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Archive for April, 2010

Looking into the eye of the tiger

A recent study seems to point to the possibility that chocolate, while believed to temporarily lift mood, can actually act as a depressant over the longer run.  Of course, the results seem inconclusive and maybe even a little bit contradictory, but still interesting.

I’m sure the researchers accounted for this, but I actually wonder how much is the cocoa and how much is the additives and sugar.  You may have heard that the flavonoids in chocolate, that have antioxidant effects, are richer in dark chocolate and therefore dark chocolate is actually good for you.  The Mayans consumed cocoa as a bitter drink used in special rituals and spiced it with chilies, nothing like the sweet treat that the Europeans later developed.  So “chocolate” really does seem to be a subjective term reflecting a mixture of cocoa and other ingredients.  (Of course, I’m not a scientist, so who knows how they controlled that factor in the experiments.)

The only time I, personally, feel depressed post-chocolate is when I’ve lost my self control and have eaten the whole thing in one sitting.  But hey, if it’s dark chocolate, I do feel less depressed about it.

Read here for the full article on the study.

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Tomatoes and Avocados as sweets?  Yes, these “faux veggies” deserve a second look. Their versatility practically begs us to play around and find new ways to use them. Who’s to say there aren’t other potentially fantastic “double agents” just waiting to be discovered?

Another of my favorite tapas from Mercado de la Reina (see Sobrasada with Brie) is a slice of toasted bread topped with a sweetened tomato jam and a slice of soft goat cheese. Given that the tomato is, in fact, a fruit, this shouldn’t have surprised me the first time I tried it. But, it did. Cherry and grape tomatoes tend to be the sweetest. The recipe for my recreation of this yummy tapa coming soon.

For now, I bring you some ideas for cool concoctions with that clandestine fruit, the avocado.

Idea #1
-Moroccan Avocado Shake
When on a walk through Marrakesh with a friend a few years ago, we passed a fruit shake shop. These shakes were not made with ice; simply the fruit, sugar syrup, and water or milk. I was surprised to see avocado on the menu. Avocado, like tomato, is actually a fruit, although we typically see it salted and prepared with vegetables and/or meat. I decided to go for it and asked for a water-based shake. The resulting product was what I have since referred to as the “Guinness of fruit shakes.”

Thick, sweet, and retaining its avocado flavor, I can say I have never tasted anything quite like it. All in all, I liked it. If only I had stopped drinking when I was full instead of challenging myself to the full glass. I have since thought of other ways to incorporate avocado into mousses and other desserts with less… avocado-ey intensity (see below), and I highly recommend it as a daring and different addition to your home menu. If you don’t want to mix the sugar and water to make the syrup, you can substitute honey. And I recommend adding ice cream or yogurt. And maybe a banana if you’d like.

Idea #2 + Recipe
-Avocado Chocolate-Chocolate Chip Frozen Custard
The Moroccan avocado experience opened my eyes to utilizing the remarkable dexterity of the avocado is as a dessert.  The Philipines, Brazil, and many other countries also know the secret bliss of the sweetened avocado in shakes as well as in ice cream.  There are also some intriguing recipes online for avocado lime pies and avocado chocolate mousse and pudding, but I wanted to do something different. Something that combined the elements of avocado, banana, chocolate, and frozen summer treat. With chocolate chips. Maybe this isn’t the most surprising thing, since my favorite gelato flavors are mint chocolate chip and double chocolate chip.

So avocado chocolate chip it is. By far one of the most delicious things I have ever made. And the only equipment I used included a fork and a bowl. Of course, if you have a blender or processor that would make the texture slightly more consistent. But it’s absolutely not necessary.

The one thing that surprised me–and made me kind of happy in a weird “Look at me, I’m a crazy cook” sort of way–was that I could not find any recipes like it already on the internet! Mousse, pudding, ice cream, yes, but not everything together.  (This is also a lot easier than the ice cream because you don’t need a machine.)  It’s the little things, right?

So this is how it goes, I think you’ll be surprised at how easy it is! If you want to make it less chocolatey (although I can’t imagine why!), use either less cocoa or omit the cocoa altogether. Play around with it!

And this time… I have tons of pics!

