Friday, March 16, 2012

Thinking spring without forgetting the holidays

It's been nearly six months since I wrapped up a 30-day challenge of cooking and eating exclusively on a food stamp budget. I've admitted it was a much different type of challenge than I thought it'd be - being put in a place where healthy decisions weren't out of my reach, just amazingly inconvenient. Choosing to put my focus and energy many other places than what was going on my table was easy. After the challenge was over I decided I would dedicate a portion of this blog to teaching people how cook healthy meals inexpensively, should they choose that's a valuable use of time for them. Honestly? I've done an awful job of giving much on this blog the attention it's deserved since the calendar turned to 12, let alone on the issues of nutritious, budget-friendly eating or hunger. The unfortunate truth is the issue often feels out of sight and out of mind. When I sit down at the end of a long day, fatigued from an array of sources (none of which are unavoidable hunger) it's easier to flip on a movie or run a load of laundry, or even open up the stack of mail piling up on my entryway table than to sit down, research, plan, and provide pointers for eating healthy with limited resources.

While there have been several reasons this blog has acquired some cobwebs in the past month (all of which are topics for another post), I am making commitment to improve the resources available to those wanting to provide healthy meals to their families with limited means. More than that is making a commitment to the awareness of hunger.

A couple weeks ago I received a message from Feeding America about a campaign they are taking on the entire month of March to bring a renewed focus to the issue of hunger in America. One of the biggest reasons? Because hunger is not a problem that starts after our Thanksgiving feasts and ends once we've untied the ribbons of Christmas morning. Bellies rumble all over the country every hour of every day, regardless of the season. There are plenty of us in this modern-day-food-networked-reality-cooking-show-food-blogger-saturated world that are passionate about food, cooking or just sharing a meal. I encourage you to watch this video and pass it along to someone else, especially someone who loves food. I'm pledging my contribution to the fight against hunger to be education, resources, research and awareness. What can you do to help fill bellies and make sure no one goes hungry?

If you're on facebook, check out Feeding America and "like" their page.
If twitter is more your thing, you can find them tweeting here.
If you love good old fashioned web surfing, Feeding America has an awesome blog full of resources and information.

No matter how you choose to communicate, please make sure you share this message.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Cajun Risotto

My last post was not wrong - the risotto bug has bitten and is apparently here to stay. Not two days after I finished up the last of the arugula risotto did I go brainstorming for another excuse to make more creamy rice comfort food. However, I wanted something a little more savory than the last time around.

In addition to being just plain delicious, red beans and rice has quite a nostalgia factor for me. Growing up, the one time every year we could count on getting Popeye's Chicken (and a giant tub of red beans and rice on the side) was the annual summer visit to my grandparents house in southern Illinois. There is a water park right on the IL/MO border that we'd take a day trip to and on the way back to their house after a day full of sun and water slides, we'd pick up dinner at Popeyes. The food was always great, but the most memorable part was watching my (depression-baby) grandfather clean chicken bones like they were the last thing he'd eat. It's turned into a little bit of a sport over the years between my sisters and I - who can clean their chicken bones like Pa? This annual summer feast was my first introduction to Cajun food. 

Of all the Cajun dishes I've tried, both as a diner and as a cook, red beans and rice is one of my favorites. The only catch? To really do it well so that the beans are cooked perfectly but the rice isn't soggy, it takes a slow pace and a lot of pots. Think of this as red beans and rice in a hurry. It's a bit more melded than the original version tends to be and it ends up being a bit soupier, which I happened to absolutely love. It also has more veggies than you'll find in many red beans and rice interpretations (especailly Popeye's... though love, guys). Best of all, this dish is very, very easy to make as a vegetarian dish and add meat in separately for anyone who wants it. If keeping the dish vegetarian is no concern, feel free to add in the sausage at the beginning and substitute chicken broth for vegetable broth.

One batch of this will serve four generously and works especially well even it's the only thing you're serving for dinner. That doesn't mean you can't include some fried chicken if you're so inclined... 

Cajun Risotto
35 minutes
Serves 4 generously
Spoonful of Something Original

  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • ½ large onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 ribs celery, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 can red beans, drained
  • 1 ½ cups Arborio rice
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 4-5 cups vegetable broth
  • 1-2 Tbsp. Cajun seasoning
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. black pepper
  • 8 oz. Andouille sausage (optional – see tips and tricks)

1.   In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.
2.   Sautee onion and garlic for about 3 minutes, or until the onion starts to become translucent.
3.   Add in the celery and allow to cook for an additional 5 minutes.
4.   Stir in the red pepper and beans and allow to cook for an additional 2 minutes.
5.    Add in the rice and stir to combine all the ingredients. Allow the rice to cook without liquid for 2 minutes.
6.   Add in the white wine, stir to combine and continue stirring occasionally until most of the liquid has been absorbed.
7.   Add ½ cup vegetable broth, stirring occasionally. Stir in the Cajun seasoning and salt and pepper.
8.   Continue to add the broth each time the moisture is mostly absorbed, but before the rice dries out, ½ cup at a time. Repeat this step until the rice is tender.

