Friday, February 25, 2005

Dinner on the Diet Wagon

So, I've renewed my commitment to sticking to WW -- after a near breakdown the other night, I can't deal with the idea of hating clothing shopping for the rest of my life and the only way to make it better is to work to make my body something to feel better about. I've been going to the gym (Cate and I have surprised ourselves with a near addiction to the gym, but we concluded it's a better addiction than, say, heroin). And now that I've read way too much information on dairy and dieting, I'm keeping track of dairy, water, and everything else I put in my mouth in my little book.

Anyway, I won't bore you with anymore dieting news. (Though the delicious dinner pictured was just 6 WW points (4 points for the Kung Pao Chicken and 2 points for the rice.) It seems that my Chinese Cooking for Dummies book has been getting a lot of action lately. Dan made Beef and Broccoli and Hot and Sour Soup from it earlier this week, and last night I decided to make Kung Pao Chicken.

Dan and I love spicy foods. While Kung Pao Chicken has a reputation for being battered, deep-fried and coated in a thick, oily sauce, this more authentic Chinese version is light, since it's stir-fried, but it still has a spicy flavor that complements the peppers and peanuts perfectly. Even though the ingredient list looks a little long, a trip to Kam Man and about $10 worth of sauces will have you set to make this and many other Chinese dishes.

Kung Pao Chicken
adapted from Chinese Cooking for Dummies
makes 4 servings (4 WW pts each, plus 2 pts for 1/2 C rice)

1 T oyster-flavored sauce
1 T Chinese rice wine (Mirin)
1/2 t cornstarch
3/4 lb chicken breasts (approximately 2), cut into 1/2 inch cubes
3 T chicken broth
2 T white vinegar
2 T dark soy sauce
2 t sugar (I used 1/2 sugar, 1/2 Splenda)
1 T cooking oil
1 t minced garlic
6 whole dried chilis, cut in half
1 red pepper
1 green pepper
1 cup sliced bamboo shoots
1/2 t cornstarch disolved in 1 t water
1/3 C roasted peanuts (walnuts or cashews can also be used)

1. In a medium sized bowl, mix oyster sauce, rice wine & cornstarch. Add chicken and stir to coat. Let sit while preparing other ingredients.
2. Wisk together chicken broth, vinegar, soy sauce, and sugar in a small bowl.
3. Cut both peppers into 1/2 inch dice. Mince garlic and cut chili peppers in half horizontally.
4. Heat pan (the larger the better, to avoid steaming the meat) over high heat. Add oil and swirl to coat. Add garlic and chilis, stirring until fragrant.
5. Add chicken and cook for about 3 minutes, until you don't see any raw pieces. Add peppers and bamboo shoots, cooking for an additional minute.
6. Add previously combined sauce and bring to a boil. Add the cornstarch and water and cook, stirring until it comes to a boil and thickens. Stir in peanuts. Serve with steamed rice.

This dish isn't overly spicy -- which is nice for serving groups of varying spice tolerance. If you (or one of your guests) prefers it a bit hotter, take a small bite of one of the chili peppers -- it'll warm up every bite you eat.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Dinner with Friends

I'm always happy to invite friends for dinner -- it gives me an excuse to spend a few hours in the kitchen without feeling (as) guilty that I should be doing something else (taxes, cleaning, etc.). On Sunday night, we invited a couple of friends to join us for dinner and to watch The Station Agent. After assessing the ingredients from our latest delivery, and staring down a loaf of bread that had suffered from my lack of understanding the timer function on our breadmaker, I came up with a menu: Chicken Milanese with Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto and bread pudding for dessert.

One of the nicest things about cooking for a small group (Dan and I have been known to throw dinner parties for as many friends as we could squeeze into our apartment) is that it's a fairly low-stress affair and I can indulge myself and cook "Food TV"-style. Cooking "Food TV"-style doesn't mean I provide a running commentary -- though Caryn, that's a good idea for next time -- instead, it means that I prep and measure all the ingredients before I start cooking. I suppose, more patient cooks may do this all the time, but I find myself being obsessed with efficiency and how to arrive at a completed meal as quickly as possible, so I rarely take the time to cook this way. Everytime I do though, I realize how calming it is -- and in the case of risotto, it was a requirement, as the risotto requires constant stirring, so there's no time to pound out chicken breasts for brining while the risotto cooks.

