Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Butterfly Bonanza: Attracting Butterflies to YOUR Garden

We've had a bevy of beautiful butterflies in our backyard over the last week or so. (Say that five times fast.) And I've bored at least two captive audiences with my butterfly/caterpillar tales over the last couple of days Time to get it out of my system and blog about it. I'm turning into a real lepidopterist...aka butterfly nerd.

I don't know what it is that attracts me to these winged bugs. Something about seeing them float through our backyard is peaceful. And exciting at the same time. And it's stunning to think that really ugly caterpillars can turn into such graceful beauties.

So I've been excited to see lots of these fluttering around. And this. And even this caterpillar munching on a plant in our alleyway. Want to join me in my lepidopteric nerdiness? Here are some tips.

Make sure and feed the caterpillars.
Yes, the butterflies are beautiful enough fluttering around your flower beds, but to attract even more, give mama butterfly a place to lay her eggs. Butterflies are finicky about what they eat as caterpillars. So you have to give them what they're looking for. Plants from the cabbage and mustard family for cabbage whites. (I buy several of the ornamental cabbages available in nurseries at the end of the winter and plant them in pots just for these pale green worms to devour. And they eat me out of house and home.) Passionvine for fritillaries. Parsley and dill for swallowtails. (I've finally been rewarded after years of dill planting with a crop of caterpillars this year.) Even obscure plants like pipevine for the obsessively particular pipevine swallowtail. I sometimes wonder if butterflies are like salmon--tending to hang around where they were born and returning to their birthplace during their brief two week lifespans to leave the next generation to grow and reproduce. Certainly hope so.

Flowers are important.
Obviously, nectar from a variety of flowers form the basis of the adult butterflies diet. And there are many perennials that are easy to plant and grow that will have butterflies lining up for the buffet for years to come. Purple coneflower. Lantana. Gregg's mist. I've discovered they have a particular affinity for the autumn-flowering frostweed. If you have a sunny patch in your yard that you can let go "wild" with Mexican hat and false sunflower, all the better. Get out there and Google for others suitable for your area.
But they like fruit too.
Some butterflies actually don't visit flowers, but get their nutrition from rotting things. Carrion and dung. (Yuck.) And softening fruit. We've attracted a whole new batch of butterflies by putting pieces of banana, grapefruit and apple in saucers. Try it and see what happens.

Learn your stuff.
If you're as obsessive as I am, you'll get a lot of pleasure by identifying what you have coming to visit you. Buy a book like this and keep a running tally of what you see. You'll be amazed at the variety you've managed to attract. And the resources will give you even more ideas of what to plant.

Take the opportunity to get the kids involved.
Kids love bugs. And they'll love the opportunity to observe the transformation that these particular bugs go through as they go from egg to caterpillar to pupa to butterfly. You can even get butterfly habitats that you can put a plant in once the caterpillars are munching. Keeps them "captive" so you can watch each stage of their life cycle. (Confession: I have a small one with a 4-inch dill plant (complete with fat swallowtail caterpillar) on our kitchen counter as we speak. Can't wait to see the butterfly emerge after it pupates so that I can release it into our great wild backyard...)

If you live in North Texas, this is the perfect time to get started. Not only is the weather ideal, but, this weekend you can stock up on a variety of nectar and host plants at Fair Park's Discovery Garden's Butterfly Plant Sale. Lots of butterfly experts will be on hand to give you great advice on how to bring the fluttering masses to your home habitat.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Chimango: Organic Wines from Argentina

I'm afraid of the women who try and force you to try colognes at department stores. The stuff nightmares are made of. But I'm far less wary of the wonderful people who offer gourmet samples and wine tastes at my neighborhood Central Market. Bring it on.

Intrigued by my sips on a recent shopping trip there, and by the fact that Chimango is an organic winery in Argentina (still a great source of delicious value wines), I bought a couple of bottles to try at home. The price was right: both cost right around $10.

Chimango Malbec Rosé
This one was delicious. Chilled slightly, it delivered on the "full-flavored" promise on the label. The ripe strawberry and cranberry flavors made my mouth water. It's the color of rich cherry Kool-Aid and is the perfect bottle to open for guests (or yourself) this summer. It was great paired with seared tuna with wasabi.

Chimango Malbec
This traditional Argentinian red was a little disappointing. It had a nice tart plum and cherry taste, but seemed a little "tight" even after time to breathe. It perked up some when paired with leftover barbecue which brought out alternating undercurrents of spice and sweetness. It's worth a try, but probably won't earn a place on my house wine list.

