Friday, February 22, 2008

Buying: How Do You Costco?

I was at a dear friend's house last weekend and we were discussing our favorite Costco (insert Sam's Club here if need be) products. JF fixed several meals using different items she purchased at Costco--items I had never noticed before. Of course, the day after I returned from her house, I rushed to my local warehouse and scooped up both the deli sliced turkey and the fresh ravioli. As I waited in the check out line, I do what I usually do: peruse other customer's carts (nosy, huh?), wondering why they buy what they buy. My bi-monthly cart at Costco usually contains, but is not limited to, the following items: Cibo Pesto ($7 a jar, but lasts for at least three different pasta meals), rotisserie chicken (I'll devote a whole entry to that later), Barilla pasta, Annie's Mac & Cheese, fresh mozzarella balls, bananas, spring salad mix, Peppridge Farm 5 grain bread, canned albacore tuna, and some other "fun" product to fulfill my need to buy impulsively. So, what about you? What do you buy at Costco? What is your must have there? What key ingredients have you discovered at Costco that make great meals?

(And for all you high brow friends out there, we'll devote another entry to Trader Joe's at a later date.)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Breakfast: The Cold (cereal) War

An epic battle rages inside my head. For years, I have struggled with my feelings about cold cereal, particularly sugar cereal. I hate sugar cereal: it is full of preservatives and strange ingredients; it does not sustain you after you eat it (i.e., if you eat it at 7:30am for breakfast, you are hungry for lunch by 7:50am); and it is full of sugar (just like a juice box or fruit snacks--a cavity's best friend). On the other hand, I love sugar cereal: it is the stuff childhood memories are made of; it is convenient, spontaneous, and downright fun; and it allows my children a glimpse of normalcy (thus preventing them from being the "weird" kids on the block who have never heard of Fruit Loops or Lucky Charms). Last year, a peace treaty paved the way for sugar cereal's role in my life: My kids eat it as their after school snack. Watching my waif like, bird like daughters gobble up three bowls of Lucky Charms at one sitting got me thinking--Why does cereal have to be bad for you to be fun? Why is healthy cereal so unfun? I started experimenting, and have come up with a few concoctions that have gone over very well. My only disclaimer is this--my children are not picky eaters (another epic battle fought and won; one child at a time). They do think the recipes below are yummy and diverting, all at the same time. Now if only I could make up my own cereal boxes that are fun to read.

If you try this, or have variations of your own, do share.

Banana Cream Pie Cereal
fresh banana slices, a bit of white sugar, cheerio & rice crispy cereal, and whole milk (The creaminess of whole milk makes the "cream pie" suddenly seem legitimate...but that's probably all in my head.)

Peaches & Cream Cereal
fresh peaches, a bit of brown sugar, cheerio & rice crispy cereal, and whole milk

Blueberry Buckle Cereal*
fresh (or frozen) blueberries, a bit of brown sugar, a teeny tiny bit of cinnamon, kashy go lean cereal or cheerios, and milk
(may substitute or combine with raspberries)

You get the idea. We also use fresh strawberries and huckleberries. I am heavy on the promotion ("Can you believe you get to eat Banana Cream Pie cereal for breakfast? This must be a special day!") The possibilities are not endless, but they are guilt free.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Dessert: The Sweetest, Kindest Sugar Cookie

Valentine's Day is a very big deal at our house. We send cards and pass out treats. For several years, I religiously made an extra large batch of heart-shaped, frosting-covered sugar cookies. We delivered them to neighbors, friends, and colleagues. Sadly, I do not have the time for this anymore. For the second year in a row, I have opted for an easier treat (last year we made Ina Garten's Homemade Marshmallows and this year we made Regan Daley's Chocolate Fudge Cookies). "How could those be easier than sugar cookies?" you may ask. Trust me, they are. But, that is not the point I want to make. I want to make this point: This is the best sugar cookie recipe I have ever used. I adore it. My sisters adore it. In fact, one sister loves it so much that when I told her I was posting my sugar cookie recipe, she asked "Are you really going to give that recipe away? Isn't that a secret?". Well, yes and no. I love giving recipes to others. And no, I do not believe in secret recipes. So, happy Valentine's Day to you. May your day be as sweet as the frosting on your perfect sugar cookie.

1 cup shortening (butter flavor is best)
2 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 cup sour cream (whole milk vanilla yogurt works just as well)
1 tsp. vanilla
1 Tbs. almond extract
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. soda
4 tsp. baking powder
4 1/2 cups flour

Cream shortening and sugar. Beat in eggs, sour cream and extracts. Add dry ingredients (may need a little more flour). Mix dough until soft. Chill several hours (even up to two days). Roll, cut, and bake at 350° for 10 minutes. (The longer you allow the dough to chill, the easier it is to roll and cut.)

