2/27/2012

i heart (real) granola

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Ah, granola. A favorite food of mine for always, in its various forms as breakfast cereal, bars, crumbled on top of yogurt (both frozen and not!), a midnight snack-y version, and so on. Though I'm not one to count calories, and never have been, granola can be a bit tricky when it comes to the ratio of calories and (pretty much loads) of fat per serving, when a serving is usually rather skimpy. Think about one third of a cup. And please, girl, whoever can stop themselves at that teensy amount when there are glorious combinations of oats or almonds or cinnamon or golden raisins to be had?

Though some fat is totally necessary for a balanced diet, who wouldn't want a more figure-friendly version of a granola bar so that you can a. have more, of course, without feeling bad or b. improve the overall health benefits of your bar, which is easy enough when you eliminate the preservatives and additives that usually come with a store-bought variety. Ick.

The recipe I have built upon comes from a beloved and equally sassy Food Network star, Mr. Alton Brown. LOVE his ever-changing glasses frames and mad scientist hair combo. Still, fashion tips aside, Alton's recipes tend to, after that first try, become kitchen staples. Here is the ingredient list, complete with additions:

8 ounces old-fashioned rolled oats, about 2 cups
1 1/2 ounces raw sunflower seeds, about 1/2 cup
3 ounces sliced almonds, about 1 cup
1 1/2 ounces wheat germ, about 1/2 cup
1/2 cup honey (we only had about 1/4, so we countered the rest with molasses)
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 ounce unsalted butter, plus extra for the pan
2 teaspoons vanilla extract 
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
6 1/2 ounces chopped dried fruit (we used raisins and cranberries)

We also added about 1/2 cup of chopped pecans and about two tablespoons of ground flaxseed. Just because.


Okay. So after you've set your oven to preheat at 350 degrees, it's time to (thoroughly) butter your 9 x 9 inch baking pan. I stress thoroughly because otherwise you will have one hell of a mess to deal with when your one massive granola bar refuses to come clean from the pan. All the pan-soaking in the world won't save you from that dilemma.

SO, pan buttered, you will now want to gather all of your dry ingredients (minus the sugar): oats, seeds, almonds, wheat germ, and in this rendition, pecans and flaxseed, and spread them out evenly over a baking sheet.


Put these ingredients in the oven to toast for about fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally. Without stirring, these ingredients can easily burn. So don't be like me, and forget. I was lucky this time, and remembered to take the tray out a few minutes early, which will (sort of) compensate for a lack of stirring.

Meanwhile, combine the brown sugar, the butter, the honey (and molasses, which gave these bars a much darker color than a honey-only variety would have), and the vanilla in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the brown sugar is completely dissolved.


When the toasted ingredients come out of the oven, let them cool for a moment before tossing in your dried fruit, a method best done by hand so that everything appears evenly dispersed.


Next, pour your sugar mixture over the dry ingredients. The sheer volume of oats compared to the smallish amount of sugar and honey is going to make the task of combining them seem nearly impossible: never fear. Work quickly, aiming to coat all of the ingredients evenly, and you will be surprised.


With everything mixed together, it is now time to press your granola into the well-greased pan. Do your best to make sure they are level and even, paying special attention to the corners of the pan.


Now put the granola BACK into the oven, now lowered to 300 degrees, for about 25 minutes. The cooking time can vary slightly depending on your preference for chewy or crunchy bars. We went for the full cooking time, and the crunch.

Now for the hardest part, letting the bars cool completely. I am the WORST at this step in any process, and have more often than not burnt my mouth AND hands on food I couldn't wait to eat. Nottt worth it in this case. Cutting too soon will result in a sticky mess. Alton, apparently, knows best.

When you DO get to dig in, however, you will be more than pleased that you found a way to distract yourself for thirty or forty minutes. I knowww, I knowww, but when you slice out a chunk of this trail-mix granola and crumble it over Greek yogurt and mango slices (cubes?), you just may forget about all that waiting. Maybe. Just maybe.



