Saturday, March 31, 2012

Homemade Sweet Potato Fries & Honey Mustard

I've had a pretty great week. In the past seven days I've been at home with my family, started new classes, delivered a killer presentation, met and taught a group of awesome students, and landed two internship gigs. More on all that in the next couple of weeks.

There is absolutely no connection between sweet potato fries and all the things that have happened this week. Unless you count the fact that they are both awesome...which they are.

Sweet potatoes are one of those things I never really tried until college, but once I did I was hooked. Since I've been cooking for myself, I try to keep a couple in the pantry at all times. When I'm feeling super lazy, I poke a few holes in one, zap it in the microwave, and top it with peanut butter, cinnamon, and a little brown sugar for a simple lunch or dinner that tastes like dessert.

Messy, but oh so delicious.

If I have a little more time, though, I opt for the fry preparation (because let's face it, who doesn't like fries?). You could buy the frozen ones at the store instead...but if you throw them together as the oven's preheating, it's just as fast and even more delicious to make them yourself! This is the same basic method that I use for regular potatoes, except that I usually cook those somewhere between 400 and 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Baked Sweet Potato Fries
Use a sharp knife--sweet potatoes can be hard to cut.
Serves 1

Ingredients

1 sweet potato
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt
Pepper
Paprika
(or other seasonings as desired)

Steps

1.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Scrub and dry the sweet potato; peel if desired (I like the skin, so I leave it on).

2.  Slice the sweet potato in half, and then into quarters.

Ugly on the outside, pretty on the inside?


Hold the round side of each quarter and cut it into slices, about half an inch thick.

These are a bit thick--I ended up slicing a few of those pieces
in half.

Rotate the potato quarter 90 degrees, so that you now have a stack of slices. Make two or three cuts through the stack so that you end up with fry-shaped pieces.

We are not striving for perfection here.

You can make these as thick or as thin as you want, but be aware that cooking times may change. I like to have some variation in size, so that some end up crunchy while others are still soft.

3.  Toss the fries with the olive oil. Add a bit of salt and pepper, and a few good shakes of paprika. Toss to coat.

For best results, coat the fries in olive oil first...
...then add the spices and toss again.

4.  Grease a cookie sheet with olive oil or Pam. Spread the fries on the pan in a single layer.

Just enough room left for a Trader Joe's vegetarian corn dog.
Which, by the way, are really starting to grow on me.

5.  Bake for about twenty minutes, turning halfway through. Prepare honey mustard sauce (see below) or whatever dip you enjoy. Barbecue sauce is also pretty good.

Flip the fries (and the corn dog) after about 10
minutes.

6.  When they start to brown a bit, or reach whatever texture you are going for, remove from the oven and serve!

Fries after baking.

Honey Mustard


The honey bear makes everything better.

Ingredients

1 tsp honey
2 tsp Dijon mustard (or to taste)

Steps

This is pretty self-explanatory: mix it together. Taste and add more honey or mustard as needed. Thin it out with a little vegetable oil, if desired.

Homemade honey mustard. Also good on chicken and pork.

Put it all together, and call it dinner!

Mmmmmmmm...

Monday, March 26, 2012

8 weeks later...

I wrote quite a while ago about starting the Couch-to-5K program. I may have mentioned it a few times since, but I haven't done a very good job of keeping you up to date on how it's going.

Well, now I have a verdict for you: the program absolutely, positively works.

How do I know?

A picture's worth a thousand words:

Yours truly, crossing the finish line.
Look at me go! (Yes, I'm still excited about this.) And this, folks, is only a few days after I completed the last workout in Week 8.

I have to say, I've learned a lot from this experience. I never thought I was the "running type," and I still don't know that I am. But I'll tell you what I'm not: I'm not the quitting type. I like to finish what I've started. And although there were several times when I thought things like "It's cold today. Do I have to run?" or "I'm tired; maybe I should walk the rest of this set," I didn't give up. I decided after maybe two weeks that I'd put too much time and effort in to just stop, or to not do the workouts correctly. And in the end, it all paid off.

I've had other experiences where I pushed myself to the limit (see this one on drum corps, for instance!) but this was different. In most of those other situations, it was me against something else--another person, another organization, etc. A good part of drum corps is mental (and therefore individual), true, but ultimately it's a group sport out there.

Running a 5K was different. Yes, I was competing (and I even beat people) but for me it really wasn't about the other runners. It was me against myself. The whole race was a fight for control--over my feet, over my lungs, over my thoughts.  I didn't set a record or win an award, but I kept my feet in check, controlled my breathing, and at least in my book, came out on top.

I'm glad I did it...and I'll probably do it again!

The winners' circle!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

You win some, you destroy some.

I don't know how it happened in my culinary life that the first time I tried stuffing filling into sheets of dough it wasn't for an Italian dish. I am half-Italian, so ravioli or tortellini would have made sense.

But instead my first attempt was potstickers, something decidedly Asian. Although if Marco Polo really did bring pasta back to Italy from China...maybe it does make sense.

