My Beef with the Beef Industry: Making the Move to Greener Pastures

A few posts back, I let it slip that I have joined the bandwagon of label-scrutinizing folks in hunt of the much-hyped-up phrase, "hydrogenated oil." This has been, for me, a challenge to eliminate trans fat from my diet almost exclusively. If I'm at a restaurant, I make judgement calls - I do not ask for ingredients lists. However, brands - from grocery store amenities to chain food eateries like Dunkin' Donuts alike - I research to the point of exhaustion. So, I may go to Insert-Local-Cafe-Of-Your-Choice and not ask if the peanut butter is the crummy trans fat kind (although you won't see me ordering a pie crust blindly - this is no ignorance is bliss campaign); but I did send an email to corporate Rita's requesting information on trans fat status (for those of you in the area who know what the heck Rita's is, all of their products except cream ices are guaranteed free of hydrogenated oils!) before starting my routine Rita's runs this summer.

All of that wordiness, to say that my next challenge is approaching. Originally, I was planning to cut back on those sugary treats. You see, I eat really well during the day. Really well. And I exercise almost every day. I can afford to eat dessert every day if I feel like it. The problem is that dessert, for me, does not stop at one brownie or even one Very Large Brownie With A Scoop Of Vanilla Ice Cream On Top. No, I have developed the bad habit of inhaling three brownies topped with more ice cream than I definitely should, without even blinking an eye. So, I wanted to take a step back, slow down, and learn to appreciate those cakes and brownies and bowls of ice cream. That's not to say that if I finished my One Modest Brownie with an Equally Acceptable Dollop of Vanilla Ice Cream and my tummy was still a-rumbling, I would deprive myself of anything else saturated, saccharine, or otherwise fully delicious. It was more to just be able to appreciate the flavors and the dessert for what it really was, rather than - pardon the image - snarfing the whole thing down in one fell swoop.

That was to be my next challenge, until I sat down to finally watch the documentary, King Corn. I don't know how many of you have seen it, but it just about made me want to go on the raw food diet, because that's about how much variety avoiding corn products gives you. I soon realized, though, that I am not all that crazy (yet), but am certainly bold enough to swear off non-grassfed beef for good. As a first step. This first step is a big step for me, not because I'm a big red meat eater (did you guess from the mountains and mountains of poultry recipes I dole out to you guys?), because I most certainly am not, but because, well, grassfed beef is expensive. And not, to my knowledge, sold at the local Giant that my family frequents; rather, it is sold at the Way Across Town Whole Foods, which my family sparingly frequents and never ever pays for meat there. And my family definitely will not change just because I decided to, meaning I will watch them eat their non-grassfed steaks and their non-grassfed burgers, and I will look begrudgingly down at my quinoa burgers and black bean burgers and piles of broccoli, wistfully imagining a world where I could eat natural food without selling my soul and entire savings account to the Corporate Food Devil.

So, I am saying goodbye to steak and burgers. Okay, I can't lie, I'm not starting this until after Sunday because I can't celebrate The Hamburger Holiday with a black bean burger. That's called diving into the deep end, folks, and I much prefer the inching into the kiddie pool school of thought. Still, I wanted to share this with you, because I'm kind of into Nutrition and kind of into sustainability and have been entertaining the idea of pseudo-vegetarianism (aka becoming plant-based).

What do you think of processed foods? Cattle and feed lots? King Corn? Food Inc.? Vegetarianism for environmental reasons? For animal rights reasons?

I just want to know, because King Corn made a hell of an argument (whilst the main dudes of the documentary sat eating the Golden Arches Burger Itself, naturally) for giving up grainfed beef. You see, grain kind of kills the cattle, which we would find out for certain if we didn't slaughter them right as they started to get sickly. Also, beef that comes from sad and corn-fed cows has about 6.5x the amount of saturated fat as the stuff that comes from happy grassfed cows! Crazy, right? So not only are we making them sick and killing them, but we're contributing largely to the heart disease rates that are making us sick and killing us. Also, feed lots are tragic and disheartening, and really downright disgusting when you think about it. Aside from the whole cost and convenience aspect of it, I can't find many reasons not to tackle the beef industrial beast, so to speak.

This blog isn't really about my journey through these random, self-imposed challenges that I think up every couple of months (and just to be clear, moving on to grass-fed cattle doesn't mean that I can now go back to trans fats; I build the new challenge on top of the previous ones, so all of the old rules still apply); so, I won't log on here and tell you all about that juicy burger I turned down and how very hard it was to do so, nor will I wave my hands up in the air and jump and shout about some marvelous restaurant that uses natural beef (I say natural because, hello, cows were made to eat grass). I just wanted to write a post about the next challenge I'll be facing, because maybe Someone will find it mildly interesting, and it would shake things up around these Recipe Parts of the internet.

Speaking of recipes, though, I'll be back with pictures and lists of ingredients very soon. I have two desserts planned that I hope turn out well so that I can continue to be excited to share them with you, and it's getting to be time for me to try to cook dinner again soon.

So you will be hearing from me soon, but until then, I would really love to hear from you - your thoughts, opinions, memories, experiences, anything! Tell me your beef. Or something.

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The I'm-Sick-of-Chicken-So-I'm-Making-Turkey Grilled Herbed Turkey Recipe

I will branch out, I will branch out, I will branch out: this is what I have been internally chanting all week, ever since my kept-under-wraps chicken burn out. I just can't make it anymore. For a while, that is. I would love to make nice, light quinoa and chickpea salads, tofu and fresh vegetable stir fries, non-beef burgers of any kind, layered salads and chicken salads without mayo (yes, it's possible and delicious!), and...okay, so that last one was chicken, but it's the kind of chicken recipe that half of my family would never eat, so it counts. Regardless, I need new and different, but am met constantly by a big, brick wall called Some-Of-My-Relatives-Have-Limited-Food-Preferences, and until I own my own house and make the rules, I don't get to tell them to suck it up and either eat what I put in front of them, or don't eat.

I'm going to be such a compassionate parent.

So, turkey was my compromise to not-chicken-but-not-wild-and-crazy dinner. It was actually wonderful, and I only have two complaints: (1) my grocery store does not sell turkey cutlets not soaked in what they call "solution to maintain freshness" and I call "salt." (2) I cooked it too long because I was just too darn worried about serving raw turkey, a la my last attempt at turkey cutlets. In other words, the recipe was bursting with flavor and easy as pie to execute, and my complaints have absolutely nothing to do with the recipe itself. Speaking of the recipe...

Grilled Herbed Turkey, courtesy of Cuisine at Home eRecipes
Yield: 2 servings (4 if you follow my changes in parentheses)
The Ingredients: The Marinade
1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley leaves (omitted, regretfully: not even a teaspoon of dried could be found in the Floptimism cupboard)
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh oregano leaves (3 Tbsp. dried to kind of make up for the lack of parsley)
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and black pepper (omitted the salt - I never salt my meat)
(Added: 1/2 Tbsp. dried Basil, again to try to supplement the parsley a little)
2 turkey tenderloins, about 12oz. each (I'm sorry, but no one person needs 12oz of turkey tenderloin for dinner. I got 4 cutlets, one for each person; you could also buy 2 turkey tenderloins of about 12oz. each and then, you know, cut each one in half to be more realistic on the protein front)
The Ingredients: The Sauce
1 strip bacon, diced (I used turkey bacon, which generates less fat and drippings, but I didn't find that to be a problem)
2 Tbsp. minced shallot (omitted - they couldn't be found in the store, apparently)
2/3 C dry white wine
2/3 C apple juice
3 Tbsp. pure maple syrup (I confess, I used Aunt Jemima - I just used less of it, about 1 Tbsp)
2 tsp. dijon mustard
Juice of 1/2 lemon (or, you know, 2 Tbsp. of the bottled stuff)
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened (I used salted)
1 tsp. all-purpose flour (I wound up using more than that - also, I learned with this recipe that you don't add flour to hot liquid without mixing it in with some cold water first.)
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh chives

