27 January 2010

Confession Time

I ordered Chinese take-out for dinner tonight.

When Appearances Do Matter

A couple of years back R bought me Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook.  I fell in love with it immediately and read it cover to cover within a 24 hour period.  [Yes, I do read (good) cookbooks the way most people read novels.]  It's full of really helpful tips, is a good "how-to" for many basic techniques, and is delivered in a thoroughly 'Bourdain' manner.  I've never enjoyed being called such terrible names so much!

The other night, in preparation for hosting Dinner Divas next week, I tried out a new recipe -  mignons de porc a l'ail.  It's a two day process, but very easy and very delicious! 

Night 1: Make the garlic confit, tenderize the 2 tenderloins, smother them in some of the wonderful garlic confit, stick a slice of bacon in there and then stack them on top of each other, using kitchen twine to secure them.  Here's the problem -  no kitchen twine at the house that night, so I just wrapped it up as tightly as I could in plastic wrap and prayed for the best. 

Next Afternoon: Buy kitchen twine.

Night 2: Sear the tied tenderloins in oil and butter then finish them off in 350 oven.  While pork is resting, sweat some thinly sliced shallots in more butter (YUM!), then add in some white wine and reduce to a glaze.  Add in dark chicken (or veal) stock and reduce by half.  Stir in the extra garlic confit (if you didn't eat it all on a sandwich at lunch earlier in the day), whisk in one last tablespoon of butter along with a little chopped parsley.  Slice pork into 1 1/2 inch medallions, serve with mashed potatoes and drown everything in the delicious sauce.  Your kitchen will smell heavenly!

The flavor I achieved was absolutely phenomenal (I ate two massive servings), however, as I sliced my medallions the two halves would not stay together.  UGH.  I wanted to cry.  No, really, I was on the verge of tears.  I wanted the dish to look as good as it tasted.  I'm not sure if it was due to the fact that I did not tie the tenderloins together until right before I cooked them or if it had to do with my slicing technique. 

Obviously I will be researching this over the next few days and will attempt to make the dish one more time before my Dinner Divas night. 

Luckily I have a very kind hubby and lovely neighbors willing to be my taste testers... again.

22 January 2010

Not What it Sounds Like...

A co-worker turned me on to this site this week. (ha,ha)  If you love food, you will love this site!

It is completely safe and nothing inappropriate.  In fact, the ads on their site are for non-profit organizations like KIVA.

My only advice is to have a paper towel handy because you will do some major drooling!

20 January 2010


Finally made a pot of hlelem last night and boy was it ever delicious!  Although mine did not look as beautiful as the photo in the newspaper, it tasted and smelled fabulous.  The recipe was pretty straightforward and easy to follow.  I had planned to make the soup for dinner on Monday (after finding the harissa), but did not read the recipe carefully enough to notice that the beans needed to be soaked overnight.  Such a rookie mistake.  Oh well.  I ended up soaking them while I was at work yesterday so they were ready to go for dinner last night.

I have to admit that I was more than a little apprehensive about how the hlelem was going to turn out.  When I opened the can of harissa and took a big whiff the first thing I noticed was how "earthy" it smelled.  Then the chile powder hit my nose and I felt the burn.  My immediate thought was, "Oh crap, my kitchen's going to smell like dirt and we're going to have heartburn for days!"  Thankfully I was wrong on both accounts.

R and I both kept commenting on how each of the different spices in the harissa hit the tongue in a different place so that the flavors just kept coming!  We don't eat that many vegetarian meals, but this one is a keeper for sure.  So much flavor, so many textures and so filling that I don't think either one of us even missed the meat. 

We each ate two bowls of the soup last night and took leftovers for lunch today... I'd say it was a success.

19 January 2010

Lost in Translation

Turns out harissa was a lot more difficult to find around here than I thought it would be.  Took me 4 stores, 3 days and 2 unintended purchases before I was able to procure the stuff. 

