Sunday, December 31, 2006

My Goals for 2007

My niece in Austin got a new laptop and we have been emailing daily since she got it set up. Now, I'm lousy at communicating with friends and loved ones (just ask Yam--hi Yam!), so it's been interesting to see how long we can keep it up before resorting to the banalities of "I'm fine, how are you?" and "Nothing much to report here." So far it's been going well so I'm hopeful we can continue it.

One of the things we've been talking about is her New Year's goal from last year. Every year she starts a new notebook (in addition to her journal writing which she has done every day for the past six years) and sets a goal to fill it up with a story by the end of the year. By the time I had left on Wednesday, she had 50 pages to write in less than a week. As of last night, I believe she had about 48 pages to go. But she is pretty determined, and she has achieved this goal every year, so I have confidence that she will make it this year as well, even if it means an all-day-all-night marathon of writing.

I can't even remember the last time I made any New Year's resolutions. For me, it was just one more way to set myself up for failure. Oh yes, I faced the New Year just like everbody else, flush with thoughts of all that I was going to accomplish. But I don't believe I ever kept one resolution until the year I resolved not to make any resolutions at all. And that's the way I've kept it for lo these many years.

But talking to Jill started me thinking. I like that she called it a goal instead of a resolution (I know, I know, it's just semantics, but it still seems less threatening and more achievable if it's just a tiny little goal and not a strong rigid resolution). I also liked that it was a specific goal, and therefore quantifiable. And over the years I have learned from watching her apply herself toward achieving that goal and succeed. I don't know what other goals she sets for herself, but I'm sure she approaches them in the same way.

And then I read Sheryl's post on her foodie resolutions over at Save Your Fork. I like that her goals are specific, and specifically food related. And it got me to thinking that maybe, after all these years, I'm ready to set a couple of goals for myself for the coming year. They're a little more general than Sheryl's and my niece's, but I felt the need to leave myself plenty of room to consider that even the smallest improvements mean that I have achieved my goals.

So here are my goals for 2007:
Stay in better touch with friends and loved ones.

Make regular posts to my blog, and continue to focus in on what it is I'm trying to achieve with it.

Try at least two new recipes a month, using at least one technique or ingredient I've never used before in each.

Keep my apartment at its current level of cleanliness at the least, and continue working on getting rid of my copious amounts of junk so I can clean it up even more.

I hope the New Year brings you health, happiness, prosperity, and the achievement of all of your goals, no matter how large or small.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

One Lucky Knitting Teacher

I don't usually teach any knitting classes in December, but my Wednesday night class wanted to keep going so we agreed to have a two-week session instead of the usual four weeks. We didn't get too much knitting done the last week, though, because we had a little Christmas party and there wasn't room for any projects on the table, what with all the good food everybody brought.

I wish I had brought my camera because it was quite a spread and a beautiful sight. We had chips and dips and guacamole and Corn Flakes wreaths (so much better than Rice Krispies treats, I've got to tell you), salami and cheese and toasted pita bread and crackers, a lovely platter chock-full of wonderful cookies, nuts and candies, and most excellent wine. I brought my graham cracker brownies. It was a great way to kick off the holidays.
And an even better way to kick off the holidays was with the lovely gift bag one of my students gave me. I really wasn't expecting anything so it was quite a surprise. I could hardly wait to get home and see what was inside.

Koeze Cream-Nut peanut butter comes from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and contains only Virginia peanuts and salt. I know there may be some purists out there who believe there shouldn't even be salt in there, but I don't agree. There are some things that need a little salt, and peanut butter is one of them, in my opinion. It's ground in small batches and just may be the best peanut butter I've ever tasted.

I've never seen green tea mints so I was quite pleased to get some, and I love pears so "Delicate Pear" flavored green tea mints were the perfect flavor. Three mints are equal to one cup of green tea, and they are caffeine and sugar free. The green tea, mint and pear flavors are so perfectly balanced I can taste each one of them without any one overpowering the others. And it's a Fair-Trade product to boot.

And the hand-made ribbon pasta is most intriguing. It's imported from Italy, the home of the Slow Food movement. Most of the label is in Italian, but it looks like it's a regional specialty of Puglia called Lingua di Suocera (mother-in-law's tongue). It's imported by the Crystal Food Import Coop, but I can't find it on their site. The colors come from beets, spinach, paprika, and curcuma, which Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages tells me is turmeric. I already have some idea of how I want to use it, but it will take some time because I need to do a little research before I can begin.

It was obvious to me that some time was taken in finding each one of these thoughtful gifts. I sure am one lucky knitting teacher!

