Monday, November 28, 2011

The Perfect Weeknight Chicken Pasta {with Mushrooms, Prosciutto, and Spinach}

This dish was not meant to be blogged about (ehem, hence the evening kitchen lighting.) Sometimes, a girl just wants to make her food and eat it. No cameras, no running monologue on how am I going to link this one to whatever holiday or cultural event is on the horizon. Simply, cook, sit, and enjoy.

But one taste of this dish had me running for my camera. My goodness, I told myself, I've finally done it. I've reached weeknight-chicken-pasta perfection.

The key to this little happenstance lies in a secret. Now, let me ask you about secrets. Are they really meant to be kept? For me, not so much. Ah, before you shoot me an evil look, let me clarify. I meant MY secrets. Can't keep 'em. Others, sure, more or keep them coming :)

The secret begins.

For a number of months I've been running. Really running, not merely going for a leisurely jog and telling myself it's running. And with all this time spent running with just my thoughts bouncing away between my ears, I've had time to make plans. First, personal plans, and then came the bloggy plans. Again, these are only secret plans, but I can't bear to keep them in any longer.

The plan started with the idea of a half-marathon this spring. The plan then progressed to a focus on eating to feed my newly increased appetite, and feed it well. The lists then came into formation. Food lists of course. Lists from every running / fitness source on what I should be eating to keep my body in tip-top form. Then the lists were coordinated, adjusted, and merged into a master grocery shopping list. For the last few weeks I've been taking my master list with me to the store and trying to buy nearly everything on it, nearly every week.

I'm not going to lay out the list now, as I promised myself not to mention such plans until they were a bit more concrete. But such promises of self-secrecy never really work with me. So readers will benefit - the ultimate weeknight chicken-pasta. Healthy, seasonal, fast, and super tasty are exactly what I've been looking for. And having a kitchen fully stocked with all my 'running' foods made it happen. It can be prepared in the time it takes me to run 5 miles - under 40 minutes. The main difference, of course, is that I can drink wine when cooking...I think the other runners would frown on me for such an attempt on the trails!

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sunday Soup {Lentil and Smoked Ham}

Lentils so simple,
and easy on my wallet,
tasty in autumn. 
- lentil haiku

As much as all of my American foodie friends are spending every spare moment right now planning and shopping for this coming Thursday, we can't all wait until then to eat. A hearty lentil and ham soup can be lazily thrown together on a Sunday, and eaten leisurely by the cupful as hunger comes and goes whilst pouring over those cookbooks (or web pages).

Mine was a bit thick, so I've written up the recipe with a bit more broth. But if you like it thick, then just add 1 liter of broth, rather than the 1 1/2 suggested.

I also decided to make the broth and root veg creamy,  à la immersion blender, before adding the lentils and ham. But this isn't necessary if one is looking for a more soup-like consistency.

Now let's get that Thanksgiving menu finished!

And yes, you read correctly, I did just start a post with a lentil haiku. It's that kind of a Sunday.

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Turkey Stuffing {with Mushrooms, Sage, and Bacon}

For those of you thinking about the upcoming American turkey day, let me share my favourite stuffing recipe of all time. It stars mushrooms, bacon, sage, and hazelnuts, and couldn't be tastier.

I made it years ago for Thanksgiving with a Czech family, but a few weeks ago I decided it should have another showing. No special occasion, just a hankering for those fall flavours (like I hadn't had enough with the squash-sage-shiitake-bacon risotto sized for an army!)

The stuffing was a bit labour intensive for the average lunch, to be honest, so I served it along some simple lemon-thyme chicken legs and brussels sprouts. 

The mushrooms used were simply the ones that looked the best at the Brno market. In Czech, they are called Václavka obecná, in English, honey mushrooms. There's an excellent write-up of them over at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. He explains that although they are not highly regarded in the mushroom world, they are traditionally found in Eastern European cuisine. He then makes a batch of Pierogis out of them - bookmarked and will be trying soon!