Tips and Tricks:
  1. You may not use all 5 cups of vegetable broth and that’s ok! Adding the liquid ½ cup at a time ensures you won’t dry out your rice (provided you’re stirring and paying attention) and you won’t overcook your dish (provided you occasionally stop to taste and check for doneness).
  2. Depending on what kind of Cajun seasoning you use, you may want more or less added salt in your version. To make sure you don’t oversalt, start with less than the recipe calls for, taste and continue to add until it tastes right to you.
  3. If you want to add meat, you can add uncooked Andouille sausage at step 2. Cook it for a few minutes by itself before adding in the onion and garlic. If you’re working with pre-cooked sausage, you can add it to the entire pot as you add the last 2 cups of broth, or top individual services with meat to keep the main dish vegetarian.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Arugula and Walnut Risotto

It will become clear over the next few posts that my love for risotto has recently turned into a mild obsession with the gooey, creamy carbilicious dish. I've made it with butter, with cheese, with walnut oil and spinach, with shrimp and andouille. Even as I write this I think "wow, the only meal you haven't really touched is dessert. ...Dessert risotto? Wait! Breakfast risotto?" See? I've crossed a line.

Any other February I'd swear up and down the trend is attributed to the chilly winter temperatures, but anyone living in south central Indiana knows that excuse is entirely invalid. We've been enjoying what I now refer to as "fake winter" where days are in the 30s or 40s and you barely have to scrape ice from your windshield. And let me tell you. I find it blissful.

Regardless, the month on the calendar has been putting me in the mood for comfort foods of sorts. As far as comfort foods go, risotto is topped by only a few in my book (because, let's get real, macaroni and cheese is second to none). It truly is a simple dish to make, even if it does require a bit of an attentive eye. It manages to still be creamy even when additional fats are few and far between. It can be made as a heavy, hearty meal or a light, but filling one.

Risotto recipes can be a little daunting with the obligatory "don't walk away or you food will burn to ashes!" disclaimer I find in so many of them. While you need to keep an eye on your stove to make sure your rice still has enough liquid, I find occasionally stirring the rice or pouring on stock/water/broth does the trick every time. Most standard sized recipes (1 cup rice with 3-4 cups broth) will take 25-30 minutes to cook the rice through, give or take depending on what else the recipe calls for.

Here are the three most important things to keep in mind when you're cooking risotto:

  • Lay out all your ingredients before hand - it makes it much easier to be quick on your feet when the rice is cooking!
  • Keep an eye on it while it's cooking - if it begins to dry out, stir in more liquid.
  • When it's done, it's done - taste the rice from time to time to check for doneness. If you need more liquid than the recipe calls for, add it. If you don't use it all before the rice is ready, leave it.

If you want, you can always cook it low and slow, or at a lower temperature and for more time than the recipe calls for - medium-low instead of medium and 40 minutes instead of 30. It'll take more time to finish, but start there if that's where you're comfortable.

Here's a recipe for a great dead-of-winter risotto, especially because arugula is found fairly easily this time of year. It works very well as a side dish for roasted chicken but will also stand alone as a meal on its own.

Arugula and Walnut Risotto
40 minutes
Serves 4 Generously

  • 6-8 cups arugula, loosely packed
  • 2 cups Arborio rice
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil
  • ½ yellow onion, finely chopped
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 6-8 cups vegetable stock
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • ¼ cup parmesan, grated
  • ½ cup walnuts, chopped

1.   Place 3 cups of water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Place the arugula in the water for 30 seconds, then transfer to an ice bath.
2.   Remove the arugula from the ice bath and blend it in a food processor or chop finely.
3.   In the same saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Saute the rice for one minute or until the rice begins to look toasted.
4.   Add the onion and cook for an additional minute.
5.   Add the wine and stir occasionally until most of the liquid is absorbed.
6.   Add the vegetable stock ½ - 1 cup at a time until the rice is cooked through.
7.   When the rice is done, remove from the heat and stir in butter, parmesan and walnuts.
8.   Add salt and pepper to taste.

Tips and Tricks:
  1. Cooking and cooling the arugula will allow it to soften and keep the bright green color in tact. The easiest way to prepare an ice bath is to fill a large bowl with ice water and place a small strainer within the larger bowl.
  2. You may not need all of the vegetable stock. Taste occasionally to make sure the rice does not get overcooked. If the rice is done and there is stock leftover, save it for later. If you run out of stock and need more liquid, add water.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Black Bean Chili

My love of cooking is no hidden secret, but something I don't get to do often that I absolutely adore is cooking for big groups of people. It's the reason I did things in college like volunteer to coordinate a 200-person Thanksgiving dinner (complete with 20 turkeys and real mashed potatoes, thank you very much). And why I still do things today like volunteer as a sous chef once a month to prep 120-person dinners at church.

