Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Orzo Stuffed Peppers

When I asked the Bald Guy what he thought of when he pictured stuffed peppers (after he snickered at whatever Beavis joke was running through his head..."heheh...she said 'stuffed'" - we're such a perfect match), he pulled a Billy Idol sneer and described soggy green bell peppers filled with an unappetizing and oversalted mush of cheap ground beef, rice, and bland seasonings.

Well, said I. THIS stuffed pepper's gonna be different, By Golly!
And Gee Willickers!

And it was. There are so many ways you could tweak this recipe and get a fun, presentable dish, either for a light main course or an elegant side. I was pleased with the flavor of these, and the richness of the colour makes for a fun splash of vibrancy on your plate. A partial list of different optional ingredients is listed as well - you can put just about anything in these peppers!

This recipe is significantly altered from one by Giada De Laurentiis.

Orzo Stuffed Peppers

1 can diced tomatoes, well-drained (OR one can fancy salsa with one diced fresh tomato, 'cause that's how I roll. And what was in the cabinet)
1 carrot, shredded (use a box grater, like you do for cheese)
1/2 c. shredded cilantro. Or mint. Or basil. Something fresh and green and...shredded. (DON'T use a box grater! Unless you want to lose your fingerprints. Use a knife or just rip the leaves by hand.)
1/2 c. parmesan or other flavorful cheese, plus more for sprinkling (I used a parmesan/romano mix inside the peppers and feta to sprinkle on top)
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil plus 1 T. for sauteeing
1/2 c. red onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 t. salt
1 t. black pepper*
4 c. chicken broth
1.5 c. orzo pasta
4-6 sweet red or yellow bell peppers
(the number could vary depending on how many people you're feeding, how big the peppers are, and how much the gnomes that inhabit your pots and pans expand the orzo when you're not looking. I swear we had orzo for DAYS out of just 1.5 cups)

Optional Ingredients:
1 t. chopped fresh thyme
1/3 c. chopped pecans or walnuts or almonds
1/2 c. toasted pine nuts
Grated zucchini
Diced ham or chopped bacon
Flaked salmon
The tops and bottoms of the peppers that you chop off, finely diced

Preheat the oven to 400F.

In a small pan, gently sautee the chopped onion in a T. of oil on medium heat until just translucent (2-3 minutes), then add the garlic and sautee until the garlic is just golden (1 minute or so). Remove from heat and let cool for a couple of minutes.

In a large bowl, stir together the tomatoes, carrot, chopped fresh basil/mint/cilantro/whatever, cheese, olive oil, and the onion and garlic.

Meanwhile, bring the chicken broth to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add the orzo and cook for 4 minutes (which will be shorter than package directions). The orzo should be only partially cooked. Use a fine mesh sieve to transfer the orzo to join its yummy ingredient-mates in the large bowl. Imagine how the orzo greets the other ingredients in a high, squeaky voice. Say, "What??" defensively when your husband lifts an inquisitive eyebrow at your oddness.

Transfer some of the warm chicken broth to a 3-quart baking dish - enough to fill it about 1/4-1/3 full.

Slice the tops off the peppers and remove the ribs and seeds. Cut a very thin slice from the base to help the peppers stand up.

Fill 'em up with the yummy mixture and plop 'em into the baking dish. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the foil, sprinkle some cheese and maybe a few extra little shredded herby bits on top, and continue baking until the cheese is nice and golden, about 15 more minutes. Remove from the oven and carefully transfer the stuffed peppers to your plate, and then your belly.

*When I say, "ground black pepper," I mean get out your little pepper grinder that your well-meaning Aunt Tiffany gave you when you finally got your own apartment, and use it. If you're using pre-ground black pepper, you might as well be scraping the dust off the boxes in the back of the attic and using that as seasoning. I ain't picky about much, but using freshly ground black pepper's one of them.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Chocolate Chip Cookies & Banana Bread

I have long been one to decry baking. Can't stand it. All that...measuring! And...timing! I never felt like I could experiment; there wasn't a sense of "creating" with baking - just with following directions. At which I've never been particularly gifted. It felt too much like chemistry, only with flour.

Lately, though, I've had a few minor successes in the baking area. I've baked challah bread from scratch twice, which turned out lovely, and this weekend, I made both banana bread and chocolate chip cookies from scratch. This baking extravaganza was mostly due to social anxiety - faced with a weekend alone with a bunch of Army spouses, I armed myself as best I could with baked goods. I also made hummus, but that's another post entirely. What is it about the prospect of confinement with a bunch of women I don't know well that sends me into a frenzy of food preparation?

The cookie recipe is from the original Nestle Tollhouse Semisweet Morsels package version, but tweaked slightly - I tripled the vanilla, melted the butter instead of just letting it soften on the counter, and chilled the dough before putting it on the baking sheets. These extra steps were gleaned from various foodie websites across the Intersphere - little tips and tricks here and there.