Try them and let me know what you think...

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Homemade Barbecue Sauce

I'm not opposed to bottled barbecue sauce. Especially a good one like Stubb's or even KC Masterpiece. They're convenience products that I use often--whether in the slow cooker with chicken or when I'm just throwing a couple of pork chops on the grill.

But it's Memorial Day weekend and the mega-smoker is out, so the occasion calls for something a little more special. This is a great barbecue sauce that's easy to make. If you're feeling generous, double the recipe and send your guests home with bottles of their own.

Brown Sugar Barbecue Sauce
From Cooking Light magazine.
Makes 2 cups

1 1/2 cups no salt-added tomato sauce
2/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons molasses
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons dry mustard
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons paprika (Use Spanish smoked paprika for even more smoky flavor.)
1 teaspoon onion powder
2 teaspoons barbecue smoked seasoning (such as Hickory Liquid Smoke)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon celery seeds
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste

Combine tomato sauce, sugar, vinegar, molasses, Worcestershire sauce, and the remaining ingredients in a large saucepan over medium-high heat; bring to a simmer. Cook 15 minutes, stirring frequently.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Chicken Cakes with Horseradish Aioli

This is a delicious, pretty healthy recipe that is almost a cross between crab cakes and meatballs. It's easy and should please everyone at your dinner table. Even the kids. With a green vegetable or salad on the side, you've got dinner covered.

(And save the aioli recipe for other uses as well. Grilled chicken, seared tuna, even a roast beef sandwich.)

Spicy Chicken Cakes with Horseradish Aioli
From Cooking Light magazine

1 cup fresh bread crumbs (preferably whole-wheat)
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
3 tablespoons low-fat mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large egg whites
2 teaspoons canola oil

2 tablespoons low-fat mayonnaise
2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
1 teaspoon bottled minced garlic
1/8 teaspoon salt

Place chicken in food processor; pulse until ground. Combine chicken, chives, 3 tablespoons mayonnaise, seasoning, 1/4 teaspoon salt, egg whites, and breadcrumbs in a medium bowl; mix well (mixture will be wet). Divide mixture into 8 equal portions, shaping each into a 1/2-inch-thick patty.

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add patties; cook 7 minutes on each side or until done.

To prepare aioli, combine 2 tablespoons mayonnaise and remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Serve with cakes.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

BBQ Wines

No, I didn't say "barbecuED" wines.....barbecue wines. The perfect reds to open with the smoked and grilled meat smorgasbord you're planning for this Memorial Day weekend or sometime later this summer. I'm giving you three great value-priced choices. And they really ARE choices. Each brings something completely different to the table. Literally.

Columbia Crest Columbia Valley Grand Estates Merlot ($11)
This is one of my favorite day-to-day wines. It's on our house list. When it got a good review in the June Wine and Spirits, I was reminded to add it to the group to try with barbecue. It didn't disappoint. It's a rich garnet with aromas and flavors of cherry and plum. What makes it perfect for barbecue is its smokiness. It has a soft texture with just enough dustiness in it to make it even more interesting. This is your pick if you like your brisket and sausage good and smoky.

Sebastiani Sonoma County Zinfandel ($15)
This wine is a wonderful example of the spicy Zinfandels California wineries are so adept at producing. Compared to the merlot, its fruit is "sharper"--more raspberries than plums, tangy cherry rather than sweet. It's aged in oak, but here it's the zing of the fruit and the soft sweetly spicy background that rules the roost. This is the wine for you if you love your pulled pork, ribs, and chicken slathered in a tangy, molasses-tinged sauce.

Fess Parker Winery's Frontier Red ($8)
Honestly, I just bought this wine because I was intrigued at the possibility that a wine that seems like it should be bottled with a coonskin cap on top could be the perfect match for barbecue. And frankly, of the three, this one was my favorite for the task at hand. It may not be for everyone--it's not subtle, almost rough around the edges. Its 15.5 percent alcohol content makes it much higher-octane than the other two wines with their 13.5 percent. This one is a blend of several grapes, including Syrah and Grenache. Spicy with cinnamon and rich with vanilla, it grabs your tastebuds and doesn't let go. Some might find it a little aggressive, but I liked this line on the label: "You don't have to overthink this wine." So I won't. It's going to be great with ALL the strong flavors on our buffet table. From tangy cole slaw and maple-tinged baked beans to hickory-smoked beef and sharp pickles.

