Sunday, April 29, 2012

Frozen Banana Pops

I didn't grow up in a sugary household.  I don't remember a cookie jar or a candy drawer.  A sea shell candy dish sat in our living room, but it was always empty.  I'd ask for candy at the grocery store, even though I knew the answer before the words left my mouth.  On one particular occasion when my request for Haribo gummy bears was denied, I hid the plastic bag under my shirt as we went through the checkout aisle.  I stole them, surely a telltale sign of a future juvenile delinquent.  Yet savvy I was not.  I filled that seashell dish to the brim once we got home.  I remember being surprised when my mom found me in the living room, arranging each bear belly side up.  She drove me back to the store and I reluctantly handed the opened bag of gummy bears over to the clerk.  I apologized.  And I never, ever, to this day, stole anything again.    

My mother had served me well.  She singlehandedly extinguished any future episodes of shoplifting while managing to keep my sugar intake to a minimum.  She also taught me how wonderfully fruit can function as dessert.  We had apple crunch in the fall and orange juice popsicles in the winter.  The summer was filled with bowls of fresh cut fruit and whipped cream.  And if I was lucky, really lucky, chocolate covered banana pops could be found stashed away in the freezer.  We didn't have these desserts often, but when we did, it was a special treat.

I thought I'd put a new spin on my mom's chocolate covered version, swapping peanut butter instead.  They're rolled in flaked coconut and chopped walnuts.  You could certainly use any toppings you like.  Peanuts or almonds would be great substitutions.  They're ridiculously easy to throw together.  Freeze.  Smear.  Roll.  Freeze.  Eat.  Fruit as dessert is just fine by me.  And if it involves frozen bananas and peanut butter, all the better.

~Frozen Banana Pops Recipe~

8 ripe but firm bananas, cut in half
8 popsicle sticks
1/2 cup organic, smooth peanut butter
1/3 cup large flaked, unsweetened coconut
1/3 cup finely chopped walnuts

I choose smaller sized bananas for this.  Insert a popsicle stick into each banana.  Place on parchment paper and freeze for 3-4 hours.  Remove the bananas.  Place the coconut and walnuts on separate plates for rolling.  Smear each banana with approximately 1 tbsp of peanut butter, covering entirely.  It's not necessary to measure.  Just give each a good coating.  Carefully roll the banana in coconut or walnuts.  If you have trouble getting the toppings to stick, use your hands and gently press the toppings into the peanut butter as you roll.  Freeze again until they have set, about 2 hours.  Remove for a few minutes before serving to take the chill off.  Serves 8.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Spring Snapshots

I spent this past weekend spring-cleaning, something I simultaneously love and hate.  It's not for slackers.  It's the real deal, no shortcuts.  I actually moved and vacuumed underneath the couch, as opposed to vacuuming around it.  I usually just pretend all is well under there.  I dusted window sills, washed walls and floors, and discovered all of this is best tackled with Jason Mraz and Gavin Degraw singing anything acoustic.  I also found it's impossible to have too many lemons on hand.  Spring cleaning loves lemons, and baking soda, and windows thrown wide open.

Like most weekends, I did some cooking.  I won't bore you with the details of brown rice and tomato sauce that practically cook themselves.  Because when you've scrubbed your house from top to bottom, even the thought of boiling water for pasta sounds exhausting at the end of the day.  I did however, put these spring photos together for you.  Blooming flowers and trees, walks along the water in Maine, and a beautiful sunrise I woke to one morning.  Yager also snuck in there.  Does your spring look as lovely as this?  I sure hope so.  

One last thought.  For those of you who suffer from spring allergies, or sneezed just looking at these photos, try nettle leaf tea.  You can drink it hot or iced.  I like it on it's own, but with honey or lemon, it's great too.  It brews green and has a grassy flavor that might take some getting used to.  You can read more about nettle leaf's benefits here.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ramps Over Quinoa

So long root vegetables.  You've kept me full of sustenance in my wool socks, warding off chills during those long, dark, winter nights.  I've roasted you, you've obliged, and you've nourished me.  I'm thankful for that.  But spring has sprung.  Tender baby greens are popping up, including this recent discovery with a most peculiar name.  Are you familiar with ramps?  I wasn't until this past weekend.  The word 'ramp' doesn't exactly conjure images of green vegetables.  Entering and exiting the freeway comes to mind. 

Ramps are a cross between leeks and garlic, which is kind of like heaven if you ask me.  Both the bulbs and green leaves are edible, the tender leaves being a bit milder.  They definitely have a pungent aroma and an onion-meets-garlic flavor.  I'm guessing you're into that sort of thing.  Ramps are cultivated from the wild and have a very short season, as in right now.  So go get some if you can.

