Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Slightly Unusual Pasta Sauce

Being on a rather meager budget these days, I usually do not give too much thought into making elaborate meals with 50 different ingredients.  More often than not, I buy the same items over and over again trying to figure out new ways to combine them.  Spinach, arugula, cherry tomatoes, shallots, and some sort of cheese are regulars in my shopping basket.  

So when it came time to plot my evening meal, I looked over everything I had bought and decided to make a tomato sauce to serve over pasta.  But not just a quickie 10 minute one like the ones I made countless times over the summer.  I wanted to give it a good hour or two... see how the flavors would meld and the aromas could fill my home.  Also, I wanted to pay more attention to seasoning, perhaps even incorporating some different or surprising elements.

I started off by roughly chopping a white onion and throwing it in my food processor (my favorite kitchen appliance).  Once the onion was evenly pared down to teensy bits, it went on the stove with a thick layer of olive oil on medium heat.  The onion softened for about 10 minutes before I tossed in 4 cloves of finely diced garlic (courtesy of the food processor).  I had picked up a 1lb heirloom tomato mix basket; so after a quick trip in the food processor, those followed the garlic.

Then came the seasoning.  First, the obligatory salt and pepper.  Then, no stranger to pasta sauce, oregano.  A big fan adding red chile pepper flakes to pretty much anything, I threw in a dash of that with an accompanying dash of cayenne pepper.  As I rifled through my cabinet, I recalled my first trip to Greece.  I had ordered some pasta dish and, after taking the first bite, detected something unusual in it.  It took me a minute to figure out that it was cinnamon.  Definitely different for me, but I quickly acquired a taste for it.  And so, in went a liberal sprinkling of cinnamon!  Not quite satisfied, I decided to add some smoked paprika, a recent obsession for me.

I turned the heat down to low and let everything simmer together for about an hour.  In the last 10 minutes, I threw in some chopped arugula and baby spinach to up the green factor.  And of course it would not be complete without a bit of cheese!  So I grated a small hunk of asiago cheese over the sauce before turning off the heat.  After ladling the sauce over my pasta, I pulled my secret side dish out of the oven: garlic cheddar bread (House of Bread) which had been wrapped in foil and baked at 400 for about 20 minutes with butter, parmesan, and smoked paprika.

Sooooooo good... definitely  making more next time!  The cayenne and chile pepper added a subtle kick while the paprika added an amazing smokiness and the cinnamon finished it off with a light sweetness.  I would highly recommend trying out these spices in your next sauce.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

To be completely honest, I have never had a great New Year's Eve.  But year after year, I continue to be swept up in the romanticism of the holiday.  It is a time for reflection of the year that has passed and hope for things to come, a time for new beginnings.  

Recently, someone asked me how I would rate the past year on a scale from 1 to 10.  After thinking about it for a moment, I said an 8 or 9.  My answer surprised me, but the more I thought about it, the truer it felt.  2009 was a year of turning points in my life: I left San Francisco and moved back to my college town, turned 25, adopted a dog, got my own apartment and really took the time to make it a home, I was fired,  I finally let go of some bad relationships, and made some big realizations about the direction I am heading.  At the beginning of the year, I felt completely lost in the midst of a quarter life crisis.  I knew I was not happy, but I did not know how I could change that.     

So it has pretty much taken the entire 12 months, and now I can say I am really happy with my life.  No other year has been as difficult or taught me as much about myself or the person I want to be as 2009 did.  To honor everything I have learned, I made a few simple resolutions for 2010:

Take care of myself.  Eat well, be active.

Take care of my heart.  Spend time and energy on people who do the same.

Let go of the negative.

How would you rate 2009, and what resolutions have you made?  Looking forward to a great year :)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Who does your color?

The first (and only) time I had my hair professionally colored, I was 16.  I wanted highlights.  I remember being shocked at the price--- $60!  Just for highlights!  I vowed never again to pay so much money coloring my hair again.  Now I must divulge a secret: I have had gray hairs since just about that time.

So I decided to try my hand at dyeing my own hair, and I have never looked back.  Since then, my hair has been everything from an orangey blond to a purplish black and pretty much all of the shades in between.    For those of you coloring virgins, I have to admit it is rather addicting to be able to change your hair color on a whim.  My sophomore year of college I had a new color every month.

After almost a decade of experience, I feel as though I have a wealth of knowledge in home hair coloring.  With every hairdresser of mine lately commenting on how great and natural looking my color is, it seems as though this feeling is not unwarranted.  I have realized the importance of keeping within two shades of your natural one.  Roots blend in far easier, and it tends to complement your complexion better.

