Thursday, December 31, 2009

Recipe: Pink Bubbly Martini

There are a few days in the year that I consider to be absolutely sacred when it comes to being allowed to indulge and one of those is definitely New Year’s Eve, if only because most calories consumed on this day are of the champagne nature. I love my wine no matter what, and the bubbly kind is no exception. Unfortunately, champagne isn’t always affordable - until this time of year!!! Several varieties are on sale at most stores right now and because I’ll be spending New Year’s Eve with a few of my girlfriends, I decided to pick up a couple of bottles that we could all enjoy. The sale at my local Smart & Final allowed me to get a ridiculous deal on some André champagne (2 for $5!!!) and was also pleased to note they had excellent sales for other spirits. I had already received a bottle of Smirnoff for Christmas and I was playing around with fruit & vodka infusions, so I didn't have to spend extra money on other stuff, and I thought it would be fun make a nice AFFORDABLE champagne martini for the last recipe of 2009.

I was trying really hard to post this last night but I had internet issues yet again, so I apologize to those of you who are on the East coast and have already started your parties, as you'll need a few more hours to make the strawberry-infused vodka for this drink. You're more than welcome to use one of the many flavored vodkas out there, though! I know a couple brands have strawberry and other berry flavored spirits and champagne martinis are always fun no matter what you use in them. If you do have some time and the ingredients, give this a try! It's very easy to do your own fruit infusions with all sorts of spirits and I find they taste better anyway. If you only have a Brut champagne or Prosecco, no worries! The strawberry vodka will still give this a lovely pink color. Lastly, I used frozen strawberries for my recipe because that's all I had on hand, but if you've somehow found decent fresh strawberries out there, you can use those as well. This is a light & sweet cocktail that is perfect for those who aren't really into traditional martinis.

Hope you all have a fabulous and safe New Year's Eve and I'll see you in 2010!!!!!!!!


Pink Bubbly Martini (Makes about 6 martinis per bottle of champagne; total cost per 'tini: ~$1.75!)

1/2 c frozen strawberries
1/3 750ml bottle medium grade vodka
1 bottle well-chilled pink champagne
Extra strawberries for garnish

Prepare the berry infused vodka by combining the strawberries & vodka in an airtight container and placing it away from direct light for about 2-4 hours. When ready to serve, carefully strain the vodka into a separate container and discard the berries. To serve, place a couple of strawberries at the bottom of each glass and add a 1 1/2 oz. of the vodka. Top off with the pink champagne and enjoy!!!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Recipe: Garbanzo & Avocado Salad

As many of you know, I've had a rough couple of months, physically. Well, let me rephrase that: this entire YEAR has been tough on me when it comes to ye olde bod! It's partly due to general bad luck and partly because I'm accident prone klutz, but it's made it so that I couldn't really get in as much exercise as I would have liked in '09. I was doing Billy Blanks Ultimate Bootcamp workouts 4 times a week and then I messed up my elbow and my toe; started a serious walking regimen and sprained my ankle & got walking pneumonia, etc, etc. Needless to say, it's been tough to keep moving, which is the only way I can stay svelte because I have the slowest metabolism EVER! I'm not one to let that get me down, though; all December long (until last Wednesday, in fact; I have no power over homemade baklava), I have not only resisted the mountains of chocolate and baked goods that have been all over my office - not to mention the results of the bake-off Mom and I had over Christmas weekend - I have also gotten a jumpstart on the New Year workout craze despite my messed up ankle by rediscovering Pilates. I used to do Pilates daily for years and the results really showed, so I figured it was the best & quickest way to get back into the swing of things without further injuring my foot. This month I've already lost a total of 2.5" from my waist & hips because of my dedication to Pilates and can't wait to see even more results now that I'm completely addicted again!

Anyway, I figured since I'd indulged in a bit too much cheese due to my gorgeous new cheese board set and in the results of Mom's baking prowess over the weekend (why does Mom food always taste better?), I would be a very good girl this week, especially since I hope to enjoy plenty of champagne on New Year's Eve. I also thought it would be nice to bring you all along with me so that you, too, can get a jumpstart on those weight loss goals EVERYONE seems to have during the New Year. Why wait until January, right? Today's recipe is another super easy dish that I whipped up at work with the few ingredients I managed to throw into my bag before my ride left me this morning (Mondays are hard enough; Mondays after a 4-day Christmas weekend - even worse!). Sure, this probably seems more like a summertime recipe, but again - why wait 'til next year to have something light, healthy and completely delicious?

As with most of my bean salads, this is quite easy to prepare and will go nicely atop a generous amount of your favorite greens. This dish is packed with protein & fiber to keep you full and energized for hours, and you'd never know it's good for you by the flavor. With a sweet & slightly spicy dressing, this festive looking little salad tastes just wonderful and nothing like a "healthy" dish. And everyone can enjoy this: it's gluten-free, vegan, low carb, low cal, and all that jazz. And did I mention it's just under $2/serving?

Garbanzo & Avocado Salad (makes 2-3 servings; total cost per serving: ~ $1.85)

1 can garbanzo beans, drained
1 small Roma tomato, diced
1/2 yellow bell pepper, diced
1/2 small red onion, diced
1 large avocado, chopped
2 scallions, chopped
Small handful of cilantro, finely chopped (optional)

Juice of 2 medium oranges
1 T rice vinegar
1 t olive oil
1 T honey
1/8 t salt
Couple pinches of cayenne pepper
A very generous amount of ground black pepper

Prepare the dressing by whisking all dressing ingredients together until completely combined. Combine the beans and all the veggies in a medium bowl and toss together with the dressing. Garnish with extra black pepper if you like, serve over plenty of fresh greens or by itself, and enjoy!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Recipe: Mandarin-Cranberry Thumbprint Cookies

I’ve always been a fan of gifts that actually involve some time & effort on the giver’s part: homemade crafts, some personalized poetry, a collection of photographs that will have great meaning, etc, etc. Not that I don’t like store-bought things! I love participating in both types of retail therapy (buying for others and receiving for myself) and get the same rush as anyone else when gifted with something really spectacular (like the gorgeous new designer purse my Aunt got me; Holy Hannah! I was NOT expecting that!). But I still like giving a little something that came from my heart rather than the mall. Making your own gifts really helps to cut down on costs, too. I’m sure a lot of you have been hearing the media coverage on this year’s slow economy and its effects on the whole Christmas shopping show, and one thing I saw on a few different newscasts was that many folks are spending more at their local grocery stores than at department stores. Why? They realize the value of rolling up one’s sleeves and baking a couple of batches of sweet treats for their friends & loved ones. Not only does it cost much less than most department store gifts, it’s something the receiver can truly appreciate as something that took a little extra thought & effort. Not once have I seen a face that doesn’t light up at the sight of baked goodies, especially once they hear that they’re homemade.

So here’s my attempt at creating something different when I bake, which means: something that doesn’t involve chocolate. As a card-carrying chocoholic I adore all my chocolate confections, but I didn’t really have any chocolate to bake with and couldn’t really afford to get some. I considered making some of my mom’s pecan sandies but couldn’t really afford the pecans, either. Finally, I decided to make something up that involved a couple of mandarins and the remaining dried cranberries I had in my cupboard. I love the taste & aroma that fresh citrus rind can add to any recipe and thought it would be fun to use some of the mandarin rind in my dough, as well as a tiny amount of fresh mandarin juice. Since I didn’t have any jam or cranberry sauce for the thumbprint cookies I had in mind, I made my own “jam” by soaking the dried cranberries in fresh mandarin juice and pureeing them once they’d plumped up. The result was a deliciously sweet-tart jam delicately scented with sweet mandarins.

Though I’m more of a cook than a baker, I’m still pretty pleased with how these little cookies turned out. They’re not too sweet and the tartness of the jam lends an extra zip that’s played up wonderfully by the mandarin rind in the actual cookies. Their small size makes them easy to share and a little less guilt-ridden than some of the more sinful treats out there. But my favorite part is how these cookies just came to be. By staying creative and upping my resourcefulness to combat my lack of jam, I was able to create something out of almost nothing, which is something I try to hammer home as much as possible on ye olde blog. When you have very little cash and no credit at your disposal, and you only have a few ingredients in your kitchen, try not to freak out. Take a moment to breathe & regroup and put on your thinking cap (or go to the Recipes tab at the top of the page, lol); you’d be surprised at the new & interesting combos you can create yourself. Trust me; this is exactly what I do most of the time and so far I’ve been very pleased with the results! It really does help to take away from some of the stress of being so broke to know that a small amount something can go a long way – sometimes far enough to provide some delicious, low cost gifts for your loved ones.

