Discolor Online

Weblog of the sweetest person you never want to piss off.


The Recipe Project

In the interest of saving space, I've embarked upon a project. The first step of this new project has been to sit down with years worth of cooking magazines and cut out individual pages of recipes that I like or still want to try. I currently have a four-inch pile of these pages and I've only gone through about half of the Cooking Light issues (with the issues of Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Saveur, Eating Well, Vegetarian Times, or any of the other half dozen titles I've bought over the years).

My next step is a little ways off yet but eventually I'll have to DO something with all these sheets or they'll be no use to me. Originally I thought I might just put the sheets in binders but I'm going to have inches and inches (feet?) of these recipes from magazines and I can't even begin to think of how to organize them all. One of the big problems with saving recipes out of magazines is that there are often recipes that run for more than one page, or recipes on opposite sides of the page that don't go together organizationally (main dish on one side, dessert on the other, frex).

Now I'm reconsidering this plan I'm a bit at sea about what to do. I've been pondering several options for a re-design of Nikchick.com for a year or so. I could try to put all these recipes into a format where they could be saved and searched-for on my recipes page. My feeling is that would be a LOT of manual data entry but I'd probably be happy in the end. I could just put them into some sort of recipe organization program for use on my computer but not as part of my webpage. I have at least three of those programs (each with their own benefits and drawbacks).

I still have a while to go on step one so I have a while to figure out step two. Pasting all these recipes to note cards like I did in high school is not among the options I'm considering.

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Cooking for the Pramas Party

Unbeknownst to Pramas, I was plotting his birthday party for a couple of months before it happened. It all started with me beguiling him into agreeing to put our Belize money into a patio. I wasted no time in getting that started because my secret plan was to have it done in time for a birthday barbecue. Fortune favored me on that and I was able to get a company to come out and do the patio in pavers for what it would have cost me for a concrete pour (taking advantage of a company that had just the right number of pavers left over from a bigger job). Then, I got a great deal on a grill during a Memorial Day sale and was able to do a lot of landscaping improvements while Chris was away at Enfilade and Book Expo.

Luckily for me, Chris is used to my compulsion to make sure all guests are well fed and while he did think I was going a little overboard for a barbecue with half a dozen people, he put up very little resistence, even getting the extra chairs out of the attic "just to be safe".

Even though I was expecting up to a dozen more people to show up, we had plenty of guests, including friends from San Francisco and Vancouver, BC who made it over. The surprise kept rolling as people kept arriving over the first three hours of the party.

I didn't get as far into the last minute cooking as I'd wanted because I misplaced my big pasta bowl which was the only bowl that would fit the pesto pasta dish I'd made and left me running around with things half completed when people started arriving in numbers. I managed to get out some chips, Pramas's famous hummus, fruit (watermelon, cantaloupe, cherries, strawberries... I still have a pineapple left, which I might try grilling up for game night), Salada de palmito, where I substituted fig-balsamic vinegar instead of using red wine vinegar, pesto pasta, a full spread of cheese and salumi salami with some of Mark Bittman's Parmesan cream crackers and Smitten Kitchen's rosemary flatbread, a couple of different types of tofu on skewers for our vegetarian guests, North Carolina-style Pulled Pork, hamburgers and sausages from Columbia City's own Bob's Quality Meats on buns from Columbia City Bakery. (I also couldn't resist a loaf of their whiskey cake with espresso glaze, which we never even got around to slicing.) I also baked two Guinness Chocolate Cakes. Believe it or not, I had originally intended to have another salad (Avocado and Belgian endive), fresh salsa (Salsa Criolla), and chicken satays with homemade peanut sauce and some homemade ice cream but I flat ran out of time on those. Game night should certainly benefit from remainders this week!

It's taken me a couple of days to feel recovered after the last push on getting the house, yard, and food set up to my liking for the party but I'm definitely feeling in the swing of cooking again if nothing else.

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Cooking and eating

I've been getting back in the swing of cooking around here again but not back in the swing of blogging about it. During my recent silent period I did a bunch of work in the back yard of the house, including finally putting in those raised beds that I've been talking about installing in the side yard for years now. I've got tomatoes, peppers, winter squash, basil (sweet and Thai), and several other herbs, doing really well. The strawberries are unhappy, the onions were looking pretty sad even before I got them in the ground. Jury is still out on the beans and peas. I'm still hoping to see some sunflowers and wildflowers from the seeds I spread.

The other night I cooked up a couple of halibut cheeks wrapped in prosciutto (inspired by Cook Local's Prosciutto wrapped halibut with asparagus sauce and then grilled, along with scallops with basil (from the garden!) also wrapped in prosciutto that came out pretty well. I've been keeping a steady stream of asparagus in the house from the farmer's market and just loving it. The farmer's market has been a great source of inspiration lately, full of strawberries, rhubarb, great bunches of mint, spring onions, amazing tomatoes, Columbia City Bakery's baked goods, and lovely rarities like kohlrabi and sunchokes. I also baked Blondie and Brownie's fabulous raspberry-rhubarb pie though I used about half as much of the chai-oatmeal crumble topping as called for and might cut it back even further in the future, I've been on the Cooking Light minimalist-style of pie baking for too long, I guess.

Speaking of Cooking Light, it remains my go to for excellent, good-for-you recipes but I have been branching out a bit. After many years of almost but not quite getting a grill, I finally have one and the weather's been cooperating so I've been going through Steven Raichlen's books for recipes and techniques, or doing a little more experimenting via new-to-me food blogs. I also have a bit of a food crush going on for Eating Well magazine right now. Picked it up on a whim and was pleased to note their nutrition and health advisory board includes people like Marion Nestle (author of Food Politics and Safe Food) and Brian Wansink (currently the Executive Director at the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and author of Mindless Eating). The rest of their advisory board members are similarly prominent nutrition scientists, professors, and researchers but Nestle and Wansink jumped out at me in particular because I just finished reading Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food which quotes both Nestle and Wansink; I read Wansink's book last year myself.