So to sum up: If you're a fan of smoke, pick up the Merlot. If you love the sauce, grab the Zin. And if you want a wine that will, like you, be the life of the party, buy Fess Parker's creation. Better yet, buy a bottle of all three and let your guests decide for themselves!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Pasta with Leeks, Peas and Prosciutto

Here's another spring/summer pasta dish. A lot like this recipe for pasta with asparagus and artichokes. It combines earthy whole wheat pasta with fresh vegetables. The added smoky saltiness of prosciutto makes it a light, but hearty main course.

Pasta with Leeks, Peas, and Prosciutto

Adapted from Everyday Food magazine.

Serves four.

12 ounces spaghetti (or linguini)
4 tablespoons butter (or olive oil)
2 medium leeks, white and light-green parts only, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 package (10 ounces) frozen green peas
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, cut into thin strips
2 ounces ricotta salata (or Parmesan) cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large pot of salted water, cook pasta until al dente, according to package instructions. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water, drain pasta and return to pot.

While pasta is cooking, heat 1 tablespoon butter (or olive oil) in a skillet over medium heat. Add leeks, season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5-7 minutes. Add peas; cook, stirring occasionally, until warmed through, 3 to 5 minutes.

To drained pasta, add leek/pea mixture, remaining butter or olive oil, lemon juice, and prosciutto. Season with salt and pepper. Add reserved pasta water, if needed, a little at a time until thin sauce coats pasta. Serve, garnished with ricotta salata or Parmesan.

Wine/Food Pairing
For this fresh dish, you could go with an herby Sauvignon Blanc to highlight the sweetness of the peas and the slight earthiness of the leeks. But I poured La Crema Chardonnay. Its creaminess was a wonderful counterpoint to the prosciutto and brought out the richness of the pasta without overwhelming the overall "crispness" of the meal. Enjoy.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A Trip to the Mile-High City

Several weeks ago, my partner and I took a long weekend vacation and travelled to Denver, Colorado. It was a perfect time to go--warmer weather showing itself, but still plenty of snow on the mountains (and at lower altitudes too, but more on that in a minute!). There's lots to see and do (and eat and drink).

Highlights of the trip included:
  • A tour of the Coors Brewery in the Denver suburb of Golden. It was an interesting look at the history and techniques of one of the world's great brews. In the tasting room, I actually discovered that I like beer better than I thought I did. But my preference was Coors Classic...much richer than it's tinnier Coors Light sibling. Also liked Blue Moon and Killian's Irish Red. Might even try some of the recipes on the Coors website for the Killian's. (Hmm...maybe a beer dinner matching beers to a variety of course is in the future.)

  • A walking tour through the Capitol Hill neighborhood of downtown Denver. It was interesting to see the State Capitol with its golden dome. Had lunch at the Brown Palace Hotel. Explored the Denver Mint. And we took a tour of the historic Molly Brown House. Made us regretful that here in Dallas we don't have the same opportunity to visit a home of one of the city's great early residents and see how they lived at the turn of the century. Too bad we've lost so much of our history (especially architecturally) in this country. Maybe we can reverse that trend in the years to come.

  • A great meal at Buckhorn Exchange, the oldest restaurant in Denver...and the first to get a liquor license after Prohibition. It's a steakhouse, but I had a great Colorado-inspired meal of elk, bison tenderloin and lamb. The elk had a bit of the traditional "gamy" taste that I'm not too fond of, but the bison and lamb were delicious. Bison is becoming more and more popular these days...I've even noticed it at the butcher's counter in the grocery store. I've heard it's better for you than beef. Will have to research it some more for a future post.

  • But the highlight was our trip one hour south to Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region to experience the natural glory of the Colorado terrain. We walked through the Cave of the Winds and took the cog railroad up Pikes Peak. We marveled at the beauty of the river running long the tracks, the aspen and pine trees, the huge rocks precariously balanced on top of each other and the gasp-inducing views back down the valley. When we reached the summit, it was 10 degrees with a whipping wind and heavy snow. Quite a brisk wake-up for these Texas boys. The snow "followed" us back down the mountain, so as we descended, the same beautiful terrain we had seen going up was now dusted with snow. Breathtaking.

It was a perfect "Life Should Be Beautiful" vacation. The opportunity to taste, smell, feel and history and beauty the dinner table, in the cocktail glass, and most importantly, in the glory of nature.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Start of Barbecue Season: Perfect Cole Slaw

Even for those of us who grill (both indoors and outdoors) all year long, Memorial Day is the unofficial start of the barbecue season. So I'm already planning the menu for next weekend. When I get out the mega-smoker and prepare brisket, ribs, chicken and whatever else will fit into the cooking chamber.