Another source of info, including where they can be found in North America: The Mushroom Expert

This year, I won't be celebrating Thanksgiving  in the Czech Republic (since whole turkeys, cranberries, and canned pumpkin are not exactly common, and anyways, it's a regular working Thursday over here.) However, I am looking forward to the visual smorgasboard of all the turkeys, stuffings, and pies that make their way to the tables of food bloggers and their families. Cameras ready!

Local walnuts - might make a nice seasonal alternative to hazelnuts
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Friday, November 18, 2011

Detox: Day 3 {Roasted Root Vegetables + Squash}

While the first day of the detox flew by nearly unnoticed, and the second dragged on while I mentally bemoaned the absence of coffee, the third day was the winner. Seriously, I felt gooood.

A three-day detox seems suited best for most working schedules from a Friday to Sunday. Mine, however, didn't get shaking until Saturday, so it meant Monday was the final stretch. No coffee Monday morning, no problem. Really, a double-espresso per morning kind of a girl managed to get up early enough to drink a very large pot of green tea with ginkgo. That set me up. Green tea with ginkgo, you are my new best friend.

I had woken up so early in fact that I decided to do up a pan or two of roast veg to take with me to work. I had planned on taking the broccoli ratatouille left-overs for lunch and doing the fennel/grapefruit again for brekkie, but it was a cold morning, and there was a Hokkaido squash staring at me from the counter, saying, "look, if you cut me up and roast me, you can have a hot, filling, sweet brekkie without breaking any of the detox rules." Okay, Hokkaido squash, it's a deal.

So at six a.m., lights on, tea steeping, Ella Fitzerald scat-singing her heart away, I was chopping that squash up into wedges. Since I had ample time, I decided every other root veg in my kitchen was going in the oven as well.

It turned out perfect. This is the detox recipe champion extraordinaire. Everything is roasted on wax paper parchment paper, so no oil. And there are so many different flavours from the many veg commingling that salt is completely unnecessary. The flavours bring out the best in each other, and the fennel fronds strewn over top before eating absolutely lift it to another level.

And you know what? The morning rhythm of tea sipping, veg slicing, and oven roasting was enough sensory stimulation to start that Monday off just right. Not to mention trying to out-scat Ella, at which I have yet to win, but I do keep on trying...much to my neighbours dismay, I am sure.

Detox or no detox, this will be getting a repeat.

Detox Series:
Detox: The Rules

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Detox: Day 2 {Strawberries+Ginger / Moonblush Tomatoes / Ratatouille}

Second day of the detox had an overall sluggish pace to it. I must confess, I miss my coffee juuust a little.

I woke up feeling pretty full from the previous day. Remember that miso-beet soup which serves 3 - 4 bowls? Well, I had eaten nearly all of it the night was that good.

Looking around for a light breakfast then, a package of half-thawed strawberries were waiting for me in the fridge. So the day started by blending those with some ginger and lemon to be topped with sparkling mineral water. A bit of a detox morning spritzer really.

Keeping it light was a good idea. I knew I was in for a treat for lunch, as I had let Nigella Lawson's "moonblush tomatoes" work their magic overnight. It's a brilliant idea really. Halve a bunch of cherry tomatoes, top with thyme and stick in a heated (but turned off) oven overnight. The technique brings out their sweetness just perfectly. Toss with some frisée and mint, and that is one delightful lunch plate in front of you.

Dinner deserves a hot meal, so I threw together a Ratatouille with broccoli, instead of the more traditional zucchini. It was so easy, and such a warm, filling dish, I felt like I was fooling my body into thinking it was getting a big plate of carbs. But nope, only veg.

There's no picture of the finished Ratatouille, as it was after dark, and quite frankly, it's a veritable bowl of veg mush anyways. But a very tasty bowl it was!

Detox Series:
Detox: The Rules

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Detox: Day 1 {Fennel+Grapefruit / Beet+Miso Soup}

The first day of a detox should feel pretty good. It's only one day without the usual stimulants and toxins, so my energy levels were just fine. The only noticeable difference being the amount of time spent in the kitchen - waaaay longer chopping and rinsing all that veg!

