Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

I hope all the candy is bought and decorations are set up and costumes are on so the fun can begin!

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. I love the rich, ancient history behind Halloween and the ability to celebrate with so many people from the community. The origins began 2000 yrs ago with the Celts (modern Ireland, England, & France) who celebrated their new year on November 1st called Samhain. They believed on the night before, the veil between the living and dead were blurred, since the summer was ending and the long, dark winter began. They dressed in animal skins and heads, then built huge bonfires where they would all gather and tell each others fortunes. When the Romans conquered the Celts years later, their deity Pomona (the goddess of fruit trees and orchards) was incorporated into the festivities - hence the apple we commonly still use in desserts and treats. Finally, when Christianity became widespread, the church attempted to absorb the popular celebration on Nov. 1st into an approved holiday called All Saints' Day, or in middle English Alholowmesse. The night before, October 31st, was called All-hallows Eve, and this phrase is what morphed into our modern term of Halloween. The tradition of going door to door is roughly based on the belief spirits would use All-hallows Eve to play tricks on the living and they can be appeased through gifts.

This year I attempted to carve a large, round loaf of white mountain bread.

I found this photo online months ago and thought it would be a great centerpiece since spinach dip in a bread loaf is something we feature at nearly every party we throw. (I would gladly give credit, but this was saved to my photo folder pre-blog and I did not think to save the source.)

Hmmmm. Mine didn't turn out scary. He looks more scared at the fact I'm about to carve open his head and stuff it full of gooey spinach dip. I placed the bread loaf in the oven on 200*F for 10 min to firm up the crust so it was easy to carve and became crinkly like the original photo. This will not dry out the middle, which is still nice and soft to use in holding the dip of your choice.

I also made Witch's Finger Cookies.

They have a delicious almond flavor, and came out perfect. They're not too soft to fall apart, but also not hard and crunchy either. I usually struggle to find that happy medium in my cookies.

The recipe can be found here. I also did not bother to put chocolate around the fingernails since it was not coming out as nice as the photo. I left a small bowl of melted chocolate out so our party guests could dip or drizzle the chocolate if they wanted. Some of my almonds fell off and I did use the chocolate to hold them in place, so you can go with that method as well.

Mine were also a little chunky and only yielded 3 dozen, so if made smaller and thinner, they would yield 5 dozen.

I'm off to finish preparing for our party. Enjoy your night!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Greek Food Festival

Guess what's in town this weekend?

That's right, BABY! The Greek Food Festival is in town!

I've waited a whole year for this! The local Greek Church hosts the annual event to share their culture with the locals. The event started about 30 yrs ago as a bake sale and has grown into a festival that brings thousands of people from all over the area. The festivities range from Greek folk music, dancers in costume, and of course - FOOD.

Half of the tents set up for the festival are reserved for gyros. People just can't get enough of them!

The most tender, thin strips of lamb are seasoned to perfection and grilled just right. Then they are placed on fresh, handmade pitas that are also seasoned. The gyros are topped off with fresh tomatoes, red onion, and homemade taziki sauce. Mmmmm!

Our next stop was for a basket of patates, or Greek fried potatoes. The ones served at the festival reminded me of pommes frites, but with seasonings instead of just salt. I wish I had tried to ask someone what seasonings were used on the food, but I was too preoccupied with the highlight of the festival: The Pastries.

The pastries are heavily guarded and patrons are kept in line, literally, to keep things from getting out of control. This process runs like clockwork since the pastries are so sought after. The lines are clearly marked and, as you can see, the pastry line is constantly full.

Here's the middle of the line, but we hadn't quite made it to the building yet.

I was hoping to get more photos of inside so the mounds of pastries could be seen, but I wasn't able to balance a camera and a tray of goodies very well. They handed me a tray and I walked swiftly through the line pointing and calling out which pastries I wanted and how many to load me up with. I was able to control myself pretty well. The pastries lasted us more than one day, so I'd call that a success in willpower.

I savored the handmade baklava and kataifi, which are like giant shredded wheat pieces that are full of honey and walnuts.

