Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Problem With Chile Peppers

I ruined a perfectly good meal yesterday. I brought it right to the brink of inedible. And I mean, right there. It was so bad that out of sheer kindness, I made plain pasta for the kids. And I am not that kind of a person. It gave me a big ol' stomach ache and the InSinkErator ate the leftovers.

The problem was the chile peppers. You just never know with chiles. Sometimes I buy jalapenos and they blow my socks off. Other times, they don't even blip. What is up with the blip-less peppers?

I should have know better, though, because my friend Laura warned me. You see, I somehow missed Hatch Green Chiles when they came through last August. I don't know what I was doing, but it wasn't peeling chiles! By the time I figured it out, all I could find were roasted Red Hatch Green Chiles. I called up Laura and she made that sound, something between a moan and a hiss. Not good. Laura and her husband are from New Mexico, so she is the resident expert on Hatch Green Chiles. She says they have a deep freeze in their garage just for Hatch Chiles. That is respectable culinary real estate. I like Laura.

She mumbled something like "good luck with that" and did I want to borrow latex gloves for peeling my roasted Red-Green Chiles? Turns out that that Hatch Green Chiles left in the field turn red. Red Chiles are only good for road-side ristras and dried chili powder. "Too hot" she said.

But I had 10 pounds of them, and my hands didn't throb too badly from the peeling, so I persisted to bag and freeze the lot. Up till yesterday, I had only used my Red-Green Chiles for Tortilla Soup. I was pretty sure that Laura was wrong. All my batches of Tortilla Soup this winter were pretty anemic. I struggled with it, actually. My Red-Green Chiles were blip-less. Positive of it.

Sonoran Shrimp Scampi. Doesn't that sound good? Even the picture looks good. I am a sucker for a nice picture. On top of it, I had all the ingredients, except for Pablanos. I am not scared, I substitute with wild abandon! And anyway, I had all these anemic roasted Red-Green Chiles wasting away in the freezer. I sub in 3 chiles, switch out the red bell pepper for yellow and get on with it.

Fast forward to the 'taste for seasoning' part of the recipe. Wowzers! Hot hot hot! Not "this is good" hot or nuanced hot. I'm talking about one-note, hot. Covers up the taste of everything else, hot. Even smothering it with cheese doesn't help, hot. I never want to tell Laura about this, hot.

What is the adventurous cook to do? I do my best to plan meals a couple days in advance, but sometimes I like to try new hour before dinner. I might be adventurous in the kitchen, but am risk-adverse to taking the kids to the supermarket at 5pm. So, there are substitutions. I figure that "nothing risked, nothing gained" applies in this instance. Total failures like last night happen, but far less then you might think. I would rather find myself sweating out a bad meal once in a while, then suffer from dinner boredom. Don't you agree?

In other news, I am toying with the idea of blogging every day what we are eating for dinner. Seems a little scary, but I might give it a try for a while to see what sticks to the wall. Let me know if you want recipes.

Tonight for dinner: Grilled Sockeye Salmon, Brown Rice and Green Beans. The kids ate all of it with the addition of Blueberries. Two thumbs up!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

For Better or Bratwurst

It is like the Continental Divide. You know about the Continental Divide, don't you? It is that place in the Rocky Mountains where if rain falls on one side of the line, the water will flow on its journey to the Pacific Ocean. If it rains on the other side, the water flows to, well... Kansas.

I think it is the same with food. If you drop someone on one side, they roll down the mountains liking artichokes, garlic and grilled salmon. If you fall on the other side, you eat a lot of corn, pork chops and beef. Or something like that.

The point is, I rolled down one side, my husband, the other. Poor guy can't meet summer without waxing poetic about farm stands and "real corn." I have the same longings for tomatoes and freestone peaches. With any good partnership, though, we have learned to cross the divide. OK, to be honest, mostly he has learned to cross the divide. Good thing he likes my cooking!

There is one food, though, that my husband was methodical about breaking into our diet, bratwurst. I had never had a bratwurst until we met. And, for the first, oh, 9 years of our relationship, didn't think too highly of them. Yet, every barbecue, birthday party, Fourth of July and multiple times in between he would request bratwurst. I am pretty sure that if you have been to our house in the last 10 years, you have eaten bratwurst nearly every time.
"People love bratwurst" he would say.
"I don't like bratwurst. Let's have polish sausage!" I would plead, but somehow he would always win.
He would make excuses, "These are bad bratwurst. If they were good brats you would love them." I didn't believe him.

