Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sorry for the Hiatus...I ran away again

I just got back from a great road trip with my mom to Florida.  When I was in college we used to drive to Florida every year for a Mother-Daughter week, but we haven't been able to make a trip in recent years. We had a great week, I got a bit of a tan on my pale self, & we had a blast.  I'm excited to be back at home with my Hubs & our dogs.

I didn't have a steady internet connection on vacation, so I fell behind on blogging.  I have several posts in mind that should go up later this week.

I'll finish this super-short post with a picture of a gorgeous Florida sunset...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Our New Island Oasis

When we bought our house a little over a year ago, I fell in love with the tri-level floor plan.  I also fell in love with the amount of space the kitchen had, considering the house was built in 1979.  It also has a good amount of counter space--but not that much of the counter space is located by the stove.  The prior owners had a pub height table in the middle of the kitchen, so I knew that there would be room enough for a small island to go in that spot one day.

The day we moved into our house, my mom went out to the store and bought us a card table & folding chairs to put in the kitchen as a space holder.  The main reason for this was that there are lights at the PERFECT height for my forehead in the middle of the area--meaning I had already slammed my forehead into the glass lights 3-4 times within the first 2 hours of owning the house. Ouch.

That card table has been the platform to serve several holiday meals (i.e. Mother's Day & Thanksgiving) & to hold the food for our parties and gatherings.  But due to the short height & the flimsy structure, it was difficult to do much food prep on.

We lived with the card table for over a year while we were researching various options for the island (prefab, build with recycled cabinets, have it built, etc).  A few months ago my parents offered a very generous gift--to let us design & build a custom island for our kitchen for our first anniversary. While we felt guilty accepting such a huge gift, we were really excited.

What we were doing before...


To help us mock out the footprint of our island, my dad gave us a TV box to put on top of the table that was roughly the size of the surface of the island we were thinking would work well in the space, along with being the similar combined height of a counter.  The TV box stayed on the card table in our kitchen for 1-2 months...it was always fun to explain to people why we had a cardboard box in our kitchen.

"Is that a..?" "Why Yes...it is a cardboard
box in our kitchen."

The design process was really fun.  We ended up going with one large cabinet section with a shelf on the bottom & 2 huge drawers on top that have "soft close" mechanisms on them (impossible to slam them shut, they close slowly).  The cabinet is painted the same shade of white that the rest of our cabinets are painted, and it is trimmed with the same style of bead board that is used in our family room & guest bathroom. We had it topped with restaurant grade stainless steel.  We bought these stools from Crate & Barrel to finish off the look.

We. Love. Our. Island.  We had the option of about any type of counter top material we wanted...but I wanted to go with stainless.  A) Heat Resistant  B) Stain Resistant  C) Break Resistant  D) Super Sanitary.  It is also a great work surface to do things like candy/chocolate making or bread kneading.  The only con is that it scratches easily...but once it gets a little more wear on it, that won't be noticeable at all.

I am so grateful for this wonderful gift...and the years of enjoyment we are going to get out of the island.  Thank you Mom & Dad!!

New Island: View 1

New Island: View 2

New Island: View 3

Bottom Cabinet--Yay for pot & pan storage close to the stove!!

Closeup of the pan side of the cabinet.
As a side note, the pan stacker/organizer
from Rubbermaid (bottom left) is awesome,
and I highly suggest you get one.

Drawer 1: Yay for my spices being away from the heat of
the stove!  I can't wait to finish organizing this drawer.
Eventually all of the spices will be in the same type of bottles,
and in alphabetical order.


Drawer #2...organization still a work in progress.

video
Demonstration of the "soft close" drawers

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sugar Cookies that Keep their Shape--and are fun to decorate!

Sometimes it is incredibly fun to kick back on a Friday night & do the things you liked to do as a kid...like decorate cookies.





We've been running the family reunion gauntlet these past couple weeks.  For our dessert contribution both weeks, we have taken sugar cookies that we decorated, giving us the excuse to decorate cookies two weeks in a row. Fun times!


A couple weeks ago at Ikea we picked up a fun set of cookie cutters that I couldn't wait to use.  It's not everyday that you come across hedgehog, squirrel & snail cookie cutters


For making the cookies I could have taken the easy way out & bought a roll of Pillsbury pre-made dough...but in my experience, that dough spreads WAY too much when baking the the cookies lose their fun shapes.  So I did a little Google searching and came across this cookie recipe from KittenCal.  I combined these cookies with a standard royal icing recipe...and overall I think we were pretty successful in our cookie making skills.


