Sunday, July 31, 2011

My latest obsession... Fig Vinegar

This weekend my younger sister was in town for a visit. We managed to spend most of our time eating, shopping and generally enjoying our way through Bloomington. My weekends typically consist of little more than taking care of the things I neglected during the workweek, so being out and about was a welcome change of pace.

By her departure at noon, we'd managed to eat at seven different establishments (we're really good at "grazing") and shop in nearly a dozen stores. Plus two movies, the farmer's market and a kayaking adventure... we know how to get the most out of a 48 hour visit!

Kayaking on the lake

What does this weekend's social agenda have to do with food or cooking of my own, you ask? Because on Saturday afternoon I did something that is oh so shamefully typical while the little sis and I were leisurely browsing shops downtown.

Kathleen was wanting to look for some kitchen items for her new apartment. I took her over to Goods for Cooks, a kitchen and gourmet food shop just off the square, as I needed to pick up this little guy that I've had my eye on for quite some time. While we were checking out the nice lady behind the counter offered me a sample of peaches in fig vinegar. I accepted (because when have I ever turned down a food sample?), but was entirely unprepared for this flavor. I think my heart stopped. I think I saw stars. I know that a full 30 seconds later the taste was still lingering. She asked me if I wanted to purchase a bottle. Thank the lord my reaction was driven from common sense and not the section of my brain that was now paralyzed from aged fruit - I asked her how much a bottle was.

Lady behind the counter: "$17.99. But a bottle will last a very long time."
Me: "Hmmm"
Lady behind the counter: "Do you cook pork? It's great with pork."
Me: "I think I'll have to pass on it today. But I'll probably be back for it."

Poor sales lady. She saw my reaction and had to be totally sure I was taking at least one bottle home. Good thing I can exercise a little self-restraint.

Cut to Kathleen and I leaving the store, getting ten paces down the block and then me literally turning around, going back in the store and proceeding to purchase a bottle.

The only thing that could have been more surprising to this gal than me turning down a bottle the first time had to be me returning all of 90 seconds later to buy one.

I'm a sucker for good food.

Ok, the real reason?
...I'm a sucker for good food.

Don't get me wrong. Eighteen bucks for a bottle of vinegar is excessive. I freely admit it. And under normal circumstances my initial reaction would have won over. But this particular product was such a perfect match for my palate, I knew the purchase would be worth it. My taste buds tend to enjoy acidic foods more than most, so vinegars, especially deeply-flavored ones like balsamic are right up my alley. The great thing about the fig vinegar? It has all of the intesity of balsamic with a much smoother finish. And the finish just keeps even after there's no more food in your mouth. It's the kind of flavor that is not only enjoyable, it's incredibly surprising in a way that makes you want to keep going back for more.

the fine print you can't read:
"beware: addiction in a bottle"
I've had it for a day. I've put it on peaches. I've put it on blackberry cobbler. And I intend to keep putting it on all sorts of things until I manage to empty the bottle. Something tells me it'll be sooner than the gal at the store suggested it would last.

You can get yourself a bottle online here.
If you're in Bloomington, do yourself a favor and snag a bottle from Goods for Cooks. Tell them the crazy indecisive foodie sent you. I'm sure I made a lasting impression that afternoon.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Recipe: Herbed Chicken Tenders

One thing I love to do when I'm creating recipes is to find ways to make "convenience foods" fresher, healthier and relatively quick and easy compared to their fast food or supermarket counterparts. This chicken tender recipe is right up that alley.

It will take you a little bit longer to whip these up than it would to open up a freezer bag and pop some nuggets on a baking sheet, but not much more time and the taste and quality tradeoffs make it a no brainer. The finished product has a crispy, seasoned breading with a juicy inside. Serve it with a side of roasted potato wedges and you have a delicious (and picky-eater approved) comfort food dinner.

Herbed Chicken Tenders
35 minutes (20 minutes unattended)
Serves 3-4
Adapted from Simply Recipes

• ½ cup buttermilk
• 1 lb. chicken tenders
• 1/2 cup Japanese-style breadcrumbs (Panko breadcrumbs)
• 2 tsp. dried oregano
• 2 tsp. dried thyme
• 1 tsp. dried rosemary
• ½ tsp. salt
• ½ tsp. black pepper

1. Place buttermilk in a shallow dish and allow tenders to soak in it for 15 minutes.
2. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray.
3. In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the breadcrumbs and spices (oregano, thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper). One at a time, roll the chicken pieces in the breadcrumb mixture until they are fully coated on all sides.
4. Place chicken on baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until chicken breading is lightly browned.