After all that winter roasting, what could be better than a quick sauté?  I threw this together for lunch in a matter of minutes.  Sometimes I just need to get out of my own way.  I find that when I keep ingredients to a minimum and cook what's in season, it almost always works out.  Cooking just feels right when approached this way.  It's the over thinking and over planning that's cause for trouble.  I suppose this practice could be applied in other aspects of life as well.  If only I could stop over thinking about over thinking.  Now that would be something.  It's a good thing cooking quiets my mind.

I served the ramps over a bed of quinoa with a squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt.  I had some leftover chickpeas and served those alongside.  No long ingredient list, no overworking, and no trouble really.  Once sautéed, ramps taste slightly sweet like an onion, but also have a woodsy quality.  I have no idea what this might do for my breath, but it's a chance I'm willing to take.  If you wanted to make a meal out of this, you could certainly add a poached egg on top of each serving.  I wish I thought of that earlier.  Can't you just picture it?  The yolk oozing over the ramps and into the quinoa?  Next time.  

~Ramps Over Quinoa Recipe~

1 cup quinoa, rinsed
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 lb ramps, 1 small bunch
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
squeeze of lemon juice
sea salt to taste

In a medium saucepan, add water and quinoa over high heat.  Bring to a boil.  Cover and simmer about 15 minutes, or until most of the liquid is absorbed.  To prepare ramps, wash well and cut off roots/ends.  Separate the white parts from the leafy greens.  Slice the white parts into 1/2" or so, pieces.  Slice the greens in thirds.  In a cast iron or skillet pan, heat olive oil over medium heat.  Add white portions of ramps.  Sauté for just under 2 minutes, until lightly brown and translucent.  Add green parts and cook for about 30 seconds.  Remove from heat and place over quinoa.  Give it all a squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt.  Drizzle extra virgin olive oil if you like. Serves 2 as a side.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Oven Baked Sweet Potato Fries

I'm using the term 'fries' loosely here.  For starters, we're using sweet potatoes and they're baked, not fried.  Don't go into this expecting a signature crispy exterior, or you'll be disappointed.  These slouch.  They're on the limp side.  However, what they lack in crispiness, they make up for in taste and nutrition.  A crispy fry is best left for the deep fryer, but we all know we're better off using other cooking methods. I indulge in restaurant versions once in a while, but happily make these at home anytime.

I found a two-pound bag of organic sweet potatoes in my grocery store for a little over two dollars.  Not only are they inexpensive and easy to prepare, but they also pack a big nutritional beta-carotene punch.  Just cut your sweet potatoes into fry or wedge shapes and give them an olive oil and spice rub down.  I like the Indian spice blend garam masala for its warm and pungent quality.  You should be able to find it in most grocery stores.  It smells divine while baking.  Nutmeg, cardamom, cloves, and cumin are some of its components.  If I could bottle up 'home', it might just be garam masala and sweet potatoes warming in the oven.  I could get used to that smell.  Yankee Candle has yet to develop this scent.  A garlic and olive oil candle wouldn't be a bad idea either.  Don't say you didn't hear it here first. 

These fries are sweet and flavorful and so much better for you than anything you could order out.  And they're great with my brown rice chickpea burgers.  I believe this will be the last of the root vegetables for now.  In other news, the broiler in my oven won't turn on.  And of course, all I want to do is crisp up everything in sight to a nice black char just because I can't.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the oven itself isn't going to follow suit.  Perhaps I've overworked it, expected too much from it in such a short amount of time.  Maybe if I give her a break she'll come around.  I'll be back soon with something light and green for spring (and something that doesn't involve an oven).  See you next time.

~Oven Baked Sweet Potato Fries Recipe~

2lb sweet potatoes, cut into (3/4"-1") fries/wedges
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp garam masala
zest of 1 lemon
1/2 tsp sea salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Place sweet potato fries/wedges into a large bowl.  Add extra virgin olive oil, garam masala, lemon zest, and sea salt to the potatoes.  Give a good toss with your hands.  Turn out onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Don't crowd the fries.  Use two pans if you have to.  Bake 40 minutes, turning at the halfway point.  Serves 4.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Chickpea Salad

From the looks of things around here, maybe you think I have this cooking thing all figured out.  Maybe I've mislead you into thinking this is all very effortless for me.  Perhaps you think I'm bursting at the seams with inspiration, plating up dishes with a smile.  Au contraire, mon ami.  This is only partially true, part of the time.  The truth of the matter is, sometimes I don't feel like cooking and sometimes my efforts aren't successful.  It's not always sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows.  I'm very much like you, in fact.  My sink piles up with dishes after recipes go awry.  I famously take things out of the oven too early.  Pots bubble over on the stovetop and I burn toast at a ratio of about 3:1.  And then I swear.  I've trained my camera lens to stay away from these episodes, resolving to adjust the toaster setting, clean the dishes, and try another day.  Things are always better in the morning.