Skill Level: EASY
Preparation time: About 10 minutes to mix ingredients, plus freezing a few hours or overnight.
Servings: 2-4, depending on how large your serving cups are.

1 ripe avocado, peeled and pitted
1 banana, not yet mushy and relatively firm

1 tsp lemon juice
3 heaping teaspoons of cocoa (unsweetened)–knock this down to 2 to moderate the “chocolateyness”
1/8-1/4 cup sugar (I eyeballed it; you may want to add slowly, to taste)
About 3-4 Tbsp. dark honey
150-175 grams (5-6 ounces) of creme fraiche (sour cream can substitute)
4 or 5 Lindt dark chocolate thins (70% cocoa)

Mash the avocado, banana, and lemon juice in a bowl with a fork or else in a processor.

No, it's not guacamole. It's avocado and banana mush.

Add the cocoa, sugar, and honey and continue mashing/processing.

My favorite honey in the world

Add the creme fraiche last.

Adding the creme fraiche. OK, maybe I had a little too much fun with it.

Grab the chocolate thins in one hand and break them into little bits by squeezing your fist a few times (yes, it really is this easy). Fold them into the mixture.

Lindt 70% cocoa dark chocolate thins

The most nutritious chocolate treat... ever?

Pour mixture into parfait cups or, if you are at a loss for pretty display glasses like I am, just use regular old drinking glasses, if they can be frozen. Freeze for several hours or overnight.

Ta Da!

You should end up with a gelato-like, nutritious, delicious banana double chocolate chip frozen custard. I am in love with it. Enjoy!

NOTE:  The frozen gelato-like texture may be somewhat difficult to achieve as the ingredients can tend to “overfreeze,” making long thaws necessary.  I am going to play with some ingredients (no milk though) to see how to improve this.  For now, my suggestion to get the perfect frozen texture is to pop it in the freezer for about 3 hours after making to achieve the texture, then transfer to the fridge for 3-4 hours for storage before serving.  Longer freezing time may require longer thawing time.  If you only keep it in the fridge instead of freezing, you will achieve a very rich pudding instead.  Could also be used as pie filling–seems to have gone over well that way according to other recipe blogs!  However you serve it–it’s delicious!

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I made it out to Berlin recently to visit friends.  I thought that, without a doubt, I would walk away with some new wonderful currywurst addiction.  Instead, I fell in love with Kartoffelsalat, or German potato salad, which I picked up as a side dish one damp and chilly afternoon at Curry 36, an apparently famous (according to my travel buddy and Lonely Planet) currywurst stand under a city rail overpass.   (The currywurst was okay, too, but nothing in comparison.)  After that, it seemed like Kartoffelsalat existed everywhere I went.  There are a few different kinds, of course, Germany being a relatively large country and made up of various regions that like to claim cultural independence from each other (try referring to a Bavarian as German and you’ll see what I mean).

Anyways, this particular potato salad was served cold (or Kalter), as opposed to this type of hot German potato salad.  This salad had a light but slightly creamy sauce to it, and my friends and I couldn’t figure out exactly how that was done. Yes, it could have been mayonnaise, and according to the internet it was mayonnaise. But it didn’t taste like mayonnaise.

I looked high and low on the internet but I just couldn’t find exactly what I had fallen in love with.  So I had to improvise. One friend had suggested perhaps sour cream–and that got me thinking.

I took the basic recipe of peeled and cooked potatoes, marinated in onions and a little bit of the water they were boiled in, mixed with vinegar, mustard and seasoning.  Having recently become ridiculously attached to creme fraiche (which is related to sour cream), I thought this would be the perfect addition to add the slightly sour, slightly tangy, creamy texture to the salad that I was looking for.  It came out great!! I also added things not mentioned in the recipes I was looking at, but that had made such a big difference in Berlin: fine rings of radishes, and sometimes green onions and chives, depending on the place. So delicious!

For the dill haters out there, just know that I usually don’t like dill either, but just a little bit of fresh chopped dillweed does add an almost summery quality to the salad.

Skill Level:  EASY

Preparation time:  About 3 hours, including skinning and boiling the potatoes beforehand, and 2 hours of marinating.

Servings:  6-8.