Tips and Tricks:
If you can’t find chicken tenders (tenders are a cut of chicken like thighs, breasts, etc.), use boneless, skinless breasts and cut them down to the size of chicken strips.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Restaurant Review: Dats in Bloomington

Earlier this summer, my good friend Cathy (who is in Bloomington for the time being finishing her masters degree at IU), informed me she wanted to spend more time this summer just getting to know the city better. Knowing me for long enough to understand if it involves food I'm always game, she anticipated I'd be up for coming along. When we started talking about places to go and things to do I realized I've spent over two years here and apparently haven't gotten out as much as I'd thought. It's not entirely surprising (full-time job, volunteering, traveling on weekends, finding time for my own kitchen, let alone someone else's...) but I felt this would be a nice opportunity to hit up some places I'd managed to have missed during my first two years here.

In our effort to do more exploring of Bloomington, Cathy and I went out for dinner at Dat's last Sunday night. Neither of us had been there before, though we'd both been meaning to go for a while. I was a bit surprised upon going in the restaurant. I was expecting a sit-down style, but quickly realized it's an order-your-food-and-grab-a-seat kind of place. For this type of establishment there's plenty of seating and bit of outdoor seating on a lovely little porch. The inside has decor a bit reminiscent of the French Quarter and feels extremely casual.

The menu is chalked up behind the register and varies a bit from day to day. It seemed a very cost effective option to us to both order the "half and half" (half a portion of two entrees) so we'd have four entrees between us to sample. We asked quite a few questions about the menu to the friendly guy behind the counter. He seemed pretty knowledgeable about the menu and ingredients. I decided on the gumbo and caramelized corn and black beans. Cathy went with the spinach and artichoke etouffee and red beans and rice.

The heaping portions came out fast and hot. I started with the gumbo. It was good, but I wish it had been a bit thicker and less salty.  Cathy didn't mind the salt, but agreed on the thickness noting that she missed the okra that is typically in her homemade version. Next was the caramelized corn and black beans. It wasn't what I was expecting based on the name (it didn't look particularly caramelized), but it was absolutely delicious. It was surprisingly sweet, but not overly so. If I'd ordered just this dish, the entire portion would have been absolutely devoured. And I would've had to exhibit serious restraint to not lick the plate for good measure.

Over on Cathy's plate we started with the spinach and artichoke etouffee. We both enjoyed it and likened it to a spicy spinach and artichoke dip. The red beans and rice had a stronger acidic flavor than other varieties we've had before; a change welcomed by both of us. I wanted it to be just a bit saucier to give more substance to the rice below, but wasn't by any means displeased with the taste.

Cathy and I realized an entirely unfortunate oversight on our way out. They have an entire bar area dedicated to dozens of bottles of hot sauces, oils and other delightful condiments. The hot sauces range quite a bit in style and heat intensity (from what I could gather from the bottles). Had I done proper homework ahead of time, a slew of reviews from diners raving about the hot sauce bar would have came across my radar. So, this time around we get an F in preparation, but an A in excuses to go back and visit again.

The total bill for our dinner for two (with whopping portions to boot) was $13.50. A good price for decent food and a great price for food like this. I'd recommend Dats to anyone in Bloomington, especially someone looking for a casual meal out, a change of pace from some of the more common ethnic flavors of 4th street, or a quality, inexpensive carry-out meal.

Dinner for two (that could feed three!) at Dats

Dats on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 18, 2011

Recipe: Corn Casserole

My kitchen is currently in basil mode. Pesto, caprese salads, pesto, thai fried rice, pesto, pesto bread, pesto...

Don't get me wrong. My love for basil is deep and real. But I am looking forward to another summer produce invasion coming very soon...sweet corn! It may already be at my market. I wouldn't know. By the time I made it there on Saturday all I cared about was getting a coffee and scone and being a little bummed out at the lack of selection (it's what happens when you're there in the PM. I know better). The point is I refuse to buy it from the store. Why do I want week-old corn shipped in from Iowa when I can get something that was grown 10 miles away and picked yesterday? I digress...

