Saturday, April 30, 2011

everyone deserves a second chance

So, I really wasn't that thrilled with how last night's dinner came out, in case you couldn't tell.  By the time I got home from work today, amazed that Friday snuck up again so quickly, I was even less excited about tonight's dinner.

The plan was to make Chili and Polenta Casserole from Vegetarian Times: Fast and Easy, and although I've made it before, with some success, I just was not feeling it tonight.  In fact, when Mister asked me what I was making for dinner, my first impulse was to answer, "Reservations."

However, in this particular battle, FrugalMe won, so instead of doling out $12+ for a plate of pasta I know only cost $1 (tops) to make, I decided to get creative.  I issued myself the Basket Challenge.

my "basket"

I'm sure you can imagine we ended up with a mediterranean-themed dinner with those ingredients, but that was pretty much what I was going for anyway - that was what I had my tastebuds set on when I was searching urbanspoon for newly sprouted restaurants in Queen Village.  As I was gathering all of those items for their family photo, a plot started to hatch in my head.  So, hoping for a second chance to share with you a good recipe, as well as giving the canned tomatoes and beans, along with the polenta and nearly-freezer-burnt broccoli a second chance to be tasty, I made dinner.

Easy Vegetable Ragout on Mediterranean Polenta
4 servings

24 oz tube of prepared polenta
olive oil spray
Mediterranean sea salt blend (* I use McCormick brand)

2 Tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
1 Tbsp dried organic basil
1/2 tsp balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1/4 to 1/2 cup vegetable broth
14.5 oz can of Fire Roasted diced tomatoes
15 oz can kidney/cannellini beans
2 cups [frozen] broccoli florets

Open polenta over sink - a decent bit of water will squirt out when the plastic is pierced.  Unwrap and discard puckered ends.  Cut polenta into 12 equal rounds.  Spray a square skillet with olive oil and preheat on medium-high for at least one minute before adding polenta.  Cook polenta 12-15 minutes, flipping every 5 minutes and re-spraying.  After the first flip (@ 5 minutes), sprinkle Mediterranean salt blend over polenta, then spray with oil.  After the second flip (@10 minutes), sprinkle this side of the polenta with the salt blend, spray with a bit more oil.  You'll flip it once more for a few minutes to make sure the salt blend "rubs in," so to speak.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a pan over medium heat.  Add garlic and saute a minute or two, taking care not to burn it.  Add undrained tomatoes, vinegar, tomato paste, and basil; stir to combine.  Increase heat and bring to a lively simmer, then reduce to medium low and allow to simmer gently 2-3 minutes. Add 1/4 cup vegetable broth and broccoli florets; stir to combine, then cover and allow to simmer about 5 minutes, stirring once.  Add another 1/4 cup of broth with the beans if the ragout seems too dry, stirring well to mix into the tomato mixture. 

Once all ragout ingredients are in the pot, cover and simmer a minute or two more while removing polenta from the skillet.  Place three polenta rounds on each plate, then top each plate with a quarter of the ragout.  Serve immediately, with mixed meze olives and a spicy red wine (for example, a pinotage or superTuscan) for a light, yet flavorful meal.

Enjoy!  We certainly did - the polenta was the most flavorful I've ever made it, owed completely to the salt enhancing the other spices/herbs in the blend and being complemented by the tomato sauce.  The balsamic vinegar was a total afterthought, but I'm so glad I included it - you can pick it out in the final product - it adds just the right amount of oomph.  The tomatoes were also delightful - the sweetness of the organic basil really enhanced the flavor of the roasted tomatoes and the crunch of broccoli, soaked with semi-sweet sauce was a good addition.  In the future, I'll use cannellini beans because they are far creamier than kidney beans and I think that will take this dish completely over the edge into hedonism territory.

As always, if you decide to give this a whirl, please let me know what you think!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

worst thing ever

Frozen Kale.  That's it.  That is the worst thing ever.  Wanna know the second worst thing ever?  Frozen beans.  Yup, frozen beans.

I may be exaggerating slightly, as there are probably worse things, like war, famine, tornadoes eating the entire southeastern part of the country, Japan being swallowed up by the Pacific ocean, and the possibility that Obama really does possess an American birth certificate (sorry, couldn't resist).  Yet, as far as culinary experiences go (and aside from The Saffron Incident), frozen kale is absolutely the most disappointing.

Tonight was the second experience I've had with frozen kale and it was even more disappointing than the first.  I love kale so much fresh that I thought I'd hit a goldmine when frozen kale started popping up all over the freezers in Whole Foods...but it was more like a landmine, causing two recipes to more or less blow up in my face.  Not literally, thank heavens.  Story time!

