Thursday, February 26, 2009

Grasshopper tacos, anyone?

So, those of you who've been reading my blog for a while will recall my rant about people who are unwilling to try new things. The upshot of it was, if I were presented with the opportunity to eat bugs, then I'd have to take it or I'd be a total hypocrite.

Tuesday, I was presented with just such an opportunity....and I took it.

And you know, they were actually pretty good! If you didn't know they were bugs, you'd never have guessed.

I went to an authentic Mexican restaurant. First, there were the yummy carafes of sangria. Then the appetizer: grasshopper tacos (tacos de chapulines). Having seen that on the menu, really how could I pass it up? They were less like tacos and more like eggrolls (the taco shell was wrapped around instead of open-faced like the pic above), with adobo chiles, and there were spicy and minty sauces on the side.

For dinner, we had calamares enjitomatados (calamari sauteed in onion, garlic, tomatoes, spices, and jalapenos), beef tinga (beef cooked with assorted peppers), and indio vestido (cactus paddle stuffed with cheese in guajillo and tomatillo sauce...the sauces forming the shape of the Mexican flag). This being my first time eating cactus, I had no idea what to expect. Basically, picture a big piece of cactus with cheese and sauce and there you have it. It didn't have a very strong taste, the difference to it was more the texture...hard on the outside, slightly juicy and slimy on the inside. Not my favorite of the dishes but nonetheless tasty, and I'm quite glad I tried it.

For dessert, we were deciding between avocado cheesecake and cactus nut bread. The cheesecake won out because it was so unique (how often am I really going to see avocado cheesecake on a menu?). And let me tell you....YUM!

All in all, an excellent meal, as well as an exotic and adventurous one. If you're ever in Somerville, try Tu y Yo, or see if there are any authentic Mexican places near you...and let me know about your experience!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tuesday Recipe - Spinach Feta Triangles

I decided to include Greece in my Middle Eastern month (ducks and covers as a pot of avgelomono and spanikopita are flung in my direction). But this is mainly because there's so much cross-over in the foods of that region, that it just seems to fit a little better for my purposes.

I decided to make spinach feta triangles. Initially, when I didn't read the recipe through properly, I thought I was planning on making spanikopita (spinach phyllo squares), but it turns out they're more triangles, kind of like the Greek version of egg rolls. And I didn't realize how time consuming it would be. Yikes. I need to get a butcher's block table, because bending over my regular table is not doing my neck and back any good...

In any case, it came out pretty well. In fact, I actually prefer it as leftovers. When I ate them hot out of the oven, I thought they were ok, but nothing to write home about (but maybe that's because I ate four in rapid succession, so it was taste overload). I had one with my dinner last night and quite enjoyed it.

I doubled the recipe and froze a bunch, so you could always halve it and make fewer. The recipe below made two cookie sheets worth of triangles (I don't know, perhaps 20?).

Spinach Feta Triangles
20oz fresh spinach, washed
4 small-medium onions, chopped
2 bunches of scallions, chopped finely
1/2C parsley, chopped
1/2C dill, chopped
1/2lb feta, crumbled
1/2lb phyllo dough (usually in the frozen aisle at the store)
olive oil (in spades)

Put onions and scallions in a pot with a little olive oil and cook until soft. Add the herbs and spinach and cook down until wilted. Remove to another bowl or pot with a slotted spoon to drain any excess juices. Let cool.

Take out the phyllo dough. Fold it in two to keep the inside ones moist (or well, not moist, but not dried out). By the time you finish, the outside phyllo will be dried out and hard to cracking, so be sure to keep it on the outside (if you have any tips as to how to get it not to dry out, please let me know). Take one phyllo and cut it into strips of about 3.5"x12" (approximately, it doesn't have to be exact - the ones I used I cut into rough thirds).

Start with one strip, brush it with olive oil. Place another strip on top and brush it with more olive oil. Scoop some of the spinach feta mix and place it at one end of the strip in a triangle shape (with the end and side as two end of the triangle and the hypotenuse being on the inside, not on an edge). Fold this triangle of spinach like a flag - the first fold brings the end of the phyllo towards the side without the spinach, then keep folding in triangles until the spinach is entirely encased in the phyllo. Place on the baking sheet (preferably on a silicon cookie sheet, but barring that, greased with olive oil. Repeat with the rest of the phyllo. Once they're complete, brush the triangles with olive oil and place in the oven at 350 for 20-30 minutes (or until the bottoms slightly brown).

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Monday Recipe - African Chicken Stew

I decided this week to move away from the Middle East and travel south down into Africa. Peanuts are a big part of African dishes, and this chicken "stew" (actually, more like stir fry) comes originally from Sierra Leone. It can be modified easily, much like Asian stir fries, for whatever you have in your fridge.

I was quite happy with how it turned out. A little sweet, very peanut-y, and slightly spicy, and I served it over a bed of quinoa. I'd definitely make this recipe again.

