Sunday, November 30, 2008

Feast

licked clean

Aaahh. What a great holiday Thanksgiving is.

the dinner table

This holiday may be all about the food, but the feasting is just half an hour of the entire day, spent pigging out and complimenting the dishes. The fun part is the kitchen time. Everyone helping out, cooking, prepping, anticipating.

There was just four of us, and everyone contributed to the meal. Our dinner consisted of simple, classic favorites. My parents cooked the turkey. Mom made the sweet potatoes and gravy, and Dad made the mashed potatoes. Jenny made the roasted cauliflower (drizzled with olive and lemon, a perfect refreshing side dish to balance out the rich casseroles) and the pumpkin ice cream pie (light and pumpkin-y). I was in charge of the stuffing and the fresh green bean casserole (topped with French fried onions, though the photo below shows the "naked" casserole).

the Thanksgiving bird
sweet potatoes
roasted lemon-y cauliflower
stuffing
fresh green bean casserole

Hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving! Less than a month 'til Christmas...

getting the table and turkey ready
my Thanksgiving plate

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving prep

Happy Thanksgiving! It's been a long, delicious day of peeling, chopping, mixing, buttering, roasting, grating, eating, snacking, cleaning, ooooh-ing, aaaah-ing, mmmmm-ing, and of course, photographing:

Thanksgiving prep

I am thankful for learning to create photo collages. And other stuff, too. Like family, friends, a wonderful boyfriend, cats, sunny days, food blogs, brand new hand-knit mittens. And turkey.

Thanksgiving turkey prep

The feast, coming up next. After my food baby and I have slept in, eaten leftovers for breakfast (turkey omelets, anyone?), and then more for lunch (mmm...the possibilities!).

Monday, November 17, 2008

Cozy up with a Shepherd's Pie.

It's coooooold in Chicago. No-turning-back cold. As in, this is IT. No more random weeks of 70-degree sunny days, or sunny days at all, for that matter. Cold, windy, gray, with a high chance of snow that will last until late April. And everywhere I turn, people are wearing heavy winter jackets, boots, mittens, and hats, their scarves blowing about their necks like white surrender flags. There's no fighting it: We're ready for the inevitable.

Luckily, stocked freezers and pantries and healthy Midwestern appetites keep us well-equipped for the long winter ahead.

I sat at my cold office desk all day cloaked in a shawl, my hands in fingerless mitts, clutching a hot mug of coffee, and still freezing. The only thing that could warm me up, besides a hot bowl of soup for lunch, was looking at pictures of shepherd's pies all day. I just hoped the brick of ground beef in my fridge would be thawed by the time I got home.

Shepherd's pie

I've come to believe that a good part of the comfort factor in comfort food comes from the dish's simplicity. (I just came about this realization about 30 seconds ago; I could very well change my mind by the end of the night.) Nothing fancy, nothing complicated, just warm and filling and familiar. OK, so maybe not that familiar. I didn't grow up on shepherd's pie; in fact, I might've had my first shepherd's pie just a few years back. But really, nothing says comfort like a big bowl of meat and potatoes.

Shepherd's pie

The pie innards couldn't be simpler: chopped celery and onions and garlic, ground beef mixed with a bit of flour and ketchup and Worcestershire sauce (which I just learned how to properly pronounce today), and frozen veggies. Topped with buttery cheesy mashed potatoes. I won't lie -- it was a little bland. Salt and extra Worcestershire sauce fixed that up.

I think next time, I'll prepare this dish the night before and pop it in the oven as soon as I get home from work. Meat + Potatoes + Fast = Ultimate Comfort Food.

I can't wait for the leftovers to warm me up at my desk tomorrow. I'll definitely need it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Filipino comfort food: Sinigang

When I'm sick, nothing is more comforting than a steaming bowl of soup. It's all about the hot, soothing broth, calming the scratchy throat and blanketing my insides from tongue to toes. Chicken noodle soup is my normal go-to; I keep my pantry stocked with cans of Campbell's condensed version. It's easy, it's familiar, it does the trick just fine. But really, it's only second best.