Anyway, I'm interested in the sorts of things that are appearing in Eating Well at the moment and it's a fresh take on food and nutrition that I really appreciate. My current favorite recipe is their Huevos Rancheros Verdes, which I've been making for a couple of weeks now. Dead easy and everyone in the family likes it! I'll post it below. Give it a try, if you like it you might like the rest of Eating Well Magazine, too.

Heuvos Rancheros Verdes
Eating Well Magazine May/June 2009

1 1/2 cups very thinly sliced romaine lettuce
1 scallion, sliced
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro
3 teaspoons canola oil
2 teaspoons lime juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 15-ounce can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup salsa verde
8 6-inch corn tortillas
3/4 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
4 large eggs

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Combine lettuce, scallion, cilantro, 1 tsp. oil, lime juice, 1/8 tsp. salt and 1/8 tsp. pepper in a bowl. Set aside. Combine beans and salsa in another bowl.

Coat both sides of each tortilla with cooking spray. Place tortillas on a large backing sheet in four sets of overlapping pairs. Each pair should overlap by about 3 inches. Spoon about 1/3 cup of the bean mixture over each pair of tortillas and sprinkle with 3 tbsp. cheese each. Bake until the beans are hot and the cheese is melted, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 teaspoons oil in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Crack each egg into a small bowl and slip them one at a time into the pan, taking care not to break the yolks. Season the eggs with remaining 1/8 tsp. salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook undisturbed 5 to 7 minutes for soft-set yolks. For hard-set yolks, cover the pan after 5 minutes and continue cooking until yolks are cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes more.

To assemble, place an egg on top of each pair of tortillas and top with a generous 1/4 cup of the lettuce mixture.

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Freezer Party Postmortem

Jenny's handiwork
Originally uploaded by Nikchick.
Overall I think we can call this little escapade a success. The hardest thing for me personally is always working in someone else's kitchen, not having my own tools at my disposal. I brought several cutting boards, baking pans, a George Foreman grill, measuring spoons and cups, and my Dutch oven in addition to everything J&J already stocked in their house and the items Evan and Michelle contributed from their own kitchens but I still found myself reaching for things that I didn't have with me. Not that we didn't successfully pull it off, just admitting that I'm a bit of a kitchen diva.

Considering this was our first effort, we worked as a pretty efficient team. John would be cooking up chicken breasts while Evan made calzone dough and Jenny prepped ingredients for kabobs. I'd be cooking up some salsa verde while Michelle prepped enchilada filling, Evan made manicotti filling and John did some dishes. we rotated pretty well between jobs, though the checklist I'd meant to put together for each recipe would have been helpful if I'd gotten around to it. Next time!

Here's how each dish went:

Teriyaki chicken kabobs: Jenny did a marvelous job putting these beauties together. We had enough ingredients to make several more than planned. One thing that wasn't ideal was that the skewers were a smidge too long to straight into gallon freezer bags and the points poked holes in a couple of bags. John lopped the pointy ends off with some kitchen sheers and that helped some but it still wasn't an ideal set up. We got the skewers done and put in the fridge right off the bat and almost forgot to make the teriyaki sauce, which I whipped up and portioned out at the very last minute. The marinade called for in the recipe didn't seem like enough to me but we'll see how it turns out when cooked.

Lime marinated shrimp skewers: I shelled and deveined 4 pounds of fresh gulf shrimp, which was messy and took longer than I would have liked but I choose to stubbornly believe the results will be worth it. Instead of marinade we ended up using some seasoned skewers I had brought. We had exactly enough for the amount of shrimp, resulting in 2 pounds of thai coconut lime and 2 pounds of Indian mango curry. This was total improvisation on my part so we'll see how they work when cooked up but the skewers smelled amazing when they were opened.

Chicken enchiladas verdes: We ended up with three 9 x 12 pans and one 8 x 8 pan of enchiladas. Michelle and Evan handled the assembly, choosing to dip the tortillas into the salsa verde before wrapping them up, traditional style. I'd had some really beautiful tomatillos to work with and used the homemade roasted chicken stock that I contributed so I have high hopes for flavor, though I think we could have used more sauce to pour over the top of the enchiladas before baking. I'll probably whip up some extra sauce for my portion before serving.

Calzones: I chose to make extra of the sauce that was going on the manicotti, forgetting that it's a pretty watery sauce (because the manicotti use softened no-boil lasagna noodles and finish cooking up in the sauce) so I might have inadvertently sabotaged the calzones which need nice dry dough edges to make a good seal. Evan made homemade pizza dough on the spot but we had our hands full with other prep and left the dough sitting too long, so it rose and expanded a lot. I guess we'll see how they hold up on cooking. The concept is sound and we can certainly try again if these come out less than ideal. We had extra sauce and extra cheese to bag up and put in with the calzones for serving time.

Manicotti: These are so easy and really delicious, it's hard to go wrong with this recipe. I hadn't brought enough ricotta but we made up the difference with extra mozzarella. When the filling was being mixed up we forgot to add the chopped spinach (still frozen in the cooler!) so we ended up with extra noodles, but that was okay because by that time we were running out of baking dishes! Even so everyone who wanted some got a portion and Chris and I even had some for dinner when I finally got home. I can vouch that they turned out great, lack of spinach not an issue at all.

Chicken packets: My sense is these came out just fine, though I think I over-stuffed the first four I filled.Jenny took my filled packets, brushed them with melted butter and coated them in panko, then they went into the freezer on a baking sheet to firm up before being slipped into freezer bags for storage. I may make more of these for my house because I know Chris likes them and I suspect a teenage Kate could add these to her after school starvation-prevention routine.

