August 28, 2008

sangos, sandwiches, sarnies.....

What ever you call them- sandwiches have been my savior in parenting. They are quick, easy, filling and healthy.....Or not depending on what you desire. Take for example fairy bread. It was a fave when I was a kid growing up in Australia and it is now a favorite for my kids and their friends at any birthday party we throw. For those of you not in the know- Fairy bread is white sandwich bread topped with a layer of butter (or margarine) and then finished with a good shake or 8 of sprinkles (100's & 1000's). You can cut the crusts off or leave them on, depending on birthday boys/girls preference. They are bright, colorful and just a bit of fun.

Now back on track to our lunch today. I woke to a full schedule, I needed to do the grocery shopping (always takes longer when I have both boys), a 'play date' in the park with 'pack your own lunch', followed by work in the afternoon. Of course the only food in the house is dried pasta, bread crumbs, yogurt and a container of lima bean dip I made a few days ago- all food that needs a lot of help to taste yummy (except of course the dip), so there goes an end to the theory of making lunch before I leave. Anyhow we are only running 10 minutes behind time after the shop, and I bought a fresh out of the oven French stick (still warm) and some yummy sliced honey ham and porchetta from the deli. Top all of that with the lima bean dip, a bit of tomato, cucumber, cheddar cheese and lettuce and there you have it- lunch in 5 minutes and out the door in ten! 
Sometimes the simplest things in life are often the best. I still remember sitting at a park in Florence eating the tastiest mozzarella, tomato and basil sango I made that morning before Max and I set out for the day (Alex was only 10 weeks old), maybe it was then that Max truly started to enjoy fresh tomatoes? 

August 26, 2008

Salsa Verde #1

Sorry it has been a few days since my last post. Life has moved on and I am playing catch up, some weeks are more unorganized than others so that is all I am going to say on the matter!
It has been a middle of the range week for food in our house, I have been out most nights cooking for half of Evanston while my family have been living on take out from work (don't feel sorry for them- tonight they have a fabulous veal, pork and panchetta lasagna to devour). 
I was home a few nights ago and found some tomatilla tomatoes ( actually don't know if this is the right spelling but it will take me another week to find out so you'll have to live with it or drop me a line and correct me) in the fridge I bought last week. Terrible I know, but they last really well and the salsa tasted awesome as usual which brings me to this blog entry.

While working in the Chicago area for the past 6 years on and off (minus the 10 months we spent in Italy and the past year in Virginia) I have learn't quite a lot about Mexican food from the various Mexican guys I have worked with. Sometimes it is what I observe when they cook comida (family meal) or what they tell me they had for lunch before work.  I try to duplicate it from random notes I wrote. One of my favorite recipes I was taught is the salsa verde.
Salsa verde can come in many different shapes, flavors and forms. Today I am talking about the stove top variety, I'll save the others for another day.
Depending on the jalapenos hotness the kids will try it, otherwise Nic and I store it in the fridge and pour it on anything from eggs in the morning (actually that is just me), tacos, grilled fish, chicken- anything that needs a little flavor kick. The night I made it, I served it with pork marinated in cumin, paprika and cinnamon (wanted to see what it tasted like and I was suitably impressed, however use less cinnamon than cumin for a balanced savory, sweet flavor if you'd like to try). We wrapped it all up in a flour tortilla with smashed pinto beans, topped with the salsa verde and there you have it a tasty, fast family meal- perfect for a hot night.