But you have to have sides to go with all the meats, right? Here's a cole slaw dressing recipe I discovered several years ago that has become our family tradition. It's easy and absolutely delicious... the perfect balance of sweet and tangy. Try it and, no doubt, you'll add it to your recipe box too.

Easy Cole Slaw Dressing
Makes enough dressing for 2 bags of pre-cut cole slaw mix.

1 cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon celery seed (I love the complexity celery seed brings to cole slaw so I add a LOT more than this. As much as two tablespoons.)
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

Mix all ingredients together and pour over cole slaw mix. Stir until well-blended. Season to taste with kosher salt and freshly-ground pepper.

(HINT: If you want crisp cole slaw, refrigerate both the mix and dressing and blend together right before serving. The longer the mixed slaw sits, the softer it becomes.)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Remember...Life Should Be Beautiful, but SIMPLE too!

I don't make it a habit to blog about so-called "convenience" products. They're often full of chemical gunk and don't taste nearly as good as something you could whip up at home with fresh ingredients. Here's an exception. Pulled out a bag of Contessa's Seafood Veracruz from the freezer tonight. (No doubt it was purchased when I had a coupon...) I had low expectations, but it was delicious. A nice blend of shrimp and whitefish with black beans, rice and corn in a tangy southwestern tomato sauce. All it took was a skillet and ten minutes of cooking.

Now, it DID turn out a little "soupier" than I thought it should, so I made some extra rice to serve as a base for what, in my terms, became a sauce. With sliced avocado and a few tortilla chips on the side, it made for a nicely filling meal. (A dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of chopped cilantro would have been nice on top.) And it was pretty healthy also--VERY low in fat and loaded with "good" carbs, with a ingredient list that I could actually read and understand. A little too much sodium, but that's not necessarily a surprise.

So, on a night you don't have time to make your own Southwestern shrimp saute, try this. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

More Wines for Your House List

Third party endorsements are always gratifying. So I was excited to read the June issue of Wine and Spirits magazine and their "Critic's Picks" section. The issue concentrated on value wines, and their top critics were asked to give their five or six quality favorites that met that criterion. It was cool to see many of my own favorites make their lists. Here are some of them.(Comments on the wines below are mine.)

Joshua Greene picked, among others:
  • Ferrari Carano Sonoma County Fumé Blanc: This is a wonderful white with richness and clean acidity. It's the perfect choice when you don't want a too-sweet Sauvignon Blanc or an overpowering Chardonnay. Pairs well with "on the rich side" seafood and fried foods. Also would be a great summer apertif.
  • La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay: This one is also a nice richer white, with forward fruit, but an oaky hazelnut twinge. It's perfect for roast or grilled chicken.

Critic Tara Q. Thomas included these on her list:

  • Segura Viudas Cava Brut Aria Estate: This is another wonderful bottling from the folks who also produce Segura Viudas Heredad Reserva cava, one of my favorites. It's clean and crisp and perfect for a hot summer day. And, like all of the wines on these lists, a great value at $12.
  • Muga Rioja Rosé: Here's a great summer quaff. With just enough strawberry acidity, it stands up to a lot of light foods, including simply roasted pork, empanadas, and fried catfish. Or just open a bottle and have a glass or two during "happy hour." Whatever the pairing, check it out; it's another great example of the wine bargains you can still find from Spain.

And Patricio Tapia gives mention to:

  • Crios de Susana Balbo Mendoza Torrontes: I am a big fan of this winery's Syrah/Bonarda blend (Try it with these braised short ribs!) and also her Rosé of Malbec. This spicy and subtle wine has joined the family as one of my "go to" bottles. It's another white that is light, but shows enough heft, to stand up to not-too-assertively spiced chicken and fish dishes.
  • Descendientes de J. Palacios Bierzos Petalos: I always remember this wine from the "petalos" in its name. Makes me think of "petals" or flowers and this light red is a wonderfully flowery, spicy red with a backbone of acidity that would pair well with simple grilled or roasted meats. It's also another indication of my love for Spanish wines. (Try the same winery's Les Terrasses bottling from the Priorat region. It's inky and rich... a perfect nightcap accompanied by a plate of Spanish cheeses like Cabrales and Garrotxa.)