Brazilian marinated chicken: While Viv was napping Kate was at loose ends and was eager to help so she made the Brazilian lime marinade. This is the one thing we needed to make a run to the store for. Even though I'd brought over a dozen limes or so they were not very juicy limes. One was rotten on the end and had to be chucked out and the others put together yielded less than half the amount of juice that we needed. John ran out to QFC and grabbed up some more limes. It only took one or two of the QFC limes to bring us up to the amount of juice we needed... it was kind of amazing. It also reminded me that when we're talking about getting a cup or more of juice together for a recipe, I should use the electric juicer! Next time for sure. Chicken breasts were added to freezer bags and marinade added. Success!

Lemon marinade: This is a cooked marinade, with onions, jalapenos, vinegar, brown sugar, and lemons. Unfamiliar with J&J's stove, we were too cautious with the burners and it took this marinade a long time to get up to temp (and then cool down enough to put into bags to freeze) but I have no doubt it's going to be great as always. I have pork tenderloin marinating in this mix in my fridge for dinner tonight, in fact. Definitely another solid success.

Vegetable ragout: This is the one that we completely failed to get around to. Only Michelle and I planned to share portions of this, so when we were already running overtime and our hosts had to start focusing on feeding and attending their toddler, there was no reason to even start with all the peeling and chopping and roasting. I'm planning to whip this up later.

Things that would help for next time: more large mixing bowls and bowls for holding prepped ingredients (we could have worked some things more efficiently or in a different order); a checklist for prepping ingredients (knowing that we needed X lemons squeezed and Y lemons sliced or X onions sliced plus Y onions in 1" pieces would have meant that all the onion chopping could be done at one time); recipes converted properly before hand (my plan was to photocopy the recipes for everyone and then mark up a photocopy with the doubled or tripled amounts so we didn't have to do it on the fly but my photocopier broke down as I was trying to do that the morning we were cooking, so I had to bring my books and calculate on the fly which slowed things down and led to a few mistakes and omissions); more containers/baking dishes (we moved a few items into freezer bags because they were handy instead of reusable containers or because we needed the baking pans back; scheduling the order in which dishes are assembled or rotated into the oven (so we don't let the dough turn into a man-eating blob or bake the 400 degree recipe before the 350 degree recipe).

Must admit that between the late Friday and Saturday shopping and the cooking itself on Sunday I'm pretty worn out but I'd do it again, more efficiently this time I think, and I love that I have an orderly freezer filled with foods I like and can whip out for lunch or dinner at a moment's notice. In fact, I'm probably going to add to my personal stash, because I still have freezer space calling out to be filled.

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The Freezer Cooking Experiment

This weekend is the culmination of several weeks of planning that will bring together four families intent on stocking our freezers with wholesome, homemade food. I've posted a few photos of the beginnings of the supplies we've stocked up on.

I was the instigator of this little project. The participation of Family Frog Taco and Family Gracey's Mansion meant that there would be toddlers involved, and since my home is no longer toddler-proofed, the event itself is being held in the much more child-safe Gracey's Mansion homestead.

I've done "freezer cooking" before, also known as Once a Month Cooking (the title of one of the earliest cookbooks on the topic) or OAMC. I had a pretty good selection of recipes that work well in the freezer and researched several others. I put together a list of about 25 options and asked everyone for their top 5 or 6 choices. From that we whittled down the menu to those things that had at least two votes.

Once we had the menu down, I estimated how much of each ingredient we needed. We chose to do a number of chicken dishes and ended up needing over 25 pounds of chicken altogether. Then I divided up the ingredient list into things I should buy in Costco-sized bulk and those things I could buy at regular markets, vegetable stands, or specialty stores like the fishmonger. I also added a healthy supply of freezer-quality Ziploc bags and heavy duty aluminum foil.

I'm on my way out to location as soon as I post this, with the food, plus my personal stash of knives, cutting boards, extra pots, storage containers and other helpful odds and ends.

The plan is to come home with portions of:
lemon marinated chicken
Brazilian garlic-lime marinated chicken
teriyaki chicken kabobs
lime shrimp skewers
chicken enchiladas verdes
baked spinach manicotti
chicken packets
roast vegetable ragout

Will post and after action report, assuming my friends don't end the day by killing me and cursing that I was ever born for suggesting this craziness.

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Dinner 2/9/09

Dinner 2/9/09
Originally uploaded by Nikchick.
I haven't gotten around to doing any posting of new recipes yet, but I've tried quite a few new dishes already in 2009. Tonight's dinner was roasted vegetable couscous (photo here) and which you can find online at MyRecipes.com here. I followed up with some tea-poached pears in chocolate sauce made from the cooking liquid, served with a little Greek honey yogurt (recipe from The Veganomicon).

So far 2009 has been good for getting my head back in the cooking game. I received some gift subscriptions to cooking magazines over the holidays, though I am sad to note that Bon Appetit is now half the magazine it used to be (literally! I compared the March 2009 issue to the March 2001 issue still on my shelf and it's half as many pages). My latest new cookbook is the aforementioned Veganomicon. I'm in no danger of converting to the lifestyle ("I'll eat your food, but I won't join your cult!") but I would very much like to have more modern, less hippy vegetarian recipes at my fingertips. I like vegetables! I like soy! I am not satisfied with the old school vegetarian recipes ("slather tofu strips in barbecue sauce, broil.") any more than I'm satisfied with the old school family recipes that involve opening a couple of cans of condensed soup, mixing with hamburger, and calling it a "casserole".

The Veganomicon has potential but the authors are already running afoul of one of my hardcore recipe peeves: don't measure things in "one carrot" or "a small onion"! What is a small onion to you? What if I don't have a small onion, only a jumbo onion? How much chopped onion do you want me to end up with? That kind of easy-breezy writing style has a place but I prefer a little more precision in recipes. I might branch out or do my own thing after I learn a recipe but I grit my teeth every time I have to stop and figure out for myself what they're asking for when I'm first trying out a new dish.