Mandarin-Cranberry Thumbprint Cookies (makes 45 cookies; total cost of recipe: ~ $5.00)

1 ½ sticks of unsalted butter (at room temperature)
2 ¼ c all purpose flour
1 c granulated sugar
½ t baking powder
¼ t salt
1 large egg
2 t mandarin juice
2 T mandarin zest

Cranberry “Jam”
1/2 c dried cranberries
1/3 c mandarin juice

Soak the dried cranberries in the mandarin juice until plump (4 hours or so) and puree until smooth. If too liquid, simply place the puree into a fine mesh strainer and allow some of the liquid to drain off until you’re left with a thicker jam. Place in a bowl and set aside. Grate the mandarins and place the zest on a plate with plenty of paper towels and blot gently to absorb some of the extra oils. This will make the zest easier to work with as it will not clump together.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl cream together the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until creamy & fluffy. Add the egg and mandarin juice and beat into the butter & sugar mixture. Slowly, with the mixer on its lowest speed, add the flour mixture about ½ cupful at a time. Mix until completely combined. Shape the dough into a large, flattened disk, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 325° and prepare the baking sheets with parchment paper. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let stand for about 5 minutes before shaping into 1” balls. Take each ball and make a slight indentation with your finger and fill with about ¼- ½ teaspoon of cranberry jam and place on the parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until lightly golden on the bottom. These cookies are supposed to be soft and have a naturally pale color so make sure not to overbake. Cool on cookie racks for about 10 minutes and enjoy!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holiday Meal Ideers

Ahhhh, Christmas! It’s literally around the corner and I’m sure a lot of folks out there are still scrambling about to get all the last minute details of the holiday taken care of. I’ll be spending half my holiday in San Jose with me mum and the other half here in Sac (still with me mum; we like to share these things), and except for the fact that my Dad’s Christmas gift is going to get there closer to when the 3 wise men actually got to Baby Jesus, I’m actually kinda prepared this year. So, in honor of this year’s Boy Scout-like preparedness, I thought I’d put together a few recipe ideas - from brunch to dinner to desserts & drinks – that you can try in case you’re still running around like crazy and haven’t figured out what to serve for the holidays!

My Birthday French Toast
Butternut-Leek Bisque in Acorn Squash Bowls
Baked Sweet Potato Fries with Pineapple-Cranberry Chutney
Roasted Beets & Pears with Sautéed Beet Greens
Pork Loin Medallions in Balsamic-Honey Glaze Over Potato Pancakes
Black Bean, Sweet Potato & Cranberry Salad
Spiced Eggnog Cheesecake Dessert Shots
Berry-Chevre Cheesecake Shots
Spiced Pear Bread Pudding with Red Wine Glaze
Sweet & Fruity White Wine Sangria

May you and yours have a beautiful and very Merry Christmas!

Poor Girl & Fam :)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Recipe: Quick & Easy Sweet & Sour Seitan

So is everyone tired of holiday sweets & treats yet? I’m not (at least, not yet), but it is rather off-putting when practically every food site is shoving cookies, roasts, and stuffing in one’s face. Don’t get me wrong, I am in FULL holiday mode, complete with garlands in my living room, jingle bell earrings on my ears, and Christmas-themed spatulas in hand so I can mix my Christmas goodies; however, holiday overload can be just that: overload. With all the cranberries, turkeys, baked goods, etc, out there, it’s almost hard to remember what exactly one eats when it’s not Thanksgiving-through-Christmas. Fortunately you have me, someone who is constantly mindful of these things, if only for the selfish reason of not having to subject myself to TOO much holiday goodness, so I thought I’d share a super simple recipe that most folks can enjoy as a “real world” departure from Holidayland.

Now, when I first posted about seitan, I honestly thought I’d start losing readers because it’s just not the sort of thing most food bloggers post about. I mean, really; it’s not the most attractive food at first, and the thousands that are afflicted with some sort of wheat allergy cannot partake of this great protein source, making it difficult for everyone to enjoy. However, after seeing that a lot of my recent traffic is actually driven by seitan searches, I realized I was not quite as crazy as I thought and decided to share another of my favorite ways to use seitan: Sweet & Sour! I think EVERYONE likes sweet & sour something for one reason or another: the sweet and/or the sour; the peppers; the sauce; the crispy chicken/pork/etc. in sauce. It’s so not the best thing for you but so delicious anyhow. Because I’m bare-bonesin’ it until sometime in January (or until Mommy spoils me, whichever comes first), I have a very short list of items that are currently gracing my refrigerator: a package of chicken style seitan; some navel oranges; baby spinach; stone ground mustard; rice vinegar; and a package of lavash bread. Not exactly the type of ingredients that will become something fabulous in the future, even with MY creative brain. I had to do something, so I turned to my freezer and cupboards, which was ever so kind in showing me things like pepper strips and brown sugar, respectively. I had soy sauce, some rice, even a can of pineapple; I was set.

Though this is not your typical Asian-food fare, it’s still rather tasty and harkens up memories of Chinese takeout without being anywhere NEAR as bad for you. Using seitan, far less sodium and a lot less fat, this is one sweet & sour dish that won’t leave you feeling guilty. And at just about $2.25/serving, you can safely tell Santa that you’ve been nice this year, no matter how naughty this tastes!

Sweet & Sour Seitan (serves 4; total cost per serving [including rice]: $2.45)

1 10 oz. package seitan
1 small yellow onion
1 c assorted color pepper strips)
½ can pineapple chunks, juice reserved
¼ c cornstarch
1 T granulated garlic
2 T soy sauce
1 ½ T cooking oil

¼ c low-sodium soy sauce
1/3 c brown sugar
½ t granulated garlic
½ can tomato paste
2 T rice vinegar

Prepare the sauce by combining all the sauce ingredients in a small saucepan and whisking together over medium low heat until slightly thick. Cover and set aside.

Cut the seitan into 1½“strips and marinate briefly in the soy sauce. Add the garlic and the cornstarch and toss until the seitan is completely coated. Heat the oil over medium high heat in a large skillet, then add the seitan. Pan fry until the seitan has turned a golden brown and is crispy on the outside. Add the pepper strips and onions and cook until heated (about 2 minutes). Add a generous amount of sauce and the pineapple chunks and stir until combined & heated through.

Serve over white rice or noodles with extra sauce if you like, and enjoy!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Recipe: Butternut-Leek Bisque in Acorn Squash Bowls

It was another cold December night last night and there I was, making soup again, surprise, surprise. I’m sure a lot of you are wondering why I’m so soup happy these days, and aside from the fact that I am just slightly obsessed by it these days and that it helps a Poor Girl stay warm during the winter, it also just makes good economic sense. As I mention in Tip #4, Never Underestimate the Power of Soup, not only is homemade soup filling and pleasing to the palate, it makes use of simple ingredients to create a lot of food that will go a long way, thereby stretching your budget. By spending $8-10 on the ingredients for a hearty soup that will make at least 6 large servings rather than spending those same $8-10 on 1½ extra value meals at your local fast food joint, you are helping your health and helping your hard-earned money last just a tiny bit longer. Not to mention that the soup options are unending! You can literally make it out of anything, and the more I play around with different soup concoctions, the more I fall in food love.

This time I got inspired by the beauty and practicality of the ingredients I had on hand, namely the cute litter butternut and perfectly shaped acorn squashes I still had in my big bowl. Their versatility never ceases to amaze me and I made sure to make good use of that in this recipe. Many times you find that you don’t need manmade bowls or plates because nature has taken care of that for you. Case in point: the acorn squash. Its round shape makes it perfect for doubling as a bowl and used for stuffing a great deal of the time, while its range of colors and its decorative look make it quite aesthetically pleasing. I thought it would be fun to make a nice soup out of the butternut squash and use my acorn squash halves as my “bowls”. However, I didn’t want the similar nutty squash flavors to become muddled together so that they’d be difficult to distinguish, and I needed a way to use a lone leek I still had in the fridge, so I decided to add said leek to the soup for a twist on the way this would taste.

Except for the time it takes to roast the squashes and chop the veggies, this is pretty easy to make. Though it’s a bisque, it’s on the healthier side because there isn’t too much in the way of heavy whipping cream or butter; rather, I used just a little bit of olive oil and plenty of tasty vegetable stock, with just the tiniest amount of milk to make things a little creamier. Vegans or those who cannot consume dairy, don’t fret! To make this work for you, simply replace the 1/2 cup of milk in the recipe with 1/2 cup of vegetable stock. Lastly, don’t feel like you have to serve this in the acorn squash bowls! If you don’t have them, don’t run out & buy them, simply make the butternut & leek bisque on its own and serve in a pretty bowl. Now for the recipe!