A little while ago, can't remember just when, I was in the frozen foods aisle of Whole Foods and as I extracted whichever bag of organic goodness I had originally sought out, I noticed something different out the corner of my eye.  I looked closer and saw a little flat box with kale, kidney beans, and navy beans.  I thought to myself, "Hey, this might come in handy some night when I'm feeling lazy pressed for time!" and dropped it into my basket.  Well, tonight was that night, and I thought I would make a cheater version of my already pretty quick-cooking Easy Tuscan Linguini by subbing the frozen kale-n-beans side dish for the shredded kale and can of navy/cannellini beans in the original recipe.  Also, for a little added flavor (and to use up the other two Tofurky from Tuesday's Cajun Rice and Beans), I sliced the sausages and sauteed them lightly in olive oil before adding the frozen stuff.

I was so sad when the bag open and spilled kale stems and hard-looking beans into the pan...I had really hoped for a more substantial presence from the kale...and some leafy bits, I might add.  Nevertheless, I heated everything through, mixed it together with the marinara sauce and linguini and hoped for the best.  It was "decent" as long as you ignored that the kidney beans were not thoroughly cooked before being frozen or they don't freeze well, because they were crunchy and that is not a quality I seek out in my kidney beans.  However, I still believe this has a lot of potential as a fast-and-easy weeknight recipe, as long as you substitute organic frozen spinach or fresh kale - not frozen kale; it's gross.  So, I promised you a recipe and a recipe you get (modified, so there's a chance you'll actually enjoy it):

Pasta Marinara with Kale and Beans
* about 4 servings *
24 oz prepared marinara of your choice
1 cup canned kidney beans
1 cup canned navy/great northern beans
2 Tofurky sausages, flavor of your choice (I used Kielbasa)
2-3 cups fresh kale, finely chopped or 10 oz block of frozen chopped organic spinach 
8 oz linguini (whole wheat if your loved one will eat it - mine won't)
2-3 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
1 Tbsp olive oil

Boil water for pasta, then cook according to package directions, about 10-11 minutes.  Drain.

Meanwhile, cut each "sausage" in half lengthwise, then slice into 1/2" pieces.  If using fresh kale, chiffonade or chop finely and set aside.  When the pasta is halfway through cooking time, heat the olive oil over medium heat and saute the garlic about 30 seconds, until fragrant and slightly golden.  Add sausage and stir to coat with oil.  Saute on medium for 2-3 minutes, stirring once, then reduce heat to medium-low.  Add kale, beans, and marinara; stir to combine, then cover and cook 2-3 minutes, until heated through and kale is lightly wilted. [if using frozen spinach, you'll want to thaw and drain it first, then add with the beans and marinara.]

Add drained pasta to the pot and toss to combine.  Remove from heat and serve immediately, preferably accompanied by a small bowl of mixed olives and a generous glass of red wine.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

welcome, Spring - you're only a month late

If I could figure out how to take a screenshot on my Mac, I would show you the weather forecast for Philadelphia this week - in the 70s all week.  Granted, tomorrow has a red outline and a warning to expect severe weather, but they've been calling for rain all week and I haven't seen a single raindrop.

Now that I've said that, you can expect a photo tomorrow night of the huge bruise I'm going to get when a golfball-sized piece of hail hits me in the forehead.

For now, though, you can see photos of our delightful spring dinners!  I have been at least halfway fortunate this week - I have worked earlier than usual yesterday and today, meaning I get home earlier than usual, so I've had a little more time to cook.  It also means I've been able to enjoy a few minutes of sunlight on my walk home from the train.  So with all my "extra" time (more like "different," since I've had to retire earlier as well to ensure adequate sleep), last night I made Cajun Red Beans and Rice from The Accidental Vegan, and was able to use "better for me" brown rice since I could let it cook longer.

I'm having kind of a huge ton of fun with my new measuring bowls.  I didn't actually need to measure a cup of diced green pepper, but I used the bowl to hold it while I was prepping other ingredients and I thought it looked pretty enough to share.

Unlike the Battle of Pasta Fagiolis, I don't think I will ever find a beans-n-rice recipe to knock this baby of her throne.  The combination of ingredients is nearly perfect: the savory and toothsome Tofurky Kielbasa, the smooth and creamy kidney beans with their gorgeous garnet hue, the crunch of lightly sauteed green peppers that most certainly taste "green."  I was reflecting on the amount of rice in the recipe, though, on my way to work - there is even more time to ruminate on pointless quandaries now that I don't have to pay attention to exits and traffic lights. 

After piling his second helping into his bowl, Mister went to the fridge and returned with a slice of bread.  Almost every time he does that, it means he perceives an absence in the carb department of the meal.  He was not completely off this time, either - the recipe calls for 1.5 cups of cooked rice, but that really spreads the rice thin, as though it's just kind of a decoration on the beans and tofurky.  In the future, I think I'll double the rice and see if that's sufficient for Mister's grain-appetite.