My favorite HEB was a bust on Saturday.  So Sunday I headed to Fiesta, where I (surprisingly) struck out again.  Although a bit frustrated at this point, I was determined to find that silly spice and not to drive all the way in to town in the process. 

I had seen a little place called Cedars Mediterranean Grill and Market  just up the road, so I decided to check it out, thinking that surely they would carry harissa.  Not wanting to draw a lot of attention to myself, I was thrilled to see that the 'market' section was near the door.  My plan was to unobtrusively scan the shelves and if I did not see what I wanted, I could make a quick exit. 

Great plan...in theory.

 I had no idea the people who own the cafe would be so friendly.  After making two hurried laps around the shelves, a young man spotted me and came to ask if I needed help finding anything in particular.  I guess the very light colored eyes and skin, along with the look of utter helplessness on my face suggested to him that I was a little out of my element.  I told him I was looking for something called harissa.  He took a second to think about it and enthusiastically responded, "Oh yes, we have that right here!" 

I excitedly followed him around the corner to a shelf of ... baked goods???  I'm a little confused at this point, because all along I have been looking for a spice of some sort and he is pointing to a cake.   And I suppose the confusion was evident on my face because before I could say anything, he picks up the container and begins to give me a helpful lesson on how this cake is called 'harissa' in some dialects, but goes by many different names. 

I think I just smiled and nodded. 

I was completely frozen, unsure how to politely get out of the situation.  Then, to make matters worse, he noticed that the pan of 'harissa' was dull looking (evidently, glistening almonds signify freshness) so he assured me his mother would package a fresh batch for me.  How could I say no?!?! 

Not only did I not say no to the fresh batch of 'harissa', I went on to order an entire meal for R from the cafe while I was waiting.  (In my defense, R loves lamb and I rarely cook it at home so I was trying to be nice.  Also, the food smelled way too good to pass up.) 

Fifteen minutes later I got back into the car with my 'to-go meal' and fresh pan of cake, but still without what I set out to purchase: harissa.

After a bit of reserach when I got home I understood the mix-up.   Turns out the baked good I purchased is a very common Middle Eastern cake and is called Hareesa by the Palestinians and Syrians, just spelled differently (darn homonyms).  It is also called Basboosa by the Egyptians and Nammoura by the Lebanese.  It is a dense cake made  from either semolina or farina and is soaked in a sweet syrup and topped with almonds.


By the time Monday rolled around  I had resigned myself to the fact that I was probably going to have to drive all the way in to town to find this elusive ingredient.  On a whim I checked the closest HEB Plus and lo and behold... I found harissa! 
Funny thing is, had I not gotten distracted by the cute bottles of Nando's chicken marinade in the African section, I would have never even seen the harissa!  Even though everything I read said to find harissa at Middle Eastern stores or in the Mid East food section, it's actually a North African spice blend ... so the stores logically stock it with the African foods.  This is a minor detail that would have been very helpful for me to take note of last week. 

Smells really "earthy"

The next dilemma I faced was whether to buy the spice blend or the prepared harissa.  I took a chance and purchased the spice blend... WRONG.  I should have bought the prepared harissa.  Oh well, turns out you can easily make the prepared harissa from the spice blend by mixing it with olive oil.  Phew

Even though the search took longer than I anticipated, it was well worth it because I learned the following:

  1. Cedar's Mediterranean Grill and Market has a friendly staff and great food

  2. If you are looking for an ingredient from another country, it's a good idea to spell the ingredient's name, not just say it

  3. Nando's marinades are available here in the US!!!! (R and I fell in love with Nando's in London on our honeymoon)  I encourage everyone to run out and buy a bottle this week.  You will LOVE it!

13 January 2010

Harissa, Here I Come

My favorite day of the week is Wednesday.  Not because it signifies the half-way point of the work week, but because it is the day the newspaper contains the Food Section.  Not that there aren't plenty of online places to get good  food information and news, but there is just something I love about holding the newspaper in my hand and breathing in that print smell. 