P.S. I would like to add that I revisited my favorite banana bread recipe, yet again, this past weekend, this time adding chopped walnuts to one of the loaves. A more traditional spin, sure, and presently my favorite food in life. Though my dear Colin, little walnut hater that he is, would be quick to disagree. Good thing this recipe produces two completely separate loaves. Love.


2/21/2012

and the valentine's day dinner

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It is well-known by NOW, one of my favorite things to do with this cutie Valentine of mine is to cook, either following recipes step by step (though, let's not kid ourselves, hardly ever), or coming up with our own signature dishes, where he does most of the devising and I do most of the eating, usually before the cooking process is through. It's true, ask anyone: I am a ratio-ruiner.

Still, on that blessed day where Cupid's aim is for your wallets more than your hearts (Aww. But am I right, ladies? Sirs?) and the going-out-to-dinner prices are quite literally raising the roof (because they knooow you're going to be a sucker, they just KNOW it), we collectively decided that the way to show our affection (Show it always! No need for special occasions!) was to make a meal at home, with everything to our liking, all for about six bucks a person. Take that, romantic candlelit dinner for two. BAM. And I mean that in the point-proven way more than the signature Emeril Lagasse way, obviously.

One of the best things about being a vegetarian is the variety of colors you can invite onto your plate at any given meal. Of course, this possibility isn't strictly reserved for vegetable lovers. Though, I feel I'd have a hard time convincing a meat (brown) and potatoes (brown) lover to try something as exciting as a watermelon radish. BUT, I've been humbled before, so: this meal could surely pass for both veggies and non-veggies alike, depending on your capacity for awesome-ness, and your palate's ability to enjoy a range of sweet, earthy, and spicy.

After a quick visit to Whole Earth Center (after a sadly failed attempt to get brunch-y croissants), a tiny local Princeton grocery whose produce section boasts treasure after treasure (ohhh, so hard to resist the romanesco broccoli!), our simple-but-beautiful menu consisted of the following:

Rainbow carrots! Golden beets! Brussels sprouts! Watermelon radish! Cranberry beans! And rainbow baby heirloom tomatoes!

Commence the angels singing here: color color color.

Now, with such a varied texture and flavor presented before us, we took some advice from cute Colin's newest subscription to Vegetarian Times, which walked us through the steps of poaching a vegetable, a method we had never tried, and therefore attempted with the harder root vegetables, the carrots and beets.

bright purples, corals, speckled oranges, and yellows.

So after washing and peeling these beauties, as well as the golden beets, we got about four inches of water (salted) going in a large pot on medium heat. The trick about poaching is to get the water just hot enough, but not to the point of boiling. Otherwise, then your vegetables are just boiled, which can lad to a rubbery, less-than-fresh taste and texture. The perfect poach will leave the flavor and slight crunch of your vegetables intact. If you don't have a kitchen thermometer handy to monitor the water's temperature, just keep an eye out for that near-boiling point, when teeny-tiny pin-sized bubbles start to rise from the bottom of the pot.

watermelon radish! (get it?) and golden beets!

With the beets and carrots into the pot first, we let them simmer for a few minutes before adding the more delicate vegetables, the Brussels sprouts and the beans. Also, something I must say in the defense of Brussels sprouts and kids everywhere who refuse to eat them: they are seriously one of my FAVORITE vegetables. I tried them in my college cafeteria for the first time (it wasn't really ever an offered side in my childhood household), which was sure to be a bust seeing as I nearly survived on frozen bagels and cereal for those four years. Yet I LOVED them. Strange, I know, seeing as they are often one of the most hated eat-your-vegetable moments of all time, or so I hear. But seriously, roasted, sauteed, and now poached, I am an uber-fan of this cruciferous little cabbage. P.S. While the veggies were rolling around the water, we also had a pot of brown basmati rice simmering, though any sort of your favorite grain or pasta would be equally appropriate. 

