Monday, December 29, 2014

Red Pepper Risotto

Risotto is notoriously one of the most intimidating kitchen undertakings for new cooks. Or seasoned ones, actually. I know I was terrified of making it, especially after going to Italy and eating it all the time. First, I was scared to know how much butter and cream was it it. Second, I knew there was a definite serving temperature requirement: if it got cold it'd be a gelatinous blob of ice. Thirdly, I assumed it'd take hours to make.

These thoughts were incorrect. Risotto is actually creamy because of the starches that develop when the rice cooks. The temperature requirement is kind of true, but if you serve it hot, everything is fine. And the entire process took about 30-40 minutes - including chopping/prep time. Not to shabby.

I had some roasted red peppers and chicken thighs in the fridge so I decided to plan the risotto around that. Just chop everything into about the same sized pieces, fry the chicken in olive oil until it is cooked through - then add salt, pepper, garlic powder, and chili flakes. Then I added the red pepper and set this aside until the rice was ready.

For the rice, make sure you purchase "arborio." In a saucepan, heat 6 cups of chicken stock - don't let it boil or even simmer...just warm it through. In a nonstick pan, melt 2 Tbs olive oil and fry 1/2 of a finely chopped onion until it's translucent. Add 1 1/2 cups rice and fry until the rice is coated - about 3 minutes.  Pour in 1/2 cup white wine and a pinch of salt. Now, start incorporating the stock, 1 cup at a time and making sure it absorbs completely before adding the next increment. This should take about 25 minutes and you might not need all 6 cups of stock. The end consistency is going to be a little looser than rice pudding - the rice shouldn't be super mushy or have a bite to it. I add 1 tsp fresh thyme right at the end for flavor. Turn off the heat, stir in 1/2 cup grated Parmesan and 2 Tbs butter.

Serve up your risotto with a nice helping of the chicken/pepper mixture on top:

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Doctored Up!

One of my favorite Instagram hashtags lately has been #ilearnedthisfrommymama.  It usually accompanies some 10 minute meal I've made with whatever random crap happens to be in the cupboards because I've been too lazy to go to the store. Plus, sometimes I like the challenge of turning some seemingly boring pre-packaged thing into a full blown, home-cooked meal. My mom used to do that all the time and she always has jars of gourmet product which looked "interesting" to her at the Korean store or wherever she happened to visit that day for fun. I do that too...wander into cool looking ethnic grocery markets and pick up containers of things I can't pronounce. Our habit is probably going to go horribly wrong one day, but so far it's worked for both of us. Some people jump out of parachutes...we do this. #wecool #likemotherlikedaughter

Can you tell I'm really in love with hashtags? I totally used them before they were a "thing."

One of the easiest pre-packaged freezer items which can be passed off as home-made are the Asian stirfry packets. I had the Kung Pao Chicken one from Trader Joe on hand the other day. Upon opening the bag, I was not impressed. The chicken seemed alright, the sauces looked way too thick (which made me think they were full of corn syrup and salt), and the veggies were very freezer burned. Veggies are a tricky thing with frozen stir fry meals because typically the vegetables one uses - bell pepper and onion - have a lot of water in them and so freezing and unfreezing tends to mess with the flavor and texture.

This is taken from a fellow blogger's website: my vegetables were BrrrrNED!
So, how do you fix this? First off, don't be afraid to think outside the bag. Yes, I understand you bought the dang thing to prevent having to pick up a knife. But to be honest, I don't mind putting in a little work if it means making something super tasty. And on the particular day I was doctoring up my bag of TJ KP Cxn, I was in a VERY good mood, super relaxed, and enjoying a wonderful afternoon of planned hooky. Because we've already talked about my admittedly over-zealous planning tendencies.

The first thing I did was cook the chicken as directed (stir fry in olive oil). I added salt, pepper, garlic powder, and some red pepper flakes. I started about 1 1/2 cups of short-grained rice in the rice cooker so that could work while I did (get it - hardy har har). I had some frozen Parisian carrots in the freezer so I steamed those off (take a shallow sauce pan, fill with 1/2 inch of water, bring water to a simmer, set in a heat-proof strainer, add the vegetables, cover and cook about 10-15 minutes until they are tender). Then I steamed some edamame (also frozen) and shelled those (you could also buy them pre-shelled).

After all the fresh vegetables (well, frozen turned fresh-tasting) were done, I added them to the chicken along with the cooked rice. A couple dashes of soy sauce, some Korean oyster sauce, and a bit more salt, pepper, and garlic power later I had an amazing meal which was ready in about the time it takes a person to have a phone conversation with a colleague and move a car before it's parking time limit expires. You kind of had to be there...

My apologies for not having pictures - the finished meal looks very similar to fried rice. And I pinky swear it was yummy!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

I have a theory...

...that every 3-4 years your life gets turned upside down and you have to re-group.

Last week I learned I will be moving to Iowa for 2 years. I am actually extremely excited about this (despite the numerous jabs about corn fields and tractors)... but with the excitement comes that queasy feeling. The one regimented people such as myself get when the word "change" enters a sentence. This lovely city has been mine for 5 years. My room has held so many tears and cheers and while I gripe about the horrible Virginia drivers and sweltering summers, I can't deny the fact that Richmond has been "home." And now I will be leaving.

