Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Playdate Special: Chicken Salad, Hold the Mayo

My household is anti-mayonnaise. I wasn't raised that way, true, but there's no fighting it anymore. I usually get by scraping it off sandwiches, but my husband has been known to discard the top half of burgers to completely rid his burgers of mayonnaise taint. My older son used to get rashes from it.

It's easy enough to find alternative seasonings for our sandwiches and burgers. And when mayo is a necessary ingredient, I take the time to make an eggless mayonnaise with a recipe from Anna.

But what about creamy chicken salad? I adore chicken salad, but most preparations absolutely drown those lovely chicken chunks with mayo.

I use plain yogurt, preferably nonfat, cut with a bit of lemon juice to make it less cloying. To my taste, it's far brighter and lighter than mayo-based dressing.

The morning of our potluck picnic, I quickly made some whole wheat rolls (from my favorite no-knead bread cookbook), threw together the chicken salad, and tossed a bag of washed spinach greens into the picnic basket. It came together over two hours, accounting for rising and salting and getting-kid-to-preschool time, but hands-on time was under 15 minutes.

I tried out a Martha Stewart Living recipe that looked similar to my own basic chicken salad dressing. Martha being Martha, the recipe calls for roasting two chicken breasts to provide the meat -- that's too much effort for me. Chicken salad is a beautiful way to use leftovers. I usually make it with fresh leftover chicken, or with defrosted leftover chunks I've saved in one- and two-cup bags in the freezer. Her version also served the salad in wheat pitas, but I prefer the chunkiness of this version served atop greens. If you need a little more zip, try adding chopped red onion or a bit of rice vinegar.

Chicken Salad with Tomatoes and Cucumbers

Salting the tomatoes and cucumbers helps remove water content and keeps your salad from getting too drippy. Adapted from Martha Stewart Living, August 2009. Serves 8.

1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt
2 medium tomatoes, quartered, seeded, and cut into large bite-size chunks
1/2 cucumber, cut into large bite-size chunks (peeled if desired)
1 teaspoon coarse salt (half that amount if using sea salt)
1 1/2 cups cooked chicken breast, shredded into large bite-size pieces
ground pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 garlic clove, minced
baby spinach leaves or other greens
fresh mint, oregano, thyme, or oregano -- any one or a combination of two -- coarsely chopped

Line a fine sieve with a paper coffee filter or cheesecloth. Place yogurt in sieve and set over a bowl or the sink and drain for 30 minutes. (Don't let it sit too long or it will get too thick.)

Combine tomatoes and cucumbers in a bowl. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt, gently mix together, and let stand for 15 to 30 minutes.

Drain tomato and cucumber mixture and combine in bowl with drained yogurt, chicken, lemon juice, garlic, and remaining salt. Season with pepper to taste, and stir.

To serve, place a handful or two of greens on each plate and top with chicken. Top with chopped herbs.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tips and Gadgets: Freezing Food for a Rainy Day

I'm not a big fan of prepackaged convenience food. There's more of it in my freezer than I'd like, including a stack of Lean Cuisines for quick grown-up lunches, but most of the time I don't like what I'm sacrificing -- often taste and nutrition -- when I go the fast and easy route.

But I do try to keep my freezer well-stocked with homemade convenience foods: cut-up chicken for stir-fries, caramelized onions and roasted garlic for in-a-flash flavor boosts, cubes of lemon and lime juice, and of course leftovers. My freezer is perhaps too well-stocked -- every few months I throw away far too much that has been ruined by freezer burn. And the wasted money and effort I'm pouring down the garbage disposal especially burns.

WikiHow offers a good guide to protecting your stash from freezer burn. I already use some of the tricks suggested, like using a straw to suck the air out of packaged foods, but there are plenty of tips here that will help me waste less.

How to Prevent Freezer Burn
, via Lifehacker

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Playdate Special: Our European Summer Picnic

The house was still smelling of fresh paint. The 4th of July was spent on designing a cozier environment -- adding spice and earthy tones to some walls, painting the boys bedroom and adventuring on the removal of a nasty carpet.