In preparation for sweet corn madness, I'm giving you a corn recipe that works beautifully year round. It is a staple for holidays and get-togethers at my folk's house. Make it with fresh corn now and with frozen or canned (almost as good) corn for Thanksgiving,  Easter, church potlucks, birthdays (ok, maybe it's not birthday worthy, unless you really love corn...).

Corn Casserole
45 minutes (35 minutes unattended)
Serves 8 as a side
Adapted from Mom’s Kitchen

  • ¾ stick butter, melted
  • 1 16 oz. can of cream-style corn
  • 1 16 oz. can of whole kernel corn
  • ½ cup light sour cream
  • ½ cup plain greek yogurt
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • ¾ cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 8 oz. package dry cornbread mix

1.         Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
2.         Place melted butter in a large casserole dish.
3.         In a large bowl, mix together corn (including liquid from cans), sour cream, greek yogurt, eggs, cheese and dry cornbread mix. Combine ingredients and add to the casserole dish.
4.         Bake for 30-35 minutes.

Tips and Tricks:
  • To use fresh (or frozen, on-the-cob) instead of canned corn, shuck 4-6 ears of corn (should yield around 4 cups). Take the cobs and place in a large pot. Add water until the cobs are just covered, bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Reserve 2/3 cup of the cob cooking water and add to the shucked corn.
  • You can use any combination of sour cream and greek yogurt. More sour cream will yield a moister, fluffier casserole. More greek yogurt will increase the protein and make a slightly denser casserole.
  • For the melted butter, either melt the butter in the microwave and transfer to the casserole dish or put your casserole dish over low heat and melt the butter on the stovetop. If you use the second method, be sure to remember the dish will be warm!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Making the Most of Lousy Kitchen Space

I have lived in various sorry excuses for shoe boxes housing arrangements over the past six years that have never afforded as much kitchen space as I'd like. For anyone who has dealt with a living situation where the square footage is minimal, it's not news that maximizing the usefulness of your space is key. But the issue isn't limited to tiny apartment kitchens - even large kitchens can have poorly designed layouts making useful space scarce.

I've had as many good ideas as bad ones over the years on how to cope with this particular challenge. My latest kitchen space (about 72 square feet) features many of the ideas that have stood the test of many different spaces. Here are five tips you can use in any space to help you get the most out of whatever kitchen area you have:

1. Find the dead space and give it life
In my kitchen there were two major sources of dead space: on top of the cabinets and on top of the fridge. The dead space above the cabinets (as is the case in many kitchens) I rendered useless because of its height and propensity to collect major dust bunnies. The top of the fridge, however, was usable. If you aren't vertically blessed, invest in a collapsable step stool (something like this) that you can store in a nearby cabinet or closet. Dead space is a great place to store oversized objects like a microwave and rarely-used items such as lazy susans and popcorn bowls.

2. Integrate organization in your cabinets
For those of us not fortunate enough to design the cabinets in our kitchens, you probably have some with too many shelves, some with not enough and others that seem entirely useless. First, find homes for your largest items (think blenders, tall pantry boxes, etc.), then fill in with your smaller items. Then, hack the space to make it work for you. The spice cabinet on the left has a shoe box stuffed in the back propping up a row of the spices and a hook on the door to hang spices bought in bulk. Integrate clear, stackable containers like the ones pictured on the right to keep large spaces organized and give you an easy view of exactly what is where. For extra organization, label the bins so you don't have to guess.

3. Use your walls
I don't think you can go wrong with anything inspired by Julia Child and maximizing the usefulness of your wall space is no exception. Google images of  her kitchen if you don't know what I'm talking about. I have 3M hooks adhered across the wall behind my stove to keep the tools I used often within arms reach. This keeps them from taking up space in a drawer or canister while allowing me faster access when I need to get my hands on them. It also helps spruce up space in the kitchen that would otherwise be plain and boring.

I've also used the same concept on the walls under my cabinets. This mug rack makes a very nice visual statement while keeping (at least some) of my mugs out of the cabinets. Racks like these are available in a wide range of sizes, shapes and colors. Take a look at some of IKEA's wall storage suggestions.