I wanted to highlight a couple places I've tried lately, so that perhaps some young girl, fresh out of undergrad can stumble upon this post and figure out her eating situation for the night. Or not...let's be real - I'm really writing this post so I can reminisce about "that random time Rini and I NEEDED pizza" or "I was bored, anxious, and wanted to treat myself."

Lamplighter Roasting Co: Coffee houses say a lot about a city. I love local coffee and I think the vibe of a coffeeshop sets the tone for the area. Lamplighter delivers excellent coffee made by hipster baristas with purple hair. Very Richmond and I love it - they also have cool daily specials like "The Golden Latte" with ginger and turmeric.

8 1/2 Pizza: Actually, this is a full Italian restaurant but it's too small to actually sit down and dine in. I always get pizza from here, though - it's super flavorful without weighing you down. They truly understand the philosophy behind "less is more." This breakfast pizza has 4 ingredients which really pack a punch. And they make everything so fast you literally only have to wait as long as it takes for you to get from your apartment to their establishment to eat it.

Pasture: When Pasture opened up down the street from me, it was The Cool Kid on the Block for sure. The head chef here aimed to create a menu featuring only local ingredients and he's kept his promise years later. I especially love their hand-crafted cocktails which never disappoint. Speaking of never disappointing - Pasture has the best burger in town. Singular: they only have one on the menu but they do it perfectly. And Pasture is the only place I've dined at which actually gives you a true medium rare (not some overdone variation) - and they make their own pickles. This is a big deal because I loooove me some pickles! The french fries are also pretty fabulous - and they give you just the right amount.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Tackling Thanksgiving

This year's Thanksgiving was extra special because whereas in 2013 we had chicken curry in lieu of turkey, this year I cooked my own 13 pounder. For 3 people...welcome to a Persian kitchen. I don't think I could make a small meal if my life depended on it! Luckily, the whole process was incredibly easy due to time management and the help of my dear friend, Silvija, who came down from DC so we could celebrate together. We were college roommates freshman year at Michigan so there was a lot of catching up to do.

When I was growing up, Thanksgiving was such a production - mostly because we were scrambling to make everything the day-of. My mom would do all the grocery shopping the night before with the other 10 million people who'd been avoiding the task and we'd start at 7am and cook until 8pm. Good times, although we were so exhausted come dinner-time that neither she nor I wanted to even look at the food. This year I did things in my own color-coded, highly organized, 10-lists needed, OCD way. Two days before Thanksgiving I made my cranberry sauce, cheesecake, and mashed potatoes (Ree Drummond is a genius with mashed potatoes and I religiously follow her recipe). One day before I chopped all the veggies and fruits I knew I'd be using. The day-of was so stress free I had time to enjoy Silvija's company over a cup of coffee, go on a walk, and take a nap - all while our little turkey was cooking in the oven. While it rested (1 hour), we made a salad, corn pudding, and the stuffing. Easy peasy. I am so looking forward to the day I am a real person with a real house which I can decorate with cute pumpkins and fill with the energy of family and friends. But this year was pretty special and memorable and honestly, I was the happiest I've been in a very long time.

Two things always accompanied my family's Tgiving spread: pumpkin pie and Persian stuffing (so called because it's our take on the American version - rice based and full of dried fruits and turmeric). Here's a dirty little secret: I don't like pumpkin pie. Something about the texture and the fact that I don't feel comfortable shoving a bunch of sugar into perfectly good gourd (jury's still out on whether pumpkin is classified as a gourd). I'd rather just eat the pumpkin roasted as a savory something. But throwing it into a cheesecake... I am totally on board with that little plan. So I came up with this recipe. Cheesecakes = help with time management because you can make them 2 days before and they actually taste better!

Happy holidays, loves - enjoy the cheesecake.

Pumpkin Cheesecake
Serves...a lot more than three people

For crust
1 ½ cup gingersnaps
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, melted

For filling
1 1/2 cups canned pumpkin
3 large eggs
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon (put a little more after tasting)
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (put a little more after tasting)
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger (put a little more after tasting)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, at room temperature

Topping:  1 cup sour cream + 2-3Tbs milk + 1/4 cup confectioner's sugar + 1/2 tsp almond extract

Make crust: Butter a cheesecake pan, mix the crumbs and butter then pack into the bottom and slightly up the sides of the pan. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 10-12 min, until it is golden. Take out and allow to cool while you make the filling.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Whisk together pumpkin, eggs, brown sugar, milk, and vanilla in a bowl until combined.

Stir together granulated sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and salt in large bowl.

Add cream cheese and beat with an electric mixer at high speed until creamy and smooth, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to medium, then add pumpkin mixture and beat until smooth.

Pour filling into crust, smoothing top, then put springform pan in a shallow baking pan (in case springform leaks).

Bake until center is just set, 50 to 60 minutes. The center of the cheesecake will jiggle but if the top is no longer shiny and there is springbuck to the touch, you are done. Turn the over off but leave the cheesecake in with the door closed while the oven cools down.  Then crack the oven door and let the cheesecake slowly cool off.

Once the cheesecake is cool, mix the topping ingredients adding more milk to thin it out if needed and more confectioner's sugar if it tastes too tart. Pour this over the cheesecake and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Wrap with plastic and chill overnight. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Garnish with gingersnaps.