Hello, and Risotto Primavera

I seem to have entirely neglected, if not per perception left entirely, this website. And, truly, the perception was my own, as I had decided, in moderate intention, to stop posting and let my recipes slowly fade into the infinity of the Cloud. But as everyone in my life knows, I finally moved from Chicago to North Carolina. Durham, more specifically. And in leaving, I was interested again in keeping this up, bolstered as well by the encouragement of several friends. So the blog will be resurrected from its really-dusty-kitchen, dishes-haven’t-been-done-in-weeks level disregard. And it seems I’ll need to change my subtitle.

I was told from some people that possibly this should no longer be titled “Dinner for Brian,” as the motivation for the title originally- that I was posting recipes in Chicago for my brother to try at home- is now less substantiated. If I want, I can go see Brian on any weeknight, make him dinner (or go out together), and receive immediate feedback. The internet no longer is a necessary medium. But, if I’m being honest, I mostly like the idea of cooking for a tangible (if now much more available) person. Yes, I usually eat alone. And yes, these recipes are often to serve my palate more than my lovely ginger brother’s. But I do take credit for expanding significantly his culinary horizons, and it’s still with his review in mind that I write. (Not to diminish the influences of my other brothers, who are easily as important and definitely more interesting than I am).

The real reason I’m posting tonight, as opposed to a lazy Sunday (my usual date), is because romanesco broccoli was on sale at Whole Foods today, and it looks so super cool, and I wanted to use it. And then, in doing so, I was thinking that everyone I know needs to cook with romanesco broccoli- mostly for the fun shape- and I must provide a recipe. Also, this is really, very delicious, and it is also incredibly easy to put together. I had never made risotto with actual arborio rice before, always favoring risotto from barley (also, where would I find arborio rice?). But in an attempt to have really quite pretty jars full of grains to hide in my cabinets (in the ideal of someday having this beautiful kitchen with open and exposed shelving), I bought a bunch of grains from my neighborhood co-op, and at that time I found arborio rice sneaking among the quinoa. I determined it must be tried.

Well, this has been a lengthy composition… Here’s the recipe.

Risotto Primavera

Serves 2

2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1/2 cup arborio rice

1/2 tbsp. butter

1/2 white onion, diced finely

2 carrots, sliced thinly

1 head romanesco broccoli, chopped into small florets

1/3 cup frozen peas

1/3 cup frozen corn

1/4 cup shredded or grated Parmesan

Salt & pepper

Basil, sliced, to serve

Heat the stock in a small quart pan until just boiling. Lower to low heat and keep warm.

In a larger pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and carrots and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the arborio rice and mix. Add the broccoli. Season lightly. Add 2-3 ladle-fulls of stock to the pan (it will simmer and deglaze slightly). Stir and stir until the rice has absorbed most of the stock. (It’s not ridiculous, you can take breaks from stirring; just don’t leave it for a long period of time). Add another ladle or two of stock. Stir. Repeat this process until the rice is soft and cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. You may not use all of your stock. Once the rice is cooked and most of the stock is absorbed, add the peas, corn, and Parmesan. Stir to combine well. Taste and season again.

Serve and top with fresh basil. Admire the pretty broccoli. And eat!

Thai Dumpling Kale Salad

It may be a week until Christmas, but I’m already kind of done with the cookies. Maybe it’s because everyone’s Christmas parties start back into the beginning of December, or maybe it’s because I joined some friends in a cookie-baking-bonanza that resulted in a whole tin of cookies to myself. I kind of don’t want at all mashed potatoes or stuffing or ham or holiday comfort food. I’ve been jamming on avocados and goat cheese, and I got into my mind that I could really go for an Asian salad. You know the kind, the Americanized version with ginger and wontons.

Well, of course, I didn’t have the ingredients for the giant salad of my imagination (which mirrored that of California Pizza Kitchen fairly precisely), but I did recognize I had a bunch of kale, a threatening-to-die carrot, and maybe some impromptu dressing ingredients. Out of a basic pantry and sad representation of a refrigerator… I created the best dinner I have had in months.