Tomatillas 3-4
jalapenos 2-3
yellow onion 1, medium
garlic clove 1
cilantro 1/2 bunch leaves
Juice of one lime
salt and pepper to taste

When making the salsa you simply pop tomatillas (or green tomatoes, you can use red ones also but the flavor will be a little different), jalapenos, and yellow onion-quartered into a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Once boiling simmer for 2-3 minutes to soften the tomatillas and jalapenos.
Drain off all the water and pick off stems if any- set to one side.
Meanwhile, pull out your trusty Cuisinart- add garlic clove and pulse for 10 seconds to chop it up. Add HOT tomatilla mix and process until combined well. 
Remove lid add half a bunch of cilantro leaves, juice of 1 juicy lime and salt and pepper to taste. Return lid, blend until well processed then pour into a jar and store in the fridge until needed.
It last for two weeks.
Now you are probably thinking the photos don't add up to the recipe- You are correct! I didn't have any cilantro in the fridge on the night so I decided fresh corn would be good (?) it was very yummy. I put the corn in the water after I shut off the heat- 1 minute before I drained it. These are the things you have to do when your living in the real world and not on telly- ha,ha. It was very yummy but I did miss the cilantro.

There are many different varieties of this salsa as I said, but this is the one I use over and over again. I hope you can get Mexican ingredients in Australia otherwise I'll have to start up an importing business!
Once again, sorry for the delay......

August 18, 2008

That's Disgusting!

I have had a couple bunches of spinach in the fridge for the past week and all the intention in the world to put them to good use. Yesterday was the day to finally rip the stems off, blanch the leaves and eat it. The boys are in a bit of a panic, they see me in the kitchen with the spinach and come running in saying "Are you making lunch? I am NOT eating that!' And there is Max pointing to the spinach in my hand. I take a deep breath and remind him that when I use to make spinach pies in Italy he gobbled them down and asked for seconds- his reply to that was 'Well I was younger then, I hate it now'. At this point I shoo him out of the kitchen and continue with lunch.
  I love spinach pies though looking in the fridge I find most of the ingredients I bought for this dish have been used during the week (that is what you get when you leave it to late), so I decide to 'create'. I still had the filo dough in the freezer, so I pull that out and continue with the idea of filling in with something. 
One of my favorite flavor combos are onions, butter, garlic and bacon. I know I am going to have to put bacon with the spinach to get the boys to even consider trying it. I find some mushrooms in the fridge and thought- why not, that ought to put Max right over the edge!
However Alex does like mushrooms and bacon so I stick with this plan. Once I have sauteed the butter, onions, bacon and mushrooms for 5 minutes to get them brown and soft I turn off the heat and pour in a splash of brandy removing the rest of the sediment from the pan (plus I love brandy with mushrooms). When it has cooled I add it to the chopped spinach with an egg, parmesan and bread crumbs (from the 3 day bread), give it a good stir and there is my filling.
 I decide to use extra virgin olive oil on the filo dough, just for a healthier alternative and it works really well. Because I waited so long to use the spinach I didn't have as much as I'd like so ended up making a log shaped 'pie'- not really a pie at all!
It was cooked at 400 for 20-25 minutes and the smell was wonderful, I even got a 'Ohh that smells good' from Alex.
When we finally sat down for lunch I served it with a chickpea, black bean and corn salad dressed in a parsley, balsamic and olive oil vinaigrette. The flavors worked really well and I figured if the kids really didn't like the spinach log then they could at least eat the salad.
The food went on the table and it was greeted with 'That looks disgusting!' Alex of course follows his brothers lead and decides that maybe he shouldn't like it either (at this point I want to kick Max under the table) instead I just tell him to at least try it before hating it. Alex digs in first and can't get past the 'green stuff'. I assure him there is bacon and cheese in there- just try it. After Nic and I have eaten half of ours Alex plucks up the courage to try some and low and behold thinks it IS good, Max however is still kicking around the chick peas. Finally I loose my cool and say 'just try it for goodness sake, it has everything you love'. After a couple of bites he lets us all know- 'well it does LOOK disgusting but it really tastes yummy mum.' He eats half and then tells me his is full. Alex gobbles down the salad and half of his spinach log so I figure it was worth the effort even though they didn't finish it. 