Sinigang

Sinigang is the Filipino version of chicken noodle soup. Kind of. There's no noodles in sininang, or chicken (at least not in any I've ever had, but there certainly are many variations of the dish). My parents often make it with beef, ginger, taro root, and long beans. Taro root is like a potato, only a bit mushier and waxier when cooked in sinigang. When I was younger, I called them Filipino potatoes. Long beans are basically green beans, except longer and darker in color.

While these goodies are essential to sinigang, it's the tamarind that really defines the dish. The tamarind brings a sourness to the broth, which is what makes the dish so soothing to a sore throat. If I ever felt the slightest hint of a cold, my mom would make a pot of sinigang right away and spoon the broth into a little cup that I would sip with my food. It made being sick almost worth it. And I'll be completely honest with you: It tastes better when I'm sick.

Sinigang

It's still delicious without being sick, of course. Jenny asked my parents to make sinigang when we were at home a couple of weeks back. I gobbled up my food and had seconds, but not before burning my throat on the steaming hot broth and feeling the sour tingle all the way to my fingertips. Ahhh. OK, so a little part of me did wish I had a sore throat. But with the thin layer of snow I found on my car's rooftop this evening, that sore throat may be coming sooner than I'd like...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Delicious Sandwich Night: Reubens

delicious reuben sandwich

I can't make a grilled cheese sandwich to save my life. Grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup are comfort foods that never comforted me growing up; I didn't make my first grilled cheese sandwich until sometime in college, when one day I didn't want ramen or fried rice so I decided to tackle the simple toastie. I didn't think it was that bad, or difficult to make. But then again, I'm not a sandwich connoisseur. And when I'm hungry, I'll eat just about anything.

So I never noticed that my sandwiches always ended up burnt on the outside, or cold on the inside, or both. It wasn't until I started serving the shameful creations to Murdo (who, unlike me, grew up on grilled cheese sandwiches and understands the fine art involved in perfectly melting cheese between two perfect pieces of toast) that I learned: I really suck at making these things.

I suppose it all comes down to the dirty little fact that sandwiches just aren't my thing. For me, they're quick and easy meals. So I want them done quickly and easily. Which means no fussing around with perfect cheese-to-meat-to-spread ratios or what have you. Slap the goodies together and call it a day, that's what I say.

The results, as you can imagine, are mediocre at best. This is why I leave the sandwich-making to Murdo.

delicious sandwich prep station

You may remember the intricately designed sandwiches he would pack for my lunches over the summer -- during those sunny lunch days in the park (oh how I miss those...). Needless to say, he's pretty damn good at making sandwiches. He's been experimenting with the Reuben for some time now, tweaking his technique here and there to get it just right. Last week, making dinner for himself at his parents' house, he got it. And he told me all about it over the phone and insisted I needed to try it. So this week, we had Delicious Sandwich Night (hopefully the first in a series of Delicious Sandwiches made by Murdo).

Reuben purists may argue that a true Reuben must have sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing. But this is America, folks, and YES WE CAN include (or in this case, NOT include) anything on our Reubens. Same goes for hot dogs, although Chicago-style will always be the way to go in my heart. But anyway.

First there's the butter. An even layer of butter on each slice of bread and a good pat of butter on the frying pan. Then the red onion must be sliced as thinly as possible. All of the ingredients (except the Swiss cheese, that's put on the bread right away) are placed directly in the pan -- the bread to toast to a perfect golden brown, the onions and corned beef to soften up before assembling the sandwich.

Imaking the reubens

When the cheese is perfectly melted (don't ask me how this is determined -- I will never know when the cheese is perfectly melted), he takes the bread off the pan and squirts a good amount of spicy brown mustard.

The results: Melt-in-my-mouth delicious. Seriously. Cooking everything in butter before putting the sandwich together gives the meat a soft, velvety texture that dissolves on the tongue into a perfect blend of buttery-cheesy-mustardy-cornedbeefy goodness, with just a slight hint of crisp red onion. And the warm corned beef helps to melt the cheese all the way through -- not just the part touching the bread. 

It's an art, this sandwich-making, that I will never have the patience to understand. Nor the need, really, since I'm dating my very own sandwich-maker. So I just eat.

delicious reuben sandwich

He's got a bunch more Delicious Sandwich recipes just swimming around in his head, waiting to be perfected. And so begins our monthly Delicious Sandwich Night. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

At home: Making lumpia.

