26 May 2009

Morning Treat

The cereal aisle of the grocery store was always a treat when I was kid. If we were really lucky, my sister and I each got to pick our own box. I remember really liking Smurf Berry Crunch, which must have been OK with Mom. But she did have her rules. Anything with marshmallows was out, along with anything else that was clearly dessert material masquerading in a bright colorful box with cartoon characters (although I do remember my sister going through quite the Cookie Crisp phase).

Whatever the case, I seemed to take a liking to these rules. To this day, if it is before 10 a.m. I can easily resist cookies, brownies, chocolate, Coke and the like. These were treats that were clearly not meant for the morning hour. That's why it feels a bit sinful to indulge in something studded with chocolate chips for breakfast.

Despite the rules, I made a dozen Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins for a few friends over the weekend. Both the kids and the grown ups ran around the back yard with a muffin in hand. That was really I all I needed to know, but when I returned to the kitchen after the house was quiet again, I saw only one lone muffin sitting on the platter. And it wasn't long before that one was gone, too.

Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins
Adapted from a Boston Cooking School Cookbook muffin recipe

2 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup melted butter
1/2 cup chocolate chips
1 medium over-ripe banana, mashed well

Combine first four ingredients in a bowl. In another bowl, mix eggs, yogurt, butter and banana. Combine wet and dry ingredients and mix just until moistened. Fold in chocolate chips. Spoon batter into prepared muffin tins (greased or lined with paper cups). Bake at 400 degrees for approximately 15 minutes or until a toothpick insert comes out clean and tops are slightly golden. Let cool in tins for 10 minutes and then remove to continue cooling.

22 May 2009

Sweet-Tart Memory

When Seth and I moved in together, I worked days and he worked the swing shift. That left breakfast as our only option for a meal together. Eight years later, we still sit down for breakfast together every day, something that we've grown to cherish.

In those early days, Seth wasn't into fruit, but I began making a fruit salad daily that consisted of sliced bananas, apples, pears, berries or whatever else we had on hand. I'd toss in a handful of nuts, a pinch of cinnamon and a drizzle of honey if the fruit wasn't sweet enough. Fruit is now an everyday routine. Today we usually just slice a pear or apple and have that with our morning meal. Every once in a while I buy grapefruit, and even though we're not exactly in the thick of grapefruit season, I rationalize it by knowing there is no grapefruit season period in the Northwest.

I like mine simple: halved and sprinkled with sugar. Of course I run knife around the edge, so the fruit segments will give with just a little help from a grapefruit spoon. My favorite part is the end when I get to squeeze the remaining juice into the spoon and gulp it down.

As a kid, I thought grapefruits were just something old people ate. My grandparents Mom and Pop had them regularly for breakfast, just the way I described with a sprinkle of sugar. We seldom ate them at my house growing up, and I'm not really sure what turned me on to them as an adult, but I love them. A ripe grapefruit with its sweet-tart taste is hard to beat. The best part, though, is that with one bite, I taste the memory of sitting at the bar in Mom's kitchen eating a microwave-cooked egg that my grandfather probably told me came from an elephant.

Grapefruits aren't just for old people, but I doubt I would have recognized how sweet they could be until I got a little old myself.

20 May 2009

Broiler Bread

The broiler might just be one of the most underutilized kitchen tools. It's simple, everyone's got one and it's usually mess-free, which is a bonus in my kitchen.

And it's the broiler that saves me a lot of nights. I love to have bread with salads, pastas, soups and the like. But a loaf of fresh bread won't stay fresh long, and since I don't shop daily, by the end of the week I'm staring at a lone loaf of sandwich bread. That's OK, though. When that happens, I use a trick my mom did when I was growing up. It's easy: sandwich bread + butter + parm + a quick trip under the broiler.

I've updated the version, opting for fresh cheese instead of the kind in the green can, and I sub olive oil for butter. And when I really want to class it up I trim the crusts and cut the bread into triangles or long, thin rectangles. I like to top mine with red pepper flakes, but the possibilities are endless with this easy bread. Fresh chopped tomatoes, thinly sliced apple, chopped herbs or whatever else you've got in the kitchen.