August 17, 2008

Banana & Coconut muffins

Nic is having a 'boys day out' on a friend's boat today. They are heading down to Chicago to the Air and Water show- they will have a blast for sure. I felt like I needed to pack him off with a little something under his arm to snack on. I know Phil's wife will be making some fabulous sangos (sandwiches for those feeling confused) so I decided to go the muffin route. I feel I have done the cinnamon ones to death so looking around the kitchen I spot two very black bananas and decide on banana muffins with a pinch or two of coconut just for the fun of it.

 I feel very hard done by due to the fact I have never owned a food mixer. I refuse to buy a cheap hand held one because I am waiting for the mother of all mixers- the standing, kitchen aid mixer...I am still waiting but that is another story. Anyhow I want to make the muffins and I don't want to beat the butter and sugar by hand so I pull out my trusty and faithful Cuisinart food processor. Hands down it has to be one of the best gifts I have ever received. I use it to death and for everything. I know you shouldn't use it for cakes but when that is all you have, you make do. I have to say it makes wonderful banana muffins!
 There is a lot of stop and starting to 'cream' the butter and sugar but when that is all done and you have added the bananas- a few quick pulses to add everything else and there you have it, a great batter ready for the cake tin or muffin pan. As you can see from the photos, you really do end up with a light, fluffy muffin. Alex has been driving me bonkers all morning wanting to know when it is his turn to have a muffin. I am sure I did the same with my mum seeing as she first introduced me to this recipe (minus the coconut) when I was three so it is pay back time!
I finished them off with a quick lemon, icing sugar and butter glaze. I never measure this one out. I find a knob of butter, zest of half a lemon, add juice of half a lemon and then keep on adding icing sugar (sifted to reduce lumps) and stirring until thick enough to spread. It is a great quick alternative if you don't have any cream cheese. If you have any blackened bananas lying around, don't throw them out give this recipe a go and enjoy- with or without the coconut.

Banana and Coconut muffins
1 stick (125g) butter
1 cup sugar
3 black bananas- mashed
1/4 cup dessicated coconut
2 eggs
1&1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 heaped tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 Tbsp milk

Preheat oven to 350 and spray tins/ muffin tray with cooking spray oil- set aside.
In a mixer or food processor (or by hand) cream your butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Add eggs one at a time, mix until well combined then continue with remaining egg. Add mashed bananas and coconut (if using). Mix until well combined.
Add remaining ingredients and stir on LOW until combined (or a few short pulses in the food processor). Once all mixed, pour into muffin tins and bake for about 20 minutes.
Once baked, turn out onto a cooling rack. 
When cool add lemon glaze or your favorite cream cheese icing. 
This mix usually makes 16 muffins.


August 15, 2008

20 minute-Chicken and noodles

It has been a crazy week as I am sure you all can relate to. I have my first night off tomorrow and I am hoping Nic has gone to the store and bought a few juicy steaks.... The one night last week when I was home it needed to be a quick meal as Nic and I had Net flicks to catch up on. The day began with a call from a friend inviting Nic and Max to a Cubs game- excellent! While Alex and I hung out with some other friends at the Lincoln Park Zoo. A great day was had by all but due to the sun shining, running around and lots of walking the boys were exhausted. I was begged for mac and cheese at 5 pm and then bed- OK!
 This left the night open to a chili filled meal for Nic and I. Nic actually recorded me making the meal thinking I was more computer savvy than I actually am. I have been trying to connect it to the blog for the past 4 days but have now given up hence the photos. I need to go back to the drawing board with video!
Anyhow, the meal was very, very quick and would easily work if the kids were awake. I'd just omit the chilies in the mortar and add them to our meal just before serving. With stir frying you need to cut EVERYTHING before you start so it really is quick. As the photo above shows you, I put all the 'power flavors' in together so they can meld and bounce off each other. You add them toward the end of the meal so you can get the intense flavour through out your meal.
I also use green vegetables because they cook really fast, have the 'crunch' factor, great at absorbing other flavors like fish sauce, ginger etc and last but not least- they look wonderful.

