Saturday, August 4, 2012

Whatever Pieces is moving!

Well friends, I've decided I'm serious about this blogging thing. So, I'm relocating.

You can now find Whatever Pieces here: http://whateverpieces.wordpress.com/.

I've moved all my old content to Wordpress; and if I've done this right new posts should continue to appear on this Blogger page.

Why the move? It was mostly a chance for me to re-organize and re-imagine the blog. When I first started Whatever Pieces, I didn't mean for it to be a recipe blog but that's how it evolved. The Wordpress site now has two areas (Recipes and Other Pieces) so I can keep things a little more organized but still have the freedom to write about things other than food. I'm still working on categorizing the recipes themselves, but that will come soon.

So, check it out. It's still a work in progress, but so far I'm liking the new layout.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Epic Saga of My Teeth, Part I

Yesterday I started to write a somewhat graphic and admittedly kind of gross blog post. You see, for the past week (really, longer than that) I have been battling an infected abscess beneath one of my front crowns. The ordeal has resulted in a root canal, lots of drainage, multiple rounds of medication, and a whole lot of pain.

Fortunately for you, I've scrapped the really graphic version.

Suffice it to say that I have not been a very happy camper. As of this morning (my third dentist appointment), the infection was still in full swing. My dentist cleaned it out as much as he could (again) and sent me home with a new type of antibiotic. Hopefully this one will take care of it, but for now it's just a waiting game.

So, in summary...

I've been feeling a lot like this:


And maybe a little like this:


(although I wish I felt like this kid:

)

 I've been re-watching a lot of this:


And eating lots of this:

Risotto. And other mushy foods I don't have pictures of.
Also: not a video.

I'll keep you posted on future developments.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Grilled Summer Vegetable Couscous Salad

 A tasty summery salad!
In my last post, I wrote about a little bit about my eating habits over the course of the day. I've been trying to focus my lunches on vegetables as much as possible, so I've been making a lot of different salad combinations. This is my most recent. It's certainly good as-is, but don't be afraid to shake it up! Substitute orzo, quinoa, or even rice for the couscous, and use whatever veggies and/or dressing you have on hand. Toss in some diced chicken, canned tuna, or beans for a protein kick. It's a great way to eat seasonal veggies and clean out your fridge at the same time.

Grape tomatoes, zucchini, and red bell pepper are the stars here.

Grilled Summer Vegetable Couscous Salad
Serves 2 as a main dish

Ingredients
  • 1 cup dry pearled couscous (I cheated and used a box of Near East Roasted Garlic & Olive Oil couscous)
  • Olive oil
  • 1 medium zucchini, sliced in half lengthwise
  • 2 red bell peppers, cleaned and cut in half
  • 8 grape tomatoes, cut into quarters
  • 2 cups baby spinach
  • 1-2 tablespoons salad dressing (I used homemade balsamic--recipe follows)
  • Fresh basil, salt and pepper, and/or other seasonings as desired
Steps

1. Cook couscous as directed on the package. When finished, remove from the burner and cover to keep warm.

2.  Prepare vegetables. Brush a grill pan with olive oil and heat over medium heat. When it's hot, place peppers skin side down and the zucchini cut side down on the surface. (You can also use a real grill--brush the veggies with oil in that case--or a Foreman grill for this.)

Start with zucchini cut-side down and peppers skin-side down.

The zucchini will develop grill lines after a few minutes. Turn it over and cook one or two minutes more skin-side down.

Lovely grill lines.

Cook the peppers until they begin to blister and char on the outside. Flip and cook a few minutes more on the other side. I wasn't going for the blackened skin of a roasted pepper here, just a slightly softened pepper with a nice grilled flavor. I still wanted them to have a bit of crunch.

Still a few steps away from roasted peppers.

Set the grilled vegetables aside to cool. Place the tomatoes and spinach in a large mixing bowl.

3.  When the grilled vegetables are cool enough to handle, slice the zucchini into half moons and the peppers into strips. Toss the warm vegetables on top of the spinach and tomatoes in the mixing bowl.

The warm vegetables will wilt the spinach just slightly.

4.  Fluff the warm couscous and pour it over the vegetables in the bowl. Drizzle with the dressing and toss everything together.