Anyway, maybe I'll get back to the Veganomicon later.

Recipes I've tried but haven't written up so far in 2009:
Mixed Vegetable Biryani
Buttermilk Oven-Fried Chicken
Gratin of Belgian Endive with Bacon
Vegetable Tagine with Preserved Lemons
Kalamata Olive Bread with Oregano
Slow-Cooked Tuscan Pork with White Beans
Cherry Tomato Spaghetti with Toasted Pine Nuts
Roasted Root Vegetables in Maple Glaze
Pork Chops with Ancho Chile Rub and Raspberry Glaze
Peanut Crusted Chicken with Pineapple Salsa
Sesame Noodles with Broccoli
Satay Burgers
Roasted Tomato-Beef Goulash
Lemon Chicken with Olives
Baja-style Grilled Tempeh Tacos
Creamy (vegan!)Tomato Soup
Kasha Phyllo Pie

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A Day in the Life

Kate's substitute bus driver failed to pick her up for the second day in a row and I had to drive her to school this morning. We were significantly late because I had a conference call scheduled for exactly when she should have been arriving at school to be on time.

Pramas and I drove together so we could talk over the conference call. We stopped at the Columbia City Bakery for americanos and baked goods. We also made a stop at the bank before heading to Queen Anne.

I stopped at Arvey for shipping supplies, where the older gentleman who works there was keyed up about something and kept muttering "Oh no, don't do this to me, no no no," and calling me "precious" and "sweetheart" and thanking me profusely for waiting. He's a nice old guy and I love going in there and letting him check me out so it was no trouble at all to wait patiently while he sorted out his morning crisis. I hope his day went better.

The afternoon was filled with mail orders and invoicing. I put together over 40 invoices today, and a couple of bins of mail.

Tonight was, in theory, game night. Only Evan could join us but I cooked anyway. We had an improvised white bean and chicken soup in homemade fennel broth that I whipped up in the pressure cooker. Adding chicken to the fennel broth adds a bit too much chicken flavor (and takes away from the subtle-but-luscious fennel flavor of the unadulterated broth) but everyone seemed to like it okay anyway.

We even busted out with Thurn und Taxis and got a whole game in. I'd never played before but I won the night's game so I guess I picked it up successfully. A couple glasses of wine, a little chocolate, some fresh strawberries, and a new board game on a warm spring night! Pretty successful if you ask me.

Tomorrow we have doctor appointments to attend, plus I'm intending to get up for 6:30am yoga. I also have to drive Kate up to drop her off for the weekend with her dad. We have a busy weekend planned. Here's hoping I feel up to everything.

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Food is Fuel

Doctors appointment at the crack of dawn tomorrow but today was all about the fennel broth.

Met with the nutritionist today. It's energizing to be told I'm doing the right things. She seems to find me amusing, she laughs a lot. "Oh Nicole!" she gasps, and writes things down. She asks about my recent cooking forays and I try to give her an idea of the sorts of things I've been successful with. I tell her about Super Natural Cooking, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and A New Way to Cook. I tell her about soba noodles, tofu and vegetables... about homemade fennel broth, curry noodles, braised cabbage and smoked ham. "I've written a cookbook but nothing like this," she says, jotting, jotting. We laugh and joke for half the appointment. This talk invigorates me. I'm doing the right things, approved by a professional. She is looking forward to my restaurant recommendations from Vegas after GTS.

This afternoon Christine needed a ride home after an appointment at the PolyClinic. I caught a distinct vibe that she might also need some fennel broth so I whipped some up and brought it with me, then ran off to get Pramas and groceries and returned with provisions enough to make Coriander-Crusted Scallops in Fennel Broth. I improvised a bit with the recipe (the original calls for saffron noodles but I substituted a bed of sauteed spinach and roasted root vegetables) and bought but forgot to add the creme fraiche and chopped herbs but it was delicious anyway and we ate like royalty.

The recipe, as it appears in A New Way to Cook:

Coriander-Crusted Scallops in Fennel Broth

4 ounces saffron noodles (or tagliatelle or linguine)
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cups fennel broth
1/3 cup coriander seeds
1 1/4 lb. sea scallops, rinsed and patted dry
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp sugar
1 Tbsp + 1 tsp creme fraiche
1/4 cup coarsely chopped mixed fresh herbs

If using noodles, boil in salted water until al dente, drain and run under cool water. Toss lightly with 1/2 tsp. oil to keep them from sticking together (this is where I wilted some spinach and roasted cubed parsnips, fresh fennel, carrots, sweet potatoes and a couple of mushrooms for good measure).

In a small saucepan bring the fennel broth to a boil and reduce to about a cup and a half to concentrate the flavor. Cover and keep warm over low heat.

In a small skillet, toast the coriander seeds over low heat until fragrant. Grind into a medium-fine powder with a grinder, blender, or mortar and pestle.

Sprinkle the scallops lightly on all sides with mixture of salt, cayenne, and sugar. Thoroughly coat the scallops in the coriander. Shake off excess.

Heat a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat until hot. Add 2 tsp of the oil to coat pan and heat for 30 seconds. Add scallops in a single layer without crowding in the pan (cook in two batches if necessary). Cook for about 2 minutes per side.

Stir the creme fraiche into the broth.

At this point I layered the veggies into shallow bowls, arranged the scallops on top, and topped the whole thing with the hot broth. I should have garnished with herbs, but I forgot both the herbs and the creme. It was just dandy anyway.