African Chicken Stew
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 (3 pound) roasting chicken, deboned and cut into bite size pieces
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 large potato, diced
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander seed
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup water
  • 3/4 cup unsalted natural-style peanut butter
  • 1 (15 ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
  1. In a large skillet with a tight-fitting lid, heat oil over medium high heat. Add chicken, and brown quickly. Remove chicken from pan. Reduce heat to medium low, and add garlic, onion and potato to the pan; saute for 2 to 3 minutes. Season with cumin, coriander, black pepper, red pepper and salt. Do not let garlic brown.
  2. Mix in water and browned chicken, and any accumulated juices. Place lid on skillet and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. Remove lid, and stir in the peanut butter and garbanzo beans. Make sure the peanut butter is blended in. Replace lid to simmer for 10 more minutes, or until chicken is cooked through and potatoes are tender. Remove from heat, adjust seasoning, and serve.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Running like the wind

I've never been a runner. Actually, I've always hated running. In high school, I joined the track team. I joined not for the competition (my piano lessons were on the same day as the meets) but for the exercise, since I was a rather sedentary teenager. I was the slowest person with the least endurance on the team. It just seemed like a chore. I still continued jogging the summer after graduation, but I never really liked it. Then I got to college and took up rowing (but not crew, I couldn't get my butt up before the crack of dawn) and running went down the pipes.

I was on vacation in Alaska a few years ago and the hotel had very little in the way of exercise equipment. At that point, not being an instructor, I didn't know what kind of cardio I could do without equipment. So I decided to go running. The hotel was at the end of a 7 mile peninsula, so the scenery was beautiful, the sky seemed like it was sitting right on top of the ground rather than overhead. It wasn't terribly cold (being August), so I decided to give it a shot. And I hurt for three days afterwards. End experiment.

Then I got into group fitness. Step, kickboxing, cycling, weight lifting. Between jacks and jumps, leaps and lifts, there didn't seem to be a need for anything else. And then I started teaching boot camp.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love boot camp. I change up the format slightly every class, so none of us ever get bored. Sometimes I use the step, or kickboxing, or jump ropes, cones, ladders, all that cool equipment personal trainers use. It's great. But if I have them on stations, every station doing something different, I go around and correct their form. I might do a little bit of a workout during class, but not much. And when more than 50% of my classes are boot camp, I end up not getting much exercise myself.

Enter running. I've played with the idea of running for a couple months. It still seemed like a chore to me, something I wouldn't necessarily enjoy, but I was interested in trying it because it's different than my current workouts, and different is good. I almost got derailed when a friend told me that running 2-3 days a week might not work well because it would be difficult to progress, and anything under 4 miles pretty much sucks, before you hit your running high.

Then another friend mentioned she wanted to try running intervals. One minute running, one minute walking. Intriguing. This I could do. I have to be careful, because I have an old foot injury that could flare up, but with the right shoes and not going overboard, I should be fine.

So yesterday was my first try. I warmed up five minutes (walking at a 4.0 on the treadmill). Then my intervals were 7.5 on the treadmill for a minute and 4.0 walking, for ten intervals. How was it, you ask?


The thing about it was, it wasn't daunting. It was just a minute. And who can't run for a minute? Ok, I can do this. And damn did it feel good! I didn't have to worry about what anybody else was doing, about correcting form, about how their workouts were going. It was just me. I understand now why so many people try running and stick with it.

To avoid my plantar fasciitis coming back, I won't go crazy with increasing it. I'm figuring I'll do three running workouts a week, and I'll slowly start increasing the run-walk ratio (or I'll make it a run-jog ratio).

Monday, February 9, 2009

Monday Recipe - Hummus and Persian Chicken

The original recipe for the hummus called for 1/2 butter and 1/2 olive oil. Apparently the butter goes really well with the Basturma (beef) that makes up the other half of the recipe. But I just wanted hummus, so I just doubled the amount of olive oil and cut out the butter. It turned out really well, in fact. The predominant flavor in the recipe was olive oil, but it was quite tasty with celery, carrots, and green peppers.

I did change up the chicken recipe quite a bit. The recipe in the cookbook called for the chicken to be fried in oil after dusting it with flour and spices. But in the interest of a healthier recipe, I baked it instead (without the flour).

3 cups chickpeas (I used organic garbanzos out of a can)
cup EVOO
t finely chopped garlic (about 1 large clove)
T freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 1/2 lemon)
2t ground cumin (I realized I didn't have ground cumin, but cumin seed worked well enough)
Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium saucepan, cover the chickpeas in about 8c of fresh water (or enough to cover the chickpeas with some room to spare). Bring them to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer the chickpeas for at least 25 minutes, until tender. Drain the chickpeas.

Before they cool, puree them in a food processor with the olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, cumin, and salt and pepper, until very creamy. Serve with chopped veggies or bread.

Persian Chicken
2 cups plain, whole milk yogurt
1/2t saffron
T chopped garlic (about 3 cloves)
1 1/2lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts
C walnut pieces (toasted in the oven until slightly crunchy and chopped finely)
t paprika
T dried mint
Salt and pepper to taste

Puree the yogurt with a teaspoon of water, the saffron and garlic until the mixture is smooth. Taste (if it's too garlicky, add a little yogurt and re-puree). Pour over the chicken and mix well in a glass or stainless bowl. Cover and let it sit in the fridge for at least 3 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350.