4. Make your space hogs multitask 
No matter how skilled an organizer you may be, things like refrigerators and kitchen tables will always take up far more space than seems fair. Make them multitask by placing storage on top of our underneath them. This kitchen island that acts as a counter-height table features a shelf underneath that stores several pots, pans and less frequently used dishes. Rods on either side allow for hanging space - great for pots and skillets. I've mounted a power strip on the side of mine to allow it to act as an extra wired countertop.

5. Limit one-use appliances and tools
A couple of small gadgets here and there are fine (I have my share of them as well), but cabinets full of  things like an ice cream machine, coffee grinder, and panini press will quickly stuff your kitchen without  adding much value. Opt for version of the same items that give you multiple functions like a stand mixer ice cream attachment, a grinder than can easily be cleaned to use on spices, and a panini press that doubles as a griddle.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The War on Sodium

I came across an article on Scientific American about the "war on salt" and why it needs to end. After reading through the article and finding it challenged most of my knowledge and opinions on the topic, I decided it might be an interesting exercise to craft a response.

Hey, I've got a blog. That's a handy place for a discussion such as that.

This is the challenge: 90 minutes to read and respond to an article. After that, pencils down, no corrections, put it out there for people to read. (Confession: It was going to be 60 minutes, but I realized I'm way out of practice from school to stay under that limit.)

A couple of reasons for doing this:
One, I love to debate things. I hate being wrong, but I do appreciate the opportunity to have to put myself behind what I (think) I know and believe to be true.
Two, I definitely think there's enough debate going on about health and food (goodness gracious, just look at the senate and school lunches), but there's not enough conversation. A good debate makes the best argument (or arguer) quickly rise to the top, but it rarely educates thoroughly and doesn't foster the best environment for meaningful learning. People need to be taught how to help themselves eat better, not just be chastised for doing it wrong.

So, here's attempt number one. My response to Scientific American's "It's Time to End the War on Salt" (original article linked from the title).

The article “It’s Time to End the War on Salt,” published this month in Scientific American, discusses the lack of firm scientific evidence linking excessive sodium intake with negative consequences on cardiovascular health.

Wait, what? You mean, someone is saying that there’s no real proof too much salt is a bad thing? Doesn’t that go against everything we’ve heard in mainstream media for the last decade? And, you know, common sense?

Absolutely. So let’s dig in and see just what they have to say.

The article references two main published scientific studies, one in the American Journal of Hypertension and the other in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They reported the first “found no strong evidence that cutting salt intake reduces the risk for heart attacks, strokes or death in people with normal or high blood pressure.” The second finds “The less sodium that study subjects excreted in their urine…the greater their risk was of dying from heart disease.”

The topic of cardiovascular health is extremely broad. Even the sub-topic of heart disease is quite complex. To examine the issue further, I’m looking at one risk factor, hypertension, within one cardiovascular health issue (heart disease).

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is believed to be caused by several risk factors, including: smoking, being overweight/obese, sedentary lifestyle, too much salt intake, alcohol consumption, stress, advanced age, genetics, family history, kidney disease and adrenal or thyroid disorders.

About half of those risk factors are (at least to some degree) controllable. The big question that lingers, is how much weight each of those factors have in determining your risk for hypertension. If they were all equally balanced (which science typically ensures never happens), you could, in theory, cut your risk by 50% by eliminating the X-factors that are within your control. We know that’s not how science works and even if it were, 50% of your risk would still be entirely exposed. Let’s take just one of those risk factors, a high sodium intake, the factor that this particular article chooses to focus on, and examine it more closely.

Sodium is a necessary element to supporting human life. We need it in our bodies to maintain a proper balance of fluids and to help nerves and muscles function properly. Your kidneys are in charge of balancing sodium to keep your body working like it should. When there’s too much sodium in the body it builds up in the blood. This causes your blood volume to increase and causes your body to use more pressure to move the blood on its necessary course.

Sodium is taken into our body the same way protein, fats and sugars are – through the foods we eat. As if this issue of cardiovascular health didn’t have enough onion layers to peel, wow we have to add in the explosive topic of the American diet.