In the meantime I was dreaming about Creole food and Moroccan dishes. I even thought about buying a tagine to prepare a meal for our lunch. After realizing that it would be one more object in my collection of not so frequently used pots and pans, I decided to quit of the exotic idea and migrated to a apparently easier project: Creole food, one possible interpretation of a not so hot jambalaya. Didn't work either, as the smell of paint was still confusing my ideas -- and would probably do the same to my guests.

So, let's go for a picnic, eating al fresco. And some of the ingredients I had for my trip to Southern food and North African dish just became a Italian conversion of everything: a frittata with couscous and andouille sausage. Everything was looking fresh and I even wrote the menu on the night before! The kids could indulge on a round and cut sandwich of turkey, spinach and Monterey Jack cheese, fruit salad and gorgonzola crackers from Trader Joe's. Darienne brought the cantaloupe, which became a hit, specially for Diogo, who tasted all of the slices! And for the moms, just one glass of bubbly was missing to transform the lawn into a typical European picnic. But for that, I must confess, we would have to leave the kids somewhere else...

Over excited about the picnic they just decided that the blankets on the grass were an extension of the playground. They insisted on using it for everything else but to serve food! But they finally relaxed with the summer breeze and apparently had lots of fun, frolicking around the sandwiches and fruit salad and playing with cantaloupe slices... Probably better off there cavorting in the grass than under the effects of the fresh paint smell

Moroccan Creole Frittata

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 broccoli florets, coarsely chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, seeds and membranes removed, cut thinly
1/2 orange bell pepper, seeds and membranes removed, cut thinly
1 small purple onion, chopped
1 andouille sausage, finely chopped
5 eggs
2 cups cooked couscous
1 handful fresh baby spinach
Kosher salt to taste

Pour olive oil in a medium-size skillet and set over medium heat. Chop all vegetables finely, but the fresh spinach, and stir-fry them over a medium flame. When almost blackened add the sausage and fry it a while to get it crunchy.

In the meantime heat the oven to 350 F. Beat the eggs as if preparing them for an omelette. Pour the veggies into an 8-by-12-inch ovenproof pan and sprinkle the couscous evenly on top. Add the eggs and finally the fresh spinach leaves, and sprinkle with kosher salt.

Bake for around 15 minutes. When the frittata looks like a soufflé, just change the oven to broiling mode and broil for about 5 minutes or when you see the frittata getting golden. To keep it hot while going to the picnic, I wrapped the pan in aluminum foil and let inside a brown grocery bag inside the car.

Full Moon Sandwich

3 olive oil tortillas from Trader Joe's
3 slices of smoked turkey breast, shredded
Enough slices of Monterey Jack cheese to cover the surface of tortilla
1 teaspoon of mustard
1 handful of baby spinach leaves

Heat a skillet and tower the ingredients in layers alternating the ingredients. When the cheese melts turn to the other side to cement all the ingredients. Just wrap the full moon in alumminium foil and cut when ready to serve in slices.

Red Salsa with Mustard Vinaigrette

2 ripe tomatoes, cut in small cubes with seeds
1/2 red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 teaspoon powdered California garlic
2 tablespoons regular yellow mustard
1/2 cup apple or orange juice
1 pinch black pepper
5 fresh basil leaves, cut in thin stripes

Mix all and let the salsa sit on the fridge for at least 1 hour before serving. It's a good company for the frittata and also delicious when served with Trader Joe's Roasted Gorgonzola crackers.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Favorite Recipes: Minestrone

090702_Calvin's braid_01

At first it seemed crazy to try to host a lunch playdate mere hours before packing up the family for a long weekend away. But necessity, of course, is the mother of invention, and this mother finally struck upon an old favorite that made the busy day a breeze to pull together: Soup.

Soup is one of few things that seems to equally please children and adults at the table. I don't know why a child who can't stand to have different foods touching each other on the plate will happily dig into a bowl of soup, or why one who gags at the sight of beans won't notice them immersed in broth. It's miracle food, and a great way to get kids to devour protein and vegetables.

Calvin wanted to prepare a favorite from his kids' cooking class, a bread braided with sausage and cheese. He did much of the work preparing it the day before our lunch date, but left the shaping to me. (For something similar, try this recipe.) That night, after packing the kids' suitcases, I rooted around in the fridge and began making minestrone.