And since this bread is of the economical variety, don't over spend on one of those tubs of shredded parm. Buy a large chunk, cut it into pieces the size a large eraser and pop it in the food processor (this probably works best in a good-quality food processor). It will make an alarming clank at first, but give it a second and it will begin to hum. Whiz until it's finely chopped. Store in an air tight container in the fridge for a few weeks.

One last tip: Don't walk away from the oven. Watch it. This bread cooks in literally a minute or two. Pull it out when it starts to brown and the cheese is melting.

Here's the how-to.

19 May 2009

When is asparagus season over?

This is what Seth is asking now. I told him that soon it will disappear from the markets and we won't see it again for a year. That should give him plenty of time to forget the platefuls I've served this month. However, I've got about a pound of it still sitting in the fridge, though, so, honey, it ain't over yet.

Thank you to everyone who gave me feedback on the changes to the blog last week. I'm still tinkering to find the right mix of a quick-hit post as well as enough explanation so that you can make it yourself. This is hard for me. Seriously. Often, I would rather look at a picture of a dish and then just try to recreate it on a whim. But I am trying very hard to remember my brain may be the one out of alignment here. I'll try to offer up a few tips and steps, but they may not always amount to a full recipe. If you have questions, you're more than welcome to ask. I'll respond to comments, emails, Facebook or even the old telephone.

Back to asparagus. Again. This weekend we went to a potluck at my cousin's farm where he divided sidedish and dessert duties by the first letter of your last name. A-M got a side, and N-Z were assigned a dessert. P for Prince would mean dessert. M for McFall would mean a side. I fell to the sweet side and decided to make a flourless chocolate cake since the hostess is a gluten-free gal. In a bit of a hurry, I wasn't a slave to the recipe, and that's where it went awry. Needless to say, the cake was in no shape for a potluck table. Even if I pulled a McFall and asked "Who in the hell brought the uncooked chocolate mess?"

So, I pulled another McFall and decided to think quick, pretending that my mistake was planned all along -- it was all a ploy to get back to asparagus. I do have two last names, and it would be easy to claim the M. We hit up the farmer's market where I bought two huge bundles for my dish. I trimmed the ends and, working in batches, gave them a few quick tosses in a hot skillet with olive oil and salt. Then I transferred them to a sheet tray to cool while I worked on the next batch. The total cooking time was no more than 10 minutes for the entire batch (only about two minutes a batch). When I was done with the asparagus, I toasted a handful of pine nuts in the same skillet. The results were delicious, salty, still crispy spears. When I went to pick up my tray at the end of the evening there were only a couple of lonely spears and scattered nuts. I guess not everyone is sick of asparagus just yet.

Tip: Asparagus will keep longer if you give it a little drink. The bundled spears will stay upright if you keep the rubber band on. You can use just about any dish, but I like to use old yogurt containers. Just put about an inch of water in the bottom and add the asparagus. You'll probably want to change the water in a day or two if you haven't used them by then.

How to buy: Look for bright green bundles that are firm and not limp. The tips should be closed tightly. The size of asparagus does not matter greatly, but the smaller are more tender. If you plan on grilling, the larger ones are great.

Season: Now! Asparagus is a spring crop. If you're buying it in any other season it's probably not from this country. If you want it out of season, look for frozen. The canned variety does no justice to this vegetable.

18 May 2009

Beyond Guacamole

Baby food has a way of curling an adult's lip. It leaves you thinking that oatmeal should never have the same color and texture as turkey and rice. And rightly so. But, as babies do, they'll eat some, showing little discretion, and paint the kitchen with the rest.

I hadn't thought of sharing Jasper's food with you until Seth encouraged it. For the past few months we've had fun exploring tastes and textures with our little guy. I've been making his food, except a few generic Cheerios that I buy in bulk. I whiz peas, steamed squash, steamed broccoli and the like in the food processor and freeze portions in my silicone muffin pan. And even though this isn't too much trouble, sometimes I need a 30-second meal for the little guy. OK, I need quick meals a lot, not just on a rare occasion.

That's when I make a Avocado Banana Mash. No cooking. Travels well. Only a fork is required. And before you curl up your lip, take a taste. It's delicious. And it even looks like avocado and banana mashed together to boot!

