Monday, June 30, 2008

Red Letter Day

It was a Red Letter Day for me on Saturday! I can't even begin to describe just how excited I was. Let me walk you through it...

During my pre-teen years, my family lived in Kenya for 2 years. Up until that point, I could pretty much eat whatever I wanted. However, it only took 1 fateful night for that all to change. My family and I were on a much needed vacation on the coast of Mombasa. Per normal, we had picked up a ton of fresh fruit and vegetables for the day. Right before I went to bed, I snacked on a juicy and tasty mango. I promptly went to bed, not knowing that my entire world had changed. I woke up almost an hour later with a panic I've never known. I couldn't breathe, my face and eyes were completely swollen, and my throat was completely closed. I rushed into my parent's room in a panic. Thankfully, my mother, a trained RN, leapt into action. Although we had no Benadryl or anti-histamines, she knew enough to throw me into a hot shower with steam to try and ease my labored breathing. I spent almost an hour in there, gasping for breath. Finally, my breathing returned almost to normal, but my face was a different story. It took almost 2 days before my eyes and face returned to their normal state.

After that, any stone fruit I touched was pure Kryptonite for me. Pears, peaches, plums, cherries - all off limits to me. The fall apple harvest meant nothing to me. And being a vegetarian only made it more ironic.

But even though I'm severely allergic to them, I've always felt I would outgrow the allergy. About 5 years ago, I started trying a tiny bite of stone fruit every summer, just to see if it was over. Sadly, it was not. However, since I've been a vegetarian for the past few years, and trying to eat more vegan in the past year, I just knew this was the year for a breakthrough.

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And guess what? I was right. I purchased some local cherries from the farmer's market this weekend and gave them a tentative taste. I tried 3 and felt barely a tickle in the back of my throat. I then moved on to a plum and felt nothing. So I kept going. And in the space of 24 hours, I consumed almost a pound of cherries, 4 pluots, and about 8 plums with nary a tingle.

You want to talk about excited?? I went to the grocery store and for the first time, gave my attention to the 3 rows of fruits I have been avoiding for 17 years. It's like a whole new world has opened up. I didn't want to push it too much on my first couple of days, so I stuck to the cherry/plum thing. But tomorrow I plan to add peaches and eventually pears and possibly some apricots.

I'm crazy excited. So don't worry if you don't hear from me for a few days - I'll be stuck somewhere in a bowl full of cherries....

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Spiced Mixed Nuts

Here is one of the recipes I promised from my cooking class. The recipe comes from Ellie Krieger's new cookbook, The Food You Crave. Although I haven't personally made these, the recipe looks very easy and also seems like something that would be easy to change to suit your tastes.


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Spiced Mixed Nuts
Makes 2 cups

1/2 c raw pecans
1/2 c raw almonds
1/3 c shelled pistachios
1/3 c raw cashews
1/3 c shelled raw pumpkin seeds
1 tbsp pure maple syrup
1/2 tsp curry powder
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp dried rosemary
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Combine nuts and seeds in a medium-sized bowl. Add syrup and spices and toss to combine. Spread out on a lightly greased cookie sheet and spread out in a single layer. Bake, stirring once, until nuts are lightly toasted, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool. These will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Cucumber Salad

Sometimes less is more when it comes to food. Although I tend to gravitate towards recipes with multiple steps and various ingredients, there comes a time when you just want something simple, easy, and quick.

I almost hesitate to call this a salad, since it really is just a few ingredients. But despite the sparse ingredient list, this is a recipe that is big on flavor. It's also perfect for those last minute "I need something to go with this dish QUICKLY" situations too. And it's super-easy preparation lends itself to a myriad of variations. Switch the fresh herbs around or use Champagne vinegar instead of the rice wine vinegar. But no matter how you make it, you'll have this on the table in 5 minutes or so.

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Cucumber Salad
Serves 3-4

2 seedless cucumbers, peeled and julienned
2 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, minced
1/8 tsp coarse kosher salt
Fresh pepper to taste

Place all ingredients in a medium bowl. Stir well with a large spoon and serve. (Does it get any easier??)

Monday, June 09, 2008

Thai Shiitake Mushroom Salad

Summer has officially arrived in the Northeast. We're expecting temperarures to reach the high 90's which is exactly what I love. But with summer comes a desire to cook less and keep the kitchen as cool as possible.

So that's when I start trying to find recipes that require no heat whatsoever. Enter this noodle salad. It's quick and easy to prepare and would be perfect as a main dish. It would also be a fantastic addition to a picnic or potluck. It can also easily be veganized by omitting the oyster sauce and using agave nectar in place of honey.

The shiitakes marinate while you are chopping and preparing the rest of the ingredients, and then it's just a matter of throwing it all together.

If you're looking for a unique way to serve this, use glass noodles in place of the thicker rice noodles and wrap up in spring roll wrappers for a quick appetizer that needs no extra sauce.

