Friday, May 29, 2009

Banana Bread 3.0

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Have Flour, Will Travel...

For some us the only way to "homemade" baked goods is through the Jiffy Muffin box. Like an all-inclusive resort vacation, Jiffy takes most of the work out of the experience. Everything is already taken care of and all you have to do is show up and add some water. A recipe provides more of a challenge in that you have to know how to follow steps, but at least someone has provided the directions-- kind of like coordinating your hotel, rental car and two tickets to "Cirque du Soleil" on a travel website. Follow the steps in the right order and you'll most likely be pleased with the results. I have always relied on recipes when it comes to baking, but always with the nagging feeling that I was missing out on something. Was I destined to go through life shackled to a little blue and white box or a recipe that someone else wrote? Would baking be an art that would forever be a mystery?

Well, it turns out that you don't have to go to pastry school to learn how to create your own baked goodies. Instead, you can do what I did and buy the book "Ratio" by Michael Ruhlman. In his book, Mr. Ruhlman shares the science behind cooking with the goal of empowering his reader to throw away their recipe binders. Instead of recipes he shares basic ratios that he claims will lead to more inspired cooking. I compare a ratio to the classic road trip-- you gather your gear, get in the car and start driving to "destination unknown". The only plan is no plan and the goal is to openly accept any and all experiences that come to you, good or bad.

Prior to buying this book I had already started to break free from recipes, but only in savory cooking. After watching hours of Food Network and multiple seasons of Top Chef I have picked up a few techniques. Knowing some techniques and having a knowledge of what ingredients go well together is enough to put together a decent meal. Baking, on the other hand, sucks away all of my confidence and always sends me running for a recipe (or the Jiffy box). So, needless to say, as soon as I got "Ratio" in my hands I turned right to the baking chapters.

In my first baking attempt, recipe free, I followed Mr. Ruhlman's ratio for quick bread to a tee just to get the basics down. It was my first time out of the gate and I wanted to take it slow. Using only milk, eggs, butter, sugar and baking powder the result actually looked and tasted the way it should, just a little on the plain side. My confidence bolstered I took the author's advice and set my sites a little higher for round two-- banana bread. Not just any banana bread, mind you, but my own personal creation. Having memorized the ratio I gathered my gear, which included flour, Grape Nuts cereal, walnuts, butter, milk, sour cream, eggs, bananas, cinnamon, salt, brown sugar and baking powder and unleashed my creative instinct. While it was in the oven my anticipation grew as I awaited the birth of this magical and inspired banana bread.

Once the timer sounded I inserted a toothpick into the bread to test for doneness and was pleased when the toothpick came out clean. Although, I did find it odd that the bread jiggled like jello in the pan. Thinking nothing of it I left it on the stove top to cool a bit before turning it out onto a rack.

Proud of what was to come I invited my husband to watch as I turned the bread out of the pan and on to the cooling rack. To my dismay, the "bread" sort of slid out onto the rack like some kind of giant amoeba-- slimy, gelatinous and, for lack of a better word, gloppy. Dan, always my greatest supporter, told me "Hey, it kind of looks like bread pudding!" And it did-- it looked like a big, disgusting piece of banana bread pudding. Not exactly the result I was going for, although it did smell good.

After some reflection I realized I had made one big mistake (an obvious mistake, I realize now). I had forgotten to keep it simple. When you take a road trip the point is to only go with what you need, otherwise you are over-complicating the matter, which defeats the purpose. In my first banana-bread road trip I loaded the vehicle with way too many supplies and got away from the basic ratio for success. However, because of that mistake I have a much better understanding of what makes banana bread good and how calculated creativity can take it to a new level. As with many things, third time's a charm and I'm proud to share the improved version-- minus the jiggly and amoeba-like structure. Oh, and by the way, although I think Ratio is a great book I really wish you wouldn't buy it. If you do, you will get all empowered and start writing your own recipes. You might even decide to start a blog, which would mean more competition for me and I really don't need the added pressure right now. So forget I even mentioned the book... thanks.