Firstly I put on a pot of water, bring it to the boil and cooked thick rice noodles. I left them sitting in the water while I cooked the rest of the meal, as it would only take a few minutes to prepare (seriously, the cooking time was 8 minutes!) Once the asparagus, choy sum and onions were cut I put them to one side, then I cut the chicken breast into thin strips. Just before getting started I put a piece of ginger, couple of garlic cloves, birds eye chilies, fish sauce and lime juice into the mortar and pestle and start pounding. Everything is bruised and smashed releasing the flavors and making a quick sauce for the dish. Leaving it off to the side I roughly chop up some cilantro to finish the dish.
Right ready to go, heat wok until smoking hot, add 1 Tb veg oil to sear chicken. I throw in the onion with chicken because I love the flavor of them combined. Once the meat is seared add the veggies, give a bit of a toss with a squirt of fish sauce then put the lid on to 'steam' the veg for 1 minute. Once that is done add the 'powerhouse' flavors, toss through, add rice noodles along with some of the water they are sitting in to help create a sauce.
When everything is well combined switch off the heat, toss in the cilantro and finish with Kecap Manis (a Indonesian sweet soy sauce). The meal was a hit, we got to watch 2 hours of 'The Wire' and eat a delicious meal. Sometimes the fastest things really are best- I'll be making this one again with the boys.

August 12, 2008

Beautiful bread

One of the best things happened to me when I moved to Virginia last year. We moved into a great house next to a wonderful couple- Bruce and Wendy.  The moment we arrive, Wendy sends Bruce around with a big bag of home grown tomatoes welcoming us to the neighbourhood- our friendship blossomed from there. 
Max and Alex provided plenty of entertainment for them to sit and ponder, while I popped across the fence on more than one occasion to help Wendy weed her beautiful English garden and catch up on the in's and outs of Lexington. 
Wendy is a fantastic baker and always has some delicious cake/slice on the go for when her grown kids come home from college- however Max and Alex assumed the 'snacks'  as they like to call them were for them alone! Whenever I couldn't find them, they were usually drinking Wendy out of milk and eating whatever she had to offer. Being the good English lady she was, Wendy was an advocate of fresh bread with lashings of butter and jam- one of the boys favorite afternoon snacks and still is. However Wendy use to make her own bread and once you tasted it, you couldn't go back to eating toast with 'cotton candy' bread (meaning the texture dissolves in your mouth). Ever since I made my first batch a few months ago my whole family has been addicted and I haven't stopped. It makes a lot so I store one loaf in the freezer and then pull it out when needed. It usually lasts two weeks and really is fantastic toasting bread. When it is fresh out of the oven, you cannot resist spreading it with what ever you have on hand- the last batch got delicious golden syrup. Don't let the three day recipe scare you off- it is very easy to follow and the results are well worth the input.
I have taken images of what the bread looks like after each day- just to keep you on track- Good Luck!

Wendy's Delicious Bread

Day 1 (top picture)
2 cups very warm, hot water
1 tsp active dry yeast
2 cups all-purpose flour

In a large stainless steel bowl, add water and sprinkle with yeast. Stir briefly with a wooden spoon then add flour- mix well then cover with plastic wrap and set aside to prove over night.

Day 2 (second picture)
2 Tbsp salt
1 cup tepid water
2 cups whole wheat flour

Sprinkle salt over your flour/yeast mixture. 
Add water and flour, mix well with your hand to combine.
Cover again and return to a cool place to rise overnight. 
(see so far these steps shouldn't take but 5 minutes of your day!)