These cookies were a hit with children & adult alike at both family reunions.  More pictures are at the end of this post.


The verdict--This is a pretty good sugar cookie recipe and the cookies mostly retain their shape while baking.  I anticipate playing with the flavoring & sugar ratios in the future, and can't wait to make a batch that has small-flake unsweetened coconut added to the cookie dough.  Yum.


Additional Suggested Tools:  plastic bags, food dyes, icing tips [optional], synthetic bristle paintbrushes [optional], toothpicks [optional]

Buttery Cutout Sugar Cookies by KittenCal
Recipe source: food.com, Prep time: 8 min, refrigeration: 1-2 hours, Cook time: 4-6 min/batch

Ingredients
Ingredient Lineup

  • 1 cup butter, softened (2 sticks, no substitutions)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 t. vanilla
  • 1/2 t. almond extract
  • 3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 1/2 t. baking powder
  • 1/2 t. salt

Directions

1.  In a medium bowl, stir together flour, baking soda, baking powder & salt.  Set aside.

2.  In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla and almond extract.  Mix with electric mixer on medium speed until light & fluffy.
Dry ingredients on the left, butter/egg ingredients on the right.

Fluffy butter/egg/sugar mixture post mixing.

3.  Using a rubber spatula, fold the flour mixture into the butter mixture in small increments, until all ingredients are combined.  Press the dough down into the bowl & cover with plastic wrap.  Refrigerate for 1-2 hours to let the dough cool back down & set. 
Assembled dough.  Cover it up & pop it in the fridge to cool
back down & let the butter fat re-solidify
4.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

5.  Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.  

6.  Lightly flour your work surface & rub a rolling pin with flour.  Move the cookie dough to your work surface & roll out until approximately 1/4 inch thick.  Cut cookies with cookie cutters.  Place cookies approximately 1-2 inches apart on the cookie sheets. 


Roll it out  Don't forget to put flour on your rolling pin.

Stamp out the cookies.
7.  Bake 4-6 minutes until done & edges get slightly golden brown.  Remove cookies from oven & move to cooling racks.  When cool, ice cookies with the frosting of your choice.


Tanning cookies
Cooked cookies...Move to a rack & let them cool.

Royal Icing
Prep time: 3 min

Ingredients

  • 3 T. meringue powder or powdered egg whites*
  • 4 cups confectioners' sugar
  • 6 T. water
  • Lemon juice

Directions


1.  In a large mixing bowl, mix the egg whites, sugar & water on medium speed until icing gets thick and glossy (approximately 3-5 minutes).  Add lemon juice until icing reaches desired consistency (I add lemon juice until the icing is still thick, but has a little bit of fluid movement to it).


Powdered sugar, powdered egg whites & water

Glossy royal icing (with half of it already moved to bags
before I thought of taking a picture)
 2.  Using a large rubber spatula, move spoonfuls of icing to individual plastic bags (with or without icing tips). Color with food dye and ice cookies.  Be very careful to not expose the icing to too much air, as it dries very quickly.  Ice & set cookies aside to dry.  When dry, cookies can be stacked on a platter.  Keep covered with plastic wrap. (*You can use the equivalent of fresh egg whites, however powdered egg whites have been pasteurized so you are not running a salmonella/e.coli risk.)
Add an icing tip to a plastic zip top bag, or cut the corner off
of the bag.  It works both ways (I personally prefer the ease of
control with icing tips)
Spoon 1-2 spoonfuls of icing into each bag
Add food dye & squeeze to mix

Our icing lineup
Blue bear (Hubs creation)
Hipster waffle-shell snail (my creation)
Harry Potter Snail (Hubs Creation)
Roadkill Fox (Hubs Creation-- this guy got smushed while cooking)
Tie-dye Hedgehog (Hubs creation)

Happy Snail
Polar bear cookie & a hedgehog with sunglasses
Hipster hedgehog
Tripped out snail
Toothpicks and paintbrushes help a lot
Moose in leg casts (Hubs creation--the poor creature's legs broke off)

Lippy Snail (Hubs creation)

Purple Squirrel (Hubs creation)
Happy Hedgehog


Friday, July 15, 2011

Wacky State Fair Foods are On Their Way [and I get nauseated just looking at the photos]

Reading the local news at Indystar.com this morning, I came across the news article that is written every year at around this time…an article I LOVE to Loathe.