2 lbs. (1 kilo) peeled and boiled medium potatoes

1/2 onion, sliced thin into strings

1/2 lb. (approx. 200 g) radishes (depending on how strong an influence you want–I love radishes), sliced very thin

2-3 tsp fresh dill, chopped

2 tsp fresh green onions (optional), chopped

2 tsp fresh chives (optional), chopped

a few dollops of creme fraiche (approx 3 Tbsp, depending on your preference)

1 Tbsp mustard (more if you really love mustard)

salt to taste

Okay, I cheated once again and used vacuum-sealed, pre-boiled, pre-skinned potatoes, although in this case I do think it would be better to use fresh potatoes because you want to save some of the water in which they’re boiled.  Also, the potatoes in Berlin were a tiny bit firmer than the usual typical American potato salad, and the pre-boiled ones were too soft for my preference.

Chop up the onion into thin strips, slice the potato into disks, mix these in a large bowl and pour a small amount (1/4 cup or less) of the water the potatoes were boiled in (if you have it) over the mixture.  Cover and marinate at room temperature for 2 hours.

After marinating, add vinegar and mustard.  Supposedly the texture would be “creamy” as-is, according to every internet recipe I saw, but it was nothing like what I had in Berlin.  So, I decided to add a few dollops of creme fraiche, which immediately thinned out upon contact with the water, mustard, and vinegar.  That definitely did the trick!

Nice and creamy potatoes, after much ado!

Add in the dill, radishes, green onions, and chives.  You’re ready to go!  Enjoy!

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When I made my third, and last, attempt to go vegetarian, I was living in one of the most difficult places in the world to try this–Armenia.  Things have changed a bit since I lived there, but at that time it was very difficult to keep to a vegetarian diet, especially when the local cuisine is based on meat, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and more meat.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, fruits and other produce in the summertime did help, but the winter was brutal for anyone even thinking of foregoing meat.

In fact, I did such a poor job that I had to occasionally allow myself some fish just to keep myself from keeling over.  My skin turned gray, my hair went brittle, I gained weight from all of the carbs I was eating to feel full.  I clearly did not know what I was doing.  I literally dreamt of meat-filled banquet tables.  I remember waking up one morning, salivating, thinking I had bitten into a chicken leg.  It’s true.  Suffice it to say, this did not work out for me.  After seven months of trying, I gave up.

While I still don’t cook very much with meat at home, I definitely don’t turn it down as a guest in others’ homes, and I do order meat at restaurants.  Of course, even if everything I buy at home is ecologically and ethically acceptable, all bets are off when I am eating elsewhere.  Who knows what’s in that burger?  Do we know if those eggs are from open range chickens fed 100% grains?  I’m still trying to reconcile this for myself, but the truth of the matter is I know that I cannot live completely without meat.  I just minimize where I can.  It’s difficult, because as you may be able to tell, I’ll eat almost anything.  Maybe someday I’ll give it another go, and see how far I get.  It will have to be in a country with ample alternatives to meat.

In the meantime, I do enjoy increasing my knowledge of the vegetarian and vegan lifestyles.  There are plenty of meatless, fishless, eggless, dairyless dishes that I enjoy, and having more recipes under my belt is never a bad thing.  Even if we take small steps at a time, we can make an impact on our health, on the environment, and on the state of animal welfare.  I will expand this discussion of why people go vegetarian and vegan in a later post, and I invite my friends who follow these diets to chime in.  For now, I want to share the Google Books preview of Vegan World Fusion Cuisine, which contains tons of great-looking recipes without any animal products whatsoever, ranging from easy to a bit more sophisticated cooking and preparation methods.  I will eventually attempt some of these recipes myself, but if anyone reading this beats me to it, by all means please write in and share the results!  Click here to see the preview of the book.

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Avocado mousse-stuffed smoked salmon rollsSeafood baked mac and cheese.  It seems that no matter how creative we try to be, someone has already thought of the same thing, or else something extremely similar.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still plenty of room (and need) for creativity.  In fact, the wide range of internet recipes that mob the blogosphere is a great resource–we can find good ideas for new food pairings, improve the recipes we were already working with, and perhaps most importantly, learn from others’ mistakes!