Tonight, I was home even earlier and therefore had even more time to play in my kitchen.  I had originally intended to make a quick-cooking meal tonight, but when I saw how much time I had, coupled with the surprising amount of energy I maintained after working a whole shift that started so early that I actually got on the train about the same time I usually get in the shower, I decided to make Spring Vegetable Curry, also from The Accidental Vegan.

DIY Curry spice mixture, clockwise starting at the top: cumin, cardamom, turmeric, coriander, and sea salt.  After I carefully mixed them all together into a fairly homogenous powder, I made a little well in the middle to hold the garlic and ginger.

Once the spices had a minute or two to cook and then garlic and ginger had softened slightly, I added my mountain of vegetables (the actual cooktime -apart from the rice- is only about 15 minutes; the rest is prep, lots and lots of prep): big, thick stalks of asparagus, a red bell pepper, sugar snap peas, tomatoes, and red chard.

By the way - did you know that 2 cups of red chard has 25 calories and 1 gram of protein?  Yeah, I didn't either until I read the nutritional label.  That's right - wrapped around the bottom of the bunch was a little piece of cardboard that contained the nutritional facts on a bunch of greens.  I don't know if that shows progress for our country or if I should mourn for abused paper.

Regardless, the curry was outstanding.  I'd never actually made this recipe before.  When I make curries, they are generally of the "warm you from the inside out" kind of curries, made up of generally hearty vegetables and beans (chickpeas).  This was definitely a lighter curry and I have 2/3 left of the 6oz can of coconut milk to prove it.  Now I'm trying to scheme how to get Mister to use it in his coffee.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

SIN & my BIG FAT Greek Easter

Do they still have the Seven Deadly Sins?  If so, I fear I'm going straight to Hell - do not pass go and do not collect $200.  How else can it go when my entire celebration of Jesus's act of reconciliation involved gluttony?  Well, okay, maybe not the whole celebration, but the part that occurred outside of the church.

After church, we dined with my in-laws (17 of us total) at Estia on Broad and Locust.  It was an extravagant affair to say the least.  Honestly, I would be lying (another sin, surely) if I didn't admit that my favorite part of lunch was seeing all of our family again - it doesn't happen frequently enough.  I'm pretty sure (unfortunately) that the last time I saw my parents-in-law was Christmas - and if that's not a sin, I don't know what is.  Mister and I had a little gift for our nephews, as well, and there is something priceless about watching children take turns pulling off the wrapping paper so they can share every part of the gift - they're good at being brothers.  So my true delight was in the people; my beautiful SIL, a cousin who brought his new lady friend, my little angel baby.  Of course, another priceless moment was when my father-in-law parked himself across from me, attentive waiter behind him, and asked if I would like some "voov," while making a drinking motion with his hand.  In my momentary ignorance, I thought he had learned a new Greek word for "drink," possibly "wine," but once the waiter nodded, noted, and walked away with my FIL, I realized he had just enlisted my assistance in drinking a bottle of Veuve Clicquot!  It helped wash down the huge amount of food that covered every square inch of the table (and some of the round ones) - fried zucchini, various spreads (baba ghanoush, muhammara, hummus, tzatziki) with bread, pita, and crudites, as well as amazing marinated peasant salads of red and orange tomatoes, red and green peppers, and cucumbers.  I barely had space for my entree and resolved, next time my entree will merely be a salad.  There were also three decadent, huge Greek desserts and Greek coffee.  I love Greek stuff - I'm so lucky to be married into this family!

After 15 hugs and kisses, we excused ourselves to run (in heels) to the train station.  We hopped on the train just as it was about to leave us, and 45 minutes later found ourselves in my dad's car.  Once we arrived at the house, I could finally relieve my purse of the jar full of rice, spices, and cashews that I'd carried to church and lunch.  Mom and a cousin were industriously chopping tomatoes for bruschetta while the littlest cousin hunted for plastic candy-filled eggs in my parents' verdant backyard.  While Mom and I started cooking, my dad showed everyone photos and video of me as an infant and toddler, then took the whole merry party down to the basement to play with his bordering-on-obsession trainset.  It takes up the entire basement.  He cut holes in the walls to let the trains go through "tunnels."  I told Dad he has to take this stuff down before he gets decrepit because I don't want to deal with it.  We all figured, though, that the littlest cousin, presently 2 years old, should at least be a teenager before this becomes an issue, so we'll just hire him and some friends for pizza.

Once the Black Bottom Pineapple Tofu on Coconut Cashew Rice (from Vegetarian Times: Fast and Easy) was done cooking, Mom and I set up the table and called everyone away from the fun to eat dinner.  My plate was delightfully colorful!

Taking up the majority of the plate was the tofu dish, accompanied (counter-clockwise) by a delightful strawberry-walnut salad my mom made, as well as an apple-sweet potato roast.  What a lovely springtime meal, don't you think?

So tonight is the first night of the new menu.  What menu?  Glad you asked:

1. Chili and Polenta Casserole also from Vegetarian Times: Fast and Easy, and hopefully, it comes together as quickly as they say it does, because this is going to be a busy week, methinks.