Butternut-Leek Bisque in Acorn Squash Bowls (makes 4-6 servings of soup; total cost per serving: ~ $1.65)

1 small butternut squash (about 1 – 1½ lbs)
1 medium acorn squash
1 clove of garlic, minced
3/4 c chopped leeks (greens & whites)
1/2 c diced white onion
3/4 c chopped carrots
2½ c vegetable stock
1/2 c nonfat milk (or an extra 1/2 c vegetable stock for those who don’t eat dairy)
2 T + 1 T olive oil
1/2 t salt
1 t freshly ground black pepper
1/2 t dried sage
1/2 t dried thyme
1/4 t paprika
1½ T honey
Salt & pepper to taste (for butternut squash cubes)

Preheat the oven to 425°. Peel, seed & chop the butternut squash into 1” cubes and toss together with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and a bit of salt & pepper. Cut the acorn squash in half and remove the seeds and as much of the stringy part of the flesh as you can without digging too far into it. Place the acorn squash halves face down in a shallow baking pan with 1-2 tablespoons of water, and arrange the butternut squash cubes in a single layer on a foil-lined baking sheet. Place both items into the oven and bake/roast for about 25-30 minutes, until both squashes are tender when pierced with a fork. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

In a large pot heat the olive oil and add the garlic & onions. Heat over medium high heat until they’re both fragrant, and then add the leeks and carrots and all the herbs & seasonings. Cook until the carrots begin to soften, then add the roasted butternut squash cubes, followed by the vegetable stock. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat, place the soup into a blender and purée until smooth. Add the milk and the honey and blend until completely incorporated. Return to the stove and finish over medium-low heat for about 7 more minutes or so.

To serve, slice a very thin section from the bottom of your acorn squash “bowls” so that they don’t wobble & spill your soup. Ladle the butternut-leek bisque into each bowl, garnish with extra paprika, and enjoy!

Tip #10: Recycle Your Takeout - All of It!

Let’s face it: there are times in everyone’s lives where cooking is just not an option because of time constraints, illness, or just plain old fashioned laziness. Thankfully, man has invented takeout and delivery, leaving one less thing to deal with in our busy lives. Though I don’t do it anywhere near as often as I used to, there are times when I just want my food to be brought to me and I will get some takeout, or in my car-less situation, delivery. Of course, the types of food you can get delivered are pretty limited (unless you live in New York City where they deliver EVERYTHING), but one can never go wrong with a good pizza, some Chinese food, or even sushi if you’re really lucky (like I am with Sacramento’s Tamaya Sushi). You have something "fun", there's little to no clean up if you eat out of the container with chopsticks or on the paper plates that are provided, and most of the time you can count on leftovers. Though the price of this convenience is always super high - for the price of an extra large pizza delivered to my home, I can do an entire $25 Shopping Cart that will give me at least 10 days worth of fresher, healthier food - it's still a nice option to have.

So how can you make the most of your take out or delivery meal without being bound to the boredom of cold congealed chow mein noodles or tough, cold pizza slices? Here are a few of the ways I stretch everything they pack into those tiny little plastic bags:

~ Pizza/Italian: Aside from the standard leftovers, be sure to hang on to those packets or containers of parmesan cheese and red chili flakes! Place them in airtight containers so that you can use them for different recipes in the future. When you’re on an extremely tight budget these can come in really handy! We all know that parmesan cheese is sometimes not that affordable, whether it’s fresh or pre-grated, and believe me, these little packets do add up when you put them all together. Same thing applies to the red chili flakes that they give you. These small amounts can help you replenish what you use without having to spend too much extra money on some new spices. A little bit here, a little bit there adds up very quickly.

~ Chinese: Done with all the yummy leftovers but still stuck with 3-4 extra boxes of steamed rice? Don’t let it sit there until you have to throw it away – make your own homemade fried rice! Simply add mixed veggies, a couple of scrambled eggs, chopped green onions and some soy sauce, and you’ll be set. If you don’t want a repeat of Chinese food, use the rice in soups, as the base for Arroz con Pavo (or pollo), or make a nice rice salad. There are plenty of ways to make these leftovers work for you so you can make the most of your order! And don’t forget the soy sauce packets, either. These are lifesavers if you’re in a pinch and need a little bit of flavor in your dish.

~ Mexican: This is more of a takeout thing rather than delivery, but the same rules apply. Like other restaurants, Mexican restaurants will give you far more food than most folks can handle when they pack up your To Go order. You order what seems like a simple recipe and you’re left with Mexican rice, beans and tortillas to feed a small army! This is a wonderful thing, however, because you’re now left with the basics for making some simple bean & rice burritos for the next day’s lunch. Simply add your favorite salsa & condiments and you’re set. Too many leftover tortilla chips? Add a generous amount of shredded cheese, some shredded leftover chicken and your favorite fixings, and presto! Easy chicken nachos!

Again, none of this is rocket science, but I hope I’ve been able to give you a couple of new pointers you might not have thought of in regards to all those condiments and extras restaurants will give you. It may seem like these are rather miserly moves but those of you who really need to pinch pennies like I do can truly appreciate the help these small changes can provide. Happy leftovers! :)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Newsworthy: PGEW Gives Back to the Community

Those of you who follow me on Facebook know that my new job has me working at the Catholic Diocese, a job I truly enjoy at the moment. The Diocese has its own newspaper (two, in fact, they just couldn't figure out how to get me into the Spanish paper, though I'm on that task like white on rice), and it focuses on a variety of issues that face the Church and the city as a whole. During Thanksgiving, The Catholic Herald did a special "giving back" feature that focused on people within our local Catholic community that were helping others in different ways. I thought it was great that my direct boss and the editor at the Herald thought that my small contribution was newsworthy enough and I'm proud to have it featured in their publication. Though I love showing off the miserly but delicious foods I eat on a regular basis, I also love showing folks -whether rich or poor - how to enjoy one of the most basic pleasures of life - food - in a non-guilt-ridden way.

Click on the following link for the full story, and please keep in mind this season that there are several out there who truly cannot afford this basic, simple need of nutrition. If you can, PLEASE donate to your local foodbanks or churches and give those who can't afford it on their own, the gift of good food. And if it's after Christmas, please keep donating; hunger knows no bounds, and it will keep haunting the needy no matter what date falls on the calendar.

Thank you!

Tastemaker Program Recipe: Red Potato & Leek Puff Pastry Pouches

The fine folks at Foodbuzz recently teamed up with an amazing new sponsor: Pepperidge Farm! I'm sure many of you out there have at least one Pepperidge Farm favorite, be it their fun Goldfish snacks, incredible Sausalito cookie, or the always classic Milano. They're not all about snacks though, and those of us in the Tastemaker Program had the opportunity to give their puff pastry sheets a try on the house. It took me awhile to be well enough to hobble to Safeway to pick some up but I was finally able to do so this weekend and proceeded to get my bake on. My only problem, however, was deciding what to make. I mean, seriously! With puff pastry the possibilities are endless!

After reining in some of my loftier ideas which involved ingredients I neither had nor would be able to afford anytime soon, I decided to make something easy but definitely tasty. Using some red potatoes that were starting to eye me more than they should have and some lovely green leeks, I created a fun little appetizer that would be fun to serve at a holiday party or any special food event you might be having. And except for the sinful little puff pastry this simple mixture is wrapped in, this is probably one of the lesser evils of a holiday spread.

Now you're probably wondering how a puff pastry recipe can be so inexpensive; most of the time these flaky treats can cost up $5/each at a store or restaurant. But that's the beauty of making things at home! With 1 package of puff pastry sheets that costs around $5 at most major grocery stores, half a leek and just a few baby red potatoes, you can make one dozen of these tasty little pockets. The whole recipe works out to about $8.50, making each of these just around $0.70! Gotta love that! And because they're filled with good stuff and not just fluff, they will definitely be satisfying.

Just a couple things to note on this recipe: you MUST make sure that everything is finely chopped and resist the temptation to use a lot of filling per pocket. Puff pastry does just what it says: it puffs! And if you're making something that's supposed to be completely enclosed within the pastry, it's imperative that you give the pastry enough room to expand. Of course, there's no need to be stingy; just be careful not to overstuff and seal your litte puff pastry pocket well so that none of the good stuff escapes. And now for the recipe!