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Food Blogging

I'm desperately behind on updating my recipe pages because I'm also desperately behind on a bunch of stuff that is way more important. Still, I'm continuing to try new things. Earlier this week I made seared sea scallops with a side of the tabbouleh we made at Ray's and some broiled fennel with Parmesan and lime which was simple and really, really good. Last night it was shrimp and papaya salad over spinach (from Pacific Flavors) and tonight it was leftover salad plus a curry udon pot (from Super Natural Cooking). The udon pot was really quick to make and pretty delicious, though Kate objected because it contained flavor. She prefers her udon in an artificial chicken flavored salty broth. Will be eating that for lunch this week. Yum!

One of these days I'll get the recipes (and my various modifications) posted. Right now I'm struggling with some new medications that are knocking me for a loop, cutting into my already tight schedule. I absolutely had to take a nap this afternoon because I was so devastatingly tired, a side effect from the new medication that I started yesterday. On the good side, I got some much-needed sleep. On the bad side, I awoke feeling groggy and I lost two hours in the middle of the day where I'd hoped to be productive.

Kate's class play is over at least. Now it's just the distraction of getting her class trip to New York sorted out. The teacher swears he'll get me their itinerary tomorrow. As we leave in less than 30 days, I'm increasingly anxious about not having the details in place. I finally just had to make my own plane reservations because I couldn't stand not having that part sorted out less than 5 weeks from the travel day. Luckily I got a really good rate for us so it won't be any more expensive than flying with the group (and probably less).

Fingers crossed that I can make some progress on things this week without too many distractions, crises, doctor appointments or general wackiness.

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Dinner Tonight: Otsu

Followed this recipe from Super Natural Cooking. Midway through prepping the ingredients, we got a call that we could pick up a package we've been waiting for at DHL but only for another 20 minutes. As the sole driver in the house, I took off to get the package and Pramas finished the dinner prep. I arrived home to a spicy, tangy blend of soba noodles, cucumber, tofu, green onion, cilantro and sesame seeds in a lemon-ginger-honey-rice vinegar-sesame oil dressing. Kind of a cold salad. Our family likes soft tofu better than fried so we skipped that step altogether. This is a great jumping off point for all sorts of permutations on the provided recipe. I would have enjoyed twice as much cucumber and could see adding other veggies or elements to the dressing easily.

Good food after a long day of running around and being "on" and stressed. I can't do anything tomorrow until I go to the nearest gas station and fill up, though, because I accidentally ran the poor PIF severely under the empty line tonight. Really glad I didn't run out of gas on the road or out in the dark and remote industrial park where the DHL office was!

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Mark Bittman

Coming clean about my vast collection of too neglected cookbooks, I have to admit that poor Mark Bittman has been among the most neglected. For years I've had his cookbooks on my shelf. How to Cook Everything, The Minimalist Cooks Dinner, The Minimalist Cooks at Home. I received How to Cook Everything Vegetarian off my wish list this Christmas. Over the years I've browsed each book idly but cooked precious little. I've marked a single recipe (Fish Simmered in Spicy Soy Sauce) as "very good" but I can't tell you how many years ago it was that I tried it.

This is shameful behavior on my part because Bittman deserves better.

It was a little over a year ago that I started to reawaken to Bittman. I can trace the moment exactly: it was when every foodie blog and cooking site went absolutely nutso after his No Knead Bread in the New York Times. What really won me over to Bittman was when I started getting New York Times video content through TiVoCast. The Minimalist segments were right up my alley and Bittman's goofy, good-humored personality won me over immediately. It was the first time I'd seen or heard him instead of just reading him and that was the key.

He's recently started a blog at the New York Times website, Bitten which has quickly become one of my favorites. today's tip on parboiling brown rice in advance so you can use it in quick recipes later as you would white rice is a nifty trick. Though I don't shy from just taking the time brown rice needs not everyone has that luxury and so they miss out on whole grain specialty rices, which is a shame.

Once I've plowed through the list of recipes I want to try out of Super Natural Cooking and A New Way to Cook, Bittman's recipes are next on the list for trial. I may even screw up the courage to try the No Knead Bread (though my anti-bread aura is nearly as strong and infamous as my anti-technology aura).

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Official: My new favorite cookbook

This one is a real winner! I'm ashamed of myself that I've never done more than look through some of the pretty photographs in this book before now. Maybe if I'd read this glowing review in The Atlantic Monthly ...which it turns out I completely agree with, seven years late.

Yesterday I made a simple fennel stock from scratch from the recipe in this book. Glorious! It was hard not to just sit down and eat the broth as it was. I had something else in mind for the stock, though, and for dinner we moved on to the recipe for Beans and Wild Mushrooms in Fennel Broth. I used the pressure cooker to cook up some dried Great Northern beans from scratch instead of using canned, so I followed the recipe for Basic Cooked Beans from the book, and then combined my beans and broth with the remaining ingredients for the soup. I used oyster mushrooms because they were plentiful at the store but this soup would be incredible with something more like a morel instead. Chris, upon trying the soup, proclaimed that had he been served this soup in a fancy restaurant he would not have been disappointed.

Fennel and fish go well together so I used last night to hit my goal of having fish once a week and whipped up a recipe of Sesame Crusted Swordfish with Cilantro and Coconut Chutney, once again from A New Way to Cook. Simple, easy, and very yummy.

Another excellent bonus of this book is the author includes nutritional information for each recipe in an index, so I could quickly calculate the calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat and fiber of these dishes. I've been spoiled by having Cooking Light as my go-to source for recipes all these years and have been finding that I really want to have the nutritional breakdowns for the things I'm cooking at home. That information is not included in most cookbooks, so extra bonus points to Sally Schneider for figuring out and including the information in hers.