2. Pasta Marinara with Kale and Beans - although this will be accompanied by a new recipe for you (yay!), don't get too excited - it's going to be a cheater recipe (with a rockstar name).

3. Spring Vegetable Curry from The Accidental Vegan - why not?  It's spring and Mister Loves Asparagus.

4. Cajun Red Beans and Rice, also from The Accidental Vegan, because it's my fav-fav-favorite rice-n-beans recipe. 

5. Yakisoba, also from The Accidental Vegan, which was dinner tonight.

It's a little bit bland, but there is a subtle aftertaste of ginger and not quite enough garlic.  Of course, I wanted to use my new toy - a ginger grater, so I grated the garlic and I don't think I got as much out of each clove as I do when I press it.  It did a fantastic job on the ginger, though, so well done, Essene!  Best $5 I ever spent (especially after flirting with the $20 Microplane Special People Grater/Zester at Williams-Sonoma when I picked up the gifts for the nephews).  That $15 will go toward the Buy-Natalie-a-4qt-Saute-Pan fund.  Attempting to "toss" a pound of noodles with the veggies and sauce tonight in my 3-qt pan was quite an adventure and pushed me over the Suck-It-Up-and-Spend-the-$$$ edge.  After the rent gets paid :)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

reviving the classics

There are certain things we hold in higher esteem purely because we consider them to be "classic."  What does that mean, though?  How does, say, a recipe come to hold that special place in our hearts?  Is it a tradition behind the recipe?  Is it the author of the recipe?  Is it the publisher of the cookbook?  Also, what makes a cocktail a classic?  Philadelphia has seen a huge trend in "Old-School" bartending in recent years - everyone wants the "classic" cocktails.  Maybe it lends a certain sophistication?  But how did we decide which combinations of spirits were worthy of that title?  Is there something special about a gimlet or a martini or a manhattan that makes them stand out against a vanilla vodka & ginger ale?

The past two dinners have fit a classic-with-a-twist mold:

Everything about that picture makes me smile a big, Mediterranean smile - grape tomatoes, kalamata olives, and a bowlful of basil... you know it has to be good.  Last night, I made Mediterranean Pasta with Artichokes, Olives, and Tomatoes, from the April/May 2007 Body+Soul magazine, which should give you a hint as to why I consider this a classic.

Well, you know, besides the hint of how incredibly mouth-watering that looks.  This recipe comes to us courtesy of my dear Martha Stewart (I cannot believe she is nearly 70 years old - she looks terrific).  Martha is kind of like Betty Crocker, Donna Reed, and a little Dale Carnegie all rolled into one very successful woman.  She has built an empire around the many things she is good at and has earned the respect of many, so I consider things I learn from her to be classic.  Of course, the twist here is that it's hard for someone to be the inventor of "classic" things (it seems) when the person is still living. 

Tonight's dinner came to us originally from a classic red-and-white-checkered-tablecloth-covered Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook, and by cookbook, I mean a three-ring binder with dividers for the different kinds of pilafs and puddings and pasta salads.  I really don't know how you expect to get much more Old School than that.  Anyway, I updated the culturally insensitive recipe for Spicy Black Beans and Rice and made Spicy Black Bean Burritos.  After sauteing my black beans and "mexican-style" tomatoes (AKA diced tomatoes with zesty jalapenos) for about 10 minutes, I added in the rice upon which I was supposed to serve this culinary treasure, along with a healthy dose of unspecified salt.  After allowing as much of the liquid to boil off as I could without testing the non-stick nature of my pan, I plopped the mixture onto a couple of whole wheat tortillas and handed Mister the hot sauce.

It's an easy "classic" and tastes so good that I had to force myself to stop after two so Mister and I can enjoy snacks with our movie tonight.  I did customize one last classic - the margarita.  I thought it would be Mexican fun to have a margarita with dinner, so I mixed together a bit of Skinnygirl Margarita with a Berry Lemonade Honest Kids juice drink - classic and classy.

It's pretty, though - pale pink with a bit of mist around the glass and a clear, small straw to help me be moderate...

Speaking of pink (the color of every Easter dress I wore for the first 15 years of my life), have a beautiful and blessed holiday tomorrow!

Friday, April 22, 2011

best day ever (picture parade)

I remember a lovely spring/summer day when I was off of work for a reason I can't remember (probably because my car was broken).  In any case, almost every time I have a weekday (that isn't Friday) off from work, I arrange to have lunch and a tour of the city I love with the man I love.  No, not Mister (though I do love him dearly) - my dad.  On this particular day in my memory, Dad and I had a light lunch and then went over to the National Constitution Center for a quick stroll.  My dad, in a moment of shock and awe about my ignorance to my own neighborhood, appalled that I could live near the most historical part of the country and not play tourist more frequently said the following:
"You need to get out more."

