Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Recipe: Spiced Sweet Potato & Carrot Puree

“But they look so plain!” I whined to my mom as I was plating my latest concoction.

She looked at me with a happy grin on her face as she licked the last dollop off her finger, shrugged and said, “Plain can be good.”

And, for the 4.7 millionth time in my life, I had to concede that my mother was right.

I got the inspiration to make for this delightful (and not at all uncommon) dish from a memory – a distant, but fond food memory that I’ve carried with me for years. Though I’d like to kick myself for not having gotten the exact recipe when I had the chance, the memory is so dear to me that I’m willing to try my hand at recreating it.

When I was a little girl, my parents and I used to spend a lot of time with my godmother, Mimi, and her mom, Doña Pilar. My mom and Mimi were best friends for decades, so time spent with her and Doña Pilar was like spending time with a favorite aunt and a tiny little spitfire of a grandma.

Like most grandmas, Doña Pilar’s cooking was not to be rivaled. Hailing from the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, her dishes were always filled with sensational aromas, explosive flavors, and a huge helping of heartwarming life lessons. Watching her make tortillas by hand was not just a work of art in progress; it was a lesson in hard work and perseverance. Making menudo wasn’t just about getting the right seasoning ratio down; it was about appreciating the importance of family.

Those moments we spent with Doña Pilar in her kitchen were invaluable lessons in life, love - and ridiculously good Mexican food. Many years we’d join together for holiday dinners, swapping hosting duties between Thanksgiving and Christmas. My dad, forever a fan of my mom’s Thanksgiving cooking, had an extra special spot in his heart - and stomach - for Doña Pilar’s food (probably because it came with a healthy dose of grandmotherly ass-kicking).

While I can’t recall the exact menu we’d enjoy, I do remember we’d go home raving about one thing in particular: the whipped spiced carrots. It’s not rocket science, nor is it the latest in modernist cuisine. It’s just one of those dishes that’s almost perfect because of its simplicity.

Because I was quite young the last time I had these, I don’t remember everything involved in their preparation. What I do know is that the carrots’ natural sweetness was complemented beautifully by several warm spices, the most notable being anise.

Now, I’m not the biggest anise fan in the world because it tastes like black licorice, but despite my general dislike for it, I have to admit it lends something special to a simple dish like this. Along with allspice, nutmeg and a bit of ginger, it brings out the comforting sweetness of the carrots without overpowering them. In my version, I added sweet potatoes to the mix and found the anise had a similar effect: it enhanced their natural flavors subtly but memorably.

And that, right there, was the lesson of the whipped, anise-scented carrots I used to hug Doña Pilar just a little more tightly for, because I loved them (and her) so much: simplicity can be beautiful; memorable. This is just a mix of root vegetables, milk and spices – nothing that special. But when put together they are special, because their own special flavors & textures get to shine through with minimal interference.

Whether it’s in art or in food or in general acts of kindness to one’s fellow humans, if it’s simple and good, there’s no need for bells & whistles to make it stand out. The simple things – family, good friends, amazing food – those are the things that will linger in your memory for years and put a fond smile on your face when you least expect it.

Spiced Sweet Potato & Carrot Puree (makes 6-8 servings; total cost per serving: $0.75)

I bought my anise star pods in bulk at my local food co-op, but you should be able to find these in the spice section of the ethnic foods aisle of your favorite store for about $2/bag. If you can’t find them, a couple drops of anise extract will give a similar result.

4 large garnet sweet potatoes, peeled & chopped into 1” cubes
8 large carrots, peeled & chopped into 1” cubes
2 T olive oil
Pinch of salt & pepper
1½ c nonfat milk
2 T butter
½ t freshly ground nutmeg
¼ t ground allspice
¼ t ground ginger
3-4 anise pods

1. Preheat the oven to 400º. In a large bowl, toss the sweet potatoes and carrots together with the olive oil and a large pinch of salt & pepper. Place in a single layer on a cookie sheet lined with foil and roast for about 20-25 minutes, until tender.

2. In a large pot, combine the milk & spices and bring to a simmer. Add the butter and whisk together until melted. Simmer over low heat for 3-4 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and remove the anise pods from the milk.

3. Add the sweet potatoes & carrots to the spiced milk. Working in small batches, puree in a blender* until almost smooth (a little texture is fun for both visual and mouth appeal). Garnish with extra star anise if you have it, serve as a side with meats or as part of a vegetarian meal, and enjoy!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Get ready...

Remember that whole pile of awesome I was telling you about last week?  Well, the time has come.  Check in tomorrow, 11/11/11, for the beginning of some truly amazing things to come...
Stay tuned!
:) Kimberly

Recipe: Garlic & Cheese Quinoa Patties

As most of you know, I'm heading down south to lovely Santa Monica this weekend for my second International Food Bloggers Conference (IFBC).  If it's even just half as awesome as last year's event in Seattle, this weekend is going to rock big time.

One thing that makes this year a bit different is that I'll be attending as a speaker for the very first time.  And I have to admit that I'm a wee bit nervous!  I'm not sure why, since I used to hold workshops & seminars for large groups many years ago, and I've been on plenty of blogging panels since I started writing PGEW.  Maybe it's because I'll be speaking in front of my peers for the very first time, and potentially some bigwigs of the food writing world, like Dianne Jacob and Kathleen Flinn.