I expect I'll properly update my recipe pages over the weekend for my own reference. I am kicking myself because I made some excellent baked beans with kale at some point this winter (prepped the dish ahead and put it in the freezer for later use) and I've now forgotten where among my vast collection of cookbooks, magazines, and online resources I got the original recipe! Updating my recipe pages is one way for me to keep track and I've been terribly lax about it these last several months. No more!

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Nikchick Eats More Veggies

Met with a nutritionist today. Wow, was that RIGHT up my alley. It was great to have my gut instincts validated by a professional who gave thumbs up to my recent food choices and was able to laugh at my enthusiasm when I blurted out things like "I already have that in the fridge!" or "I have a great recipe for that!" in response to her suggestions. Her selections of rubber foods to demonstrate portion sizes for everything from peanut butter to pork chops were a hoot. Hooray for nutrition therapy, that's what I say.

Am continuing to move my diet back to including many more vegetables. Now, I'm a former vegetarian and I have a broad palate and no fear of veggies or soy but I've also got a weakness for meat and cheese. I am, after all, a Midwestern girl at heart and the daughter of a hunter to boot. Trying to be a vegetarian in my dad's house meant a lot of iceberg lettuce. Blech.

Three more recent recipes, simple but different enough, both from the Kathleen Daelemans book that I've referred to before.

Oven-Roasted Carrots and Parsnips

1 pound peeled carrots, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 pound peeled parsnips, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Put vegetable chunks in a ziptop bag with the oil and shake to coat evenly. Pour vegetables onto a baking sheet in a single layer, salt and pepper to taste. Roast uncovered 25-35 minutes, stirring once halfway through, until vegetables are cooked through. My parsnips were softer than my carrots, so I would recommend judging doneness from the tenderness of the carrots first.

Fennel, Carrot, and Cranberry Salad

1/2 cup red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp honey
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 head fennel, cored and grated or finely julienned
2 carrots, peeled and grated or finely julienned
1/4 cup dried cranberries, cherries, or raisins
salt and pepper

In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar, honey and olive oil. Combine fennel, carrots, and cranberries in a medium bowl and toss with half the dressing. Refrigerate for at least four hours. Before serving, drain off any water given off by the fennel and re-dress with the remaining dressing. Season to taste, serve immediately. This salad was absolutely delicious and went great with a broiled herb-crusted tilapia fillet.
EDIT: That should be 1/4 cup dried cranberries, NOT 14 cups dried cranberries. Yikes!

Apple and Raw Beet Salad

1 tsp. grated ginger root
1 pound beets
1 large Granny Smith apple
3 Tbsp. sherry vinegar (I actually used 2 Tbsp raspberry vinegar and 1 Tbsp cider vinegar)
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/8 tsp. cracked black pepper
1 to 2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Grate fresh ginger directly into a medium bowl (definitely use a microplane grater for this if you have one! It also works to press the ginger through a heavy duty garlic press if you have that instead). Grate beets and apple with a large-sized grater (I used my food processor for this but you could use a box grater just as easily). Toss until ginger is evenly distributed. Add vinegar, salt, pepper, and olive oil to the bowl and toss to coat evenly. Adjust seasonings if desired. Serve immediately or chilled.

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Cooking Again

Monday I had a minor procedure done at Virginia Mason and when dinner time rolled around, I did not feel up to being on my feet and cooking anything. I was also definitely not in the mood to drive (or ride the bus!) anywhere in the cold and damp. Luckily for me, my sweetie is a capable cook and stepped up to the plate.

It's undoubtedly a factor of my childhood poverty that drives me to keep my house ridiculously stocked with food. That tendency has served me well (like the summer when I was pregnant and my grad student husband didn't have a job... we lived on little but my stores got us a long way through what could have been an even more unpleasant situation) and came to my rescue again this week. Chris was able to pull from a selection of foods that I'd prepared in advance and chose some lean pork chops that had been frozen in a ginger-soy marinade. We had the spinach-pear salad with them and called it a good meal.

Tonight I was in the same frame of mind but for a different reason. After a week that involved a lot of stress and a lot of running around, today was Bed Day. I made a thermos of hot tea and took it to bed with me, where I watched my ancient VHS tape of Groundhog Day (from back in the days when you didn't have to watch commercials before the movie you just bought), read my Cooks Illustrated 2007 Annual, lounged, napped, and never got out of my jammies.

Pulling together a dinner from leftovers and what we had in the fridge, I sliced a couple of remaining pork chops and sauteed the strips, heated some leftover Black Japonica rice that I'd served this week with some sweet and sour tofu, dug out some whole wheat tortillas, shredded romaine, a little extra sharp cheddar and a jar of salsa to make a hearty and delicious meal. I wanted to make my favorite tomato, avocado, and preserved lemon salad but when I went to cut into the avocado it was gross so I improvised a tomato-hearts of palm salad with balsamic and lime instead. I was inordinately pleased with the dinner.

Lest I give the impression that everything is a success, I made an egg and vegetable dish for breakfast that took so long to prepare it turned into lunch. First I had to slice and grill (or roast) several slices of zucchini and eggplant. I had bottled roasted red peppers so I didn't do those from scratch, though they undoubtedly would have tasted far better. When the veggies were roasted, they were layered in a baking dish with a chopped mix of herbs between each layer (I used fresh parsley, oregano, and thyme) and four hollows made and then four eggs cracked into each hollow. The whole thing was topped with a little tomato sauce and grated Parmesan and baked. I was feeling pretty good about it (the directions for the recipe I was following said bake for 7-10 minutes until the yolks set) but my yolks absolutely would not set! I baked for 10 minutes. Nothing. Five minutes more, still not even close. I tried giving the whole thing a zap in the microwave and the yolks finally set. Once the dish was done, it was fine and all but pretty much not worth the work. As I said to Chris, it's no Eggs Beatrice (though to be fair, it doesn't have the better part of a stick of butter in it, either).

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What are you cooking?