Banana Bread 3.0
Yield: 1 loaf

1 cup flour
1 cup walnuts
1 cup Grape Nuts cereal
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup canola oil
2 eggs
2 bananas, mashed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a loaf pan with cooking spray. Using a food processor, pulse the walnuts and cereal until fine. If you don't have a food processor you can accomplish this with a plastic zip top bag, a hammer and some aggression. In a medium bowl combine the flour, walnuts, cereal, brown sugar and baking powder. In a large bowl wisk the eggs, milk and oil together. Mix the dry ingredients to the wet ones and mix just until the batter is incorporated. Stir in the bananas. Pour into the loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour. The bread is done when an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Grilled Chicken with Pesto-Inspired Pasta Salad

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Focus, Focus, Focus...

If anyone is actually reading this blog I would first like to say thanks and, second, explain a little bit of the madness behind what I'm doing with this project. Because I am a highly impulsive person I started this blog without a lot of entries written in advance, which means that most days I am writing it in "real time". So when I write things like "the other day" and "this past weekend" I mean it literally. My goal is to have enough back-up so that I have a week's worth or more of entries on hand. Currently, I am sitting on two posts that, if I had to, could be posted at a moment's notice. Luckily, due to low demand, I am not anticipating any blogging emergencies that will require a large back-load of entries.

I also don't have a focus (if you haven't noticed). Apparently, I am breaking a blogging rule #1 which states, "First, and foremost, you must have a focus". According to my blogging handbook, lack of focus will alienate your audience leaving them confused and searching for more cohesive reading material. I guess the recipes are a focus in and of themselves, but there are millions of sites that just have recipes and nothing else. I want this to be unique to me and not just a laundry list of recipes. I thought I had found my writing "voice", but it started sounding like Giada De Laurentiis from the Food Network, which is not me at all. So now I am focusing on being more like myself, which I hope results in a blog that plays by the rules and doesn't alienate my already non-existent audience (my mother and husband, as much as I love them, don't count as an "audience").

With that said I'll move on to the recipe. Always the pesto fan, I thought it would be interesting to use all the same ingredients used in pesto, but put them together in a different way. Think of it as an unfocused pesto-- unfocused being a concept of which I have a high level of understanding. Oh, and by the way, if you are reading this do a girl a favor and leave a comment. It's lonely out here in the blog-o-sphere!

Grilled Chicken with Pesto-Inspired Pasta
Serves 4

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup olive oil, divided
Juice of 2 lemons
8 ounces whole wheat penne pasta
1 lb asparagus, ends trimmed and steamed*
1 red pepper, cut into thin strips and steamed
1 handful of basil leaves, chopped
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
3/4 cup shredded parmesean cheese

Preheat a skillet to medium and dry roast the pine nuts until they turn a light golden brown. Remove from the heat and set aside. In a small bowl wisk together 1/2 cup olive oil, juice from one lemon, the garlic, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Using a large zip top bag marinate the chicken in the lemon and olive oil mixture for 30 minutes in the refridgerator.

Bring a large pot of water, seasoned with salt, to a boil and cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside

Preheat the grill to medium. Grill the chicken for approximately 15 minutes or until the eternal temperature reads 180 degrees. While the chicken is grilling prepare the pasta dressing by wisking together the juice from one lemon, 1/2 cup olive oil, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Once combined stir in the chopped basil. In a large bowl toss the dressing with the pasta to coat. Add in the asparagus, cheese and pine nuts. Slice the chicken add to the pasta. Toss to combine and serve.

*Note: I like to steam the veggies, but only a short time so they maintain their freshness. I don't have a steamer so I use microwave steamer bags.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Chicken Salad Sandwiches

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Warm Days...

With warm weather upon us Dan has been spending most Saturdays working in our garden, appropriately named 'The Cavin Recession Garden". We had some luck last year with a mini garden that produced a fair amount of tomatoes and herbs. This year, we decided to take it a couple leaps further and pulled out a third of our backyard to make way for the new and improved garden.  It's a learning process-- I figured out early on that you can't dump a whole seed packet into one pot with the hope that one will "take". Doesn't really work that way. Dan, on the other hand, has proved to have quite a green thumb and the patience to go with it. An active participant in the beginning, I have taken more of a supporting role recently and have really enjoyed watching, and sometimes assisting, him in the garden.

So what does the garden have to do with chicken salad sandwiches? While I may not always enjoy digging in the dirt I do love to make sandwiches and this is a great one to serve during the summer. I made this version a few weeks ago, which happened to be one of the first really warm Saturdays of the year. The bacon and blue cheese give it an interesting twist that we both really enjoy.

