Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Healthy Eating

Americans are catching on to the fact that our diet (the "Western Diet") is pretty much killing us. Processed food has become the mainstay of our cuisine and this is bad. You keep reading about new "scientific discoveries" about this and that, being good or bad, in our diet. The truth is that the diet itself is bad. Consuming oodles of corn by-products and chemicals that we have no idea about is not healthy. Eating vegetables is healthy. Eating meat that you bought from the farmer in the next town is healthy. Moving away from processed foods and towards foods that you get in their raw form is healthy. A friend of mine stopped eating processed foods for one month. He lost 16 pounds. He is an active, physically fit guy, and that was all he did to lose weight.

Michael Pollan put out a little book called "Food Rules" and it is pretty awesome. It contains 64 rules towards healthy eating. He doesn't want you to follow them all, but certainly a few. The rules are common sense, but a good reminder of what healthy food choices are. One of my favorites: "Don't eat cereal that changes the color of your milk."

I don't like weight-loss diet plans. They tend to be one-sided, focused on abolishing some things and main-lining others, and they are short-lived. In my opinion it is better to teach yourself healthy alternatives, cook for yourself, and limit your portion size. And while I am not plugging Weight Watchers, I do like how they operate for the most part. I think that if you were to sit down and read "Food Rules" and the Weight Watcher handbook you would have a pretty dynamite way of eating.

"Food Rules" focuses you on raw ingredients and cooking for yourself, WW teaches you portion control and how to account for what you put in your body. You even get rewarded for exercise! And something I just learned is that when WW assigns you your "daily point value" you are actually suppose to consume that many points! A negative that I see in WW though is they push you towards some foods that aren't good alternatives. Margarine is not an acceptable food. It is hydrogenated corn oil. You don't need more corn.

I have seen WW work and I want to promote healthy eating to my readers. So I am going to try and post a WW point total with my recipes. Does this sound like a good idea to all you readers out there? If not, I can keep it a secret. :)

Seared scallops and shrimp with spaghetti squash "pasta"
Serves two

8 sea scallops
10 shrimp
1/2 red pepper -large dice
1/2 yellow pepper -large dice
1/4 cup red onion -large dice
1 tsp lemon zest -minced
1/4 cup feta
3 cloves of garlic -skin on
3 sprigs of thyme
1 tbs canola oil
salt and pepper to taste

Cook half the spaghetti squash the same way as in "Dinner from the fridge.." but this time put the garlic and 2 sprigs of thyme under it. Roast at 350 until the outside is soft when you push it, about 40 minutes. Take it out of the oven and while it cools saute the veggies, lemon zest, and the sprig of thyme on medium-high heat with 1/2 tbs oil. When tender remove them from the pan, add the remaining 1/2 tbs of oil and cook the scallops and shrimp.
Using a fork, pull the "noodles" out of the squash and toss with the veggies and feta. The garlic cloves should be nicely roasted so peel 'em, chop 'em, and mix 'em in!
Make a pile of spaghetti squash love on your fancy square plate, arrange the scallops and shrimp, and feast away!

Cost per plate ~$6.00
WW points per plate ~8

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Red Onion Pickles

In a previous post I listed pickles as one of my not fancy foods that I enjoy. This is a huge understatement and doesn't begin to address my undying passion/zeal/hunger for all things dill/bread&butter/sour/spicy that are pickles. Where others find solace in a chocolate chip cookie or warm brownie, I want to slurp down a Kosher dill spear. (I like cookies and brownies too, don't get me wrong.) I love the refreshing tang of a nice, cool pickle. My current ranking favorite store bought pickles is, as you may have guessed, the nuclear-green Vlasic Kosher Dill. Yum.

Today we are talking about pickled red onions however and using a recipe that I stole from the "Zuni Cafe Cookbook". The Zuni Cafe is in San Fransisco and they do a pretty killer job of cooking what they want, making it tasty, and keeping it seasonal. Judy Rodgers, the chef, actually modifies the day's menu depending on the weather outside. She will make a nice light soup when it is clear and sunny, and then thicken it up if clouds roll in. Pretty cool, and would be so hard in Maine where the weather changes direction like a squirrel in the middle of a road.

Not to be sidetracked from this delicious and EASY snack, let's get picklin'! First you need a couple of red onions and a pickle. Throw them all in the food processor or blender and puree to smooth. Drink. AHHHH! Gotcha good! While this recipe does take more effort than that, it isn't much.