However, my favorite Greek pastry is kourambiedes.

This soft, delicate, almond flavored cookie is a half-moon shape and covered in sweet powdered sugar. It is also called a Greek wedding or Christmas cookie. I just can't get enough of them.

Sigh, the only sad part is having to wait another year...

Friday, October 16, 2009

Eat Cheap For A Week Challenge

The recession is being discussed everywhere you look - food bloggers included. People are constantly conversing and comparing notes on how to save money anywhere they can. It seems one of the first things people sacrifice is food.

No more daily take-out or dine-in meals. No more daily coffee runs to the local shop. No more throwing wasted food away because it went bad or no one felt like having left overs.

Suddenly, it's boxed meals and cheap imitation foods, instead of smarter food choices.

Since I'm a big believer in organic foods, I'm not willing to sacrifice my food first. I'd rather continue to eat as healthy as possible for a variety of reasons - level of health, especially as the cold weather approaches and germs tend to spread; mood regulation, to fend off depression or irritability; higher nutrient value in less food consumed, to prevent myself from eating and snacking constantly; etc.

Many of my friends and family believe I'm spending triple digits at the grocery store each week because I'm vocal about eating organic as much as possible. Oh, how I wish I had that kind of money. The truth is I have been frugal in my weekly grocery runs for quite some time now. Sure, I splurge occasionally on a big ticket item if I have a certain recipe in mind or if I'm celebrating a holiday and cooking a lot of food, but the majority of the time I watch my dollars carefully. (I also tend to go weekly since I use fresh vegetables and other ingredients, so they do not keep for several weeks.)

I decided I needed to do something to prove how it's possible to eat cheap organically. I Stumbled upon the food blog Cheap Healthy Good and found my answer. They took a challenge to eat for a week on $25 with a diverse menu that yielded 17 meals. All the recipes they used looked delicious and straightforward. I decided to duplicate their challenge with two differences: buy a week's worth of groceries for $50 and all ingredients must be organic.

Grocery List

2 whole chickens $14.72
8oz self-serve creamy peanut butter $3.99
6 carrots with top $2.99
3/4 lb green bell peppers $2.83
1 medium cucumber $2.70
1.29 lbs red potatoes $2.57
1 can salsa $2.50
6 pack 2 oz raisin boxes $2.09
1.18 lbs celery $1.76
1 lb yellow onions $1.69
Greek yogurt $1.69
1 can black beans $1.67
bundle green onions $1.59
1 lb brown rice $1.49
1 can corn $1.29
4 oz green chilies $1.19
1 can garbanzo beans $1.09
1 can white beans $0.89
2 lemons $0.79
2 oz roasted peanuts $0.44
1 small ginger root $0.28

Total $50.25 (it counts, just round down)

Now, this only works if you're able to shop at a store with self-service items, meaning not everything is in bulk. For example, I was able to purchase 2 oz of roasted peanuts instead of paying several dollars for a big jar of them. I also used several ingredients already on hand, which does not count toward the grocery bill.

Below are the 5 recipes I cooked and how many meals each provided:

Marcella Hazan's Roasted Chicken

2 3 1/2 lb chickens
1.29 lbs red potatoes
3 carrots
olive oil
2 lemons
4 tbsp butter
salt & pepper

Preheat the oven to 375*F. Wash each chicken thoroughly, inside and out, then allow to drain and rest for 10 min.

Roughly chop the red potatoes and carrots into large pieces, saving any scraps. On a 13-by-18-inch pan, place the potatoes and carrots around the edges. Cover with a few tablespoons of olive oil, plus salt and pepper. Wash the lemons well, then roll on a hard surface and puncture with a knife several times; set aside.

Place the chickens on the pan, breast side up and making sure the wings are tucked under, then put one lemon into each cavity. Carefully massage 2 tbsp butter on each chicken between the skin and breast meat without puncturing the skin. Liberally season the chickens with salt and pepper.

Cook the chickens for 160 min (20 min per pound, plus 20 min). Remove from the oven and allow the chickens to rest for 30 min before slicing.