Minestrone is a year-round favorite of mine. It's a versatile soup, adaptable to the season, and it can be served piping hot in winter or at room temperature in summer.

Luckily, I had just enough vegetables to pull it together: carrots, onions, green beans, potatoes, and the first zucchini from the garden. I chopped and diced, stirred and simmered, and set the nearly done soup in the fridge just after adding the beans.

The next day, I had little to do but enjoy good company. Close to lunchtime, I warmed the soup and cooked the pasta, then put the foil-wrapped bread braid in the oven to warm. I finished the plates with an easy salad of baby spinach, sliced strawberries, goat cheese, and a raspberry vinaigrette.

For dessert, the kids had snowballs. In the morning I had used a melon baller to scoop small balls of vanilla ice cream, rolled the balls in shredded coconut, and then set them on a plate in the freezer to firm up. Ice cream as finger food! And it only took about 10 minutes.

An hour after our satisfied lunch guests departed, the dishes were washed, the last suitcases were packed, and we were off for our holiday weekend. The fridge was bare, but the freezer held leftover minestrone to welcome us back home.


For a bright, summer taste, I use lemon thyme and lemon basil from the garden. Play with the seasonings -- the herbs, salt, and pepper -- to suit your taste. Use different vegetables according to your preference and the season. The list here reflects what I happened to have on hand, but other options include new potatoes, leeks, spring garlic, and spinach. If you find all the slicing, dicing, and cubing intimidating, a food processor is a big time-saver; alternatively, you could use frozen veggies. I used Trader Joe's Organic Alphabet Pasta as a kid-pleasing touch.

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, thinly sliced
1 large potato, peeled and cubed
2-3 carrots, scrubbed well and cubed
2 celery stalks, diced
1/4 pound green beans, trimmed and coarsely chopped
2 small zucchini, cubed
1 1/2 cups green cabbage, shredded
1 can (14.5 oz) broth (vegetable or beef, preferably, but chicken broth works too)
2 cups water
1 can (14.5 oz) crushed tomatoes (you can substitute whole or stewed tomatoes, just mash them a bit)
fresh, chopped herbs: thyme (about 8 3-in. sprigs), basil (about 2 4-in. sprigs), and rosemary (about 3 3-in. sprigs) or marjoram (about 3 3-in. sprigs)
1/2 tablespoon coarse salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 can beans, such as kidney, navy, or cannellini, rinsed (or substitute 1 1/2 cups cooked beans)
3/4 cup small pasta
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Toss in the onions, stir, and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions begin to turn golden (about 15 to 20 minutes). Continue to cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the onions are nicely caramelized.

Toss in the potatoes, carrots, celery, and green beans, stir, and cook about 10 minutes. Add zucchini and cabbage and cook 5 minutes more.

Stir in the broth, water, tomatoes, herbs, salt, and pepper. (If you're using basil, set it aside for now and stir it in when the soup is nearly finished.) Cover and simmer over low heat for an hour and a half, then add the beans.

Cook the pasta according to the package directions, drain, then add the pasta to the soup.

Ladle into bowls and garnish with a sprinkling of cheese.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Playdate Special: Carne sin Chili

So, here I am in the middle of the kitchen. Red kidney beans are sleeping in the water, soaked. In the other bowl, tiny pearls of tapioca are already awake; all I need to do is to start cooking them.
My plan is to have a very hearty meal tomorrow, including my boys' favorite carne sin chili - a Brazilianized and sweeter version of the classic Mexican meal, to be served white rice, salsa salad and tapioca pudding.I have all the ingredients at home, but besides the plan, could not find yet the inspiration or time to go there and face the music.

So, after a busy day driving the kids everywhere while they were driving me mad, Daniel finally arrived and gave me the break so much needed for me to cook. I started with the tapioca, cooking it slowly in a concoction of milk, cinnamon, dried orange peel. Normally, this would be enough for it to achieve the delicious creamy look. But wait: The smell coming from the pan is not the usual one. It is something rather chemical, stale. Oh,well, I decide to break the usual tradition and taste the pudding before it was ready. GOSH! Disaster. The tapioca itself tastes bad, as bad as the vapors emanating from the pan. I try to boost the cinnamon... But again, it was doomed since the beginning. How frustrating. Felipe begs to eat tapioca... and instead, I divert his attention and invite him to help me with the beans: "No mom, I don't like to cook. My work is to play," he tells me, leaving the kitchen.