The Method
1. Wash that turkey! Especially if yours comes in a saline solution as mine did, take the time to really rinse it. I don't know how much salt comes off, but boy did I scrub away in the hopes that it would!
2. Combine all of the marinade ingredients together in a plastic ziplock bag or pie dish (my favorite), and coat the turkey on all sides. Let marinate for 15 minutes (or more).
2. Coat the grill with nonstick spray (or don't, as I didn't), and preheat to medium.
3. Saute the bacon in a small pan over medium heat until crisp, about five minutes; drain on paper towels.
4. Add the shallot to the pan and cook until softened, about 1 minute. Deglaze the pan with the wine and apple juice; simmer 3 minutes. Whisk in syrup, mustard, and lemon juice; bring to a simmer again.
5. Blend the butter and flour and whisk, whisk, whisk! into the sauce. Simmer (again) until the sauce is thickened, about 2 minutes (yeah, right!); season with (salt and) pepper.*
6. Grill the turkey over direct heat, covered (just realized I forgot that part...) for 8 minutes, and then flip, cover (forgot, again), and cook to an internal temperature of 160 degrees (I actually whipped out my meat thermometer for this! And am convinced that it's wrong, because I pulled it off at "150F" and served slightly overcooked meat. Go figure).
7. If you're using tenderloins and not individual cutlets, let the turkey rest 15 minutes before slicing. Otherwise, just serve it as is!
8. Drizzle turkey cutlets or slices with the sauce and sprinkle with bacon and chives.

They suggest serving it alongside their Pattypan Squash & Pea recipe, but that's just way too out there for my family, so I gave them regular 'ole baked potatoes and, for the adventurous ones, green beans.

This is a very robustly flavored meal. It's sweet but savory, and maybe a little too herby if you take the dried route. I'm imagining it with apple cider instead of some or all of the juice, or adding stuffing and baking the turkey for a more autumn-themed dish. Regardless, this grilled turkey recipe is dirt easy to make and it pleased (most of) my family. I couldn't really ask for more.

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Please, Sir, I'd like (Israeli) S'more(s)

I know, I know, you must be looking at this picture and thinking, "Jess, I'm sorry, but you've lost your mind. What do you mean S'mores? Where are the graham crackers? And why in the name of sacrilege is there a banana on that plate?!" These, my friends, are Israeli S'mores, also known affectionately by me as, The-Dessert-That-Allowed-Me-To-Eat-S'mores-Even-After-I-Gave-Up-Trans-Fats-And-Therefore-Can-No-Longer-Eat-Graham-Crackers.

It was a sad day in my life when I discovered that, although the Graham products have such a nutritious and well-intentioned history of whole grains, recent times have added the lovely ingredient called partially hydrogenated oil, trans fat's sneaky alter ego. You see, the FDA decided it was a good idea to let companies claim that their products have 0g trans fat, just so long as the actual amount is less than .5g. The problem with that is that we're not supposed to eat more than 2g of trans fat all day, and these companies can get their bad fat count down to .49g per serving (talk about incentive for portion distortion!) and still brag about how they have 0g of trans fat and therefore must be super-duper healthy. So, say you go and buy graham crackers, and the serving is 3 squares. And let's just say that their actual trans fat count is .49g. And let's just say that you don't eat 3 of them. Let's say you eat 6. Suddenly, you're at .98g, half of your day's allowance, and you still think you're at o!

Okay, enough of my soap box. It's good enough to know that I gave up non-naturally occurring trans fats (re: I still drink milk), which is a shame because my family just bought a fire pit for the mountain house we were just at for Father's Day weekend, and the only thing I think about when I hear the words "fire" and "pit" together is S'mores. Can you blame me? Needless to say, I was dejected and sitting there mulling over in my head how I could enjoy S'more-like treats without the graham cracker - that is, until my sister told me about these Israeli S'mores. Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to tell you that these are a S'mores substitute, per se, unless you're crazy like me. Bananas are just not the same as Graham Crackers: in case you hadn't noticed, bananas do not tend to be thin and crunchy with a flavor reminiscent of cinnamon. Still, it was a way for me to have something chocolatey and marshmallowy with my family over the fire pit, so I set about making them.

My first attempt was a delectable, gooey, melty....disaster. I decided to freeze the bananas first. This meant that when they heated up over the flames, moisture came out and turned my chocolate squares into syrup and marshmallows into fluff. And it was very finger-licking-good messy to eat.

My second attempt, which I am sharing with you now, did not go much better. No, I didn't freeze the bananas this time. I did learn that lesson. But you see, you're supposed to slit the banana without halving it, and then somehow pry that sucker open and insert both marshmallows and chocolate into the center without cracking, bending, splitting, or otherwise massacring the banana. For the life of me, I cannot figure out how to do this. Because of this, my second Israeli S'more was essentially just as finger-licking good messy as the first, but more delicious because of the whole banana-defrosting-and-melting-everything-in-its-path avoidance thing.

I definitely need to perfect my method more, so I will leave you with the instructions that I was told rather than my own tips for making these unforgettable. Maybe you will have better luck interpreting the instructions than I did. If you do, please help me! The flavor combination is really wonderful, and I would love to be able to figure out the perfect ratio and set up method to make it really work. In the meantime, even if you fail royally as I have, you're left with a creamy, filling banana stuffed with gooey marshmallow and melty, pure chocolate. And even if your fingers get all messy and the banana falls to pieces and you need a napkin or two or five in the end, it's worth it.
Israeli S'mores
Yield: 1
The Ingredients
1 very very very just barely ripe banana (my sister originally told me one very very very ripe banana, but I'm convinced that she's mistaken)
2 marshmallows, halved (or, you know, stuff them in to your heart's content - who am I to say what the correct number is?)
4ish squares of Hershey's chocolate (again, these amounts are totally meaningless - put however much chocolate you'd like into them. This is just what I did, and found that's how much I could fit easily.)

The Method (subject to change upon further investigation)
1. Slit the banana hot-dog style without totally cutting it in half. Think hot dog buns.
2. Arrange the marshmallow(s) and chocolate square(s) in between the banana bun you just created, so to speak.
3. Wrap in aluminum foil. This is about to get messy.
4. Heat in your heating machine of choice (just please, please not a microwave): oven, toaster oven, grill, fire pit, you know, anything to get it hot.
5. Unwrap (Careful: it's hot!) and enjoy! (Fork recommended, but not required).

So, I really have no idea how to make this perfectly. I am no Israeli S'more professional. However, I have thoroughly enjoyed both attempts at it, even if they don't photograph well or fully embody the livelihood of a true S'more. They're still darn good, and you should try them.

And that's all I have to say about that.

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Zucchini Chips: The Perfect Summer Meal Accompaniment

Summer is here, and it slammed into us full force as soon as the 21st rolled around. I don't know about where you are, but here, it is bordering on sweltering. Now, I mostly love this weather. I'm that person who's always cold. Always. So, humidity? Heat warnings? Bring it on! That is, until you stick me in a kitchen and demand that I put food on the table. Who wants to cook when it's like this? Who wants to eat when it's like this, much less heavy casseroles and meat-based dishes? So, that's where the Pizza Muffins came in yesterday.

Now, I couldn't just serve little pizza bites for dinner. I also cut up some fresh fruit and would have tossed together a salad, were it not for the fact that my vegetable crisper now holds just a measly half a carrot. Seriously. Well, okay, last night there was a measly full carrot, some pepper remains, and one lettuce leaf. And this: a beautiful (okay, slightly old and hinting at smooshy) zucchini. What to do with them, except make zucchini chips? Nothing. Nothing but make zucchini chips is the answer, in this context.

One zucchini does not produce many chips, nor did I even use all of my zucchini slices because, frankly, they didn't all fit on one baking sheet and I just did not feel like making another. I didn't love how these turned out, which I think is partially or mostly or entirely my fault and not at all to do with the recipe. I forgot the parmesan cheese and, of course, the salt (really, I swear, I was planning to sprinkle some on before baking!), and some burned and some didn't bake enough because I really don't know how to slice evenly, and I didn't make any of them as thick as I should've, and the coating really didn't stick all that well because I probably didn't have enough crumbs in the dish to begin with.

I still liked eating them, so you should try them, too. And hopefully you will be more successful in following directions than I apparently am. Can I blame it on the heat? Please say yes.