Also while the vegetables were cooking, I took out our little pint of gem-colored tomatoes, another one of my favorites when the season is right. And though February is surely not the prime-time of tomatoes in New Jersey, I couldn't resist their perfect shapes and colors: traditional red, deep purple, lemon yellow, orange orange orange, and a paler more subdued yellow, something like sand or summer corn.



For the tomatoes we decided to do a simple tomato salad (with the coveted watermelon radishes, a rare variety we have yet to discover outside of restaurants or Whole Earth Center): halve the tomatoes, yes even the smallest ones, put them in a bowl with a sprinkle of salt (to help remove excess liquid), drain the bowl after a few minutes, toss in chopped radish, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper to taste, and if you're me, a pinch of oregano. Voilá. 

This is a pretty simple and quick dinner preparation, and if you time it just about right, or have a cute cooking partner to assist you, you can probably have all components ready at just about the same time. I think our rice was ready slightly before everything else, but who cares, we're in love. BAM.

the finished plate of color, color, color. 

2/13/2012

coromandel in norwalk, ct

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Our personal endeavor at mastering a curry dish left me satisfied, but there is not much that compares to the authentic flavors of the real-deal. In a quick weekend jaunt up to Connecticut to celebrate my older sister's birthday (surprise!), the restaurant of choice was a quick, scenic drive from their home in Ridgefield (a town that boasts Bruce and Demi's former residence, and one look at the surrounding mansions will make you understand why) up to South Norwalk, an equally quaint space of shops and dining spots, all with that particular New England feel and that February bite in the winter air.

We arrived at Coromandel, the space instantly warm and inviting upon opening the front door, a soft rush of spices floating through the air, the rich, earthy-colored decor contrasted with the clean white lines of the tables, all standing ready to be covered inch-by-inch in delicious food.

Our waiter very aptly explained, for those who were perhaps trying Indian food for the first time, which my grandmother, at 80 years old, was, that Indian food is often not what you expect from the description you are given on the menu. You might think you know what you are getting, but the flavors and textures and appearances are usually quite surprising. (Most Indian places have a slew of vegetarian options, from appetizers, warm breads, and entrées.)


We began this celebratory meal with a shared plate of samosas, a traditional Indian street food that is typically vegetarian-based: a small pocket of mashed potatoes, peas, and spices, all surrounded in a soft-and-crispy shell. Holy YUM. Some samosas, depending on the restaurant and chef, can vary in terms of spiciness, but this particular variety was rather mild, the curry providing only a delicate flavor rather than an overwhelming heat.


Paired with a variety of small, simple salads, and a centerpiece of puffed saffron rice sprinkled with cinnamon, these pocket pastries were my favorite of the evening.


With the appetizers, our waiter also brought my mulligtawny soup, a dish I was very eager to try. Traditionally made with a chicken or lamb base, this was a soup I was not able to taste at any other restaurants as a vegetarian. However, since there are several variations of this tumeric-coconut soup (the name literally meaning "pepper water"), at Coromandel I was delighted to find a vegetable-based version of this meal-starter. Called a lentil and vegetable mulligtawny, again, this bright chartreuse bowl was not what I expected, as our waiter so accurately explained. A subtle sweetness, a kick of citrus and cilantro, and savory, hearty bites of rice, I have discovered a new favorite food in my life, that is for damn certain.


As the plates began to fill our table, now seeming smaller than when we first sat down together, we were also presented with several baskets of bread (speaking my language, I SEE): the first, a thin, crisp cracker-like bread called papadam, most often served with several chutney dipping sauces, all varying in levels of heat from sweet mango, cool mint, and spicy tomato.


Of course, no Indian meal would be deemed complete until it is accompanied with naan, a traditional Asian flatbread much shaped and textured like a pita, and available with a diverse range of both fillings and toppings. Our table voted in a basket of plain, equally good in its own rite, and garlic, which won my devotion immediately.