Red Potato & Leek Puff Pastry Pouches (makes 12 appetizers; total cost of recipe: ~$8.50; cost per puff: $0.70!)

1 package (2 sheets) of Pepperidge Farms Puff Pastry Sheets
1/2 medium leek, finely chopped (both whites & greens, about 1/4" pieces)
6 baby red potatoes, finely diced (about 1/4" pieces)
1 1/2 T olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
Salt & pepper to taste
1/8 c parmesan cheese
1 egg + 1 T water

Thaw the puff pastry sheets according to package instructions. Preheat the oven to 400° and prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet then add the minced garlic. Cook over medium high heat until lightly browned & fragrant. Add the diced potatoes and stir fry quickly, seasoning with the salt & pepper. Cover and cook for about 2 minutes or until the potatoes just become tender. Turn off the heat and add the chopped leeks and the parmesan cheese, mixing together well. Cover and set aside.

Cut the pastry sheets into three long strips along the fold lines, then cut each strip in half. Place about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the potato & leek mixture in the center. Fold one corner of the pastry over the filling, then fold the opposite corner on top of that, tucking the fillin into the center as much as possible. Take the other two corners of the pastry sheet and pinch together, twisting the two ends together at the top for a decorative look. If there are any gaps in the dough, gently pinch them closed with your fingers to completely seal the pouch. Lightly beat the egg with the tablespoon of water until just combined. Brush the egg wash on top of the pastry pouches and then place them on the parchment lined baking sheet.

Bake for 20-22 minutes or until the pastries have puffed up and turned golden brown. Remove from oven & allow to cool a bit before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature, and enjoy!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Recipe: Cheesy Broccoli, Cauliflower & Pasta Bake

Many years ago I worked as a mental health counselor for a couple of board & care facilities. Among the many duties we were supposed to perform was the great task of cooking for 18 people, sometimes up to 40 depending on whether we had something special planned for our clients. Needless to say, I got really good at cooking for a small army and prided myself in being the cook all of the clients wanted to make their meals for them (some of my coworkers were, sadly, not very adept in the kitchen). Unfortunately a lot of the recipes we worked from were not in the healthiest vein, partly because of what was donated to us and partly because there is only so much a non-profit can actually afford to buy. Still, there were wonderful things I ended up doing to pork loin and chicken (culinarily, of course, for my naughty-minded friends who read this) and I think the whole experience really helped me hone my Poor Girl skills long before I became said Girl.

The following recipe is a healthier adaptation of a very simple, non-rocket-science, easy-to-make casserole that my crisis house clients used to love, mainly because of the insane amount of cheese that was involved. I know, I know, I was just praising myself in my last post for my ability to get over the cheese addiction, but I didn't say I was totally over my favorite dairy product! I can just control it better these days. :) Though this has a fair amount of cheese to be pleasing, I use non-fat milk, brown rice pasta and fresh broccoli & cauliflower to make up for the sinful stuff. The original version calls for about double this amount of cheese, a ton of white pasta and Velveeta (for crying out loud!), not to mention half a chicken or so, making it a caloric nightmare.

The excess of measurements alone also made the original a rather costly affair, the only redeeming quality being that I could make use of the vegetables I knew my clients wouldn't eat otherwise (Moms & dads of finicky eaters, take note: this is one possible way to get those veggies into otherwise reluctant little mouths!). By reducing the amount of cheese, omitting the chicken and throwing in those vegetable remnants that sometimes get forgotten in the refrigerator drawers, this goes down not only in calories & fat grams, but in price as well. Of course, if you have some available and want to add a little bit of leftover chicken, by all means do so! But I wouldn't suggest going out of your way to add it, unless you are looking to make this the entrée for your meal. This is a great meatless entree but works far better as a side in my opinion. Let's check out this super-simple but comfort-foodie recipe.

Cheesy Broccoli, Cauliflower & Pasta Bake (makes 4 servings; total cost per serving: $1.10)

2 c cooked, al dente brown rice penne (whole wheat will also be fine if you can't find brown rice pasta)
1 can fat free cream of mushroom soup
3/4 c nonfat milk
1/2 t granulated garlic
Salt & pepper to taste
3/4 c broccoli florets
3/4 c cauliflower florets
1 1/2 c reduced fat cheddar cheese, divided
Small amount of cooking spray

Preheat the oven to 400°. In a small saucepan combine the milk, cream of mushroom soup, garlic, and salt & pepper, and whisk together over medium low heat until smooth. Combine the pasta, broccoli, cauliflower and 3/4 c of cheese in a large bowl and add the mushroom soup, folding everything together so it's evenly mixed. Lightly spray a 9" x 12" casserole dish with cooking spray and add the pasta & veggie mixture. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top and bake for 20-25 minutes, until the cheese is melted & bubbly. Serve as a side or with a salad as a meatless entree and enjoy!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Recipe: Poor Girl's Ultimate Cold Weather Soup

I have a confession to make:

I, Kimberly A. Morales, a.k.a Poor Girl, cannot stop making soup.

Granted, this isn't the worst thing that a gal can do, especially when she's half-Colombian (Colombians eat soup almost everyday) and when the recent weather has been so frightfully cold. It's only natural to want something warm and soothing to enjoy during 25-degree weather, right? And I have to give myself props for successfully getting over last year's insane cheese addiction (Remember that? What was WRONG with me?) and replacing it with something a little less sinful. Still, I'm starting to feel guilty about posting new soup recipes almost every other post and wanted to let you know that I do still remember what salads, entrees and desserts are! They'll just have to share the spotlight with a few more soups & stews that have been brewin' in my mind and on my stove.

My latest concoction involves a little bit of everything, like any good soup is apt to do. Sopa de retazos, as my mom & aunts would call it; "remnant soup." Though my final recipe title isn't as poetic as some of my others, it's still more euphonious than that! Anyway, I had some turkey sausage I needed to use before freezer burn would set in and since I hardly ever cook with sausage, I thought it would be a nice start for a good, hearty soup. Because it's been so friggin' cold lately, I wanted to make sure I could have something tasty and filling that would warm me up from the inside out so I made sure to add plenty of veggies to the pot, tying everything together with a hot, savory broth.

Like most soups, it's not rocket science or fancy ingredients that make this so wonderful; it's the final combination of flavors that makes all the difference. As you'll read soon enough, the ingredients are nothing spectacular or über expensive (because this is, of course, my blog); in fact, there's a fair amount of canned goods and leftover veggies involved. However, the blend of herbs played up by the slight spiciness of the sausage, combined with the crunchiness of the carrots & celery and the smoothness of the potato and dark red beans all come together like a perfect symphony in a pot. I was actually chatting with a new foodie friend about this last night and ended up waxing poetic (and probably boring him) about soup for a good 5 minutes straight: how it starts from insignificant bits of this and that, how everything simmers together in beautiful harmony, how it eventually becomes this completely different work of art.....

Okay, so it's probably not like that for everyone and you'll have to forgive me for being loopier than usual as they still have me on a Phenergan regimen for this stupid cough. But I can tell you that this soup accomplishes 4 things: it fills you up, warms you up, tastes incredible and costs under $2/serving. Now THAT is poetry. ;)

Poor Girl's Ultimate Cold Weather Soup (makes 6-8 servings; total cost per serving: $1.95)

4 c low sodium chicken broth
4 Italian turkey sausage links
2 cans dark red kidney beans, rinsed & drained
2 c mire poix (diced carrots, celery & onion)
1 1/2 c chopped Roma tomatoes
2 medium Russet potatoes, diced
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
2 T olive oil
1 t salt
1 t freshly ground black pepper
1/2 t dried rosemary
1/2 t dried oregano
1/2 t thyme
1/4 t fennel seed

In a large soup pot heat the olive oil and garlic over medium high heat until the garlic becomes fragrant. Remove the sausages from their casings and cook them with the olive oil and garlic, seasoning with the salt, pepper and all the herbs. Cook the sausage until it barely begins to brown, then add the diced potatoes. Continue cooking until the potatoes begin to soften then add the mire poix, cooking for another 2 minutes or so. Add the broth and bring to a low boil. Reduce heat to medium, cover and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the beans and simmer for another 5-7 minutes. Check for seasoning and adjust accordingly (I find it's nice to add a bit of extra pepper at this point).

Serve generous amounts of soup in large bowls or mugs with plenty of crusty bread (and a glass of red wine, perhaps?) and enjoy!