So, when I tried to think of something to do with an avocado sitting on my shelf, I thought that avocado mousse would be a good idea.  Counting on the fact that I am not entirely original, I Googled it and found a slew of avocado mousse recipes, ranging from the savory to the sweet.  Of course, I had also thought of making a dessert with avocado, with banana and possibly with cocoa, and this list of recipes just proved that yet again, many, many people had already beat me to it.  The great thing about this is, I could compare and pick the best ideas and, of course, still add my own to the mix.

I saw that, basically speaking, to make a savory avocado mousse you just mix the avocado with cream cheese.  I also saw that most of the time, people pair the mousse with smoked salmon.  However, the friend of mine at whose house I was going to be eating this snack does not like smoked salmon.  So, I took the basic idea, picked up some specialty cured jamon ibérico to replace the salmon (and also used some leftover turkey slices sitting in my fridge), and grabbed a baguette from my local supermarket, and came up with this:

Skill Level:  EASY

Preparation time: 5-10 minutes.

Servings: Approx. 15 pieces, depending on the amount of mousse you spoon onto the bread pieces.

For base:

smoked salmon slices, turkey slices, cured ham slices, or whatever sliced soft meat you prefer (thin slices of muenster or another mild semi-soft cheese should make a good vegetarian option)

1 baguette (freshly baked or re-toasted prior to meal preparation)

For avocado mousse:

1 ripe avocado (peeled and pitted)

1/2 package of cream cheese (4 oz.)

1-2 teaspoons mustard (to taste–I find using dijon or other specialty mustard is better for this)

half a teaspoon of garlic butter (optional)

salt and pepper to taste

In a medium bowl, mix avocado, cream cheese, mustard, garlic butter (if used) and salt and pepper to taste.  I did this with a fork for a few minutes and it was fine, however if you really want to make it as smooth as possible, feel free to use a processor.  Slice the baguette in half down the middle, then into small pieces, 2-3 inches in length.  (I find that the step of slicing it down the middle makes it much easier to eat.)

Lay a small piece of sliced salmon, ham, turkey, or whatever you have chosen on the bread slices.

Note: These bread slices have NOT been sliced in half width-wise. Don't make my mistake!

Scoop about a tablespoon of the avocado cheese mixture onto each piece.

Easy, fast, minimalist, and tasty.  My favorite combination!

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I love cheesy potatoes au gratin, and I am especially a big fan of Betty Crocker boxed potatoes au gratin, having grown up on them. But I figured there had to be a way to make potatoes au gratin out of real, fresh potatoes and a block of cheese. I poked around on the internet and there are countless recipes, some of them adding onions, some adding flour. But I wanted to go simple, if only to prove the point that it really doesn’t take that much to make a satisfying side dish. This is what I came up with:

Take that, Betty!

Skill Level: EASY
Preparation time: About 25-30 minutes, including skinning and boiling the potatoes beforehand.
Cooking time: About 15 minutes.
Servings: 6 -8.

1 pound of potatoes (the smaller they are, the quicker they’ll cook)
Block of cheddar cheese (quarter pound ought to be sufficient)
Cream
Bread crumbs
Olive oil (optional)
Salt
2 Tbsp butter (optional)

Skin and boil potatoes. I actually cheated and used a vacuum-sealed pack of skinned and pre-cooked baby potatoes (although I did need to rinse off the ascorbic acid to separate the potatoes–ascorbic acid is a form of Vitamin C often used as an antioxidant to prevent produce from browning).

Set the cooked potatoes in lukewarm or slightly cool water to cool them down to the touch, if necessary.  Then slice the potatoes into thin discs. Lay out in a casserole dish. In a small pot, mix over low heat a small dollop of olive oil, and enough cream to melt the block of cheese, which should be cut up into small pieces to help speed up the melting process, stirring constantly. Add butter if desired. Salt to taste.

Pour cheese-cream mixture over potatoes so that all potatoes are covered. Take a couple of small handfuls of bread crumbs and lightly dust over potatoes. Bake at 450˚F (250˚C) for 10-15 minutes or until the tops of the potatoes are browned. Remove and let cool for a few minutes before serving.

This dish was a surprisingly simple hit with my friends, and a nice option if you have to throw something together quickly but only have a few ingredients! If you have more time and more ingredients, feel free to add additional spices, some flour to thicken the sauce, onions, chopped peppers, or whatever you prefer!

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