Cooking Spree: Mini Oreo cheesecakes

Every morning I get an email from Foodimentary that informs me of the national food of the day and regales me with key moments in food history. By pure coincidence, today is National Oreo Day — the very day I planned to tell you about my latest cooking spree using, what else, Oreos.

Only I cheated.

The real Oreos weird me out a bit. What is in that creamy vanilla center, exactly? Besides harsh chemicals and toxic substances. I mean, probably.

But let me not get ahead of myself. To the beginning.

I hate to waste food. I’ve likely told you about this before. It just pains me to leave a box or pint or bunch or basket of anything unused, or worse, to throw it away. A few months ago, I was at Trader Joe’s, and I spied a box of the elusive Joe-Joe’s. That’s the TJ answer to Oreos. To me, they were only a figment — the top item everyone raves about, but the most impossible one to find. At my stores, they’re almost always sold out. So, in the interest of belonging and being part of the in crowd, I bought a box. I liked them — the cookie is chocolate-y and the creamy center is ultra vanilla-y. They’re very good — but I just couldn’t finish a whole box.

What to do. What to do. Continue reading

Cooking Spree: Skinny Banana "Ice Cream"

Consider my mind blown.

A few weeks back, when I was still on the wagon and trying to eat sensibly, Stephanie told me about skinny banana ice cream. You just blend a frozen banana in a food processor, she said, and voila! You have a dessert-like treat with the consistency of soft serve. Nah, I doubted. There’s no way a measly frozen banana can trick my brain into believing I’m eating ice cream.

Then I tried it.

The result is everything she promised — smooth, creamy, sweet, icy. You totally feel like you’re eating banana ice cream, but with zero guilt.

I heard recently that bananas and mangoes are the only fruits that maintain a creamy consistency when frozen, so the science does make sense. And I suppose that means frozen mangoes are next on my shopping list.

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Skinny Banana “Ice Cream”

1 frozen banana
1 tablespoon milk
Honey or sugar, to taste (if you’d like)

Equipment: small food processor or blender

Peel a medium banana (or a few bananas) and place it in a large ziploc bag. Freeze for a couple of hours until solid.

Remove a banana from the plastic bag and, (carefully!) with a sharp knife, chop it into chunks.

Note: I stress again — be careful! The banana may be hard to chop while frozen. You could chop the banana before you freeze it but I didn’t because I wanted to easily see a one banana portion. You could portion banana slices into different bags or bowls before freezing, though. Hey, I’m lazy. 

Add the banana to the bowl of a food processor or blender. Add the milk. At this point, you could add sweetener — a touch of honey, sugar or sweetener packet, though I didn’t. I suppose you could also add some yogurt — plain, vanilla or Greek — but you do need the liquid of the milk to help the banana blend.

Blend the banana and milk in the food processor/blender for about a minute. The consistency will change and it will become smooth and soft, like frozen yogurt or soft-serve ice cream. Working quickly, pour the “ice cream” into a bowl and eat.

 

 

Cooking Spree: Fancy Egg Salad

Here’s something that’s been sorely missing on this blog for awhile … food. I used to do so well, cooking all week for nourishment and experimenting all weekend for stress relief. But I haven’t been doing any of that lately. I think it means I’m less stressed out, but also busier, if that’s even possible. Plus, who wants to cook (or eat) when it’s 100 degrees outside?

Lately I’ve been eating the weirdest things for dinner. Like peanut butter on a handful of Triscuits. The other night I ate shrimp salad on saltines with sesame noodles. This is what happens when you go to the grocery store hungry. My go to, weeknight, starving when I get home at 9 p.m. dinner, though, is egg salad. It makes a killer packable lunch too. All you need are 2 eggs, some mayo and a nice piece of crusty bread. Everyone has that in the fridge, so you can make a feast for yourself in 15 minutes. And when you want, you can also make it fancy.

When I lived in New York, there was a chain of European (well, Euro-style, at least) cafes called Le Pain Quotidien. They have great coffee and beautiful pastries, and everyone sits at long, rustic, wooden communal tables. Ooh la la. But the highlight is the tartine sandwiches — all manner of French-style, open-faced sandwiches served with tart cornichons (tiny pickles) and a green salad. They are delicious, and eating them makes me feel so cosmopolitan. As if I am dining on the sidewalk in Paris, instead of just the loud, dirty corner of 57th Street.