My recipe file is full of recipes I have cut out of the newspaper over the years.  It's fun to every once in a while go through them one by one and reminisce, almost like you would with a stack of photographs, because for me each recipe has a memory or story tied to it:

The 3 Tres Leches cakes I baked for my students one year because I truly believed that there was no better way to learn about a region than to taste its food.  (And selfishly, this is one of my favorite cakes.)

The failure that was the Rum-Glazed Spiced Pecans. What can I say about this one other than the best part was that we were left with an almost full bottle of dark rum to kill the nasty flavor of the spiced pecans.

The Pumpkin Cheesecake that I managed to convince my mom to let me make one year for Thanksgiving. For holiday meals it is hard to get permission from the family to deviate from the norm. If it's not pumpkin, cherry or pecan pie, it typically does not go on the table.

The Japanese Pork and Shrimp Pot Stickers that I made on a whim this fall and turned out to be fabulous!
Sorry, got a little off topic there. Back to today's Food Section. The planets must all be aligned or something because the main topic this week is soup (blogged about it yesterday), there is a recipe for a Tunisian soup (studying Africa in class this month) and best of all, it contains harissa (an ingredient I have been dying to try for a long time). I need to go buy a lottery ticket because this is obviously my lucky day.


The soup is called Hlelem and is a Tunisian vegetable and bean soup.  I plan on making it over the upcoming three day weekend.  That should give me time to track down some of the ingredients I don't already have in my pantry.  

Recipe from the Houston Chronicle:

HLELEM    (Tunisian Vegetable and Bean Soup)
From The New Book of Soups by the Culinary Institute of America

½ cup dried lima or butter beans
½ cup dried chickpeas
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
½ cup diced celery
¾ cup minced onion
1 quart chicken broth
1/3 cup tomato paste
4 large Swiss chard leaves, stems removed and cut into 1-inch pieces, leaves shredded
1/3 cup angel hair pasta, broken into bite-sized pieces
2 tablespoons harissa
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup chopped parsley

Soak dried lima beans and chickpeas separately overnight in three times their volume of water. Drain and cook them separately in two times their volume of fresh water until they are tender, about 45 minutes. Drain and reserve cooking water from both . Combine lima beans and chickpeas; set aside. Combine cooking waters and set aside.

Heat olive oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add garlic, celery and onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent, 4 to 6 minutes.

Add broth, reserved bean cooking liquid and tomato paste. Mix together until well blended and bring to a simmer for 10 minutes.

About 10 minutes before serving, add cooked beans and chickpeas, Swiss chard and pasta. Simmer until pasta and chard stems are tender, about 10 minutes.

Add harissa and stir until blended. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve in heated bowls, garnished with chopped parsley.

Note: Harissa is a Tunisian hot sauce or paste usually made with hot chiles, garlic, cumin, coriander, caraway and olive oil. It's available at Middle Eastern markets and specialty stores.

Makes 8 servings, each 150 calories (26.5 percent calories from fat), 4.5 g fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 590 mg sodium, 22 g carbohydrates, 5 g fiber, 7 g protein.

12 January 2010

Brad's Fish

A friend of mine posted a fish recipe on his Facebook the other night and it sounded quite tasty.  Tried it tonight for dinner (with a couple of modifications since I was missing a few of the ingredients) and it was really, really good! 

(Used Steelhead Trout instead of Snapper and pecans in the crust instead of walnuts) 

I will definitely be making this one again, and next time I will be sure to have all of the correct ingredients on hand. 

Here is the real recipe straight from Brad's wall:

Preheat 450. Spray baking sheet with nonstick. Combine 1tsp oregano, 1/2tsp salt, 1/4tsp pepper and rub onto four snapper fillets. Mix 2tbsp lt. mayo, 1tbsp white horseradish, 1tbsp ketchup, 1tsp lemon juice and coat skinned sides of fish. Food process 1/4c walnut, 2tbsp dried breadcrumb, 2tbsp grated parmesan, 2tbsp chopped parsley. Sprinkle over coated side of fish; pat on. Bake 10min or until fish flakes w/fork. 246cal/serving; makes 4.

Easy Tortilla Soup

I love tortilla soup. 

