Thursday, April 26, 2012

Chettinad Tofu

About two years ago, a couple of my friends and I started an informal cooking club, which we aptly named "Calorie Club".  The three of us would get together once a week to try out new recipes, drink wine, and talk about food.  Each week we'd alternate hosting responsibilities -- and if you were the hostess that week, you picked the menu!  Some weeks had themes, whether it was all appetizers, desserts, Julia Child cooking; other weeks were opportunities to have help cooking something we'd always wanted to try.  We made everything from fish cooked in cream, to homemade refried beans, to steak pinwheels, to blue cheese stuffed tortellini, to grilled pizzas, to chocolate desserts.  (I was a meat-eater during part of this!)  With three of us working in the kitchen, we were able to tackle a variety of dishes in a single meeting and build off of our collective kitchen strengths.  We created some amazing dishes, and along the way we encountered a few failures.  But after we finished eating, we would discuss the dishes and journal our experiences.  Every week, we learned something new.  And the Calorie Club met faithfully, once a week, until one of our founding members moved to out-state Minnesota. 

But this last weekend she was back in town, and the Calorie Club was revived for another meeting.  This time, our hostess and menu planner decided on an Indian theme.  And the two of them graciously offered to substitute tofu for the chicken in the main dish.  Love these ladies!!  The three dishes we made at Calorie Club this weekend had my mouth on fire (in a good way), and the kitchen was warm with lovely aromatics and sizzling sounds.  We all made mistakes as we went (I forgot to add a collection of spices at the right time!), but the finished meal was divine.  Acorn squash, green beans, and this chettinad recipe, made with tofu instead of chicken.  Served with basmati rice and some garlic naan, and I was in heaven.  Thanks for the great Calorie Club reunion, guys!

Chettinad Tofu
adapted from Healthy South Indian Cooking by Alamelu Vairavan
serves 4

1 package extra firm tofu, drained
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
2 tbls neutral-flavored oil
2-4 very small cinnamon sticks
1 bay leaf, crumbled
1/4 tsp whole black peppercorns (about 6)
1/4 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 cup diced onion (or about one small onion)
1/4 cup chopped tomato
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 heaping tbls fresh minced ginger
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 1/2 tsp curry powder
3/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp salt
3/4 tsp black pepper and cumin combo (1/2 black pepper 1/2 cumin)
1 cup tomato sauce

Drain your tofu and press it between towels to squeeze out the excess liquid.  You can also place it between two plates and put something heavy on top.  Once the tofu is drained, cut it into small cubes.  Then in a bowl or on a large plate, dust the tofu cubes in the flour, shaking off any excess flour. 

In a large non-stick skillet with a cover, heat the neutral-flavored oil over medium heat.  Once hot, add the tofu in a single layer and fry.  Turn the tofu cubes as needed to fry all sides.  Do this in batches if needed.  Once the tofu has fried, set aside. 

Add more oil to the pan if needed, then reheat if necessary.  Once the oil is hot, add the cinnamon sticks, crushed bay leaf, and peppercorns.  Cover the pan and heat until you hear the peppercorns pop.  Then add the fennel and cumin seeds.  Saute until the cumin seeds are browned. 
Add the onion, chopped tomato, garlic and ginger to the pan and saute for until the garlic is fragrant.  Then add your turmeric and curry powder.  Stir and continue cooking until the onions are tender.

Add the cayenne pepper, salt, and the black-pepper-cumin combination.  Stir well and let heat for a few minutes. 

Pour the tomato sauce into the skillet and stir.  Simmer for about 4-5 minutes.  Taste and adjust seasonings.  Finally, add the fried tofu back into the pan and allow the mixture to simmer for another 5 minutes so the tofu can soak up the flavors.  Find the cinnamon sticks and remove (or warn your guests).  Remove from heat and serve with basmati rice or naan.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

What is Your Earth Day Resolution?

Earth Day is the perfect opportunity to think about ways that you can change up your life to help the environment.  If everyone committed to make one small change to benefit the Earth, imagine what kind of an impact we could have!  Our environment is a precious that we should be vigilant about protecting for our future generations.  Wondering what you can do this year to help out Mother Earth?  Here are some ideas with links on how to get started.

* Start composting - either outside or indoors
* Set up a rain barrel to collect rainwater for your thirsty plants and gardens.
* Grow a small bunch of herbs instead of purchasing them in bulk at the store (and inevitably throwing away spoiled herbs). You can start a small garden even in an apartment space
* Join the Meatless Monday revolution.
* Start relying more on local produce and foods.  For local readers, here's a great resource for finding local food sources.
* Minimize your food waste by planning your week's menu in advance and shopping only for those items (and not when hungry!).

