes we had was their String Bean Chicken. As I ate it, I thought—I could make this! So a few days ago, I did. It is not an exact copy of the recipe... it's a little more strongly-flavored. I actually like it better. This recipe makes about 3 generous portions.

2-3 chicken breasts, thawed and marinated with Soy-Citrus Marinade
1 medium onion
1-2 cups green beans (fresh or frozen... NOT canned)
1/4 cup teriyaki sauce
2 t cornstarch
Sesame seeds (about 1 teaspoon)

Grill chicken on hot pan or outdoor grill. (If you choose the former, hopefully you can do it WITHOUT setting off the fire alarm, which is what has happened both times I've used my grilling pan in my new apartment!) When chicken is cooked through, cut into small cubes and set aside. In wok or large skillet, sautee onions in olive oil until tender and lightly browned. Remove from wok and set aside. Put green beans in wok and coat with olive oil. Sautee until beans are beginning to brown. While beans are cooking, toast sesame seeds—you can do this either by sprinkling them onto a cookie sheet and placing it in the oven on broil for 1-2 minutes, or you can sprinkle them on a plate and microwave for 1-2 minutes. When toasted, they'll be a very light brown. Once beans are done cooking, remove from pan (or, if you have a wok, push the beans up on the sides to leave the center clear). In a bowl, combine cornstarch and teriyaki and pour into wok center (this will smoke). Quickly whisk the sauce for a moment; it will start to thicken immediately. Add beans, onions, chicken, and sesame seeds back into wok. Stir everything together for about a minute, until sauce has thickened. Serve over rice or noodles.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Soft Caramels

Rating: 5 stars
Prep Time: Long (but worth it)

I make caramels once a year... when I visit my parents' house. I LOVE soft caramels and literally would eat the entire pan in about two sittings if I made them at home! This is my favorite recipe, honed and perfected over the last several Christmas seasons. It is labor-intensive in that it involves a considerable deal of time hanging out at the stove, but it's not difficult. If you follow the directions exactly, you will get PERFECT caramels every time!

1 3/4 c sugar
1 c firmly packed brown sugar
1 c butter
1/2 c milk
1 1/2 c cream
1 c light corn syrup (3/4 c water, 2 c sugar, 1/4 t cream of tartar - boil and simmer to soft ball stage, yield 1 1/2 c)
1 t vanilla
Dash of salt

Butter 9 x 13 pan, set aside. In large saucepan or cooking pot (you really want a 4-5 quart pot because it will boil very high), combine sugars, corn syrup, butter, and salt and heat on medium. When ingredients are melted, add 1/2 cup cream. Bring to a boil (over medium heat), stirring frequently. Slowly stir in remaining cream and milk without disrupting boil—you want to pour it in a slow drizzle so that your caramel keeps boiling the whole time (it will not be boiling much by the end, though—it will need to heat back up). Bring back to a boil and cook, stirring frequently, until 242 degrees F (or soft ball stage, but for caramels I do recommend a thermometer—they can be pretty picky). Remove from heat, add vanilla, and pour into prepared pan. Do not scrape the sides of your pot—just let the caramel pour into the pan. The stuff on the sides has been cooked at a higher heat than the rest, and if you scrape it into your pan you will end up with chunks of caramel that has gone grainy. (I like to pour out my pot, give it about 10 minutes, and then get a spoon and eat the stuff off the sides!) To speed cooling, put pan in fridge. It takes several hours for your caramels to cool completely. Cut into squares and wrap in buttered wax paper... or, if you're like my family, skip the waxed paper and just eat them straight out of the pan all week!