No, really. Admittedly, I freaking love the dumplings from Trader Joe’s. I used to buy the pork gyoza all the time, but somehow hadn’t in awhile… maybe it was a grad school thing. But I don’t eat pork or pigs anymore, and the frozen isle caught my eye (I’ve been excessively lazy recently). I saw Thai gyoza and thought I’d give it a try. The dumplings, while absolutely important, sit atop a salad so flavorful and balanced, that the whole (giant) bowl just satisfies every salty, tangy, savory craving you didn’t even know you had. I was not at all a believer in kale salads; I usually sauté my kale or put it in soups (read: why I had kale in the first place… soup season). But by massaging in the dressing, the kale becomes perfectly crunchy with just the right bite to offset the soft, fluffy little dumplings. I must say, the fresh ginger makes it. Which I totally would not have had if Thanksgiving had not been so recent, but please buy some if you’re making this salad tomorrow (as you should).

And, so long as you have this, or just a normal bottle of Sriracha, you are totally ready to go.

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Thai Dumpling Kale Salad

Serves 1 hungry person (per usual); easily multiplied

Thai Peanut Dressing

½ tbsp. canola (or other mild-flavored) oil

½ tbsp. tamari or soy sauce

1 tsp. natural peanut butter (peanuts and salt)

1 tsp brown sugar

½ tsp. sriracha

2 inch ginger knob, peeled and grated finely, juice included, stringy remnants discarded

Dash crushed red pepper flake

Salad and Dumplings

2 cups organic curly kale, chopped finely

1 golden carrot, peeled and minced/ chopped finely

½ tbsp. canola oil

5 Thai vegetable (or shrimp) gyoza/ dumplings (from Trader Joe’s)

2 tbsp. roasted and salted peanuts

Sriracha to serve

In a large serving bowl, whisk together the dressing ingredients. Add the kale and toss, with your hands, massaging the dressing into the kale leaves. Set aside while you prepare the remaining ingredients (time is your friend).

Use a food processor to finely chop the carrot (or your own determination and knife) and add to the greens. Toss.

In a small, non-stick sauté pan, prepare the gyoza according to package directions, which I’ll include here. Heat the oil over medium high heat and add the gyoza to the pan. Cook for 3-4 minutes until the bottom is browning. Add ¼ cup of water to the pan and quickly cover with a lid. Steam for 4-5 minutes until the gyoza are softened and cooked through.

Sprinkle the peanuts over the top of the salad and place the gyoza on top. Drizzle Sriracha over everything.

Absolutely dig in.

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Real question: should this blog be titled “Sriracha to serve”? Seems that’s at the end of every recipe. Also, I hate how dinner time in the winter means it’s pitch black outside. Try taking a good photo in your dark, poorly lit living room… sigh. At least dinner is good.

Pumpkin Barley Risotto

Pumpkin. Not spice. I’m going the savory route with pumpkin this time, because, as you all should know, pumpkin is delicious without cinnamon as well. Just as other squashes seem to work with both salt and sugar, pumpkin really blends well with earthy spices like thyme and rosemary. I’ve made barley risotto before (it’s my favorite way to make risotto), but I felt inspired to add a new twist. This inspiration is likely derived from having bought all of the pumpkin things from Trader Joe’s, including cans of pumpkin puree. (Another side note: if you haven’t bought their mini ginger snap pumpkin ice cream sandwiches, just… please. Do it). This risotto skips a bit on the traditional ingredients, side-stepping a lot of the Parmesan and butter. In fact, it quite easily could be made vegan if you felt so inclined. Rather than compromising creaminess, however, the pumpkin amps up the rich and smooth and luxurious factor of this risotto so much the additional dairy is really not necessary. I actually made it once with Parmesan and once without, and I didn’t notice any difference at all. But, of course… I do still recommend topping with an inordinate amount of goat cheese.

Goat cheese on everything.

That should be my new blog name.

I actually made this risotto twice within a week, which is basically unheard of for me because 1) every recipe gives me leftovers, so I usually move on following the fourth plate and 2) I have to contend with the dying-by-the-day vegetables in my refrigerator, rarely allowing me to repeat a meal (living alone has its challenges). But! My friend and I were having our sort-of-weekly TV night, and I promised this risotto as we’re both pumpkin and goat-cheese obsessed. It did not disappoint. With a nice side of steamed or roasted vegetables, this is a perfectly impressive yet straightforward dinner for you, your guest, or your lunchbox.

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Pumpkin Barley Risotto

Serves 2-3

1 tbsp. unsalted butter (I love Kerrygold) or olive oil

1 yellow onion, diced

1 carrot, peeled and diced

1 tsp. minced garlic

1/2 cup pearl barley

1/4 tsp. dried oregano

1/4 tsp. dried thyme

1/4 tsp. nutmeg

1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

Salt & pepper

2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

2 – 2  1/2 cups vegetable or chicken stock, warmed

1/2 cup pumpkin puree

2 tbsp. – 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese- optional

2-3 oz. goat cheese (chevre)

In a small pot, warm the stock to just below boiling. Keep warm over low heat.