Last week my boss hosted a dinner for all of the field managers in Bloomington. She decided to make chili for the group and she asked me to I offered to make a batch to share. We had a fantastic spread: white chicken chili, extra spicy chili, traditional chili with bison meat and a vegetarian black bean chili. Even better than the food was the company. One of my favorite things about the kitchen is how it brings people together. That night the house was full of people from all over the country enjoying conversation and laughs over a delicious meal. Maybe it's just me, but I'm fairly certain food even tastes better when you are enjoying it alongside others.

Here's the recipe for black bean chili I made for the group. It's a non-traditional chili flavored with coffee, brown sugar, molasses and cinnamon. It has a flavor reminiscent of baked beans with much more depth and richness. If you're like me and have been making chili fairly regularly since September, this may be a nice change of pace from the traditional style.

The recipe below makes nearly a gallon of soup (perfect for a big group!). It halves or even quarters fairly easily, so feel free to adjust accordingly.

Black Bean Soup
2-3 Hours, Mostly Unattended
Makes 1 Gallon
A Spoonful Original, Inspired by Mark Bittman

  • 1 ½ lbs. black beans, dried
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 3 onions
  • 4 large cloves garlic
  • 2 large (33 oz.) cans diced tomatoes
  • 3 cups brewed coffee
  • 3 Tbsp. chili powder
  • 1/3 cup molasses
  • 3 Tbsp. brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. salt
  • 1 Tbsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 9-12 cups water

1. Fill a stockpot half full of water and soak the beans overnight. Drain and set beans aside.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Dice the onion and garlic, then sauté for 5-8 minutes, or until onions become translucent.
3. Add the tomatoes and their juices, coffee, chili powder, molasses, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and drained black beans. Add 4 cups of water and bring the mixture to a boil.
4. Reduce to a medium-low simmer and allow to cook, stirring occasionally. Add an additional 1-2 cups of water whenever the chili begins to cook down.
5. Check the beans occasionally for doneness. Continue to simmer and add water until the beans are cooked through (should be slightly firm, but not at all hard or crunchy).

Tips and Tricks:
  1. There’s a definite taste difference with dried beans – give it a try if you have the extra time to soak them. However, if you choose to substitute canned for dried beans, skip step 1 and add the beans at step 3. Add the water in step 3 one cup at a time until the chili is the proper consistency. Be sure to drain the beans and omit the salt until you’re able to taste the chili.
  2. The amount of water you’ll use depends on how thick you want the chili to be. If you’re nervous about adding too much, add less at a time and keep a closer eye on the chili as it cooks to make sure it doesn’t dry out.
  3. Cilantro and sour cream or queso fresco make fantastic toppings!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Spoonful of Something's 2012

Once upon a time a blogger had very good intentions of providing her readers 12 festive recipes through a countdown to Christmas. Unfortunately, she forgot she has a full time job and volunteers away many (possibly too many?) of her few hours outside of the office. Then she got distracted by travel plans, seeing family and other sources of general holiday cheer (not the least of which were piles and piles of crappy but so fantastic holiday food). Next, her appendix nearly exploded so she got some unexpected quality time at the hospital. And then two of her best friends got married. After that, she realized she had no food in her refrigerator other than a half-eaten jar of salsa, soy sauce, mayonnaise and spoiled milk. At some point there were supposed to be ginger bread men and peppermint marshmallows...

Despite what you may infer from the description, my holidays were a blast. I'm not even excluding the part where I had to eat hospital jello. The unanticipated ignoring of my blog also allowed me ample time to step back, revisit my purpose (because I would like it to be a little more than just me spouting my opinions) and give some direction to the content I plan to provide throughout 2012. 

There are two subjects you will hopefully find an abundance of information on in the next year. The first is low-budget cooking. This is the place I will leverage what I learned taking on the hunger challenge last fall and ensuring I continue to learn the best methods to cook with limited resources. The other subject I want to focus on is managing meals for vegetarians and omnivores who live under the same roof. This topic is near and dear to my heart because I refuse to give up steak and am very fond of a man who refuses to eat animals (a very stubborn couple we make). I enjoy having meals together, but we don't always eat the same thing. I've come to find this mixed-dining situation is not terribly uncommon within other households. I've learned some great ways to work around different culinary preferences in the last year and want to continue exploring this topic and share with all of you what I find.

Not to fear. There will still be the occasional look-what-freak-show-of-a-baked-good-I-made posts (case in point, homemade sprinkles will be featured soon). Spoonful of Something is meant to be a window into my kitchen. I know I'll be cooking with more purpose in 2012 than years past and I hope you'll enjoy being along for the ride.