laurenlikestocook

Archive for March, 2012|Monthly archive page

…and I Thought I Wasn’t Crafty

In American, Breakfast, Fruit, Holiday, Oats, Saving Money on March 22, 2012 at 4:51 pm

I’ve always been a great gift-giver.  I think long and hard about what the recipient doesn’t have and would surely want or need (Ferraris excluded), and their satisfaction with my efforts makes me feel good about myself.  What I suck at is “packaging” – a word that reminds me of the 4 Ps of Marketing 101’s past.  You can have an awesome product, but if you don’t package it well, you’re brand can be doomed to failure.  And I want to be an Oreo, not a Hydrox.

I constantly try to improve my wrapping and bow-tying, paying close attention to the gift wrappers during the holiday season.  However, my packages never look clean, crisp, or pretty.  It basically looks like my husband wrapped it.  I never get the tissue paper in a gift bag perfectly angled and crinkled.  I can’t even curl ribbon with a scissor.  I am in awe of people who can do all of that.  Or scrapbook.  My ideas of creativity flow through my fashion and my food.  The latter medium actually does involve some re/construction (unlike my sister, I have not successfully mastered turning old jeans into jean shorts).  Unfortunately, a plate of hot food doesn’t stay hot for very long in a gift box.

Last month was a friend’s birthday, and I struggled to think of what to gift her.  Like with many of my friends, we often talk about food and what we love to eat.  She was a particular fan of Starbucks oatmeal.  I would constantly tell her how she could make it herself for a fraction of the price and calories, but like the rest of busy professionals she couldn’t find the time.  Are you thinking what I’m thinking?  I know; I’m in the future also.

I figured I could assemble a mix of oats, fruit, nuts, and spices that my friend could easily pour into a cup and nuke at the office while checking emails.  However, I wanted to make this look pretty.  There’s a big difference between wrapping a box of instant Quaker and packing wholesome ingredients in a pretty container.  Thanks to Google, I found this recipe as a base: http://blogs.familyeducation.com/parenting/moms/sweet-pea-chef/gifts-from-kitchen-20.  I changed up some of the ingredients, subbing dried blueberries for cranberries, and dried dates for brown sugar.  Anyone can use cranberries, but blueberries are so much more special!  They are also full of fiber.  Same for dates.  I also made 1.5 times the quantity, because bigger is better.  Except for your tush.

Using my faux slap chop, I chopped up the walnuts.

Then I finely chopped the dates with a knife.  They are way too sticky for the chopper.

I measured out the rest of the ingredients and created an assembly line.

Then I grabbed a large mason jar and added one third of the oats.

Then I added 1/2 of the blueberries…

…nuts…

…dates…

…and cinnamon.

I repeated the layers again, and then topped it off with the last third of oats.  Look how pretty the layers look!

Then came the craftiest part…the label…and a bow!  I fumbled around in Word to find the pretties font and type uo the instructions.  I also typed up the ingredients and nutrition information.  Then after 5 attempts with templates, I finally got the business card stock to print out right.

I found a piece of ribbon to use (must have been from a gift I received) and looped it through the hole I punched in the tag.  Then I wrapped it around the rim of the jar and tied a bow.  I cried I was so proud.

When I met my friend for dinner for the birthday celebration, I passed her a gift bag filled with this jar and some other goodies.  She was so happy and couldn’t believe how crafty it was.  She said she wished she could be so creative.  I laughed and said I wish for the same thing.  She even applauded me for adding the professional touch of including ingredient and nutrition labels, just like a real retail product.  I didn’t take a photo of this info.  However, I did save the Excel spreadsheet I used to calculate the nutritionals.  Just for my own curiosity, I also summed up the Starbucks version with all the addins.


Can you believe it?  Not only do they steal your hard earned 3 dollars, but they also add in a bunch of sugar and calories to boot.  If you want to spare yourself from highway robbery (exaggeration, I know), just spend 5 minutes prepping a jar at home and keep it at your desk.  And if you want to be a good friend, you can do the same for your pal at holiday time.  You don’t even need to have good handwriting (another skill a lack) or REALLY know how to tie a bow.  All you need is some TLC, the internet, and a big smile.  It worked for me :).

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Fishing for Compliments

In Japanese, Rice, Salad, Vegetables on March 22, 2012 at 3:39 pm

I aim to please.  Don’t we all?  I especially love creating a meal that satisfies even the most sophisticated and particular palates.  I know how hard it is to find adequate cuisine for myself, let alone a superb experience, so I strive to “do unto others” as I would want done unto me.  It makes the rave reviews even that much more enthralling.