My Earth Day resolution is to minimize my food waste.  I sometimes go grocery shopping after a training run, which leads to a lot of impulse purchases that may go to waste once my head clears.  I also plan to do more shopping at my local co-op, especially for produce and herbs.  Many items at local co-ops come in bulk, so you can bag up only what you will need for the week, instead of committing yourself to huge bags of lettuce or big containers of basil.  I hope to help out the Earth by reducing waste and buying local.  And in the process, I might just help out my pocketbook.  Isn't helping the Earth fun?

How do you plan to help the Earth today?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Veggie Friendly Shepherd's Pie

I'm always looking for ways to turn some of my favorite meat dishes into vegetarian-friendly fare. Sometimes tofu is a good substitute for protein in a recipe, other times a few containers of mushrooms add a meaty consistency and complex flavor.  It all depends!  I do enjoy experimenting with recipes, but it can be frustrating when something doesn't turn out.  Mostly because that means I'm going to be hungry!  When I was asked by CBS Minnesota to come up with some vegetarian recipes for St. Patrick's Day, I jumped at the chance.  I wanted to come up with a shepherd's pie that was flavorful and meaty....a recipe where you wouldn't miss the ground beef.  I did some homework, checked out other recipes, and came up with this delicious dish.  I gave some leftovers to my parents, and even my dad, the big meat-eater in the family, loved the mushroom substitution!  That's when I knew it was a good one!  Enjoy this hearty meal any time of the year, especially now that we're experiencing chilly, rainy spring weather.

Vegetarian Shepherd's Pie
adapted from Food Network
serves two

2 medium-sized russet potatoes, peeled and in large dice
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon milk
2 tablespoons butter
8 ounces of cremini mushrooms, stemmed, wiped clean, and sliced
1/4 onion, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage
1/2 cup mushroom stock
1/4 cup red wine
1 tablespoon tomato paste

In a large pot, place the diced potatoes and cover with water. Salt the water liberally and bring to a boil. Boil the potatoes until fork tender, about 20 minutes. Once the potatoes are cooked, drain and return to the cooking pot. Add a tablespoon of butter and the milk and mash until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside (or do this during the remaining cooking).

In a large sauce pan or dutch oven, heat a tablespoon of butter until melted. Add in the mushrooms and cook until browned, stirring infrequently. About 5 minutes. Once browned, remove from pan and season with salt and pepper.

Return the pan to medium heat and add another tablespoon of butter. Add the onion, celery, and garlic, cooking until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the carrot and herbs, cooking again until softened, another 5 minutes.

Whisk together the mushroom stock, red wine, and tomato paste. Add the mixture to the vegetables in the pan to deglaze, using a spoon to scrape up the cooked bits from the bottom of the pan. Bring the liquid to a simmer and allow to cook until slightly thickened, about 2-3 minutes. Add the mushrooms back into the pan and cook until the mixture has reduced and thickened, about 8 minutes. Taste for seasonings.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. In a small baking dish, pour the vegetable mixture. Dot the top of the veggies with the mashed potatoes, using a spoon (or your hands!) to smooth the potatoes over the top of the dish, sealing the edges as best you can. Then pinch the mashed potato topping in spots to create texture, which will help the potatoes get browned and crisp. Bake for 20 minutes or until the potatoes are a bit browned.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Restaurant Ruminations :: Aida

Before moving to my apartment on Grand Avenue, I spent most of my life growing up in the small suburb of Richfield.  The city doesn't have the most glamorous of food scenes, but tucked away here and there are some restaurant gems like Vina or Sandy's Tavern -- unassuming spots with great food and a neighborhood feel.  I've watched as the Richfield food scene has slowly bumped up its game, and as my parents still live in the city, I'm always anxious to try out some of the new offerings so I can give them my reviews. 

While I was reading one of my favorite food sources, The Heavy Table, I came across a quick mention of a new Mediterranean restaurant that had opened in Richfield, Aida.  What is this?  Mediterranean cuisine in Richfield Minnesota?!  I called my mother and set up a dinner date -- I had to check out this new place immediately. 

My Richfield friends will immediately recognize this location as the old Taco Bell on 66th and Penn Avenue.  The outside of the restaurant still bears some similarities to TB, but once you walk inside Aida, it's an entirely new feeling.  The tables are gleaming, colorful lanterns hang from the ceilings, wide-screen televisions display the menu offerings and cycle through photos of the food and its regional inspiration, and you can smell the aroma of cooked, spiced lamb. 
The menu is small but enticing.  And for newbies to the Mediterranean food scene, they make it very easy for you!  You can choose a sandwich, salad, or plate.  Then you choose your meat, whether it be lamb, chicken, or falafel.  Then you get to choose your toppings and sauce.  Easy!  They also have a few house specials, dessert options, and a small kid's menu for your smaller eaters.  I knew exactly what I wanted: naan falafel sandwich, topped with feta cheese, onion, and tomato, and the cucumber yogurt sauce.

