Monday, November 30, 2009

It's a Wrap

I hope you had a happy Thanksgiving. I had a fabulous time in LA with Lori. The weather was great, our feast was delicious (we both cooked) and our reunion- the best one yet. It seems that Lori and I have created a ritual for my visits out West which includes a stop the Cheesecake Factory (any location) for pot stickers and grilled chicken lettuce wraps. I just love these two dishes and can't imagine going there and not ordering them. At home on Sunday when I was making my shopping list and apparently reflecting on my meal at the Factory, I decided I'd look in the market for ingredients to create my own lettuce wraps to bring to work for lunch on Monday or Tuesday. I based this recipe on my Asian Green Bean Salad but omitted the green beans and added a few other choice ingredients. This is a pasta-based salad, so if you're watching your weight the bean sprouts in it are a great foil. Plus, they add a nice crunch. Also- the pasta I use is Dreamfields, which claims to be only 5 carbs a serving. One more tip- if you tend to be lazy (like I often am) please take the time to toast the almonds. It takes five minutes and you barely even mess up a pan. This is a vegetarian salad but feel free to add shrimp or chicken, or if it's not too late- some leftover turkey.

Noodle Lettuce Wraps

1/3 cup blanched slivered almonds, toasted (I toast them on my stove top in a dry skillet over medium heat)
3 oz uncooked linguini snapped in half
6 oz fresh bean sprouts
1/2 cup frozen petite peas, defrosted
1/2 cup (or more) thinly sliced celery
1/2 cup (1/2 inch) cut scallions
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
3 eggs, hard boiled and chopped
1 head of Bibb lettuce, washed and leaves separated

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce
2 T dark sesame oil
1 T grated peeled fresh ginger
1/2 tsp brown sugar
2 tsp minced garlic (about 3 cloves)
1 tsp Sambal Oelek-this is ground fresh chili paste found in the Asian section of the International aisle of your supermarket

To prepare salad, toast almonds and cook pasta according to package directions. Drain pasta and rinse with cold water. Place cooled pasta in large bowl and stir in bean sprouts, peas, celery, scallions and cilantro.

To prepare dressing, combine all ingredients in a small jar. Shake vigorously until blended. Add about 1/2 of mixture to salad and toss well. Cover and chill.

At serving time, place appropriate amount of noodle mixture on individual lettuce leaves and top with chopped egg and toasted almonds. Add more dressing if necessary.

Re-Mix: My favorite way to change this recipe is with the dressing. To the original dressing, add 1-2 teaspoons of creamy peanut butter and shake or stir until incorporated. Taste it to see if it's "peanutty" enough and add more if necessary. If you go this route, serve the wraps with chopped peanuts instead of slivered almonds and eliminate the peas. One more thing- this dressing (with or without peanut butter) has a refrigerator life of about a week, but once you add it to the salad, it's good for about 3 days. Now let's change the vegetables. Anything goes, but my favorite combo is red pepper, corn, cilantro and scallions. It not only looks robust, it tastes fresh and healthy as well.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Lost and Found in Aisle 20

I recently stopped shopping at my regular supermarket. The one I've been going to for at least 30 years. The prices had become astronomical- imagine a 2.75 oz can of cat food costing the same as a 5 oz can of tuna! Plus, the products I'd been consistently buying suddenly became unavailable. I live in the burbs and just about every market around here has gone gourmet, which I think is great. You can sit down and eat pizza or sip a latte in a cafe-like atmosphere, pretend you're buying cheese in France, and acquaint yourself with products that were unavailable around here a few years ago. Very sweet. But just try and find that container of whole wheat orzo you bought a month ago. You're not going to be successful. Every shopping trip progressively became a traumatic experience- remember I LOVE to cook and LOVE to shop for food. By the time I'd reach the check out counter I was frustrated, my blood pressure was soaring and my spirits deflated.

So while I was contemplating my next move, a very nice market not far from my home started courting me. With lovely coupons- Spend fifty dollars and we'll take off ten. Here's a free box of organic chicken broth for just being a customer. This has been going on now for close to eight weeks. And if you're wondering, cat food is 12 cents cheaper, wheat orzo is readily available and my previously gone from the shelf Lean Cuisine Mushroom and Spinach Pizza is waiting for me every week. I can't say I'm in love, but I'm not sniveling and clenching my teeth at the register anymore.

I'm getting used to my shopping trips, feeling my way around the new digs (it's very hard to teach an old dog new tricks) and making friends with the buyers and staff. And last week when I was lost in aisle 20 I came across a product I hadn't been able to buy in my old market for at least 8 months. Joyva Tahini, that yummy, silky, creamy puree of sesame seeds. I'm a lover of Middle Eastern food and grabbed the container, did a quick 180 back to the produce department and got the necessary ingredients for a Mediterranean inspired salad that would be the bed for my creamy blanket of lemon tahini dressing.