Into one stainless steel pot (important or chemical reactions ruin the coloring of the onion) goes: 3 cups white vinegar, 1.5 cups sugar, 1 star anise, 2 bay leaves, 1 cinnamon stick broken up, and a couple of peppercorns. I would have added the allspice berries and whole cloves, but I am sadly out. Bring all of this to a rolling boil. Rolling boil not included in photo below...

While the pot is working on boiling, take two red onions, peel, and slice them into 3/8" rings. Try to get only the nice thick rings and not the thin weird ones.

Once the pot is boiling full-tilt chuck a third of the onion rings in, tuck them underwater, and wait 20 seconds.

At the end of the 20 seconds the vinegar should be boiling and you want to remove the onions to a cooling rack/plate. Repeat this with the remaining two thirds of onion rings. Let the rings cool completely and then do it all again, twice more. In the end your pickled onion rings should have gotten 3 dunks in the tank. At the end let the liquid cool completely and then pour over the rings in a tight-sealing container. They last indefinetely, but you are going to eat them quickly. I like 'em straight, and they serve them on burgers at Zuni Cafe.

A Mitch Hedburg quote for the day:
A pickle is a cucumber that sold its soul to the Devil. And the Devil is dill.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Path to Happy Cooking...

Unless you wear an animal skin for a robe, keep bones in your beard, and club your women you probably use some tools when cooking. Us humans are tool-users, opposable thumbs help, and we have gotten really good at making tools that we both need and don't need. Alton Brown, a food TV personality, shows his disdain for "uni-taskers". These are items that are designed to do one job only. Take the garlic press for example. It presses garlic. I can mince garlic with my chef knife just fine. And then go on to do a plethora of other tasks with said knife. So bottom line: there are a lot of tools that you just don't need. However, there are some crucial ones, and this post is talking about pans. And not Pan, the mythical goat man, although he is pretty cool too. Always has a rad goatee.

Why are good pans important? Would you prefer to drive a Ferrari or a Yugo? Play video games on an Atari or XBox 360? Obvious right? And yet people forget this easy decision when buying pans for themselves. Why spend $50 on a saute pan when I can get one at XXXX for $12? Well just like the Ferrari vs. Yugo it is all about performance. A crappy pan will cook crappily, and will make it very hard to cook properly. Important factors in cooking such as heat retention, heat distribution, and handling are abhorring non-present in poorly made pans. You need to invest a tad more moolah to get the goods, but the nice part is that they will last for your lifetime if you take care of them! And using nice stuff makes it more fun to cook. Cooking is fun and should stay that way. If every time you try to fry an egg it comes out looking like a Jackson Pollack painting, maybe you should fork over some bucks and buy a decent non-stick pan. Correct technique helps too, but that is a different topic.

My personal preferences for pans are Calphalon and All-Clad. If these were car brands they would be Honda and Mercedes, respectively. My non-stick saute pans are Calphalon and my stainless saute pans are All-Clad. As far as pots go I have about a 50/50 mix. I also have some flimsy pans from my early days that I use to boil water and hard-boil eggs. They bring me no joy though. It sounds silly, but I know some of you reading this understand. It brings me joy to heft my All-Clad pan onto a burner, bring it to temp, pour in some oil, see the shimmer, and then hear the sizzle as I lay the meat in it. Just that process alone makes me happy, I am simple.

Buying tip for all ya: I never pay full price. Between and TJ Maxx, Home Goods, and Marshalls you can find Calphalon and All-Clad pans on sale for up to 60% off. Carpe di-pan!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chicken Enchiladas

Wife Zube and I fell in love over Mexican food and almost ten years later we both still enjoy it very much. Ironically, other than chips, salsa, tacos, and guacamole we don't eat that much of it at home. So I thought I would do something about it!

The thought of melted cheese with a tangy sauce bubbling in an oven makes my tummy growl (this is basically a queso fundido). Wrap the cheese in corn tortillas and smother with the sauce and you have enchiladas. These are easy, cheap, and fun to make!

I bounced back and forth between a Tex-Mex tomato-cumin style sauce and a tomatillo-based sauce, and we settled on the latter. Off to the grocery store I went and was quickly disappointed. While I didn't expect to find fresh tomatillos at this time of the year, I was hoping to find canned crushed ones. Nope. Just salsa verde. And while this is a tomatillo sauce its already got stuff added in and so I couldn't control the flavors as much as I wanted to. Welp, ya gotta roll with the punches sometimes. A purist would have turned away and made a sauce from scratch but I had two thoughts in mind 1) a good chance to do a post using some pre-made items in yummy home cooking and 2) I already had my heart set on ooey-gooey cheese and tomatillo sauce running down my chin as I feasted.