In a medium pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the vegetables and sauté until softened, about 8-10 minutes. Add the garlic, stir, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the barley and stir to toast for about 2-3 minutes. Add the spices, salt, and pepper, and mix. Deglaze the pot with the balsamic vinegar and stir vigorously. Lower the heat to medium low.

Add about 1/2 cup of stock to the barley. Stir the barley regularly. Once the barley has absorbed most of the liquid, add another 1/4 – 1/2 cup of stock. Continue to add stock, stir, and add stock until the barley is fully cooked, usually in about 25-30 minutes. You may not need all of the stock recommended; you may need a bit more (have more at the ready). It depends on the barley, cooking temperature, and risotto gods.

Once the barley is softened and cooked through (it retains a chewy texture but should not have any bite), add the pumpkin puree and Parmesan cheese (if adding). Stir to mix thoroughly and taste. Re-season as needed with salt and pepper.

Add the pumpkin risotto to bowls and top with 1-2 tbsp. of freshly crumbled goat cheese and a sprinkle of oregano. Devour.

 

 

 

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Life as a single-person household.

 

*You’ll notice these pictures seem to lack onions and carrots. That’s because the second time is when I added those vegetables, and I really enjoyed the variety in texture. I’d advise adding them, but it’s up to you.

 

312 Chili

312. Like, the area code. No, actually, like the delicious wheat ale from Chicago’s local Goose Island Brewery. That’s right: beer is in this chili. This isn’t anything earth shattering; people have been putting beer in chili for awhile now. In fact, there’s probably not much that hasn’t been in chili, you know? Like, maybe wine? But it’s probably been done. Anyways, beer in chili is new for me. And I must say, I probably won’t go back. It adds this sort of subtle hoppy hint at the end of each bite that rounds out the spicy, vegetable-heavy flavor. It’s kind of like sipping a beer with your chili, but not nearly as strong, and without the intoxicating side effects. (The alcohol is mostly cooked off).

I love that chili is a total grab-bag. I had a sweet potato to use, so in the chili it went. I wanted lots of vegetables to bulk it up, so I chopped up several cups and sautéed away. Heaping spoonful of minced garlic? Of course. Spicy diced tomatoes, any variety of bean you favor… all of it goes in. The best part is that all of it goes in the crock pot. Which anyone will tell you is the answer to your dinner prayers. It magically both requires less work and imparts more flavor. And now that I boldly italicized crock pot, I can’t stop thinking that it’s a very, borderline inappropriate sounding word. It’s probably an insult if used correctly. Anyways, what I’m offering up today (after much delay and anticipation, I’m sure), is beer. in your chili. in your crock pot. waiting for you for dinner when you come home. I know; what a comeback.

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312 Chili

Serves 6

1 tbsp. olive oil

1 yellow onion, diced

1 green bell pepper, diced

1 carrot, diced

Several cloves of garlic, minced (or used the pre-minced garlic, which has revolutionized my life)

1/4 lb. grass-fed ground beef (amp it up or ignore it all-together, I just had some in my freezer)

2 tbsp. smoked paprika

2 tsp. cumin

1 1/4 tsp. oregano

1 1/4 tsp. garlic powder

2 tsp. cayenne*

1 6 oz. can of tomato paste

1/2 bottle of 312 (or other beer that you like, I guess)

1-2 medium sweet potatoes, diced

1 15 oz. can kidney beans

1 15 oz. can black beans

2 15 oz. cans diced tomatoes (I did one fire roasted with green chiles, one plain)

1 15 oz. can tomato sauce

In a large sauté pan*, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the onions, peppers, and carrots and sauté until translucent and softened, about 5-10 minutes. Add the garlic and stir, cooking until fragrant, about 1 minute longer. Add the ground beef if using and cook until browned. Mix together the spices in a small bowl and add to the vegetable mixture. Stir to coat evenly. Add the can of tomato paste and mix thoroughly, cooking for about 3 minutes or so until well combined. Deglaze the pan with half a bottle of 312 (or other beer, fine. and drink the rest). Allow the beer to boil and reduce for about 5 minutes.

In a large crock pot, add the diced sweet potato, both cans of beans, the cans of diced tomatoes, and the tomato sauce. To this mixture, add the sautéed vegetables. Stir thoroughly. Cook the chili on low for 6-8 hours.

