Sunday, October 24, 2010

Project Food Blog #6: Grains, Trains & Gallons of Rain

It's that time again!  Voting for Round 6 of Project Food Blog is now open!  You can cast your votes for me now at the following link, or you can use the widget on the left sidebar.  Be sure to do so soon!  Voting closes at 6pm Pacific Time on Thursday, October 28th.  Thanks for all your support thus far, and I hope to see you in Round 7 for another edition of PGEW TV!  - Kimberly

Ahh, rain.  Those of you who know me well know that I despise the rain.  Well, let me take that back: I hate walking in the rain.  If it's outside my window and I'm all bundled up in my favorite blanket with a cat softly purring on either side of me, I find it to be rather beautiful.  But having no car, the rainy season is definitely on the bottom of my list of fun things to experience.  And of course it would plague me during this sixth "Road Trip" round of Project Food Blog!  Alas, I have a competition I'm trying to win, so I wasn't going to let falling wet stuff stop me from getting this post up.  And like the US Mail, I braved the the blustery, soggy rain, all bundled up, armed with a raging flu, umbrellas, jackets, cold medicine for the aforementioned flu and, of course, my cute little Project Food Blog cooler.  Sans cat this time.

As many of you saw last week, StuKitty was the first one to try out the Project Food Blog cooler,
leaving little room for the food...
That's better!  Now off to weather the elements...
Good thing this thing's waterproof!

It's funny... I actually had some trouble coming up with things to do for some of this particular round.  Not that I've lost my creative edge or anything; the day that happens is the day this blog ceases to exist, as that's what keeps this thing going!  But in a flu-induced haze coupled with cold med fog, it's a little harder to think.  Not to mention the huge obstacle some folks aren't dealing with: MONEY, or the lack thereof.  While I would have loved to embark on a ton of crazy culinary adventures that would whisk me away to far away lands for this particular post, my health and paltry pocketbook would only allow me to do so much.  Light rail would have to be my fair chariot if I wanted to go anywhere.

For yet another challenge that requires us to work on a full meal, from starter to dessert to beverage, I had to think really hard to figure out what I could do that would fit into Poor Unemployed Girl's ever-shrinking budget.  And the location?  For a minute there, I thought the most exotic I could get would be to picnic next to my urban garden in the backyard.  Then, as if clubbed on the head with an epiphany stick, I realized the best way to go was not only to shop from my cupboards for some bare bones staples as I usually do, but shop for my picnic destination from one of the fine locations here on the Downtown grid.  Perfect!  I would create a menu based on some of delicious, nourishing grains and enjoy them in the rich historical setting of  one of my favorite parts of the capital city: Old Sacramento.  Fantastic photo opps of history all around me and history on a plate.  Perfect!

Or at least it could have been, had there not been a hurricane a-swirlin'...

Waiting for light rail in the great hurricane of oh-ten.
Okay, so it was just a mild storm, but I'm from California & genetically predisposed to be anti-wet stuff.

A quick jaunt through the Amtrak station under I-5, and voila!  You're in Old Sacramento...

Planning my picnic...

Anyway... really?  A grain-based menu?  How boring is that?  Au contraire, fair readers!  Whole grains and rices are ridiculously versatile and can be turned into some incredibly delicious meals.  You regular PGEW readers have seen some of the grain-based dishes I've made over the years and you know they're far from boring.  My quinoa repertoire alone illustrates just how much you can do with one cup of the mother grain and 18 pounds of creativity.  I decided to make the most of the large amount of red quinoa I had in my cupboards (honestly, I think I prefer it to regular quinoa), and try something new as well, by trying my hand at cooking with amaranth, another tiny little grain with a nutritious punch.

Amaranth, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is another one of those uber-versatile grains that has been used for centuries in South American and Mexican cooking.  From popping the tiny seeds like popcorn for a nutty snack and using it in breakfast bowls, to making hearty salads and even candy with it, this protein-rich ancient grain can be used in a variety of different ways.  Quinoa, my favorite grain ever, is also packed with protein and good carbs, making it a completely nutritious option for anyone.  Though it may seem expensive to some, it actually yields a great amount of cooked product, and because it has so many essential nutrients, I find that it's a very cost-effective way to nourish myself by just adding a couple things here & there.

So my idea was to have this whole "ancient grains meet Old Sacramento", working the whole historical angle as I'd mentioned earlier.  I was going to take all sorts of fabulous photos showcasing the rich history in Old Sacramento, the lovely Sacramento River and its amazing steam boats.  Food wise, I thought I was all set too: except for my dessert, which I'd actually had planned for weeks, I was going to make all sorts of new ancient grain-based dishes.  Then the weather took a turn for the worst, I got the flu, and my menu was completely redesigned to suit my sick-person needs.  I ditched the 77 salads I'd had in mind and decided to go with warm, comforting, nourishing foods.

The Setting...