Case in point, this chickpea salad.  I remembered a side dish I ordered with my best friend at a cozy little sandwich shop in Connecticut.  It wasn't anything fancy, the chickpea salad or the sandwich shop, but most things I take a liking to never are.  It was my inspiration for the version you see here.  Aside from its colorful appeal, it has a nice contrast of creamy and crunchy textures.  I find making your own chickpeas yields a creamier end result.  In a pinch, canned will certainly suffice.  Just be sure to give them a good rinse to wash away any salty aftertaste.  Cucumbers, red bell peppers, and red onions add a crisp component, while feathery dill makes the salad pop.  I'm more and more turned onto the idea of salads that don't necessarily start with the prerequisite bed of lettuce.  A salad like this is substantial.  It works for lunch with some nice thick crusty bread and cup of soup.  A few scoops work equally as well for a high protein snack.  I made this version vegan, but adding feta cheese would work nicely here too.  I think it makes sense to have a bowl of this hanging around for those days when things don't go as planned.

~Chickpea Salad Recipe~

3 cups cooked chickpeas
1/2 European cucumber, chopped
1 cup diced red onion
1 small red pepper, diced
1/4 cup chopped dill
zest of 1 lemon
5 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and pepper to taste

In a large bowl, add chickpeas, cucumber, red onions, red pepper, and dill.  Give a good stir.  In a small bowl, whisk together lemon zest, lemon juice, and extra virgin olive oil.  Pour over the salad and give a good toss.  Add in sea salt and pepper.  Taste and adjust seasonings based on your preference.  Serve at room temperature.  Serves 4-6.   

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Macadamia-Cashew Nut Butter

I have a vintage glass peanut butter jar I've taken a liking to.  It's small by today's standards, capable of holding a little over a cup.  I know this because cup measurements are embossed on its side.  It's fitted with a cobalt blue and white Skippy lid.  My best guess is it's from the sixties.  It's interesting to think about how food was packaged and distributed in the past.  I'm fascinated by pint size milk bottles, hour glass Coke bottles, and canning jars.  We live in a plastic world today; plastic food containers, plastic jars, and plastic water bottles.  Unfortunately, much of it is thrown away.  It's bad for our environment and bad for our health.  Glass is smart.  It's clean and reusable.  I make a habit of storing food in glass containers and mason jars, and you'll never find me without my glass water bottle.  This petite Skippy jar is a welcome addition.

The irony of this situation is that my Skippy jar is filled with macadamia-cashew nut butter.  Peanut butter will always be my first love.  That is, peanut butter without the addition of hydrogenated oils and sugar, but that goes without saying.  Lately, I've been cheating on peanut butter with all kinds of nut butters.  It started with almond butter, then cashew butter, both of which I purchased at a hefty price.  Then I gave some thought to making my own and guess what?  The process is really simple.  Any nut can morph into nut butter.  Depending on its oil content, it can be processed as is, or additional oil can be added to help it along.  The nuts break down and turn into butter in just a few minutes in your food processor.  As soon as I tasted this latest combination, I knew I had to share it with you. 

Macadamia-cashew nut butter is a highbrow, luxurious kind of nut butter.  I'm going to describe it as decadent as far as these things go.  The macadamia nuts work so well because of their high oil content, lending a smooth and creamy consistency, while the cashews add a pleasantly sweet flavor.  You could play around and add in a sweetener or salt if you like, but my preference is neither.  I like it just as is.  Comparing this nut butter to peanut butter is like comparing apples to oranges.  Peanut butter is thick, rich, and salty.  Macadamia-cashew butter is light, smooth, and mild.  It tastes indulgent.  Spread it onto toast, crackers, or rice cakes.  Dip pretzels and apple slices into it.  Use it in smoothies or desserts.  Or do what I do and eat it right off the spoon.  Sorry Skippy.  I will always love you for your American nostalgia and your vintage jars.  I hope you'll forgive me for this.
~Macadamia-Cashew Nut Butter Recipe~

1 cup raw, unsalted macadamia nuts
1 cup raw, unsalted cashew nuts

Add macadamia and cashew nuts to your food processor.  Process for five minutes.  After the first minute or so, it will have a sandy texture.  As the oils release from the nuts, it will transform into nut butter.  Scrape down the sides of your food processor along the way if necessary.  Store in jar or air tight container in refrigerator.  Makes just over 1 cup.