Friday, February 24, 2012

A vegetarian soup for those of us under the weather

That's one steaming pot of comfort food, right there.
The past few days have been sort of a setback for me, and from what I've gathered, for other people too. Some sort of bug is making its way around campus and it seems to have reached me.

I woke up on Ash Wednesday with a case of the sniffles and a headache. At first I chalked it up to the changes in the weather, and the fact that I got up earlier than usual for church. I did all my usual Wednesday things, including my run. But then at about 3:30pm, I crashed. I was so unusually fatigued that I took a long nap and didn't move much for the rest of the evening.

Fast forward to today. I felt significantly better, though still sniffly and tired. As much as I wanted to go for a run this afternoon, I decided that it's probably best to just wait it out. I'm hoping tomorrow or Sunday will be the day.

There is one good thing that's come out of this: a pretty good soup recipe.

Something that I've learned to pick up on over the years is that my body knows what it needs, especially when I'm sick. When I was trying to come up with something for dinner tonight, I realized that I wanted three things: onions, mushrooms, and spinach.

It took me a while to figure out to do with that combination. Salad? Too much chewing. Pasta? Maybe, but not what I really wanted. Soup? Yes! Broth, vegetables, and noodles. That was exactly what I needed.

I looked around for a recipe with those ingredients, but wasn't satisfied with any of them. I finally gave up and decided to wing it. I took a few ideas from the soup recipes I'd looked at and Ashley Lojko's Paprika Chicken (one of my favorite one-person chicken recipes). The result is what I'm calling Spinach & Mushroom Noodle Soup, until I or someone else can think of a better name. (Hint, hint.)

Spinach & Mushroom Noodle Soup
Makes 3-4 servings

Ingredients

2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium onion, sliced into "half-moons"
1 clove minced garlic
1 small can mushrooms, drained
Pepper, parsley, and paprika (or whatever seasonings you like)
1 extra-large vegetable bouillon cube + 3 1/2 cups water (or vegetable broth)
1 1/2 cups uncooked egg noodles
2 cups fresh baby spinach

Steps

1.  Melt the butter over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion and cover the pan. After about 5-6 minutes, stir and cover it again.

2.  Check and stir the onions every few minutes until they start to turn slightly brown (I think this took about 10-12 minutes total). Add the mushrooms; cook and stir for another minute or two. (If you want to use fresh mushrooms, add them with the onions in the first step.)

3.  Add the bouillon, water, and seasonings. I took my inspiration from the Paprika Chicken recipe and used a little pepper, a few dashes of garlic powder, and lots of paprika. I also added some dried parsley and a shake of red pepper flakes (I think I'd leave the pepper flakes out next time, though).

4.  Bring the soup to a boil, add the egg noodles, and reduce the heat. Simmer uncovered until the noodles are cooked (8-10 minutes, maybe).

5.  Turn off the heat and stir in the spinach until slightly wilted.

And there you have it.
I apologize for the lack of photos and precise measurements in this post--I didn't think to take pictures or record details until the soup was almost done and I realized that it would be worth posting.

I'm hesitant to try and describe the soup, because my senses of smell and taste are a little out of whack right now. I felt that there was something a little "off" with the seasoning (I think it was the red pepper), but I can't be sure. But if you want to take my word for it, the soup was pretty good and almost exactly what I was craving. Plus, it came with a decent dose of Vitamins A and C, which couldn't hurt.

So for everyone who is sick right now: have a bowl of soup and feel better!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Last call for chicken soup! Or, going vegetarian for Lent


Chicken and bread soup.
Lent is coming up and I've been putting some thought into what I'd like to do for it. Most people think of Lent as a period of deprivation--fasting on holy days, avoiding meat on Fridays and Ash Wednesday, and denying yourself something you enjoy like chocolate or Facebook. It is those things, or it can be, but it's more than that too.

I won't pretend to be an expert on my faith because I'm certainly not, but I think of Lent as a growing experience rather than a period of denial. Giving things up  can be part of it, but if that's all you focus on you're missing the best part: that by denying yourself a bad habit or an indulgence, you're growing and learning to be a better person. I think it's all too easy to forget that little piece, so for the past several years I've taken a new strategy: I give something up, but also try to add something--meditation, prayer, reading, or something else that helps me focus on the growth part of Lent, and not just the denial.