Now is the time to add seasonings. I used the packet
that came with the couscous, and didn't feel that it
needed anything more after the dressing was mixed in.

I originally intended this to be a cold salad, like a pasta salad. But of course I had to taste it right away, and it's pretty good served warm too! It's joining my lunch tomorrow with some cherries and Greek yogurt.

And, as promised, here is the "recipe" for my balsamic dressing. I apologize for the lack of specificity--this is something I just sort of throw together every couple of days. It works well with a savory dish like this one, but it's also delicious on a simple salad of spinach and berries.

Homemade Balsamic Vinaigrette
Enough for 2 or 3 salads

Ingredients (amounts are approximate)
  • 1-1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar (you may not want this much)
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 2 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1-2 tsp lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper 
Steps (just one!)

1. Combine all ingredients in a shake-able container with a lid. Shake well until blended. Taste and adjust as needed. The dressing will keep in the fridge for at least a week (at which point I'm usually all out and need to make more).

A tip on salad dressings: If you can't figure out what it's missing, think through the five tastes. With this recipe you have bitterness (vinegar and mustard), sourness (lemon and vinegar), sweetness (honey), saltiness (salt), and umami (olive oil). If I think about that while I'm taste-testing, I can usually figure out what I need to add to balance the flavor. Works for other dishes too! Read more about the five tastes here.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Some Tips on Cooking for One

Most of the recipes I've shared on this blog are meant for one person. I moved here to Cincinnati by myself back in August, and even though I live in a house full of roommates we mostly cook for ourselves. But, on Sunday we'll have a new roommate: Paul. Which means I'll be doing a lot more cooking for two!

But, I don't want to forget all the helpful things I learned while cooking just for myself. One of the reasons I really started to focus this blog on recipes is because I found a serious lack of "cooking for one" resources. Like a lot of solo diners, I cooked too much at first. And then I tried to hack four- and six-serving recipes down to one serving.

Finally, I realized I had to change the way I was thinking about food and cooking. "Serves one" doesn't have to mean "frozen" or "take-out" or "boring" or "complicated ingredient divisions" or even "eat-the-same-thing-five-days-in-a-row-because-you-made-too-much." You can still cook and eat fresh, delicious food--it just may take some adjustments if you're used to cooking for a bigger crowd. So, here are some tips and thoughts.

1.  Cook what you really want. One of the greatest parts of cooking just for yourself is that you can eat exactly what appeals to you. No joke, one night my dinner consisted of two scrambled eggs, a piece of toast, and a side of peas. Because that's exactly what I felt like eating--so I did. The flip side of this is that you have to/get to learn how to make what you really want!

Exactly how and why the sweet potato fry recipe came to be.

2.  Try new things. Being on my own has allowed me to try new foods and test out recipes without worrying if other people will like what I buy or make. Some things are duds, while others--pomegranates, Swiss chard, chicken and bread soup--become staples of my pantry and repertoire. Other examples:

Savory oatmeal: culinary fail.






Ricotta gnocchi: culinary epic win!

3.  Cook just enough. Cooking for one can be a great way to cut down on how much you eat. If you tend to overeat a certain food (ahem, pasta) just measure out one serving, cook that one serving, and eat it. You're less likely to go back for seconds if it's not sitting on the stove already made!

4.  Or, cook more than enough. It's hard to cut a recipe for four down to a recipe for one. It's a bit easier to cut it in half to a recipe for two, though. I often make two servings of whatever I'm having for dinner, then box up half of it right away and save it for lunch the next day.

5.  Re-imagine leftovers. Let's say you took the advice in Number 4 and made extra food, but now that food just doesn't look so exciting. Come up with ways of eating it differently. Leftover risotto can be mixed with an egg and fried in olive oil as a risotto cake. Cooked pasta, rice, couscous, or quinoa can bulk up a soup or become the basis for a cold salad. Cooled polenta can be fried or baked. Cooked veggies can become an omelet filling, pasta mix-in, sandwich topping, quesadilla filling...you get the picture.

Risotto cake: mix leftover risotto with beaten egg and pan fry in olive oil.

Another one of my best re-imaginings (sadly photo-less) was mixing leftover shredded chicken with mashed avocado, garlic, lemon juice, salt, and pepper to create a "chicken salad" which I wrapped in a wheat tortilla and packed for lunch. The possibilities are endless.