Zucchini Chips, courtesy of Power Meals
Yield: I halved the recipe and got enough for maybe two serious servings, so I'd say roughly 4 servings with the original (shown below). Definitely no more than that.
The Ingredients
1/4 C dry breadcrumbs (I used half whole grain matzo meal - what I had, apparently - and half panko)
1/4 C (1 oz) grated fresh Parmesan cheese
1/4 tsp seasoned salt
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. fat-free milk (I had 1%; the recipe also says you can substitute 2 egg whites instead)
2 1/2 C (1/4-inch-thick) slices zucchini (about 2 small)
Olive Oil Cooking spray
The Method
1. Preheat oven to 425°.
2. Combine first 5 ingredients in a medium bowl, stirring with a whisk. Place milk in a shallow bowl.
3. Dip zucchini slices in milk, and dredge in breadcrumb mixture. Place coated slices on a cookie sheet coated with cooking spray.
4. Bake at 425° for 30 minutes or until browned and crisp (flip once halfway through). Serve immediately.

Despite my forgetfulness and carelessness with this recipe, I really enjoyed them. They were light but tasty, and I can only imagine what a sprinkling of salt and parmesan would do to them. Definitely a keeper for when you're in need of a lighter side dish.

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Pizza Cupcake-Muffin-Popover-Pockets...or something

I did not want to make pizza tonight. It felt boring and standard, and something I just did at the start of the summer. However, with the heat settling into the neighborhood and the ensuing thoughts of heavy dishes and prolonged times with the oven cranked up to 350+ degrees, I found myself scrambling for a light-but-filling, relatively quick cooking dish. All my family could talk about was pizza. Go figure. So, determined to acquiesce to their requests without sacrificing my integrity, so to speak, I went on a recipe hunt. My Blackle search (google for those of us energy-conscious enough to use efficiently colored web pages but not so hard core that we actually stop using our beloved technology), turned up a wonderful little recipe for pizza cupcakes. Ah ha! Perfect: undoubtedly pizza-y, but with a little twist to keep me on my toes.

Of course, this means that I have not altered my pizza dough recipe to take into account my previous attempt's criticisms/thoughts/musings, so you will likely be seeing pizza again this summer. In normal form. Still, the recipe turned out well, particularly considering how much improvising I did and when taking into account the all-out war I waged with the dough trying to get it into the muffin tins. More on that later.

You can find the recipe for the pizza dough over here, and the inspiration for these wonderful cupcakes at The Cupcake Project. Feel free to follow the dough and filling recipes there, take a look at mine (filling and tomato sauce "recipes" below), or think up your own! Mine was more of a bruschetta pizza pocket, while the one at The Cupcake Project was a squash and feta combo that sounds delicious (but, unfortunately, wildly unpopular with the rest of ma famille). I had enough trepidation over the - oh my goodness - tiny dices of tomatoes as the filling to dare putting in such a frighteningly different veggie.

Here's the general gist of how to put these together (though really, you should check out the link above for the real instructions):
1. Take the pizza dough and wrestle them into muffin tins. If you come out of it unscathed (re: without smudges of flour on your clothes and dried bits of dough on the backs of your arms, forehead, etc.), I commend you, and must know your secrets. I have no method for this. In the end, I got so frustrated with the dough clinging to me, sinking down, puffing up, and letting holes form in itself that I took balls of it, shoved it down into the bottom of the pans, and punched it with my fingers until it stuck to the sides. If that's a method, go for it. I somehow imagine that there is a simpler, more peaceful way of going about it, though.
2. Put some cheese on the bottom of each cupcake/muffin/thing.
3. Add the filling.
4. Put some more cheese on top.
5. If you're me and used your dough inefficiently due to aforementioned war, and therefore have little left over to top the little buggers with, do your best to work the dough up and over the tops, and use the little bits you have on your rolling mat to patch it up. Really, getting it to mostly close is fine.
6. Pop in a 425-450 degree oven for about 15 minutes.
7. Here, you were supposed to take them out, remove them from the tins, place on parchment lined baking sheets and top with the sauce (recipe below) and more cheese. I forgot to do this, and left them in the pans. I think the only thing mine missed was a little 360 browning action.
8. Cook for another minute or so, just until the cheese is melted, and serve!

Bruschetta (ish) Filling
Yield: enough for approximately a dozen pizza cupcakes?? I shall get better at this recipe-generating-and-sharing business. I'd guess it made around a cup. Ish.
The Ingredients
1 1/3 large tomatoes
1/2 - 3/4 white onion
1 segment orange bell pepper
1 tsp. minced garlic (ish) (really, normal garlic would probably be ideal - again, in a household slightly more conventional than mine)
1/2 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. basil (dried, what I had on hand)
fresh ground black pepper, to taste

The Method
1. Chunk the onion and bell pepper and combine in a food processor, chopping until as fine as you can stand it (I attempted to make mine as pureed as possible in the hopes of slipping it into my dinner recipients' mouths unnoticed).
2. Add the rest of the ingredients, taking care to also chunk the tomatoes. Process until a desired chopped-ness. The mixture will look fairly watery at this point.
3. Strain the mixture through a sieve, reserving the liquid. Set the bruschetta mixture aside.

Quick Imitation Tomato Sauce
Yield: Maybe 1/2 cup. It's exactly enough to "frost" the cupcakes.
The Ingredients
All of the reserved tomato juice
1/2 tsp. minced garlic (again, real garlic would be ideal)
1 1/2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1/4 tsp. corn starch (desperate non-sodium attempt at thickening it before relenting and adding the paste)
1/2 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. basil (dried)
fresh ground black pepper to taste
scraps of hand-peeled tomatoes (you don't have to be crazy like me and do this: I had some scraps of tomato left so I sliced them like I would a cantaloupe to get it off of the rind, and then chopped them a little and stuck them in.)

The Method
1. Combine all of the ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and allow to reduce slightly to thicken.
2. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook for roughly 10 minutes, or until it looks like the right consistency. Be sure to mash the chunks of tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon if you are crazy like me and chose to use them.

I served these alongside zucchini chips (coming soon!) and some fresh fruit. It wasn't the most wowing meal ever, but it was a fun and new way to use pizza dough. I love all of these insert-filling-of-your-choosing-here recipes, that can be substituted and mixed and matched to your heart's content. It makes me feel like I'm developing an arsenal of chameleon recipes that will give the illusion that I am constantly concocting new and exciting and impressive things. And you can achieve this illusion, too - no one has to know the truth. Your secret's safe with me.

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Chimichurri Chicken Bites: The Meal That Happened By Accident

I'm sorry for the lackluster picture - Chimichurri Chicken is apparently not very photogenic at all!

This past week, I was introduced to a red chimichurri sauce. This recipe has no limits. It has no boundaries. I can think of so many different guises that such a recipe could take. Forget that this is another recipe attempting to take the always-forsaken chicken breast from bland and boring to flavorful and fantastic - this is a recipe for a sauce, a spread, a condiment. Think: burger condiments, vamped up salsa, pasta dressing - hey, why not a salad dressing for a santa-fe type of salad? I won't say that this was the most earth-shattering amalgamation of tastes to ever hit my mouth, and I certainly have some suggestions (what would an entry in this blog be without my opinionated nose butting into every tried-and-true recipe known to man?) but it certainly is flexible, and I think a good recipe to keep in your back pocket. And to think, I never meant to make this recipe at all!

If you haven't guessed by now, I'm not always the most organized, well-planned and scheduled person in the kitchen (the ironic thing, is that you could not find a more anal person in any other aspect of life). So, it should come as no surprise to you that I walked out of the house the day that my mom was set to go food shopping, without having looked at the recipe I was making that night. We needed ingredients. Luckily, I had the pages bookmarked in a cookbook and asked my sister to go into them and tell my mom the ingredients. She agreed.

I got home, opened the fridge, and saw an odd array of food that isn't normally there: a whole head of garlic (have you noticed we often use minced over here at Floptimism?), hot peppers, and fresh thyme. I panicked. I scurried over to my cookbook and there, sitting on the opposite page of my lemon chicken skewers (remember those?) was a concoction known something to the effect of "Rachael's Chimichurri Chicken Bites." I scanned the recipe - it was hot. Spicy. Different. Would my family eat it? It didn't matter, I decided - I was making it. I wasn't letting these ingredients go to waste. I had enough ingredients to make the lemon chicken skewers that night, and reserved this crazy alternate one for a few days later. So, there I was, with a recipe that I never would have picked for my family, but was forging on anyway.

