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31-recipe challenge Day 22 (the final day!): Beef Pho and Chocolate chip cookie Bailey’s milkshake

This is it, the LAST day of my 31-recipe challenge! It officially took me 22 days to cook 31 30 recipes. And I’m exhausted. Later this week I’ll put together a recap post that looks over everything I made last month and what I took away from it, much like I did at the halfway point.

And, to go out with a bang (well, a shake), I FINALLY nailed a dessert!

It seems as long as a stove isn’t involved, I can make a dessert. (Ironic, really, since I can cook but can’t really bake…Cookies! I can make cookies.)

But I want to go out on a high note, so I’m going to save the shake for last and start with my last-night-of-the-challenge dinner: Beef Pho from Zen Can Cook. The broth was easy enough to make, if not pricey–star anise, cinnamon sticks and fennel seeds don’t come cheap, and I couldn’t even find a black cardamom pod–but they impart a really exotic, interesting flavor. It did make my place smell preeetty weird the first night, though.

beef pho

The only slightly “off” thing about this dish was the beef itself–I used a top round to make the broth, and despite the fact that it literally sat in liquid all night, it was pretty dry when I took it out and sliced it up. It came back to life a bit once the slices were re-added to the heated broth, but it wasn’t the tender, juicy meat I was expecting. It was actually the low point of the dish.

Otherwise, though, the pho was quite tasty–lots of fresh herbs, peppers and rice noodles in the warm, beefy broth. Much like the soba, this was a total comfort food. I wish I had this around when I was sick.

I had to make a couple of slight substitutions based on what was available. I couldn’t find any Thai basil, so I subbed in regular basil even though there’s a flavor difference. It was better than nothing. I also used a regular green long hot (seeds scraped out) in place of a Thai bird chili, which my local grocery store also didn’t sell.

Nonetheless, the flavor was still bright and vibrant, and I highly recommend this. It seems so much more complicated than it really is. Once the broth’s made, it’s really just cooking the noodles and slicing up some veggies, herbs and beef. Done and done. My only recommendation? I used only one cut of meat in my broth, because it was available and exactly the amount I needed. I would recommend mixing it up, and next time, I’d use oxtail. I almost went with it this time but opted not to. I think it would add even more depth and meatiness to the broth.

But now, for what we’ve all been waiting for…dessert!

Let’s just put this out there: Chocolate chip cookie Bailey’s milkshakes. You can screw this up nine ways to Sunday, and it would still taste fantastic. Because you can’t go wrong with chocolate chip cookies, Bailey’s and coffee ice cream.

milkshake

And, it’s a cinch! Add ice cream, Bailey’s, cookies and ice to a blender, blend, drink. If you actually do screw that up nine ways to Sunday, I might worry.

But in all seriousness, this tastes as fantastic (and fantastically bad for you!) as it sounds. (It was hard to even get a decent picture…Kevin was way too excited and impatient to drink this to wait for a photo.)

Now, I could’ve gone ahead and really pulled out all the stops and baked my own cookies to put in the milkshake (and that had been my original plan), but time became an issue, so I bought a few chewy, yummy cookies from the Wegman’s bakery department. And, frankly, they were probably more delicious than whatever I would have baked. So win-win.

And there you have it. Thirty recipes in 22 days, all capped off with the ultimate of nightcaps. It was a whirlwind month, and now, because I’m me, I’m jumping into another whirlwind month, but this time because of rehearsals. (What can I say? I thrive when I’m busy.)

Hopefully in a couple of weeks I’ll regain the strength to lift a pot or light a stove. Until then, I’m reveling in the beauty that is takeout (sushi!) and leftovers.

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31-recipe challenge Day 13: Soba Noodles

Well, folks, this is pretty much the halfway point! And what better way to commemorate than soba noodles?

Why soba? Well, because who doesn’t love a steaming hot bowl of noodles?

Soba noodles

These soba noodles from Pickled Plum were probably my most “exotic” recipe yet. I mean that in the sense of the ingredients. I spent more time in the international aisle for this recipe than for any other, and, in the end, some adjustments had to be made. I couldn’t find certain things on the list, like fish cakes (okay, not that I really looked that hard…) and ichimi pepper. But luckily, I found out ichimi is basically just a hot Japanese chili pepper, so I used a little chili powder instead.  I almost couldn’t find the dried fish flake (katsuo bushi) for the sauce, but I found an unfortunately large package of it at the last minute.

I ended up halving the amount of fish flake in the sauce because I was afraid it would impart too much of a fishy flavor, because when I opened that package, whoa baby was it fishy! But I think the full two tablespoons actually would’ve been fine. The flavor seems way milder than the smell.

To be completely honest, I don’t think what I bought were truly soba noodles. I bought rice flour and buckwheat vermicelli (soba are buckwheat), but I don’t think that’s actually the same thing. Close enough though, right? These were great gluten-free noodles, though. I gave the rest to my mom to try because I liked them better than most gluten-free pasta substitutes I’ve tried (like brown rice pasta), and they were cheap. I have a bunch of sauce and toppings left, so I’ll probably go buy actual soba noodles and make it again.