The end of the story: kids ate all their mini bowls decorated with a face of veggies. One even went for a second serving. Rewarded with ice cream and a bit of Brazilian music, they all seemed to be happy. I think we all had a good meal. And we all wanted to nap. Felipe fell asleep in the sofa right after everybody left. Diogo finally succumbed. And I, well, I was dragged by the Internet! My nap just happened later in the afternoon, Gracias a Dios! I would love to know what happened to the others! Or are they still asleep?

Carne sin Chili

This recipe is a fusion of the Brazilian barreado and Mexican chili con
carne. It is really simple to make, and has been developed by me as
many times I tried to rescue those sunny tastes of barreado from my
childhood and the acquired love for Mexican food when I was a freshman
at the journalism university. At that time, the first Mexican
restaurant opened in Rio, and we used to hang out there - food was
cheap. Margaritas abounded and we could sit for hours without being
perturbed by waiters or unsolicited checks...

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 red onion, diced
1 stalk spring onion, finely cut
1/2 red bell pepper, seeds and membranes removed, diced
1 1/2 pounds lean ground round or sirloin
1 1/2 pounds red kidney Beans soaked overnight in filtered water
1 can tomato sauce3 tablespoons ground cumin
Salt to taste (a bit more if original tomato sauce isn't already salty)
3 cans of fresh water
Fresh cilantro to garnish

In a pressure pan or big casserole, stir-fry onions and bell pepper in hot olive oil. When onions start to brown, throw in the cumin. After a
couple of minutes on a higher heat add the beef, frying it with the
other ingredients. When beef looks cooked, lower heat and add the
beans, stirring everything. Then add tomato sauce and water. Close the
pan and slow cook for 1 1/2 (pressure pan) or 3 hours (normal
casserole). Garnish with fresh cilantro.

Playdate Special: Friendship & White Porcelain

Cooking with an intention always drove me into unknown sentimental paths. Once there was the well wishing mother's day when by mistake I prepared a whole batch of chicken with Vindaloo instead of Madras curry. That was terrible. But today my intentions are clear as white porcelain. Kid's turkey meatloaf had the intention of celebrating Thanksgiving with a corn cob to remind us of the fundamentals of one of the oldest produce on human history. A friend's birthday was the inspiration for celebrating our friendship with a messy birthday cake and a recent creation with bok choy, mustard and pork loin.

Pork Loin with Mustard and Bok Choy

1 pound pork tenderloin
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons Trader Joe's organic yellow mustard
2 tablespoons coarse Salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
3 baby bok choy, chopped
1 cup port wine (optional)
1 cup fruit juice (optional)

Heat the skillet with the oil over high heat. Butterfly the tenderloin piece in half. Lay the meat on the skillet and sprinkle with salt and pepper and brush with mustard, then turn meat and season the other side the same way.

Wait for both sides to be seared and sealed, then cover with chopped bok choy. Cover with aluminum foil and let it cook in medium heat for about 25 minutes.

Check meat for doneness before serving. Let rest 5 minutes before carving. If desired, deglaze all goodness from bottom of the pan with a glass of port and some fruit juice and pour the sauce on top of the meat.

Second Helping: Salsita Salad

Salsita Samba

So I took a brand new Santoku knife and went to cut thin
squares of red onion, red bell pepper, tomatoes and spring onion. I
want them very small and cute. I mix everything and at the end their
own juices will be united with the luscious olive oil, salt, vinegar
and sprinkled with fresh leaves of cilantro. Right after, I decide,
finally to add just a few drops of green Tabasco. It works, I love the
smell of it.

1/3 big orange bell pepper
1/3 big red bell pepper
3 tomatoes cut in small cubes (be sure not to loose their juice, so
it's better to chop them already over the bowl).
1/2 red onion
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
10 drops of Green Tabasco

Mix everything in a bowl. Put in the fridge for at least 8 hours.


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