It’s the article that begins the announcement of the “wacky & weird” State Fair foods for this year. This article reaches the paper mid-July each year, without fail, and will be the 1st in a series of 3-4 articles on this topic. They are the articles that anticipate the booths that will have the forever-ly long lines, serving up crazy concoctions that look & sound like something some stoned college student with severe munchies cooked up after a night of partying. “Hey, I know what sounds like a good idea, lets fry Eggos in Captain Crunch & throw a fried chicken breast on it, man!

Now I’ve been to the Indiana State Fair almost every year since I moved to Indiana when I was 5 years old.  My dad & I usually make a father-daughter date out of it & have a grand old time (one of my favorite traditions).  We walk around & look at the different animals, scope out the old tractors, play a price-guessing game on the new, HUGE farm equipment, watch the Percheron & Clydesdale cart competitions…things like that.  And yes, we have our meals at the State Fair while we are there.  For our meals we do things like grab a pork chop sandwich at the Pork Producer’s Tent, or maybe get a rib eye Sandwich from the Beef Producer’s Tent.  We’re known to grab a simple meal early in the day of a Swiss cheese on rye grilled cheese sandwich & a COLD glass of milk from the Dairy Bar concession stand.  And, self-admittedly, the state fair is one of the few times each year that I cave & have a genuine, mystery-meat, nitrate-loaded hot dog, but I take it a step farther and get one that has been dipped in corn batter & fried to golden deliciousness.  Mmmm…corn dogs.

Photo courtesy of the Indiana State Fair

But rarely in my 20-something odd years of going to the State Fair have I tried the “state fair foods of the year.”  To me, they frequently sound either a) disgusting, b) like a heart attack on a paper plate, or c) too gimmicky to possibly be Any Good.  Combine that with long lines & ridiculous costs…you can count me out.  (Also—see my vent on Taste of Chicago…depending on the day at the state fair, the “perfect storm of misery” can occur there too).  

I can say that 2 years ago, my husband convinced me to try one of the Gimmicky Fair Foods—chocolate covered bacon.  I love chocolate, I love bacon…it wasn’t that difficult of a stretch to get me to try it.  It was “ok”…but I could have made it better at home by using crispy bacon & using a higher-quality chocolate as a base for the dip as opposed to the limp bacon & waxy bland chocolate used by the food vendor.  I definitely don’t think it was worth the $3-5 dollars we probably paid for it.  If you want a delicious bacon chocolate option, get a Mo’s dark chocolate bacon bar (oddly, the only place I have found them locally is Whole Foods.).  Want to talk about the best PMS food ever?—forget chocolate covered pretzels…go with the dark chocolate bacon bar.

So in my usual status of skepticism/sarcasm about these types of wacky fair foods…Grab your gall bladder and join me as I break down the first 5 announced “2011 Indiana State Fair Foods.”  All 5 items were created by concessionaires Dennis & Cheryl Reas of CorydonIN, who are the same people who brought the Krispy Cream Doughnut Burger to the Indiana State Fair last year.  

The first 5 announced “2011 Indiana State Fair Foods”
(Feel free to express or defend your position in the comments below…I’m open to wavering on my opinion about a couple of these)

1.  The Deep-Fried Klondike Bar

Photo courtesy of IndyStar.com
Indystar.com description: “The chocolate-coated vanilla ice cream is dipped in batter, then added to hot oil. Sprinkle on some powdered sugar, just in case it’s not sweet enough.”   

So deep-fried Snickers, Oreos, Reese’s cups, Twinkies, & cookie dough…those weren’t enough? We now have deep-fried Klondike bars?  Great.  The only positive I can see about this one, is that it might be the ultimate solution for avoiding little pieces of chocolate from flying off of a Klondike bar while you are eating it.  You know the plaques of chocolate that chip off, fall on your clothes & instantly melt, or fall on your off-white carpet & immediately mate with the carpet fibers?  Other than that, to me it sounds like a “Tempura Ice cream fiasco.”  You are going to get a super-melty slab of ice cream, coated in chocolate that is potentially runny/molten (because its meant to be consumed cold), covered in a doughy, most likely undercooked layer of batter that can’t reach a crispy, golden status without totally obliterating the ice cream slab underneath. To top it off, it looks like it comes on a stick.  No thanks, I’ll pass.