Finally, our main courses arrived. Though I had trouble deciding between several, I settled on bharvan lauki: zucchini shells stuffed with fresh spinach, dry fruits, homemade cheese, and dummed in delicate tomato gravy. Well, yes please. Never having tried this before, I was excited for something new to taste, and just a teensy-bit worried about the level of spice that would be presented to me. My tolerance, I must admit, is rather low. I was quite surprised, however, to find that though this dish did provide a slight punch (think baby fists), I was able to enjoy the sweet variety of flavor. The sauce was unexplainably delicious, the freshness of the ingredients purely evident, and the pockets of zucchini aromatic and beautifully paired with a side of cashew-basmati rice.


Overall, the pulling-off of our surprise, the hit meal at the restaurant, and being able to share the day with family, and my first trip to my sister's new home was an ultimate success. Though we tried to resist ordering dessert (after all, her husband had double chocolate cupcakes waiting at home), I was able to sample some interesting concoctions from my mother's plate. (She had decided to go with the buffet. Carrot pudding, anyone?) Despite our declination, our magical waiter returned with the check and a small tower of pistachio ice cream, birthday candle gleaming, to wish my sister a happy 27th birthday. Though I did make a mysterious disappearance to the restroom, we all swear we were not the ones to inform him of our celebration. Hm. I suppose that secret is Norwalk's to keep.





2/09/2012

a photographic curry dinner

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Though it may be National Bagel Day, a holiday taken quite seriously and deliciously this morning with a blueberry bagel and honey-walnut cream cheese, it is also never a bad time to celebrate some of your favorite ethic cuisines with your favorite people. Or, in my case, person. (Oh, it's real love, it is.)

Any wintry night can be spiced up with an Indian curry stir fry, fragrant basmati rice, and colorful vegetables: Creamy white cauliflower, crisp red peppers, sweet and spicy eggplant, and hearty teeny-tiny potatoes. And you thought winter was all about soup.






2/06/2012

B-A-N-A-N-A-S

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I am a huge advocate for all things baked. If you can mix up a bowlful of ingredients and 45 minutes later a cake is coming out of the oven, I'm happy and impressed. I could write an ode of allegiance to any variety of bread(s). Seriously. My last entry that consisted of me drooling over a croissant should be proof enough.

Still, there is one downside to having a weakness for breads and baked desserts (ie. cookies, muffins, rolls, and a particular new[er] weakness, soft pretzels, SHEESH), and no, I'm not going to say carbs. As my dear cute Colin once said, in all sincerity while chewing thoughtfully on a piece of fresh ciabatta, "That Atkins guy must have been one depressed fucker," (do pardon me, but: hahaha), I am not one for any skip-EVERYTHING trend, a carb-free crash diet, or snapping at the waiter, instructing that he not to bring the dinner rolls anywhere near your table.

Not bring the BREAD BASKET? Are you CRAZY?

If you think it sounds as insane as I do, then whew. All those diet schemes (that's right, schemes!) out there built around the claim that bread is the devil, bread is what makes you fat, and the second you eat a piece of toast it settles somewhere in your pants, expanding your thighs with every bite.

Well, pish-posh, I say. Though I do my best to stay on the healthy-eating path, despite my buttery crescent-shaped diversions, there is no real reason why baked goods have to feel either dry and crumbly and diet-y or deliciously indulgent as they were meant to be. There are some fantastically sneaky ways of cutting the negative calories in breads and cakes without sacrificing taste, texture, and satisfaction. (Even though the recipe I'm about to share is one I've made countless times by now, and even though I'd back it 100%, I am still, without guilt, an advocate for the whole of the baguette chomping community, white flour and all.)

SO: this is a recipe I stumbled upon about one year ago, after many, many Google searches for a healthy(ish) banana bread recipe. I know, I know, you'd think it wouldn't be too difficult a feat, seeing as its main ingredient is a fruit (right?), but most of these concoctions are loaaaded with sugar, heaps of white flour, and a variety of other non-beneficial ingredients.