Day 3 (third, forth and fifth photos)
1 & 1/2 cups tepid water
7-8 cups all-purpose flour

Add water and about 7 cups of flour (reserve one cup for kneading).
Kneading in the bowl until it combines into a sticky ball.
Sprinkle a little flour over a wooden pastry board or bench and turn out the dough.
Knead thoroughly for 10 minutes, adding flour as necessary until smooth and elastic.
Rinse mixing bowl, dry and dust with flour then place kneaded dough back in and cover with plastic wrap. Prove at room temperature until it is 2 & 1/2 times it's size. This usually takes me two hours if I leave it on my stove top.
Once risen, punch down dough (for those of you who don't understand- give it a good punch in the middle to push out the air) and knead just to knock out air holes.
Form 2-3 log shapes, place on a large cookie tray with cooking oil on the bottom of the tray and place logs in a warm place to prove- approx 30 minutes.
(I usually put them back on my stove top with it turned on to 500 seeing as you have to preheat oven anyway).
Once oven is preheated to 500- slash the tops of the bread with a sharp knife and bake for 15 minutes, turn down to 350 for the remaining 25 minutes of cooking.
Remove and cool on a wire rack.

Day 3 is a little time consuming so I try to make sure it lands on a Saturday, so I can have the bread prove while I get the house straightened out and washing done. Give it a go, you'll be really happy you did and if you have teenagers, this will surly fill them up for at least 10 minutes!

Thanks Wendy!

August 11, 2008

Watermelon on the beach

There are times when mum's want to just get away from it all, have a nice glass of wine and talk about anything other than kids. That is exactly what myself and a few girlfriends did last Thursday evening. It was a beautiful afternoon, so we decided to set up camp at the beach after we put the kids down for the night and left the husbands to do what ever it was they were doing. The ladies and I headed out to the soft sand and choppy waters of Lee Street beach in Evanston. 
I had recently gone shopping the day before and Alex picked out the largest watermelon he could find. Seeing as it was only .24 cents per pound I didn't argue with him- however there was to much melon for us to handle so I decided to make a watermelon and radish salad for our soiree at the beach. My good friend Roisin has a blooming vegetable garden with forests of mint and the lushest basil plants I have seen in a long time- I invited myself in and started picking! 
Big chunks of sweet watermelon, radish slices soaked in lime juice and olive oil, julienne mint and basil all tossed together, finished with crumbled feta. It was a great combination of salty sweet especially when paired with Mary Lisa's delicious crunchy noodle salad. A night to remember and still mountains of watermelon left to dribble down our faces the very next day- I love summer!

August 8, 2008

Pineapple Water

I work with this guy called Louis. He makes the pizza's at the restaurant and everyday before service he brings it apon himself to make a drink for all the kitchen staff to get us through the night. The last night I worked it was pineapple water, the time before that watermelon water, followed by rice leche.  I am utterly impressed by the simplicity of it and of the great natural flavor. It is perfect for a hot kitchen and so I thought perfect for my kids after a day at the beach, pool, run ride etc.. It needs to be a family staple. I just made the pineapple water a home and it was so easy and fast. First you cut up a whole pineapple removing the skin. Chop up into rough cubes and put the cubes into a blender or food processor- whichever you have. Secondly, blend until you have a smooth, thick pulp. Strain the pulp through a sieve. Once strained it makes about 2 & 1/2 cups. Fill up a container with ice cubes, pour in your puree and then use the ratio 1:3. One cup of puree to 3 cups of water. Have a taste, you may want to add a little sugar if it isn't sweet enough but I usually find if the pineapple is really ripe you don't need sugar. Store it in the fridge so you can use it until it runs out. A wonderful, refreshing 100% natural drink for the whole family. Thanks Louis!

August 6, 2008

Garlic and herb butter

I love making garlic bread. The smell of it in the oven, the butter smearing all over my lips when devouring it and in a practical sense- it is a great way to use up stale bread. Granted I usually make my own but recently I was put onto a garlic and herb butter, made by Kerry gold. Now I usually am not a fan of pre-made food, products etc but I have to say I was really impressed by the flavor of the garlic and herb butter. To date I have made the above garlic bread- it was delicious and you really couldn't tell it was NOT home made. We have had it thrown in with beans and broccoli then last but not least piled high on a couple of steaks I grilled last week. I'm not saying I'll run out and buy it every week but I am happy to know of a great product that will be back on my dinner table when I need a few short cuts- just thought I should pass it on. 