These days, hair coloring kits are basically foolproof.  Most instructions are along the lines of: Squeeze the contents of tube A into tube B and shake until well mixed.  Starting at your hairline, apply color until all of your hair is well coated.  Wait 25 minutes and rinse with warm water until it runs clear.  Apply the deep conditioner, let sit for 2 minutes, wash out and style as usual.  I generally wait until the entire top of my head is covered; then turn my head upside down (gently so as not to spray color everywhere!) and begin again from the bottom of my scalp.  Once I reach the crown, I gather my hair in one hand while alternately squirting and massaging big blobs of color throughout the ponytail with the other.

My latest hairdresser advised my to use a shade darker for my roots, and one shade lighter for the rest of my hair.  I found this was well worth the additional expense giving more dimension to the color.  Currently, I am using Clairol Perfect 10 in Cinnamon Red Hot 4R for my roots and Auburn Flash 5R for the rest.  This revolutionary dye only takes 10 minutes to work its magic!  Instead of the comb applicator provided, I found the single tip easier to use.  Target is a great spot to pick up hair dye.  Typically, Clairol Perfect 10 retails for $13.99, but Target sells it for only $9.99.

So how much do I pay for my color?  $19.98 + tax.  Not bad at all.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Presto, pesto!

Due to some unforeseen delays (namely, my stubbornness and tendency to procrastinate), I have postponed further bean and rice entries until a later as of yet to be determined date.  I have also come to terms with my dislike of writing recipes.  More often than not, I don't measure ingredients when cooking.  I am a fan of handfuls, dashes, and pinches.  So consider yourself warned.

I also felt constricted by the format of my previous posts.  Hence, the two week silence.  

And now I come to you with pesto!  Pesto is one of my all time favorite things to make at home.  To be honest, I had never really thought much about pesto and its components until I studying abroad in Italy.  I was lucky enough to take a class on pairing food and wine.  We spent our class time preparing traditional Italian recipes and tasting copious amounts of Italian olive oil, cheese, and yes, wine.  I loved it.  And it was during this time that my obsession with pesto began.

Pesto hearkens from the Liguria region of Italy, specifically Genoa.  Typically, it is a combination of basil leaves, olive oil, garlic, pecorino cheese, and pine nuts.  Pretty much all you need to do is combine the aforementioned items in a food processor and pulsate until it is the appropriate consistency (adjust the amounts to your preferences).  With my little 3 cup KitchenAid which happens to be an upgrade from my previous 1 1/2 cup Toastmaster, I generally fill it with 2 or 3 handfuls of basil leaves, 1 or 2 cloves of garlic, 1 handful of toasted pine nuts, a couple grinds of salt and pepper, 2 heaping handfuls of pecorino cheese, and several turns of olive oil.

The more often I made pesto, the more I started to experiment with different ingredients.  I discovered that I preferred a blend of arugula and baby spinach.  Aside from the milder taste, it doesn't turn brown as quickly as basil, and it's cheaper!  It is also easy to switch out the pricey pine nuts for whatever nuts you happen to have on hand.  Almonds, walnuts or even pecans are a great substitute, and I would love to try hazelnuts or pistachios.

Pesto is generally used as a pasta sauce, but it is also a great spread for sandwiches.  Nothing adds interest to a plain old grilled cheese quite like thick slices of tomato and homemade pesto!  It can be kept in the fridge for about a week or last for months in the freezer (one of my roommates actually froze pesto in ice cube trays so she could easily use small amounts).  A thin layer of olive oil helps prevent browning.  So dust off your food processor and try your own spin on pesto.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

More beans! with cheese, mmm

For the second entry in my beans and rice series, I made a black bean quesadilla.  (Shout out to Kristen, the Queen of Quesadillas!)  But of course it couldn’t be just black beans and cheese; I had to make it fabulous.  So I did.  The recipe follows, and I thought I should divulge the fact that I then made it for the next three days... Once I ran out of mangoes, I used tomatoes.  I could probably happily eat this for several more days if not weeks, but I will restrain myself.

I would also like to make note that the quality of the ingredients you choose truly make the quesadilla.  I used mangoes and avocados so perfectly ripe that I couldn’t help snacking on the “scraps” as I layered everything together.  In the same vein, select a great cheese.  Often you can get much better cheese for your money if you grate it yourself.  It is amazing how much more we pay simply for the convenience of pre-grated, sliced, washed or cut produce!  I actually chose an organic garlic white cheddar which was unbelievably delicious.

Black Bean, Mango & Avocado Quesadillas
Black Beans
Mango, sliced into thin strips
Avocado, diced
Cheese, grated
Corn tortillas (2 per quesadilla)

Place one tortilla on a non-stick saucepan.

Spread a layer of grated cheese across the tortilla, followed by a layer of black beans, avocado (lightly salted), mango, and a final layer of cheese.  Top it off with the second tortilla.  Cook on medium heat until the bottom layer of cheese melts (approximately 2 minutes) and flip the quesadilla over using a spatula.  Cook for 2 more minutes.

Serve with rice.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Move over lobster and black truffles...

