Saturday, September 30, 2006

Alterra Organic Fair Trade Guatemalan Coffee

I was putting the final touches on the post I was writing when the Fair Trade website crashed my computer and wiped out the whole thing. Stupid Fair Trade. Screw it. Buy any old coffee and exploit people.

OK. I feel better now. Don't exploit people. Buy Fair Trade when you can. You can find out about it at the website of my local coffee shop, The Coffee and Tea Exchange, here.

The reason I was writing about Fair Trade was because one of my knitting students (and friend), who spends a lot of time in Wisconsin over the summer, brought me a most generous gift of coffee from Alterra Coffee in Milwaukee when she came back to class this month. It was an organic fair trade Guatemalan blend that she liked and thought I would, too.

And I did. It's a medium roast and I usually prefer dark roast, but it has a full-bodied flavor that is rich and strong, with no hint of bitterness. I've been enjoying it every morning this week.

What I didn't tell her when I saw that she had given me whole beans was that I haven't used my coffee grinder for grinding coffee in years. I know it's better to buy whole beans and grind them as you use them, but a couple of years ago I started using my coffee grinder for my new obsession, spices. And once you've ground spices in your coffee grinder, you don't want to be putting any coffee in there, believe me.

So I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do. I toyed with the idea of buying another grinder for coffee, but the last thing I need in my apartment is another appliance, especially a duplicate. Although there is a part of me that likes the idea of being able to say "Oh that's my spice grinder. I have another one for coffee."

I finally decided to try to clean it. Bouncing around in the back of my head was the idea of grinding up some salt, or maybe I was confusing that with the fact that you're supposed to use kosher salt to clean out an old cast-iron skillet before you can reseason it. But the idea wouldn't go away so I dragged out the grinder, poured in some kosher salt, put on the lid, and let her rip.

After a few seconds I stopped and looked. The lid was covered with a thick white film. Uh-oh. That didn't look so good. When I took the lid off, a white cloud billowed out. Big Uh-oh. I carefully wiped the lid off with a paper towel, and got out most of the white residue. When the cloud cleared, I poured out the salt powder and cautiously peered inside.

Into a crystal clear, brand spanking new coffee grinder. It was spotless. Shiny. Not a hint of spice to be found.

Now we've both learned something new. You've learned that kosher salt will clean your coffee grinder, and I've learned to save my drafts before I go to other sites.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Asparagus, Red Pepper, and Curried Tofu

I made this recipe as part of my series on the 12 Best Foods Cookbook over at Fitfare. I don't stir-fry very often and I usually just use the standard technique I wrote about here, which can get a little same-same if I have it too often. So when I saw how easy this stir-fry recipe looked, I decided to try it.

It didn't take long to prep the ingredients, and it took about ten minutes to cook. The sauce thickened perfectly, and there's just the right amount of it.

And those are Yam's soba noodles looking all tasty underneath.

Asparagus, Red Pepper, and Curried Tofu

Serves 4

1 Tbsp cornstarch
2 tsp curry powder
1 tsp sugar
1 Tbsp dry sherry
1 Tbsp reduced-sodium soy sauce
1/4 c fat-free, reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 Tbsp peanut oil
2 tsp grated or finely chopped ginger
1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
1 medium red onion, diced
8 asparagus, cut in 1" pieces
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
3 tofu steaks, cut in 1" cubes and pan-crisped, or 1 lb. firm, pressed and cubed.

In a measuring cup, combine the cornstarch, curry powder, and sugar. Mix in the sherry, soy sauce, and broth, leaving the spoon in the cup. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a wok over the highest possible heat. Add the ginger and garlic and stir-fry until fragrant, 30 seconds. Add the onion, asparagus, and pepper, and stir-fry until they are brightly colored, 1 minute. Add the tofu.

Stir the seasoning sauce and pour it into the wok. Stir-fry until the sauce boils and thickens, 2 to 3 minutes.