When the weather is nice, I find myself visiting Old Sacramento on a regular basis.  It's a great escape right in my own backyard, with plenty of historical buildings, great shopping, some of Sac's finest restaurants, and of course, the beautiful Sacramento River.  After visiting the Old West, one of my favorite things to do is head south on the river walk, take some photos of and from the golden Tower Bridge, and loop around back into Old Sac before heading home.  If I have some extra dough, I like to stop off at The Delta House for some of their amazing fish tacos and do some people-watching.

Alas, everything except for that last bit had to be scratched off my list because it was just way too blustery and wet.  I now completely sympathize with photographers and film makers who have to do crazy outdoor shoots because it is NOT easy!  From the wind blowing things all over the place, to the rain drops on my camera lens, to my wet, wet shoes (*sob*  I hate having wet feet!), to the mean lady outside that falafel place glaring at me for sitting at "her" table even though there were 11 empty tables around me, this was probably the hardest photo shoot I've ever done.  The only good thing was the way the light was diffused by so many clouds; I actually liked most of my shots because of that!  So people were looking at me funny and my nose was runny; I was determined to make this soggy picnic work!

History never sleeps in Old Sacramento!
And I suppose I shouldn't be complaining about wet feet when she's in a DRESS! 
Some of the shops in Old Sacramento...

Coulda passed for a real "old time" photo had it not been for this sedans parked in front... note that "Trail" is next to "Candy Land".  That's like putting Weight Watchers next to a Krispy Kreme, right?
All the Old Sac buildings are all dressed up for Halloween
Old trains in the Old Sac rail yards.  Some of these are still used for tours throughout the Old Sacramento area...
Like the "Spookomotion" tour, complete with haunted house runs and spooky conductors dressed as ghouls.

The Food...

The full spread of delicious, whole grain goodness.
Yes, even the cake is good for you!  Except for the frosting, of course. ;)

I'm a big fan of having spicy things when I'm dealing with colds, etc., since the heat helps to decongest my nose and scratch that itchy throat.  To start off my menu, I went with a hearty soup with a rich tomato-y broth, lean ground beef, white beans, amaranth, and plenty of fresh kale (my latest I'm-obsessed-with-this-ingredient victim).  Sort of a play on Tuscan-style soups which feature the beans and the kale in a comforting broth.  I added a generous amount of crushed red chile flakes to amp up the spicy heat factor, and sprinkled the slightest amount of amaranth into the soup as it neared the end of the cooking process.  It was the first time I'd cooked with amaranth without using it in some sort of porridge or salad, so I was intrigued & pleased to see how the tiny grains turned into almost transparent little spheres that added just the right amount of nutty texture to the soup without overpowering the well-seasoned meat and rich broth.  The tender kale, also added towards the end to retain its crunch and not turn a mushy brownish green, added a lovely contrasting color to all that tomato-y red goodness.

Spicy White Bean, Beef & Amaranth Soup with Tomatoes & Kale

Hot, tomato-y, beefy, amaranth-y goodness!

For my entree, I decided to make things easy on myself and go with a PGEW-reader favorite: my Spicy Red Quinoa & Shrimp.  This recipe is not for the faint of heart as it is muy picante, but it's ever-so-delicious and really unclogged my sinuses.  Hearty, nutty red quinoa is mixed together with shrimp & peppers that are sauteed in a super spicy cayenne & red chile sauce.  The quinoa helps to balance out the fire of the sauce, and the shrimp add a lovely, tender sweetness.  And because I'm currently obsessed with it and I love the aesthetics of it, I served this spicy dish atop a bed of barely blanched kale.  It added some more of that much-needed nutrition as well as a lovely texture.  I was definitely beginning to feel quite warm, but rather full after such a wonderful start to my meal, so I put my leftovers back in ye olde cooler and decided to tackle dessert.

Spicy Red Quinoa & Shrimp with Tender Kale
Hearty deliciousness on palm leaf plate...

Mmmm.... dessert.  The most important meal of the day, in my opinion.  But how the heck was I going to tackle this with wholesome grains?  Red quinoa to the rescue!

Red Quinoa, Apple & Cranberry Cake with Homemade Cream Cheese Frosting

Gleaning inspiration from my favorite food blogger, Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks, I decided to use the rest of the giant batch of red quinoa that I had prepared and use it in a baked dish.  Definitely a departure from what I normally make with quinoa, which usually amounts to salads and the occasional breakfast bowl.  This time I decided to put it in a cake bursting with crisp apples and tart dried cranberries, and pardon me for saying so, but that was a stroke of GENIUS on my part!  Maybe the cold meds helped to inspire such a creation, maybe I'm just getting better at what I do, but I have never felt this good about eating cake in my entire life.  It was super moist with a slight nutty flavor lent by the quinoa, and the fruits just screamed of autumn in my mouth.  Finding a random block of cream cheese I'd forgotten about, I made a homemade cream cheese frosting to top my lovely quinoa cake creation, which rounded out the entire experience beautifully.