My favorite toppings include diced avocado, cheese, a dollop of plain Greek yogurt (or sour cream), and, of course, crackers. Nothing like saltines in chili, for some reason.

Delicious, easy, warm food for an entire week (or I guess for a large-ish family). So glad it’s time for chili again.

*You’ll notice I didn’t include chili powder. Well, I didn’t have any (and also couldn’t find any at Trader Joe’s where I was shopping… who stops at 2 stores?). But! I found this handy guide for how to make your own. And I found the chili, in result, to be even more flavorful this way. Maybe it’s the smoked paprika?

*Eh hem. I’m sure there are raised eyebrows at my offered crock pot recipe that involves using a sauté pan. But hear me out. Sautéed vegetables are 100 times better in this recipe, and the browning earned from the cooked tomato paste and deglazing with beer is well, well worth the marginal effort. I mean it’s seriously 15 minutes at the stove for a tremendous result. You have 15 minutes. The crock pot does the rest.

Glazed Tofu Banh Mi

When you’re living in a big city, you without intention are exposed to new ideas and cultures and references on an almost daily basis (depending on how much you go outside). One of the fantastic things about Chicago is its diversity, and the fact that the variability in culture penetrates even the most “gentrified” neighborhoods. Because even though I live in a high-rise full of more-often-than-not wealthy-ish older white people, I’m also steps from 4 Asian fusion, 1 upscale Mexican, 1 classic American, 1 Swedish brunch, 3 chain, and countless other restaurants. One of these includes a Vietnamese sandwich shop, known most for their banh mi sandwich. I coincidentally lived very near a Vietnamese sandwich place last year as well, so I’ve essentially passed by this delicious delicacy on an almost daily occasion for 2 years now. I don’t know why, but I’ll say it: I’ve never had a classic banh mi sandwich. Cue shame.

Now, in actuality, banh mi refers to a type of bread, not a specific sandwich. But in the westernized United States, it almost always refers to a baguette-type sandwich with roasted pork, pickled vegetables, chili sauce and/or mayonnaise, and cilantro. Variations come off of this base model, usually exchanging the pork for other meats or, in this case, vegetarian soy products (tofu!). Basically, this sandwich is a dream of beautifully combined products that promise to sooth and challenge all parts of your palate. But, probably, you’ve been passing it by, either literally or figuratively, without knowledge of its potential power over your sandwich cravings. I’m here to remedy that problem, by offering up a means to make this sandwich at home. I promise it is worth the (marginal) trouble to prepare each component, as it really takes about 45 minutes of time and is worth every second of the 2 minutes you’ll spend wolfing it down. Again, this is a tofu variety, which is quite easy to prepare, but you could certainly go traditional by preparing some pork or chicken (the same marinade can apply).

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Glazed Tofu Banh Mi

Makes 4 sandwiches

2 small baguettes (I used take and bake varieties, which freeze well)

1 cucumber, sliced

4 stalks green onion, sliced

Cilantro, chopped

Glazed tofu:

  • 1 block extra firm tofu
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. red pepper flake
  • 1/4 tsp. smoked paprika

Pickled vegetables

  • 5 small carrots, julienned
  • 1 bell pepper, sliced thinly
  • 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 3 tbsp. sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper

Sriracha cilantro mayonnaise

  • 2 tbsp. mayonnaise
  • 1 tsp. sriracha
  • 2 tbsp. cilantro, chopped

First, press the block of tofu (per this post) for at least 20 minutes. Once the tofu has been pressed, slice the tofu thinly into 16, 1/4 inch slices (or, slice into quarters, then slice each quarter into 4 slices). Whisk together the tofu marinade, then dip each slice of tofu into the marinade and allow to marinate in a large pan for 15-20 minutes.

While the tofu is pressing, prepare the pickled vegetables. Thinly slice, or julienne, the carrots and bell pepper and place in a dish (ideally that can be covered for later). Bring the rice wine vinegar, water, sugar, and S&P to a boil, until sugar has dissolved in the liquid. Pour the pickling liquid over the vegetables and allow to rest in the liquid for at least 30 minutes. You can store the remaining vegetables in the pickling liquid for several days (if these sandwiches will be prepared as “leftovers” as well later… a good idea).