Two New Years Eve parties ago, we had an East Asian theme (last year’s was Italian).  One of the main courses was salmon teriyaki, which everyone loved.  In fact, there were no pieces of salmon leftover, but the General Tso’s chicken sadly had some pieces remaining by 4 AM.  People kept asking me how I made it.  My big secret was a bottled sauce made by San-J that I used all the time during the year.  My other big secret was using wild caught Atlantic salmon.

A couple weeks ago, I was chatting with a friend about what she should eat for dinner after her spin class, and we decided that she should get sushi.  All that talk about raw fish got me in the mood for some salmon.  I rarely eat fish, but when I’m in the mood for it I treat myself, and usually to the wild caught varieties.  I mean who can resist a bagel with lox, cream cheese, and all the fixin’s?  I would be a very bad Jew and make G-d very sad.

After work I stopped by the fish store and selected a lovely piece of wild Atlantic salmon.  It was the perfect reddish-orange hue, and it could have served well in a  ceviche or even sashimi style.  I also popped into the health food store across the street to procure some veggies for stir-frying, as well as some salad ingredients.  Then it was homeward bound and off to work!

On a flesh-dedicated cutting board, I cut the fish into 1 inch cubes, and placed them in a large ziplock bag.  Using about half the bottle of teriyaki, I poured the sauce over the salmon, zipped up the bag, gave it a little shake, and placed in the fridge to marinate for 30 minutes.

I pulled out my rice cooker, added some brown rice and water, and set it off while I preheated the oven to 350 and chopped up some veggies.  I started with some onion, garlic, and two kinds of bell pepper.

I had bought a bunch of colorful carrots that day, so I opted for one of the purple variety.

Then I sliced it up on a slight angle.  The insides are kind of orange, so it’s a twofer.

Using my large wok, I added about 2 teaspoons of toasted sesame oil, and all of the previously mentioned veggies.

I used my microplane to finely mince the garlic and add to the wok.

While those sauteed, I sliced up some zucchini and yellow squash.

I also washed and dried some snow peas.  Then added both to the wok.

I poured the contents of the salmon ziplock into a roasting pan, and covered the pan with tin foil to cook for 15 minutes in the 350 degree oven.

When it was done, it looked like this.

During the cooking time, I danced between stir-frying and chopping salad veggies.  I used tomato, pepper, and avocado.  I wanted to use cucumber but they all looked grossly huge (i.e. they had tons of slimy seeds).

When the stir-fry was all browned to perfection, I added some mirin, low sodium soy sauce, and vegetable broth to create a mild sauce.

All I had left to do with the salad was place the chopped veggies over some mixed greens, and top the salad with some ginger dressing.  Jo’s brand is the closest tasting store-bought variety to a restaurant’s version.

Since everything was ready at the same time, I decided to serve the salad on the same plate as the main course.  It actually looked really good, almost like a bento box.

Here’s a little bit more of a close-up.  This was Nick’s plate.  Mine had no rice :(.

The fish was actually really tasty, and it melted in my mouth.  I had just enough for leftovers for moi the next day, which was all I needed for my sporadic fish-fix.  Until the next bagel and a schmear.

Garfield’s Favorite! Lasagne (Vegetariane)!

In Italian, Pasta, Vegetables on March 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Ooookay.  I know I haven’t posted in a while.  Due to a combination of recipe repetition, social engagements, take-out, and pure laziness, I actually had little material to use.  I suppose I could have wrote about the restaurants or the repetitions, but that’s no fun!  Besides, this is supposed to be about Lauren liking to cook.  This means making dinner, not making reservations.

Another time consuming aspect of my life is training for an upcoming half marathon.  Normally I would run in the morning, but it’s staying lighter for longer, and the weather is warmer in the afternoons.  This delays cooking time, leaving almost no time or energy to actually write.  The benefit of running, though, is the slack it allows me when craving some carbs.  Knowing that today was a long 10-mile run, I figured making some pasta for dinner the night before would be a great change.  Especially if I used whole grain pasta, lots of veggies, and lower fat cheese.  Sometimes I would make a pasta primavera, but this time I decided to make a lasagna.  I really love lasagna, primarily because it’s so much fun to assemble, and even prettier to look at.