2.  The Chicken Eggo Sandwich

Photo courtesy of IndyStar.com
Indystar.com description: “It’s a chicken breast with a Cap’n Crunch cereal breading between two Eggo waffles.”

Ok…I get what they are going for here.  Chicken & Waffles are kind of a popular topic/dish in the part-time-foodie underworld right now.  I’m sure if you go to Chowhound.com you can find several posts from across the country debating the merits of various Chicken & Waffle joints.  This dish is potentially riding on the coattails of that trend before it fizzles out completely (if it hasn’t already?). This dish also appeals to the kids through 35-year-olds that were raised on the ready-made, out of the box breakfast delights of Eggo & Cap’n Crunch. Of the 5 dishes, this is 1 of the 2 I could potentially debate would maybe be worth trying.  From the picture, it looks like they pulverize the Cap’n Crunch into a mostly fine dust for the breading, & potentially add some herbs & seasonings.  While Cap’n Crunch breading has definitely been done numerous times before (anyone else remember the chicken tenders at the Indianapolis Planet Hollywood when it existed?), if done correctly & blended with other flour/breadcrumbs to knock down the sweetness…it can be good.  What kind of worries me in this photo is the way the Eggos look.  Are those fried?  I never had Eggos out of the box growing up that looked like that.  Dubious…

3.  French Toast Hamburger

Photo courtesy of IndyStar.com

Indy star description: “Toast gets the usual egg wash, plus a Cap’n Crunch breading, with a burger between slices. Add bacon, lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion and other toppings for added taste.”

This is the 2nd of the 5 announced foods that I can see a little bit of merit.  Really, this sandwich has been done.  It’s a basically a Monte Cristo made with hamburger instead of ham.  The only difference is that they use the Cap’n Crunch batter (most likely out of the same pot as for #2 above) to give it a little crunch.  I’m guessing though, that instead of a griddle cooking, this toast gets tossed the deep fryer for a greasy finish too.  But overall, this one isn’t as scary to me…


4.  Deep Fried Kool-Aid

Photo courtesy of IndyStar.com

Indy star description: “Deep-fried Kool-Aid looks like red hush puppies, but tastes like the cherry-flavored drink mix.”

Ok…this is just craziness.  Just call it a cherry Kool-Aid flavored doughnut or do what the supermarket does & call it a cherry doughnut.  If you want to call something “deep fried kool-aid,” institute molecular gastronomy & find a way to encapsulate it and give it a crispy breading.  It reminds me of the “deep fried butter” craze of last year (which I’m sure all of the local cardiologists loved).  I personally did not have deep fried butter, but by all reports it was just a fried doughnut with a super greasy doughy center.  That irritated me—if you are going to proclaim it as “deep fried butter”…find a way to make it hold up as the center.  Maybe freeze-dry, powder & pellet-ize it? 

Want something fun to do with Kool-Aid that you could feed a dozen people with for approximately the same cost of what one serving of this fair food might cost?  Mix a packet of kool-aid-- cherry, grape, whatever you want-- into home-made milkshakes.  Delicious…and you get calcium. Win-Win.

5.  Ice Cream Burger

Photo courtesy of IndyStar.com

Indystar description: “From top to bottom, it’s a hamburger bun, Mexican ice cream coated with corn flakes and cinnamon, the sandwich toppings, a cheese-covered beef patty with the same coating, and another bun.”

And I thought the doughnut burger of last year was bad.  Back to the hypothetical college stoner conversation above, I’m pretty sure this conversation would go like this:  “Mmmm…you know what I bet is good?  Ice cream on a burger! Cheese is kind of like cream?—but lets put cheese on it too! Oooh…and let’s fry it! Dude—I think you’re on to something!”

Seriously.  When I first read “ice cream burger” before getting to the description & photograph, I thought—Aww, a playful twist on an ice cream sandwich that is reminiscent of a hamburger in structure & appearance.  Um no…they freaking put a scoop of ice cream on a fried cheese burger.  Blech.