My product list for this dish: a can of salsa verde (*sigh*), cilantro, red onion, chicken thighs, jack cheese, corn tortillas, feta, greek yogurt (or sour cream), and garlic. If you are one of those people with pathological hatred of cilantro I pity you and feel free to omit it. Remember, it isn't your fault, only your gene's. I picked up the chicken thighs because I was going to boil and shred the chicken. The thighs have the most flavor and don't dry out like a popcorn fart in a windstorm like breast does. I also bought a block of cheese and not the pre-shredded bag. Why? Because I like my cheese to be cheese and not cheese with corn starch, potato starch, and other anti-caking additives. A box grater and 30 seconds and WHAM-O! I had my own bag of grated cheese, and it was only cheese.

In the photo we have sliced red onions for garnish, and minced red onion, cilantro, and garlic for the sauce. I just can't resist putting one of my favorite knives in the shot. Not uber expensive, but fits my hand and keeps an edge like you dream about. Well, like I dream about at least.

In a small saucepan over medium high heat I cooked the garlic, onion, and cilantro for a minute or two and then dumped in the can o' sauce. I added a half cup of chicken stock (you can use water instead) and let it simmer for 5 minutes or so to let the flavors blend.

I brought a pot of water to a simmer and cooked off my thighs (chicken thighs, not actually mine) and then shredded them by using two forks and pretending I was a puppy looking for a buried meat treat. When the chicken had cooled a bit I laid down a corn tortilla (microwaving the bag for 30 seconds makes them more pliable and easier to roll) and put a layer of shredded jack and chicken across the entire middle. I did about a 50% ratio on the mix. Make the layer big enough so that your tortilla overlaps by an inch or so when you roll it over. Into an oven-proof pan (in this case Corningware I stole from Ma Zube at some point) they went and I ladled the sauce over them. You want good coverage, but too much sauce can make it overly soupy. I crumbled some feta over the dish and scattered a smattering of the sliced red onion on top of the enchiladas. The oven was at 400F and the dish took about 20 minutes to cook. Actually I don't really remember how long, I just checked to see how they were doing... When they looked melted and delicious I plated them with black beans, guacamole, and some greek yogurt (a healthier alternative to sour cream):

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Grilled Leek and Tomato Vinaigrette

Making your own vinaigrette is like putting on sunglasses. It makes you that much cooler and is really easy to do. And by really easy I mean if you have figured out how to wake up in the morning and get to work you have already met and surpassed all intellectual requirements.

You need to know one basic concept and once you have that (which takes just over 2 seconds to understand)you have the Golden Ticket to Tasty Vinaigrette Land! The basic concept to vinaigrettes is that it you only need two ingredients; oil and acid. Any oil will do (canola, olive, walnut, etc.) and any acid will do (wine, vinegar, citrus, etc) to make your greens super-duper tasty. Combine these two ingredients and whisk, or shake, the bejeebers out of it and dress your salad immediately. The possibilities are endless, tasty, and encourage you to experiment. All the ingredients are easy to keep pantry items as well, so you can whip up of succulent salad dressing in seconds while your amazed onlookers gape at your culinary skillz.

There is a third component that plays an extremely useful role in keeping your vinaigrette from separating back out to just oil and acid. It is an emulsifier and it emulsifies through emulsification. (I was curious if a sentence with that word three times would make sense.) Basically an emulsifier (usually egg yolk, mayo, or mustard) binds little bits of acid to little bits of oil and you can see this by the vinaigrette taking on a creamy sheen instead of staying visually separated.

While it is so easy to make your own vinaigrette, there is so much that I could talk about that this post would be very, very long. So I am going to skip to today's recipe and anyone seeking more info/explanation can comment/email for it?

This recipe was originally a "charred tomato vinaigrette" that I made for a special at my work. Buddy and blog follower MisterTB made it at home and added in grilled leeks. I likie, so I made it again with the grilled leeks. Ironically I also made it at work again so my only photo of this dish is on the work grill.