For this recipe, you could use any combo of veggies, but I used spinach and mushroom.  I also decided to substitute some of the layers of pasta for layers of additional veggies – zucchini and eggplant!  Here is the recipe:

Vegetarian Whole Wheat Lasagna (Serves 6-8)

Vegetable Sauce

1 tbsp EVOO
8 oz mushrooms, sliced (white or crimini)
1 bunch spinach, roughly chopped (about 10 oz)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
8-10 fresh basil leaves, chiffonade
Sea salt to taste

Cheese Filling

15 oz part skim ricotta
2 cups (8 oz) shredded fresh mozzarella – 1/2 for the filling and 1/2 for the topping
1 egg
4 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
Ground nutmeg and black pepper

“Noodles”

6 sheets whole wheat lasagna noodles
2 small zucchini, sliced lengthwise
1 small eggplant, sliced lengthwise

In a large skillet over medium high heat, I added the EVOO.

Then I added the sliced mushrooms, and let them sit to brown while I washed and prepped the other veggies.

I washed and dried the spinach.


Then I washed and sliced up the zucchini into about 1/2 centimeter thick slices…

…and then did the same with the eggplant, only half as thick.  I am very particular about eggplant’s “doneness” so I always slice it really thin to ensure that it is cooked all the way through.

By the time I was done slicing, the I stirred the mushroom pan to continue browning, and then chopped up the spinach.  Then the mushrooms were sufficiently browned.  Mmmmm.

I added the spinach.  It always looks like so much at the beginning…

…and then it wilts down to almost nothing!  It was time to add the garlic, so I used a hand grater instead of chopping up.

I combined the mixture for about 30 seconds, and then added the canned tomatoes, making sure to scrape the pan and incorporate all of the brown bits.

Then I chopped up some basil into a chiffonade – roll up the leaves, and then cut across so that you have nice ribbons of basil!  I didn’t do it properly this time, so the photo is not a good example :(.

Once I added the basil, and the pan came to a boil, I covered and let simmer while I preheated the oven to 400 degrees, cooked the pasta, and combined the cheese filling ingredients.  I boiled some water, and added the pasta, cooking for 4 minutes, and then drained.

For the filling, I used a part-skim ricotta for this recipe.  I’ve tried it with fat free, but it’s gross.  And watery.  Don’t skimp on the cheese in this recipe.

Same goes with mozzarella.  I know the fresh kind is full fat, but it’s not like cheddar or other harder cheeses which have upwards of 10 grams of fat.  The regular mozzarella is only 6 grams of fat per ounce, and since I used part skim ricotta, I saved a few grams from the whole milk version.  Since half the mozzarella goes into the mix, I decided to shred instead of slicing.

I added half the mozzarella to the entire tub of ricotta, plus 1 medium egg, a pinch of ground nutmeg and black pepper, and some chopped up fresh basil.

This is what the mixture looked like when it was…mixtured.

By the time, the sauce ingredients were all cooked and incorporated.

Then it was time to assemble!  Now I know I’m a grown up with grown-up baking and casserole dishes.  However, I am also an adult with a busy adult schedule and 1-load of dishes behind this week in my chores.  As a result, I used a tin lasagna tray.  I spooned some sauce on the bottom, just enough to coat.

Then I lined the bottom with 3 lasagna sheets (the one on the right broke, but stomachs don’t know the difference).

Then I topped the pasta with about a third of the sauce.

Then I dolloped a third of the cheese mixture.

Normally, you’d repeat this step 2 more times.  However, since I wanted to have a good balance of pasta and veggies (and cut out some starch), I decided to use thin slices of veggies as the “pasta” layers in the center.  The second layer (first veggie layer) consisted of thinly sliced zucchini.  When I placed them over the cheese, I made sure to use the slices as a “spackling” tool to fill any gaps.

Then I repeated the sauce and cheese, but used eggplant as the third pasta layer.

Some more sauce (making sure to leave a smidge for the topping), some more cheese, and a final pasta layer using…pasta.

Then I used the remaining sauce on top, and sprinkled the second half of the mozzarella cheese.  I also added some fresh basil leaves for good measure.

I covered the tray with aluminum foil, and baked for 30 minutes in the 400 degree oven.  Then I uncovered the tray, increased the heat to 425, and cooked uncovered for 10 more minutes.  It probably could have stayed 5 minutes more to better brown the top, but my hubby was hungry.

I let it sit for 5 minutes so that it wouldn’t completely ooze out when I cut into it.  Completely being the operative word.  Then I rationed out a piece for Nick (about 1/6th of the tray).  Here’s a bird’s eye view.

This is a profile view, so you can better see the layers.

Doesn’t that looks so delish?  It was super tasty!  I had been snacking on pretzels during prep, so I only had 2 bites, but the portion I had for lunch today made the whole office drool.  Just enough energy to last me those 10 miles…let’s hope it’s a good run!

P.S.  I will be posting about the (rare) recipes I created between this post and the last.  Hope you like what you see.  And if you don’t, I promise I won’t cry in the corner.