It's just so pretty once it's sliced!  And that frosting....... *faints*

I really should have brought the whole cake; one slice was NOT enough!

So what did I have to wash down all this ancient grain goodness?  I kept with the whole southern hemisphere theme and decided to make agua-panela, an old, old drink made of raw cane sugar and typically consumed in countries like Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.   Made with panela or piloncillo (as they call it in Mexico), this block of raw cane sugar is melted in hot water, accented with a touch of lemon juice and sometimes, if you're very lucky a shot of rum to further warm the tummy and soul.  I was not that lucky, but the hot lemony-sweet drink was just what I needed to keep me warm enough to take a few more pictures in the pouring rain & crazy wind.

Agua-panela... warm, sweet, and comforting

I didn't have the chance to get all the great photos I wanted from Old Sac because of such inclement conditions, but I was still able to get a few cool shots of trains and awesome old buildings (and then I had phun with Photoshop, as you might have noticed.  Everything is so much better in sepia!).  It wasn't the perfect picnic, and I'm absolutely soaked to the bone and should get out of these wet clothes in short order, but I feel nourished and warm on the inside.  Not to mention both ridiculously proud and ridiculous in general, for having been so dedicated to finish off this challenge despite the flu and bad weather.  If there's one thing Project Food Blog really brings out in a blogger, it's determination to finish that post and sit back with the satisfaction of yet another awesome challenge under one's belt.

With another piece of cake.

Home & dry at last after a long, stormy day and ready for a nap.
Come to think of it, this cooler doubles as a nice pillow...

*    *    *

If you enjoyed this post for Challenge #6 of Project Food Blog, please take the time to cast your vote for me starting at 6am on Monday, October 25th!  Thanks so much to all of you who have supported me this far, and I look forward to dazzling you with an awesome video of Poor Girl in the kitchen (finally!) for Round 7, should I make it that far!  Thanks for reading!  - Kimberly

10/26/10 Update: Because this post was already so lengthy, I posted the recipes for the cake & the soup separately.  You can also view the recipe for the Spicy Red Quinoa & Shrimp recipe here or in the archives  :) K


  1. Awesome job considering your obstacles. See you in round 7.

  2. Love how you overcame every stinkin' obstacle that was thrown your way and still pulled off a great meal! Great job my friend!

  3. Looks great!! Just curious - no written recipes this time around?

  4. What a great post! And even better to read it while I too am experiencing this rainy day in Nor Cal! @goodlaura

  5. great post! and loved the pictures :)

  6. 1. That cake looks amazing.

    2. I'm going to be googling "popped amaranth" in about 10 seconds. That sounds so cool!

    3. You ruke. Feel better soon!

  7. The cake looks and sounds sooo good! And I hope you feel better soon!

  8. You're such a trooper!

    I am going to make that soup (sans beef). It looks yummy.

  9. Am I not seeing the cake recipe here? It sounds amazing!

  10. Thanks everyone!

    As for the recipes, as I put in my final PS note, they will be posted later. This post was already long enough without them and I was extremely tired & sick so I will be posting them later today, after a nap. Gotta get well so I can work on my video post! :)

  11. That cake is so pretty! I'm voting for you based on that alone.

  12. That cake is so pretty! I'm voting for you based on that alone.

  13. heartwarming grains for a rainy season

  14. Love your blog, and find it a good source of information for my student budget. Reading your posts always makes me feel very hungry however...

  15. good job chica!!

  16. Get well. You are gonna need your strength for #7! GREG

  17. Great post! The cake looks really tasty. The soup looks amazing as well. Can't wait for the recipes.

    Get well soon!

  18. That food all sounds SO good!!!

  19. I can't tell you how excited I am to see the cake recipe! Looks and sounds delicious!

  20. Your soup looks perfect for a cold and rainy day. Thanks for braving the elements and bringing this great menu!

  21. A very lovely meal and your cake looks awesome. I will have to give that a try. You have my vote!

  22. Phenomenal job! You definitely have my vote K. Following your blog is never boring!

  23. Congratulation for making to challenge #6!!! You've got my vote again this round! Congrats & Best wishes to making to next round :)

    Have a great week
    jen @

  24. Fun location, and nice job weathering the obstacles!! I love your post! You have a vote from me!

    For my entry, I wanted to create a road trip and picnic for my boyfriend, who had recently given me a "do over" of one of my childhood memories. I decided to give him his own "do over" -- a special birthday picnic with a heart-themed meal. Come see if you'd like :)

  25. Oh my, the quinoa cake! Yum!

  26. Awww I can't believe you did all this with the flu... And all that rain, too!! I'm impressed; the meal looks fabulous and I NEED to try the quinoa cake. Also, I TOTALLY feel you on how much these challenges are costing. Eeek!


  27. You are truly a trouper and congrats on going on to Round 7 of the challenge! I like how you stuck with your Poor Girl Eats Well format and used what you had - and, yes, adding quinoa to your cake was a stroke of genius :)



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