Anyway, the back story: I "discovered" potstickers about a year ago, and made a habit of buying them whenever I saw them in the freezer section. This was during my undergrad days, and my grocery store then always had them. The Kroger where I shop these days, however, does not, so for a while I lived with no potstickers.

And then, I discovered Trader Joe's, a magical store that carries not one, but FOUR different types of potstickers (or gyoza, as they are labelled there). So for a while I bought the pork or chicken potstickers and was contented. And then, Lent happened. No more pork, no more chicken. My choices were narrowed to Shrimp or Thai Vegetable, so I got the vegetable ones.

Trader Joe, I was disappointed. The Thai vegetables were mushy, the wrappers were pre-browned for some odd reason, and I still don't know what makes them "Thai." I gave them a chance, but ultimately this is not a solution.

Which brings us to Wednesday's interesting adventure. I typically don't go "off book" on foods I've never made before, but this was an exception. I'm not going to say these potstickers are authentic or correct or anything like that. I mean, I had to use wonton wrappers (more on that later). These are borne of the mind of a finals week graduate student. Take them for what you will.

Vegetable Potstickers

Ingredients

1 small package of coleslaw mix (shredded broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and cabbage)
8 white mushrooms, cleaned
1 tbsp minced garlic (3-4 cloves)
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Black pepper
Crushed red pepper flakes
1 egg, beaten
1 package (40-count) wonton wrappers (get potsticker/gyoza wrappers if you can)
Water

Steps

1.  Chop coleslaw mix roughly in batches. Chop mushrooms into small dice.
Just a rough chop on the coleslaw, so you don't end up
with huge pieces!
2.  Heat vegetable oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add coleslaw, mushrooms, garlic, and seasonings. Stir to coat with oil. Cover the pan for 1-2 minutes so that the vegetables steam, and then saute for another 1-2 minutes.
Cook the veggies until crisp-tender
3.  Remove pan from heat and place the vegetable mixture in a strainer over a bowl. Allow it to strain and cool for about half an hour.
Strain the extra liquid out of the filling.
4.  Taste the vegetables and add additional seasonings if needed. Press out as much liquid as possible. Beat the egg in a mixing bowl and add the vegetables, mixing thoroughly.

5.  Prepare your assembly area. Have a bowl of water (for sealing), a damp paper towel (to cover unused wrappers), a plate, a spoon or fork, and a baking sheet lined with parchment or waxed paper ready to go.
Not pictured: a cup of water for wetting the skins.
6.  Take each wonton wrapper and lay it on the plate. Use your fingers to spread water along the edges of the wrapper. Use the spoon or fork to place ONE teaspoon of filling in the center of the wrapper. Fold the edges and pinch them together (pictures below).
Wet the edges of the wrapper and place a spoonful of filling
in the center.
The easiest way to do it with the wonton wrappers is to just make a triangle-shaped potsticker:
Fold corner to corner...
...seal one edge...

Press out as much air as you can while sealing the other side.
 Or, try the pyramid shape:
Fold the top corners together just like for the triangle shape.
Then, fold the side corners in one by one.
You should end up with something that looks like this!
I even tried crimping a few like "real" potstickers. They came out pretty ugly, so I only did a couple!
Not my best work.
7.  Place finished potstickers on the baking sheet. When it is full, place the sheet in the freezer (you will probably need to have two sheets available). Continue forming the potstickers until the wrappers or filling runs out.
On the plus side, these potstickers are one of the most
photogenic foods I've ever blogged about!
Cooking station. Yes, I ate all of those. It was a long
cooking session.
8.  To cook the potstickers, heat a tablespoon of oil in a pan with a lid over medium heat. Place the dumplings in the hot oil and cook for about two minutes (until the bottoms brown). Reduce the heat, add about a quarter of a cup of water, and cover. Steam until done. (And remove promptly!) The first batch I steamed for over two minutes, which was wayyyyy too long and resulted in a bowl of destroyed dumplings:
If this happens... just slosh some soy sauce on top
and call it good. That's what I did.
The  second time, I steamed them for only ONE minute, and most of them came out with no trouble. Some even had crispy bottoms still! Even so, wonton wrappers are not the same as potsticker wrappers. They are thinner and thus cook faster (which is nice), but they don't crisp up the same way that potstickers do (and they seem to lose the crisp pretty quickly). I'm not saying it's good or bad; it just is.
One of the few that came out perfectly steamed
AND nicely browned on the bottom.
Alternatively, place dumplings in a microwave-safe bowl with a tablespoon or two of water. Cover with a damp paper towel and microwave 30 seconds to a minute. While not quite as tasty, this method at least kept them all in one piece!
The microwave was kind to this little guy.

So, while I didn't succeed at producing perfect potstickers with wonton wrappers (I don't think that's possible), they're still better than the Thai vegetable things that are still sitting in my freezer. Why?

Fresh, tasty, and non-mushy veggies!
The filling is the real winner here. The seasoning may not be authentic, but the vegetables are just the right texture--soft, with just a little bit of bite left to them. I'm looking forward to trying this recipe again sometime with a different mixture of veggies and seasonings...right after I finish all the ones left in my freezer!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Oatmeal Four Ways

Can you tell it's finals week?