Since it's clear I share at least a few taste buds with these folks, I'm likely to try other wines on their lists as well. I'm most intrigued by the Monsanto Chianti on Greene's list and the Villard Casablanca Valley Expresion Reserve Pinot Noir that Tapia mentions.

I encourage you to check these out. Make it a goal to buy ONE of these wines in the next week or so and try it. If things go as I think they will, you'll have a great new value-priced addition to your everyday wines.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Gadgets: Instant Read Thermometer

I've seen a lot of "If you were on a desert island" articles lately. You know the ones. They ask celebrities or someone of the street, "If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have three "blanks," what would they be?" The blanks might be everything from things on your IPod (Guess that means you have an IPod on said desert island.) to books to people. I've recently seen the same question asked of chefs, both amateur and professional, and it got me thinking. What are the things I couldn't do without in the kitchen? Pantry ingredients? (Like these.) Gadgets.?References/cookbooks?

So I'm going to start posting some of them. My post two days ago about roast chicken made me realize I can't live without my instant-read thermometer. This one from Williams-Sonoma.

It takes the guesswork out of cooking all kinds of meats. Lets you cook pork to done without drying it out. Ditto for chicken. Allows you to grill a steak to a perfect medium-rare. And the "alert" feature measures rate of cooking, does the math and lets you know how much more cooking time you have left. Means you can make sure everything is ready at the same time. Even if your grill is acting up or your oven is overheating.

Armed with this thermometer, you can take much of the guesswork out of roasting and grilling, leaving your energies free to concoct marinades and sauces. It's well worth the investment.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Cocktail of the Week: Raspberry/Cranberry/Pineapple Cooler not a real original title for this one. But it's a basic drink. Just vodka and two juices.

With a recent bout of hot and humid days here in Dallas, it's clear that summer is just around the corner. With that in mind...and with a bit of raspberry vodka in the liquor cabinet... I found a recipe for this cocktail that definitely fits in the "tutti frutti" category. It's perfect for poolside. Or just a hot humid evening on your deck...think I'll go make one now.

Raspberry/Cranberry/Pineapple Cooler

2 parts raspberry vodka
1 part cranberry juice
1 part pineapple juice

Pour ingredients into an ice-filled highball glass. Stir gently and enjoy...

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Back to Basics: Roasted Everything

I'll admit it. Sometimes dinner is not about the main course, but about the bottle of wine to go with it. We deserved a treat last night after a long weekend of yard work, so I went to the wine refrigerator (which doubles as the "cellar" where we keep the $30 and up bottles). I decided to open a bottle from Andrea Immer's A-List. A 1995 Pinot Noir from Oregon. The Firesteed Citation Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley. Not something you'll be able to find in your local wine store. It's very unusual to have an Oregon Pinot Noir with that much bottle age. And many won't stand up to that much aging. It was delicious though...more on that in a minute.

But what to have with it? Andrea suggested something that wouldn't overwhelm the wine. So I went with roast chicken. And decided I'd roast everything to go with it too. Roasted asparagus. And roasted mushrooms with thyme. And an (unroasted) crunchy butter lettuce salad dressed simply with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper. Here are the "recipes"...if you can call them that.

Roast Chicken
Serves four.

1 whole chicken (You can roast it whole, but I usually cut mine in half down the center of the breastbone and backbone. Cuts cooking time just a little.)
Garlic pepper
Kosher salt
Olive oil
Dried herbs (thyme, oregano, and/or rosemary)

Drizzle the chicken with olive oil and sprinkle with your favorite herbs and seasonings. (I opted to go simple with just thyme, salt and pepper last night, but you can get as creative as you want. Even squirt on some lemon juice if you have it for a zingy kick.)

Roast at 425 degrees for 1 hour. (Note: Larger chicken may take longer. For best results, use an instant-read thermometer and cook until thigh registers an internal temperature of 165.)

Roasted Asparagus
Serves 4.

1 pound asparagus spears, woody stems removed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon diced shallots
Pinch of kosher salt

Toss all ingredients together in a baking dish and roast at 425 degrees for 20 minutes. (I just added the pan to the oven where the chicken was roasting for the last twenty minutes of its cooking time.)

Roasted Mushrooms with Thyme and Shallot
Serves four.

8 ounces shitake mushrooms, sliced thinly (You could also substitute cremini or good old button mushrooms, although the shitake add an additional layer of earthiness.)
1-2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 tablespoon diced shallots
Kosher salt
1 tablespoon butter

Toss mushrooms, thyme, olive oil, shallots and salt together in baking dish. Roast at 425 degrees for fifteen minutes, stirring once or twice during cooking. Remove from oven and stir in one tablespoon butter.