**UPDATED 1/10/11**
For a complete how-to and recipe for rolling and making vegetable lumpia (lumpia prito), read my post How to Make Lumpia.

Lumpia

I have never met a person who has tried Filipino lumpia and didn't absolutely love them. I mean, who doesn't love eggrolls?

There are many types of lumpia, as pictured on this lumpia wrapper* box:
Lumpia wrappers

Lumpia Shanghai are the eggrolls most commonly served at Filipino parties, and usually the first reaction that non-Filipinos have upon seeing them is, "Whoa, they're so little!" Yes, unlike the big fatty Chinese eggrolls that most people are used to, Lumpia Shanghai are thin, bite-size, and oh-so-cute. They also have a tendency to disappear within mere minutes of being served. Oh yes, they're damn good.

Fresh lumpia is less commonly served, at least at my house. I was a child the last time I had fresh lumpia, and all I can remember is the peanut sauce and the fresh, crisp texture of veggies. I've asked my mom to make them several times, but still no dice.

My favorite is vegetable lumpia and is the feature of this post. They're about the size of Chinese eggrolls (but waaaay better, of course!), three or four can easily fill me up as a whole meal, and they're not complete without spooning a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, and pepper over each crispy bite.

Lumpia is pretty easy to make, but it takes a lot of time and work to chop, cook, and cool the vegetables, then wrap the eggrolls. Which explains why Mom only makes lumpia when others promise to help out. Until now, my duties have been limited to chopping, separating the wrappers, and helping wrap and seal the eggrolls. Last weekend, I decided it was time to learn to do the entire process on my own.

Lumpia filling

Although it's called vegetable lumpia, it's not really vegetarian. My mom added ground turkey, along with green beans, carrots, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, onions, and garlic. Cooked it all and tossed with patis (fish sauce), then allowed the veggie mixture to cool.

And then we wrapped.

Wrapping lumpia is pretty tough, but I think I got the hang of it. I hope to one day wrap lumpia just like Mom:
Rolled lumpia

And now, the best part: frying and eating!
Frying lumpia
fried crispy lumpia goodness
lumpia insides

*By the way, the wrappers pictured above are actually best for Lumpia Shanghai, as they're thinner and can hold only a small amount of filling without tearing. I was fooled by the picture on the box and bought these wrappers, thinking they'd be fine for vegetable lumpia. My mom informed me that thicker wrappers are more suitable for bigger eggrolls. We ended up double-wrapping them. Oops.

**UPDATED 1/10/11**
For a complete how-to and recipe for rolling and making vegetable lumpia (lumpia prito), read my post How to Make Lumpia.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

At home: Dad makes eggs and rice for breakfast.

Some things just taste better when Dad cooks them. So when I started making eggs with tomatoes and onions on Sunday and Dad offered to take over, I couldn't resist. I can never make them the way he does (and he makes the best breakfast fried rice, too!).

Sunday breakfast: Eggs and rice

Dad's birthday dinner OR the Night of Feared Mush, Part 2: Jenny's Apple Pie (with golden raisins)

Apple pie

As I worried over my lasagna for Dad's birthday dinner, Jenny prepared the apple pie and developed doubts of her own -- which doesn't often happen when she makes pies. In fact, Jenny's pie-making process is usually accompanied by squeals of excitement rather than cries of "Oh no! Why aren't you bubbling?!"

When I started taking pictures of her mushy apples, I think she got a little nervous. Before I go any further, let it be known to the food blogosphere that this apple pie is certainly not her best work. But it was still damn good.

Here's what went wrong: The Red Delicious apples cooked more quickly than the Honeycrisp*, resulting in half a pan of mushy apples and the other perfectly done. The crust was all wrong -- I don't know why, I don't know how. The science of pie crust boggles my mind a bit, but all I know is that she said it was wrong, so I took her word for it. And when all was said and done and popped in the oven, it didn't bubble. Which I guess it's supposed to...again, I'm no baker. I'm writing this based on Jenny's cries of despair as she peeked through the oven window every ten minutes.