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Bread: M. Bittman's Artisan Bread

My life has changed forever. Yesterday I started yet another batch of homemade artisan bread; and I had great success. This is the end of a long road I have traveled for many years. In 1996 I attempted my first artisan loaf. I tried to create my own steam injection oven by spraying the loaf with water every 3 minutes. The crust was chewy but uninspired (well, let's call a spade a spade--it was yucky). Over the years, my bread projects took several detours and knowledge-gathering quests. I've tried baguette pans (with all those teeny tiny holes), water soaked bricks, sourdough starters; you name it. I even stripped the gears of my Kitchen Aid mixer's engine by over-kneading Julia Child's French bread recipe--that was on my 30th birthday. Fast forward to yesterday. This time, I followed Mark Bittman's article published last year in the New York Times (recipe and link attached to this post).

If you choose to take on this project, here is my advice: Follow Bittman's instructions and advice to the letter. You may be astounded and even turned off at how long it takes to make the bread (20+hours). But do not be fooled. When all was said and done, I spent a total of twenty minutes active time in the kitchen, and that is probably an exaggeration. I spoke with several of you today about the success of the bread and the same question kept coming up: what container do you cook the bread in? I used a knock off Le Creuset pot--a cast iron, enameled pot, with no black handle (so it can "handle" the 450ยบ oven). One friend used a large pyrex corningware container with a glass lid. In the end, it doesn't matter which container you cook the bread in as long as it can fulfill these two requirements: 1) the container can withstand 450° temperature; and 2)the lid is a tight enough fit so that the bread can steam itself while it cooks. If you try this, let us know how you did. ACME bread now has fierce competition (well, not really, because I don't live in Berkeley anymore..sniff sniff). I know my travels through the bread world aren't over, but I really like where I'm going.

P.S. Bittman wrote a follow up article that I found extremely helpful. In the Jan & Feb (2008) Cook's Illustrated, there was an additional article focusing on this recipe and exploring ways to improve the bread's flavor. If you belong to their website, you can access it online (the article is called "No-Knead Bread 2.0"). I subscribe to the magazine, and will try a few of their pointers. Good luck.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Snack: The Best (Pinto) Bean Dip

When I was younger, one of my favorite restaurants offered a warm pinto bean dip along with their tortilla chips. After I left home, I craved the dip day and night. Fifteen years later, I've created a bean dip to fill that ever present craving. This dip takes the edge off of any homesickness I may be feeling.

1 can refried beans (pinto, of course)
1/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup salsa
1/2 cup shredded cheese (I use the shredded mexican blend. If that is not available use mild cheddar.)

In a medium sauce pan, combine refried beans, sour cream, and salsa. While stirring, cook over medium heat until very hot (not quite bubbling). Add cheese and stir constantly while it melts. Now, at this point you may want to add more cheese, depending on how cheesy you want it to be. Pour into small serving bowl and top with additional cheese. (If you are really into this, I crumble queso blanco over the top of the hot dip. Queso blanco--now available in the cheese section of most Costco's--is a salty creamy mexican cheese that melts well. If you use it everyone who eats it will realize you totally know Mexican food, and you will be the talk of the block.) Serve with tortillas chips.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Snack: Simple and Fresh Guacamole

I love the Super Bowl. I generally do not know which teams are playing until the week of the big game. But still, I love that one Sacred Sunday each year where we all get to eat like little piggies while we watch over-the-top commercials, followed by men trying to hurt one another. I just love it. On the other hand, I can not abide Super Bowl parties without Guacamole. So, here is hoping you'll have perfectly ripe avocados to smash together, while you laugh over those talking Budweiser horses.

2 tomatoes, diced
1/2 red onion, minced
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped (If cilantro freaks you out, like it does some people, you don't have to add it.)
2-3 ripe avocados (keep the pits; you'll need them later.)
lemon juice or lime juice, to taste
salt to taste
dollop of sour cream (optional)

In a medium bowl, combine tomatoes, onion, cilantro and juice. Toss and let sit for a few minutes. Add "just ripe" avocados (I am not an expert in determining when avocados are ready to eat. What irks me is when I peel a $1.50 avocado only to find out it is far from ripe...and there's no going back). With a potato masher or fork, mash avocado with tossed ingredients until you have what looks like guacamole. Add sour cream only if you are looking for a creamier dip. I almost never add sour cream unless I am serving Guacamole with tortilla soup. Legend has it that the avocado pits keep the avocado from turning that nasty pukey color, so throw those babies in the bowl when you are finished. Enjoy.