Visiting with a friend recently, he asked me what I'd been cooking. I realized that I my usual convention season cooking hiatus had extended itself through the holidays and was clinging on. I haven't been nearly my usual cooking self.

I'm turning that around and have been trying a bunch of new recipes. Here are a couple of easy, tasty salad recipes that we've given the thumbs up to:

Napa Cabbage Salad with Spicy Peanut Sauce
from Cooking Thin by Kathleen Daelemans

1 Tbsp sesame oil
3 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup light soy sauce
2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp freshly grated ginger
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
8 cups thinly sliced napa cabbage
1 cup loosely packed, roughly chopped cilantro leaves (or, if you're Marc, sub in parsley)
3 scallions, thinly sliced
1 medium carrot, grated
1 cup toasted peanuts (I used low salt dry roasted) roughly chopped

Whisk together sesame oil, vinegar, soy sauce, and sugar until sugar dissolves. Add ginger and red pepper flakes. Set aside.

In a large bowl, toss together cabbaqge, cilantro, scallions, and carrot. Toss in peanuts. Toss all with dressing until evenly distributed.

Spinach & Pear Salad with Dijon Mustard Vinaigrette
from Seattle and King County Public Health

2 tablespoons water
1-1/2 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 pears, cored and sliced lengthwise
8 cups torn fresh spinach
1/4 cup red onion, thinly sliced

In a small bowl, whisk together the water, vinegar, olive oil, honey, Dijon mustard, and black pepper. In large bowl, add the pear slices and 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette and toss to coat. Add remaining dressing, spinach and onion and toss to coat

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Pressure Cooker

I'm feeling very loved this holiday as my friends and family have been very attentive, we've had plenty of time to spend together, we've talked on the phone or gotten cards from many many people. It's been lovely.

I was also completely spoiled with gifts this year as well. In addition to the already-blogged presents Chris replaced my very old (like "bought it cheap when I was barely out of my teens" level old) and thoroughly trashed bakeware with a glorious new heavy-duty set, some thoroughly awesome books, and a new pressure cooker.

My mom had a super heavy-duty pressure cooker when I was a kid but pressure cookers fell out of favor and weren't even really available when I was setting up my kitchen. In the last few years they've come back in style and there's a whole range of pressure cookers out there now, both stovetop and electric. R&C have one they've spoken highly of and I believe J&J have one as well. Chris got me a stovetop model, very similar to the version from my childhood. As I've never had the hardware, I also don't have too many pressure cooker recipes but R&C loaned me their pressure cooker recipe book.

I busted out the cooker for dinner tonight and put together a quick dinner of Spanish rice. It involved nothing more than chopping and cooking some onions and celery, then browning some Italian sausage, throwing the rest of the ingredients in and bringing it up to pressure. After about two minutes, when it was happily hissing away on the stove, the rest of the cooking time took a mere 6 minutes. Maybe 20 minutes from when I started chopping to when I started dishing up the finished meal. Additionally, Kate thought it was great and had two bowlfuls!

I definitely have to play around with it some more. I'm not sure if it's big enough to make portions for game night but it would certainly be perfect for whipping up some meaty main course for the guys if it is.

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Spent all day working on holiday treats. Most of the recipes are out of books or magazines but I'll put them up on my recipe pages as warranted.

One that IS online is Kitchen Wench's Walnut, Honey & Espresso Caramels, photos of which she posted on Friday and I haven't been able to think about anything else since. They are every bit as good as the photos promise (and I even got them to come out alright despite discovering mid-boil that my candy thermometer was broken and useless). Highly recommended!

I also came away with:
Sweet-and-Spicy Pecans
Orange-spice Mixed Nuts (I used equal parts pecans, walnuts, whole almonds and hazelnuts)
Chocolate dipped pretzel rods
Lemon-Rosemary Cookies
Midnight Brownies (so called because they have pieces of Milky Way Midnight bars baked in)
Molasses refrigerator cookies

I didn't get around to the sharp cheddar and black pepper crackers I wanted to bake because I decided that I wanted roasted chicken for dinner. I butterflied it Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen style and roasted it to crisp, golden perfection over chunks of parsnip, carrot, potato, butternut squash and onion. I meant to treat myself to a glass of wine but I didn't get around to it and it's too late to enjoy one now.

Here's hoping for a good night's sleep like I had on Friday night. I feel like I could use it.

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Weekend recap

So Blue Ribbon Cooking School was fun. Robin was so thrilled she suggested we should do it every year! We had two instructors for the cooking portions, who I promptly dubbed "Chef Boot Camp" and Chef Laid Back." I ended up in Chef Boot Camp's group at the beginning of the evening but thankfully we started mixing and mingling as the evening wore on. Largely I photo documented the other guests, though I did participate in some of the hands on cooking as well. Unfortunately when I cook I feel most at ease in my own kitchen with my own equipment and without other people underfoot. If I'd started out in Chef Laid Back's camp, I probably would have been fine and participated more but Chef Boot Camp was more "my style" of chef, in that she wanted to have control and wanted to do things just so and consequently we clashed a bit. When the two "teams" were making gnocchi, Ray was kneading his dough and said, "I think I need more flour," but wasn't allowed to actually have more flour until Chef Boot Camp personally inspected a few minutes later, when she herself said "You need more flour," (as if Ray hadn't said that two minutes ago) and personally got the flour for him. Conversely, people on the other team were allowed to handle their own measuring cups and were getting their own flour, virtually unsupervised! OMG, anarchy!

We didn't actually get to cook everything on the menu, which I'd been wondering about when I saw the huge list of courses. The corn muffins and the salmon crepes were already prepared when we arrived. This was a little disappointing because we birthday ladies chose the crepes in specific because we wanted to get the professional guidance on preparing them, but also totally understandable. It was a huge menu and obviously we couldn't start from scratch on everything. Still, it wasn't clear that we wouldn't be preparing some of the courses when we picked and if I'd had my way I would have made the crepes and let the frickin' salads be pre-made! I've made a bazillion salads in my day.