This trepidation led to a slightly-on-edge cook, nervous already that no one would eat my food and annoyed that my sister put me in the situation of having to make it (alright, alright: she held no gun to my head, but I did tell her to look for "chicken skewers," and I was feeling a little bitter about what I would assume was an honest mistake on her part). Then, I may have not taken the "constructive" criticism as well as I should have. I'm not saying I'm the most resilient character out there - I tend to take things personally and negatively, and read into every suggestion as meaning, "this isn't perfect. You could've done better. Here's how I would change things to do it even better than you did." I understand that's not the case, but when it's happening, that's how I take it. I'll work on it. You see, I haven't cured my Floptimism just yet. Or, you know, much at all.

As it turned out, I enjoyed the recipe. I thought it was a little too one-dimensional with its heat, and could have used a little sweetening up - maybe from a tomato (of course only my own suggestions are constructive and not a sign of my shortcomings). It wasn't burn-your-mouth spicy, but delivered a nice enough kick to keep it flavorful. The recipe, like most of Rachael Ray's, could not be easier to put together at the drop of a hat. I paired it with some more bulgur in an attempt to use more of it from said chicken skewers the other week, but I imagine that in a less-stubbornly-nutritious kitchen, white rice would be just about perfect with it (or, in a moderately-stubbornly-nutritious kitchen, brown rice).

Rachael's Chimichurri Chicken Bites, courtesy of Classic Rachael Ray 30 Minute Meals Cookbook
Yield: 8 servings
2 serrano or jalapeno peppers
1 rounded Tbsp. sweet paprika
1/2 C fresh flat leaf parsley leaves (I used approx. 2 Tbsp. dried)
4 sprigs oregano, leaves stripped (I used approx. 2 Tbsp. dried)
5 or 6 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped and chopped (omitted: by the time I got to make this, the fresh thyme we had bought had vanished, and the dried container was hiding)
2 bay leaves, crumbled (I used dried)
1/2 small white onion, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic
1 C extra virgin olive oil (I put in 1/4 C and it was plenty)
3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar (We didn't have any so I used a different vinegar)
1 tsp. coarse salt (omitted)
1 1/2 - 1 3/4 lb. chicken tenders (I used cubed boneless, skinless breasts)
(added: 1/2 red bell pepper for color and substance)

The Method
1. Preheat a grill pan over high heat

2. Char peppers by holding over a gas flame or placing under the broiler for 1-2 minutes to blister them all over (mine were under there for three times that long without a single blister, but they started to make popping sounds that scared this amateur cook into removing them sans char).

3. Seed and coarsely chop the ppers and place in a food processor. (And remember, never touch your face without washing your hands - that is, unless you'd like to spend ten minutes with your face under your sink's faucet. Seriously, it's not fun, but it certainly teaches you a lesson!) Add paprika, herbs, onion, and garlic. Pulse until finely chopped.

4. Transfer to a bowl and stir in oil, vinegar, and salt. Taste to adjust seasonings.

5. Cut chicken tenders into thirds (or, if using breasts, chunks), and place in a shallow dish. Spoon half of the chimichurri over the chicken and coat completely and evenly.

Note: I did everything up to this step in advance, and refrigerated the chicken and extra sauce until later. If you choose to do this, just don't preheat the pan in the beginning.

6. Using tongs, transfer the chicken bites to the hot grill and cook, 2-3 minutes on each side. Transfer bites to a serving plate. Serve with party picks and reserved chimichurri sauce for dipping (or, if you're using it as a meal as opposed to a party treat, serve over grain of your choosing).

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Restaurant Rantings: A Hunt for Simplicity & Unadulturated Good Food

Father's Day this year, for my family, has turned into a weekend affair in the mountains. My dad asked for a quiet weekend with all of us, just relaxing and spending time together. So, here I am, sitting in a little house, with no recipe or pictures with which to please you. No banana bread. No dinners. Not even a special Father's Day Weekend Breakfast or Brunch.

I considered not updating this weekend. I'd like to spend my time outside, trudging through my copy of Anna Karenina that has been weighing down my bedside table since the beginning of the semester, and forgetting all about trying to draw attention to this blog, trying out new recipes, and combating family members who have wildly different ideas of meal composition than I do. However, I wanted to ask all of you a question:

What are your thoughts on restaurants?

You see, I'm growing to severely dislike them. Maybe it's because I'm a control freak, a frugal spender, and a nutrition & dietetics major. Maybe it's because I enjoy cooking my own food and sharing it. Most likely, it's all of these things combining and preventing me from appreciating a much-loved American past-time. We went out to breakfast this morning, and I ordered an English Muffin. An English Muffin! That's it! You see, I was going to get their french toast and ask for it with blueberries. There's this amazing blueberry farm near the restaurant and I was convinced they would get their blueberries fresh from there. However, being the perpetual pessimist that I am, and highly skeptical of the quality and nutrition of all prepared foods, asked if the fruit was fresh. It was drenched in syrup. The toast comes buttered. There is not a fruit cup on the menu. Egg whites are $1.50 more than regular eggs - do you know how much of a mark up that is?

So, I ordered an english muffin, and figured I'd get some fruit when I got back to the house. Of course, the english muffin came slathered in butter. I ate it anyway, since I refuse to send food back to be thrown away. I'm not so much of a health-food snob that I can't bear to eat a pre-buttered piece of bread, right? Right?? But all I tasted was the butter, and it just got to me, you know? It was the icing on the most disappointing, mood-tipping piece of cake.

Where did simplicity go? Where did fresh food go? Why do restaurants rob you blind for wanting to be healthy? I don't want syrupy blueberries or english muffins drowned in butter. I don't want to have to choose between a defrosted veggie burger patty with no flavor, and a regular specialty burger with spices that sound new and exciting. Health food does not have to be boring or bland, and it certainly should not be so difficult to find on a menu.

So, because my family so evidently finds me insane and unrelated to them as a result of my opinions on this matter, I turn to you. I'd like to know what other people think of the issue. Maybe you don't think it's an issue at all, and that I am making a mountain out of a mole hill in the eyes of many people. That's okay. Agree with me, disagree with me. Sit on the fence! I'd just like to hear the opinions of other people. Sitting in this small house surrounded by the people who raised me, I could use a little shake up.

And when I get back to civilization, I promise you a recipe, complete with pictures. And, in the spirit of shaking things up, let's make it a fantastic new...chicken recipe! I know, I know, my ingenuity surprises even me sometimes.

Happy Father's Day to everyone! I hope that you find a spare moment to spend with your family - whether it be in your own kitchen, or someone else's.

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Best Big Fat Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies (phew!)

Best Big, Fat, Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies: is that name not enough to catapult you into the kitchen, bag of chocolate chips in one hand and flour and butter balanced in the other? If not, it should be. I didn't fall for the name, hook, line and sinker, but I learned my lesson. What convinced me to test out this recipe late last week was the fact that I had this same recipe bookmarked from three separate places. Three blogs/websites had individually enticed me to save this for a later date by all claiming to have the. best. recipe. ever. And, to their credit, they just may.

You see, I'm on a hunt for "my" chocolate chip cookie recipe. Before this, I had been using the one on the back of the nestle chocolate chip bag - and don't get me wrong, it is delicious. It will always hold a place in my heart, with its crispy, buttery, chocolate-chips-sticking-out-of-it-like-mountains deliciousness. However, I must admit, I have a soft spot for, well, soft cookies. Ones that you bite into and they melt, and (now this is a real sticking point for me) don't crumble apart, leaving bits and pieces of themselves on your chest, stomach, lap - anywhere but your mouth, really.

And who else would I go to first for my chocolate chip cookie quest, but The Smitten Kitchen? I often refer to Deb in here as though we are on a first name basis, and if she were to ever become aware that I reference her recipes at least several times a month in such an informal way, who knows how creeped out she would be. The truth is that I find her pictures stunning, critiques and commentary involving, and recipes impossible to resist. So, I trust that one of the chocolate chip cookie recipes that she swears by is nothing short of wonderful. The fact that two other saved websites said the same thing meant that my first attempt couldn't be with any other version.