Dinner: 2 chicken breasts & roasted potatoes and carrots

~Yields 2 servings.

~Adapted from Cheap Healthy Good & cooking tips from Robin at Caviar & Codfish.

After this dinner, I had 5 lbs chicken meat left. I did not have to purchase chicken stock since I had plenty of scraps to make my own - a little over 2 quarts in fact. After stripping the chickens of all their juicy meat, throw each chicken into a pot (or throw them into one jumbo pot if you've got it) with 10 cups of water each and food scraps from prepping the vegetables for the week (meaning dice up all the veggies now and store them in tupperware to utilize the left overs in the stock and for faster cooking later - except the carrots, just peel them and leave them whole since one needs to be grated later) and any preferred spices. Let the stock simmer for 4 hours. Strain the stock into several containers and refrigerate overnight.

Before using, skim off the fat and save for cooking in the future by freezing (and don't forget to save the chicken fat from the roast pan, too! It makes the best gravy base.)

Chicken Curry

2 cups chicken stock
1 cup brown rice

2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup onion, diced
1 tbsp curry powder
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp fresh ginger, minced
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 cups shredded chicken
1 can garbanzo beans
1 carrot, grated
4 oz raisins

Greek yogurt

Bring chicken stock to a boil and add the brown rice. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 30 min until rice is tender.

Heat olive oil on medium-high heat in a large skillet. Add onion, curry, salt and cook for 5 min. Stir in the garlic and ginger, cooking for 1 min. Add the remaining ingredients through raisins and cook for 5 min.

Plate 1/2 cup rice with 1/2 cup chicken curry. Top with 1 tbsp Greek yogurt and cilantro to taste.

~Yields 4 servings.

White Bean Chicken Chili

1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup celery, diced
1 cup onion, diced
1 cup green bell peppers, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp cumin
2 cups chicken stock
1 can white beans
1 1/2 cups shredded chicken
1/2 cup raw milk
2 green onions, diced
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
salt & pepper
Greek yogurt

Heat olive oil on medium-high heat in a large skillet. Add celery, onion, bell pepper and cook for 5 min. Add garlic, cayenne pepper, cumin and cook for 1 min. Add chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 5 min. Add the white beans, chicken, milk and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and add the green onions and flour, stirring well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with 1 tbsp Greek yogurt, if desired.

~Yields 4 servings.

~Adapted from Chili Cheese Fries.

Chicken Over Noodles

Soba noodles*
sesame oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tbsp ginger, minced
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp brown rice vinegar
3/4 tsp crushed red pepper
1 cup chicken, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 green bell pepper, finely sliced
green onions, diced
roasted peanuts, chopped

Cook soba noodles according to instructions, then toss with sesame oil (1/2 tbsp per bundle).

In a pan on medium heat, add the ingredients from garlic through red pepper, stirring until well incorporated. Add the chicken and cook until all ingredients are thoroughly warm.

Plate 1 bundle of soba noodles with 1/3 chicken mixture, carrot, and bell pepper. Top with green onions and roasted peanuts to taste.

~Yields 3 servings.

~Adapted from Food Network.

*Use 1/2 cup brown rice if noodles are unavailable.

Chicken Picadillo

2 cups chicken stock
1 cup brown rice
1 can black beans

1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup onion, diced
1 cup chicken
1 1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup salsa
4 oz raisins
slivered almonds

Bring chicken stock to a boil and add the brown rice. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 30 min until rice is tender. Stir in can of black beans.

Heat olive oil and onion on medium-high heat in a large skillet and cook for 3 min. Add ingredients of chicken through garlic and cook for 5 min. Add salsa and raisins and cook for 2 min.

Plate with 1/2 cup black beans & rice and 1/2 cup chicken picadillo. Top with almonds and cilantro to taste.

~Yields 4 servings.

~Adapted from Cooking Light.