Food/Wine Pairing
So why is this a perfect meal for a good Pinot Noir? Because a good Pinot (or French Burgundy) has wonderful earthy undertones. Mushroom, earth, even bacon or beef broth sometimes. That means it brings out the earthiness of simple proteins like roast chicken. You only enhance that when you add the rusticity of shallot. The woodiness of thyme. And of course the mushrooms themselves. It all comes together with richness and silky texture. Try it. My favorite Pinot Noirs for everyday drinking are La Crema and Sebastiani, but they might be a little too fruit-forward to go perfectly with this. Splurge for a Burgundy or Pinot Noir in the $25 range and it will be worth the extra bucks. Just ask someone at your favorite wine shop for a couple of recommendations on a Pinot with a nice amount of earthiness to it. Cheers.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Shameless Plug

As I've mentioned before, I want to drive more traffic to this blog. Will be adding Google ads soon. If I can make a nickel or two, I'll be able to spend even more time finding great ways to make life more beautiful that I can share with you.

So, please visit the Blogger's Choice Awards and vote for this blog in all four of the categories in which it is nominated. I'm not hoping for a win, but the further up the list it gets, the more likely it is to get new faithful readers. (Speaking of faithful readers, hey to you guys from SMU and Willamette University. Thanks!)

You'll need to take a minute to create an account and vote, but the effort is much appreciated.

Vote...and vote often!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Baked Sesame Chicken Noodles

I always think of chicken spaghetti, turkey tetrazzini, tuna noodle casserole and the like when I think of comfort food. This recipe is chicken spaghetti meets sesame chicken stir-fry. And it's delicious. It's also pretty healthy. Especially if you use whole wheat pasta and fat-free, low-sodium chicken broth. I made too much when I fixed it for dinner the other night. So I put the leftover unbaked mixture in a casserole dish, leaving the breadcrumbs off (didn't want them to get soggy) and put it in the freezer. Will be interested to see if it freezes well. If it does, we'll have another evening to enjoy this great casserole.

Baked Sesame Chicken Noodles
Adapted from Cooking Light
Makes four generous servings.

8 ounces uncooked spaghetti or linguine, broken in half
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
1 cup red bell pepper strips
8 ounces shiitake mushroom caps, sliced
1 cup celery, sliced
1 can sliced water chestnuts, drained
2 (6-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1 cup fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 cups thinly sliced bok choy (or Chinese cabbage)
3/4 cup sliced green onions
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, divided
Cooking spray
1 cup panko (coarse, dry) breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons butter, melted

Preheat oven to 400°.

Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting salt and fat. Drain well.

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add red bell pepper strips, mushrooms, celery and water chestnuts; sauté 2 minutes. Add chicken, ginger, and garlic; sauté 3 minutes. Stir in soy sauce; cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently.

In measuring cup, combine broth and cornstarch, stirring well with a whisk. Add broth mixture to pan, and cook 2 minutes or until mixture is slightly thick, stirring constantly. Remove from heat; stir in vinegar, and crushed red pepper. Add pasta, bok choy, green onions, and 2 teaspoons sesame seeds to pan, tossing well to combine. Spoon pasta mixture into an 8-inch square baking dish lightly coated with cooking spray.

Combine breadcrumbs, butter, and remaining sesame seeds; sprinkle evenly over pasta mixture. Bake at 400° for 20 minutes or until breadcrumbs begin to brown.

Monday, May 07, 2007

In Grandma's Garden: Old-Fashioned Iris

Recently, after a great evening of a movie and dinner in a hip area of Dallas, I mentioned to my partner that "we ought to do this more often." He looked at me incredulously and then smiled and said, "What are you talking about? We're just grandma gardeners?" I had to laugh.

He's right in a way. We have created such a great home here in the suburbs. Food and wine. A cocktail or three. Dogs and cats. (And doves, but that's another story.) Not to mention the birds and butterflies that are attracted to our great landscape. And that landscape IS one that is influenced by our grandmothers and our mothers and all the other "old-fashioned" folks in our lives. We tend to plant things that have been around a while. An alley full of wildflowers. Roses. Daylilies. Ferns. And his favorite. Bearded iris.

Iris are one of the easiest perennials to grow. They are unobtrusive most of the year with strap-like green foliage that freezes back in the winter, but in March and April, they send up stalks with beautiful flowers that range from yellow to orange and lavender to the deepest purple. With a snowy white one thrown in for good measure.