(NOTE: Don't have sausage? Use cooked chicken instead! Just add it with the beans & tomatoes towards the end so you don't end up with tough chicken.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Recipe: Roasted Beets & Pears with Sautéed Beet Greens

What a rough couple of weeks! Sorry things have been so slow around here but as I mentioned in my last post, after enjoying the Thanksgiving festivities I was knocked down with walking pneumonia, something I had never had and don’t recommend (although the free ab toning and weight loss was a nice bonus, lol). Normally if I’m sick I know I have to cook something for myself to make sure I keep going but this hit me so hard there were times I forgot I had a kitchen or the need to eat. Fortunately after a lot of rest (a week off work – D’OH! I shudder to think of the financial consequences of this…) and plenty of meds I am back at work and back in the kitchen. I’m still not 100% but I’m definitely much better than I have been the past couple of weeks and couldn’t be happier about that. So far I’ve had a blast making a huge batch of my (almost) famous Hearty Mushroom & Potato Soup and toying around with the beginnings of the recipe I am about to feature. It’s great to be back in my kitchen and even better to be back in blogging mode.

I don’t know about all of you but after I’m really sick I just want to eat a lot of healthy and green things. I’m not sure if it’s something my body craves to detox itself from the ickiness of meds or if it’s something purely psychological, but the last thing I want to eat is anything unhealthy! I crave leafy greens, fresh vegetables, LIFE. Unfortunately it’s too friggin’ cold here in Sacramento to really enjoy these things in their perfectly raw state (we had SNOW on Monday, for crying out loud!), so I thought I’d improvise a bit. I had some gorgeous beets still hanging around from the last time I went shopping that I knew I’d be roasting and putting into something eventually. I remembered I’d rinsed & saved their beautiful greens too, so I wanted to make sure to use those before it was too late.

Now you all know how I feel about my roasted beets - I LOVE them! The sad part is that I haven't really played much with the incredibly healthy greens that come along with them. I've tossed them in a couple of stir-frys here and there just for texture but I've never experimented with their own unique flavor. I thought it would be fun to contrast their very slight bitterness against the natural sweetness of the actual beets, with the extra treat of roasted pears. Though I'm sure a good Bosc pear would be great in this recipe because of its firmness, feel free to use any pear varietal that you might have at your disposal; it's the sweetness & texture that counts more than the actual type of pear. (NOTE: I do not recommend adding too much to the pears in the way of spices as this will detract from the simplicity of the flavors and not go well with the beets.) A simple balsamic-honey dressing tossed with this early winter salad brings everything together, and the addition of gorgonzola crumbles adds extra zip. I would imagine adding some sort of candied nut like walnuts or pecans would just put this dish over the top in excellence, but alas, Poor Girl must make due with what she's got. I'm not complaining, though! This is a great side dish that easy to make and would probably go well with a nice pork loin, though I ate my big bowl of early winter goodness on its own. It definitely gave me the health boost I needed and now I'm ready to start concocting another sinful dessert to bring to you later this week. ;) But first, eat your veggies!

Roasted Beets & Pears with Sautéed Beet Greens (serves 3-4 as a side; total cost per serving: ~$2.50)

3 medium beets AND their greens (stems and all!)
2 firm, medium pears of your choice
1 T butter
1 T brown sugar
2 T olive oil
1 t granulated garlic
Salt & pepper to taste
1/3 c crumbled gorgonzola cheese

3 T balsamic vinaigrette
1/4 c honey

Preheat the oven to 425°. Prepare the glaze by whisking together the honey and balsamic vinaigrette until smooth and set aside. Cut the greens from the beets and rinse very well, drying with plenty of paper towels or with a salad spinner. Chop the leaves and stems coarsely (about 2” strips) and set aside in a large bowl. Scrub the beets well, wrap each in foil and place in the oven to roast for about 15 minutes.

In the meantime, rinse and core the pears (peeling is optional; sometimes the aesthetics of the peel are quite lovely) and cut into 1” thick slices. Toss the pear slices with the brown sugar and place in a baking dish that’s been greased with the butter. Place in the oven (on a separate rack, of course) along with the beets after the beets have passed the 15 minute mark and roast for another 10 minutes. The beets should be easily pierced with a fork and the pears should be tender but still slightly firm. After allowing the beets to cool for a few minutes, carefully remove the skin under cold running water. Slice into ½” thick slices or wedges.

In a large skillet heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the beet stems, garlic, salt & pepper and sauté until the stems begin to soften (about 2 minutes), then add the greens. Saute quickly until the beets just begin to wilt – do not overcook! The leaves should still retain some of their texture and not be mushy.

Place a generous amount of greens in a large bowl or on a plate followed by the roasted beets and pears. Drizzle the glaze on top, add as much crumbled gorgonzola as you like, and enjoy!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Photo Makeover: My Mom's Arroz con Pavo

So Poor Girl ended up getting a nasty little case of walking pneumonia this week (instead of the "bad chest cold" I originally thought I had), so you'll have to forgive me for being out of the kitchen for awhile. Fortunately, my mom made plenty of her famous Arroz con Pavo (Turkey & Veggie Rice) this year and aside from the standard Thanksgiving leftovers and my new Turkey Chipotle Soup, I've been pretty much living off this great little dish.

I originally posted this recipe last year at this time, but the picture I took with my phone's camera was sad, grainy and pathetic, and it certainly didn't do the dish any justice. I figured I'd take a new shot for everyone today and remind you of this great, healthy, and economical way to keep stretching those Thanksgiving leftovers. Let's face it: there are only so many turkey sandwiches one can handle after awhile, and what's great about this meal is that it will last you forever. I believe my original post mentions that it feeds a small army, which is completely true. But the cost? This will yield about 15 cups of finished product (!!!!!!!) and the entire recipe will cost you only $18. Depending on appetite, that translates into about 20-some odd servings, so your cost per serving comes out to a mere $0.95/serving! Now THAT is eating ridiculously well on a miniscule budget.

I'm off to take a little nap now. As my appetite and energy return, I'll be posting some new recipes, so stay tuned! For the full Arroz con Pavo recipe post, just click here. And as always, enjoy! :)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Recipe: Spicy Turkey & Chipotle Pepper Soup

Except for last year’s fluke, I always seem to get sick around the Thanksgiving holiday. This year I almost got through the weekend without getting sick but the stress of work and traveling with plenty of other flu-infested folks finally caught up to me and I am now a raging little ball of bronchitis & flu. It’s certainly not helping much in terms of finances; considering the time lost due to the sprained ankle and now this, I am going to be bare bones-ing it through the New Year. The good news is that my Mom & Auntie really spoiled me over the holiday and I also got to bring home the majority of the Thanksgiving leftovers. Like most of you, I am now drowning in stuffing, yams and the inevitable turkey. Since I have had absolutely zero energy and desire to cook, I was actually dreaming of canned soup that could be easily heated; then I snapped out of it and decided to make a nice, spicy soup to make use of the many leftovers that are filling my fridge right now.

I was actually going to make more Sick Person Soup with turkey instead of tofu, but because I’d had too much of that in October, I figured I’d go in a different direction. I contemplated making some more of my Hearty Mushroom & Potato Soup that turned out to be such a hit (I still get most of my new visitors from that recipe link; so amazing!), but that involved far too much chopping for my energy level. Woozily I surveyed my food selection and chose a bunch of shredded turkey meat, turkey stock made from scratch and some mixed veggies that were hangin’ out in my freezer. A healthy dose of chipotle pepper would certainly help to provide the spiciness I craved to help unclog my head and chest, and a new, super easy soup recipe was born.

Those of you who make your own meat or vegetable stocks know just how delicious, versatile and healthy these stocks can be, but for those of you who aren’t that convinced or think it’s too time-consuming to prepare a stock from scratch, allow me to throw in the whole use-of-leftovers-and-cost-reduction thing into the mix. From one large Thanksgiving turkey most of us will usually go for the meat and call it a day – a great way to make use of the bird, of course – but what about the giant set of bones that remains? Should they really be cast aside into the garbage bin? Not at all. Though it’s much better to use bones that have not yet been cooked to make a good stock, it is also possible to get very tasty results by using parts from a cooked bird. Simply make sure to remove as much of the cooked meat from the bones as possible so that you create a cleaner stock.

Of course, it’s completely okay to use chicken broth to make this soup if that’s all you have on hand or are unsure of how to make a good stock. When I feel better I will certainly be posting the recipe for my turkey stock, filled with yummy spices & flavors that will fill your entire kitchen with a delicious aroma. For now, check out this super simple recipe that will not only unclog your sinuses, but will also help you figure out what to do with all that leftover turkey meat.