Breakfast was a plate of thinly sliced fennel and grapefruit segments, spritzed with lemon juice. I make this as a salad normally, with mixed greens, parmesan shavings, and dressed with lemon/olive oil. But during a detox, just the fennel/grapefruit make for a refreshing, and filling, brekkie. With a nice cup of green tea of course. If you can find a blend with Ginkgo, that should be good for focus and concentration, along with the bit caffeine from the green tea. You might not even miss that coffee!

Lunch was had in a hurry...nothing special, just a plate of fresh greens, tomatoes, and ground pepper followed by some braised brussels sprouts with lemon and my Spike seasoning blend.

Afternoon saw more tea and some mandarins. My detox blend from a Czech bio shop is actually pretty tasty, even without honey.

Dinner saw a bit more of the above-mentioned chopping action - a creamy miso-beet soup with (more) brussels sprouts. It was amazing! The miso flavour is not as pronounced as a typical miso soup, but rather fills in where salt left off. A great write-up on miso for salt is here at Culinate.

The soup was adapted from a fellow detoxing blogger, Honest Fare, who came up with it last year as an unblended soup with asparagus - which she also photographed beautifully! Mine was made at night, and the blending makes it a bit mucky looking in front of the lens.

Since it's November, and there's an abundance of brussels sprouts (for which I've developed a new-found affection), a few substitutions were made. I also wanted something a bit heartier than a light broth with floating veg, so in went the stick blender. It's easy to make, and tastes great on the second day as well.

The day finished with more tea and fruit. It turns out that pomegranates are great as a movie snack - a big bowl of them keeps the hands busy just like popcorn!

Detox Series:
Detox: The Rules

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

3-Day Detox Diet: The Rules

People like rules.

They really do, I am convinced of this.

When we have rules there are lots of things we can do with them. We can make colourful signs to enforce them. We can shake our heads at other people not following them. We can break them ourselves in order to feel rebellious, or guilty. And we can list them.

Lists seem to be particularly popular. Maybe it's the technological advances of our times, where social networking and powerpoint presentations have left us thinking in one sentence bullet points. Or maybe it came about after 'Top-5' John Cusack in High Fidelity. Or maybe the insecurity of the economic situation leaves us all yearning for the stability of the 1 - 2 - 3.

Whatever the case, this weekend I've assembled my own list of rules. The purpose being a little 3-day detox. Now, to be clear, I'm all about not starving myself, nor liquidizing excessively. It's a simple weekend to readjust my eating priorities before the holidays are upon us (ok, and it might have a little something to do with that giant skillet cookie from last weekend.)

Next month, I want those gingerbread men, midnight fudge snacks, and mug upon mug of eggnog to feel like the indulgence it ought to be. And anyways, there's no time like the present to make sure our bodies are in tip-top form to fight off coming winter colds.

The rules (or guidelines, for you softer gentler souls reading this):

1) No alcohol, coffee/black tea, or sodas/juices

2) No salt, sugar, or oils (natural flavour enhancers like Braggs liquid aminos, nutritional yeast, or Spike/Vegit are allowed)

3) No meat, dairy, grains, nuts, or starchy fruits
(Of course, these are just what I've decided my body needs right now, based on common sense and a rainy afternoon googling detox stuff)

What's in the kitchen then?
1) Vegetables with colour (i.e. no white potatoes)

2) Citrus fruit, berries, and pomegranates

3) Miso paste and nori seaweed

4) A variety of spices and fresh herbs, lemon, chilies, ginger, and Spike seasoning blend

5) Ground flax seed, psyllium seed powder, probiotic supplements, vitamin C tablets, and a good multi-vitamin + calcium

6) Unflavoured mineral water

7) Tea (Green/White/Red, Nettle, Ginseng, Ginkgo, Pu-erh, Mate, Smooth Move, and any other detox blend that floats your boat)

What to do all weekend?
The usual calming activities: sauna, massage, skin brushing, napping, walking the dog with friends, light exercise, chilling in a salt cave, and comedy watching (laughter is the key here).