Place the chicken in a casserole dish with a minimum of the yogurt (just whatever stays on the chicken during the transfer). Sprinkle the paprika, mint, salt and pepper over top of the breasts and bake in the oven for about 45 minutes (or until chicken is no longer pink in the middle).

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Fun New Foods: Za'atar

So it seems this week I will follow the theme of the week's least for today's post. Yesterday, I posted about scallop leek pizza with a za'atar crust. And because za'atar isn't very common in the States, I wanted to do some more research on it. So here goes...

You've seen the spice mixtures at the store before - Provencal spice, Italian herbs, Asian spice mix, curry spice, Louisiana spice, you name it. There's a spice mix for any flavor palette you could whip up. Spice mix for poultry, fish, pork, beef, veggies, ten times over. There's spicy spice, sweet spice, fragrant spice, spicy sweet spice, woody spice.

Za'atar, when broken down into its spices, isn't all that exotic. It's oregano, marjoram, thyme, ground sesame seeds, salt, and may also include (depending on the variety) cumin, coriander, and fennel seed.

My local farmer's market makes a wonderful za'atar stick...bread seasoned with oil and za'atar spice that's rolled up into a thin wafer, like a savory cookie. And man are they seriously addictive. I should make those this weekend, that sounds highly yummy.

Za'atar can be used on bread and veggies. It can be combined with olive oil to make a dip. It can be sprinkled on labneh (a drained yogurt that's almost like cheese). It can be sprinkled on hummus. In Israel, it's often a side you can sprinkle on pizza (rather like we have hot pepper flakes here).

In Lebanon, there's a belief that eating za'atar will make the body and mind strong, so children taking exams often eat za'atar bread for breakfast.

I see my recipes for this weekend taking shape...hummus and za'atar sticks.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Monday Recipe - Scallop Leek Pizza on Za'atar Crust

This week kicks off Middle East and Africa month. This recipe takes some liberties with traditional cuisine (and I changed it a bit too), so it doesn't belong to any one country in particular. But it nearly jumped off the page at me because of an excellent goat cheese balsamic leek pizza I had at a local restaurant. So here's my version of this Mediterranean dish.

I would probably add more za'atar and garlic next time, as it could have been a little more flavorful, but it did turn out quite well.

Za'atar Flatbread
1 pkg active dry yeast
3/4 cup warm water
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups flour
1t salt
4T olive oil
4T za'atar spice (I found this at Whole Foods in the international aisle, not with the spices)

Whisk the yeast into the warm water and let the mixture stand for about 10 minutes, or until there's a light foam across the surface. The water must be under 120F or it will kill the yeast.

Whisk in the 1/4 cup of olive oil and add the flour and 1/2t of the salt. Stir/mix at a low speed until the flour is combined and the dough forms. Increase the speed to medium and knead the dough for 7-8 minutes, until the dough is still sticky to the touch but stays on the mixer in one piece.

Lightly oil a large stainless or glass bowl and scoop the dough into it. Cover with plastic and chill for a minimum of 2 hours or overnight. The dough should double in volume.

About 2 hours before baking, place the dough and 2T of EVOO on a heavy baking sheet and cover with plastic. Let it rest and rise again for 1 1/2 hours at room temperature.

Press the dough onto a baking sheet, using your hands to stretch and pull it into the corners. I use my knuckles to flatten it out, which also created little craters to catch the spices. First sprinkle with olive oil across the top and then sprinkle with za'atar spice and 1/2t salt. Let the dough rest for at least 20-30 more minutes, uncovered at room temperature.

Scallop Pizza with Leeks and Goat Cheese
2 cups heavy/light cream
1/2 cup white wine
salt and pepper to taste
T olive oil
3 large leeks, white part only, sliced and washed
1/2t fennel seed
1/2t nonflavored, whole-grain mustard
6 scllions, bottoms trimmed, cleaned and roughly chopped
2t minced garlic (about 2 large cloves)
10 large dry sea scallops
a couple ounces of goat cheese
large bunch arugula

While the bread is rising, bring the cream and wine to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for about 15 minutes, until the cream has reduced by one third and is thick (is will also look a little like it's separating, but that's normal). Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large saute pan over medium-high heat, heat 1T of the olive oil and sate the leeks and fennel seed until the leeks are tender and soft (about 8 minutes). Be careful not to brown the leeks or they will become bitter. Season the leeks with salt and pepper.

Stir the leek mixture into the cream mixture and add the mustard, scallions, and garlic. Cook a little while longer to marinate the flavors.

Split the scallops in two so you have 20 thin discs.

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Take the flattened za'atar flatbread and lay a thin layer of arugula over top (the original recipe had the arugula on the side, not cooked on the pizza) and spoon a thin layer of the leek mixture onto the dough. Arrange the scallop slices over the top and intersperse thin slices of goat cheese in between (this was my addition also). Season with salt and pepper.

Place the pizza in the over and bake for 20-30 minutes, until the edges are crisp and browned and the top is bubbly.