Soba bowls

This dish was an unbridled success. It took only as long as it took to heat up the sauce and boil the noodles, so basically no longer than any other pasta. Plus, it’s warm and cozy and totally customizable–add pretty much whatever you want with as much or as little sauce as you want. You could totally add chicken, pork, shrimp or fish to this and make it a more filling meal. We went with grated ginger, grated daikon (a large, white, Asian radish), chopped scallions and cilantro. I also spent way too much time in the international aisle at Wegmans hunting down nori, found some, and then forgot to add it to the soba. Oops. It’s there for next time. (Confession: I ate this along with pizza. Not traditional and very weird, but it was there and I love pizza. Sue me.)

Truth be told, I’m leaving the wasabi out next time. I thought I just put the smallest bit in, but holy cow! I couldn’t finish my bowl–I gave it to Kevin. It was SO spicy. (To me, anyway, but we all know I’m a spice wimp.) Anyway, next time I’m just saying “no” to wasabi.

Wasabi or no wasabi, soba is a great cold winter day meal or home sick meal, because it’s so cozy and warming and a fun alternative to the usual pasta or soup. And it’s quick! (And if you have a cold or sinus infection, just mix a little extra wasabi in there and BAM! Sinuses cleared.)

So go cozy up with a bowl of soba…what are you waiting for??

Soba noodles 2

31-Recipe Challenge: Day 2 — Veggie Style!

Something pretty amazing happened on Saturday, aka Day 2 of my 31-recipe challenge: I got the carnivore (well, omnivore) to go herbivore and LIKE IT!

That’s right, I got my meat-loving man to eat a vegetarian meal and admit that not only did he like it, but he would eat it again! *cue happy dance #2 for the weekend*

Only two days into this thing, and I’m already seeing some pretty amazing things happen.

Sweet potato taco 1

I’m sure you’re wondering what the magic recipe was that turned this T-Rex into a Brontosaurus. Well, it was two! It was these Asian-fusion sweet potato tacos from Love and Lemons and this winter kale salad from A Tasty Love Story.

The sweet potato tacos with avocado involved several steps, but none were terribly complicated. If anything, I became more a victim of my apartment-sized kitchen’s lack of prep space more than anything else. Basically: make glaze, chop veggies, glaze veggies, roast veggies, prep toppings, eat. Said toppings include goodies like sliced avocado, cilantro, sprouts, toasted pepitas and scallions.

However, this dish almost wasn’t quite the same due to my own trepidations. As I stood in Wegmans on Friday staring at the refrigerator shelf that housed those few sad containers of miso paste, I, well, freaked out. Thirteen ounces?? Seven dollars?? I only need two tablespoons! What am I going to do with 13 ounces? Seven dollars is WAY too much for something I’m only going to use a tiny bit of! Once! Alas, then Kevin said (via text) those magical three words that somehow made such a seemingly outlandish purchase alright: “We’ll make soup.” Ah, ok, we’ll make soup. Yes, we’ll make soup.

And so there you have it. I bought miso paste, a very key ingredient for what ended up being a fairly brilliant miso-maple glaze, and sometime in the near-ish future (i.e., after February), I will make miso soup. A lot of miso soup. And probably more sweet potatoes.

Sweet potato taco 2

Oh! P.S. sidenote…fresh toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) smell pretty darn good. But not as good as toasted balsamic-honey almonds. (I’ll get to that in a moment, stick around.) Also, can we take a moment to appreciate and applaud my lovely hand model? (The aforementioned T-Rex.)

Extra sidenote…the recipe includes a fresh, bright, somehow summery coconut-cilantro sauce to top the tacos (yum!) You can optionally add Sriracha and sugar to this sauce; I added neither. It didn’t need it. (And as I admitted on Day 1, I’m kind of a wimp when it comes to bringing the heat.) But really, if you know me at all or have read my blog even a little, you probably know by now that anything that combines avocado, lime and cilantro is A-OK in my book.

But that was not all! Oh no! There was that beautiful winter salad of pomegranate, kale and apple to attend to.

Somehow, despite the fact that the five pomegranates left in the produce section seemed truly sad, and I settled for the least bad of them, I ended up with some really lovely, delicious pomegranate jewels. Seriously, I should’ve taken a picture of them, because they looked semi-precious.

This salad is fun and fast, and plays with flavors in an interesting way. It also calls for shredded kale, rather than big leaves, so I stuffed torn leaves into my Magic Bullet (in small batches), and whizzed it with the chopping blade for a hot second. It was like kale confetti. (I don’t want that coming out of my pinata, though.)