There's nothing like your dad telling you to get out more to drive home your reclusive tendencies.

So, [a little late] I took his advice.  I took yesterday off from work so I could enjoy my city and it was delightful!  Let's start the parade!

I can't remember exactly where this is (and I'm sure the owners of this home appreciate that), but it's somewhere on an east-west street in Society Hill if you want to go on a scavenger hunt.

I was super organized about my day off (anyone surprised?) because I wanted to be sure I packed as much PIFA goodness and "me time" into the daylight hours as possible - the night belonged to another terrific outing, but of a completely different nature.

Anyway, as I was walking along, the colorful window boxes and urns full of flowers caught my eye.  Please - look at those flowers - that's an understatement.  At first I felt funny standing outside someone's home taking pictures of their flowers, but then I decided that if they didn't want other people to enjoy them, they wouldn't have put them out in their "front yard" like that.

my sister was named after these delicate white blossoms

I was passing by on my way toward Washington Square, which is becoming quite green and beautiful.  I must admit, I love the Square in the winter, when the trees are bare and establish an incredible contrast against fallen snow, but the Square really is gorgeous in every season.

On the southeast corner of the square sits Locks Gallery.  I've passed this building hundreds of times but since I work odd hours, it's always been closed.  I honestly had no idea whether it was a really fancy hair salon ("locks"?  why not?) or an actual art gallery.  Turns out it is the latter and they are hosting an exhibit of surreal art as part of PIFA: The Insolent Eye - Jarry in Art

If you maximize and/or squint at this photo, you can see that the building was erected only 7 years after we established ourselves as an independent country.  I think that's pretty darn cool.

I also think these chairs are pretty darn cool and would love to have one in my home.  I wonder what one would need to do to get one (besides steal it or become an overnight millionaire).  It looks like you're sitting on a cello.

Honestly, that was probably my favorite part of the gallery, and it was just a chair in an educational room - not part of the exhibit.  I don't actually like surrealism, aside from my love of David Lynch movies, but that's quite a different thing.  I just figured I'd stop in on my way to the exhibit I was totally psyched about, hosted by the Athenaeum, on the eastern side of the Square.

approaching the Athenaeum

I love the architectural details of this building.  Not too coincidentally, the exhibit hosted as part of PIFA deals with French influence on Philadelphia's architecture.  Bastille to Broad Street is a beautiful and very educational exhibit that I strongly encourage all residents of this fine city to attend - for heaven's sake, it's free - you have nothing to lose.

I love Philadelphia's buildings.  I love the juxtaposition of old and new mixed throughout the city, especially in my little radius of "home," which roughly includes Queen Village, Society Hill/Independence Mall, and Old City.  Being the eastern-most neighborhoods, it makes sense that they are also the oldest and most historically rich neighborhoods in the city.  I could spend hours (and I have) just wandering around my neighborhood and looking at the old buildings, or the 18th century home just next to the modern, urban, severe townhouse built at the turn of the 21st century.

For another tour of my neighborhood, click here.

After delighting myself with tales of the Eastern State Penitentiary being modeled after the Bastille and the Champs-Elysees providing inspiration for Benjamin Franklin Parkway, connecting the Art Museum to City Hall, I headed over to the Kimmel Center for a little music and a light lunch.

I haven't been to the Kimmel Center as many times since it opened in 2001 as I have been in the past month.  Nevertheless, I believe I will miss the Eiffel Tower and its little airborne city of planes and trains (representing the foremost technology and innovation in the early part of the 20th century in France).  It takes such a nice picture.

What I came for, though, was the promise of a lunchtime piano concert.  I had no idea what to expect - it could be jazz for all I knew - but I wanted to watch someone other than my students play.  Turns out I couldn't possibly have gone on a better day.  I stopped to get some coffee in the plaza and nearly spilled it in my mad dash over to the small performance area when I heard someone that wasn't me playing my favorite Chopin Nocturne (E minor).  I have never heard anyone else play that tune and I think I held my breath almost the whole time.  That hooked me, obviously, and I remained to watch Larisa Kifyak play some of my favorite melodies on a gorgeous Steinway & Sons grand piano. 

After a decent cup of coffee and 90 minutes of auditory bliss, I decided to investigate the ladies' room on the lower level of the Kimmel.  Immaculately clean, as I expected it would be, the design was also surprisingly modern.  Although the Kimmel itself certainly departs from the Academy with its geometric shapes and clean lines, the restroom still made me feel as though I'd left the concert hall in favor of a hip, urban night club/bar.  I thought the mirrors were neat (circles with a ring of light around them) and as I was checking myself out, I noticed the light was making a killer reflection in my eyes, so I decided to snap a picture.  I'm glad no one came in - they probably would have thought I'd lost my mind.