That said, as you can probably guess from the post title, I'm going vegetarian for Lent. (That is my task of denial; I haven't settled on a "growth" task just yet.) In preparation, I'm giving you my last meat-based recipe for the next couple of weeks.

This chicken and bread soup comes from the Solo Suppers book (with slight modifications). It is supposed to serve one, but I've never been able to finish it in one sitting so I recommend saving half for leftovers. It's deceptively simple, but incredibly delicious. I am sure going to miss this soup.

Chicken and Bread Soup

I estimate the size of a small carrot by lining up the
baby ones with the celery.
Ingredients

1 small onion, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 small carrot (or a handful of baby ones), peeled and diced
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast or 2 tenders, cut into bite-sized pieces
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine (I used Sauvignon Blanc)
2 cups chicken broth (or bouillon and water)
Salt and pepper
Pinch of ground cinnamon
2 slices good bread (I used the Lifehacker ciabatta)
2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese

Steps

1.  In a wide saucepan melt 2 tablespoons of butter with the olive oil over medium heat. When it's bubbly, add the vegetables and saute about 10 minutes until soft. Add the chicken and saute about five minutes until cooked.
Before...

And after.

Add the chicken after the vegetables are cooked. You can also
make this with cooked chicken--add it during the last ten
minutes of simmer time.
2.  Add the wine and cook until it evaporates.
Use the wine to pick up any burned or
caramelized bits stuck to the pan.
3. Add the chicken broth, salt (if needed), pepper, and cinnamon. You might think the cinnamon sounds strange, but trust me--I was skeptical too, but it really makes this dish! Cover the pan and simmer 20-30 minutes, until the chicken is tender.
Add the broth...

...then pour yourself a glass of wine, because
it'll be a while...
 
...before it looks like this!
4. While the soup is simmering, melt the remaining butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the bread and cook until toasted and pale gold on both sides. Add one slice of bread to the bottom of a ramekin or other oven-safe dish.
I used three pieces because they were small: two for the bottom
and one for the top.
5. When the soup is ready, pour half of it into the ramekin over the bread. Top with the remaining bread and Parmesan cheese. Bake at 300 degrees for 30-60 minutes, depending on how deep your dish is.
Before...

...and after.
6. Alternatively, cut your toasted bread into croutons and place them in the bottom of a bowl. Pour the soup over the croutons, top with cheese, and enjoy immediately.

As I've told several people, this soup is life-changing. For something with such simple ingredients, and very little seasoning, it's so full of flavor. The key is definitely the cinnamon--even though it's just a little bit, it adds warmth and accentuates the flavor of the chicken and the vegetables. The bread is the other all-star; it adds texture and bulk, making this a very filling soup.

Farewell, chicken soup. I will miss you.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mental Health Day

Brownies: The official food of Mental Health Day.
I don't take "days off" very often. Most of the time, my days consist of unequal parts work and play. I do what I need to do, but it's spread out over 12 hours or so and dispersed with short breaks for Facebook, cooking, blogging, and catching up on How I Met Your Mother or The Office.

But today, I basically took the day off. I slept in. I went grocery shopping and took my time. I came home and ran in the misty rain (halfway through Week 4 of training!). I made myself a nice lunch with fresh ingredients. I sang in the shower. I baked a pan of brownies from scratch. I went out to a bar with friends for dinner, drinks, and some very impressive readings by very talented people.

Even though I spent only about two hours today on schoolwork, I still feel like I've accomplished a lot. Sometimes a Mental Health Day can be justified.

Ah, but the brownies, you say? Very well. Let us explore the culinary creation that is the official food of Mental Health Day.

I kept running across this recipe online, and finally decided to give it a whirl. According to multiple recipe databases, magazines, and bloggers, this is supposed to be Katharine Hepburn's brownie recipe.

I can neither confirm nor deny those rumors; I can, however, tell you that these brownies aren't just popular because of Katharine. They are moist and fudgy, with a crispy sugary top, and so simple that you may never want to buy a brownie mix again. But, be forewarned: if you prefer cake-like brownies, these are not for you.