The most involved part of the salad were the aforementioned balsamic-glazed almonds. Basically, toast raw almonds, add balsamic vinegar and honey, and stir to coat over the stovetop. Then they harden up and get deliciously glossy and sticky. And I have leftovers sitting in a bag at home. I call it the base to the world’s best trail mix. (Oh yes, they are that good. Seriously, go home and make these! They take, like, five minutes and it’s like a way more sophisticated version of those yummy-smelling glazed nuts stands at the mall.)

Pomegranate, apple, kale salad

Toss kale, pomegranate arils, thinly sliced apples and glazed almonds with a quick homemade vinaigrette and enjoy! Just don’t make too much dressing and then hand it off to someone else and let them finish the salad. They won’t realize you’ve made more dressing than necessary and they WILL just dump it all on. Then it will taste like balsamic with a little salad. Not that that happened, of course. (Totally happened.)

Still, it was clear these flavors were meant to be. And boy was it pretty! It was like a winter season fashion show–jewel tones everywhere!

And after sitting down with a heaping sweet potato taco and a big, colorful bowl of kale salad, Kevin declared the meal a winner and even admitted he’d eat it for a meal again (without meat.) Of course, even after three tacos and the majority of the salad, he still finished off a bag of popcorn at the movies that night, so *maybe* I should take that with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, I declare it a victory.

Of course, my cooking for the weekend was hardly done. After all, Kevin hosted a Super Bowl party on Sunday, and yours truly was, effectively, the caterer. Cue the marathon cooking day that was my Sunday (more to come…)

Presto Pesto!

I hate myself for writing that title. Yet I can’t bring myself to delete it. Such is life…

Anyway…I’ve wanted to make my own homemade pesto for some time now. I’ve been waiting until I had access to a food processor (which I do not own), until I realized that I could probably attempt this in my bullet blender. And while the final product isn’t perfect–there are some chunks and unground nuts here and there–it’s still pretty darn good!

The other key component for homemade pesto was, obviously, basil. It’s hard to get my hands on fresh basil for some reason. They don’t sell it in regular bunches at the grocery store like they do parsley, cilantro and mint. It comes either as a big bunch with roots on the end in a package, which says to me that I’m meant to replant this. And since I have the gardening skills of a doorknob, I’ve always steered clear.

But recently I discovered a much more user-friendly version: already potted basil! Yup, I just have to take it out of the package, plop it in a larger pot or on a dish (something to catch the dirt and water) and water it from time to time. And then tada! A never-ending supply of homegrown basil.

I bought this wonderful creation yesterday, though it’s still sitting on my kitchen table because I’ve yet to transfer it to the big pot in my front yard.

Well, now that my major two pieces of this puzzle came together, it seemed like there was nothing left to do but make pesto!

This is a pretty traditional pesto, but not completely authentic. For one thing: I added parsley in with the basil to add a fresh, crisp brightness. There are also no pine nuts. (SAY WHAT?) Really. Pine nuts are expensive, and I’ve never exactly sat down with a bowl of pine nuts for a snack, so they’d really become quite a one-trick pony. So I substituted nuts I had sitting in my pantry: almonds. That’s the great thing about a sauce like pesto–you can tweak and customize to your tastes, dietary needs or pantry supplies!

Also, like this is a surprise, I didn’t measure. I grabbed things and tossed them into the blender cup. And it was tasty. It was different each time too, but that’s the beauty of experimenting. Make this to your tastes.

Basil-parsley pesto

Several large handfuls of whole, fresh basil leaves
Small bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
Large handful of grated Parmesan cheese
1 small garlic clove, peeled but whole
Handful of slivered or whole almonds (I had slivered on hand so I used them to cut down on the chopping once in the blender)
Generous pour of extra virgin olive oil
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

-Add everything to the cup of a bullet blender or jar of a regular blender. If using a food processor, add everything but the oil. Blend well, shaking and scraping down the sides as needed, until well incorporated and evenly chopped or puree to smooth, depending on personal preference.
-Add more oil as needed, or, if using a food processor, drizzle in oil and the dry ingredients mix. Continue to blend to desired consistency. Finish with salt and pepper.

*(Just a note if you’re using a bullet blender like I did–I used the flat chopping blade, not the regular blade that sticks up. I use that one to puree and make smoothies.)

I made my pesto pretty thick, almost paste-like, to be more versatile. I can add olive oil to it to thin it out for use as a sauce or keep it thick to use as a sandwich spread.

So what did I make first with my homemade pesto? Pasta pesto, of course!

Cook pasta (I had elbow macaroni on hand), mix with olive oil and pesto, top with more grated Parmesan and enjoy!

And for lunch the next day, I mixed a tablespoon or so of pesto into plain hummus to make pesto hummus! I used store-bought Sabra hummus, but this would be even better with homemade!

Yesterday, I made a bigger batch of pesto and used it to make a pesto pasta salad for my Memorial Day picnic! But more on that tomorrow…

Has anyone made their own pesto before? Do you go for the traditional recipe, or do you add your own tricks and tweaks? I’m seriously contemplating a cilantro pesto, since I have a cilantro obsession. What’s your favorite spin on pesto?

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