Lemon Tahini Dressing
3 T tahini
Juice of 1 lemon (about 3T)
1 T garlic finely chopped (about 4 cloves)
3 T lite soy sauce
5 T canola oil
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp (or less) ground cayenne pepper
note- before measuring the tahini, mix it with a blunt knife or spoon to remove any lumps and keep the oil from separating.
Combine all ingredients in a screw top jar and shake to incorporate. Dressing is done.

Mediterranean Inspired Orzo Salad
1/2 cup uncooked orzo (I like RiceSelect whole wheat orzo)
1 pint grape tomatoes halved
1/2 cup scallions cut 1/2 inch
1/2 cup Kalamata olives halved
1 cup cucumber seeded and diced 1/2 inch
1/2 cup chick peas
1 cup feta cheese crumbled
1/2 cup mint chiffonade

Cook orzo according to package directions and set aside to cool. Combine cooled orzo with tomatoes, scallions, olives, cucumbers and chick peas. Add about half the dressing and toss. Refrigerate until serving time. At serving time add the feta, mint and additional dressing if needed.

Re-Mix: Let's start with the dressing. If you can't find tahini, substitute 3 tablespoons of store bought hummus and cut down by half the amount of garlic. You'll also want to add a few tablespoons of water if the dressing seems too thick.
And now the salad. If you're not an orzo fan, omit it and serve the dressed veggies and cheese on a bed of crisp lettuce. Or serve them in a warm pita pocket.
Grape tomatoes are great raw, but they're even better in this salad when they're roasted. Leave them whole and place them on a baking sheet, mist with cooking spray, sprinkle with kosher salt and ground black pepper and roast at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes until they start to split. This is a nice change and complements the earthiness of the dressing.
One more ingredient that I think works well in this salad is golden raisins. If you're a raisin fan, give it a try. You'll be pleasantly surprised.
And I can't forget my favorite topping: Sliced hard boiled eggs.

One more note- I also made cookies with tahini and chocolate chips. They weren't bad but the tahini seemed to lose it's nutty flavor in the baking. Anyone been successful ? I'd love to know.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


A few weeks ago I watched Nigella Lawson prepare a quadruple chocolate loaf cake on TV. Yes. Quadruple. She's always a hoot to watch and that luscious chocolate scenario sucked me right in. I've never made a recipe of hers before but this one had my name on it. I went immediately to the web site, copied down the recipe and read the reviews, something I'm learning to do more often these days. The extra time spent reading about other baker's pratfalls can be quite time consuming, but it does give you tips and general guidelines that eventually save you time and heartache when it comes to preparing the dish on your own. I often don't listen to my own advice and jump right into a recipe without reading it properly, not even knowing if I have all the ingredients on hand. Well this time I read what others had to say and ended up with a splendid chocolate loaf cake. But I did not make a quadruple chocolate cake per se. I made a double chocolate cake with a double chocolate garnish. Yes, I am lazy. My other excuse is, it seemed like over-kill and just too messy. And with the fabulous results I got, I'll probably never do it Nigella's way. So the original recipe is here.

The feedback: Some of the commenters had trouble with the size of their loaf pans and found their cakes oozing over the rims. I got nervous about that so the first time I made the recipe I did what some suggested- I used two small loaf pans. There was no bubbling over, but also not enough rise in the cakes. The recipe calls for a 9 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 3 inch pan. I'm thinking some people didn't measure their pans (that would be me, because I don't know where to measure). Top or bottom? Anybody know? Fannie Farmer doesn't say. Anyway, I dug around my supply of pots and pans and found a very large loaf pan, the kind you'd use for meatloaf if you wanted to feed your neighbor's teenage sons. It's 9 x 5 1/4 x 2 1/2 measured on top. And this worked. Nigella also made her cake in a food processor. I used a hand mixer. She didn't use salt. I added some. And she baked in a 325 degree oven. Many reviewers couldn't buy that concept so they did the regular 350. I stuck with the 325. I also used brown sugar and granulated sugar. And instead of boiling water, I added hot/warm coffee. Ina Garten does it all the time so I figured I'd take a tip from her as well. Oh, and the baking time was an issue for some- they thought not long enough. And the large chocolate chips became a sinking issue for others. Anyway, I think I've ironed out most of the problems presented and came up with a cake you'll be happy to make and share with others.

Double Chocolate Loaf Cake
adapted from Nigella Lawson

Cooking spray
1 T cocoa powder (for dusting loaf pan)

1 cup old fashioned oats ground in food processor or spice mill
2/3 cup AP flour
1/2 cup baking cocoa
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick I Can't Believe It's Not Butter (for cooking and baking) softened- first time I ever tried this product
1/2 stick unsalted butter softened
1 cup sugar (or 1/2 cup Splenda Sugar Blend)
1/3 cup brown sugar (or 3 T Splenda Brown Sugar Blend)
2 large eggs
1 T vanilla extract
1/2 cup lite sour cream
1/2 cup warm coffee
1 cup semi sweet chocolate mini chips