The day before the detox, stop on by a health shop for your tea/supplements/seed powders, and then head over to the farmer's market to stock up on veg (bring a friend or a wagon to help you carry it all!) Also, It helps to eat healthy and limit caffeine the day before you start, to ease in a bit.

I'll be posting some detox recipes over the coming days. For now, here are some detox diet and recipe links:

Vegetarian Times: Weekend Detox
Woman and Home: Detox Plan
Healthy Healing: Sea Vegetable Detox
Energise for Life: Detox and Cleanse Recipes
Soup Chick: 7 Detox Soups

And some past detox-friendly Cumin in the Cupboard recipes:
Fennel Orange Salad (dressed only with lemon juice)
Roasted Red Pepper and Eggplant Spread (as a dip for another veg, like sweet potato or zucchini fries)
Gazpacho (sans bread roll)
Minty Lentil Salad (if you allow for lentils during the detox)
Garlic Mushrooms (atop a bed of assorted greens)

Detox Series:
Detox: The Rules

Dobrou Chut'/ Enjoy.
-- Jo

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Balkan Ajvar {Roasted Red Pepper & Eggplant Spread}

The last of this years' gorgeous autumn days are behind us. Here in the Czech Republic the trees put on one heck of a show this year. Temperatures were warm, and the sun was golden. It went on for weeks and weeks and weeks. It was the kind of fall made for walking the dog and pondering this that and the other thing. My leaf-crunch addiction has certainly been satisfied for some time to come.

Not surprisingly, Saffi, my incredibly fearful Shiba Inu pup, turns out to also be terrified by the leaf-crunch. Well, I admit to being an avid cruncher and kicker-upper of fallen leaves, so I just might have contributed a wee bit. (Insert guilty feeling here.)

This morning there were early signs of frost on the window panes. While waiting for the tram, the wind blowing up the back of my skirt crossed the line into thigh-biting territory. And that nostalgic twinge is starting to settle in of another upcoming Thanksgiving spent abroad with no one to share in my turkey enthusiasm. The perks of this, though, are not to be pushed aside. Weekends in Vienna, Bratislava, or Prague easily keep me from throwing my own private pity party, to be sure.

While I've yet to make it down to any of the Balkan states (requires a bit more than a weekend I am told), I am familiar with a popular, and regionally widespread, roasted red pepper-eggplant dish called Ajvar. There's a great write up of Ajvar in Serbia over at the NPR website.

If you are looking for an exciting alternative to hummus to bring to the next bookclub meeting, or other cozy get-together, this could be good way to go.

Smoky flavours of home-roasted red peppers mashed together with roasted eggplant and garlic - with a dash of paprika - spread on some rustic bread and spritzed with lemon make for one great snack to share. Or even just a light dinner. The prep work is a bit arduous, to be honest, but if you make a bunch it will keep for 2-3 days, and is easily disappears anyways.

And since this is such a fantastically healthy snack, I may as well mention that this weekend I'll be doing a body detox. Cumin in the Cupboard readers will (hopefully) benefit next week by seeing what methods/recipes are created to make tasty veggie dishes sans salt/oil. Stay tuned!

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Sunday, November 6, 2011

The (Chocolate Chip) Skillet Cookie

Well, it's official. The skillet cookie has finally had a showing in my kitchen. A brief showing it was though - gobbled up immediately by myself and my partner in crime.

I've seen variations of the skillet cookie weave in and out of food blogs for the last year or two. The classic chocolate chip variety was my gateway cookie last night. The evidence is long gone by this point, so I'll be starting this week cookie free. The glory of the skillet cookie is the speed and ease of preparation. Ten minutes, two dirty bowls, and in the oven it goes. The cast iron skillet does away with all the putzy rolling-out-balls business and swapping out cookie trays every ten minutes. Just pat the batter into the pan, cook 35 minutes, try to wait as long as humanly possible to cool, and eat with abandon. Eat like nobody's watching.

Careful, though. Normally, with a cookie-shaped cookie I am semi-consciously aware of how many I'm eating (left over from childhood I presume, when we had a 3-cookie-a-day policy: one for each hand and one for the mouth.) The skillet cookie allows for no such counting. Slice at your own risk.