I left the Kimmel and continued west, toward Rittenhouse Square.  On my way to the Rosenbach Museum, I passed a small coffee shop with the following boastful sign:

If you don't know why it's awesome to have Stumptown coffee in Philadelphia, please pay Jess a visit at Get Sconed!

I visited the Rosenbach and was enlightened, captivated, and inspired by their exhibit on James Joyce in Paris.  Think me an ignoramus if you must, but I have not been all that familiar with him.  I hope to change that going forward, especially when I learned of the great admiration F. Scott Fitzgerald (one of my favorite authors) had for him.  This is the only exhibit I had to pay for and I'll tell you - I got my $10-worth.  Go.

I stopped into Williams Sonoma for some Easter presents for my nephews, one of whom drew this beautiful picture:

I think it's called "Mommy (L) and Aunt Natalie (R) go shopping"

Anyway, after all of those adventures, I came home and made an early dinner, since Mister and I had exciting evening plans.  It was a little mind-blowing to cook and eat dinner when the sun was still up, but the flavor of Isa's 2nd Avenue Vegetable Korma from Appetite for Reduction certainly distracted us.

It didn't photograph terribly well, which is bound to be the case when part of the cooking process involves boiling the veggies for about 10 minutes.  They tasted great, though, and the jasmine rice thirstily absorbed the excess broth before Mister could get too upset about it.

After dinner, we polished ourselves off a bit and then headed up to the Trocadero to see a fabulous band from just across the [Delaware] river - Symphony X

Some friends of ours were in two of the three opening bands, so it was nice to see them and talk to them, but we went for Symphony X and were not disappointed.  They put on a far better show than I anticipated - the frontman is huge and has quite a presence, not to mention, he can really sing.  They played a lot of our favorite songs (which isn't hard when most songs are our favorite songs), including a 25 minute long encore that was a single "song," The Odyssey.  As you can probably imagine, it tells the tale of Homer's Odyssey and it is as epic as the piece of literature upon which it's based - after all, it's too long to post on YouTube in one piece!

It was a fabulous day, full of Me time and Me-n-Mister time...I was walking on air and slept like the dead.  Believe me, much like the day after the Gala, it was an epic struggle to go to work today.  Every time I passed a PIFA poster, I just wanted to turn around and play hooky.  Please do yourselves a favor, if you live in the Philadelphia area (and by that I mean, within a 6 hour drive), spend a day doing PIFA stuff before it ends on May 1st.  See the website for a full listing of events, but please, GO!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

2 ways to pre-game Friday

Today is kind of like Friday Part One.  I took tomorrow off from work because Mister and I have big plans.  Well, actually, Mister's and my big plans could have been accomplished by taking a half day, but I decided to take advantage of the fact that PIFA is still going on and avail myself on some free arts stuff.

Some women go to a salon/spa to pamper themselves.  I go to museums and live music with food carts.

Today was also an interesting food day.  It was Hot Dog Day at work.  It never fails to completely astonish me how much crappy food we serve our employees at a weight loss company.  This year's Hot Dog Day was only more civilized than last year's in two small ways:

1. We managed to avoid polluting Earth Day with our little tubes of nitrates and leftover skin.
2. We managed to avoid the novelty of a fat and toothless man serving hot dogs from his little cart.

Apart from that, it served as a reminder of two more things:

1. Just because we work for a company trying to establish itself as a total wellness solution and just because we aim to teach overweight and obese people how to establish healthy eating habits while losing weight on our program does not mean we feed our employees healthy food.

2. If there is something novel available, like, say, veggie dogs, people will choose that over their pink tubes of manipulated meat out of pure curiosity.  Unfortunately, this can end with no food for the people who can only eat the veggie dogs...people like me.

I'm trying to "be the bigger person" (not literally, obviously) and look at this from a generous and enlightened perspective, but there are two points at war within me:

1. I really, really want to focus on how awesome it was that so many meat-eaters voluntarily chose to eat something that was not dead.  I want to be happy for their excellent choice of a [albeit processed] vegetarian protein over their usual choice of rotting, preserved flesh.  I want to believe that running out of veggie dogs before the event was half over will indicate to management that there is a larger interest in good, non-meat options than they originally thought and that this revelation will result in more veggie choices in future events.

2. I wish they had "reserved" at least enough for the known vegetarians, and allowed omnis to eat "extras."  I mean, really.  I, like everyone else, had believed the company was feeding me today, so I did not bring lunch.  Them running out of veggie dogs resulted in me having to buy my lunch at the cafe, who, fortunately, had vegetarian lentil soup for me to dunk my naked hot dog rolls in.

In any case, I was happy to head home at the end of a very busy and hungry day and find that Mister was actually awake and alert.  I had nothing to say last night because when I got home, Mister was passed out in the dark in the bedroom, got up for about an hour and a half before giving up and going back to bed.  In the absence of a formal, cooked dinner, I had a grilled peanut butter sandwich and a plate of strawberries.  It was a nice little dinner, but nothing to blog about, especially since the strawberries could have been a lot closer to in season.  Speaking of seasons, I know Mister and I are quite ready to wave Allergy Season goodbye.