I have a few changes that I'd like to try out for my next attempt at these, and so I'll make note of them at the end. For now, though, here is the recipe in its original glory:

Best Big, Fat, Chewy, Chocolate Chip Cookies, courtesy of practically everyone on the planet
Yield: 1 1/2 dozen enormous cookies, or roughly 2 dozen decent sized ones (I doubled it and got about 70 very satisfyingly proportioned cookies)

The Ingredients
2 C all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt (omitted)
3/4 C unsalted butter, melted (change: salted, you know me)
1 C packed brown sugar
1/2 C white sugar
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 C semisweet chocolate chips (I did a mixture of regular and minis - which are more compact, so I wound up using a little less)

The Method
1. Preheat the oven to 325°F (165°C). Grease cookie sheets or line with parchment paper.

2. Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt; set aside. In a medium bowl, cream together the melted butter, brown sugar and white sugar until well blended.

3. Beat in the vanilla, egg, and egg yolk until light and creamy. Mix in the sifted ingredients until just blended.

4. Stir in the chocolate chips by hand using a wooden spoon. Drop cookie dough 1/4 cup ("1/4 Cup!!" was my response to this, quickly followed by, "I must try that next time!") at a time (for giant cookies - seriously!) or a tablespoon at a time (for smaller cookies, which are, by any normal-sized person's standards, on the bigger side of cookies) onto the prepared cookie sheets. Cookies should be about 3 inches apart.

5. Bake larger cookies for 15 to 17 minutes, or 10 to 12 minutes for smaller ones (check your cookies before they’re done; depending on your scoop size, your baking time will vary - which is true, considering my "small" cookies took 20 minutes to bake) in the preheated oven, or until the edges are lightly toasted. Cool on baking sheets for a few minutes (re: 30-60 seconds) before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.

These cookies are (almost) everything their name claims: they are big, chewy, and yes, they do contain chocolate chips. They are not so fat. This is one of my grievances. You see, these cookies spread. They spread like it's their job, and can you blame them? They have buttered cookie sheets, obscene amounts of sugar, and melted butter all egging them on. Most of my cookies turned out beautifully: a little crinkly on top with chocolate chips poking through, a crisped outside with a soft and forgiving center. However, they need to be a little thicker. A little, well, fatter, as the name implies. Next time I will do some combination of the following: use parchment paper to eliminate the butter on the baking sheets, decrease the sugar by just a teensy bit, and/or use some device intermediate between a tablespoon and 1/4 cup to give them more bulk to begin with. I will also use chocolate chunks in place of the chips, as a cookie this formidable deserves an equally impressive chocolate component.

I do urge you to make these, either in their original form or with the suggestions I am proposing - on one condition, that is. If you try out my crazy ideas for improvements, you have to report back to me with the results. I'm dying to know what these changes will do to this recipe, but seeing as how I still have some lingering cookies from the 5 dozen I churned out last week, I cannot justify making another batch in the near future. I must be patient...

...but how?!

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Chickpea Pasta Casserole...Soup

Today hovered in the 80s, warm enough for me to break out a pair of summery bermuda shorts, a tank top and flip flops and not spend the day shivering (as someone as stubborn as I am is apt to do). The sun was out, my windows were down as I drove home from class, and in my head I was pondering my plan of action in tackling a nice, light vegetarian dish consisting of chickpeas and pasta. I had been craving a little vacation from meat, my mom was having a rough and busy day, and there was this wonderful can of chickpeas hiding in our pantry, hoping someone would notice it. I certainly did.

When I got home, I started preparing immediately, thinking that I could prep everything early, spend some time doing work, and then pop the casserole in the oven to heat through. Then, of course, it took me 20 minutes to chop an onion (I am desperate for help in this area), and I grossly underestimated the time it would take to caramelize said onion. So, minor setbacks. I managed to pull it all together and things were going smoothly, until I went to add the liquid to the sauteeing chickpeas, garlic, and onions. And what was meant to be a paste reminiscent of hummus turned into a sea of broth. I doctored the recipe in a last ditch attempt to thicken it, but then, my shortage of pasta (a gross misinterpretation of the ingredient list, I fear) did not help.

To make a long story, well, slightly less long, we had a thick, creamy, pureed-chickpea soup with the occasional bowtie pasta showing up on our spoons, on a warm but thankfully not swelteringly hot day. It was not ideal, and I have much hesitation in sharing this recipe with you in its current state, but I will. Because I'm impatient, and maybe you are, too.

Chickpea Pasta Casserole, courtesy of Gourmet Fury
Yield: 8 side dish portions or, as I chose to do, roughly 4-5 main dish servings depending upon your guests' appetites
The Ingredients
1/2 lb. dry pasta*
1 large can chickpeas, drained and rinsed**
1 head roasted garlic (see instructions below)
1 small onion, chopped fine
3 C chicken stock (I used 3 packs of no-sodium bouillon)
1/2 C sour cream (I used light)
3 C grated parmesan (I ran out after 1 1/2 C...)
1/2 C fresh Italian parsley, chopped (I used 2 Tbsp. dried)
Salt and Pepper (omitted)
Good olive oil

The Method
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F

2. Cook the pasta until almost a dente in a large pot of heavily salted water (or, you know, if you're a salt nazi like I am, just cook it in normal water). Drain and set aside.

2. In a large saucepan, sweat the onions in some olive oil until caramelized. Season with salt (optional, if you ask me). Add the chickpeas and garlic and cook over medium heat until the chickpeas are warmed through. Add the chicken stock and bring to a simmer.

3. Blend the mixture until smooth while drizzling in 1/3 cup of olive oil. Note: I did not add the olive oil, as I previously mentioned that I was having consistency issues. It was 100% liquidy and not at all like the pictures from the original recipe, which I encourage you to check out. Here, I also added 2 Tbsp. corn starch to thicken it. Stir in the sour cream. Add the pasta, half of the cheese, and the parsley.

4. Transfer to an oven-safe dish (I used a 9x13) and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.

5. Bake in the oven until bubbly and the cheese is lightly golden, approx 10 minutes. Serve hot, drizzled with more olive oil.

*Note: Here is where I suspect I first went wrong. When I saw 1/2 lb. I said to myself, "Alright, Jess. There are 16oz. in a pound, so there are 8oz. in half. Now, although ounces are weights and cups are volume, a general rule of thumb is that 1 cup is 8oz. So, I'll cook 8oz of pasta, which works out to be roughly 1/4 C per person - a fairly typical serving size for rice, so that should be good, right?" It was nothing. So, I don't know where I went wrong, but you can bet that next time I'll be pulling out my scale to be sure.

**Note: I don't really know what a large can means. I used the typical 15.5 or 16oz. or whatever odd unit they come in, the cans. Maybe that was wrong, too, and had I used a larger size my soup would've been more of the paste that it was meant to be.

The verdict? Delicious! Although the sour cream certainly didn't make this completely saintly, this recipe managed to produce a thick, creamy "soup" (even if it wasn't supposed to) without the heavy cream or butter. Without olive oil. Think cream of potato soup, without the heaviness (and, you know, the potatoes). Think hummus in soup form. Without the olive oil. I cannot vouch for the recipe as it was supposed to turn out, but this in soup form was pretty darn excellent. If you have the same problem that I did, or if you would like a stick-to-your-ribs, protein-packed soup without the heavy cream or pounds and pounds of cheese (my dad thinks the dish could've used more salt and more cheese, but I'm way too stubborn to listen to such attempts at making my meals less healthy), just follow what I did and serve it up with a nice loaf of (homemade!) bread. It might not be a seasonal favorite right now, but come fall and winter, this would be really excellent. Or, feel free to correct my errors and make it the way it was meant to be, which I am very eager to try to accomplish again.

I'm sorry that there are no pictures. I spent the whole time fretting over the dish's consistency that it wasn't until the meal was done and I was staring at the few remnants of the dish on the table that I realized I hadn't taken any (not that it was all that becoming, anyway). So, if you're curious, please look at the original post because the photos there are enough to make you hop out of your seat right now to try this dish. Yes, even if you're reading it as late as I'm writing this post.