Per serving: 151 calories, 8 g. fat, 1 g. saturated fat, 10 g protein, 12 g carbohydrates, 2 g fiber.

from 12 Best Foods Cookbook, by Dana Jacobi (Rodale Press, 2005)

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

What Madness Is This?

Well, kids, it looks like I've gone and joined Weight Watchers.

Now it's not like I don't need to lose weight, and I have friends who have done really well on Weight Watchers. But I'm not really a joiner and I think to a certain extent it's a rip-off and I have much residual ill will towards it from the time my mother put me on it so she could get my father to do it back when I was twelve (twelve!) so I'm not the biggest fan.

Issues? What issues?

But one of the women where I work wanted to organize a company program, and you need a minimum of fifteen people before they'll come to your office. I knew I was in trouble the day she sent the email and I started counting the number of people in our office who were likely to join. So without letting myself think about it too much I told her that, even though I'm not really a joiner, if she needed me to make the fifteen I would be willing to do it.

Do I even need to finish this story? Of course they needed me and we were still one shy. But this is the kind of company I work for now--the owner said she would pay for the fifteenth place even if there wasn't a body there. And by the end of the week, she decided that the company would pay for all of us anyway.

So how could I not join, I ask you?

The good news is that the program has changed a lot over the years. You can choose between two plans. One plan is a point system, where you have a certain number of points you can have every day and you keep track of everything you eat. The other plan, called the "core" plan, is one where you don't have to keep track of what you eat, as long as you eat the core foods, and you get a certain amount of extra points each week to account for anything that isn't in the core group.

Well, the core group is mostly beans, fruit, vegetables, meat, tofu, and whole grains. Which is what I've been trying to eat for the past six years anyway. Admittedly, for the past year more processed foods have crept back into my diet, but I've been pretty consistent with the healthier eating.

So this is my plan. I'm going to do the core plan to the extent that I will continue the way I've been eating, except that I do plan to be more vigilant in eating whole, healthy foods. I do not plan to keep track of extra points and I do not plan to purchase any Weight Watchers products or books.

And we'll see what happens.

And while I did give some thought to eating anything and everything I've ever craved in the week before starting, I showed admirable restraint. I had some ice cream and my most favorite comfort food in the world.

I got this recipe over twenty years ago from a woman I worked with at the League of Women Voters in Texas. It's disgustingly easy to make, and it never lasts more than two days at my apartment. And I live alone.
Sausage and Corn Casserole

1 lb. Smoked Sausage, sliced in 1" rounds
1 large onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes, with juice
1 lb. bag frozen corn

Brown sausage well on both sides. Add onions and saute until translucent and soft. Add tomatoes with juice, cover, and simmer for 25 minutes. Add corn and cook until heated through, about ten more minutes.

Some of the more observant among you may have noticed some cabbage in that picture. I happened to have a bunch of sweet and sour cabbage soup on hand and used that instead of the canned tomatoes. And that's Trader Joe's roasted frozen corn in there as well. Lip smackin' good.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Chicken Stock for Cheaters

Before she had her beautiful baby girl Kat, Barbara wrote a most excellent and inspiring post on the making of chicken stock over at Tigers & Strawberries. It's chock full of beautiful pictures of the cooking of the chicken feet, bones, and aromatics, the straining of the broth, and the beautiful golden glowing finished stock all lined up in neat little containers all ready for the freezer.

Now I have dreams about stock. I'd love to spend all day making chicken, beef, and vegetable stocks so I can always have some home-made waiting in the freezer for whenever I need it. But the reality is that I will probably never do it. I have neither the time nor the space to really do it justice. So I just make what I call Chicken Stock for Cheaters. It's a quick way to get a tasty base for soups and stews.

Basically, I just take some chicken, usually dark meat (lately I've been using the breast for Chicken Tikka Masala), and throw it into the stock pot with about two quarts of water. I season it with salt, pepper, and garlic powder and bring it to a boil, skim it, then lower the heat, cover and let it cook for about an hour. I take out the meat and cut it up for salads and casseroles. I use some right away and put the rest in the freezer. Then I just take the broth, strain it, and voila! Instant chicken stock.