Being the food fiend that I am, I wanted to figure out some fabulous, wallet-friendly meals.  And what is more wallet-friendly than beans and rice?  (As my friend Sunny commented when I told her I was making beans and rice, “Oh, the poor man’s meal!”)  So I challenged myself to jazz up good ol’ beans and rice into 5 different meals.

To kick things off, I made beans and rice adapted from the April 2007 Gourmet recipe “Black Beans and Rice Your Way.”  The roasted sweet potato and toasted pumpkin seeds truly make the dish extraordinary.  In a sort of preamble to the recipe which follows, I thought I should mention that the combo of beans and rice is also very nutritious.  Together, they form a complete protein which means they contain all of the essential amino acids for the human diet.  Additionally, the combo is rich in iron, Vitamin B, and protein.

1 lb dried black beans (about 2 1/3 C)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 Tbsp olive oil
5 C water or stock
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 to 2 Tbsp soy sauce
1 to 2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

Roasted sweet-potato cubes:
1 lb sweet potatoes or yam, peeled and cut into 1/2" cubes
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 1/4 C water
1 1/2 C long-grain white rice
3/4 tsp salt
Toasted pumpkin seeds:
1 C hulled (green) pumpkin seeds (also called pepitas; not toasted)
2 tsp olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cumin

Black beans:
Bring black beans, onion, oil, water or stock, and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a boil in a 6- to 8-quart heavy pot, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until beans are tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.  Stir in remaining teaspoon salt, then soy sauce and vinegar to taste (start with 1 tablespoon each), and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes. Best made at least 8 hours in advance.

Roast sweet-potato cubes:
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 400°F.
Toss sweet potatoes in a bowl with oil, salt, cumin, cayenne, cinnamon, then spread in 1 layer in a large shallow baking pan. Roast, stirring and turning over once or twice, until tender and browned, 35 to 40 minutes.

Cook rice while sweet potatoes roast:
Bring water, rice, and salt to a boil in a 2- to 3-quart heavy saucepan, then reduce heat and cook, tightly covered, until rice is tender and water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Let stand, covered, off heat 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork.

Toast pumpkin seeds while rice is cooking:
Toast pumpkin seeds in a dry 10- to 12-inch heavy skillet (not nonstick; preferably cast-iron) over moderate heat, stirring, until seeds are puffed and pale golden, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and stir in oil, salt, and cumin to taste.

To serve:
Reheat black beans, then serve along with rice, sweet potatoes, pumpkin seeds, and accompaniments.  Enjoy!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Hello world!

For my inaugural post, I felt as though I had to do something symbolic, historic, life altering.  While this may sound rather over dramatic, I wanted to take action in a way which would signify the change I am undergoing.  I racked my brain to figure out what I could do.  I spent hours lying on my couch aimlessly watching tv pondering the various approaches I could take.  And then in the midst of flipping between Giuliana & Bill and an E! True Hollywood Story on the Hilton sisters (there wasn’t anything else on!), it hit me.  I needed to give up my tv.

It was time for me to stop watching other people live their lives and start living my own.  I mean, here I am with my own apartment, a car, no job and no man (excluding Calvin of course) tying me down, mere minutes from the beach, walking distance to beautiful downtown San Luis Obispo, and a 3 hour drive from LA or San Francisco... what am I doing sitting around watching tv?

And in the larger sense, how has television shaped our culture?  From what I can tell, it has helped to contribute to our overall laziness, lack of interpersonal communication, and the corruption of the American diet.  Yes, in certain instances, it brings us together: President Obama’s historic election, the Superbowl, Sex and the City.  At its best, tv elicits discussion and connection between individuals.  But is the cost worth it?

In contemplating the social ramifications of television, I remembered a passage I had read for a college class on social media and values.  It compared how we once crowded around a fire to how we now crowd around a tv.  Both emit light; the fire’s primary focus in fact was to provide warmth and light for the household.  Families gathered around it to share food and stories.  Nowadays, families gather around the television although its glow is an eerie blue and offers no warmth.  Instead of storytelling, we sit next to one another in silence only reacting to what is occurring on the screen before us.  Rarely do we even share food anymore with the advent of tv dinners, fast food, and the plethora of food related allergies suddenly cropping up.

Now, this is not to say I am forever banishing tv from my life.  If someone happens to turn on a television, I won’t run from the room screaming never to be seen or heard from again.   I will probably still gather at a friend’s house to watch the Superbowl or perhaps the Top Chef finale and most likely catch the latest installments of my favorite series online.  I am merely choosing to minimize my dependence on tv (and saving $80 a month doesn’t hurt either).

So after a period of contemplation, I immediately went to work unplugging all of the appropriate boxes and extricating the bundle of cords from one another.  Of course once I was done, my internet no longer worked; but that could be remedied.  I was off to the cable company filled with the excitement of a life without the constant white noise of a tv set.  Who knows what fabulous things could come of this?