Next, prepare the sriracha cilantro mayonnaise by combining the ingredients in a small bowl and mixing well. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Next, heat a griddle to 375 degrees Fahrenheit or a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add 1 tbsp. oil and the tofu to the pan (if using a sauté pan, this may require two batches). Heat the tofu for 3-5 minutes, until the first side is crisped and brown. Flip, then sauté the second side for an additional 3 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Now, time to prepare the sandwich! Split the baguette in half and then slice longitudinally to make 2 sandwiches. Spread about 1 tbsp. of sriracha cilantro mayo on one side. Top with 4 slices of glazed tofu. Pile on as much of the pickled veggies as you’d like, then top with fresh cucumber, green onion, and cilantro.

Eat the sandwich! Bits will certainly fall off as you eat, but relish in your unstable sandwich, should-be-take-out glory. I absolutely loved these sandwiches for lunch the next day, prepared the night before then eaten cold. Once all the components are prepared, it’s quite quick to put together. I’d imagine if you used meat you could just hold onto some extras for leftover sandwiches as well. Now I’m off to try the sandwich shop next door, just to compare…

 

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Carrot Cake

Happy Easter! I’m choosing to celebrate today with a delicious breakfast and carrot cake for dessert (which comes sometime in the afternoon, I’m predicting). I’m a little bit (read: very much) jealous of my brothers having fun together in North Carolina without me, and my dog prancing along (read: napping along) with them, but at least it’s a nice day here in the city. I also have a long run to do today, which is somewhat anxiety-producing, making the cake doubly necessary.

Now, per tradition, on Easter my grandma or mom would prepare a bunny cake, which is obviously named based on the appearance rather than the type of cake or flavor. I don’t even remember what kind of cake we usually used, but there was always white frosting, coconut, licorice whiskers, jellybean eyes and nose, and a bowtie of M&Ms. I begrudgingly removed most of these decorations, because licorice and jellybeans are not my candies-of-choice. The cake was good, but there was always too much, and with all of the other food and desserts (and CANDY) available on Easter, I don’t remember too much focus on the bunny cake outside of a few pictures.

As someone who enjoys dabbling in baking, and with the cake tradition arming my resolution, I decided to whip up my favorite carrot cake this weekend. I’ve made this cake once before, several years ago, and my roommate and I devoured it over the course of a week or so. It keeps well in the refrigerator (which is necessary due to the icing), and it tasted fresh and delicious that whole time. I’m not a big frosting person, in that I usually find it too saccharine or heavy or chemically (if that’s a word), but cream cheese frosting is THE BEST. Especially with some coconut. Cream cheese frosting makes carrot cake the divine, wonderfully dense cake it is. And all of the above prepared from scratch, with fresh carrots and walnuts? So good.

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Carrot Cake

Based off of this recipe

Serves about 16-20

9 inch round x 3 inches deep pan or 9×9 square pan

Unsalted butter, for the pan

1 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour (or whole wheat flour)

1 cup all-purpuse flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. ground ginger

1/4 tsp. ground cloves

1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

1/2 tsp. salt

6 medium carrots, grated

1 1/3 cup white sugar

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

3 large eggs

2/3 cup vanilla yogurt (or plain yogurt)

1 tsp. vanilla extract

3/4 cup vegetable oil

1 cup walnuts

Coconut Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 8 oz. cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese
  • 1/2 stick of butter (4 tbsp.)
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup of unsweetened shredded coconut

1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut, to top

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter the bottom and sides of your baking pan, and place parchment paper on the bottom of the pan.

In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices, and salt.

In a food processor, grate the carrots. Or, alternatively, shred the carrots with a grater. Add the shredded carrots to the bowl with the flour and other ingredients. Mix together until the carrots are evenly coated.

In a stand mixer (or with a hand mixer), cream together the sugar, brown sugar, eggs, yogurt, and vanilla extract. Once smooth and creamy, drizzle in the vegetable oil while on a slow mixing speed. Beat until combined.

Pour the liquid mixture into the carrot-flour mixture. Add 1 cup of walnuts. Stir with a large spoon to just combine.

Pour the carrot cake batter into the prepared baking pan. Place the pan in the 350 degree oven on the middle rack and bake for 45 minutes. After 45 minutes, reduce the heat to 325 degrees Fahrenheit and bake an additional 10-20 minutes, until the cake is cooked through. Test the cake’s doneness by dipping a toothpick in the center and ensuring that it comes out clean. Or use a thermometer to identify when the center of the cake has reached 205-210 degrees Fahrenheit.

Remove the pan from the oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, turn the cake out of the pan onto a cooling rack. Allow the cake to cool completely, at least 1hour.