Really…I don’t think I have to say anything for this one…it kind of speaks for it’s self.  I’m picturing an overly messy, overly greasy, muddled temperature, sickingly sweet burger that instantly makes you want to crawl under a rock somewhere & hide out of shame for eating it.  

What are your thoughts for these “culinary” offerings at the state fair this year?  I’d love to hear others’ opinions…

Thursday, July 14, 2011

I bought a huge chunk of beef (Pan Seared Garlic Rosemary Beef Tips)

Nothing makes you feel more gluttonous than buying a $52 piece of meat.  But when that chunk of meat is normally $115 dollars...and it will make roughly 10 meals worth of protein for 2 people...and when that chunk of meat is beef tenderloin (aka filet)...it was worth it (I did sit there staring at it for about 10 minutes in the store before finally committing & putting it in the cart).

Last week Kroger had whole beef tenderloins on sale for over half off their normal price.  Beef tenderloin is super lean, super tender, & super flavorful...and is normally super expensive.  So I splurged & bought one.  I came home & cut it into 12 good sized filet steaks & 3 meals worth of beef tips off of the tapered ends of the tenderloin.  Most of it was individually packaged & was placed in the deep freeze for later use.

This is what I did with some of the tenderloin tips for dinner last night, I served it with sauteed vegetables fresh from our garden.

Pan Seared Garlic-Rosemary Beef Tips
Prep time: 5 min, Cook time: 5-8 minutes, Serves 2


Ingredients
Ingredient Lineup

  • 10-12 ounces of lean beef, cut into 2" cubes (i.e. tenderloin or sirloin)
  • 1/2 t. fresh rosemary, minced finely
  • 1 t. olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced finely
  • salt & ground pepper to taste
Directions

1.  Toss meat in olive oil, rosemary & garlic.

2. Rub a cast iron skillet or stainless steel skillet with a light coating of olive oil & heat over high heat. 

Searing away...


3. Put meat in the skillet, sear on each side for approximately 1.5 minutes or until desired doneness. Remove from skillet & let rest for 5 minutes. Garnish with salt & pepper, and serve.

Garlic-rosemary beef tips & sauteed vegetables

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Garden Saute--fresh from our garden

Our garden is beginning to kick out a lot of produce...and I'm really excited by that!  Not only do super fresh veggies taste better, they help to save a ton of money off of my grocery bill.  It's looking like we are going to have a bumper crop of squash, zucchini & green beans.  I have a feeling I will be doing a lot of flash-freezing of veggies in the next few weeks.

This was tonight's harvest. Nothing like something being on the vine & then in my skillet 5 minutes later...

Fresh picked goodness
This is a recipe I came up with a few years ago when I was getting squash for super cheap at Meijer.  Now that we have our own squash source, it will be on the menu frequently this summer.  I make this both with & without mushrooms...depending on what I have in my fridge.This recipe is gluten free & can be vegetarian if you omit the parmesan cheese.


Garden Saute
Prep time= 5 min, Cook time= 8-10 minutes, Serves 4-6


Ingredients
Ingredient lineup...minus the basil

  • 2 T. olive oil (can reduce to 1 T.)
  • 1-3 small summer squash
  • 1-3 small zucchini squash
  • 1 cup green beans
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • Handful of button or baby bella mushrooms, halved [optional]
  • 1 T. red wine vinegar
  • 1 t. oregano, dried
  • 1/2 t. ground white pepper
  • 3-4 leaves fresh basil, thinly sliced (approximately 2 t.)
  • 2 T. shredded parmesan [optional]
  • salt [optional]
Directions

1.  Rinse & coarsely chop the squash, zucchini, & onion.
I like to cut the zucchini in half & then slice it...it doesn't
roll around on the plate that way...

Slice the onion into large wedges


2.  Preheat olive oil over medium-high heat in a wok or large skillet.

3.  Add the garlic & onions, and cook for 1-2 minutes.
Onion & garlic cooking in the wok...

4. Add the squash, zucchini, green beans & mushrooms.  Top with the red wine vinegar, oregano, white pepper, & basil.  Cook, stirring frequently, for 6-8 minutes, or until vegetables reach desired doneness.

Cook & stir...

until tender & it starts to caramelize...

5.  Move vegetables to a serving dish & sprinkle with parmesan cheese. Sprinkle with salt if desired.  Serve & enjoy.
Delicious

I served the garden saute with pan seared
garlic rosemary beef tenderloin tips.