6.  Use your freezer. Sometimes you just need to make more than one or two servings--and that's ok. Stick it in a freezer bag or container, label it, and pop it in. Personally I'm a lot more likely to reach for a homemade calzone or cup of chili than a Lean Cuisine when I'm digging around in the freezer. Plus, the homemade meal is usually cheaper than stocking up on frozen entrees.

 The freezer is also great for baked goods like cookies and muffins; bake up a batch, eat one straight from the oven, and save the rest for later. For muffins and breads, I recommend a 30-second zap in the microwave followed by a visit to the toaster oven--your food will warm through, and you'll revive the crispy-crusty-toasty exterior.

I ate one of these fresh ciabatta rolls and stashed the rest in the
freezer. Now, whenever I have a craving for crusty, delicious bread,
I can have some!

7.  Along with Number 6, portion your food. You don't have to use up a whole pound of ground beef in two days just because you were dying for a hamburger. Instead, open the package when you get home from the store, divide it into an appropriate number of portions, wrap it, bag it, and freeze it. I do this with ground beef, bacon, breads, and just about anything else that's freeze-able. Also works for things you don't need to freeze, like snack foods and other things that come in large packages.

8.  Think about your nutrition every once in a while. It might be tempting to eat Ramen noodles or mac and cheese or whatever for every meal, but eventually a one-note diet will catch up with you. I try to combine a couple of food groups at each meal. Breakfast is usually a grain (oatmeal or cereal), fruit, and dairy (yogurt or milk). Lunch is vegetables, some form of protein, a grain and/or dairy. And dinner is where I try to round it all out.

All five food groups: toast (grain), asparagus (veggies),
banana (fruit), egg (protein), and Parmesan cheese (dairy).

There are many days when I decide what to make for dinner based on what I've eaten for breakfast and lunch. If I had a muffin and pizza, I'll probably compensate with a salad or veggie soup for dinner. But if I've been good all day, I might go for that mac and cheese.

9.  Decide what to splurge on, and where you can compromise. I don't have a problem buying generic cereal or store-brand pasta, and I buy my produce based on what's in season and therefore cheapest. However, there are some items I let myself spend a little more on.

An example: milk. I like to have it around for coffee and cereal, and for a while I was buying the store brand. The problem was that a quart of milk wasn't quite enough for a whole week, and a half-gallon ALWAYS went bad before I could finish it. One of my housemates tipped me off to a solution: buy organic. A half-gallon of organic milk is twice as much as the store brand, but it lasts twice as long after it's opened--so I can finish my milk every time instead of always throwing away the last cup or so.

10.  Find resources by people who think--and cook--like you do. Maybe you're a vegetarian. Maybe you're trying to eat low carb. Maybe you never want to spend more than 30 minutes in the kitchen preparing a meal. Whatever it is, seek out websites, blogs, cookbooks, cooking shows, etc. that have what you're looking for. Even if the resources you find aren't for single chefs, they can still be great places to look for ideas when you're stuck.

I love cooking from scratch and occasionally like to challenge myself with a complex dish, so I like chefs who use classic techniques that I can learn from. So I can chiffonade basil and know what it means to deglaze a pan. Look around, experiment, and see what works for you.

I don't know how many readers of this blog are single cooks--but if you are, I hope some of these tips are helpful.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Balsamic Strawberries & Greek Yogurt


Long time, no recipes. I know, I know. My only excuse is that my life is full right now, and I haven't had much time to cook anyway--and the recipe I'm about to share reflects that. I was craving something sweet and summery, and this was the perfect ending to my dinner tonight.

Berries and balsamic vinegar may seem unusual, but trust me--it's the perfect sweet and tart combination, perfect over a creamy scoop of Greek yogurt. You can use regular yogurt too, of course. A word of advice if you go the Greek route: don't buy 0%. It'll be thick, yes, but every brand I've tried has been too sour for my taste. The 2% variety solves that problem (with fewer calories than full-fat versions) and fills you up better too.


Use any kind of berries or swap in mint for the basil
if you want to mix it up!