Friday, December 29, 2006

Sugar High Friday #26 - Pomegranate Kisses

Let me start by saying that I'm not by nature a baker. I know how to bake, and I like to bake, and I have several long-time standards and I'm not afraid to try something new, but I've never been one to innovate in the kitchen when it comes to cookies, cakes, or pastries. The potential for disaster, both in taste and in chemical reactions that may result in explosions that leave bits and blobs of batter dripping from every conceivable surface of my kitchen, has long prevented me from mixing and matching in the cake and cookie department.

Which is one of the reasons I have not participated in any online baking events. I just don't usually have that urge to get creative with cookies.

But when I saw the truffle that Danielle of Habeas Brulee made for last month's Sugar High Friday, and that she was hosting this month's event, something started brewing inside me and I decided that it was time for me to overcome my fear of improvisational baking.

I originally thought I would do something with cacao nibs since I've been so obsessed with them lately, but nothing came to mind so I tabled that idea and decided to let it percolate around in my head for a while until I could come up with something.

Then with the holidays coming, I started thinking about what I wanted to bake. There are a couple of recipes that have become sort of traditional over the years. I wrote about Mexican Wine Cookies here. They don't look like much and their flavor is subtle, but when made with good ingredients they are incredibly addictive and impossible to resist.

So when I started thinking about making them this year, I was also trying to think of something creative I could do. I decided to add cocoa to the cookies and everything kind of took off from there.

The first challenge was finding the right amount of cocoa to substitute. This recipe has a high flour-to-butter ratio, so I figured 3-to-1 would be good. The original recipe calls for sweet sherry, which has a nutty flavor that permeates the cookies and is what makes them so addictive, in my opinion, but I didn't think that flavor would go as well with the cocoa. I was going to use Kahlua, but my attention was caught by Godiva Liqueur at the store so I went with that instead.

After I made up the recipe, I divided the dough so I could try different things with it. The first time, I just dotted them with a little decorative sugar and baked them. They were ok (and by that I mean nothing exploded in the oven), but a little bland. There wasn't enough body to the liqueur to add anything to the flavor. They needed something more.

My next experiment involved crushing some Mexican chocolate, brushing the tops of the cookies with liqueur and then spreading the Mexican chocolate on that before baking. It was an improvement, but again too subtle. (Although I think it would work really well if the chocolate was mixed into the dough instead of just being put on top, and plan to try that.)

And then I remembered the Pomegranate Cordials I had seen at Treasure Island down the street. They looked really good and I really wanted to try them but I was trying not to eat too many sweets and I was already being forced to eat the results of my baking experiments so I decided to pass them up. So maybe it was because I really really wanted to eat them that I came up with the idea of putting them on the cookies. Whatever the reason, it was a good one.
I wasn't sure if the cordials would hold their shape in the heat or if they would just melt over them and burn on the bottom of my oven, so I rolled out one little cookie, pressed in a cordial, and baked it all by its lonesome little self. Imagine my pleasure when it held its shape and stayed on top of the cookie. So I baked up the rest.

How were they? I thought they were pretty good, but I wasn't sure if anybody else would think they were. I was going to see Lynda right before I left for Austin for the holidays so I took some to her and she was nice enough to try one right away, and she said it was good. I also brought some to my knitting student Nicole to try and she liked it, so I was feeling pretty good about how they turned out.

I took the rest of them to Austin with me so I could test them on my harshest critics - my family. They said they liked them, and the rest of the cookies disappeared quickly enough, so I guess they were a hit.

I plan to play with this recipe some more. And thanks to Danielle and this event, I think I've finally caught the baking bug.
Pomegranate Kisses

1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp salt
3-1/3 cups sifted flour
2/3 cup cocoa
1/4 cup Godiva liqueur
Pomegranate Cordials

Cream butter and sugar. Add egg and beat until light and fluffy. Blend in salt and 2 cups flour. Stir in liqueur. Add remaining flour and the cocoa; mix well.

Chill dough at least one hour. Roll dough into walnut-sized balls and place on cookie sheet. Grease the bottom of a 3-inch glass and dip it in decorator sugar, then flatten each cookie. Gently press a cordial into the center of each one.

Bake at 350 degrees for 10-11 minutes.

Makes about 8 dozen cookies.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Nigerian Kidney Bean Stew

There's a new version of Blogger out. Expect lots of swearing after I've upgraded.
Kidney beans are iffy for me. They have a little bit of an aftertaste to me that is similar to black-eyed peas, and it's that funky aftertaste that makes it impossible for me to eat black-eyed peas.

And please don't say "Oh, but you've never tried my black-eyed peas." I can't tell you how many times I've had people say that. I probably haven't tried your black-eyed peas, but I can guarantee that I won't like them. I haven't run across anything that can hide that funkiness. Anything. Ok?