Before I run off taking credit for this tasty combination, I have tell you that a good chunk of the world has been eating it for quite some time. In several Asian countries, vendors sell avocado smoothies, a combination of avocado and yogurt whizzed in the blender. And when we visited Morocco, I first saw someone making them on the tiny alleys of Chefchaouen. I'd never heard of it, and my friend Abdul had to explain it to me twice. Seeing as if avocados are the one food I'd take with me to a deserted island, I couldn't wait to try one. The ones we sampled in Africa had banana in them as well with a touch of honey.

So maybe it's time to think beyond guacamole. A ripe avocado isn't just for condiments or dips. It can just as easily be the star of the show.

Tip: Avocados are ripe when the skin is dark but the fruit is still slightly firm and the stem pops of with only the slightest of pressure. Avocado browns quickly once cut. Acid such as citrus juice or vinegar slows the process. These dishes, especially the mash, will brown quickly, but it does not alter the flavor. To save the remaining avocado, wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate.

Avocado Banana Mash
1/4 of a large, ripe banana
1/4 of a medium, ripe avocado

With the back of a fork, mash together banana and avocado until desired consistency is reached.

Avocado Banana Smoothie
1/2 of a large, ripe banana
1/2 of a medium, ripe avocado
3/4 cup of plain yogurt (low fat or non fat is OK)

Toss the ingredients in the blender and whiz them together. Taste. Adjust to your liking by adding more banana to make it sweeter or more avocado to make it more savory. If you take it even sweeter, add a drizzle of honey.

15 May 2009

Brown Bag

Egg Salad Sandwich

Lunch Date: The perfect brown bag sandwich. Thanks to some neighborhood chickens, and their generous owners who share, we have been eating lots of eggs this week. I make my egg salad with a little bit of dried dill and S&P and pair it with some fresh arugula.

14 May 2009

Pizza Party

Asparagus, Pine Nut & Chevre Pizza

Yep: I really do have asparagus every day. This is a super simple dish that was great. It looks like we dined light, but I also made a sausage pizza! We ate pizza, drank a beer and watched "Lost." Good night. Click here for the dough recipe.

13 May 2009

Springtime Grillin'

Grilled Lamb Chops alongside Green Salad with sauteed mushrooms, pine nuts and Chevre & Grilled Veggies

More: Marinated the lamb in white wine and grainy mustard; served medium. The warm mushrooms and toasted pine nuts were yummy with the goat cheese. Yes, asparagus is served daily at my house in May!

12 May 2009

A New Treat

Today I'm adding something new to The Dinner Hour. In addition to my regular Monday posts, I will also add quick takes on recent meals throughout the week. Often, these will simply include a photo and simple explanation. I'm curious to know how you like it, so please speak up. It's easy to leave a comment just below each post. Thanks for keeping up with The Dinner Hour. Cheers, Amy

Grilled Chicken Tacos, Pantry Slaw and Grilled Asparagus

Tip: Use chicken thighs. They're cheaper and are very forgiving on the grill compared to breasts because the additional fat keeps them moist and delicious.

11 May 2009

A Dish on the Fly

In college, I waited tables at a Chili's. I'd come home to my apartment with aching feet, a grease-stained shirt and hair that smelled like burgers and fries. Despite all of that, I really liked my job. I loved being part of something that until then, seemed so secretive to me. I'd never been in a restaurant kitchen. I'd eaten at restaurant, but never known just how it all came together. One of the things I loved about my job was learning all the lingo. Understanding it all made me feel like part of the club.

"On the fly" is restaurant speak for pronto. It's a phrase that's good to know, but one you hope you don't have to use much. It makes you very unpopular. As a server, it's hard to say it to a cook and not make it sound like marching orders. Of course, I was usually using it because I forgot to add something to my ticket -- like when you send in an entire order and forget your table ordered an appetizer until you see their entrees sitting in the window. If it was a simple green salad, the cooks might give you only a minimal amount of crap. If it was something fried that simply had to spend six minutes in the bubbling oil, and the fry cook was already backed up because customers can't get enough of those Chicken Crispers, you'd be lucky if the cooks (who were typically men) weren't making sexist, blonde jokes every time you passed by. For the rest of your waitressing career.