While the cake is cooling, cream together the butter and cream cheese in a stand mixture, until smooth and creamy. Integrate the powdered sugar about 1 cup at a time, beating slowly after each addition, until thoroughly blended. Add the vanilla and beat until blended. Add the shredded coconut and mix until well distributed.

Once the cake has cooled, frost with the coconut cream cheese frosting. Top with shredded coconut. The cake will keep at room temperature for a few hours, but should otherwise be refrigerated between servings. It tastes really quite good straight from the refrigerator, but is slightly more flavorful once allowed to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes or so.

*Just FYI, my cake is long a narrow because I actually sliced it in half and frosted each half individually, so I could give half the cake out to others. I can’t eat an entire cake! Awkward frosting due to me not having enough, really, to individually frost several miniature cakes!

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Also, you can feel so healthy, because this cake is really not too sweet, full of carrots and walnuts, and lightly frosted (note: if you want a thicker frosting coating, you may want to 1 1/2 the recipe. I find the thickness (about 1/4-1/2 inch) to be appropriate for the cake). And anyways, you should indulge all you want, it’s Easter! And nice outside! Celebrate.

Inverted Shepherd’s Pie

Or something. Sorry, that’s the closest thing I could come to for a “title” of this dinner. It’s delicious, though? I mean, in a sense, it’s very similar to shepherd’s pie… minus the potatoes, plus some polenta, minus a few veggies, plus a few veggies, served from the stove-top, not baked… it works, I think. In any case, it tastes delicious. It actually reminds me nearly as much of my grandma’s classic creation: hamburger gravy. It sounds kind of gross, to strangers anyways, and actually is ground beef over potatoes (pretty similar to shepherd’s pie as well!), but it was a midwestern classic in a too-many-children household. Ground beef, sautéed with onions, tossed with flour and milk, served over creamy mashed potatoes and corn- it’s definitely comfort food. And no one makes it as well as my grandma, because that’s the kind of food that has to be served by an older relative. Kind of like Bisquick pancakes, some things are just better coming out of grandma’s kitchen. Not to be limited by flour and water, my grandma actually has a great variety of things she loves to cook, and we eat all of it heartily and happily. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her make polenta, though, so from here we diverge.

I think it’s probably obvious now that I am loving polenta. It’s creamy, it’s warm, it’s got just enough flavor to really amplify its corresponding ingredients (rather than just sitting there mashed on the plate), and it’s easy to prepare. I bought probably 2 cups a month or two ago, and it’s gone now, which is saying something for me. Usually I buy bulk grains and use them slowly, in a random pattern, until they’re finally exhausted months later. I suppose I just tire of the same thing too many times in a row. Polenta, though; it’s working for me right now. I guess I need to buy more.

But beyond the polenta, the ground beef in this recipe is really a great accompaniment. With some diced spring vegetables, it’s hearty yet flavorful and fresh. It feels awkward preparing dishes with ground beef, I realized as I thought of what I wanted to do with it besides make a hamburger. It always looks a bit unappetizing in its plain form, and it’s hard not to smother it in sauce and call it a day. Ground beef always seems to be a component of a dish, rather than a main ingredient (excusing said burger). It really doesn’t need too much though, I believe. A few veggies serve the purpose of diversity on the palate, and a hearty starch creates immediate comfort food, regardless of the recipe. Don’t let the pictures deceive you; this tastes more than what it looks.

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Inverted Shepherd’s Pie (I guess)

Serves 4

1 cup polenta

3 cups chicken stock

1 cup milk

2 tbsp. butter

1 lb. grass-fed ground beef

4 spring carrots, diced

4 radishes, sliced into slivers

1/2 yellow onion, diced

1 tbsp. olive oil

2 tsp. thyme

1/4 tsp. dried red chili flake

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tbsp. corn starch

1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock

2 tbsp. soy sauce

First, prepare the polenta. Bring 3 cups of stock and 1 cup milk, whisked, to a boil. Once boiling, add the polenta to the pot while whisking constantly. Continue to whisk until the polenta is suspended in the liquid, ever so slightly thickened. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for about 30-45 minutes, until the liquid is fully absorbed. Whisk every few minutes initially, then stir occasionally with a wooden spoon, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan. As noted before, the polenta may be “done” a bit earlier, but cooking longer yields deeper flavor. Once cooked, add 2 tbsp. of butter, and salt and pepper to taste, and stir into the polenta. Keep covered and set aside.

Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Cook the carrots and onions until they’re just softened and the onions are translucent, about 5-8 minutes. Add the radishes and stir. Add the ground beef to the pan and cook until browned, about 10 minutes. Add the thyme, chili flake, and salt and pepper to taste and stir. In a mason jar, add the corn starch, 1/2 cup of stock, and soy sauce. Shake to combine. (Alternatively, whisk in a bowl). Pour the thickened stock over the meat and vegetables and bring to a boil. Let the stock reduce until thick and adherent to the meat and veggies. Remove from the heat.

Plate a serving of polenta and top with the meat and vegetable mixture. Something about carrots and radishes makes it feel French to me somehow, with an obvious Italian (polenta) influence. Maybe it’s just European. Maybe it’s a mish-mash. Either way: it’s good.

 

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Spicy Honey Soy Glazed Tofu Stir Fry

That title is a mouthful. And this dinner is a delicious mouthful! Easy puns. Tofu and vegetables, stir fried together in a sumptuous saucy glaze, are such a great, easy-yet-satisfying, healthy dinner. They don’t, however, photograph well. So while the images below may not entice you suddenly to purchase these ingredients and throw this together, I promise it’s actually one of the more delicious things I’ve made. The glaze is just the perfect combination of salty, sweet, and spicy, and the vegetables take to it perfectly, smothered yet crisp. I happen to love tofu, especially when pan fried, but I’m sure another protein would fit in this meal nicely as well. I thought about plating these components on a bed of rice, but, honestly, it’s really not necessary.

I loved this combination of vegetables because of their contrasting components, textures, and flavors, but, as a stir fry, substitutions are easy and not discouraged. Sometimes I think it’s fun just to browse the produce section and choose something different, which is why you won’t find snap peas or broccoli in this recipe. Whatever you want to try this week, whatever you’d like to experiment, pour this sauce over it and it’ll work out.

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Top left and clockwise: red pepper, bok choy, radish, carrots, cremini mushrooms

 

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Inside the mason jar: sauce that is amazing

 

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My favorite way to prepare tofu: lined up on a griddle, flip x 6

 

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Spicy Honey Soy Glazed Tofu Stir Fry

Serves 2-3

1 block extra firm tofu, pressed

2 tbsp. grapeseed (or other high heat) oil, divided

1/2 red bell pepper, diced

1 head bok choy, trimmed from the base and washed

5-6 medium radishes, sliced thinly

1-2 medium carrots, sliced into thin rounds

5 oz. cremini mushrooms, washed and sliced

Spicy Honey Soy Glaze:

  • 3 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp. grapeseed oil
  • 1 tbsp. honey
  • 1 tsp. sriracha
  • 1/4 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. ground ginger
  • Pinch of red chili flake
  • Dash of cayenne pepper
  • 2 tbsp. diced shallot
  • 1 tbsp. cornstarch

Before cooking, prepare all of your ingredients and have ready. To prepare the tofu, open it from its package, drain the excess water, and place on a plate covered with a few paper towels. Top with more paper towels and weigh the tofu with another plate or medium-weight kitchen object. Let press for 15-30 minutes. Dice the tofu into about 1 inch cubes, depending somewhat on the size of the block (mine ended up more rectangular). Chop all of the vegetables according to the ingredients list.

Add the glaze ingredients to a mason jar and shake vigorously to combine. Set aside for later use.

I prepare the tofu separately, so that I can easily brown each side (which I find difficult in a standard sauté pan). You definitely don’t have to be so regimented- you could just as well brown in a sauté pan until seared to your liking- but I like every side to be crispy. So, either in your largest sauté pan or on a griddle, over medium-high heat or heated to 375 respectively, heat 1 tbsp. oil and place the tofu cubes in rows. Allow to cook for 1-3 minutes per side (I find the pan heats up over time, whereas a griddle is more consistent) until a light to medium brown is achieved. Once to tofu is sautéed, set aside.

In the same large sauté pan, wok, or other pan, heat the remaining tbsp. of oil over high heat. Add the carrots and bell pepper and cook for 2-3 minutes, until just softening. Add the bok choy and cook for another 2 minutes, until the leaves are just beginning to wilt. Add the mushrooms to the pan and allow to brown, cooking just until the juices are releasing, about 3 minutes. Add the radishes and toss (I add at the end so they maintain some crispness). As the juices from the mushrooms boils off, add the tofu to the pan and mix. Lightly (lightly!) season with salt and pepper. Next, add the spicy honey soy glaze to the pan. It will bubble violently and thicken, so stir vigorously until all vegetables and tofu are coated evenly. Remove from heat and serve.