I think the challenge was a success. I ate delicious meals all week long and even had 2 cups of chicken stock left over for another time, and made Smitten Kitchen Oatmeal Cookies with the leftover raisins (which are phenomenal!). I realized afterward a few of the meals doubled up on protein, meaning I ate chicken and beans. I think I could successfully redo this challenge for less money by switching up the menu some. If I was growing my own vegetables or bought dried beans, that would save even more. However, this was a great starting point that hopefully shows how important it is to continue to eat as healthy as possible on a frugal budget.

Thanks to Kristen from Cheap Healthy Good for approval to share my take on their challenge! Be sure to review their challenge which has a more thorough breakdown of prices per meal.

Update: I submitted this post to participate in Food Renegade's Fight Back Friday. Be sure to check out all the other fabulous real foodies!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Sweet & Sour Pork with Coconut Rice

I have a confession. I have not eaten red meat in 16 years. And when I say "red meat", I mean beef and pork. I was never a big fan of the flavor, but the reason I chose to stop eating red meat was the fact it always left me with a stomach ache. It made me feel terrible. I understand now why that occurred (which I'll leave for another post discussing meat quality), but I'm still leery of sitting down and eating a solid piece of red meat. That's right - I'm the person who shows up to cookouts and hands the grill master a package of turkey or veggie hot dogs and asks servers in restaurants if they have turkey sausage instead of pork links. That's as hard core as I get with meat.

After a few years of researching organic foods, I'm more open to trying red meat again. I did, however, have a brave moment the other day and bought some organic pork tenderloin from a great local source after being inspired by this Asian recipe. I just didn't think turkey or chicken would match as well as pork, so I held my breath and dove right in.

I think I should have done some more research on cooking pork before trying to cook it after so much time. For some reason I was under the impression that pork and beef shrunk to half its size during the cooking process. Sigh, I know, I know. Don't ask me where I heard that because I have no idea. My fiancé asked me why I made the pork pieces so big, to which I replied the above, and then he gently told me after cutting into the first piece the meat was undercooked and that the shrinkage factor was not as much as I previously assumed. I lugged the plates back into the kitchen, re-cut the meat into smaller pieces, and put it all back in the pan to finish cooking. It seems I'll need to start learning from scratch before trying another red meat dish.

The good news is this dish is fantastic. We both thought it had a great balance of flavors. I love how coconut rice is sweet and a little sticky so it picks up the sweet & sour sauce. The pork was more delicate in taste than I imagined, so it did not overpower the other elements. This dish cooks up quickly, so make sure all ingredients are prepped beforehand. Thankfully my first cooking experience with pork was semi-successful so I'm up for trying more red meat recipes in the future - as long as it's from a safe, organic source.

Sweet & Sour Pork with Coconut Rice

Coconut Rice

1 cup uncooked basmati rice
1 1/4 cup water
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/4 tsp salt

Add all ingredients in a sauce pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 min until all the liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat immediately.

Sweet & Sour Pork

1 lb pork tenderloin, cut into 3/4 inch cubes
2 tbsp cornstarch, divided
3 tbsp soy sauce, divided
1 8 oz can pineapple chunks in juice, undrained
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup turbinado
2 tbsp ketchup
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup onion, chopped
1 tsp ginger, minced
1/2 tsp garlic, minced
1 cup green bell pepper, chopped
1/4 cup green onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup slivered almonds

In a large bowl, combine pork, 1 tbsp cornstarch, and 1 tbsp soy sauce. Toss well to coat and set aside.

Drain pineapple juice into a medium bowl and add the remaining cornstarch and soy sauce, plus the apple cider vinegar, turbinado, and ketchup. Stir well and set aside.

Heat olive oil in a large pan medium-high, then add pork and sauté for 3 min. Add onion, ginger, and garlic; sauté for 1 min. Mix in pineapple and green bell pepper and sauté for 3 min, stirring frequently. Top with the sauce mixture and bring to a low boil. Cook for 1 min once it begins to boil and then remove from the heat.

Plating: Scoop 1/2 - 3/4 cup coconut rice onto the serving plate and top with 1/2 - 3/4 cup sweet & sour pork. Top with green onions and almonds.

~Yields 4 servings.

~Adapted from Cooking Light.