The recipe I finally settled on, because it carried all the key ingredients I was hoping for, was on a blog created by a momma with a kid whose allergies ranged from everything to everything. So, this devoted woman set about revising recipes so that her dear daughter could enjoy everyday normal treats without being deprived or having an outbreak. The blog is Makeshift Meals, and though she has yet to update it as of recently (Jenni! Come back! I love your ideas!), this banana bread recipe is one I will stick with for life. So, preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and here's what you need:

A couple of overripe bananas (you need 1 1/2 cups, so usually three medium-sized ones will do)
2 eggs
2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/4 cups brown sugar
2/3 cup plain yogurt
1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons ground flaxseed meal


The first thing to do is start mashing those bananas. I suppose you could go the cheater route (that'sss right) and toss them in a blender or a food processor. I, however, am a big fan of the mash-with-fork method, seeing as it leaves for a slightly chunky texture (which is a pleasant surprise post-baking) and allows for an aggression-releasing outlet, should you so choose. What?


The fork method works best if you break the bananas into smaller pieces, which should be quite easy seeing as they should be very ripe. (The ones we used could probably have gotten even riper, to be honest. The darker the skin gets, the sweeter the bread will be. Personal preference at that point, folks.) Post-mashing, the consistency should be something like this:


Alright. Here's another thing that I totally love about this recipe. While I am a major fan of baking, it is known for being a very precise and planned art. All things are sorted out in measurements and timing, even the specific temperature of ingredients determining whether or not your results will be airy or flat. NOT SO HERE. The next step is to literally throw everything into ONE bowl, ALL together, and MIX. That is, except for the two eggs, which she recommends that you first whisk separately. Here is the photogenic proof that I heeded such instruction:


And, everything else:


Stir with a spatula until all the ingredients are evenly blended, watching out for those brown sugar chunks along the way. After a few minutes of easy mixing (which is no trouble at all to do by hand), your bowl should look like this:


This dough makes enough for two medium-sized loaves, AND, should you own two matching orange silicone bread pans, they can be placed side-by-side in the oven, to bake in perfect harmony. Through trial and error we have discovered that the easiest method of baking (and, as it turns out, clean-up), is to line your baking pans with parchment paper, leaving generous amounts around the sides of the pan. Then, to the best of your ability, attempt to evenly disperse the batter into the two pans. (Note: this is the perfect opportunity to add some extra flavor to one or both of your loaves. We decided to go tried-and-true with one, leaving enough batter in the bowl to add chocolate chips [yes!] and slivered almonds [yes!] in the other. The second loaf turned out to be significantly bigger than the first. Unintentionally, of course, but a mistake for which I am not sorry.)


And now for the worst part (waiting), which somehow magically ends in the best part (eating!), set your oven timer for fifty minutes. I know, I know, 5-0, and it seems like an awfully long time to pace around your kitchen in anticipation. Worth the wait, my friends, and that's a promise. One thing I have noticed is that the cooking time can vary, I suppose depending on the season, and simple and unexplainable things like the brand of yogurt or applesauce used. At about forty-five minutes, check with a toothpick. Our particular endeavor ended up taking closer to an hour and five minutes (ah!), but as long as the tops are golden-brown (don't you just LOVE that phrase) and the toothpick is coming out clean, you are well on your way to enjoying a healthy AND delicious version of a favorite treat.

When they finally fiiiinally emerge from the oven, let them cool for several minutes, if you can. I know, I know, the point of warm, fresh baked goods is that they BE warm and fresh when you finally eat them. So don't be crazy and wait for an hour or something like that.


I admit I managed to wait a measly ten minutes (okay, FIVE) before I could stop myself from digging in to the chocolate-chip almond version of this loaf. Ohhh, boy. It never disappoints.


See that? Easy-peasy. And not one thing to feel guilty about, not that you would ever dare. Jenni, wherever you are, thank you for sharing this recipe with me, so that I can share it too, and bake it often. As for all you no-bread dieters: I'm afraid I just rocked your world, and rocked it good.