If you haven't inferred it from the lack of blog posts, suffice it to say that I've been busy. Grading, researching, writing papers, editing and proofreading, analyzing, rewriting...I've been doing a little bit of everything for the past couple of weeks, and I'm ready for it all to end in the next week or so.

Don't let the lack of posts and recipes fool you into thinking that I've stopped eating, though! I certainly haven't, although I've been nomming more pre-packaged foods (thanks, Trader Joe's) than usual, and making quicker meals when I do cook from scratch.

Which brings us to the topic of this post: oatmeal. Quick, easy, cheap, and delicious.

I love oatmeal. I really do. I have fond childhood memories of the Quaker Oats instant packets, particularly the kind with the dinosaur eggs (remember those??), but also equally fond memories of my parents whipping up a pot of the plain stuff to top with raisins and brown sugar on cold Sunday mornings. While I've "graduated" from the super-sweet instant packets and I still love the raisin and brown sugar combination, I've also come up with a handful of my own variations, some of which I'm sharing with you below (with possibly more to come).

A word about oats and cooking methods: I know the steel-cut stuff is all the rage right now, but I prefer the texture of the quick-cooking oats. You can use whatever you like for these recipes (they're more about mix-ins than technique), but you'll need to adjust the cooking time accordingly.

As far as technique, I probably use the stove-top and microwave methods about equally, and I have preferred cooking methods for most of my oatmeal variations. The stove-top gives you a firmer texture, whereas the microwave tends to be creamier because everything cooks together. You can also get the creamy texture on the stove if you add the oats when the water is hot, but not yet boiling. If you do use the microwave, NEVER leave it unattended; the oatmeal will expand to fill whatever bowl you have it in, and from there it can overflow.

I also make a slightly smaller serving size than standard:

Basic Oatmeal Ingredients

3/8 cup oats
3/4 cup water (or milk)

Mix-ins (see variations below)


#1: Banana Oatmeal


This variation is great for using up bananas that are past their prime!

Banana oatmeal with a touch of milk.

Add-Ins

Ripe banana (whole or half)
Dash of cinnamon
Nuts (optional)

Steps


1.  Peel a ripe banana, break it into pieces, and place in a bowl (I just use the one I'm going to eat from). Add the cinnamon and mash it with a fork. (You could also slice it, but mashing is faster.)

2.  The best method for this one is the microwave. Add the oats and water to the banana and microwave on high about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2b.  If you want to make it on the stove, add the banana to an empty saucepan on low heat and cook and stir it for about a minute. Then, add the water and oats. I've found that if you add everything together the banana ends up being oddly starchy; the extra cooking step fixes that.

3.  Top with a spoonful of walnuts or a splash of milk, if desired.


#2: Chocolate-Banana Oatmeal

This variation plays off the sweetness of the banana instead of adding extra sugar. It's still possibly more of a dessert than breakfast!
Chocolate-banana oatmeal.
Add-Ins

Ripe banana (whole or half)
Heaping teaspoon of cocoa powder

Steps

1.  Peel the banana and mash in a bowl with the cocoa powder.

2.  Follow the steps for cooking Banana Oatmeal above.

#3: Pomegranate Oatmeal

Pomegranates are in season in the winter, so they're a great way to liven up your oatmeal on a cold morning.

Pomegranate oatmeal.
Add-Ins

1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp pomegranate seeds

Steps

1. On the stove, heat the water and vanilla in a small saucepan over medium heat. When it boils (or sooner, for creamier oatmeal), add the oats. Cook and stir.

2.  When the oats are just about done, turn off the burner and add the pomegranate seeds (you just want to warm them, not cook them). Mix them in until they are distributed throughout the oatmeal. Top with additional seeds if desired.

2b.  To make in the microwave, combine water, vanilla, and oats in a bowl. Microwave on high for about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. When it's cooked, add pomegranate seeds to the hot oatmeal.

#4: Savory Oatmeal with Spinach and Egg

An interesting departure from the usual sweet varieties. Honestly, this is my least favorite of the bunch, but I've been seeing savory oatmeal all over cooking blogs so I had to try it.

An Asian-inspired savory oatmeal variation.
Add-Ins/Extras

1 tbsp olive oil
1 clove minced garlic
1 cup baby spinach
1 egg
Soy sauce

Steps

1.  Add the water to a saucepan and bring it to a boil.

2.  While you're waiting for the water to boil, heat the olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Saute the garlic for about a minute. Add the egg to one side of the pan (most people cook it sunny-side up or or over-easy so that you end up with a runny yolk to mix into the oatmeal). When the egg is about two minutes away from being done, add the spinach to the other side of the pan (keep them separate) and wilt it. Remove the pan from the heat.

3.  Add the oats to the saucepan. Cook and stir until done.

4. To serve, add the oatmeal to a serving bowl. Stir in the spinach. Top with the egg and a drizzle of soy sauce.