Then, a couple years ago, Cooks Country (a division of Cooks Illustrated) had a recipe for The Best Grilled Bratwurst. Now this was something I had to try! They call it a recipe, but really it is a procedure, one that needs maps and a flow chart. This is lick-your-plate worth it! The result is gooey, slightly bitter, slightly sweet, messy goodness. The simple brat is raised to pass-the-polish-sausage status! Yes, Dad, it is possible.

Of course, when we gave up quadruped eating, brats became guilt-ridden. Turkey brats were eaten, but not really enjoyed. Luckily our brand new Sprouts carries chicken brats, which are surprisingly great. Bratwurst is back on the map! I am so excited, because summer is coming! The perfect time to have a party, grill brats and listen to my hubby complain that Texas corn sucks. Anyone want to come over?

The Best Grilled Bratwurst
6-12 bratwurst
1 onion, sliced
2 beers- anything light and cheap

cooking spray
9x13 disposable aluminum cooking tray

Slice onions and spray both sides with cooking spray. In pan, pour two beers and mustard, no need to stir.

Heat grill to high and scrape clean. Turning heat down to medium-high, place pan on one side of the grill. On the other side, grill onions lightly, flipping carefully when they have grill marks, about 4 minutes each side.

Place onions in pan and lightly grill brats. You just want to get them started, light grill marks and slight shrinkage of the casings, about 3 minutes per side. While grilling brats, adjust heat on pan side so that liquid is coming to a low simmer.

When brats are ready, place them in the pan, moving the onions aside so that the brats are in the liquid. Bring back to slow simmer and cook for about 20 minutes.
Move brats back over to grill side, and carefully grill till brown on all sides. Be careful as they may flare up! Turn up heat to high on pan side and boil onion mixture until it is a thick gravy consistency.

Recipe Notes:
You will need a gas grill to do this recipe! Don't even try it with charcoal. With enough practice, your brats and sauce will come off the grill at about the same time, but don't worry if you have to pull your brats off and cover with foil as your sauce finishes up.

The pan and onions on the grill. You can see that you don't have to stir the mustard into the beer, it gets all mixed up eventually.

The onions are in the pan, and the brats are on the grill for the first time. See the dark grill marks on the onions? You want some of that!

Everything is in the pan. These brats are pretty big! If you had Johnsonville brats, you should be able to fit two packages in there, but it will be close!

The brats are back on the flame, getting slightly brown. They are totally cooked at this point, so don't overdo it. Just give them a nice look and bite.

The sauce looks perfect!

Don't forget to lick your plate!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bran vs. Germ

Basically, I eat one of four things for breakfast; whole wheat toast with peanut butter, 2 eggs hard-boiled, steel cut oatmeal or Kashi Autumn Wheat cereal. That and coffee, lots of coffee. Except for the weekends, when we make big breakfasts like blueberry pancakes or french toast, it is same-o same-o. Quite frankly, I am bored with breakfast!

The other day I was browsing around Eating Well, trying to find new and different breakfast goodies. I found this recipe for Banana-Bran Muffins that looked easy and yummy! Bran is good for you, and who doesn't need a bit more fiber in their life, right? I didn't notice, however, until most of the ingredients were in the bowl that I had accidentally bought Wheat Germ instead of Wheat Bran. I'm not scared. I just dump it in, put chocolate chips in half for the kids and pop them in the oven.

Yummy! Super Yummy!

I had to wonder, though, how my shopping blunder changed not just the character of the muffin, but the nutritional information. Admitting up front that simple math is not one of my talents, here is what I figure:

One muffin made with Bran: 196 calories; 6 g fat (1 g sat, 3 g mono); 36 mg cholesterol; 32 g carbohydrates; 5 g protein; 4 g fiber; 182 mg sodium; 167 mg potassium.

One muffin made with Germ: 220 calories; 7 g fat (1.5 g sat, 3 g mono); 36 mg cholesterol; 34 g carbohydrates; 6.5 g protein; 3 g fiber; 183 mg sodium; 195 mg potassium.

There you have it. The germ trades fiber for more calories, fat and protein. I am surprised how little they changed, though. Aren't you?

As to their muffin character, I am going to put one of these yummy muffins in the freezer and when I buy bran I will remake the recipe and compare. I don't want to jump to any conclusions, but as a good scientist I do have a hypothesis. I suspect that they are going to be just a little less yummy.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

They had me at NASA

I am a sucker for all things NASA. I was 10 years old when the first space shuttle launched and landed. Part fear, part exhilaration, I remember watching with anticipation equal to an American Idol Finale. I was totally awed by something so huge going so high, so fast. I dreamed about being an astronaut. Then we took a family trip to the National Air and Space Museum.