They grow from rhizomes, ugly bulbous things that you plant just barely into the soil. Those mini sweet potatoes send their roots down and their foliage and flowers up. They don't need much fertilizer, just a sprinkling of bone meal in early spring and late fall. (As a matter of fact, using a nitrogen-based fertilizer can cause the rhizomes to rot--one of the few calamities that can kill these antique plants.) And you don't want to over water either, making them an environmentally-friendly addition to your garden.

It's past prime bloom time already here in north Texas, but you can Google your local iris society and find out when they're having their iris show. Should be in the next couple of weeks. Usually, they're accompanied by a sale where the local growers share their leftovers at very reasonable prices. You certainly don't have to go whole-hog and plant a huge bed with scores of varieties like we have. But I encourage you to pick up a couple and plant them in a sunny spot. You can practically forget about them, and they'll still reward you with their dependable spring show.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Chile and Lime-Marinated Snapper with Roasted Corn and Black-Eyed Pea Salsa

Who says you can't cook just for yourself? Most of us are always cooking for others...our spouses, our kids, our friends and family at parties. I've always enjoyed preparing and enjoying a good meal. Even in my single days. So I usually don't just settle for pizza or Chinese take-out when I have an evening on my own. This past weekend, I had several nights to myself. Went through the stack of recipes to try and pulled this one out. It's a keeper. And really healthy too.

I especially liked the corn/black-eyed pea salsa. It would be good with shrimp, chicken or even just a bowl of tortilla chips. (Baked ones, if you want to stay on the healthy side.) I'll probably add it to my Southwestern dip repertoire.

I was not quite as fond of the fish. It seemed a bit "soggy" with this particular marinade. Next time I'd probably blot it carefully so it was nice and dry when it went in to cook. Or maybe just use a thinner fillet of fish. Try it and see what you think.

Chile and Lime-Marinated Snapper with Roasted Corn and Black-Eyed Pea Salsa
1 cup fresh black-eyed peas
1 cup water
1 (14 1/2 ounce) can fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
2 ears corn, husks removed
Cooking Spray
1/2 cup diced red onion
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and minced
1 clove garlic, minced

To prepare salsa, combine the first 3 ingredients in a small saucepan; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer, partially covered, 30 minutes or until tender. Drain. (Time-saving tip: You probably could get away with using a can of good-quality black-eyed peas that you've drained and rinsed.)

Preheat broiler. Place corn on a broiler pan coated with cooking spray; broil 6 minutes or until lightly browned, turning every 2 minutes. (I grilled mine to great results.) Cool. Cut kernels from ears of corn to measure 2 cups.

Combine corn, peas, 1/2 cup onion, and next 6 ingredients (1/2 cup onion through garlic) in a medium bowl; toss to combine. Chill.

1/2 cup chopped red onion
1/2 cup fresh lime juice (about 4 limes)
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and minced
4 (6 ounce) red snapper or other firm white fish fillets
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

To prepare fish, place 1/2 cup onion and next 4 ingredients in a large zip-top plastic bag; add fish. Seal and marinate in refrigerator 20 minutes, turning bag once. (Don't let it marinate much longer than that. The lime juice will start to "cook" the fish.) Remove fish from bag; discard marinade.

Sprinkle 3/4 teaspoon salt and black pepper evenly over fish. Place the fish on a broiler pan coated with cooking spray, and cook 10 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork. (I sauteed mine in a frying pan with a little olive oil and then baked at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Ran it under the broiler for about three minutes to get a little brown.)

Food/Wine Pairing:
This is a great meal for Chardonnay. And you have a couple of ways to go with it. A fruity Chard like Columbia Crest Grand Estates complements the sweetness of the fish and the honey in the marinade. And that fruitiness is a refreshing challenge to the spiciness of the jalapeno. You could also open a bottle of an oakier Chardonnay like Sebastiani. That toastiness will bring out the sweet charred corn and the earthiness of the black-eyed peas. It hit the sweet spot right in the middle when I opened a bottle of Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay. It's like an apple topped with a squeeze of lemon. And its nice overlay of oak gives it a wonderfully creamy taste and texture. Try it; I think you'll like it. Change that--LOVE it.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Planting Time!

To make your mint julep, you need mint.

You need thyme for this and this.

But you don't want to have to spend 2 bucks a pop to buy them at the grocery store. (Growing you own is more environmentally friendly too. Imagine the energy expended to get that little sprig from the industrial farm to your table. And the plastic container it's packaged in? Please.) So plant your own.