Being an American expat living abroad, I had a single precious bag of chocolate chips stashed away, and I wanted a rich, classic recipe to do them justice. So we went Martha Stewart style. Partly because her recipe shows them baked in a white Le Creuset, which I've been lusting over some time. But mostly because I wanted some Americana in my belly, and fast, and I knew for this, Martha's recipe would be perfect. Crispy on the outs, gooeylicious in the middle. This thing is seriously dangerous!

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Friday, November 4, 2011

Sicilian Pasta {with Fennel, Sardines, and Saffron}

I had been tasting Sicily for years. It was salty and sweet. Simple and filling. Exotic, yet comforting. Lemony. Briney. Earthy. Sea-y. 

 Years before ever visiting the island below the boot, I was bumbling through Europe with my rucksack and met a Sicilian traveler in Dublin. I twisted his arm (read: offered to pay for dinner fixings) until he agreed to show me how to make a Sicilian national dish. Despite being a cheeky young thing, this guy knew his way around a kitchen. The result was, of course, sensational.

Very few dishes stand the test of time with me. This is one of them. I picked up a little cookbook in Sicily when I went there as the final destination of the mum-and-daughter trip (Vienna-Rome-Sicily.) The book has a simplified version of this, titled, "Bucatini Pasta with Sardines Left in the Sea." I can't really work out how, if you leave the sardines in the sea, they can get into the pasta. But they do, and in just the right amount. If you're a bit fickle around tiny tinned fish, do not fear this dish. The flavours do sound a bit, well, odd together (especially if you are one of those anti-raisin folks.) Yet it's passed the taste test on a variety of my impromptu dinning companions. It's a great last minute hit. Of course, that is, if you are like me and regularly keep bits like saffron and fennel seeds in the cupboard. 

On the way home from work, pop into a shop, grab yourself a nice big bulb of fresh fennel, a bottle of a dry white, and you are on your way to something special (especially if there is some lemoncello in your booze-cupboard, just waiting for this dish to be made so it can be your perfect dessert wine.) I swear, Sicilian lemons are what dreams are made of. They permeate nearly every dish to add just the perfect amount of brightness on the palate.
Last month, we spent an idyllic few days exploring just the northwestern part of the island. Here, the food displays prominent Arabic influences: saffron, raisins, pine nuts, couscous, and citrus (oh, those blood oranges!) Why, even looking over the city rooftops, I had a sudden feeling of Déja Vu, and felt I'd been whisked away back to Morocco. Given that I'm a sucker for North African cuisine, my stomach dictated we stick to the western part. Towards the East, I've heard the food has a significant Greek flair to it. Olives, capers, and pistachios are to be found. Luckily, the sweetened-ricotta stuffed cannoli and a vast terrain of gelatos and granitas can be discovered all over Sicily.

The city of Marsala makes and excellent base for exploring the northwest - good food, hiking, snorkeling, and best of all...people! We met some of the most welcoming people in this area. At the guesthouse Arkos Casa Vacanze, a small but stunning oasis of hospitality and vegetation, I ate. I mean, I ate like it was going out of style. 'Mamma Maria' cooked up amazing dinners for the guests, and her son Gregorio had such enthusiasm for the gardens he's developed. I could have had a full meal just grazing in that garden! Pictured above is their pasta with an almond-basil pesto. And next to it is the Sicilian oregano variety. It is the coolest little plant ever!

Sicily left me nourished, in so many ways. I hope this dish can provide some semblance of nourishment to others. There is such a unique and delicate balance of flavours, and it is so easy (and wallet-friendly) to make. The sardine flavour is lifted by the fennel and lemon. The raisins bring a bit of tangy sweetness, brought to earth by the saffron. Be sure to use a dry white wine, as a sweeter one would not work at all. 

(Note: If you cut the recipe in half, a great use of the other half of the sardine tin is a home-made Ceasar salad dressing for lunch later that week.)

And if you haven't already, throw some Paolo Conte on your grooveshark/pandora/whatever and you've got the perfect Italian cooking music.

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