Dinner at 6: 5-minute tacos

Dinner at 6: 5-minute tacos

August 5, 2008

5-minute tacos

Sometimes there are just not enough hours in the day! Yesterday was one of those days and when I was totally pushing the clock and hoping to find a couple of rolls in the freezer for lunch......of course there was nothing!
 This is when I started having a 'moment' until that is, I remembered I always keep a stash of corn tortillas in the bottom of the fridge. I needed to be out the door in fifteen minutes, have Alex fed (thankfully Max was at a play date) and eat something myself that would tide me over until I got dinner sometime later that evening- probably around 10. ( I don't do well with 8 hours of food down time). Anyhow, I did my old favorite- tacos. Our local farmer dropped in some of her yummy eggs yesterday at work, I had some cilantro kicking round due to still not making my salsa verde and we always have ham in the fridge. While I soften the taco on the back burner then flip it over and sprinkle cheese on top (at this point I turn the heat down low so I don't burn the taco while cooking the eggs) I have a pan on the front, heat some butter and cook up a 'soft' omelet- meaning, you don't cook it all the way through, so it is still soft and fluffy.
Once all cooked, remove the omelet separate into tacos, add cilantro leaves and chili sauce for that power punch (Alex opted to pass on this, as he did with the cilantro) and there you have it- a delicious, filling lunch in 5 minutes!

August 4, 2008

French toast

It is Sunday morning, the boys actually slept in until 7-ish and I managed to get at least 7 hours sleep so I am feeling pretty fabulous! I woke up with the idea of baked beans, poached eggs and bacon all smothered in the green tomato, jalapeno and cilantro salsa I thought I made last night (must of been a dream because the raw ingredients were still sitting the fridge this morning!).
 I wasn't the only one dreaming of breakfast- Max greets me with 'What happened to French toast- we haven't had that in like 35 years!' ( I love kids sense of time). I agreed, it had been a long time and the fact that we still had berries in the fridge made the breakfast choice all that more appealing- meaning I didn't have to pull out the food processor first!
  Thick slices of day old bread, a lick of butter on each side then doused in a mix of milk, egg, cinnamon and a hint of orange juice before being lightly fried in more butter. There you have it, a crisp outer crust then cutting into a soft, creamy center piled high with fresh berries doused in maple syrup- it really did taste yummy! 
Thanks Max, lets hope we don't have to wait another 35 years.....

August 3, 2008

Summer salad

It's over halfway through summer and we are getting one step further to Alex actually eating salad for lunch. His list of foods he 'hates' is narrowing but how ever much I try he still clams up when I ask him to eat a tomato or a piece of arugula- however he will now eat ice-burg lettuce if sliced thinly (a small victory for Nic and I). 
When I was making the above salad for lunch today, Max wanted to help so I got him to squeeze the lemon juice into the jar, pour in the oil, add the dried oregano we got from our neighbours yard in Virginia and smash a garlic clove. I popped the lid on, added a bit of salt and pepper then he gave it a shake and presto a yummy vinaigrette to go with our salad. The question I was faced with next was 'mum, why are you putting in tomato if you know Alex hates it?' I told Max he hated tomato once 'I did not- I have always eaten it' was his reply. I told him I add the tomato because we all love it and Alex is learning to enjoy it. He may not like the texture but he enjoys the taste when combined with his love- legumes. I think Max stopped listening after I opened my mouth but that didn't stop him from asking me 10 more questions while preparing lunch!
 I wanted to have a Greek salad but I knew Alex would freak if he saw so many tomatoes. I added the black beans for two reasons. One, to draw Alex's attention away from the red beasts and secondly, my boys appetites is so large these days I have to come up with new ways to fill them.
Black beans and garlic bread did the trick!