Katharine Hepburn's Brownies (modified)

Makes one 8x8 inch pan
What you're looking at: Butter in the saucepan, cocoa, oil,
a cup of sugar in the middle, eggs and vanilla in the mug,
flour and salt in the bowl.

Ingredients

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 tbsp canola oil
3 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt

Steps

1.  Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour an 8-by-8 inch brownie pan. (Tip: Butter the pan with the wrapper from the stick of butter!)

2. In a saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the oil and cocoa powder and stir until combined.
It'll look something like this.


3.  Remove the pan from the heat. Add the sugar, eggs, and vanilla and mix well. Add the flour and salt and mix well. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
It won't be a lot of batter--you may need to push it into the corners.
4.  Bake for 20-25 minutes until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Let cool, slice, and serve.

(Tip: The best way to cut brownies is with a serrated plastic knife. Really. Trust me on this.)

Let them cool for about ten minutes before cutting!
What I Changed
  • The original recipe actually calls for two squares (two ounces) of unsweetened Baker's chocolate and no oil. I didn't have any Baker's chocolate on hand, but luckily my fellow internet cooks discovered a "hack" for cocoa. The dry cocoa combined with the oil gives you the chocolate flavor with a consistency similar to melted chocolate.
  • The original recipe also lists a baking time of 40 minutes. Now, I am cooking with an old gas oven which is pretty touchy about temperature, and tends to burn everything anyway. 20 minutes was plenty of time for my brownies, but it may not be for yours.
  • I also left out the optional nuts. If you want them, mix one cup of chopped walnuts, pecans, etc. into the batter with the flour and salt before baking. You could also add chocolate chips, M&Ms, or whatever other mix-ins you like in your brownies.
The brownies are going to be thin, even in a small pan, but they are rich and delicious. The perfect comfort food for a day off.

How do you celebrate your own Mental Health Days?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

And everything went better than expected.

Recently it seems that a lot of things have been falling into place for me. I'm a person who likes to believe that things happen for a reason, and I've been seeing the evidence these past few weeks.

Here's an example:

About a month ago, I started looking for an internship, a required part of my program. I flipped through the newspaper, scoured the internet, and racked my brain to come up with a good list of places to apply to. I made a big spreadsheet of all the possibilities.

About three weeks ago, I met with my advisor to talk about it. I told her what I thought I wanted, handed over the spreadsheet, and made plans to talk to her again in two weeks.

Lo and behold, just a couple of days later she and another professor in the department came up with a project that needed a writer. Later that week I attended a meeting, met the team, and became the latest addition. I'm now working on a consulting project for the local children's hospital with a team of design students and faculty. It's not something that I thought I'd be doing in a million years, but here I am using my writing skills for a worthy cause. It's a great feeling when everything works out better than expected.

This is a bit of a forced segue, but I'm going to say that "better than expected" is also a phrase that could be used to describe my latest culinary adventure: boneless buffalo wings.

I have been craving wings for at least two weeks now. That, combined with Superbowl Sunday, is what prompted me to try my hand at making them. I skimmed through a lot of recipes online, compiled the important parts, and came up with this. The measurements may not be exact, but the results are delicious. Oh, and it's a one-person meal (so you don't have to share!).


Boneless Buffalo Wings

Assemble the ingredients. The egg is raw,
by the way--that's just the milk making it look
like a cooked white!
Ingredients

1 boneless chicken breast or 2 chicken tenders
1/2 cup Bisquick (I used low fat)
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
Salt, pepper, paprika
1 egg
2 tbsp milk
Cooking spray
Hot sauce, like Frank's Red Hot
Butter

Steps

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces. In a baggie, combine the Bisquick, breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, and paprika (or your preferred blend of spices). In a bowl, beat together the egg and milk.

2.  Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray and set it near your work station.

3.  Add half of the chicken pieces to the baggie, close it, and shake until coated. Remove the pieces and add them to the egg mixture; turn with a fork to coat. Put the pieces back in the baggie and coat them with a second layer of the Bisquick mixture. Repeat with the rest of the chicken.
I baked mine in the toaster oven, hence the tiny tray.

[Tip: I always find it helpful to have a "chicken hand" and a "clean hand" when doing this. Use your chicken hand to handle the raw meat, and your clean hand to handle things like the fork and the baggie. That way only one of your hands gets coated in batter!]