I have so many recipes in store for you. I don't know that I'll be cooking again for another week, although the piles of bananas in my freezer are begging to become a banana bread Father's Day treat, but I have plenty of recipes in a back log to tide us all over until then.

How to Roast a Head of Garlic
1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Peel the outer layer of the garlic, leaving the cloves all stuck together and intact.
3. Slice 1/4-1/2" from one end of the head to expose the cloves.
4. Place on a baking sheet (I learned that muffin tins work swimmingly for this, but since I was only roasting one head and muffin tins are a pain to clean, I went with a regular baking sheet), and drizzle with olive oil.
5. Cover with foil and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the cloves are soft.
6. Allow to cool, and when you can manipulate it with your hands, pluck out the cloves and do with them as you please. For this recipe, I mashed them up.

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The Future of Farming

I'm not really sure how much of my summer plans I've shared in here. I feel like details about my routine and schedule tend to slip out here and there, and I can never keep track of what I spill out onto the "page" and what I keep to myself. In case I haven't let you in on the secret life of this blogger, school isn't exactly out for me. I'm taking a summer biology course, and we just finished up our unit on genetics with a rousing discussion on everything controversial with in the field. Basically.

One of the topics that came up, however, was genetically modified crops - a topic spanning everything from inserting anti-pest genes into these plants to reduce the use of pesticides (does that make them safer to eat?), to making corn more easily grown in bulk by isolating the gene that makes it grow upright more than horizontally, to injecting fruits and vegetables with vitamins and nutrients that have no place being there in the first place (take a wild guess how I feel in regards to this subject).

From a nutrition standpoint, as well as from the perspective of someone interested in sustainability, the environment, organic products and the livelihood of small time farmers, all of this both fascinates and horrifies me - yet there are so many people who think that this direction will lead us into health, happiness and prosperity. And, as one of the girls in my class pointed out, we can't see into the future. I'm skeptical of the benefits of such genetic modification, but in the end, I know little more than the person standing next to me.

Although I have yet to receive a comment here, and I'm new to the Food Blog website so I don't suspect many people have stumbled upon this blog, I'd like to ask your opinion. If you are reading, that is. The discussions I have are so limited to people from similar backgrounds to myself: if it's my family, I've grown up with them; if it's my friends, we're clearly like-minded on many things; and if it's my classmates, we're at least the same age and therefore tend to be on somewhat of the same line of thought.

What do you think of GMO's and companies like Monsanto? What are the benefits and risks of adding nutrients to everything from rice to oranges? What place do farmers have in a world where agriculture has been transformed into a laboratory science?

And, more than anything else, how much say do we as citizens currently have about what we use to fuel our bodies?

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Tabouleh-Stuffed Tomatoes with Chicken Skewers

Dessert, dessert, dessert! It seems around these parts all I do is show you pictures of my attempts at cakes, cookies, cupcakes, and other confectionery concoctions. Despite all of these baking excursions (of which I do, admit, have more to share), I had a goal to cook dinner at least once a week this summer. I have utterly and miserably failed so far, but do have some actual meals to share with you in spite of that. Maybe I'll get back into the swing of things and really cook dinner at least once a week, but having a summer class that leaves me out of the house until around 5 or 5:30 Monday-Thursday makes things difficult. It's like I have a job or something. What am I going to do when I'm shoved into the real world, with real schedules and real responsibilities? My mom doesn't get home some nights until 7:30, and dinner is always on the table by 8. How do all of you do it?

This tomato and tabouleh salad with lemon chicken skewers is not proof of my attempt at juggling a late class with cooking. I did this on an off-day, so I had plenty of time to prep. I cheated. However, I could have easily done this upon walking in the door at 5:30 on a weekend - it's that simple. After tasting it, I have a few tweaks, so I'm posting the original recipe with - of course - my changes in parentheses and italics. It came from Rachael Ray's Classic 30 Minute Meals cookbook that I have and have referenced here several times already. It's a pretty safe collection of recipes, and please note that safe is no euphemism for boring or bland. I have been able to branch out (who would have pegged my family for trying bulgur?!), while still delivering delicious, simple, and crowd-pleasing meals.

I should get some kind of compensation for this kind of positive advertising, don't you think? Anyway, here's what everyone really cares about: the recipe.

Tabouleh-Stuffed Tomatoes and Lemon Pepper Chicken Tenders, courtesy of Rachael Ray's Classic 30 Minute Meals cookbook
Yield: 4 servings (though there were plenty of tomatoes leftover for us, since not many people took a full tomato for themselves)
The Ingredients
3/4 C bulgur wheat (available in the rice section)
1 C boiling water
The juice of 2 lemons (change: I used one, and the lemon flavor was very present)
1 C or 1 bunch chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (change: roughly 2 Tbsp. dried, as my mom won't always buy all of the fresh herbs called for in a recipe to cut back on cost)
1/2 C or 1/2 bunch chopped mint leaves (change: I used roughly that amount fresh from my garden, and I honestly did not like what it brought to the table. It was over-powering and the grittiness of the leaf, despite being chopped, did not work well with the rest of the dish. Everyone else pretty much agreed, though perhaps less vehemently.)
1 plum tomato, seeded and diced
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste (omitted)
4 large vine ripe tomatoes or beefsteak tomatoes

1 lemon, grated and juiced
Approx. 1/4 C extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb. or 20 pieces chicken breast tenders (change: I used skinless, boneless chicken breast that I cubed and skewered. Although my family doesn't buy organic meats, nor do I purchase full chickens to bone and split into different sections of the bird, I cannot justify buying a package of chicken breast tenders. They are so marked up due to the process by which they obtain them, and the fact that there are only two per full chicken. And you know what they say about the more hands that touch your food from farm to table...)
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste (omitted the salt - I never salt my meat before cooking, I don't care what all of the top chefs in the world do.)
10 bamboo skewers, roughly

The Method*
1. In a medium bowl, cover bulgur wheat with boiling water and stir. Cover the bowl and place it in the refrigerator to rest and soften 20 minutes.
2. While that is working, start on the chicken. In a shallow dish (I use a pie plate - yes, the very same ones I bake pies in! The sanitation board would have my head for such a confession; I'd lose my ServSafe certification, for sure), combine the lemon zest, juice and olive oil.
3. Season the chicken with (salt and) pepper, and pour half of the marinade over the chicken. Turn the chicken in the marinade to coat lightly, and either set aside if ready to cook immediately, or cover to refrigerate for later use.
4. Cook the tenders (or cubes) in a large nonstick skilled, grill pan, indoor grill or, if you're me, outdoor grill, for "3 minutes on each side." Mine cooked for roughly 7 per side and came out plenty juicy, though maybe that's the difference between cubes and tenders, which are admittedly much thinner. Use the reserved marinade to occasionally baste the tenders as they cook (or, if you're me, throw it all in at the beginning and don't bother with sporadic lemon juice baths).
5. While the tenders are cooking, add lemon juice, parsley, mint, scallions, and chopped plum tomato to the tabouleh and toss to combine. Dress the salad with olive oil, (salt) and pepper.
6. To serve, cut a large, ripe tomato into quarters, leaving the skin intact on the bottom so that the tomato resembles an open flower (or butterfly, I think). (Season with salt and pepper - is it just me, or do the salt and pepper get a lot of action in this recipe?) Pile a generous amount of tabouleh salad over the wedges of tomato (spillage is perfectly acceptable), and place 2 chicken skewers on top. I put everything on one serving dish and it fell to pieces when serving, so if you have the patience to plate everyone's for them, it makes for a prettier process.

All in all, I really enjoyed the meal. I think the tabouleh was better the next day heated along with the chicken instead of cool, but it was certainly excellent chilled/room temperature. The only real complaint I have is the overbearing nature of the mint, which I will omit next time completely.