Spicy Turkey & Chipotle Pepper Soup (serves 4; total cost per serving: ~ $2.05)

4 c turkey stock (chicken broth will also do)
1 c water
1 c shredded leftover turkey meat (white, dark or both)
1 c frozen mixed veggies, thawed
1 medium tomato, diced
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 T olive oil
2 chipotle peppers in adobo, finely chopped (1 T ground chipotle pepper will also work)
1/2 t ground cumin
1/4 t sea salt
Small handful of cilantro, chopped (optional)

In a large pot over medium high heat, add the olive oil, garlic and diced onion and cook until the onion becomes translucent and the garlic begins to brown. Add the tomato, chipotle peppers, salt and cumin, sauté for about 2 minutes. Next, add the turkey stock and water. Bring to a low boil and then add the turkey meat and mixed veggies. Simmer for about 10 minutes or so, until all the flavors are combined and the aroma permeates the air. Serve generous amounts of the soup in large bowls, garnish with cilantro and enjoy!

Time saving tip: You can use 3/4 cup of hogao in place of the tomato & cilantro if you have some already made. It’ll add a nice twist to the flavor of the soup and spare you the extra chopping. :)

What's In Store for December

2009 has flown by so fast it's almost unbelievable! I swear I just posted the two New Year's Day quinoa recipes a couple of months ago. What's just dawned on me recently (even though it's all over the news) is that it's also the end of this decade, and that's even more unfathomable to me. It's been a very odd, difficult decade for most of the world, so here's to having a much better decade come January 1st.

Except for spraining my ankle and getting pretty sick again in November, I have to say it was a total blast in PGEW land! The Foodbuzz Blogger Festival was incredible, there was more press coverage for my little blog, and I was selected to be a part of my first Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 feature, in which 24 bloggers post about 24 different meals in 24 different hours. If you haven't already checked out the coverage of my After Thanksgiving Colombian Tapas Party, you should do so right now! It's a lengthy post but is full of great photos and has 4 new recipes that you might want to try at some point.

So what's there to look forward to this month?

~ A couple more recipes inspired by the After Thanksgiving Colombian Tapas Party! Buñuelos are easy to eat but a bit more challenging to make correctly, so I wanted it to have its own little post. This is a very traditional Colombian snack that is usually eaten during the holidays with other fun treats, so for those of you who are adventurous and have never tried them, give these a shot.

~ I'm attempting another video for PGEW TV, this time with me in the kitchen. Should be interesting! (I apologize in advance for my eyesore of a water heater; whoever designed my apartment was apparently on crack for putting that in the kitchen!)

~ Though we had a relatively tiny turkey for this year's Thanksgiving (we're used to getting a gigantic bird every year, so a 17lb turkey was almost insulting, lol), I'm still drowning in leftovers. The Tapas Party helped me get rid of some of them, but there's a lot more I can do with the stuff I've got in the fridge, so stay tuned for some very interesting leftover recipes!

~ Christmas, Hanukkah, and all the other wonderful holidays of the season are swiftly approaching, so I know you'll all need gifts! Check out the new PGEW Store in the left sidebar (with only 1 item, but don't worry... I have other stuff up my sleeve) and purchase a few copies of the Poor Girl Eats Well - To Go! mini book to use as stocking stuffers or Secret Santa gifts! They're just $10 and feature 13 recipes and 4 tips that will help anyone get started on eating well on a teeny tiny budget.

~ More dessert's a-comin' this month! Sweet treats are a big part of December cooking all over the world, so be on the lookout for some ideas that will taste naughty but be totally nice to your wallet.

Happy December, everyone!


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: An After Thanksgiving Colombian Tapas Party!

Since I started with Foodbuzz last December I have wanted to be a part of their 24, 24, 24 feature, in which 24 different bloggers post 24 different meals in 24 hours. The problem until now has been my shyness about presenting the idea (pauses to let those who know me throw their heads back in laughter at the very thought of my shyness. Okay, you can stop laughing now. No, really.), because I wasn’t too sure of how it would be received. Fortunately, the stars have a way of aligning themselves properly and with 2 extra days to work with, one very enthusiastic mom and one visiting aunt, I felt a bit more confident about presenting my idea to the fine editors at Foodbuzz. And by some odd twist of fate, I was selected to be a part of this month’s festivities.

What I’m about to present is decidedly different and unique for me: an After Thanksgiving Colombian Tapas Party (N.B. Though this was just a party of three, Colombians will invent holidays and celebrate anything no matter how big or small the group or event may be; ergo, this was a party!). Until now, my basic idea had been to serve certain traditional Colombian dishes tapas-style, something I have yet to see. Empanadas, buñuelos, pan de bono, manjar blanco, dulce de guava con queso – truly, some of these Colombian staples scream “tapas” once you get them into more manageable sizes. I’ve had visions of yucca and dreams of pique dancing in my head for simply months now. But when I received the email announcing the submission details for November’s feature, I thought it would be fun to experiment and create my own fusion menu of Colombian tapas with a Thanksgiving twist. You all know how much I love recycling my leftovers to reduce my food costs and have something new, and being selected to be part of this month’s 24, 24, 24 held during the holiday weekend really gave me the room to stretch my budget and my creativity to create something different.

I knew I could count on my Mom to help me with my bizarre little endeavor (she’s seriously my biggest cheerleader and fan and I love her for it), but was made even happier about this whole meal when we learned my Tia (Aunt) Matilda would be dropping by for a very unexpected Thanksgiving visit. I hadn’t seen Tia since I was about 14, so I was really excited to see her. I was even more excited to listen to the banter between my mom & her sister, reliving their childhood in Colombia in that delicious accent of theirs. Nothing like getting a pair of chatty Colombian sisters together with a bunch of food to prepare and stories that make you laugh so hard you cry! Plus, I would finally get to learn a lot of the secrets behind making some of my favorite Colombian foods from women who actually know how to prepare it, something I’ve been dying to learn for a long time.

After spending the actual Thanksgiving holiday at my Mom’s place in San Jose, the three of us packed up our leftovers and specialty items and took the train back to my place here in Sacramento. Because the weather was kind of nasty over the weekend we didn’t take Auntie to do as much sightseeing as I would have liked, but I was able to show her some key spots in the Downtown area and point out the beauty & history of the Sacramento River. On Saturday morning we went shopping for some produce and other items at Safeway (stopping briefly at another store to get the queso fresco for the buñuelos; I wonder why Safeway stopped carrying this kind of cheese?), then headed back to Casa de Poor Girl to get our cook on.

On the menu for the evening:

~ Empanadas con Guiso de Pavo y Hogao (cornmeal pockets filled with shredded turkey and savory tomato-scallion sauce)
~ Yucca Fries with Pique (chunky scallion-cilantro sauce)
~ My Grandmother’s Buñelos (cheese fritters)
~ Patacones (fried green plantains)
~ Papitas de Paseo con Hogao (“Picnic Potatoes” with tomato-scallion sauce)
~ Candied Orange Yam Empanadas (cornmeal pockets filled with my Mom’s candied orange yams)
~ Platanos Maduros con Chocolate (grilled sweet plantains with chocolate drizzle)
~ Bocadillo de Guayaba y Brevas con Queso (guava paste candied green figs with cheese)

I planned the menu around some of my favorite Colombian finger foods & appetizers that could easily be served tapas style. Except for the Thanksgiving inspired empanadas, I enjoyed many of these platillos as snacks or side dishes as a child during my family’s yearly visits to Colombia. Most of these recipes are borrowed from various aunts and my grandmother, lending a warm, cozy feeling to this small family gathering. Mama and Tia were very gracious about letting me run the show and happily chopped away as I worked on the two new empanada recipes, but I made sure to ask for help when it came to things like the right ratio of masa (dough) & guiso (a mixture of meat, spices and sauce) for the empanadas, or how to peel that darned yucca without severely injuring myself. As they challenged each other with who could remember the most about their childhood in Colombia, I snapped pictures of their hands in action. To me all hands are beautiful and tell a story, and I find both my Mom’s and my Auntie’s hands to be just lovely.