 

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And, as always, top with sriracha. It may not be the most beautiful, but this is better than take-out. Much, much healthier too.

Dinner for Dito

Ok, so actually this should be titled “Dessert for Oscar,” but I thought a dog-on-blog pun would be more appropriate. Dito is Brian’s dog: a Welsh Corgi with some serious attitude and spunk. Dito is always first, always in the way, and always a little bit on edge. He’s endearing, yet you’d be hard-pressed to isolate global “charms,” as his most memorable qualities include breathing heavily and insisting on jumping in the river every few minutes of his walk. But I find myself missing Dito, purely for his energetic confidence and irrefutable love for his family. Dito can most days be found upstairs with Brian, listening to music (he seems to share Brian’s alternative and classical taste) and happily napping or licking his feet. Oscar and Dito have a tumultuous relationship, as alpha dogs often do, but as Oscar is (probably unhappily) far away with me in Chicago, we have to remember our dog family with pleasant nostalgia.

Today Oscar celebrated his 8th birthday, with birthday go-ers including my roommate’s dog Lola and a wily boxer puppy named Bobbo. Now before this gets weird, yes, I do celebrate my dog’s birthday. No, I don’t think I’m crazy. And yes, he wears sweaters (it gets too cold in Chicago!). I’ve never before made Oscar a cake, or really acknowledged his birthday outside of insisting on a nice visit to the park, but as we’re stuck inside from the freezing Chicago wind, I decided a cake eating contest would be a hilarious Friday-night birthday activity. I searched the internet for a few dog-friendly cake recipes, eyeing several that seemed similar and inclusive of ingredients I already know Oscar enjoys: carrots, peanut butter, etc. I didn’t want to give him anything that seemed to be an ingredient purely for “human” tastes, as he doesn’t care about sweetener or vanilla flavor, I’m sure. I also didn’t want this cake to be the reason I have to get up at 3am, if you know what I mean. So I switched up the recipe a bit, and, no surprise, it was a huge hit for dogs all around. Oscar tenderly and steadily made through his miniature cake, licking the frosting then taking nibbling bites from the edges. He made through about 3/4 before deciding he couldn’t eat anymore. Lola, however, gobbled her entire cake in seconds, and she eagerly finished off Oscar’s plate when he signed defeat.

Oscar may not have been the winner, but if you’re looking to treat your pet (and not feel ashamed for doing so), I really recommend this simple cake, best served contest-style.

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Oscar’s Perfect-for-Pups Birthday Cake

Serves 6 hungry dogs

1 egg

1/4 cup peanut butter, preferably just peanuts and salt

3 tbsp. water

1/4 cup pumpkin puree (or sweet potato)

1 cup shredded carrots (about 3-4 medium carrots)

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 tsp. baking soda

Pumpkin Peanut Butter Frosting:

  • 2 tbsp. peanut butter
  • 1/3 cup pumpkin puree

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a loaf pan and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together egg, peanut butter, and water until a smooth and even consistency is achieved. Add pumpkin puree and whisk to combine. In a food processor, pulse carrots until evenly shredded. Mix shredded carrots with the puree mixture. Add whole wheat flour and baking soda to the bowl and fold into the batter, mixing evenly, until almost no flour is visible (no need to over-mix).

Pour the batter into the loaf pan. The bonus of making this cake from scratch- the batter actually tastes pretty good. Kind of like an unsweetened carrot cake, with a more notable peanut butter flavor. The cake rises slightly in the oven, but is pretty dense.

Bake the cake in the oven for 30-35 minutes, until cooked through. Rest the cake in the loaf pan on a cooling rack for at least 10 minutes.

In order to make a bone-shaped cake, slice a 3 inch slice of cake out of the pan. I threw the piece in the freezer for a few minutes since I was inpatient with waiting for it to cool. Using a paring knife, cut out an equilateral triangle at both ends of the rectangle. Then, cut a shallow half-moon shape out of the long rectangular sides.

Frost the cake with about 1-2 tbsp. of  frosting. Maybe your dog is 8 years old and you want to make an 8 out of a peeled slice of carrot. I won’t stop you.

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Oscar beginning to dive in. He flipped the cake over immediately with his voracious first bite. 

 

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Slowing down; he takes little bites and addresses the frosting.

The other family dogs have birthdays in the next few months, and this was really easy… just mentioning.