This risotto was surprisingly creamy and rich, despite only using a tiny bit of butter, and really could be served as a main dish, but the chicken milanese was deliciously crisp and moist (thanks to brining!) and was a nice accompaniment.

For dessert, I used a moderately healthy bread pudding recipe to transform my ultra-dense cinnamon raisin bread into a moist dessert. Bread pudding is such an easy dessert to make, and appeals to my frugal-side, which hates to see a good (or even bad) loaf of bread go to waste.

As for menu planning, while the squash roasted, I pounded and brined the chicken. I then breaded the chicken and began the risotto while the chicken breasts dried on a rack and cooked them as the risotto was finishing.

Chicken Milanese
adapted from Cooks Illustrated

4 boneless chicken breasts
1/4 C table salt (1/2 C kosher salt)
1/2 C sugar
6 slices white bread, crusts removed (I used Pepperidge Farms)
1/4 C grated parmesan cheese
black pepper
3/4 C flour
2 eggs
1 T oil
6 T vegetable oil

1. Dissolve salt and sugar in 1 quart of water in a Ziploc gallon bag. Pound chicken breasts to 1/2 inch thickness and add to brine. Refrigerate bag for about 1/2 an hour. Remove chicken from brine and dry breasts thoroughly with paper towels. Leave chicken to dry while preparing breading.
2. Finely chop or use the food processor to make bread crumbs from white bread (about 20 seconds in food processor). Combine bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese in a shallow bowl. Place flour in a shallow bowl. Combine eggs and 1 T oil in a third shallow bowl, beating well.
3. Season chicken breasts with freshly ground pepper. Dredge chicken breasts in flour, egg mixture and then in bread crumbs, pressing coating into chicken to help it adhere well. Place breaded chicken breasts on a drying rack over a baking sheet. Allow cutlets to dry until you begin the risotto.
4. Heat 3 T oil in a large, heavy bottomed pan. Add chicken breasts, two at a time, and cook for about 3-4 minutes on each side, until nicely browned. Place cooked chicken on a 9pre-heated) baking sheet in a 200 degree oven to keep warm while preparing the second batch. Heat additional oil and brown remaining chicken breasts, storing in the oven while completing the risotto.

Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto
adapted from Epicurious

3 lb butternut squash
6 C chicken broth
1 medium onion, chopped
1 T butter
1 1/2 C Arborio rice (12 oz package)
1 t minced garlic
1/2 t cumin
5 T grated Parmesan
1 t salt
1 1/2 t chopped fresh sage
6 C coarsely chopped spinach or arugula leaves (I used spinach)

1. Cut squash in half length-wise, and then into 1 1/2 inch sized wedges, discarding seeds. Roast squash in a 450 degree oven for about 50 minutes.
2. When squash is completed, turn oven down to 200 -- keeping 6 squash wedges warm in the oven, while cutting the remaining squash into 1/2 inch pieces, discarding the skin.
3. Bring broth to a simmer in a saucepan, keeping it covered.
4. While broth heats, melt butter over moderate heat in a heavy-bottomed pan, and cook onion until softened. Add rice, garlic and cumin to pot and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes.
5. Add broth in 1/2 C increments, allowing broth to completely absorb before adding more. Stir the mixture constantly. It took about 18 minutes to add all of the broth and have it all absorb -- leaving a creamy, al dente risotto.
6. Add squash pieces, mixing briefly and then mix in remaining cheese, salt, sage, and spinach (or arugula). Cook for about a minute, until spinach wilts. Serve immediately.

Old Fashioned Bread Pudding
adapted from Moosewood Restaurant

3 C milk (I used Skim Plus)
3 large eggs
1/2 t salt
1/2 t cinnamon
juice from 1/2 a lemon
2 t vanilla extract
3 T honey
3 T sugar
4 C coarsely chopped bread
1 1/2 C grated apple
1/2 C raisins

1. Combine milk with next 7 ingredients (through sugar) in a large bowl and beat well (I used my immersion blender).
2. Add bread, apple and raisins to milk mixture, and allow to soak for at least 30 minutes and up to several hours, depending on the firmness of the bread.
3. Bake at 350 degrees for about 35 minutes. Serve warm with whipped cream or frozen yogurt.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Baked Potato Soup

So, it's been a while. Sadly, my absence has been due to notsomuch cooking combined with some notsoimpressive results. Not that I'm complaining about everything -- I've been spending a lot more time in the city exploring and working on my other site. I had a couple of delicious Restaurant Week meals, checked out 'Inoteca, went on a tour of Grand Central (where we sampled the Prohibition Punch in Campbell Apartment) and visited The Gates (including a delicious stop at the nearby Great Burrito).