It was a very tasty falafel sandwich.  The generous serving of falafel had a delightfully fried crunch on the outside and was perfectly seasoned.  The onions and tomatoes gave the sandwich a fresh aspect, which I always enjoy.  And the cucumber yogurt sauce was thicker than I'm accustomed to, but it was very delicious and very garlicky!  I think I tasted garlic for at least an entire day after eating the sandwich.  But I love garlic, so it was delightful.  All of these flavors wrapped in a piece of soft naan bread...a welcome addition to the Richfield food scene.
chicken kebab
My mom also enjoyed her chicken kebab sandwich.  The kebab is cooked to order, so you have to wait just a bit longer for it to be prepared than the other meat-based menu items.  But my mom says that it was well worth the wait.  I didn't try it, but I trust her assessment!  In addition to the good eats, the service was rave-worthy.  It's an order-at-the-counter style restaurant, but the server/cashier walked around the restaurant, asking all of the patrons about their meals.  And the food was brought out immediately after it was prepared -- whether the server brought out the plates or the cook who had just prepared them.  It was like they just could not wait to share their food with everybody.  I loved it!

I would love to go back to Aida and try more of the menu offerings, including the desserts (!), but my preliminary assessment is very positive!  I hope that the people in the Richfield community take advantage of this new restaurant and its wonderful hospitality. 

After reading my daily emails this morning, I saw that the Heavy Table also posted their review of Aida!  I was so close to being first...this is what I get for watching Smash instead of blogging!  Read the Heavy Table review here.

Restaurant Details
2208 W. 66th Street
Richfield, MN 55423
(612) 866-5061

Monday-Saturday: 11am - 10pm
Sunday: 11am - 8pm

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Turkish Spinach & Tomatoes

While I own a sizeable library of cookbooks, I often turn to internet sources for cooking inspiration.  I follow a few blogs that regularly post delightful recipes and I love to read the Dining & Wine section of the New York Times.  It's a one-stop foodie paradise, with great recipes, food stories, etiquette tips, and links to other food news.  I was reading some of the articles the other day and found a plethora of spinach-themed recipes.  With spring in the air, I thought it was the perfect time to try out as many of these spinach recipes as I could.  And after a quick trip to the co-op, I had three large bundles of crunchy, fresh spinach.  If you can, I'd always opt for the fresh stuff instead of the containers of baby spinach.  It's so much more crisp and flavorful!
The first recipe of my spinach fest is a Turkish spinach & tomato dish with rice.  The rice makes this dish hearty and the combination of spices adds a warmth that is so soothing.  I had a few bites without the goat cheese, and it's great either way!  I just liked the added creaminess and bite that the goat cheese added.  Plus, I'll jump at any excuse to use my CSA chevre! 

Turkish Spinach & Tomatoes
adapted from New York Times
serves 2 as a main dish

1 pound fresh spinach, washed
2 tbls extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 can chopped tomatoes in their juice
2/3 cup vegetable stock
1/2 cup cooked brown rice
Juice from 1 lemon
1 1/2 tsp paprika
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 tbls fresh goat cheese

Lightly wilt the spinach by placing it in a steamer basket over 1-inch of boiling water.  Wilt the spinach in batches if needed.  Set aside in a colander over a bowl to drain.  (You can do this step in advance.)

In a large, lidded skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the minced garlic and saute for about 30 seconds.  Then add the can of diced tomatoes and cook until the tomatoes have broken down a bit, about 5 minutes. 

Add the vegetable stock, spinach, rice, lemon juice, sugar, paprika, cinnamon, and a pinch of salt to taste.  Reduce heat to low and cover, allowing the mixture to simmer for about 5 minutes.  Then uncover and continue to cook as needed until the mixture has reduced and thickened like a stew.  Mine came together almost immediately.  

Taste and adjust seasonings.  Stir in about 2 tablespoons of goat cheese.  Serve with a piece of crusty bread.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Pasta with Roasted Green Beans and Balsamic Butter Sauce