*note: I didn't make the bulgur this way. I had never made it before, so I got a little worried and just followed the package instructions for making it. Essentially, you boil together 1 part bulgur to 2 parts water and cook for almost 15 minutes, then drain all that hasn't been absorbed and continue on with the recipe. I'm still not sure about the necessity of presoaking, which the instructions didn't call for but a recipe on the bag did. Does anyone know more about this? I'm pretty sure it's not like non-prepped Quinoa or dried beans, and my family and I certainly survived without the preliminary soak, so I get the nagging feeling that it isn't essential for all bulgur recipes.

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Chocolate Ganache & Raspberry Curd Shortbread Bars: aka how I got rid of leftover cake ingredients

Do you remember how, way back in May when I made my sister's graduation cake, I told you that I halved the cake recipe but left all of the fillings the same? You know, just in case something disastrous were to occur and I realized I would need extra? Well, thankfully, something disastrous did not occur (at least, not anything that put my cake fillings in harm's way), and I was left with a bowl each of chocolate ganache and raspberry curd.

After such an elaborate baking process the week before, I wanted something simple. I also didn't want to have to go out and buy extra ingredients, because baking for fun can get expensive - no matter how cheap flour and sugar are. Immediately, I thought of one thing: a layered bar. The ganache hardened beautifully, the curd remained creamy, and so not only were the flavors made to be paired together from the previous recipe (the bitterness of the chocolate cuts the sweet tartness of the curd better than you can imagine), but the textures would contrast each other wonderfully. More importantly, nothing would come between my taste buds and the purity of this combination - except, of course, the subtle shortbread vehicle through which I would accomplish this bar.

One problem - I don't have a staple, go-to shortbread recipe. Scratch that - I didn't have one, but after testing out Alice Medrich's Twice Baked Shortbread recipe, called to my attention by Deb over at Smitten Kitchen, I don't know if I will try another version of Shortbread out again. There are five ingredients and it took me less than three minutes to put together (me! the slowest baker on this planet!), and then it goes through a lot of inactive prep time, like letting the dough sit for 2 hours or overnight, and baking it two separate times on relatively low heat. I cannot attest to the necessity of these elements, as I followed the recipe to a T (almost, anyway...) the only time I made it; however, I trust that it does do something magical.

So here it is, my thrown together recipe for using leftover cake fillings! Feel free to swap in just about whatever you have: a lemon curd, a chocolate mousse, maybe even a buttercream frosting to turn it into an iced shortbread.

Chocolate Ganache & Raspberry Curd Shortbread Bars, shortbread recipe courtesy of Deb at Smitten Kitchen.
Yield: 1 8x8" pan's worth of delicious dessert
12 Tbsp. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and still warm (change: of course, what did I have on hand? Salted - I just omitted the salt later on)
5 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract or the scrapings from half a vanilla bean (I used the extract)
1/4 teaspoon salt or a couple pinches of flaky maldon (omitted)
1 1/2 cups (6.75 ounces) all-purpose flour
Turbinado, Demerara or granulated sugar for sprinkling (omitted, but this would be excellent if baking the bars without adding toppings)
Leftover baking ingredients; be creative! (I used the rest of the chocolate ganache and raspberry curd whose recipes can be found here) and some leftover 100% dark chocolate shavings from the Black Forest Cupcakes)

1. If using a pan with a removable bottom, grease the pan; if using the one-piece 8-inch pan, line it with aluminum foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides.

2. In a medium bowl, combine the melted butter, sugar, vanilla and salt. Add the flour and mix until incorporated. If the dough looks a little too runny to be "pressed" into the pan, just hang in there for another 30 seconds. I was hasty with mine and dumped some extra flour in there, which turned out fine as well, only to realize that the dough needed a little patience and time to come together and solidify slightly.

3. Press the dough into the pan or dish of your choice, doing your best to even it out. Let it rest for 2 hours or overnight. The recipe says there was no need to refrigerate, but I did, and just needed to let it warm up for a little bit before baking the next day (re: I pulled it out as the oven was preheating, discovered a very rock-hard dough in the dish, panicked for 10 seconds, and then stuck it in the oven and resigned myself to letting it bake a few minutes extra).

4. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat it to 300 degrees F.

5. Bake the shortbread for 45 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, but leave the oven on - you still have another round of baking to do! Lightly sprinkle the shortbread with sugar, if using, and let it cool for 10 minutes.

6. If just making shortbread, remove the baked dough from the pan or dish, careful not to break it. Use a sharp knife to cut it into traditional wedges, and place those pieces on a parchment-lined baking sheet (be sure to space them out a little). If you're making the (insert-your-filling-of-choice) bars as I chose to do, leave them whole in the dish for the second baking. I'm sure this alters the end result to some extent, as all sides of the shortbread isn't exposed to the heat, but I didn't see another option if I wanted to put gooey toppings on it afterwards.

7. Bake for 10 minutes, then let cool completely (for plain shortbread) or, you know, mostly - as long as you can stand it before you just have to get those toppings on it in order to have a taste test. Once relatively cool, spoon the raspberry curd onto the shortbread and even out, and then add the layer of (softened, pourable) chocolate ganache over it.* Sprinkle with chocolate shavings, if desired. Place in the fridge (covered) to chill.

*I layered it the other way around: I was afraid that the ganache wouldn't pour well enough, and I would be left with a hot mess trying to spread it evenly over the already mousse-like curd. However, retrospectively, I think the bar would've held up better if the softer layer were sandwiched between two solid ones, as opposed to letting it hang out on top. Still, regardless of the sequence you use, these are delicious, and each layer is both good on its own yet adds something unique to the recipe as a whole. You get the buttery, crumbly shortbread on top of a tart raspberry curd, covered generously with a decadent, almost-too-bitter-but-really-perfect-against-a-raspberry-backdrop chocolate ganache. I raved about the cake, but I think I enjoyed these little leftover concoctions even more - especially when taking into account how much easier they were to make!

Oh, and the pictures? I left for a vacation about an hour after these finished baking, so I chopped some pieces off to bring with me, and took a haphazard picture that weekend of the two last bars. Needless to say, I will post the picture, but don't judge this book by its cover (or the author's lack of illustrative talent, so to speak).

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A Look at Living Locally: Spring Vegetable Pizza

"Local" seems to be the new (okay, not so new at this point) buzz-word, and I fully admit to having jumped onto the bandwagon with everyone else. I've always been interested in reducing waste, recycling - you know, in the I-recycle-everything-I-can-and-fill-up-my-reusable-water-bottle kind of way - but as the environment has become an increasing concern for us and our future, I've started to consider serious ways of helping out. One such way is eating locally, which I have absolutely not yet adopted as a practice. I am more in the research stage of it, figuring out how feasible it is for me, how I will for a nutrition stand point get the adequate vitamins and minerals over the winter months - questions that I'm sure many people have already answered, but I still haven't fully worked out on my own.

Still, it interests me, and so one of the first dinners I chose to make upon completing the semester was a spring-vegetable pizza. I did my research on what was in season, and I combined tips and recipes from all over to put together a meal using only in-season, if not actually locally grown, ingredients. One step at a time, you see.

I would have loved to have baked the vegetables into the pizza, scattering the cheese to melt over it and letting all of the flavors come alive together. However, the majority of the people I was serving dinner to would not have eaten such a concoction. Vegetables on their pizza? How dare I even consider such sacrilege!

So, in an attempt to get my family to actually eat what I put in front of them, I roasted the vegetables separately as an optional topping to an otherwise white pizza.

White Pizza with Roasted Spring Vegetables, courtesy of The Joy of Cooking (for the crust) and various other helpful websites for guidance on roasting spring vegetables and making a white pizza more delectable than cheesy bread.
Yield: Two 12-in. Pizzas
Ingredients - The Crust
1 1/3 C warm water, 105-115 degrees F
1 package (2 1/4 tsp) active dry yeast
3 1/2 - 3 3/4 C all purpose flour
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. salt* (omitted - see note)
1 Tbsp. sugar, optional

Added: olive oil, red pepper flakes, minced garlic** (see note)

Ingredients - The Toppings*** (see note)
1/2 eggplant
1 small or medium zucchini
1/2 - 1 pack baby bella mushrooms
High-Heat Oil
Pepper & Seasonings, to taste
Approx. 1 package of shredded cheese of your choice
Fresh Basil, shredded and scattered

The Method
1. Warm the water on the stove, with a thermometer. This is a really important step, so take off those lazy caps and dig out that candy thermometer in your drawer (or whatever thermometer you have that will read slightly over 100 degrees fairly precisely). Active dry yeast becomes activated in temperatures of roughly 100-115 - too low and it'll just hang out in your dough without doing anything; too high and it will die (I believe 138 is the specific kill temperature, but I could be rusty).