So, despite Mister's ambivalent hunger, I set about making Mediterranean Chickpeas and Vegetables, from the July 1998 Cooking Light magazine.  Click the meal name for the recipe - and you should - it's tasty and very easy.  If you have precooked rice, or use a faster cooking rice like Basmati or Jasmine, or even a fast-cooking grain like bulgur or couscous, you can easily get this on the table in 30 minutes, which was exactly what I was aiming to do.

It has been such a long time since we've had this that I'm pretty sure I've never served it in those bowls...which we got the first Christmas after we were married (2007).  See, it took me quite a long time to find my cooking "wings" so for the first several years of our vegetarian lives together, I just kind of made the same things in an ever-widening rotation.  I was always trying to learn new recipes, I just hadn't become confident enough in my ability to cook to take as many chances as I do now.  So, before I learned how fun it is to be adventurous in your menu selection, even if it leads to disaster from time to time, we would generally do a rotation of pizza, pasta, veggie burgers w/fries, pizza, rice and beans, my own weak version of veggie lo mein, pizza, and rice cooked in vegetable broth with whatever vegetables I found palatable that day sauteed in some olive oil with not quite enough garlic.  And pizza - did I mention that?  Yeah, Mister and I ate a lot of pizza when we stopped eating animals.

Anyway, this had a high priority in our rotation because it was the first time I thought to combine canned tomatoes with the sauteed veggies and definitely the first time I realized you could have beans (chickpeas) and rice AND veggies - I know, it blew my mind at the time, too.  So, I probably overdid it a bit, so when I started building my cookbook collection, it fell away.

I'm glad I made it and I'll probably try to remember to make it a little more frequently than once every 3 years or so, because it's really good and simple.  I always enjoy the recipes that involve bay leaves because they lend such a bizarre flavor to dishes; smoky, like I mentioned.

Anyway, I have some French wine to drink in preparation for my day of French fun tomorrow.  I'm so glad I decided to take the day off - I so enjoyed the PIFA gala and I've wanted to attend far more than I have, but alas... that whole pesky working-6-days-a-week thing gets in the way of a lot of things I want to do.  I plan to enjoy every moment of tomorrow and hope to capture as much as I can on film so we can have a little picture party tomorrow night in preparation for Real Friday.

Bonne nuit et Beaux rêves, mes amis, à demain!

Monday, April 18, 2011

simple treasures

By the time I got married, I had a pretty good handle on cooking, though I had not yet experienced the joy of the diversity wrought by a shelf full of cookbooks.  I was still building my collection - of cookbooks, cookware, and baking tips; however, by the time of my bridal shower, it was pretty well known that Natalie Loves Cooking.  As such, a theme to my shower was recipes - what ingredients were necessary for a life of love and happiness, silly games like that, and most of my gifts from my registry were either cookware or bakeware.

The woman who hosted the shower in her gorgeous, probably-been-in-magazines home owns and operates a Kitchen Kapers, so she thought all of this was wonderful.  One of her gifts to me was The Bride and Groom First & Forever Cookbook along with a matching recipe box that came with pre-printed cards as well as empty cards.  That box is now packed absurdly full from the recipes I've collected over the years, so I figured it was time to pry it out from between Fannie Farmer and my little gold book of recipes and make some old favorites this week.  We'll kick off Monday with Garlicky Pasta with Fresh Tomatoes and Basil.

I have no idea where this recipe came from, but it is sinfully simple to prepare and never ever tastes less than terrific.  All it really is, is 4 cloves of garlic

a generous handful (1/3 cup) of chopped, fresh basil

and two pounds of perfectly ripe plum tomatoes (a miracle find in April, if you ask me) with a favorable amount of salt.

But every time it comes up smelling like...okay, not roses - more like garlicky tomatoes with a hint of basil, but that smells pretty darn good and it tastes even better.

Something I noticed last night as I was spending my last contemplative moments awake before joining my asleep-since-supper husband in bed should not come as a surprise:  I love my home.  I'm so happy with the way everything is coming together, even if we did get lazy and fail to unpack the last few boxes and the living room isn't quite set up the way I want it yet.  We're close enough that I can sit here and look around and be at peace.

So, after I cleaned up from dinner, I was to pleased with how shiny and clean my kitchen looked, I thought I would share my happy place.  I've been waiting to get everything as I want it so I can do a before-and-after post, and I still will, but we'll give you a sneak preview of my kitchen.


 Nice and open, but seriously?  Do you see the complete and utter lack of counter space (assuming I actually want to use my toaster oven and coffeemaker and have a place to drain my washed dishes)?