My favorite tartine at Le Pain Quotidien is the egg salad, and they make theirs with a few unique ingredients. The French may love mayonnaise, but here they actually use olive oil as a binder. It may sound odd, but it’s very good. Even I, a mayonnaise connoisseur, didn’t even miss it. In fact, the olive oil somehow makes the egg salad lighter and more buttery. The other special ingredient adds a shock of salt and tang: capers. Capers are apparently a berry from the caper, or Flinders rose, bush. The little, green berries are often pickled and used in Italian and Meditteranean dishes. To me they’re naturally kind of bitter, and then the pickling adds a vinegar bite. I confess I’m not often a caper fan because the flavor can be quite overwhelming, so I enjoy them when used sparingly or hidden in other dishes. In this, they are a great complement.

So, the next time you want to transform your home into a Parisian sidewalk cafe and feel a little fancy, try this egg salad. It’s much cheaper than the plane ticket.

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Fancy Egg Salad

2 large eggs
1 tablespoon olive oil (or more)
1 teaspoon capers, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste

To boil the eggs, place them in a pot and fill with cold water just to cover them. Heat the water on high until it boils, then turn it off, cover the pot and let the eggs sit for 10-15 minutes. This apparently helps to prevent that green ring that can appear around the yolk, but I don’t care so much about that.

Remove the eggs from the water, and let cool or run cold water over them until they’re cool enough to handle. Peel and slice into a bowl.

Using a pastry blender (or a fork), mash the eggs until there are only small chunks.

Chop the capers and add them to the eggs.

Add the olive oil and mix everything together. At this point, you should taste it and add as much salt and pepper as you like. If the consistency is too dry, or you like yours creamier, add more oil a little bit at a time.

Spread the salad on a good piece of toasted bread. I didn’t have any, but you could add herbs or top with sprouts or shaved radishes or even mixed greens to make it truly fancy.

 

Cooking Spree: Pork and Pineapple Sliders

This week I scored a coup at the grocery store. Spring has definitely sprung, because in addition to the inch-thick layer of pollen on my car, my sniffly nose and the unexpected, stifling heat (in March!), fruits and vegetables are becoming plentiful again!

Here’s another confession: until this week I had never in my life purchased or cut a fresh pineapple. I know, it’s a little shocking. But maybe I was intimidated by that thick, ugly, prickly outer layer, or maybe I just never wanted to bother with all the peeling, chopping and coring. But, oh, it is worth it for a taste of that sweet, juicy, freshly cut fruit.

Pineapples are not usually the cheapest fruit option in the produce section, and that’s probably another reason I’ve resisted buying them. This week, though, they were on sale 2 for 1, which allowed me to practice my pineapple excavation skills and to experiment with how to use up all of that good fruit. One person can eat only so much pineapple, you know.

In the freezer, I already had one of those packaged, marinated pork loins. And I discovered that a slather of ready-made barbecue sauce on soft bread with slices of pork and pineapple creates a few small bites of heaven.

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Cooking Spree: Peanut Butter Pie

I’m not one of those people who’s in love with peanut butter … I like it, it’s okay, sometimes it hits the spot, but I don’t have to have it. I am, however, a big fan of peanut butter pie.

That love affair began back in the ’80s with the peanut butter pie at Reilley’s, an Irish pub and restaurant on Hilton Head Island, S.C. Reilley’s pie is legendary, decadent and ridiculously delicious. We still talk about it, though it’s been years, probably decades, since I’ve had a piece there.

Last week I was at Hilton Head helping Mom recover from her foot surgery. Mom, I should note, is one of those peanut butter fanatics. She eats it by spoon right from the jar. On crackers, sandwiched between Thin Mints, atop gingersnaps, in a Thai sauce on noodles. Any which way it will come, really. (Oliver thinks it’s pretty nifty as well.)

While we were out to lunch during the week, Mom and I shared slices of peanut butter pie for dessert at two restaurants. Each was a different interpretation on peanut butter pie schools of thought: one a dense, rich version covered in a layer of chocolate, so dense in fact it could almost be considered a bar, and clearly inspired by peanut butter cup candy. The second version is a more traditional pie, with a light, frothy filling of peanut butter whipped with cream or whipped topping. It’s often drizzled with chocolate sauce and plenty of whipped cream, but the filling can be so light that its flavor only distantly resembles peanut butter. I suppose there’s another category for frozen and ice cream pie concoctions, though those don’t interest me as much.
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Make new friends, but keep the old.