Our day of cooking proved to be educational for all of us, as Tia had forgotten what went into some of the recipes and I had no idea what I was doing in some instances. Mama was an excellent coach and teacher, especially when it came to making and shaping the empanadas. Because I was scaling down their size, she made sure to point out that they couldn’t be overfilled. I learned the difference in oil temperatures when preparing buñuelos versus empanadas and patacones, and finally learned the proper ratio of ingredients for making pique. What is pique? The best way I can describe it in English is that it’s a slightly chunky scallion & cilantro sauce which is pickled in cumin spiced vinegar. You can think of it as Colombia’s answer to chimichurri, using the green onions and cilantro as opposed to the Argentine parsley and garlic. Like chimichurri, it can be used in just about everything, from meats to soups, or as a dipping sauce for hors d’oeuvres, as illustrated in this meal. Let’s check out the recipe for the pique and the yucca fries.

Yucca Fries with Pique (serves 4; total cost per serving of fries: ~ $1.00)

2 medium yuccas (fresh, not frozen!)
8 c lightly salted water
4 c light cooking oil (canola, etc.)

Begin by peeling the yucca. To do so easily and safely, cut off each end of the yucca root then cut the yucca in half. Take one of the halves and hold it firmly (as illustrated by Mom in the photo) and cut into the peel down the length of the yucca. With the knife, gently begin to dislodge the peel from the flesh, finishing the peeling process with your fingers and plenty of elbow grease. Once this part is done, the rest is a piece of cake! Cut the yucca into 1/2" thick fries that are about 2-3” in length. Cook them in rapidly boiling, salted water about 10 minutes or until they just become tender. Do not overcook as these will finish cooking in the frying process. Drain them from the water and allow to cool to room temperature.

In a large saucepan heat the cooking oil until very hot (use a small piece of yucca to test the oil; if the yucca begins to fry and rise to the top immediately, the oil is ready). Cook the yucca fries until they’re a light golden brown and drain a plate lined with plenty of paper towels. You can salt them if you like but you won’t really need to, as the yucca’s distinct flavor is delicious on its own. Serve them with pique, a small side of hogao, or your favorite salsa. Enjoy!

Pique (yields 3 cups as written; total cost of entire recipe: $4.50)

2 c finely chopped scallions (greens & tops)
1 c finely chopped cilantro (leaves & stems)
1/8 c white wine vinegar
1/2 c water
1/8 t sea salt
1/4 t ground cumin

Combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well. Put the prepared pique in a medium jar and refrigerate for about an hour before using. You can put pique on top of steak, chicken, or pork, in soups and stews, over rice dishes, or as a dip. It can be slightly addicting, so enjoy it while it lasts!

My Grandmother’s buñelos proved to be more challenging than I thought. Colombian buñelos are round cheese fritters that are commonly eaten during the Christmas and New Year holidays with things like brevas (candied green figs) and manjar blanco (similar to dulce de leche but a lot sturdier). Made correctly and from scratch, they are wonderful little spheres of cheesy goodness, and even if they’re fried, you’ll find they’re not greasy at all. When my Mom started to scold me about not working the dough correctly, saying I’d seen her make them dozens of times, I reminded her I was just used to eating them, not making them. She rolled her eyes at me but walked me through each step anyway, with my Aunt helping to explain the quick fixes that one can use in case the cheesy dough turns out too moist or too dry. Because the method for this recipe is a bit lengthy, I’ll save that for its very own recipe post next month. For my first try I think I did pretty well! I only had to sacrifice about 5 of the 45 that the recipe yielded, and the rest turned out perfectly. My only problem was trying to keep all our hands away from them while we finished the rest of the spread because it's impossible to eat just one. In order to conserve buñuelos, we worked on the patacones and platanos maduros next.

A tropical country that straddles both sides of the equator, Colombia very proudly boasts about their wide variety of fruits and vegetables that seem to be perpetually in season. One fruit that is commonly used in Colombian cuisine is the plantain. Whether green or ripe, it is used for appetizers, soups and desserts. Patacones are made from green plantains that are cut into thick slices and flash fried. They’re then removed from the oil and allowed to drain a bit before flattening them into a thinner round, then flash fried again. Salted immediately after cooking, patacones make for a wonderful snack or side, especially when topped with pique. You can think of them as a larger, softer plantain chip. Platanos maduros are used in many dessert dishes in Colombia, and I chose to prepare them the way my Tia Gladis did: they’re simply sliced into thick rounds and flash fried until golden brown. She would then melt some dark chocolate and dip each slice into the chocolate, making for an absolutely sinful little snack or dessert. Both of these recipes are easy to make and only cost about $2 for 2 servings.

Bocadillos (which literally translates into "little mouthfuls") are simple little treats made with either guava paste or candied green figs with cheese. Other variations will also pair the figs and guava paste with manjar blanco. My Mom checked in with one of my cousins in Colombia to see what the latest cheese pairing was these days and a medium cheddar was the winner. Again the creamy saltiness of the cheese enhances the sweetness of the guava and figs, and these can be eaten on their own or paired with crackers or even a buñelo or two. For a different, savory treat, try the papitas de paseo, which my great-grandmother used to make for my mom and her siblings whenever they went to visit one of the family’s many coffee or sugar plantations. These are ridiculously simple to make and go well with salsa, hogao, pique, you name it! Simply boil baby red potatoes in chicken stock until tender, remove from heat and salt immediately. Place them on a plate to dry for about 5 minutes so that the salt has the chance to adhere to the skin of the potato and they’re ready to eat!

My last tapas were the two Thanksgiving inspired empanadas. Because they were my own little creation, I wanted to work on them myself. The only problem was that I’d never actually made empanadas before, so at first I was lacking the coordination to properly shape & form these little pockets. Traditionally, Colombian empanadas are filled with a cumin-spiced ground beef & onion filling and are about the size of a French roll. I decided to make two different types, one savory and one sweet, incorporating some of the leftovers from Thanksgiving. My first set was made with a mixture of minced turkey meat (both dark and white meat) and hogao. After my Aunt had helped me with all the chopping, I worked on cooking the hogao. Mom declared it to be “beautiful” which was nice to hear since this is the first time she’s tried mine. The sweet set of empanadas was to be filled with my Mom’s candied orange yams and extra spices. Both my Mom and my Aunt looked at me like I was crazy for trying this recipe but they went along with it anyway. In my mind I could almost taste the juxtaposition of slightly salty cornmeal with the sweetly spiced yams and knew the combination would be quite tasty. As luck would have it, this was declared the best dish of the evening. And now for the recipes!

Empanadas con Guiso de Pavo y Hogao (yields about 12-15 mini empanadas; total cost of recipe: ~$4.75)

1 c Goya Masarepa (yellow corn meal that can be found in the Hispanic foods aisle of your grocery store or at Hispanic markets; be sure to use yellow, not white!)
1/2 t salt
1½ c warm water
1 T vegetable oil
1/2 c minced cooked turkey (white & dark meat)
1/3 c hogao (see recipe here)
About 4 c cooking oil for frying

Other supplies:
1 sandwich size plastic bag, sides cut open
Wooden cutting board
Smooth bottomed juice or water glass

Combine the first 4 ingredients in a large bowl and mixing well until you have a firm but malleable dough. Roll small pieces of dough into small spheres that are about 1½“ in diameter and set aside. In a separate bowl mix the minced turkey with the hogao and set aside.

Lay the plastic bag flat on the board and place one of the dough balls in the center of board. Fold the outer half of the bag over the dough ball and using the glass, press the dough into a flat circle that’s about 1/16” thick. Be sure that it is not too thick or too thin as this will seriously affect the finished product. Peel back the top layer of the plastic bag and spoon about ½ teaspoon of the turkey & hogao mixture in the center. Using the top layer of the plastic bag to help you, fold the empanada together and press the edges together to seal in the filling. Carefully peel back the plastic and remove the empanada. Continue this process until they’re all formed.

Fry the empanadas in very hot oil for about 5 minutes or until they turn a light golden brown. Remove from the oil and drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Serve with plenty of pique and enjoy!

Candied Orange Yam Empanadas (yields 12-15 mini empanadas and about 1 cup extra yams & syrup; total cost of recipe: $7)

1 c Goya Masarepa (once again, use the yellow, not white!)
1/2 t salt
1½ c warm water
1 T vegetable oil
About 4 c cooking oil for frying

Candied Yams:
2 medium yams
1/2 jar of orange marmalade (with rinds)
1 c firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 c orange juice
¼ t ground nutmeg
½ t ground cinnamon

Other supplies:
1 sandwich size plastic bag, sides cut open
Wooden cutting board
Smooth bottomed juice or water glass

Peel and cut the yams into 2” cubes. Toss lightly with oil and roast in a preheated 400° oven for about 20 minutes or until the yams become slightly tender. Remove from oven and set aside. In a large saucepan combine the orange juice, orange marmalade and brown sugar and bring to a low simmer, making sure the sugar has completely dissolved. Add the roasted yams to the syrup and simmer over low heat for about 15 minutes.