To keep the conversation brief and look at a real-life example, let’s take the marinara sauce I had with my lunch today. I ate about a half cup of sauce made from a recipe of canned tomatoes, fresh onion, garlic, red wine, olive oil, and spices/herbs (including added salt and sugar).

See that total compared to what’s available at the store:

Homemade Pasta Sauce (using canned tomatoes)
128 mg sodium per serving
Prego “Healthy Heart” (low-sodium) Traditional Sauce
360 mg sodium per serving
Prego Traditional Sauce
480 mg sodium per serving

The recommended daily value of sodium for the average adult in the US is 2300 mg/day. Just with a half cup of my marinara sauce, I’ve taken in 6% of my daily allowance. Lucky me, I could have taken in 20% if I’d opted for a “more convenient” option with a store bought sauce.

That’s one drill down on one example of one risk factor of one element of cardiovascular disease. That context makes it entirely unsurprising to me that science has been able to solidly attribute high salt intake to poor cardiovascular health in any significant population of patients.

Eating a salty French fry one day isn’t going to give me high blood pressure for life. That’s why I’m less inclined to fully rely on information in studies such as the ones referenced in the Scientific American article where the participants in the study were followed for a relatively short period of time (six months in the AJH study) versus others published that have followed patients for decades (See the JAMA article “Dietary Sodium Intake and Subsequent Risk of Cardiovascular Disease…”)

The way all of these X-factors of cardiovascular health integrate, balance and affect one another is, I’d imagine, a highly complex Rubik’s cube of a puzzle that will take scientists far smarter than me to solve.

Luckily for the proponents of this article, however, it doesn’t seem that kind of research is likely:

Rather than create drastic salt policies based on conflicting data, Alderman and his colleague Hillel Cohen propose that the government sponsor a large, controlled clinical trial to see what happens to people who follow low-salt diets over time. Appel responds that such a trial "cannot and will not be done," in part because it would be so expensive. But unless we have clear data, evangelical antisalt campaigns are not just based on shaky science; they are ultimately unfair. "A great number of promises are being made to the public with regard to this enormous benefit and lives saved," Cohen says. But it is "based on wild extrapolations."

I guess I missed the unfair promise the government made me that if I ate less salt, it would save my life. While the debate to salt or not to salt is hot within the realms of science and Washington, I’ll continue to do what I believe to be in the best interest of my own health – exercise, drink water, and intelligently fuel my body with food I believe to be good.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Recipe: Bean Salad

This past weekend has proven one thing. The summer heat has moved in and is here to stay!

I think very few things make me crankier than being hot and hungry. July and August have special potential to render me completely comatose depending on the heat index and hours since my last meal. Last week the weather was beautiful. I was on vacation enjoying beautiful 80-something days with very little humidity. Then the weekend showed up and a switch flipped and now here we are in the middle of another midwest summer.

The only thing that makes a hot summer day worse is cooking in a hot kitchen. This is ordinarily where a grill comes in so very handy; keep the heat outside where that fireball in the sky is already driving up the mercury and enjoy your food in the unadulterated air conditioning. One day I will own a grill and join the ranks of smart people who are leaving the heat outside in the summer. Until then...

July and August also seem to keep people busy in their kitchens (or at the least, in supermarket lines) to gather food to take to potlucks and barbecues. This particular recipe is covering both challenges: A tasty take-along for any summer event that will not cause your kitchen to become a thousand degrees.

Props to my wonderful vegetarian for this one. It was all him! I just stood around and backseat cooked, as usual. 

This recipe is intended to literally be thrown together. It is quick and the ingredients that aren't ready to go from their containers only need a bit of prep. The quantities also ensure you won't have to use half a package of something - you can easily buy exactly as much as the recipe calls for (except the onion, but I'm willing to bet you can easily find a use for the half left behind). It's best made ahead and refrigerated overnight, but it's entirely tasty right after you're done stirring in the last ingredient.

Summer Bean Salad
10 minutes
6-8 servings as a side

  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 jalapeno pepper
  • ½ white onion
  • 1 can chickpeas
  • 1 can sweet corn
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. ground pepper

  1. Dice the peppers and onion into bite-sized pieces and place in a large bowl.
  2. Drain and chickpeas and corn and add to the peppers and onion.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Add to the salad ingredients and stir to combine.
  4. Cover and refrigerate 8 hours before serving.