I let the stock sit in the refrigerator overnight so the fat can rise and set. Then I take a spoon and scoop it off. I put the de-fatted stock back into the pot, bring it back to a boil and let it simmer for about fifteen minutes, just to concentrate the flavors a little bit more. Then I pour it into jars in 1 and 1-1/2 cup portions and put them in the freezer.

It's neither as sexy nor as tasty a process as Barbara's, but it's still a whole lot better than using processed, and it's much easier to do on a regular basis. And it's always good to have some cooked chicken in the freezer. It make for a heck of a good pilaf. Here is what I did with the chicken that was in the pot up above:

It made a lovely lunch.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

TSIR 6: Back to (Spice) School - Amchoor

The mango originated in South and Southeast Asia. The word evolved from Tamil, the most important Southern Indian language. Manpalam means ripe mango, and mangai refers to an unripe mango. It is believed that the word mango was carried west by Portuguese sailors who found the unripe mangai in harbor markets and brought them home with them. From Brazil, the fruit spread to the West Indies and the Dominican Republic. It reached Jamaica around 1782 and then, early in the Nineteenth Century, made its way to Mexico from the Philippines and the West Indies, and from there made its way to Florida.

My first real experience with a mango (I may have previously encountered an unripe slice or two as a garnish) was around 1978, when I went to Puerto Rico for two weeks. I went to visit a friend who was, in turn, visiting friends. It was an amazing, incredible experience for many reasons, not least of which was when we rented a car so we could drive around the island and explore. It's a small enough island that we were able to drive around the coast from the north side of the island, where we were staying in San Juan, to Ponce in the south, then cut through the middle of the island back to San Juan, in one day. The next day we did the same thing heading east instead of west, so we basically covered the whole island in two days, with plenty of time to stop and see some sights.

Dotted along the coastal roads around the island, in addition to the beautiful red-flame-flowering flamboyan trees for which Puerto Rico is known, we saw many mango trees. Our companions suggested we stop at one and we gathered several of the ripe fruits that had fallen to the ground. We peeled them with our teeth and fingers and ate them out of hand right there on the side of the road. They were the sweetest, juiciest, most flavorful fruit I had ever tasted. We feasted on fresh mango for the rest of our visit, and I have eaten them ever since, waiting for them to come into season and eating as many as I can before they disappear again.

It is not well known, however, that unripe mango gives a remarkable spice much used in Northern India.
The stone removed, the fruit is cut in slices, dried and afterwards ground to a pale gray powder. This powder is used frequently instead of tamarind, the other important sour element in Indian cuisine; mango powder is, however, much weaker than tamarind and has a subtle, resin-like taste. It is mainly used when only a hint of tartness is desired or when the dark brown colour of tamarind is to be avoided. Mango powder is generally more popular with vegetables than with meat, but is frequently found in tikka spice mixtures for barbecued meat.
- from Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages
When I was looking through Jill Norman's Herbs & Spices for something I had never used before for Barbara's next Spice Event at Tigers & Strawberries, my attention was immediately caught when I noticed Amchoor (Hindi), or Amchur (Marathi). As much as I love mangos I couldn't resist the idea of dried mango powder. And when I discovered that it was a key ingredient in tikka spice mixtures, I was sold. Chicken Tikka Masala is one of my favorite Indian dishes. I knew I had to try it.

But where to find it? I knew I wouldn't find it in my neighborhood grocery stores, although Treasure Island carries a broad range of European and imported goods. My usual spice shop didn't have it listed in their catalog or online, so I knew I would have to venture up to Devon Street to look for it in one of the Indian grocery stores there. So last Sunday evening Jessica and I sallied forth to find amchoor and dinner.

Devon Street in Chicago is packed with Indian restaurants and grocers. Early on a Sunday evening there are hundreds of people congregating on the street and in the restaurants. It was a little intimidating because I felt like I stood out as a non-Indian. Jessica has fair red hair that made her stand out even more, and we received more than a few appraising glances from people as we passed them on the street.