I invited some dear friends and former coworkers over this week. These ladies helped me through one of the darkest stages of my career, at a place where we each experienced all manner of hell and persecution. I know that everyone has had an unpleasant job of some sort before — but whatever you’re picturing, quadruple it. To survive the day-to-day, we leaned on each other and cooked, ate, laughed and commiserated together. We all shared a love of food and fellowship, which led to plenty of potluck lunches and flurries of emails and conversations about recipes. I found many of the food blogs I read today through their recommendations: Pioneer Woman, David Leibovitz, Brown Eyed Baker, Smitten Kitchen, Orangette. Even though we don’t see each other every day anymore, like soldiers who fight on the battlefield, I will be bonded to these women for life.

It’s been several months since we had quality time together, so everyone came to my home to catch up with wine, heavy hors d’oeuvres and stories about ridiculous work escapades. Their visit served as a good excuse to pull out a few dishes already in my repertoire but also to experiment with some new ones. For appetizers, it was bruschetta three ways: fig-mozzarella-prosciutto, classic tomato (my good, ole standby) and smashed pea with mint.

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Using what you have on hand.

I have entered the week quite exhausted and out of sorts — the drama of the fire on Saturday didn’t help, then I classically overscheduled myself on Sunday. I had committed to volunteering in the afternoon, which I always enjoy, followed by a Super Bowl party that evening. Somehow I just ran late all day, leaving me distracted and mentally tired, both at those events and in easing back into the work week. The good news is that I perfected a new recipe and have been able to feed my stress with sweet, spicy, chocolatey goodness.

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Cooking Spree: Warm Mediterranean Quinoa Salad

Quinoa. 

KEEN-wah. KEEN-wah.  KEEN-wah.

I just like saying it.

As of late, I am obsessed with quinoa, that mysterious little grain. I was first introduced years ago at the Columbus Circle Whole Foods salad bar, when I took a sample of the quinoa salad. I think it was curried, with raisins and almonds, which is not always my favorite. But I fell in love with the odd, chewy, nuttiness of quinoa, how it sort of pops when you eat it and how each kernel has that weird little string of a tail. Then I learned it was actually good for you, as a protein-packed whole grain. Gotta get your whole grains in, people. I had just never cooked it myself.

A few weeks ago I was thrilled to find quinoa at Trader Joe’s, though I think it’s universally available in average supermarkets. Just check the rice aisle. I wasted most of that first box on two botched attempts at preparing it, but after some Internet research, I think I’m on the right track. You should rinse the quinoa but then don’t add too much water or cook it too long. You’ll have mush, trust me. Delicious mush, but mush just the same. (I still ate it.) This time I used 1 cup of dry quinoa to just under 1 1/2 cups of chicken broth, cooked like rice — bring to boil, cover and reduce to low — for 10-15 minutes. Near perfection. Keep reading »

Cooking Spree: Lemon Garlic Chicken with Parsley Rice

It won’t surprise many of you that most of my food inspiration comes from television. I do enjoy a good food blog, and I peruse many a food section in magazines. But nothing captures my attention quite like watching a meal come together in action. Especially when it’s prepared by Ina, Giada, Nigella or Tyler.

If I’m not watching something in particular or if I’m just puttering around the house on the weekend, chances are my TV is on and tuned to the (new-ish) Cooking Channel. It’s the comforting background soundtrack to my life at home. Cooking Channel skews to a bit younger demographic, focuses on organic and artisinal cooking and highlights more global cuisine than its sister channel, the Food Network. I just couldn’t watch one more cupcake challenge, cake decorating competition or “meal” prepared by Sandra Lee. She just opens four cans … that’s not my kind of cooking.

I discovered or was inspired to create many of my favorite recipes — see beef stew or Shepherd’s Pie — from TV cooking shows. And I recently found another winner:  lemon chicken with parsley rice. It’s very nearly a pantry meal, since I had lemons, garlic, frozen chicken and even remnants of a bottle of white wine already on hand. It has also been a nice, light escape from the Italian feast leftovers currently overloading my fridge. Keep reading »