I took a box of cherry tomatoes, tossed them with salt, pepper, and oil, and put them on the grill with the leeks. Leeks grow in sand so it is important to halve them lengthwise and rinse them out between the layers real good like. Nobody likes a sandy salad dressing. I grilled the tomatoes until their little sides split and the leeks until mostly tender. All in all not very long on the ol' grill. Into the food processor they went and I pureed until somewhat smooth. Now the tomatoes have their own acid, but I still wanted a little more so in went a tbs or so of red wine vinegar and a squeeze of lemon. A dollop of mayo was put in to stabilize the emulsion and keep it creamy. I used mayo because it is fairly neutral in flavor instead of a mustard which would have added an extra tang. I wanted the vinaigrette to taste like tomatoes and leeks, not mustard. With the machine running I dribbled in about 3 tbs of oil, stopping every couple of seconds to make sure it was all emulsifying and not getting oily and nastyish. At the end I salted and peppered until I liked the taste. As I previously mentioned I did this at work for a special so this vinaigrette was used there. The dish was grilled swordfish loin over a bed of arugula topped with this vinaigrette and fried leek ribbons.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Food Notes

While this isn't about human food, it certainly pertains to feeding. Birds that is! We got a bird feeder for Christmas this year and put it up mid-January but didn't see a whole lot of activity (none actually) until now. Not only do we have chickadees picking away, but we also have two woodpeckers bamboozling around! They prefer to bang on trees, but I am still giving the feeder credit for their attendance.

In the last ten years premier chefs went from being the cretin in the back of a restaurant slaving away to the current status of rock stars. The recognition of their achievements and the execution of their dishes have cause foodies the world round to crave a peek or document their own experience at high end restaurants. The French Laundry reservations list is booked SIX MONTHS from the day. People have their phones call automatically all day hoping to get in, and most don't. You try that hard for a reservation, wait six months, then drop $300 a person, and it is easy to understand why some people try to record all they can about such a special occasion. I am certainly guilty of looking up photos that people have taken of their meals at restaurants I will never go to. It is a neat sneak peak into high end dining and I appreciate someone taking the time to do it. However, with all things people just take it too far.

Grant Achatz is the chef/owner of Alinea in Chicago and does amazingly complex interpretations of what we think of as food. His meals certainly push the "cooking is an art form" argument even though he doesn't advocate that himself. He just made the headlines again for his blog post concerning people disrupting restaurant functioning due to their zeal for documenting the meal/service/experience. People have been taking photos since his place opened a couple of years ago, but once again we took it too far.

Top Chef Masters premiers tonight on Bravo at 11 pm! I am not a huge fan of reality cooking shows, but this is my favorite. Tonight starts season two and hopefully it follows in the footsteps of last season. There was very little drama and a whole lot of sportsmanship between the master chefs. Instead of the usual Top Chef format of young wannabes, Masters involves current, high end, accomplished chefs that are playing for charity. It is pretty cool to watch what they come up with.

And to wrap it up for today here is a photo of an Alinea dish. I found this photo at

And you can see how a very cool lady is making Alinea dishes her way on the blog Alinea at Home (in my "blogs I read" section).


Saturday, April 3, 2010

Very not fancy foods that I think are yummy...

Gas station hot dogs
Velveta Shells n Cheese
Cheddar Broccoli Tuna Helper


Thursday, April 1, 2010

Roasted Beets

One of the joys that I find in cooking is when I can change someone's mind. When I can present someone with a certain food,dish, or ingredient that they don't particularly like, watch them taste, tentatively at first, and then scarf it down like its their first meal in days. We all have likes and dislikes that are truly part of us, but there are a lot of food dislikes that exist simply because your previous experience is with a bad version. If you have dined at Chez Zube a couple of times, chances are pretty high that you had glazed carrots. They are always a hit, and yet how many people out there don't like cooked carrots. Take three seconds and you can rattle off the most commonly disliked veggies: brussel sprouts, cabbage, carrots, peas, turnip, and beets. Want to know a secret? No vegetable tastes all that great that has been boiled to death, microwaved, or commercially canned.

Wife Zube continually holds that we will be able to feed our future children glazed carrots and roasted beets while calling them candy. They do have naturally occurring sugars, but it is up to you to bring them out.

These beets are delicious, easy, and will stain your fingers purple for a little bit! Go to your grocer, buy a bundle of fresh beets, and return to your abode. Preheat the oven to 300F and while it warms up wash the beets, trim them, and wrap them in foil with some salt and a tidbit of water.

An hour and a half later pull the packet of veggie candy out of the oven, crack the foil, and let cool slightly. The tip here is that the warmer the beets are the easier they are to peel. Cold beets are a huge pain to peel. I like to quarter the beets right away. When I don't use them right away (but you should) the microwave (a.k.a. jukebox, zapper, etc) does heat them nicely with little side effects. A good dish idea for these succulent puppies is arugula, goat cheese, pecans, beets, and a light (viscousity not caloric content) vinaigrette. Balsamic would work or you can make your own. Not sure how to do that? It is a soon to be posted post! MUHAHAHAHAHA!