Thursday, April 29, 2010

My home away from home - the beach!

I know it's been quiet the last week, but that's just because I've been lucky enough to be at the beach! I am a beach baby - always have been, always will be. When I was a kid, my parents took us to a nearby lake to go swimming nearly every night in the summer. And most years, we also spent a couple of weeks camping at the ocean in Maine. To this day, anytime I get to sink my toes in the sand, I am a happy girl. (Heck, I even got married at the beach!)

This past week's adventures took us to beaches in both Virginia and North Carolina. We started out at Virginia Beach, where we got a couple of afternoons of sightseeing in. The first day, we walked about 2 miles, which doesn't sound like much. But when you have RA and you're wearing unsupportive flip flops... not a great idea. So, the next day, we got ourselves a 2-man peddle bike:

That was much better!
The boardwalk actually has a bike path separate from the walking path, so it's easy to get around this way. While tooling about, we saw a karate class on the beach:

and made it most of the way up the boardwalk to check out the Neptune statue:

No matter how many times I see this, I am always amazed by it. It's great piece of art - and really unexpected in the middle of the beach! There are actually several memorials and statues to check out as you cruise along the Virginia Beach boardwalk, so it's really fun to explore.

The next day, we decided to take a drive down to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. We headed first to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. They allow visitors to climb to the top and it's a pretty good climb:

But the views are totally worth it:

After that, we sat on the beach in the 80 degree weather for a couple of hours and just listened to the waves break, watching the pelicans fly by. It was incredibly relaxing and rejuvinating.

But, the fairytale must always come to an end, so now we're back in New England (we were welcomed by some flurries on Tuesday - yuck!). At least the sun is out today. Maybe I'll dump the sand out of our suitcase onto the deck and pretend I'm at the beach. Hey, a girl can dream...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Homemade Whole-Wheat Sandwich Bread

I've been posting my "Sunday Suppers" almost every Sunday for the last couple of months, but that's not the only Sunday project I've been working on. I made it one of my New Year's resolutions to make my own bread this year - and to perfect a whole wheat bread.

I've never really had a problem making white sandwich bread, or even using 1/2 white flour and 1/2 whole wheat flour - but 100% whole wheat has eluded me. Sometimes I'd get it mostly right, only to fail on successive attempts even though I was following the same recipe. Most times, it just seemed to turn out much too dense for my liking. Not to mention that it was never tall enough for a sandwich - more like a 1/2 sandwich. Yes, my attempts at whole-wheat bread have been sad to say the least.

That is, until now. After about 4 rounds of tweaks, I've finally come up with what I think is a great whole-wheat sandwhich bread. Just to be sure, I've made in the last 3 Sundays in a row and confirmed that it is reproducible with the same great results. As you can see, it has nice height and a lovely crumb:

One of the unusual things about this recipe (as far my recipes go anyway) is that the flour and water are measured in ounces and grams. I read somewhere that measuring bread ingredients by weight can help you get the right texture and eliminate the humid vs. dry flour issues that often crop up. I think it has turned out to be one of the keys to making this reproducible for me. For this latest loaf (pictured above), I threw in some millet and flax seeds for a little textural interest, and it still turned out just as I expected to. I think I've really found a winner here!

Homemade Whole-Wheat Sandwich Bread

520 grams whole wheat flour
1/4 c. nonfat dried milk
2 tsp. rapid rise (or bread machine) yeast
3 Tbsp. sugar (or honey)
2 Tbsp. millet (optional)
1 Tbsp. flax seeds (optional)
1 Tbsp. oil
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 cups warm water

Mix together flour, dried milk, yeast, sugar and seeds (if using). Add oil, salt and water and stir just until combined into a shaggy dough. Let sit 20 minutes to allow the flour to soak in the water. (Dough will be sticky - that's OK. Don't add more flour!)
After resting, dump dough out onto a lightly floured board. The dough will still be a little sticky, but you want it that way to keep it from getting too dense. Knead it as best you can for about 5 minutes until dough feels firmer (almost like how gum gets after you chew it for a while). The dough won't get smooth, but you should notice it firm up as the gluten strengthens.
Put the kneaded dough in an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit in a warm place for about an hour, or until doubled in size.
Punch down dough on your floured board and shape into a rectangle. Roll up the dough, tuck in the ends and place seam side down in a well-greased 8" loaf pan.
Cover with oiled plastic wrap and let sit about 1 hour until dough rises about 1" over the top of the loaf pan.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Remove plastic wrap and place bread in oven. Bake 25 minutes, then cover with foil and continue baking 20-25 minutes until cooked through.
Let cool about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the edges. Let cool another 10 minutes and run knife around the edges as needed to release bread from pan. Cool completely before slicing and storing in an airtight container.

I usually make a loaf and freeze it, pulling out a slice at a time as I need it. 30 seconds in the microwave and I've got fresh, yummy bread for sandwiches, toast and the occasional midnight munchie!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sunday Suppers - Chicken, Ham & Broccoli Risotto

Risotto isn't a particularly difficult or time-consuming dish, but the time it takes is rather intensive. You have to stir the rice quite a bit - and if you don't, it can get away from you quickly (in my experience anyway). That's why I usually leave it for the weekends, when I'm not trying to make dinner, do laundry, feed the cats, etc. all at the same time.

One of the nice things about risotto, I think, is that you can really change it up however you want - or to use whatever you have on hand. No broccoli? Use asparagus or peas. Vegetarian? Leave out the meat - it'll still be great! I also love how colorful it ends up - no boring white rice here!