With a little help from IKEA, I created a little, open galley kitchen! Now I have plenty of shelves for all of my cookware, as well as plenty of counter space for food prep.  Believe it or not, I can use every last inch of that long counter when baking.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

sunday, windy sunday

Aside from the near-cyclonic winds blowing down through the concrete jungle today (and by the way, Chestnut Street makes a mighty fine wind tunnel), it was a gorgeous sunny day.  It seems like ordinarily, I spend gorgeous sunny days in my cube farm, alternately wishing I was outside and wishing my office had no windows.  Today, though, I spent the whole day wandering around Philadelphia with my dear sister, delighting in one another, the sunshine, and a feeling of glamour that can only come from shopping (with a side of gossip).

You want Hollywood glamour?  Look no further than this incredible consignment store find - a black, sequined mini-dress, shrouded by a sheer black-and-white, leopard print (sometimes) overlay with a train.  We were daring each other to wear it to Brother's wedding next month in between giggles.  After all, the whole point of the trip was to find a fabulous dress for the wedding.

Bohemian Barbie

Backyard BBQ Barbie

1920s Glamour-puss Barbie

I am so blessed to have such a stunning sister - when I look at her, I think how serendipitous it was that her parents named her after a Greek goddess - this lady should be in magazines and on some billboard on Times Square.

This lady should not.  No, I did not leave with that hat - it stayed in the store where it belongs.  I did get a snazzy scarf (50% off!) that Mister said looks exactly like my other scarves; I explained that it was different - this one has tinsel woven in.

The most clever back-door-protection I've seen.
Arcadia Boutique on Rittenhouse Square

Eco-Chic Barbie

By the way - in case you were wondering - nothing looks bad on her.  She is simply breath-taking!  In addition to playing Runway Model, I also had fun walking down the streets of Philadelphia with her and watching all the guys checking her out.

After we had exhausted ourselves and most of the clothing stores we were interested in, we stopped into a few other places - the Borders closing sale, the Kimmel Center so she could see the Eiffel Tower, and Anthropologie, where I haven't been in forever.  We had fun poking through the clothes and oddities, and then came upon a table full of houseware treasures.  We examined a set of [presumably] hand-painted measuring "cups" and after a discussion on how I still need beautiful things to be functional, dear Sister scooped up the cups I had been admiring and headed for check-out.  Over my protests, she explained that she had to buy me a housewarming gift since she didn't get to help me clean when we first moved in.

Have I mentioned I love this girl?

After Anthropologie, we stopped into Starbucks for the first iced coffee beverages of the year, which we sipped through funny green straws as we walked home through sunshine and flower petals.

Lots of petals.  I wish they would stop raining, actually.  But it was still a lovely scene, and a cat hung out with us a few minutes, too, so that's always fun.

Once I had bored Mister half to death with my new measuring cups and scarf, I went out to be a responsible adult.  In other words, I went food shopping....for this menu:

1. 2nd Avenue Vegetable Korma from Appetite for Reduction, since I failed to make this last week.  Mainly, because Mister failed to be awake for dinner.

2. Jerk Seitan on Coconut Rice, both from Vegan With A Vengeance; same story as above. 

3. Garlicky Pasta with Fresh Tomatoes and Basil.  Aside from the pretty recipe box I was given at my bridal shower 4 years ago, I have no idea where this recipe came from.  I'm not too sad about that  because it's just barely a recipe.  It sure makes for a tasty (and simple) pasta dish, though.

4. Mediterranean Chickpeas and Vegetables from an old issue of Cooking Light magazine.

5. Mediterranean Pasta with Artichokes, Olives, and Tomatoes, from an old issue of Body + Soul magazine.  This is one of the first pasta dishes I made that did not involve a heavy red sauce, so it has a special place in my heart.  Oh, and it's also hella delicious.

6. Spicy Black Bean Burritos, adapted from the original red-and-white-checkered Better Homes & Gardens cookbook, lovingly given to me by my mother before I had figured out how to cook.  I've made the recipe straight before, but Mister and I agree that it tastes far better when wrapped up in a soft, salty tortilla.

So, tonight, I has happy to be able to employ the help of two of my new measuring dishes:

flaked coconut never looked so pretty

I love jasmine rice anyway, but it's far prettier now

After oohing and aahing over my pretty dishes, I got to work on Jerk Seitan on Coconut Rice, which is hardly a one-pot meal.  It's actually more like a three-pot meal, if you must know.  It smelled so delicious and so tropical, between the coconut, cinnamon, and lime scents filling the air.  To tell the truth, my hands still smell like the three limes I juiced (two for the marinade and one for the rice).

The Coconut Rice recipe yields a huge amount, so although there were no leftovers of the peppers and seitan, there is leftover rice.  I'm contemplating turning it into an easy-to-reheat breakfast cereal, although it could come in handy as a base for the Korma.  I guess you'll just have to check back and see what happens!

Bon Soir, mes amis!

(sorry.  too much PIFA)