I've blogged before about planting a basic herb garden. Hopefully, you've done that and are ahead of the game. You can't go wrong with rosemary (you can't kill it), oregano (ditto), basil, and sage. And don't forget mint and thyme.

This year, I'm expanding my repertoire. Have added a few pots of different herbs based, quite frankly, on the number of times I've bought them at Central Market in the last several months.

I cook Southwestern-type food quite often. Like this chicken with tomatillo salsa. And I'm tired of buying cilantro for the aforementioned $2.00 and throwing most of it into the compost pile. So I've planted some this year. Will let you know how it goes.

Same with this one. It seems to be an accent in a lot of recipes, whether they be Italian- or Asian-inspired. It's a butterfly host plant too. Hopefully, the caterpillars won't get to it before I do.

This has not always been one of my favorite herbs. (WHY do people muck up potato salad by adding dill, for goodness' sake?!?) I've learned that it can be a nice lightly-applied accent though. Even enjoyed a salad mix last week that had a sprig or two of dill thrown in. So I'm trying it this year. have to beat the butterflies for this one too though....

We've planted a few vegetables this year too. Peppers (jalapeno, cayenne, and sweet banana) and tomatoes. (Have always done best with little cherry tomatoes like Sweet 100.) I'm even trying tomatilloes after I found a plant at the neighborhood Lowe's. I never invest a lot in them. Just thrown them in a pot, use organic gardening methods and see what happens. With heirloom toatoes at $5.99 a pound at Central Market, it's worth it even if we just harvest one or two!

So take the plunge. How glad will you be when you make pico de gallo in July that you've made from your very own home-grown tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers and cilantro?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Cocktail of the Week: Mint Julep's Kentucky Derby week. Therefore, the cocktail of the week HAS to be the one that thousands will drink as they stroll the grounds at Churchill Downs. The mint julep.

(Hint: This particular blog entry is far more entertaining if you read it in you best Southern drawl. If you 're having problems adapting the accent, make yourself a couple of these. You'll sound like Big Daddy from Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in no time.)

I'll confess that I'm not usually a fan of what I call "brown" drinks. Love gin, vodka, and most of the rest of the clear spirits. Even an aged rum or tequila. But never have enjoyed Scotch or whiskey. Even the good stuff. But I decided I'd "take one for the team" in researching this particular entry.

And I'm glad I did. Bought a wonderful small-batch bourbon that is popular and readily available--Maker's Mark. Smooth and nutty with a wonderfully complex toastiness, it's the perfect base ingredient for this delicious cocktail. (Take a whiff right out of the bottle. It smells almost maple-syrupy.)

Make sure and use crushed ice for this recipe. It melts a little quicker and gradually mellows the stringency of the bourbon. And, of course, the sweetness of the sugar syrup is a wonderful balance to the bite of the whiskey.

Serve in an old-fashioned glass..or if you want to properly stick with a silver julep cup.

Mint Julep

Makes one cocktail.

6-7 fresh mint leaves
1 tablespoon simple syrup
2 ounces bourbon
Crushed ice

Combine mint leaves, simple syrup and bourbon in a glass or julep cup. Muddle gently to release the mint oil into the liquid. Fill the glass with crushed ice and stir. Garnish with an additional mint sprig.

Cheers! (And here's hoping your horse wins...)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Whatever Happened to May Day?

May the first is often known as May Day. Today, it seems to be about immigration rights marches and the oh-so-recent memory of Communist shows of power. (Remember the May Day parades through Red Square in Moscow?) I remember something else associated with May 1 from my childhood. May Day baskets.

I have a distinct memory of making construction paper cones with pipe cleaner handles and filling them with flowers and other goodies and taking them to the "ladies of a certain age" in our suburban north Texas neighborhood. Whatever happened to THAT tradition?

Wikipedia does a great job, as usual, of capturing the details of the "holiday." From its origin in pre-Christian cultures as a day signifying the transition from spring to summer (Whoa, Bessie. Not ready for our hundred degree days here in Dallas quite yet!) to the many ways it's celebrated around the world.

Now I'm not suggesting we all rush out and build a May pole. Plus, quite frankly, I'm a little late this year. So let's all agree to celebrate next year. Mark your calendars now. Get your own kids involved. Or nieces and nephews. Or others you borrow from friends or neighbors. Let's make life a little more beautiful by bringing back the May Day basket. Will you join me?