Chicken Salad Sandwich
Serves 4

1 cup cooked chicken, diced
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/2 tablespoon flat-leaf parsely, chopped
2 strips cooked bacon, crumbled
2 tablespoons bleu cheese, crumbled
8 slices whole wheat bread
4 large lettuce leaves
8 slices tomato
1 cup alfalfa sprouts

Combine the chicken with the mayo in a medium bowl. Stir in parsely, bacon and bleu cheese. Season with a couple pinches of salt and a couple turns of the pepper mill. Stir mixture until well combined. Build the sandwiches starting with the lettuce on the bottom slice of bread. Spread 1/4 cup of the chicken salad over the lettuce. Top with two tomato slices and 1/4 cup sprouts. Cut sandwiches in half and serve.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Roasted Red Pepper & Basil Pinwheels

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A Little Competition...
I'm a highly competitive person and there aren't many things I love more than game night. However, this competitive trait is not always appreciated by others. My best friend and my own husband refuse to play Monopoly with me due to my excessive gloating when I win. So when our good friends, Jeremy and Kelly, invited us for cribbage and appetizers I was ready to accept the challenge. Because my competitive nature sometimes gets the best of me, my husband made it a point to remind me that games are supposed to be fun. I, on the other hand, made it a point to bring a fun appetizer to share. These are so simple to make I questioned calling it a "recipe", but they are so good I didn't want to leave them out! You can easily vary the ingredients and make all kinds of different pinwheels. For example, green chili and ham are a great combination to try, as well. While the pinwheels were a success our cribbage game was not. Sadly, for me at least, Dan and I did not win the game. Happily, the pinwheels were enjoyed by all. Note to Jeremy and Kelly-- we'll be looking for a rematch!
Roasted Red Pepper and Basil Pinwheels
Serves 8
4 flour tortillas
1 cup cream cheese, at room temperature
20 fresh basil leaves, rolled into a bundle and chopped
2 cups roasted red peppers, sliced into thin strips

Evenly spread the cream cheese on each tortilla (about a 1/4 cup on each tortilla). Layer the roasted red peppers and basil over the cheese. Starting at one end tightly roll each of the tortillas. Tightly wrap each roll with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. Once chilled, remove the plastic and slice each roll into 1/2" pieces and serve.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Bacon & Goat Cheese Sliders

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Rain Out...

With the onset of rainy weather this past week some of our weekend plans fell through. Friday night baseball games just aren't as fun when it's cold and rainy. After a quick regroup we invited Ryan and Rochelle over to be the first to try my goat cheese and bacon sliders. In my mind you can't go wrong with that combo, but sometimes the best ideas don't go through as planned (like the baseball). My goal was to incorporate the onion, cheese and bacon into the patty and top them with a simple herbed mayo. After some nail-biting I am happy to report that the experiment was successful (thank you to our brave friends for being the first to try them!). You can easily convert these to normal-sized burgers by combining two to three slider patties into one.

Bacon & Goat Cheese Sliders
Serves 6-8

2 lbs ground beef
6 slices bacon, cut into small pieces
1 cup red onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsely, finely chopped
4 oz goat cheese, crumbled
1 1/2 cup mayo
2 tablespoons, herbes de Provence
8 leaves butter lettuce, torn in half
16 tomato slices, sliced thin
16 dinner rolls

Combine mayo and herbes de Provence in a bowl. Cover and keep in refridgerator. Heat a cast iron skillet to medium heat and cook bacon until crispy. Transfer bacon to paper towels to soak up the excess fat. Drain all but two tablespoons of the bacon fat from the skillet. Turn the heat to medium low and add the onions and garlic. Cook until soft then transfer to a small bowl to cool.

In a large bowl combine the ground beef, bacon, onion, garlic, egg, parsely and goat cheese (be sure the cheese is crumbled into fairly small pieces). Season the meat with several pinches of salt and a few turns of the pepper mill. Form into 2-3 oz patties (approximately 3 inches in diameter). Using the same skillet, pan fry the burgers, in batches, over medium heat 3-4 minutes on each side. While the burgers are cooking slice the rolls and and spread with 1/2 tablespoon of the herbed mayo. When hamburgers are cooked transfer to the buns and top with lettuce and tomato.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Nuts & Honey Granola Bars

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Aspiring Hiker...