Balsamic Strawberries & Greek Yogurt
Serves one

Ingredients
  • 4 medium strawberries
  • 3-5 fresh basil leaves, or fresh mint
  • 1 tsp honey or brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 cup Greek yogurt (I like Trader Joe's or Fage 2%)
Steps

1.  Hull and slice the strawberries. In a bowl, combine the berries, honey, and vinegar. Mix well and set aside.

2.  Chiffonade the basil: Stack all the basil leaves on top of the largest and roll them up, then slice the log into thin slivers.

3.  Add the yogurt to a bowl. Sweeten with honey, if desired. Top with strawberries and garnish with basil. 

Wash your dishes and then get out of the kitchen and eat this on the porch!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Better Mug Cake, Take 2 (As in, better than the Better Mug Cake!)

I know it's been a while. Things have been crazy, but they are finally calming down.

Here's a quick run down of what I've been up to in the past two weeks:
  • Successfully finished my first year of graduate school.
  • Completed my first internship for the program.
  • Started a cool second internship for the summer with a trade magazine.
  • Attended "opening night" for the 2012 drum corps season!
  • Ran in the Run for Your Lives 5K in Indiana...I didn't make it out "alive," but I had a blast doing it!
  • Bought new running shoes (in anticipation of the awful things that would happen to the old ones at RFY).
  • Got my first "big girl" job--still working out the details, but I'll update on that a little bit later... =)
Anyway, all of this busy-ness has meant less time than usual for cooking. I've been making some tasty summer salads to take to work for lunch, and I'll be posting some recipes for those later.

But, salads? Surely that's not why you're here, looking at this post...

No, you're here because you've seen my claim for a better, better mug cake. I'm not exaggerating, either. This cake is faster and simpler, with fewer ingredients, and completely amazing. And fewer calories than the original!

The great thing about this mug cake (aside from all of the above benefits) is this: it makes a tasty, delicious chocolatey sauce at the bottom of your mug. And the more milk you add, the more sauce you get! (Although I suspect you would eventually hit the law of diminishing returns with that one...but I haven't yet.) It reminds me of the pudding cakes my friends and I would make at sleepovers back in high school: dense, chocolatey cake with a rich sauce underneath to spoon on top, that we'd eat straight from the pan at some point after midnight. I'm pretty sure that cake came from a box, but this one certainly doesn't have to!

Unfortunately, I cannot for the life of me figure out where I found this recipe. (I'm usually very good about these things...but the site never made it to my bookmarks!) So, I'm not trying to plagiarize, and if you know where the recipe came from, please tell me so I can link to it. And leave a raving review.

Saucy Chocolate Mug Cake (Or, the Best Mug Cake Ever)
Serves one

Ingredients
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 tbsp skim milk (or a little more...) 
  • Toppings and/or mix-ins


Some of the usual suspects...


Steps

1.  Combine the dry ingredients in a microwave-safe mug with a fork.



Mix it up!




2.  Add the vanilla and milk. Stir to combine. Add a spoonful of chocolate chips or other mix-in if desired.


What's a well-loved recipe without a little spill on it?


3.  Microwave on high for 45 seconds. Check the cake--it should be mostly dry on top, but you should be able to sort of tilt it back and forth by pressing gently near the rim of the mug. That's a good sign that your sauce is alive and well down at the bottom. Microwave for 10-15 seconds longer if necessary.


An 8-oz mug works fine, as long as your heart can can handle
the pop-up effect. If you're afraid of overflow, use a bigger mug.


4.  Top with Nutella, peanut butter, or whatever. Or just dig in! Enjoy!


Before topping--I realized I never got a good picture of the
"saucy" part--but trust me, it's down there on the bottom!!


4.  Top and enjoy!


Topped with Trader Joe's Almond Cocoa Spread
and a few chocolate chips.


Very good! And around 200 calories, depending on how much milk you add, and your mix-ins and toppings. Enjoy.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Spaghetti Squash with Peanut Sauce

The quarter is FINALLY winding down for me. Tests are over, projects are ending, and only one paper and a few hours of grading stands between me and the end of my first year in graduate school. It's sure been an interesting ride.

All of the craziness means that my food choices have been of the "quick and easy" variety. So, today I'm sharing two recipes that are simple, fast, and go great together: spaghetti squash and peanut sauce. They're easy and delicious, and in a pinch you can make the entire meal in the microwave (as I did when our kitchen sink was clogged and stove top cooking was out of the question).