Have you ever tasted astronaut food? In some sort of cosmic foreshadowing, it was freeze-dried ice cream bought in the gift shop that turned me off to space travel. It is gross. Not creamy, not cold. What is the point? Beef Stroganoff? Barf. Instant career downgrade. Until they get that food thing figured out, of course.

This January I was checking out the food blog, Fridge Magnet, when Lindsey Nair did a little write up on the new book 10 Things You Need to Eat by Dave Lieberman. She spoils the fun,
Let's get your biggest question out of the way right now: The 10 foods are tomatoes, avocados, beets, spinach, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah), lentils, cabbage, nuts, berries and "super fish," or certain varieties of highly nutritious fish.

Here's me: check, check, yuck, check, quinoa? Never heard of it. Thanks to Wikipedia, though, I learned,
Quinoa was of great nutritional importance in pre-Columbian Andean civilizations, being secondary only to the potato, and was followed in importance by maize. In contemporary times, this crop has become highly appreciated for its nutritional value, as its protein content is very high (12%–18%), making it a healthy choice for vegetarians and vegans. Unlike wheat or rice (which are low in lysine), quinoa contains a balanced set of essential amino acids for humans, making it an unusually complete protein source.[4] It is a good source of dietary fiber and phosphorus and is high in magnesium and iron. Quinoa is gluten-free and considered easy to digest. Because of all these characteristics, quinoa is being considered a possible crop in NASA's Controlled Ecological Life Support System for long-duration manned spaceflights.

Yep, you read that right, NASA! Ohhhhhhh. Flashbacks to freeze-dried ice-cream, I didn't know whether to be disgusted or intrigued. NASA did have a big win with Swedish Space Foam, maybe they have the food-thing figured out? I chose 'cautiously interested' and bought a box.

Dear NASA, Love the Quinoa. Can I have a job? Thanks, Heather

As far as side dishes go, I love brown rice, but I only have one oven and sometimes the hour it takes to cook isn’t practical. Admittedly, this sometimes pleases me. I love white rice. I’m a white rice snob, really. Grew up on rice cooker short-grain sticky sushi rice and have to fight slathering cups of it with butter and sucking it down. Yum.

Quinoa is a fabulous alternative. Looks and tastes like couscous, more nutritionally sound than white rice and just as easy to make on the stove top or rice cooker. And I don’t feel the need to slather it with butter. Quinoa is my new favorite grain (that is really a seed… whatever). But don’t trust me, trust NASA!

Black Bean and Tomato Quinoa was the first quinoa recipe I tried, and loved. It shouldn't come as a surprise, as I use a lot of black beans, cilantro and tomatoes in my cooking. I found the recipe on, but the cooking method they instruct has WAY too many steps. I followed their directions the first time and made the quinoa the easy way every time since then. I don’t think it hurts the integrity of the recipe in the least!

Black Bean and Tomato Quinoa
*serves 4 as side dish

2 teaspoons grated lime zest
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup quinoa
1 (14- to 15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
2 medium tomatoes, diced
4 scallions, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Whisk together lime zest and juice, butter, oil, sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4teaspoon pepper in a small bowl.

In a saucepan, bring Quinoa and 2 cups water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook, covered for 15 minutes. Do not stir or take lid off. After 15 minutes, remove pot from heat and let sit for 10 minutes without removing lid.

While quinoa cooks, dice tomatoes, green onions and cilantro. Rinse and drain black beans.

Combine quinoa with dressing and veggies, fluffing gently. Serve hot or cold.

Recipe Notes:
You will read about having to rinse quinoa before cooking, but all the quinoa I have bought has been pre-rinsed. In Austin, find quinoa in the open bins at Whole Foods and Sprouts (which makes it easy to just buy a cup to try!). Also, Costco has a 4lb bag right now for $9.99.

You can make the quinoa plain, use chicken broth, toast the kernels a little before adding the water, even brown up a little onion before adding the water and quinoa to the pot. Get creative!!

On my stove (with heat marks 1 through 10), I heat the water to a boil on 7 and then turn it down to 4 for the simmer. I can still hear it simmering in the pot, but not loudly, and certainly not forcefully enough to jiggle the lid.

You will know the quinoa is done when the grains have turned slightly opaque and the little germ tail has uncoiled. Kind of like a natural pop-up red thing on a Butterball Turkey! Can you see it here?

Just mix it all together and serve. This time I didn't add the black beans, as I had run out. Fabulous with or without!

Friday, March 12, 2010


I never meant to be "crunchy." You know, as in granola. I had a friend in grade school who had "crunchy" parents. Her mom sent her to school with natural peanut butter sandwiches and carob-chip cookies. As a kid I could think of nothing worse than carob. You know that it doesn't really taste like chocolate, right? I still think it is a cruel trick.