The one thing I wouldn't change is using freshly grated or shredded parmesan cheese. Really, the grated stuff in the green jar isn't going to cut the mustard this time.

Chicken, Ham & Broccoli Risotto
(Serves 3)

olive oil spray
2 small chicken thighs, cut into small pieces
4 oz. fully cooked ham, diced
1 large broccoli crown, chopped into florets
1 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. chopped chives (I used dried)
1 cup arborio rice
4 cups chicken broth
1 Tbsp. butter
1/3 c. freshly grated parmesan cheese
salt & pepper

Sprinkle basil and chives over chicken. Spray a large saute pan with olive oil spray and add chicken to pan over medium heat. Cook until chicken is no longer pink. Remove from pan and set aside.
To the same pan, add 1 c. arborio rice. Pour in about 1/2 c. chicken broth and stir to mix. Continue stirring every 30 seconds or so to help the rice absorb the liquid. Continue adding 1/2 c. chicken broth, stirring until fully absorbed each time, until the rice is tender and plump. (You may not use all the broth.)
While rice is cooking, steam broccoli until tender crisp.
When rice is plump and tender, stir in 1 Tbsp. butter. Add cooked chicken, ham and broccoli and heat through. Just before serving, stir in parmesan cheese. Add salt & pepper to taste, if desired.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday Suppers - Pasta Pignoli

Tonight's dish was created around 1 thing - pine nuts (pignoli). I'm not sure why, but for the last couple of days, I've been craving pine nuts. I mean, it's not like they're really a delicacy or overly flavorful on their own - but nonetheless, I had to have them. So, I went browsing the store with pignoli dreams and came up with a fairly simple pasta dish that is big on flavor - and incorporates those crunchy yet creamy little nuts.

Of course, it features one of the things pignoli are most famous for - pesto. I made fresh pesto for this dish because I think it gives a much brighter flavor, but you could also used store-bought.

Pasta Pignoli
(Serves 2-3)

6 oz. chicken breast, cut into bite sized pieces
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1/4 c. sundried tomatoes
1/2 c. marinated artichoke hearts
3 Tbsp. pesto (see recipe below)
1/4 c. pine nuts
wedge of lemon (about 1/4)
parmesan shavings for garnish, if desired
salt & pepper
6 oz. whole-grain angel hair pasta

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Season chicken with salt & pepper and add to pan. Cook just until no longer pink. Add sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, pesto and pine nuts. Cover and simmer over low heat.

Meanwhile, cook pasta 6-7 minutes until al dente. Drain and add to chicken/pesto mixture. Squeeze lemon wedge over the top of everything, stir and cook 1-2 minutes until pasta reaches desired doneness.

Top with parmesan shavings before serving, if desired.

Homemade pesto
(Makes about 3/4 c.)

2 cloves garlic
1/3 c. toasted pignoli (pine nuts)
1/2 c. grated parmesan cheese
2 oz. basil leaves
1/4-1/3 c. olive oil
salt, if needed

Mince garlic in a food processor. Add pignoli and pulse several times until well chopped. Add parmesan cheese and basil leaves and set processor on low, drizzling in olive oil until desired consistency is reached. Add salt to taste, if needed.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

This Chef's Chef Salad

Most everyone is familiar with the concept of a chef (or chef's) salad - meat, cheese, eggs, lettuce - done. It's simple to assemble and requires little to no cooking, which makes it perfect for nights like this one in the valley - where it was hot and gorgeous out and all I wanted to do was sit outside and bask in the last glimmering rays of light.

The origins of chef salad are somewhat unclear. Some say it's a specific recipe created by a chef at the Ritz-Carlton. Others say it's just an idea based on the Greek dish salmagundi. (Interestingly enough, salmagundi was the name of my high school yearbook. It means miscellany in that sense; just a little ValleyWriter trivia for you there...).

I interpret the name to mean "whatever the chef feels like putting in the salad," which usually translates to "whatever's in my kitchen." Here's tonight's offering:
For the toppings tonight, I used some leftover ham from Easter, some deli turkey meat and gouda cheese. I didn't feel like cooking hard boiled eggs (LAZY!), so I didn't! It was just as good without. Here's the basic recipe:

ValleyWriter's Chef Salad
(Serves 2)

2 hearts of romaine
1 large tomato
1 thick slice deli turkey (about 3 oz.)
3 oz. baked ham
2 oz. gouda cheese
2 pepperoncinis
Your choice of dressing (I used Italian; Mr. ValleyWriter went with blue cheese)

Chop or tear up lettuce into bite-sized pieces. Divide between 2 bowls.
Cut tomato into wedges. Place half in a ring on top of each bowl of lettuce.
Cut turkey, ham and gouda into 1/4" thick slices. Place 1/2 on top of each bowl of lettuce, in layered rings.
Top with a pepperoncini and desired dressing.

Sit outside with a glass of wine or a cold beer and enjoy!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter everyone!
Spring has sprung here in the valley. The sun is shining, the windows are open, birds are chirping and my crocuses are in bloom.

Life doesn't get much better than this. And to top off a wonderful weekend, this week's Sunday Supper will take place at my parent's house. We're having a big Easter dinner with my Dad's side of the family. I'm making the family galumpkie (polish cabbage roll) recipe again this year. It was a big hit with everyone last year - especially my great aunt who used to make them all those years ago. She suffered a stroke a couple of years ago and can't speak very well, but the joyous smile on her face after taking her first bite was clear praise to me.

Hope you enjoy your day - whatever you celebrate and however you celebrate it!