2. Combine the warmed water with the yeast, and let it hang out for just a little bit (maybe a minute). Add some sugar (the yeast feeds off of this, so although the Joy of Cooking doesn't say to add the sugar here, trust me - you should, and I really don't think it's optional). Let this mixture sit for about five minutes, until the yeast is dissolved.

3. Add the remaining ingredients, and mix by hand or on low speed for about one minute. (I have now done it both by hand and in the mixer, successfully.)

4. Knead for about 10 minutes by hand or with the dough hook on low to medium speed until the dough is smooth and elastic.

5. Transfer the dough to a bowl lightly coated with olive oil and turn it once to coat with the oil.

6. Cover with plastic wrap or a clean cloth and let rise in a warm place (75-85 degrees F) until doubled in bulk, 1-1 1/2 hours. Now, I was doing the laundry at the time and I put my bowl on top of the in-use dryer, and it rose beautifully and quickly. The first time I made it, though, I didn't have a really warm spot so I heated up the oven to its lowest setting, turned it off, and let it cool down slightly to try to get it below that kill temperature. Then I stuck the dough in and hoped for the best. It rose, and I know of people whose dough didn't rise in this recipe and the pizza still turned out.

7. Here's where I prepped my vegetables, as it takes me forever and a day to prepare anything for dinner. So, chop up all of your vegetables to their desired size (I quartered the squash and eggplant, sliced down the asparagus and halved some of the bigger mushroom pieces). Drizzle with oil to coat and add any desired seasonings. If not using right away, cover and store in the refrigerator.

8. Once the dough has doubled, preheat the oven to 475 degrees F (my bakeware wasn't safe up that high and it sounded a little extreme anyway, so I think I settled on 425). Grease 2 baking sheets and dust with cornmeal, or place a baking stone in the oven and preheat it for 45 minutes (I just got a brand spanking new Pampered Chef baking stone - not a pizza stone, but a large bar pan - and tested that out for the first time. I also didn't have any cornmeal, so I brushed an obscene amount of olive oil on it to prevent sticking, as per the pan's instructions).

9. Punch down the dough and divide it in half. ROll each piece into a ball and let rest, loosely covered with plastic wrap for 10-15 minutes (since I was making one big sicilian type pizza, I didn't divide it in half).

10. One at a time, or all at once if making one pizza like me, flatten each ball of dough on a lightly floured work surface into a 12-inch round (or large enough to fit your baking container of choice), rolling and stretching the dough. Place each dough circle on a prepared baking sheet or, if using a baking stone, place them on rimless baking sheets or baker's peels dusted with cornmeal. Life the edges and pinch to form a lip. To prevent the filling from making the crust soggy, combine the additional ingredients (oil, red pepper flakes, etc.) and brush them over the top of the dough.

11. Use your fingertips to push dents in the surface of the dough to prevent bubbling, and let rest for about 10 minutes (mine still bubbled - I'll be using a fork next time). Also at about this time, stick those veggies into the oven if you're not topping the pizza with them - they take longer than the pizza does to bake (I believe I read that it was a consensus of about 25 minutes for them, flipping them over halfway through).

12. Place the toppings on the pizza, including a generous amount of cheese (I think I used a full package of shredded mozzarella and provolone mixture, along with a hefty sprinkling of parmesan). Now, here's where I added the basil, but I think I would've preferred to either have it sprinkled on in the last few minutes of baking, or topping the pizza with it post-baking for a fresh taste. I didn't like the cooked herb very much at all.

13. Bake the pizza until the cheese is golden and the crust is brown, about 12 minutes for 2 individual pizzas or 15-20 for the large one (but keep an eye on it during the extra time just in case).

*Now, I know that I'm a salt nazi, so it might come as a shock to you when I say that I almost regret omitting this. The crust was not stellar on its own. It didn't crisp up, so before I jump to the rash conclusion that it needs that salt, I'm going to try pre-baking the crust or cutting the recipe to make it thinner. Then, if that still doesn't work, I might add some of the salt - but not a full tablespoon! I'm not trying to recommend giving you all heart attacks. I'd start with a teaspoon. Begrudgingly.

**I found the ratios for this oil spread online somewhere, and I sincerely apologize for having neither the exact ingredients list nor the site in order to give credit where credit is due. I did try to find it just now and it has vanished into the black whole that is the world wide web. I would say, as is the case with many pizza topping recipes, have fun with it and start with ratios that you think will work best. I definitely didn't sit there with a set of measuring spoons, determined to get it just right.

*** I also don't have an exact recipe or recollection of this part of it. I know, what a lame post on my part, only giving you bits and pieces of the finished product. Really, though, go with what you think is right. If your family loves eggplant but isn't so big on mushrooms, go with a larger eggplant. If you're pining to try fennel, be my guest. I'm sure any combination and ratio would be delicious. Just don't feel pinned down to what I'm writing here - this recipe, it's more like a guideline, you see.

The pizza was a huge success! The flavors on the pizza, even just plain, were phenomenal. I got a kick with the pepper flakes, a little salt from the cheese, and a flavor of garlic that wasn't too powerful but just right. The vegetables were, well, alright. I enjoyed them on my pizza, but I chose olive oil, which had too low of a smoke point. Plus, I crowded the baking sheet and so the vegetables didn't really roast, but stayed a little bit mushy. I wasn't disappointed but I'm not satisfied enough to call this my go-to recipe for roasted spring vegetables.

This meal proved to me that over spring and summer, I really wouldn't have much trouble eating in-season products, and even restricting my consumption to local sources. However, the colder months and my salary-deficient job title of student makes me question the over feasibility of this as a year-long practice. Do any of you eat locally and/or seasonally? Any advice, thoughts, corrections? I would love to hear how other people choose to eat and why, and what decisions they make in an attempt to lessen the damage we're doing to our environment.

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Floptimism: Put to the Test

Today, I meant to have a recipe for you. Tomorrow, maybe I will follow through on that.

If you'll allow me to be slightly self-absorbed and petty for a (hopefully) short paragraph, I have to admit that this summer has, so far, been a trying one - for solely minor reasons, and nothing genuinely serious. I have been busy, stressed, and hard-pressed to find time for enjoyment lately, and it's been taking a toll on my capacity for positive thinking. I like to bake when I'm feeling stressed or otherwise emotional. Or, more accurately, I like to decorate. I like to sit with a cupcake or a sugar cookie or a small cake in front of me, sprinkles and plastic bags and icing on either side of me, and just create. It makes me feel calm, and I can forget about all of those entirely insignificant (yet-world-shatteringly-effectual-at-the-time) issues that have been plaguing my thoughts. However, when the stress originates partially from a lack of time able to be spent in the kitchen, I'm finding myself at a Floptimistic crossroads. My boyfriend tells me I need to make more of an effort to be positive. I can't really argue with him there.

For some reason, I just thought that if I wanted this blog to work badly enough, it would. People would stumble upon it, read it, share things. I don't know. There are a lot of blogs out there, and I now fully realize how lofty of an idea it was that this would magically take off. I'm not sure where to go from here. I wondered if it was even worth it, but I have to say that it is. After all, even if this never takes off and this blog amounts to little more than another website in a sea of endless virtual information, I still have a running chronicle of my growth and journey in the kitchen.

So, I have plenty of recipes to share with you, but none today. I'm sure after I post this, go downstairs to crumble some ginger-lemon cookies (alas, not homemade, but from a wonderful local farmer's market) over the remains of my also-not-homemade frozen yogurt, and then get a good night's sleep, I'll be in a better frame of mind.

And when I am in a better frame of mind, I will not be able to resist sharing with you my Spring Vegetable Pizza, Chocolate Ganache & Raspberry Curd Shortbreads, Jam "Strippers," and oh-so-much-more whose pictures have been collecting dust in my memory and hard drive.

I'll see you on the other side of the proverbial glass, eventually.

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