I can eat kidney beans, but not usually by themselves. But they're really good for you, at least according to the World's Healthiest Foods, so I want to eat more of them. I've always liked to put them in my chicken and vegetable soups, and (purists might want to turn away for a moment) in my chili, because that odd little aftertaste isn't so obvious when there are fifty other ingredients in the bowl vying for my tongue's attention.

So when I first came across this recipe for Nigerian Kidney Bean Stew in Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian, I wasn't so sure it was something I wanted to try. There's a recipe I've had for years called African Chicken (note to self: Must make that again!) that uses tomato sauce and peanut butter so I knew I liked that combination, but I wasn't sure how I would like the kidney beans as the star of the show. But I had already made a couple of recipes from the book with much success, so I decided it was worth the risk.

And it was. The peanut butter and tomato sauce base is the perfect vehicle for highlighting what is tasty about kidney beans, and that strange aftertaste I dislike so much disappears in this dish. It's quite tasty with brown rice, but it's also really good with whole wheat couscous. And if you don't have any couscous or brown rice ready, it's awfully good all by itself.
Home Cookin 4.9 Chapter: Soups and Stews

Nigerian Kidney Bean Stew with Peanut Sauce

Serves 4 to 6

1-1/2 cup dried red kidney or pinto beans
salt to taste
2 Tbsp peanut or canola oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves finely chopped garlic
1/2 large green pepper, chopped into small dice
1 tsp ground cumin
1 cup canned tomato sauce
1/4 tsp cayenne
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1-1/2 Tbsp smooth peanut butter

Soak and cook beans; do not drain. Add salt, stir to mix, and leave in cooking liquid.

Put the oil in a wide, medium pot and set over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, and pepper. Stir and fry just until onion has turned translucent, turning heat down as needed. Add cumin and stir once. Put in the tomato sauce, cayenne, lemon juice, and 1/2 cup water. Stir and bring to simmer. Turn heat to low and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, put peanut butter in a small bowl. Slowly add about 6 tablespoons of cooking liquid from beans, mixing continuously. Stir this mixture back into the pot of beans.

When tomato mixture has finished cooking, pour into the pot of beans. Stir and bring to a simmer. Cover, turn heat down to low, and simmer gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve hot.

from Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey (Clarkson Potter, 1999)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Couscous with Sweet Potatoes and Zucchini

When I fixate on something I tend to fixate. Right now it's sweet potatoes. Ever since I roasted them in the oven for Thanksgiving I can't get over how much richer they taste than when they're zapped in the microwave.

And as good as they are mashed with orange juice, dried cranberries and brandy, I've been trying to think of some other uses for them.

I don't know how you feel about the FoodTV Network. Me, I have this love-hate thing going with it. There are some good shows (although most of the really good shows where the hosts actually seemed to know what they were doing and would actually cook and from whom I learned something are gone), but mostly it's all fluff and infomercials (like "The Secret History of . . .," "Unwrapped," and most of the specials) that promote unhealthy, processed, packaged foods. It's usually on in the background when I'm home, but I don't pay much attention to it and will run to change the channel when Bobby Flay or that obnoxious guy who hosts the Top Five show or that other obnoxious guy who hosts "The Secret Life of . . ." come on. I can't believe I'd ever see the day that I'd say I miss Gordon Elliott (at least in comparison to those three), but there you have it.

And every once in a while I'll get an idea from someone, which happened Thanksgiving weekend. The theme for the day was how to use up all the Thanksgiving leftovers, and Michael Chiarelli made a pasta dish with sweet potatoes. Which got me thinking . . .

. . . and led to Whole Wheat Couscous with Sweet Potatoes and Zucchini. This is mighty tasty, and doesn't take too long to prepare, assuming you already have the roasted sweet potatoes. And now that I've discovered how much better they are oven-roasted, I plan to always have some handy.

You can pretty much cook up the sweet potatoes and zucchini in the time it takes to make the couscous, which always makes life easier. Frozen zucchini makes this a truly convenient dish.

Home Cookin Chapter: Beans and Vegetables

Couscous with Sweet Potatoes and Zucchini

1 large sweet potato, roasted, peeled and cut into 1/2" cubes
1/2 16-oz. bag frozen sliced zucchini
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock, separated (1-1/2 cups for couscous and 1/2 cup for the sweet potatoes and zucchini)
1 cup whole wheat couscous
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare couscous according to package directions, using stock instead of water.

At the same time, heat oil in medium sized skillet. Add onions and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add spices and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add 1/2 cup stock, sweet potatoes, and zucchini. Add salt and pepper. Simmer until heated through, mashing up a few of the sweet potato cubes to thicken the sauce.

Serve over couscous.

Servings: 4

Exported from Home Cookin 5.4 (
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