Spaghetti squash is a really interesting vegetable. At first glance it just looks like a big yellow squash:


2 1/2 pounds of squash-y goodness.


But once you hack it open (and believe me, hack is the right word), it's full of pumpkin-like seeds and pulp, and a thick layer of flesh made up of little strands or "noodles."


See?


You can treat it like a vegetable and turn it into a side dish, or use it like a noodle and make it the foundation of a meal. You're probably not going to fool anyone into thinking it's pasta, but the spaghetti squash is delicious in its own right, and you still get to twirl it around your fork.

Oh, and did I mention they are cheap? Spaghetti squash usually goes for about $.69/pound at my Kroger, and I snagged this one for $1.75. A 2-1/2 pound squash is plenty for two people to eat as a main course; if you're cooking for one, just wrap the uncooked half in plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge. It will keep for several days until you are ready to use it.


Quick Spaghetti Squash
Serves 2

Ingredients

1 small spaghetti squash (about 2-1/2 pounds)
Desired toppings (meat, veggies, and/or sauce of your choice)

Steps

1.  Remove any stickers and wash the spaghetti squash with soapy water.

2.  Pierce the spaghetti squash at least once with a knife. Microwave it on high for one to two minutes. This  softens the squash just enough to make it easier to cut and clean. (I don't think your squash will explode after two minutes in the microwave, but I pierce it just in case!)

3.  Remove the squash from the microwave and place on a cutting board. Use a large knife to cut it in half either way. The thing you need to know about the spaghetti squash is that the strings run in rings around the squash, not from end to end. If you cut it in half lengthwise (which is more difficult, since you have to deal with the stem), you're cutting the strands in half. If you cut it across its "equator" (which is easier) you'll get full strands but the halves are a bit trickier to deal with as they are less stable. 


Aside from pre-cooking for a minute or two, I really
haven't discovered the "trick" to making this easier.


(Or, poke some holes in it, cook it whole, and deal with it later--but it's going to be very hot, so be careful!)

4.  Use an ice cream scoop, melon baller, or a sturdy spoon to scoop out the seeds and stringy pulp. Word on the blogosphere is that you can clean and roast the seeds just like pumpkin seeds, but I haven't tried it.


I love my ice cream scoop for this.


5.  Place both squash halves cut side down in a microwave-safe dish (like a glass pie pan). Add about 1/3 cup of water to the dish. Microwave on high for about 7 minutes, then check it and continue to cook in 1-minute intervals as needed. When cooked, the flesh should be soft and easily pierced with a fork.

6.  Hold a squash half with a potholder and carefully use a fork to fluff the strands (works best if you pull the tines against the grain of the squash). Scrape the strands out into a bowl or cutting board.


How neat is that?


7.  Eat the squash as is, add some butter and Parmesan, or top it with a sauce. Spaghetti squash is one of those foods that can take on other tastes very well. Help it along by undercooking the squash just slightly, and then tossing the strands with the sauce in a pan over low heat for a minute or two. The sauce will latch on to the squash, and you'll end up with perfectly cooked strands.

Although many of the recipes you see for spaghetti squash treat it like pasta, I think it works better with Asian flavors. Like peanut sauce. My recipe below is the result of reading a lot of recipes and testing a few. Many recipes call for coconut milk, which I don't particularly care for, but if you like it you can replace half the water with it.

Peanut Sauce
Enough for one 2-1/2 pound spaghetti squash

Ingredients

1/4 cup peanut butter (creamy or crunchy, your choice)
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp rice wine vinegar
1 tbsp lime or lemon juice
1 clove crushed garlic
1/2 cup water
Sriracha hot sauce and/or crushed red pepper, to taste

Steps

1.  Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan and heat over medium-low heat until bubbling and thick. Or, combine the ingredients in a microwaveable bowl or container and heat in 30-second intervals until combined. Add more water for a thinner sauce.


You can serve the peanut sauce hot or cold.


2.  Store any leftover sauce in the fridge for about a week. You may need to thin the chilled sauce with water before serving.

Combine your spaghetti squash, peanut sauce, and any veggies or proteins you like.


Spaghetti squash with peanut sauce and some stir fried chicken.


How do you like your spaghetti squash?