Fast forward 30 years. Here I sit under my Energy-Star roof, eating organic, driving a Prius and making most of my kid's snacks. Um, hello crunchy!

So it should not have come as a surprise one day last summer when my hubby, freshly sweaty after his evening bike-commute home from work (crunch, crunch) announced that he didn't want to eat beef and pork any more. Nothing on four legs. He had articles and statistics, but mostly he had a renewed passion for the environment. I respect passion and love a culinary challenge. Game on.

This is the point in the story where the rubber meets the road, swerving gracefully around bacon and cheeseburgers.

What I thought would be an easy no-four-legged destination has really been a complex culinary adventure. I initially struggled to find new and interesting recipes that the family loved. There were notable bad substitutions and an epic lost battle with Mahi-Mahi. Ground turkey has been used in ways never imagined. My beloved Cooks Illustrated subscription has been traded in for Eating Well and the Asian chapters of Cooks Illustrated International Recipes. Soy sauce has become the condiment of choice.

Almost a year latter we are pretty good about not eating beef or pork at home, with the obvious exception of bacon (more on that later). Sometimes I still pine for family favorites. Not for the meat per se, but for the comfort and memories. There is the occasional cheeseburger out, which tastes Mighty Fine if you haven't had one in a long time, but always ends up sending my guts into a tail spin.

We have achieved an equilibrium of fish and fowl, dabbling in the vegetarian, and it feels good. Not just health-wise, which is important, but for a passionately small impact on the environment. Crunchy!

Stovetop Cassoulet is a wonderful dish for winter and low-hanging fruit in our four-legged aversion. Maybe not the easiest as it takes some initial chopping and browning attention, but completely worth it! I soundlessly tore the recipe out of a Southern Living in the Pediatrician's office and have made a couple changes over the years. The recipe called for smoked pork sausage. I now use smoked turkey sausage, making it four-legged free! Easy peasey!

Stovetop Cassoulet
* feeds 4 with lots of leftovers

1 lbs Smoked Turkey Sausage, cut into 1/2 inch rounds
3 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized chunks
1 large onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 15oz can diced tomatoes, undrained
1 bay leaf
1 tsp thyme
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
2 16oz cans of great Northern Beans, undrained

Brown sausage in a large skillet or Dutch Oven over medium high heat until brown on both sides. Remove with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

In the same pot, Saute the chicken in any sausage drippings until brown on all sides, 8-10 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

In the same pot, Saute the onion, bell pepper and garlic for 5-6 minutes until tender, but not brown.

Stir in chicken, sausage and everything else. Bring to boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat and simmer 15-20 minutes until sauce is slightly thick and the cassoulet has a stew consistency. Remove and discard bay leaf.

Recipe Notes:
I used to make this recipe in my BIG skillet, but it is non-stick and I have been trying to wean myself off of non-stick, thus the Dutch Oven. I think that it works well in both, but you need to cook it a bit longer with the dutch oven because the heat surface area is smaller.

Wow, you say! That is WAY more than one clove of garlic. Well, yeah. I REALLY like this recipe and want to eat it for leftovers more than once, so I stretch the meat out a bit. I use 3 cloves of garlic, 3 peppers total, 1 can of tomatoes roughly drained and one not drained, and 3 cans of beans, roughly draining one. Increase the Thyme to 1 1/2 tsp and add another bay leaf. Ta Da! Now you have enough for an army and much less meat per person. Consider it!

Here are my ingredients and my bad cat on the counter. No, I didn't let her lick the chicken even though she begged. You don't use chicken broth in this recipe. I don't know how it got on the counter. Maybe it was the cat!

The sausage in my dutch oven, browning up.

Sausage out, chicken in.

Chicken out, veggies in. Hope you enjoy the recipe.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Pink Chicken

My sister Kimbo is a great mom. Her oldest daughter is 2 years older than my son, which makes her parenting advice uncannily accurate. If Kimbo didn't live half a country away, I would be over at her house every day for coffee. She is that good.

'Pink Chicken' was Kimbo's brain child. You see, like many, her kids balked at eating fish. You have to admit, it is a hard sell. It has a strange texture, can be strong tasting... it is not really a meat, nor is it pasta. Her kids, however, did love chicken and being self-respecting girls, loved pink. So, the next time that Kimbo served Salmon she called it 'Pink Chicken.' Some call this lying. I say skilled culinary survival tactics. She should have gotten a Congressional medal.