I really do.  It might be my all-time favorite kind of soup.  When I am sick, I would much rather have a bowl of tortilla soup than chicken noodle or even wonton soup.  But maybe that's just because this is Texas and the dish is just one more way to get my fill of those delicious Tex-Mex flavors.

I made a pot of it the other night and we have really enjoyed eating it over the last few days.  And isn't that one of the best things about soup - the longer it sits, the better it tastes???  Kind of like lasagna. 

By no means is the recipe below supposed to be considered gourmet or homemade.  I know it's not the best tortilla soup recipe out there, but it's the one I use time and time again because it's quick, healthy, freezes beautifully and I always seem to have the ingredients (or at least suitable substitutes) on hand.  This has become my "go-to" soup recipe.

E's Tortilla Soup

1 large chicken breast, bone-in and skin on
1/2 onion ,chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1/3 to 1/2 bell pepper chopped (or jalepenos)
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
32 oz container of your favorite chicken broth
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 can diced tomatoes and chilis ("Rotel")
1 cup frozen super sweet corn
Olive oil, S & P, lemon pepper, other favorite spices
Season the chicken breast liberally with salt and lemon pepper.  Place seasoned chicken in soup pot, add just enough water to cover.  Bring it to a simmer, then lower the heat so the liquid is barely bubbling.  Partially cover and cook 20 - 25 minutes.  When pierced with a fork, the juices should be clear.  Be careful to not cook it too long and dry it out - it can become tough and nasty in a hurry.  (I know this because I have done it.  More than once.)  Remove the poached chicken and allow it to cool a bit before discarding the skin and shredding the meat. 
Reserve a little of the fat from the top, but pour out the liquid.  Add the reserved fat back in along with some olive oil (about 2 tablespoons).  Increase the heat to medium high and drop in the carrots, celery, onion and bell pepper.  Season with S & P.  Cook for a few minutes, allowing the vegetables to soften a bit, then add in the garlic.  Cook another minute or two.
Add in the broth, beans, Rotel and shredded chicken.  Bring to a gentle boil and then reduce heat to low.  Cover and simmer at least 15 minutes.  Add in the frozen corn about 5 minutes before you plan on serving the soup.
I love serving it with a little chopped cilantro, a few slices of avacado, some strips of toasted corn tortillas, a dollop of crema Mexicana and squeeze of fresh lime.

For you beer lovers out there, it pairs very nicely with a cold Negra Modelo.

10 January 2010

Comfort Foods

It has been ridiculously cold here recently.  The kind of cold that hurts.  The kind of cold we experienced in London. 

March 2008

Houston has been under a Hard Freeze Warning for 3 days!  Now, I realize all you Northerners think we are a bunch of pansies, and maybe we are, but I don't care.  Houses here (at least those 30+ years old) are not built to weather those temperatures very well.  That seriously stressed me out.  I could just picture waking up in the morning to water gushing from our ceiling, flooding the entire house.  Needless to say, I have not slept well the past few nights.  R says I spend too much time worrying about things I can't control.  Maybe he's right.   

Our pipes did survive (great job protecting them, R) and for that I am incredibly thankful, but I am dreading our next electricity bill.  I so wish we had gas heating (and a gas dryer, oven and stove)... but that's a whole other post. 

In addition to the biting cold weather and the stress it caused me, we had "one of those weeks".  You know, the kind where nothing goes as planned and just when you think you might have finally caught a break, or at least caught up, something else goes disastrously wrong?  Yeah, well that was us.  The mother of a former student/player passed away, a "simple" home improvement project went awry and we have a back door that no longer opens, R got a nasty virus on his computer which halted ALL photo processing, my cat broke R's marble chess board and all accompanying pieces and  then yesterday morning the little plastic flanges on the shutoff valve snapped off as we tried to turn the water back on.  Lovely. 

 Needless to say, this week's events left me in need of some serious comfort food.