To prepare the empanadas, spoon about 1/3 of the yams into a bowl along with plenty of syrup. Mash with a fork until almost smooth, adding more syrup if the yams are too dry. Follow the above procedure for shaping the empanadas, this time using the candied orange yam filling. Fry as instructed above and drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Serve with a side of extra syrup, garnish with orange zest and enjoy!

As I mentioned earlier, the Candied Orange Yam Empanadas were definitely the stars of the evening, although Mama and Tia said everything turned out delicious and beautifully presented. This was no small feat and definitely took a lot of time to put together but we all felt the end result was well worth our combined efforts. We had so much fun doing this that I want to do it again, but perhaps on a slightly less elaborate scale; my kitchen just isn’t big enough for all of my big ideas!

Seriously though, between the good food, the interesting stories of a completely different time and place, and the quality time I got to spend with my mother and my aunt, this was a fabulous experience that I will never forget. I was finally able to learn how to prepare food that is part of my heritage, and I was happy to note that I am far more creative in the kitchen that I’d originally thought. But most importantly, I was able to spend this holiday with two of my favorite women in the world, bonding with them more than I ever imagined. Thanks for the opportunity, Foodbuzz! It was a blast!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Review: Grange Restaurant - Sacramento, CA

Grange Restauarant on Urbanspoon        One of the greatest things about attending the Foodbuzz Festival was being able to network with bloggers, restaurateurs, and other folks in the food industry. Though I grew up behind the scenes of this unique world, it’s quite a different thing to experience these things firsthand as an adult. It was through one of these new connections that I was able to learn about an interesting event happening at Grange Restaurant in Sacramento this month: the “Duck-Off”. It sounded like such an interesting idea and the restaurant seemed to be a place I'd truly enjoy, so I jumped at the chance to have my very first meal at this celebrated local restaurant.
Grange is well-known around Sacramento and the Northern California area for their farm-to-table inspired menus created by Chef Michael Tuohy (you may remember him as our great benefactor of olive oil knowledge during the Olive Oil Tasting at the Foodbuzz Festival). Using all regional ingredients, Chef Michael creates dishes that are inspired by the food, the geography and the seasons, resulting in menus as distinctive as California and its people. Grange’s wine selection comes also entirely from some of California’s best regional wineries, making this the perfect type of restaurant to make its home in the state capital.
So how does a Duck Off figure in with this acclaimed restaurant? And what exactly IS a Duck Off anyway? Aside from being an amusingly inspired event name, it was a special showdown between Chef Michael Tuohy of Grange and Hank Shaw of Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook,to see who could come up with the best duck inspired menu. Local celebrity judges from The Sacramento Bee, Corti Brothers Market and the California Waterfowl Association were present to cast their votes for the best dishes. The winning meal was to be featured as a special 5-course, prix-fixe menu, with 10% of the proceeds going toward the California Waterfowl Foundation. Since I was unable to attend the actual showdown and judging (which would have been great to watch!), the wild duck menu was to be a complete surprise for me, though as a first-timer at Grange, the entire experience was to be new & exciting.

As my friend Rich & I approached the restaurant, I mentally kicked myself for not noticing that all that "inconvenient construction" I'd griped about last year was actually meant to help design Grange and its parent hotel, The Citizen. As we were to find out later, this was a very big project that ended up taking over part of the sidewalk on 9th & J in Downtown Sac. I think the city of Sacramento must be quite happy that they did, as Grange has proven to be one of Downtown's prime dining spots, gaining great press and being voted as Best New Restaurant by Sacramento Magazine. We were greeted warmly and taken to one of the better tables in the restaurant, according to our hostess. Located on what was once the sidewalk, we had a great view of the original exterior of the building and all its historical, architectural beauty. After being introduced to our highly recommended server, Roger, we had a chance to look at the menu (well, I did; Rich was far more fascinated by his new Droid). So who won the duck-off? Chef Michael of Grange. But according to other reviews and his own account on his blog, Hank Shaw gave Chef Michael some very stiff competition. On the menu for the evening:

~ Duck Charcuterie Plate with Duck Prosciutto, Duck Rillette, Foie Gras torchon, duck sausage stuffed in the neck (sausage made by Hank Shaw).
~ Local Farm Lettuces with Warm Confit, Pickled French Prunes and Duck Fat Vinaigrette
~ House Made Tagliatelle with Duck Sugo
~ Duck Cassoulet with Rancho Gordo Beans, Confit, Sausage and Pork Belly
~ Pear Tart with Huckleberry Compote and Orange Zabaglione (crust made with duck fat)

Right now I’m a little jealous of myself as I read over this menu. The entire meal was of such exquisite quality that I felt almost guilty for having it (an obvious sign that I’ve been working in a Catholic environment for awhile, lol). Our first course was a lovely introduction to the different flavors of wild duck, our favorite actually being Hank’s duck sausage. It was perfectly salted and tender, with special flavor that only duck could lend and I thoroughly enjoyed Roger’s description of how this sausage is made. I loved the prosciutto on the crusty bread provided and the rillette was another delectable appetizer to nibble on. I found the foie gras to be a little greasy (which is natural for duck, as it’s a fatty bird), but it might have been because the portion was a lot larger than the rest of the featured samples; perhaps in a smaller portion it would have been a little easier to handle. This first course was paired with a lovely little white sparkler from Domaine Carneros of the Napa Valley. Our salad of local farm lettuces, confit, and pickled prunes was a delightful blend that was wonderfully complemented by the vinaigrette. Because the lettuces came directly from regional farms, their fresh crispness came through beautifully and the combination of the savory confit and tart, tangy prunes was truly amazing. A fruity rosé from Tablas Creek accompanied this lovely salad.

The House Made Tagliatelle with Duck Sugo was by far our favorite dish of the evening, quite an accomplishment considering we were only on our third course (N.B.: this was another one of Hank’s creations! He is an imminently talented cook, so major kudos to him). The sugo was rich and savory, its meatiness dulcified by the just the slightest touch of Meyer lemon rind, and the tagliatelle perfectly al dente, the noodles wide enough to handle plenty of the scrumptious sugo. Paired with this course was the Dolcetto from Pavi, also from the Napa Valley, which I felt truly enhanced the flavors of this dish. Our main course quickly followed once I was able to tear myself away from the sugo, and I fell in love with the presentation. The Duck Cassoulet was chock full of umami rich goodness like pork belly, more of the fabulous duck confit and Hank’s duck sausage, as well as a generous amount of perfectly cooked Rancho Gordo Beans. Paired with another dark red wine, this time a blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Sangiovese and Petite Syrah called B24 (B Cellous), I think I officially fell into the most pleasant food coma at that point; not the kind that makes you fall asleep because you’ve eaten entirely too much, but the kind of bliss one can only reach by having a truly amazing meal. But I had to snap out of it! Dessert was next.

Now, it’s not every day you see a fruit tart on a menu whose crust is made with duck fat. Upon first reading this Rich made a strange face and immediately dismissed it as “too weird for [me]” but once again, he had to eat his words (and dessert). Made with local orchard pears, a huckleberry compote and orange scented crème fraiche, this dessert was a mid autumn dream to me. And the crust? Slightly flaky and rich with nary a duck in sight. Our final wine pairing for the evening was an orange muscat from Essensia, one of the few muscats that I’ve tried which I have actually enjoyed (to me, most muscats taste like Triaminic).

Overall, this combined effort was a true success in the eyes of both judges and diners alike. I had the chance to briefly catch up with Chef Michael, and though we were seated next to Hank’s wife and colleagues, I was unable to thank and congratulate him for his amazing work. Though this was a special event that is not usually part of Grange’s regular menu (which I made sure to peek at before I dove into my duck rillette), I know I will definitely come back to this restaurant. From its beautiful fusion of classic, historic architecture and modern décor to its superior staff and executive chef, I find Grange to be an outstanding addition to Sacramento’s growing collection of fine restaurants. And after looking over past specials and events on Grange’s website, I feel like this is a place even Poor Girl can revisit in order to enjoy a day off from my own kitchen. Specials like Chef Michael’s Thanksgiving spread offer diners a delectable 3-course prix-fixe menu for just $39, a phenomenal price for a holiday meal. Poor Girl gives this experience at Grange 5 stars and cannot wait to come back for more.

(Grange Restaurant is located at 926 J Street in Downtown Sacramento)


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