If you are a Mom, you know how this goes. Sometimes the barrier to entry on a new food (especially one that resembles a family pet) is overwhelming. You know they should be eating it, you know it is well prepared. But still, the name alone can be a lot to overcome. Cue the whole two-bites thing, and the it-wont-kill-you thing and the ever popular no-dessert-until-you-eat-it thing. The whole time you are wondering why you bothered.

'Pink chicken' worked for Kimbo. 'Pink Chicken' and hearty condiment-ation (is that a word?) worked for me, too. Maybe it will work for you, too. Thank Kimbo.

This recipe is a shameless replica of one from Hula Hut here in Austin. It is amazingly tasty, easy and fast to make, and a breeze to deconstruct for picky kids. I make the salmon on the grill, partly because I live in Austin and can grill year around, and partly because I don't have a hood over my stove (don't ask) and fish stinks up my house. I am sure you could pan-fry or bake the fish inside if you choose.

Chili Rubbed Salmon Tacos
*feeds 2 adults and 2 children

1.25 lbs salmon, preferably Alaskan wild
2 tsp Chili Powder
1 tsp Cajun Seasoning
Olive Oil
Heavy duty Foil

10 tortillas
1 cup diced Tomatoes
4 leaves romaine lettuce, sliced slim
1/4 bunch cilantro, cleaned and dried
10-12 mini-Carrots, cut into match sticks

1 cup light sour cream
1/2 packet ranch dressing mix
Juice of 1 lime

In food processor or mini-chop, whirl chipotle pepper and lime juice until thin. Add ranch mix and sour cream and whirl until smooth. Refrigerate to thicken.

Dice lettuce and tomatoes. Clean and separate cilantro and sliver carrots.

Heat grill on High. Make a tray out of a large sheet of foil by folding a it in half and bending up sides. Combine Chili Powder and Cajun Spice in finger bowl. Coat bottom of foil with a thin layer of olive oil. Dry fish with paper towels (if you are making this for kids, separate out a portion and season with salt and pepper only). If your Salmon has skin on one side, season the naked side only and place spice-side down on foil. If your Salmon doesn't have skin, cut it into strips and season all sides.

Place foil directly on grill, lower heat to a notch below high and close top. When the fish is nicely browned (3-5 minutes) use tongs or spatula to turn over. Grill for 3-5 minutes more until firm and opaque. On heated tortillas, place fish, sauce and veggies. Serve with Black beans.

Recipe Notes:
Canned Chipotle Peppers in Adobo Sauce add great color and spice to a lot of Tex-Mex food. The problem is that recipes usually call for one or two, wasting the rest of the can. I place the remainder in a freezer Ziploc, spreading out the peppers separate and freezing flat. When I need one for this recipe, I just pop it out of the bag and whirl it frozen in the mini-chop, seeds and all!

This is my foil pan with my seasoned Salmon strips on the grill. The piece on the left is the one for the kids with only salt and pepper. Cutting the salmon into strips before grilling makes them easier to turn and judge doneness. However, if this piece had skin then I would keep it large and turn it all as one piece. The skin side usually sticks to the foil, making it easy to peel the fish off the skin in pieces to serve.

Monday, March 1, 2010

More S'more

This weekend, spurred on by the first Mountain Bike race of the season and a couple days of sunny weather, we took the kids out to Buescher State Park for a cool 2-night camping trip.

When it comes to camping food, I fall back on my parent's rally call, "It's not were you go, it is what you eat when you get there!" Like some strange Pavlovian response, you say camping and I say Corn Pops. Nostalgia takes over and all hope for healthy eating goes entirely out the window. Food stuff that I never buy for us to eat at home appears in my cart and I think "oh yes, that sounds gooood!" Some would say it is the fresh air and exercise. All I know is that out there, under the stars and the moon, with the smell of ripe cedar popping in a campfire, all things taste good.

We had hot dogs and jalapeno sausages, Pringles, butter cookies from a package, Jiffy-Pop and roasted marshmallows. That was just the first night. The next morning there was bacon (BACON!) wrapped in tortillas with eggs, cheese, potatoes and green Tabasco. We ate salami and Boursin on Triscuits, Tuna sandwiches with American slices and snack-pac pickles. The kids had hot chocolate with marshmallows, cereal with marshmallows and roasted marshmallow s'mores, twice. I even bought Goldfish.

Maybe I am not the first well-meaning parent to fall prey to the lure of bad food under the stars. Was the western diet born out of our wagon-train history? Can I blame Manifest Destiny for falling 'off the wagon' this weekend? That would be strangely comforting.

We have another camping trip planned next month and I vow to try harder. I will not let eating outside become eating badly. I will make GORP and other healthy snacks. We will eat fresh vegetables and s'mores and we will be happy!