The banana bread recipe is much more forgiving; I added a swirl of Amaretto and an extra dash of nutmeg. You could also add chopped walnuts or pecans, or cranberries, or tricycles or old socks, but I don't think those would improve the flavour much.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1 c. (2 sticks, 1/2 pound) butter, gently melted
3/4 c. granulated sugar
3/4 c. packed brown sugar
1 T. vanilla extract
2 eggs
2 c. (12-ounce package) semi-sweet chocolate morsels (can also use Heath Bar bits, toffee bits, chopped nuts, or other small chunks o' sugary-chocolatey-goodness. I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to chocolate chip cookies)

COMBINE flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla in large mixer bowl. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition; gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels and bits (not "nits," as I originally typed. Crunchy, but the flavour's icky). Refrigerate dough for half an hour or so until slightly chilled. Drop by rounded tablespoon, leaving at least 1 - 1.5 inches between each, onto ungreased baking sheets.

BAKE in preheated 375-degree F oven for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Let stand for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely. Make sure you eat at least one cookie from each baking sheet to...you know...test for doneness.

Easy Banana Bread
3 or 4 ripe bananas, mashed (we'd saved a bunch of bananas that were just going off, and I pulled them out for this recipe. They thawed just fine)
1/3 c. melted butter
1 c. sugar (can easily reduce to 3/4 c.)
1 egg, beaten
1 T. vanilla
1 t. baking soda
1 t. cinnamon
1 t. nutmeg (optional)
Pinch of salt
1.5 c. all-purpose flour
1 T. Amaretto, Tia Maria, or other liqueur (optional)
You could probably add nuts or other fun stuff to this recipe, too

No need for a mixer for this recipe. Preheat the oven to 350 F (175 C). With a wooden spoon (I used a plastic spoon, and lightning didn't strike me down. Steer away from the metal spoons, though), mix butter into the mashed bananas in a large mixing bowl. Mix in the sugar, egg, vanilla, spices and liqueur, if using. Sprinkle the baking soda and salt over the mixture and mix in. Add the flour last, and mix. Pour mixture into a buttered 4x8 loaf pan. Bake for 1 hour. Cool on a rack. Remove from pan and slice to serve.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Unintentionally Blackened Pork.

Mistakes are just part of the game in cooking. Sometimes you want to slap yourself over the head with a large center-cut bone-in pork loin chop. Others are probably the fault of an over-zealous recipe. This little creation combined both. Sigh.

Things we learned:
  1. Make sure your pan is centered on the burner.
  2. When checking for doneness on the bottom of the meat, make sure you lift up more than just a corner.
  3. When a recipe calls for 24 hours of brining, take it seriously when it says to RINSE the meat before cooking. Otherwise you'll exceed your sodium intake for the next 2 years and your once-lovely pork chop will end up tasting like very old bacon.
  4. Marry a man who will eat ANYTHING. Wait - that wasn't a mistake.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

HAGGIS!! Or: Don't Think, Just Eat.

The Bald Guy and I enjoyed a short vacation to Edinburgh, Scotland this weekend to celebrate our one-year anniversary. We had a grand time poking around the back alleys of the Old Town, getting lost at Edinburgh Castle, marveling at Early European Masters at the National Gallery, and getting goosebumps during the ghost tour of Greyfriars Kirkyard. But by far the most fun we had was eating (and drinking) our way across Edinburgh, one bistro at a time.

We can certainly recommend the following restaurants:
Hanam's Kurdish/Middle Eastern Restaurant (http://www.hanams.com/)
Try the bayengaan - Slow roasted baby aubergines, stuffed with rice, yoghurt & traditional spices. We also had the lamb tashreeb and the qaysi. But save room for dessert! My favorite was the saffron and cardamom ice cream. The Bald Guy didn't like it as much as I did, but then, I'm kind of a cardamom nut. It was delicious! And the whole meal came out fairly cheaply without alcohol.

Maxie's Bistro & Wine Bar (http://www.maxies.co.uk/)
Conveniently located right next to Hanam's, just off the Royal Mile near the Castle. Funky cellar bistro with great atmosphere - candlelight, Art Deco-style painted glass, pillows strewn about. The proprieter was very attentive, although we did have to go up to the bar to order. The port and honey was a good choice, considering the blustery day. The duck and mango salad were good, as was the lentil soup; my avocado and bacon salad was delicious (but then, I think anything with bacon is great), except for the liberal use of white onions and iceberg lettuce. Ick. The dessert, however, made up for it - rich, thick chocolate cake a la mode, with a fudge sauce over it. Prices were reasonable.