Friday evening I made a pot of chili for frito pies.  This wasn't fancy chili.  Just the kind I always make, the kind that takes 25 minutes.  The kind made with canned beans and canned tomotoes.  The kind that uses the McCormick's seasoning packet. 

Cheating?  Maybe.  But remember, comfort food should not be stressful to prepare.  Plus, it's the way my mom always made chili for us growing up. 

Now for accompaniments.  While some may argue that cornbread would have been a better choice, I disagree.  Nothing is better than Fritos that have become somewhat soggy from chili "juice", and the semi-melted shredded cheddar cheese sprinkled on top - divine. 

Oh, and one more thing.  Frito pie must always be served with a cold beer. 

Really liked this brew, by the way. 
Had never had it before, but seemed like an appropriate purchase considering the weather.
(Photo by R.)

Saturday night we were invited over to some dear friends' house for more comfort food - pulled pork sandwiches and homemade mac and cheese.  How could we say no to a menu like that?

As soon as we stepped out of the cold into their warm home we were hit with all sorts of delicious smells.  The pork shoulder and onions had been in the slow cooker all day, becoming tender and juicy, and were just begging to be devoured.  The mac and cheese was finishing up in the oven, developing that nice crunch on the edges.  I could not wait to eat. 

So yummy!

The meal did not disappoint and everything tasted even more wonderful than it smelled.  My friend said both recipes came from the Deen boys, Paula's sons, but when I searched Food Network I could not find them.  Maybe she pulled them from a cookbook or maybe I just didn't look hard enough.  Whatever the case may be, I will be giving my friend a call soon to ask for both recipes.  Until then I will have to be satisfied simply enjoying the leftovers they sent home with us!

06 January 2010

Forgive me, Gordon, for I have sinned...

Let's get two things straight before I go any further with this post:
1) I have a huge crush on Gordon Ramsay.    

2) My husband, R, is not a chef.  His idea of cooking is microwaving or putting food items on a plate...please understand I am not criticizing at all.  He does a great job at those two things!  But please keep this in mind as you read.
Moving on.                                                          

This week at my favorite HEB (and yes, I do have a favorite...no, they are not all the same) there were some beautiful Colossal Shrimp on sale that I just couldn't resist.  We have been trying to eat a little healthier since the holidays, removing most of the red meat from our diet and increasing the amount of green veggies. 

My dear friend Karen makes these fabulous Orzo Stuffed Peppers that are absolutely to die for and very healthy too.  I decided to make the zucchini, tomato and orzo filling (with a few tweaks) and then grill up the shrimp to go on top.  R had a really busy day - school, an engagement photo shoot and then a photo shoot he was in to promote ArtReach, so I wanted to have a good dinner ready for him when he got home. 

Great plan.  Too bad I commited two grievous culinary sins.  It is for these sins that I must request Chef Ramsey's forgiveness.

1. After adding the freshly grated parmesan cheese, I (this is so embarrassing to admit)... without thinking, also stupidly tossed in some of that canned crap.  You know what I'm talking about - the stuff Papa John's delivers in little packets.  The stuff that tastes like plastic.  It was a total out of body experience.  I knew as soon as I started pouring that it was a bad idea.  And it was.  Changed the entire flavor of the dish, and not in a good way.  There is not much you can do to atone for a sin like that. 

2. Timewise dinner was behind where I wanted it to be and the orzo was not warming as quickly in the oven as I would have liked.  The grill pan was hot and the shrimp were marinated and ready to go.  I was stressing big time.  It is right about this moment that R got home from his second job.   He saw me pull the pan out of the oven and place it in the microwave.  His one comment to me was, "*gasp* Gordon Ramsay would be so disappointed."  And he was right.  Although that is R's favorite method of cooking, even he realized its limits.  How dare I become so impatient and taint our food with microwave rays (or whatever they are).   Anyhow, that decision did not help the flavor (or texture) of the dish one bit.

All in all the dish turned out okay, but nowhere near what it should have been.  Ugh.  I hate it when that happens... almost as much as I hate making dumb decisions.  I will be making this dish again, this time with much more patience. 

photo by: R.