There was one part of the evening where I feared that we were going to devolve into a bad place, as Chef Boot Camp was talking very critically about the choice of dessert. That creme brule-stuffed pears were "too much" and the Creme Anglaise "overrated." As the dessert was the only area of the menu that I really exerted myself (Christine pre-screened the rest of the menu, keeping every known special need in mind, and Robin and I signed off on it... willingly because Christine made excellent suggestions but still...) I was not thrilled to hear the chef thought so poorly of my choice. At that point I decided to go photograph the glassware for a while and felt better with a little distance. Heh.

Another contrast between our chefs was when we had mostly finished dinner (some of us were finishing coffee or wine, everyone talking and relaxing after a couple of hours in the kitchen) Chef Boot Camp came out to dismiss us! "You can wrap it up now," or some similarly expressed sentiment! I got up to use the bathroom and ran into Chef Laid Back on the way, so I apologized that we were lingering so long. He waved me off... no problem, he said. He really didn't care, where Chef Boot Camp was seriously stressed about time (at another point in the meal she came out and flat out told us to start eating... I was photographing my plate as I am wont to do and didn't appreciate being hit with the Achtung Baby.)

Anyway, don't read my whining as disappointment with the evening! Overwhelmingly I had a great time. It wasn't completely perfect and unmarred but none of my petty grievances even came close to being significant complaints. It was fabulous to get together with friends. I hadn't seen some of the attendees in many months and it was great to get together and share the experience. I loved having the chance to cook with so many of my friends all at once (and not have to clean up afterward!) and the meal came out spectacularly. They gave us a menu, complete with recipes, for us to take home. I will try to get it transcribed and posted on my recipe pages because everything we had (even the "too much" Creme Brule Stuffed Pears with Creme Anglaise and Port Wine Sauce our chef so disparaged) turned out phenomenally and ALL of us are excited to try making homemade gnocchi again soon.

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Birthday bash photos

Robin and Nicole
Originally uploaded by Nikchick.
Man, I'm STILL exhausted. We had a great time, cooked up a storm then many of us closed out Seattle's Best Karaoke at 4:00am. I'm sure it must have been after 4:30 by the time we got home and maybe closer to 5:00am by the time we wound down and actually got to sleep. Then, after too little sleep, Chris and I both had busy days of running all over town. Kate and I spent ventured downtown to pick up one of Flexcar's SUVs, stopped at a coffee house for a snack, spent several hours braving the madness that is IKEA on the weekends, plus did a trip to Target and now have several of the things we need to begin her promised room makeover. No rest for the wicked tomorrow, either, as I have to spend the day moving furniture around and preparing for some deliveries.

I'll write up more details about the cooking event tomorrow or Monday when I'm not quite as sleep deprived and generally muddled but for now there are photos to get the idea across.

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Focus Group

Today I took part in a focus group. I signed an NDA so I can't talk about what I saw in any specifics, but I can say that I got to see the story boards and concepts for four different ad campaigns. I'd kind of hoped it would be political in nature but there were no previews into Presidential ad campaigns for me today.

Still, I have to say I enjoyed myself more than I thought I would. Initially I was a little nervous about the way things were set up because I was put in a room with another twelve people and expected to talk about my feelings and perceptions of things in front of everyone. I'd imagined that we'd be viewing videos or something and writing things down, somewhat confidentially and privately. My previous experiences with group things like this (like a particularly dreadful playtest experience, where a vocal group bullied and drowned out the less argumentative types until the only people giving feedback were people who passionately believed X or who had been convinced that even though they initially thought X was okay they must have been wrong because those loud angry guys really hated X) was such a bad time, I was really uncertain about how a group dynamic would work. I'm not completely sure I wasn't wrong to be suspicious of the group dynamic. Tthere were three dissenters from the popular opinion on most of the questions, and I have to question how many of the people who ended up with the majority did so because they were caving to peer pressure.

Anyway, I entered the session being unable or unwilling to commit to an opinion on the subject at hand. It was something I really knew nothing about and I was unwilling to just "guess" at what I *might* think, uninformed as I was. Let's pretend the subject was "the sun." They would ask what my "relationship" to the sun was, and I might say "I know it exists." Then they guy would say, "But what if your friend from San Francisco called up and asked you 'What's up with the sun?' What would you say?" and my answer was "Give me a minute, I'll Google that and get back to you." The first series of ads really spoke to me and I gave a very positive response to them because they practically addressed me personally: "Hey, do you know what's up with the sun? No? Only aware that the sun exists? Come to www.LearnTheSun.org and find out some things about the sun that are important for you to know!"

I tried to give good, complete, constructive feedback. It helped that I had a pretty clear and strong one way or the other. In a couple of cases I was the only person to laugh at an ad that was supposed to be funny, or the only person to "get" what an ad was trying to say. In a couple of cases I really enjoyed ads that other people found "negative" or "gross". Many people got off on tangents with their comments, like "Well, I know this is a message about the sun but I think they should really talk about the formation of the universe and the composition of Earth before touching on the sun." or "Well, sure there's a web address but I think there should be a phone number and a place to call for brochures and interpretive dance. I think it's really helpful to provide interpretive dance when we're talking about the sun." Gah. After the session one of the other participants commented that she thought I gave really good comments which made me feel good about my answers.

I returned home to find that Kate had put dinner in the oven as I had asked her to do, but that the rice cooker has died (and taken three cups of my basmati rice with it). Boo. Rice was one of those things I hated to cook until I got a rice cooker. Now I have to replace mine... and figure out what to do with the three cups of uncooked-but-soaked rice that remains in the old, broken one.

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