Vittoria's Restaurant On the Bridge (http://www.vittoriarestaurant.com/onthebridge/)
We were blown in here late after our ghost tour by a gale-force wind accompanied by driving needles of icy rain that was threatening to knock us off our feet. I may be impressed with the eateries of Edinburgh, but it can keep its bloody weather, thanks. A good restaurant with a moderate chain feel. I had the squid ink pasta with seafood, and it was very good. The Bald Guy enjoyed his beef stroganoff - it didn't look like the typical stroganoff my mother used to make, with its primary ingredient of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup (thank the jebus). A good wine recommendation of a very dry pinot grigio from our Italian waitress definitely prepared me to face the blustery evening again. There were at least 3 Italian families dining there (judging by overheard snippets of conversation and using the 3 nanoseconds of Italian classes I slept through in college), which, for an Italian restaurant, I'd take as a positive sign.

The Halfway House (http://www.halfwayhouse-edinburgh.com/)
Voted Scotland's Pub of the Year in 2005, and self-proclaimed Edinburgh's Smallest (and Friendliest) Pub, the Halfway House is tucked away in an alley between Market Street and the Royal Mile, a little gem hidden from tourists. We didn't eat there, but we did enjoy a beverage; I had the Talisker single malt whisky 18 Year(very peaty and smoky), and the BG nursed a pint of some dark bitter brew that he loved. Definitely worth a stop-in (if it's not too crowded - there aren't very many seats available!)

The Doric Tavern (http://tinyurl.com/bxm5pj)
We ate here for our one-year anniversary dinner. Probably the best restaurant we had the opportunity to visit on this trip. The bistro (or "gastropub") is upstairs. Nina Simone was on the stereo. There was only one other table occupied (it was a rainy Sunday evening). We ordered a bottle of pinot noir, which, given our criteria of "second cheapest on the menu," didn't surprise us with its mediocrity - but we still managed to finish the bottle. Our appetizer was HAGGIS! Actually, it was baked haggis filo parcels with plum sauce, which has quickly become the Edinburgh signature dish. It was originally created by Stac Polly, a fine Edinburgh restaurant institution (that we didn't get to because it's closed on Sundays, sigh). I was glad to see it on the menu at the Doric as well. If you're curious, the recipe can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/bkbo4c from Cooking the Books, a foodie blog by a Londoner named Joshua. The rest of the food was delicious (including the made-in-house vanilla & apricot cheesecake). We probably shelled out a little more than our other dinners, but we did split a bottle of wine, and the service, presentation, flavour and atmosphere made it all worth it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

foodie blogs unite!

I like this one: http://cheaphealthygood.blogspot.com/
I found it this morning, and it meets my self-imposed criteria of:

a) Funny. Very. Well-written, even.
b) About good food
c) Modifies recipes from other sites to make 'em at least semi-healthy
d) (Bonus) Encourages creativity, spontaneity, and other words that end in 'y'.

Here's what the contributors to Cheap Healthy Good say about the site:
"Cheap Healthy Good is a blog dedicated to the advancement of frugal, nutritious food in everyday life. All of our recipes, links, and articles go back to that main subject matter. Occasionally, we throw in some pop culture references for fun."
I have the feeling that I'll be adapting recipes from this site a lot - with proper credit, of course. Because plagiarism sucks. Even on the Intarwebs.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Green n' Cheap Kitchen Cleaner

Note: Some of my posts won't be about food. I know you're disappointed.

If there's one thing I hate, it's that fake-chemical smell of Lysol cleaners. If there's one thing I hate more, it's paying $4 for a bottle of the stuff. Plus, knowing I'm doing my little part to help make the planet a barren wasteland makes me oh so happy. So I poked around the Intarwebs, combined/tweaked a couple of recipes for "green" cleaners, and came up with the following combination. Vinegar has been proven in many studies to eliminate 99% of bacteria from kitchen surfaces. The smell makes me think of dyed Easter eggs, but it's better than Lysol. I used tea tree oil - which is also a powerful antibacterial - which helps mitigate the urge to argue with my sisters over who gets to use the purple food coloring and the white crayon.

Ingredients for Cleaner
1 part white vinegar (you know - the kind that's $.99 for a gigantic jug)
1 part water
3-4 drops dish soap (not too much!)
3-4 drops essential oil (I used tea tree, but you could also use lavender, bergamot, or other smelly stuff.) (optional)

Put all the stuff in a spray bottle (I took great glee in using an old Lysol Multipurpose Cleaner bottle) and shake it up a little.

Now go forth and...scrub.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Easy Healthy Vegetable Dip

1/4 c. Stonyfield Farms low-fat plain yogurt (or other plain yogurt of your choosing)
1/3 package Lipton Recipe Secrets Vegetable Soup & Dip Mix
1/4 t. curry powder (or to taste)
Leetle squirt of lemon juice

Mix all ingredients and let sit for a while. Say, an hour. Or a day. You want the flavors to blend and the dip mix to soften in the yogurt.

Serve with veggies or whole wheat pita triangles or something. You know - stuff you'd dip...into dip. I ate mine with celery and carrot sticks.

Makes 2-3 servings. Unless you lick the bowl. Tacky, tacky [wipes bit off chin].

Nutrition Information Per Recipe:
Calories 61
Fat 1 g
Sodium 337 mg
Fibre 2 g
Protein 3 g
Carbohydrates 8 g