We have lived in New Mexico for almost 4 years and have never taken advantage of the various hiking trails around our area. It's always on the 'to-do' list, but we never seem to get to it. There's always an excuse… don't have the right shoes, it looks like it might rain, I'm tired and out of shape, there's an all-day Law & Order marathon on… this list goes on and on. Well, no more excuses! I recently told Dan that I am ready (I think) to hit the trails this summer and this time I mean it (I think). This new found commitment has created the motivation to try some recipes that will be easy to make and take with us on our adventure. Enter the granola bar-- the quintessential hiking snack. I adapted this recipe from one at and found it to be chewy, delicious and wholesome-- much better than the prepackaged granola bars you can buy at the store. Stay tuned for the outcome of our hiking adventure and, in the meantime, enjoy this recipe!

Nuts & Honey Granola Bars

Serves 12

1 cup quick-cooking oats

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

1/2 cup Grape Nuts cereal

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 egg, beaten

1/4 cup applesauce

1/4 cup honey

3 tablespoons brown sugar

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 cup creamy peanut butter

1/4 cup unsalted sunflower seeds

1/4 cup walnuts

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Prepare a 9 inch baking pan by lining it with tin foil and then spraying with cooking spray. Combine the oats, flour, cereal, and cinnamon in a medium sized bowl. Add the egg, applesauce, honey, brown sugar and oil. Stir to combine. Add the peanut butter and sunflower seeds and mix well. Press the mixture into the pan using a rubber spatula to spread evenly. Bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes or until the edges are golden brown. Cool in the pan before removing and cutting into 12 bars. Store in the refrigerator.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Chicken-Basil Baked Shells

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A Cool Down…
The weather cooled off yesterday giving me the perfect excuse to turn on the oven, something we try to avoid on days that the temperature exceeds 80 degrees. It's not so fun to eat dinner when the house is blazing hot because of the oven. So, the change in the weather gave me the opportunity to break out the jumbo pasta shells and crank up the oven. Oh, and by the way, I practiced my food stylist skills with this entry and included a picture. This, being the first food picture for this blog, is something I'm a kind of proud of-- it's amateur, I know, but I like it.
Chicken-Basil Baked Shells
Serves 4
1 lb chicken sausage with basil, casings removed *
10 oz package frozen spinach
20 jumbo pasta shells
1 small onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 & 1/2 cup jarred tomato sauce
1 & 1/3 cup mozzarella cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring a large pot to a boil and cook pasta shells according to package directions. While the pasta is cooking, defrost the frozen spinach according to package directions. Once thawed, allow to cool before wrapping the spinach in a clean kitchen towel to wring out the excess water. Once drained set aside. When the pasta is cooked, drain and set aside (you may want to separate the shells on a sheet pan so they don't stick together).
Heat the olive oil in a large pan to medium heat. Add the garlic and onion, stirring frequently, until soft. Add the sausage and, using a spatula, break it up into small pieces until it is cooked through. Stir in the spinach and remove from the heat. Season with a couple pinches of salt and a few turns of the pepper grinder. Stir in 1 cup mozzarella cheese.
Spread 1/2 cup of tomato sauce in the bottom of a 9 x13 baking dish. Fill each shell with one heaping tablespoon of the chicken sausage filling and place in the baking dish. Once all shells are filled pour 1 cup of the tomato sauce evenly over the shells. Sprinkle with 1/3 cup mozzarella cheese. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes, or until bubbly.
*Note: If you aren't as lucky as me and can't find chicken sausage with the basil already in it, just substitute turkey sausage and mix in fresh basil.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Grilled Salmon with Thyme Cream Sauce

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Sunday Night Reservation...
Dan and I, like a lot of people we know, have really cut back on eating out and look for ways to create a restaurant experience at home. This past Sunday, after a quick trip to the butcher, we created our own backyard bistro. Rib-eye steak and salmon made up the menu along with a simple spinach, tomato and goat cheese salad. The star of the evening was definitely the salmon-- while simple to make, the final result looked and tasted great!

Grilled Salmon with Thyme Cream Sauce
Serves 4
1 lb salmon fillet (with skin) cut into 4 even-sized pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
Juice from 1/2 a lemon
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons fresh thyme
Preheat grill to medium high. In a small bowl whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Using a brush, coat each salmon piece with the oil and lemon mixture. Grill the salmon, skin-side down, for 6-8 minutes. While the salmon is cooking, mix the sour cream with the thyme. To serve, top each salmon fillet with 2 tablespoons of the cream sauce and serve with lemon wedges on the side


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