That's why I stay away from baking. At least when I was making the lasagna and worrying over mushy, watery layers, I always knew that in the end, it would probably still taste good. Maybe it wouldn't be lasagna, but if disaster had struck that night, I could've rescued the sauce and made some sort of pasta dish. I don't think I could rescue an apple pie. I wouldn't even know where to begin. I think my biggest fear when it comes to baking is that nothing will go as planned and I'd end up with something pasty that tastes like flour.

Oh, and then there's this:
Applie pie

I definitely can't do that. Intricacy like that takes patience, skill, and a love for all things pie. Which is why she's the baker and I am not.

In the end, the feared mushy apple pie with an all-wrong crust didn't happen that night -- despite the fact that we later realized my mom's measuring spoons weren't labeled clearly, resulting in the less-than-perfect crust and the no bubbling.

Whaaaat? A pie baked with incorrect measurements that still turned out delicious? Perhaps I was all wrong about these baking fears...

Applie pie

But then again, I don't think I can compete with this.

Apple pie

(Note: Many of these photos were taken by the Great J. the Baker Herself.)

*EDIT: Per Jenny's comment. She used Granny Smith apples, NOT Honey Crisp. My sincerest apologies for the confusion!!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Dad's birthday dinner OR the Night of Feared Mush, Part 1: Lasagna

layers, veggies, meaty, saucy

It was one of those nights of cooking when things just didn’t go quite as planned, and the end results (though ultimately successful) were anticipated in fear and doubt.

The menu included a spring salad mix, garlic parmesan bread, meat-and-roasted-vegetable lasagna, and a tart apple pie for dessert. Jenny baked the apple pie, which will be featured in a following post. This post is all about the lasagna. My very first made-by-me lasagna.

I’m not one to get excited about lasagna. It's always too meaty, or cheesy, or meaty and cheesy, and just plain boring. I’m a vegetable-lover, and layers of simply meats and cheese and pasta just doesn’t cut it for me. Give me fresh, crisp, colorful veggies, and I’m all in. So the thought of making my own lasagna any way I want has been tickling me for some time.

I was inspired by Kristin’s photos at The Kitchen Sink to include roasted zucchini and yellow squash in the dish, but I also wanted to go with a classic meat lasagna, so I added ground turkey to the sauce. I made my usual tomato sauce with garlic, onions, carrots, and celery, along with various spices. So far, everything was going according to plan.

Lasagna is supposed to be easy. A lot of work, maybe. A lot of expensive cheese, definitely. My roasted veggies were a bit on the mushy side, but this I could deal with. It was the layering that started getting me worried. Like I said, lasagna is supposed to be easy. The concept is simple: sauce, pasta, cheese, veggies, repeat.

lasagna prep

Except that once I got to layering, I realized that lasagna is, well, a lot of layers. Too many? The last spread of mozzarella cheese on top was very close to the top of the casserole dish – too close for comfort. I was convinced I over-layered. That the lasagna would bubble over. And then I tried lifting the dish and realized that I had just created nearly ten pounds of lasagna. It was frickin’ heavy.

These are the doubts that overcome a newbie cook when making a dish for the first time. I began second-guessing everything I did and feared that dinner would be ruined. I was afraid that I would fail a dish as simple as lasagna. And when I covered the lasagna with aluminum foil to prevent it from bubbling over in the oven and to keep the cheese from burning, I hadn’t thought of the steam getting caught and making the dish watery – resulting in a mini freak-out when I checked on the dish 45 minutes later. Watery, mushy lasagna. And too damn much of it.

But I was told not to worry. It would taste fine. The sauce didn’t bubble over. The watery pool floating atop the cheeses could’ve easily resulted in all of the veggies stuffed in the folds, not just my silly mistake, and a few minutes in the open air seemed to take care of it. And it certainly wasn’t too much food for six hungry people. Life would go on. Dinner would go on. So as the lasagna cooled, I took pictures, as usual.

lasagna and salad

OK, so it doesn’t look like perfect. It’s actually kind of a mess. Layers and sauce and juice and veggies spilling all over the plate. Not the solid squares of pasta cake that I was hoping for, but it was still a delicious mess. And Murdo made soft, cheesy garlic bread to help mop the plates clean.

lasagna and garlic bread
lasagna dinner
lasagna dinner

And then there was dessert...

(to be continued...)