4.  Arrange the chicken pieces on the baking sheet. Put the tray in the oven and bake the wings for about 5 minutes on each side (more or less depending on how big they are--watch them carefully). As you can see, I baked mine a little too long!
A couple of chicks who spent too long in the tanning bed!

5.  Prepare the sauce while the wings are baking. Place about a tablespoon of butter/margarine/whatever you like in a bowl with whatever amount of hot sauce looks good to you. Microwave the bowl until the butter has melted and then stir it all up. Taste the sauce and adjust if needed.
Before. You can use whatever hot sauce you want--
but let's be real, go with Frank's.
After. It looks a bit like tomato soup.
[Note: You can skip the butter step and just use straight hot sauce if you want. I think they taste more like restaurant wings this way, though.]

6.  When your wings are done, add them to the sauce and toss to coat. Garnish with veggies and serve with a side of light ranch.
I had a salad to go with my junk food too, I swear!
Despite being a little burnt on one side, these wings were pretty darn delicious. I've tried making chicken tenders before, either with breadcrumbs or Bisquick, but never with both. I think that's the trick here--the Bisquick adheres to the chicken better than breadcrumbs alone, but the crumbs make a more substantial coating. They're not identical to what you'd get at say, B-dubs, but they'll definitely satisfy a craving while being a little bit healthier than what you'd get at a restaurant.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Things You Can Do with Chickpeas

A chickpea in a pasta pod.
So I did a bit of improvising last week. There was a recipe in Solo Suppers I wanted to try that involved chickpeas in pasta. I'm still not sure how I feel about beans in pasta (aside from soups like pasta e fagiole or minestrone) but I (sort of) had the ingredients and decided to give it a try.

The original recipe is called "Orecchiette with Broccoli and Chickpeas." Well, I didn't have any orecchiette or broccoli, so I made this with small shells and spinach. It's a pretty versatile recipe; you could add pretty much any vegetable to this, change up the beans, or leave them out altogether. However, if you are using beans, specifically chickpeas, I would recommend some type of bowl-shaped pasta. Why? Because the chickpeas nestle themselves right inside, as you can see in the photo.

Here is my modified recipe:

Pasta with Veggies and Chickpeas

Ingredients

Bowl-shaped pasta
Salt
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (optional)
1/4 cup cooked chickpeas (adjust amount based on your preferences)
1 cup spinach

Steps

1.  Boil a pot of water. Add the salt and one serving of pasta.

2.  Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the garlic, red pepper, and chickpeas and cook for two minutes.


Saute the chickpeas with the seasonings.
3.  Add the spinach and cook until just wilted.
Be careful not to over-wilt!
4.  When the pasta is al dente, drain it and add it to the saute pan. Stir it all together, transfer to a serving bowl, and top with Parmesan cheese.
Ta-dah!

The beans add an interesting texture to the dish, a softness alongside the pasta's "bite." I think a crunchy veggie like broccoli or fresh green beans would probably be a better match, but the spinach is still delicious.

The pasta was good, but it left me with a lot of unused chickpeas. I know what you're thinking: make hummus. Well, I might have but I already had two containers of my favorites in the fridge (Atheno's Roasted Red Pepper and Trader Joe's Roasted Garlic). So instead, I came up with the idea for what I am calling a Mediterranean Pita.

Mediterranean Pita

Ingredients

Chickpeas
Marinade
3/4 cup fresh spinach
2 tbsp Kalamata olive pieces
1 oz cheese (I used chevre because that's what I had--obviously feta would be a welcome alternative)
1 pita

Steps

1.  Marinade your chickpeas. I used some olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, oregano, and garlic. Create your own, or use a salad dressing. I let them sit overnight in the fridge.
Marinating chickpeas.
2.  Combine chickpeas and their marinade with spinach, olives, and cheese in a bowl mix well.
At this point, you could stop and just have yourself a nice salad.
But let's keep going!
3.  Cut a pita in half and heat it in the oven or toaster oven. (When you cut it before heating, it will start to open up on its own which makes it much easier to stuff!)
Pita-heating.
4.  When your pita is toasty, stuff it with the spinach mixture. Enjoy it while it's warm!
I had enough filling left over to have a salad on the side, too.
So, there you have it. A couple of new and interesting things to do with chickpeas!