Thankfully now, I only have myself to tick off when I don't catch something early. Like last week when I discovered at the last minute that an event I was going to was a potluck. Scrambling, I did a mental inventory of my pantry. It seemed everything I had on hand would give me a mere two servings or so.

I settled on a bag of pasta and some frozen peas.

The result was tasty and, thankfully, easy. I've been making a version of this for quite some time, just altering it slightly based on whatever I've got in the kitchen. It's simple, and, frankly, doesn't require a recipe. I'll tell you how I made this one, but don't feel obligated to duplicate. I added avocado because I thought it would make the color a beautiful green, which it was, even if only slightly once it mingled with the pasta.

I made the same salad recently without the avocado, added shredded carrots and diced red bell pepper. Sometimes I even add tuna to make it more of a meal. That said, I dutifully ate the remainder of this salad for lunch straight from the bowl while standing over the sink. The best part about this recipe, is that it comes straight from staples you can have on hand at any time. And you never know when you'll slip up and forget, or, even better, when you'll have an impromptu invitation. Now you don't have to show up empty handed.

Green Pasta Salad

1/2 cup mayo
1 small avocado
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar (or lemon juice)
1 small bunch of flat leaf parsley
1 pound of small pasta such as shells
3 cups (roughly) frozen peas, thawed
Salt and Pepper

Cook pasta until al dente. Drain, rinse to cool and drain again. Toss pasta in a light drizzle of oil and set aside. Process first four ingredients in a food processor, reserving a small portion of parsley for garnish. Combine pasta, with mayo dressing and peas. Add chopped parsley on top for garnish. Cover and chill until ready to serve.

Note: If you don't add avocado, you don't need the vinegar or lemon juice, which is just added to help the avocado keep its color.

04 May 2009

Spring's Reminder

Sometimes it's something as simple as a 1980s pop song you remember choreographing a dance to at a grade-school sleepover. Like listening to Paula Abdul's "Opposites Attract" while a friend and I made up steps and laughed the night away. The song is insignificant. The real memory is being a kid with my best friend, having fun. The song is just the connection. The mere mention of it, and I'm immediately transported to her living room, covered with sleeping bags and the cassette in the boom box.

Sometimes those triggers make you smile at the past. Others pull a sad memory from somewhere deep, like the broccoli and rice casserole my mom made when my best friend's brother died. And still others make us giddy at the thought of what's to come.

That's where asparagus lives in my mind. Just when I think that I'll never again feel the green grass under my toes while the sun warms my feet because the gray, the rain and the chilly mornings just won't give way to clear blue skies, asparagus appears at the farmers' market. Its brilliant green stalks are a beacon of summer amid pears and apples that are past their prime.

Asparagus means that the seasons are changing, and summer, my favorite season, will indeed show its sunny face again if we just hang on a few more weeks.

Now, I think that asparagus is quite beautiful just standing there in tidy bundles, upright and sitting in a shallow pool of water to keep hydrated. Some stalks thick as thumbs and others skinny as dandelions, all with bushy spears that yield to the most tender of touches.

Asparagus is also the perfect way to get re-acquainted with the bounty that is about to surface. When you get fresh, beautiful fruits and veggies, they really don't need much coaxing to make you fall in love.

Yes, you could blanch your asparagus and wrap them in prosciutto if you want to impress your neighbors. But if you just want a delicious treat, think simple. In fact, you could prepare this veggie blindfolded. Seriously, you don't need a knife. Just trim them by holding one end of a stalk in each hand and bend. Once it breaks, toss the thick end that was cut from the ground and use the remaining, tender end for eating.

Then, just toss the asparagus in some olive oil, salt and pepper. I like to use a glass baking dish for this because the nice flat bottom makes a great place to roll them in the oil. Then just apply a little heat. I like the grill, but you can also pop them in a medium-hot oven for a few minutes. Asparagus is best if it's not overcooked, but cooked just enough to bring out its natural sweetness and still maintain the slightest bite.

Serve 'em hot or room temp. Add a squeeze of lemon juice if you like. Often times, we eat ours right as we pull them off the grill.

However you enjoy them, do it quick. Summer will be here soon and asparagus season will disappear again until next spring. The good news, though, is that we'll have the sun to warm our spirits.