Thai Shiitake Mushroom Salad II

Thai Shiitake Mushroom Salad
Serves 3-4

1/2 c soy sauce
1/4 c honey
1/4 c mirin
1 or 2 tsp chili garlic sauce
1/2 tsp ginger
1 tsp oyster sauce
1/2 tsp sesame oil
6 oz shiitake mushrooms
6 oz rice noodles
2 tbsp fresh basil, minced
2 tbsp fresh cilantro, minced
1 tbsp fresh mint, minced
1/2 c green onion, chopped

Whisk soy sauce, honey, mirin, chili garlic, ginger, oyster sauce, and sesame oil in a small bowl. Slice mushrooms into strips and place in marinade. Set aside and marinate for at least 30 minutes. Prepare rice noodles according to directions. Combine basil, cilantro, mint, and onion in a large bowl. Add mushrooms and marinade, as well as noodles. Stir and serve.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Cooking School, Part II

So did I mention there was entertainment?? My aunt, whom I haven't seen since I was 8, AND who is also a professional opera singer, graciously agreed last minute to perform an Italian aria in honor of the Cioppino we were about to consume. I was absolutely floored by how beautiful and strong her voice was. I know most of us had goosebumps after her performance. I think my friend Lina said it best when she said, "I could never understand why people got all emotional about opera, but I think I do now!" It was just impossible to not be moved.

I love this picture of myself, my beautiful mother, and my gorgeous aunt.
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Now back to the food. As I mentioned, we had a fantastic little Cioppino, which included clams, shrimp, scallops, and cod. It was absolutely fantastic, and was the perfect combination of being hearty yet still light and fresh-tasting.

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And here's a picture I like of Kathy's lightning-quick hands chopping up the parsley for garnish.

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The main event of the evening was skate. Skate is something that I've had before, but most of the class had never experienced. I've never prepared it, so I was definitely grateful for the opportunity to learn the finer points of its preparation. It came out extremely tender and flavorful, and I would highly recommend trying it if you can get your hands on it. We simply seasoned ours with salt and pepper, lightly dredged it with flour, then sauteed it in olive oil, lemon juice, and threw in some capers. It was absolutely fantastic.

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The meal was finished with a chocolate fondue. There were some lovely fresh strawberries and poundcake available for dipping into the chocolate fountain.

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All in all, it was a highly successful and entertaining event. Good food, good fun, and great friends and family - is there anything better??

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Cooking School, Part I

Wow. Seriously, wow. The cooking school was such a great experience and so much fun! For those who don't know, my father bid at a charity silent auction for a 10-person cooking class to be held at the Giant Cooking School as a gift for my birthday this past December. I must admit, I was a little skeptical about a cooking school held in a grocery store, but as I had hoped, it was much more than expected.

Here's a picture of the 2 chefs that guided our experience, Kathy and Brandi. Both were extremely helpful and easy to talk to, and we had a good time joking around.

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You can also see that the kitchen set-up is great for having small or large gatherings, and it was very nicely set up for my friends, family, and I.

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We started the evening with some fun nibblies, including these tasty spiced nuts. All recipes from the evening were nicely organized into a take-home packet for each guest so we can recreate them at home. This recipe looked exceptionally easy, mixing a touch of maple syrup, cayenne, rosemary, curry, and salt with raw nuts before baking.

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Next up were some tasty seafood appetizers. The tuna was exceptional. It was seared and encrusted with black and white sesame seeds. It was paired with an asian slaw that provided just the right amount of acidity and flavor.

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There was also a spicy boiled shrimp served with a raspberry-horseradish sauce. That was truly quite tasty and definitely an appetizer that would be perfect for serving to guests. I must admit I was skeptical about the combination of raspberry and horseradish, but it ended up being a great pairing.

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Unfortunately, the pictures of one of my favorite dishes, a Brie and Mushroom Fondue, didn't turn out quite as I had planned. But take my word for it - it was simply fantastic. Using shiitake and crimini mushrooms, combined with dry white wine and about a pound of brie, I'm not sure you can go wrong!

Check back on Friday for the rest of the story!

Monday, June 02, 2008

Chai-spiced Roasted Bananas

I'm a huge fan of bananas. They're quick, cheap, and transport well for the most part. But I always seem to either overbuy them and I usually end up throwing a few into the freezer for later use because I can't eat them fast enough. I wanted to find a way to try and use up the latest batch before they were doomed to the world of frostbite.

Enter this month's Vegetarian Times. They had a delicious recipe for Roasted Bananas with Jamaican Allspice. Although I am a fan of allspice, I wanted to try a little something different with the spices. I love chai and anything chai-spiced, so it was only right I give it a try. And I'm quite glad I did. This is a very tasty and easy dessert, and definitely one that can be whipped up in a matter of minutes. I also love roasted and baked dishes that are small enough to make in my toaster oven and doesn't require heating up my entire kitchen.

Serve by themselves or with a tasty scoop of vanilla ice cream. And I'm going to be honest - I honestly didn't think I'd like this as much as I did. I'm not normally a hot banana or banana dessert person, but this was quite fantastic, especially with the ice cream. You'll want to give this a try!

Chai-spiced Roasted Bananas

P.S. This picture is proof I use no fancy photo trickery! It's very hard to take a picture of a hot and cold item without it being a big old melted mess! =)

Chai-spiced Roasted Bananas
My variation of a Vegetarian Times' recipe

2 oz Smart Balance margarine (or butter)
1/2 c light brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp cardamom
1/8 tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
A pinch of cloves
A pinch of nutmeg
2 large bananas

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Melt margarine in a flat shallow container. Combine sugar and spices in another flat container. Peel bananas and cut in half lengthwise, then in half again. Dip flat side of banana in melted butter then into sugar and spice mixture. Set face down in a lightly oiled baking dish. Repeat with remaining banana pieces. Place into oven and bake for 10 minutes. Be sure sauce doesn't start to burn! Remove from oven and cool for 5 minutes. Serve bananas with ice cream and drizzle remaining sauce over ice cream and bananas.