Regardless of any silly nervousness, I'm excited to be going to Santa Monica and enjoy the food & good company, and share my knowledge with my fellow food bloggers.  It's been a good twenty years since I've had a good food-related visit to Southern California, so it'll be nice to taste what the other half of my beloved state has going on.

Tonight is Last Minute Details Before Trip night, so I'm running around doing some last minute packing, getting kitty provisions for the friend who's taking care of them, and generally running around like a chicken with my head cut off.  Part of this evening of glee includes making snacks for my trip to SoCal.  Granted, it's not some 14-hour transatlantic flight; but I just paid my rent and can't really pay airport food prices that cost almost as much as said rent.

I have a tendency to pack only sweet nibblies when I fly, only to find myself craving something savory instead.  Fortunately, my favorite food blogger, Heidi of 101 Cookbooks, had recently posted a recipe for some baked quinoa patties she'd made for a trip she'd just taken, so I quickly bookmarked in my mind to make for this weekend's trip.  They're easy to prepare, easy to pack, and make for a deliciously nutritious snack, which is way better than indulging in a giant Cinnabon or something (though I will admit, that scent is straight from heaven at 6am!).

Like a lot of cooks, I couldn't help but experiment a bit with the given recipe, especially since I was missing some of the listed ingredients.  Rather than herbs, I pumped up the flavor of these little protein patties with plenty of fresh garlic and some grated cheese.  Along with the zip of the scallions and the smokiness of the cumin, these are incredibly flavorful for such a healthy little treat.

Because I made these early this morning so I could take some to work for lunch, I didn't have time to bake them.  Instead, I ended up pan-frying them, which was something Heidi suggests as an option in her recipe.  They taste fantastic this way, but I'm sure they're even better baked.  Feel free to experiment with whatever ingredients you have in your pantry when it comes to making these little guys.  I used low-fat monterey jack because that's all I had, but I'm sure this would be wonderful with other cheeses too.

Did I mention how affordable these are?  When you round up the cost of all the ingredients, the entire recipe is less than $5 - a wee little price to pay for a nutritious, filling snack.  Take that, airport food!

Garlic & Cheese Quinoa Patties (makes about 12 patties; total cost of recipe: ~$4.75)
Adapted from Heidi Swanson's Baked Quinoa Patties on 101 Cookbooks

2 c cooked quinoa
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 c chopped scallions
1/3 c chopped red onion
4 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 t ground cumin
1 t sea salt
1 c panko crumbs
1/2 c shredded monterey jack cheese (or cheese of your choice)
2 T olive oil (for pan-fried method)

1.  In a large bowl, combine the quinoa and eggs.  Add the scallions, red onion, garlic and spices and stir until well combined.  Next, add the panko crumbs, followed by the cheese, and mix well.

2.  Take a small ball of the mixture and gently form it into a 1" ball, then flatten into a patty.  Repeat with the rest of the mixture until you have about a dozen patties.  If the mixture is too moist, add a bit more bread crumbs or a small amount of flour.  If it's too dry, add a little water, one teaspoonful at a time.

3.  Heat a large skillet over medium low heat and add the olive oil.  When oil is hot, carefully place patties into the skillet and cook for about 7-8 minutes on each side, or until a deep golden brown.  Remove from skillet and cool on a wire rack over a plate lined with paper towels to allow the remaining oil to drain.  Repeat with the rest of the patties.

4.  Serve warm or cool with your favorite dipping sauce or by themselves.  Enjoy!

* If using the baking method, bake the patties for about 20 minutes at 400°.  Flip them over and bake for another 5 minutes, until golden brown.  Cool on a wire rack, then serve.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Recipe: Creamy Brown Rice, Broccoli & Apple Salad

As I've mentioned in the past, I like to keep a canvas tote of lunchtime staples in our breakroom fridge here at work.  It helps to keep lunch costs down by not wasting my hard earned dough on some overpriced salad, and eliminates the need to lug around yet another heavy parcel while I'm on light rail.  From baby spinach to cooked quinoa or rice, having basic lunch items readily available makes work lunches super simple.

Sometimes, however, I get a random craving for something or forget exactly what's in my bag, so I end up bringing a new random ingredient to add to it.  A few days of that kind of behavior and I end up with a veritable cornucopia of ingredients, most of which make no sense whatsoever. 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Tip #15: Be kind to your produce & it will be kind to you

Some of the most common questions I get from readers are produce-related: where to find affordable produce, how to use certain vegetables that may be new to that particular cook, what fruits & veggies are kid-friendly and so on. 

The most common one, however, is one that I'm sure almost all of us have asked ourselves before: How do you make your produce last longer?

It's a valid question, especially the way food prices are skyrocketing these days.  Sometimes when I'm in my local Safeway, or even my beloved Trader Joe's, I'm absolutely horrified by some of the prices I'm seeing.  $2.19 for a head of green lettuce; $0.99 for one cucumber; $4.99 for a pound of tomatoes... how is anyone supposed to eat well when all the good stuff - fruits and vegetables - is priced so ridiculously?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What's in Store for November

The first day of November dawned cold and blustery yesterday, making it finally feel like fall around these parts.  I can't say I was the biggest fan of the new hairdo the howling gales of wind created for me, but it's nice to feel crisp fall mornings again.

November is going to be nothing short of amazing here in PGEW-land.  Not just because my most favorite food holiday ever is swiftly approaching, but because there are going to be some huge - and I mean HUGE - surprises in the next couple of weeks.  I can't say much right now, but let's just say that there's a whole pile of awesome waiting in the wings.  Here's what else is in store this month:


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