I found my spice at the World Fruit Market, the second place we stopped. Jessica actually found it, a large packet labeled Amchur, which I guess must be the Northern Indian word for it. It's in the jar on the right in the picture above. I bought it, along with about eight pounds total of red and yellow lentils (what was I thinking?), and then we looked for a restaurant for some dinner.

We settled on Mysore Woodlands, a Southern Indian vegetarian restaurant. It was bustling, so it seemed like a good choice. I'm not terribly familiar with Southern Indian food, so I didn't recognize much from the menu. They had a combo special that Jessica and I both opted for. What we got were big round trays topped with small silver bowls full of all kinds of strange and wondrous things. The only real problem was we had no idea what anything was. Some of the bowls seemed like sauces and condiments but we couldn't tell which was which. There was one dish that had lemon peels and garlic that was delicious. If anyone knows what that was, please let me know.

The food was good, but the service was so-so. While I would go back, I think I'd rather try some of the other Indian restaurants in the area.

So the next day I roasted up my whole spices and ground them up with other spices and the amchoor into a Tandoori Masala. It smelled fresh and roasty-toasty and I couldn't wait to use it. I added a tablespoon of the masala to a cup of plain yogurt and marinated some cubed chicken in it overnight.

The next day I soaked some bamboo skewers in water for an hour, then I put the chicken cubes on the skewers and broiled them for about ten minutes on each side.

The result was delicious. I cooked brown Basmati rice with chicken stock and added a teaspoon of the amchoor and about half a teaspoon of mace. The rice didn't fluff up as much as I had hoped, but it tasted wonderful, especially with the chicken tikka.
Tandoori Masala

1/2 cinnamon stick
1 Tbsp coriander seeds
2 tsp cumin seeds
6 whole cloves
3 mace blades
2 tsp ground turmeric
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground chili
1 tsp amchoor
1 tsp black salt
1 tsp sea salt

Crush the cinnamon lightly and dry-roast the whole spices until they darken and start to smoke. Let cool, then grind them. Combine all the spices with the salts.

To use, stir scant 1 cup plain yogurt and combine with 2-3 tsp of the masala.

Chicken Tikka

1-1/4 lb boneless chicken
scant 1 cup plain yogurt
1 Tbsp tandoori masala
2 Tbsp sunflower oil
2 lemons
small handful of cilantro or fresh mint

Cut the chicken into 2-inch cubes. Whisk the yogurt and stir in the masala and the oil. Marinate the chicken in the yogurt for at least 2 hours. When you are ready to cook, heat the oven to 450 degrees F., or heat the broiler or a charcoal grill. Thread the chicken pices onto skewers.

Bake the chicken for about 12 minutes, or broil or grill for about 10 minutes, turning the skewers once. Serve with lemon wedges and chopped cilantro or mint.

Servings: 4

both recipes from
Herbs & Spices: The Cook's Reference, by Jill Norman (DK Publishing, 2002)

Friday, September 08, 2006

I'm Beat

It's been a good week, but tiring. Go read my post on Salmon over at Fitfare while I go take a nap.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Musgovian Medley

I got these beauties at the Green Market this Saturday. I'm still a little disorganized in the kitchen, though, so I didn't get around to cooking them up until tonight. I thought I would have a nice, long, lazy holiday weekend to cook and catch up around the house, but I ended up being pretty busy. Saturday I went to a party, Sunday I hung around the knitting shop until closing time so Jessica and I could go down to Devon street to pick up my mystery spice and have some dinner. And Monday I went down to University Village for lunch with Bob.

So when I finally went rooting around in the refrigerator this evening to see what else I might want to add to the pot, I ran into several other little leftover bits of veggies that were just waiting for that moment to go from questionable to downright rotten. There was some spinach that was miraculously intact for being over a week old and some baby bok choy I had completely forgotten about and some green onions that needed a lot of trimming.

In the cooking news group I read every once in a while, they often talk about "Musgovian" this and "Musgovian" that. I was confused because I had never heard of either Musgovians or their cuisine. And then I caught on--Musgovian means all those things in your refrigerator or pantry that must go or they will go bad.