Enough about everything non-cooking that I've done lately (and I refuse to discuss the notsogreat kitchen experiments). Last night, I made Baked Potato Soup. Now, there are some recipes that call for 2/3 a cup of butter, but I worked from a Cooking Light recipe which creates a surprisingly rich, but fairly healthy soup (assuming you're not low-carb or anything). I've made this recipe many times, mostly because we get potatoes nearly every week in our delivery and they accumulate quickly.

As Dan will attest, I am staunchly anti-microwave (except for popcorn and reheating leftovers) -- but I caved last night and "baked" the potatoes in the microwave. (Normally, I just bake extra potatoes for making the soup when I've already got the oven on, but I was hungry and didn't want to wait an hour for the potatoes last night.) The soup turned out just as nicely as ever, so nuking the potatoes is a good option if you want to avoid turning on the oven or want your soup to be ready quickly. Basically, this baked potato soup gives you the flavor of a stuffed baked potato, in a creamy soup form -- perfect for cold days and it makes a great meal when paired with a salad. You can vary the flavors -- substitute bacon for ham, chives for scallions, whatever cheese you like (or have on hand)... heck, you can even add a bit of leftover chili to the soup if like.

Baked Potato Soup
adapted from Cooking Light

4 baked potatoes (2.5 lbs)
2/3 C flour
6 C milk (2%, 1% or skim is fine)
1 C reduced fat shredded cheese (regular cheese is fine, but obviously, the fat-factor goes up)
1 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1 C light sour cream (again, regular if you prefer)
3/4 C chopped scallions (green and white)
3 slices of ham, chopped (or crisp bacon), optional
steamed broccoli, optional

1. If you don't have leftover baked potatoes or haven't made them in advance: Bake potatoes for 1 hour in 400° oven. (Alternatively, microwave on high for about 15 minutes.) Peel potatoes and chop roughly.
2. Measure flour into a large saucepan, and add milk gradually while whisking. When flour and milk are well blended, turn heat to medium and continue to whisk. In about 10 minutes, the mixture will begin to bubble and thicken.
3. Add potatoes, 3/4 C cheese, salt and pepper, mixing until cheese melts. Remove pan from heat.
4. Add sour cream and 1/2 C scallions to the mixture. Return to stovetop and cook on low for 10 minutes.
5. Serve soup in bowls, topping with remaining cheese, scallions, ham (or bacon) and broccoli (if using).

Monday, February 07, 2005

African Sweet Potato Stew with Red Beans

This is one of the few vegetarian dishes that seems to convince my husband there doesn't have to be meat involved for the meal to be called dinner. I've made this stew several times -- it uses lots of ingredients I always seem to have in my cupboard, as well as the fact that it conveniently uses up extra sweet potatoes I have around and I can cook it in my slow cooker.

I love the spicy flavor the stew gets from the jalapenos and how the crunchy peanuts and creamy peanut butter offer just enough relief from the spice to allow me to keep eating as my mouth grows increasingly warm. It's a super easy recipe and quite healthy (despite the peanuts and peanut butter).

African Sweet Potato Stew with Red Beans
adapted from Cooking Light

2 t olive oil
1.5 C chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
4 cups cubed sweet potatoes, peeled (approximately 1.5 lbs)
15 ounce can of red beans, rinsed and drained
2 C vegetable broth
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 t fresh grated ginger
1/2 t salt
1/2 t cumin
1/4 t black pepper (freshly ground preferred)
14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes
4.5 ounce can chopped jalapenos, drained
3 T peanut butter
3 T peanuts

1. Heat oil over medium heat and add onion and garlic. Cook covered for about 5 minutes (I generally throw a lid on the onions and garlic and put everything else in the crockpot while the mixture cooks.)
2. Put all ingredients, except peanuts and peanut butter, into the crockpot and stir. Add onion/garlic mixture when ready. Cover crockpot.
3. Cook on low for about 8 hours (vegetables should be tender).
4. Remove 1 cup of liquid from crockpot and mix peanut butter into it. Add liquid back into crockpot and stir.
5. Serve topped with plain low fat yogurt and peanuts.

Makes 6 servings. (6 WW points per serving, including 1/2 T peanuts per serving)