1 cup Hershey's Lite Syrup
2 oz dark chocolate bar shaved

Pre heat oven to 325 degrees. Nigella suggests you put a baking sheet in the oven at this time. I haven't figured out why, but I did it anyway.
Take everything you need out of the refrigerator so all ingredients can come to room temp. Prepare loaf pan with cooking spray and dust with 1 T of cocoa powder. Shake out excess.
In medium size bowl sift flour, ground oats, cocoa, salt and baking soda. You will probably have some small pieces of oat bran left over that didn't blend, just discard them. Set bowl aside.
In large mixing bowl combine butter, butter substitute and sugars. I like to mix this for about 3 minutes. Add eggs, vanilla extract and sour cream and mix until incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula to insure ingredients are blended. Add dry ingredients and combine. Now add the warm coffee and mix, then fold in the semi sweet chips. Pour into prepared pan and bake in the oven for 1 hour. Test with toothpick for doneness. Remember there are chocolate chips in the cake, so don't mistake dark, runny chocolate for an underdone cake. If the crumbs are damp, the cake is not done and needs a few more minutes. My cake was fine at 1 hour exactly. Cool cake in pan for 20-30 minutes and remove to serving platter.

The double garnish: If you think your chocolate meter can handle this, drizzle chocolate syrup over your slice of cake and top with chocolate shavings. And without sounding too decadent, I believe a dollop of whipped cream on top would be divine.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Last week we had a Potluck lunch at work. We have these about every 2 months and they're a lot of fun. The feast included appetizers like homemade salsa (very spicy and right up my alley), cheese and sour cream dips and spreads of every kind imaginable (I did not bring in my Sriracha dip), and of course the fresh, raw vegetables which are usually saved for the following day to ease our guilty consciences and still sated bellies. Then there were the chicken salad sandwiches on soft Polish rolls, hot plates of meatballs, chili, soups and pasta dishes galore. Too hard to choose one and too much to choose from. I was in heaven. A kid in a candy store. And desserts, homemade and bakery bought. In heaven I tell you! Well you can't eat everything (at least I couldn't) but I did pretty well. I won't tell you all that I consumed but I will tell you that the Sausage Soup made quite an impression on me. I got the recipe and made a reasonable facsimile last weekend. I say facsimile because Linda F, the maker of the dish didn't really follow the actual recipe either. She's a re-mixer like me. With the original recipe in hand I made my first soup of the winter season and it was sooo good. One thing I keep re-discovering about myself is that I love soup as long as there's an abundance of stuff in it. And this soup has stuff. Here's my version which I'll call Two Linda's Sausage Soup.

Two Linda's Sausage Soup

1 T oil (I used olive)
6 sausages (I used sweet Italian)
1 1/2 cups onions diced
2 tsp garlic, about 4 cloves
1 zucchini halved and sliced 1/4 inch
1 summer squash halved and sliced 1/4 inch
1 tsp Old Bay Seasoning (I love this seasoning)
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 box 32 oz chicken broth (original recipe called for beef broth)
1 can 14.5 oz diced tomatoes
1 can 8 oz tomato sauce
1 8 oz can of water
2 dried bay leaves
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp ground cayenne pepper (you can add more)
4 cups fresh spinach
1 can 15.5 oz cannellini beans rinsed
Parmesan cheese to garnish

On medium heat, in large pot brown sausages in oil. When they're golden on all sides remove to a plate to cool (they're not fully cooked yet and will finish cooking in the broth). In the small amount of fat that remains in the pot add onions and saute until softened. Lower the heat a bit if they seem to be browning too much- my stove cooks everything too high. When the onions have softened add garlic, zucchini, squash, Old Bay, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. While these are cooking, slice sausages into 1/4 inch rounds. Add broth, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, water, bay leaves, oregano and cayenne. Increase heat until soup comes to a near boil. Add reserved sausages. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 45 minutes. Add spinach and beans, cook 5 minutes and soup's ready. Top with parmesan.

Ready for the Re-Mix? This is so re-mixed already but here goes... The original recipe was titled Tortellini-Sausage Soup and called for a 12 oz package of cheese tortellini. Linda F opted not to use tortellini and instead used a small cut of pasta. She warns if you're using pasta, cook it separately and add it at the last minute or better yet- to each individual serving bowl so it won't soak up too much of your broth. I chose to open a can of beans instead. Not because I'm lazy, which I am, but I've been on a bean kick lately. Next time I think I'll add whole wheat orzo. Now if you're not a fan of either beans or pasta and want more stuff in your soup, add a diced russet potato 25 minutes after your soup's been simmering. The original recipe also called for a small bag of baby carrots. Linda used them in her version. I didn't, but I did take the liberty of adding all the other veggies. And speaking of other veggies, how about tossing in a bag from the freezer 10 minutes before serving time? Oh, and the sausages. They can be removed from their casings and sauteed. That's how Linda did it. I made disks out of mine. I think you get the picture here. If you have the right seasonings and broth measurements you're going to make a great soup. In closing, I'll borrow a line from my old life in advertising, "the pasta-bilities are endless." Enjoy!