So I salvaged what I could and set about making my own Musgovian dish.

I'm quite pleased with the results. I sauteed some shallots, garlic and green onions in grapeseed oil. Then I added the eggplant and let it cook for about five minutes. I added the baby bells and the stems of the baby bok choy and let it all cook for another five or ten minutes. Then I added a small can of diced tomatoes, some basil and oregano, covered the skillet and let it cook on low for about twenty minutes.

When it was done, I added the spinach and bok choy leaves and let it cook for just five minutes more, long enough for the greens to wilt. Then I splashed in the juice from half a lemon.

It worked. I wasn't sure all of the vegetables would go together, but they do. And the baby peppers are amazing--it's like all the flavor of a regular-sized pepper has been packed inside of these beauties. My only complaint is that the woman at the Green Market said I didn't need to seed them, but they really should have been seeded. The seeds are just a little too crunchy.

But I will buy them again. They're little powerhouses of flavor.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Mas Masala

Barbara has another fun spice event over at Tigers & Strawberries. I've been playing with Masala as a result.

Roasting in the pan are cinnamon, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and cloves. There's supposed to be mace in there as well but The Spice House was closed yesterday (and I was not the only disappointed customer either, I can tell you) and I couldn't find whole mace blades anywhere so I had to settle for ground.

After the whole spices were roasted, I combined them with some ground ginger, the ground mace, some red chilies, and sea salt (and the spice that I'm going to use for Barbara's challenge) and ground them up.

And ended up with the most wondrously fragrant of masalas. If garam masala is warm and spicy, tandoori masala is warm and toasty--rich and earthy, with hints of chocolate and coffee, oddly enough.

Barbara's theme is linked to going back to school. We're supposed to use a spice we have either never used before or know little about, learn about it and write it up. Yay--I have a paper to write!

So what is my mystery spice? It's in the big jar on the right. You'll find out what it is when I write up my Spice Is Right post in the next couple of days.

Oh, the mace is on top in the middle. I don't believe I've ever used that before, either. It has a nice, rich, almost citrusy aroma, and it's used in baking.


Monday, September 04, 2006

Refried Bean Tacos

Last week was a busy week at work and I had something to do every night so I took a little break from posting. But I'm back, and I've been busy.

Last week I made pinto beans with canned beans so I would have something to take to work for lunches. I think I've been making them from scratch for so long now, though, that I could really tell the difference when I used canned and they were mushy. I took them to work for two days, but by the third day I just didn't have it in me to bring them again.

They languished in the refrigerator for another day, and then I had a brilliant idea. If they were a little mushy, why not take them all the way to full mushiness? I fired up my cast-iron skillet, threw a little canola oil in and heated it to the smoking point, then threw in the beans. I mashed them up and cooked them down and made myself the best batch of refried beans I've ever made. And I didn't even use lard! (Not that I ever do, that was just a joke.)

I had half a bag left over from the three dozen corn tortillas I bought a couple of weeks ago that I had thrown into the freezer so I took some out and defrosted them, cleaned out the skillet, and heated them up. I had just a couple of pieces of that ten-year-old super sharp super tasty cheddar cheese I got at the green market around, so I crumbled those up and put some in between two tortillas (kind of like a grilled cheese sandwich), then made refried bean tacos out of the cheese-stuffed tortillas.

To top them off (literally), I had just a little bit of salsa in the fridge that I had made with the serrano peppers I got at the green market.


This Saturday Lynda and I met up at the Green Market again. I bought lots of goodies but I haven't done anything with them yet. Tonight I finally used up the rest of the mole I made a couple of months ago with some pork chops I got at the Big Apple. I also have some cubed chicken marinating in a yogurt-tandoori masala mixture. More on that later.

Today I went down to UIC and had lunch with my friend Bob at Joy Yee's Noodles, of which my friend Kevin has been frequently writing on Consumatron. And with good reason. More on that later, too.
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