If I've learned anything during my four+ years of marathon training, it's that motivation may not always come to you the morning of a long run.  Once or twice a training season, I'll wake up in the morning with no desire to lace up my shoes and go for a three-and-a-half hour run!  It could be the weather, my attitude, my level of exhaustion...all I know is that I was slated to run 20 miles this morning and as soon as I woke up I knew it so wasn't going to happen!  The dreary, cloudy weather makes me want to brew another cup of coffee and cuddle with the kitties on my sofa instead.  Knowing that physical and mental breaks are an important part of any successful training (as long as they are kept in check!), I'm postponing my long run to next week.  Plenty of time before the Fargo Marathon!  But because I made a killer pasta dish last night and I don't want to waste the carbs, I will run later today.  For like an hour :) 

maybe later....
So now that I've written out my long excuse for not running 20 miles this morning, I'll get to the good stuff: this pasta dish with balsamic butter sauce.  I found the original recipe on Pinterest and it's been sitting on my food board for a few weeks now.  I went looking for a new pasta recipe and decided this would be a good one to boost my carbs on a Friday night.  I was a little worried that the balsamic vinegar would be overwhelming, but the smaller quantity rounded out with sugar and butter created this smooth, silky sauce that was mild and flavorful.  Plus, the whole dish came together with very little effort and in very little time!  I used green beans because they looked a little more snappy at the co-op that afternoon.  I also had to use some chevre in this recipe because I received my first container of homemade goat cheese from my CSA farm yesterday. 

Wow.  This chevre is divine.  In addition to using some to round out this pasta dish, I had a few small know...just to test it out!  I can't wait to get more of this amazing chevre from Little Flower Farm.  (You can also sign up for a chevre share with them!)  The chevre gave this pasta dish the extra bit of creamy, tastiness that it needed to round everything out and make me eat an entire second helping.  A very tasty pasta recipe to add into your dinner rotation -- Enjoy!

Pasta with Roasted Green Beans and Balsamic Butter Sauce
adapted from Food & Wine
serves 4

3/4 pound of fresh green beans, washed and ends trimmed
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 pound of tube pasta
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
1 stick of butter (1/4 pound), cut into pieces
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
4 tablespoons goat cheese
Salt & pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Toss the green beans in a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with a pinch of salt and pepper.  Spread in an even layer on a baking sheet and roast until tender, about 12 minutes. 

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Add a small handful of salt and then the pound of pasta.  Cook until al dente according to the package directions.  Drain the pasta and put into a large bowl.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, bring the balsamic vinegar to simmer.  Continue to simmer until the vinegar has reduced to about 3 tablespoons.  Stir in the brown sugar and 1/4 tsp ground pepper. 

Combine the green beans, pasta, balsamic vinegar, and butter.  Top with the Parmesan cheese.  Taste and adjust salt & pepper as needed.  Serve and top each serving with a tablespoon of goat cheese.  Stir in the goat cheese and enjoy!

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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Grandma Hinrichs's Pancakes

There's nothing quite like waking up on a Sunday morning.  It's relaxed, peaceful, and content.  Sundays don't have the same get-up-and-go feeling as Saturdays do.  So I love to lounge around with a giant mug of coffee, read the Sunday paper, and eat breakfast.  But Sundays in St. Paul are nothing compared to Sunday mornings at my grandparents' house up in Osakis.  The country air knocks me out at about 9pm so I wake up around 6am, the smell of coffee, bacon, and pancakes as my subtle alarm.  For as long as I can remember, staying at my grandparents' house meant big country breakfasts with family in pajamas.  If I'm up early enough, I get to enjoy a steaming cup of coffee with my grandma, just the two of us. 

Grandma Hinrichs and me, circa a long time ago!
As soon as the rest of the family wakes up (and there are a lot of us on the Hinrichs side!), the kitchen bustles, the sausage starts sizzling, and the pancakes are flipping.  I've grown up with my grandma's pancakes.  I eat them at my grandparents' house, my parents' house, and now at my St. Paul apartment.  There's nothing quite like them and no matter how many recipes I try, nothing compares.  These pancakes have a certain comfort about them, bringing me back to mornings up at the lake, holiday breakfasts with my family, and funny stories about my grandpa's use of pancakes as sandwich bread.  They are perfect rounds -- not too sweet, not to cake-y.  The batter also gets better with time.  Making pancakes with day-old batter yields even better pancakes than with day-of batter.  It's a delightfully easy recipe and I made a batch this morning in about 6 minutes.  Love Sunday breakfasts with grandma's pancakes!

Grandma Hinrichs's Pancakes
makes about 15 medium-sized pancakes

3 egg yolks (reserve the egg whites in a separate bowl)
3 tablespoons sugar
2 cups of milk
2 cups of all-purpose flour (I used 1 cup of whole wheat flour to give the pancakes extra heartiness)
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Add all of the ingredients in order and mix together.  In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they are light and frothy.  Gently mix the egg whites into the pancake batter. 

Heat a large pan or griddle over medium heat.  Grease the pan with cooking spray or butter.  Using a ladle, spoon equal amounts of the pancake batter onto the pan, in as many rounds as can comfortably fit on your pan. 

Once the sides of the pancakes start the bubble and the bubbles set, they are ready to flip!  Cook the other side until golden brown.  Continue cooking pancakes until you have as many as needed.  Serve with butter and syrup.