Black Bean Burgers - even when they fall apart they taste delicious!

I realized the other day that this blog can be / is about to become much more than a secretive way for me to share my experiences in the kitchen as I learn to cook and bake. Now that I have my own place with my own kitchen, even if I'm not moved out of my parent's house yet for good, I can use this to share with them all of the recipes I've been trying out. You know, keep them informed now that they have been relieved of their guinea pig duties. So, if I can be brave enough and practice this new, crazy idea of not getting embarrassed over things that I care about - no matter what other people think - this blog is about to step out of the shadows of strangers and anonymity. Okay, there will still be some anonymity because I don't trust the World Wide Web completely and, although I haven't gathered some alarming following, do not want random browsers to know all of my deep dark identity secrets. However, I will be most likely showing this to the people I care about, and crossing my fingers that I haven't in the past said anything foolish - either that, or they don't go back and read all of my archived entries. Just in case.

That being said, today I have a recipe to share with you for Black Bean Burgers that I could have sworn I already posted. I made it once before and everything went swimmingly - and then, apparently, I kept it all to myself. Can you find it in your hearts to forgive me? Particularly since this most recent time did not, shall we say, go so well.

First, there was my first escapade into the land of Dried Beans, which involved many stove-top overflows and toying with my gas stove which, though everyone swears by its superiority, is something I need to adjust to.

Then, there was the forgetting to remove the bread butts in time to dry out on my counter for bread crumbs, because I took one look at the sodium content of the pre-made bread crumbs and, surprise surprise, chose to make my own.

After that, we ran into a mixture that wouldn't stick, and rather than add a whole other egg as any intelligent cook might do, I decided to forge on and hope for the best.

This led to burgers that fell to pieces when flipped, but this happened only after I discovered that my only baking sheet is too wide to fit into my teensy tiny broiler, and I would have to bake the burgers for some undetermined amount of time.

What I wound up with were a few burgers that managed to hold their own, surrounded by heaps of cooked beans and veggies on my baking sheet. Of course, heaps of cooked beans and veggies tasted identical to patties of beans and veggies once on my pita, but aesthetically and practically it was not as smooth as the first attempt. The only difference was the use of canned versus dried beans, so maybe I over-cooked the beans this time around and they became a little more dried. It's nothing that the extra egg wouldn't have fixed.

So, without further ado, I give you the Black Bean Burger that was an all around success the first time, and a little bit of a mess the second. Both times, easy to make and very tasty, plus a very healthy alternative to a burger on those nights when you just want to eat with your hands.

Black Bean Burgers, or Spicy Bean Cakes, courtesy of $5 Dinners
Yield: 8-12 Burgers
The Ingredients
1/4 large red onion, finely chopped (I used 1 small white onion)
2 hot peppers, finely chopped (I used jalapenos, and de-seeded them, though I wasn't sure if I was supposed to)
3-4 cloves of garlic (I used roughly 1 scant Tbsp. pre-minced)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
2 cans black beans (or the equivalent of cooked dried*)
1 large sweet potato
1 egg
1/2 C breadcrumbs (I used both bread butts of a loaf)

The Method
1. Place the first five ingredients (everything before the beans) to a skillet and saute for 2-3 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, drain and rinse the beans if using canned, and place in a large bowl. Mash them up with, ideally, a potato masher; since I don't have one of these, I mostly used one of those pie butter cutters (I should really know the name for that - pastry blenders?).
3. When the peppers and onions are finished sauteeing, add them to the bowl of mashed beans.
4. Grate the sweet potato into the bowl as well (I remove the skin first, mostly because the original recipe pictures don't seem to include it), and then add the egg and breadcrumbs.
5. Mix all of the ingredients together until they stick. Don't be stubborn like me: if the mixture seems dry, add another egg or some other cohesive ingredient. Make sure the mixture looks blended and sticky.
6. Divide into 8-12 balls (12 is recommended) and place onto a greased baking sheet.
7. Flatten into patties
8. Broil for 10 minutes, and then flip the burgers over and broil for another 3-4 minutes. Because my broiler was too narrow, I baked them on 350 for roughly the same ratio of time, though I really wasn't sure if that was appropriate.

*Note: You can find a very nice set of instructions for cooking dried beans at $5 Dinners, too.

I served this on a whole wheat pita with some mustard, lettuce and tomato. The taste was exactly how I had remembered it - tons of flavor from the beans and sweet potato, not too much spicy (probably because I removed the seeds), and a nice texture for a bean burger. When they don't fall apart as mine did this time, the consistency is spot-on.

I would absolutely recommend giving these a shot. Even if they fall apart, they'd be great on flatbreads or on a bun as a type of vegetarian sloppy joe, or stirred into rice for a different take on a stir-fry. I froze the extras for just those two purposes, and am hoping they turn out to be a recipe that reheats well. I'll keep you posted.

Last night, I cooked for the last night this week - after this, it's leftovers for me. I have to say, I'm looking forward to some faster meals, but I'm glad that I took the initiative to make extras for freezing. I'm also open to any suggestions for this - I'm new at the whole batch cooking. If you don't do it yet, try it out every once in a while. It sure beats reaching for a frozen Lean Cuisine in a crunch.

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Chicken and Eggplant Parmesan: The Meal That Christened My Kitchen

It's official: I have my very own kitchen (okay, that I share with a roommate)! The moving process, which took place all this past week, is to blame for my all-too convincing disappearing act, but now I am back and cooking up a storm in my teensy tiny kitchen. It also happened to be my birthday last week, and while I wanted to write an entry about all of the delicious food made for that, pictures were taken on a family member's camera and have not made their way onto a computer. So, more on that later.

Instead, I come bearing photos and ingredients for the meal that christened my new (old and not at all state of the art) kitchen. For my first night here, I decided to make a batch of chicken and eggplant parmesan. My game plan is to cook in bulk (i.e., for 2-4 people instead of just little ole' me) and freeze/reuse all of the extras. That way, when I get home from class at 5pm, I'll have a quick and easy option. Kind of like my own, homemade tv dinners! The chicken and eggplant parmesan turned out well, although - in keeping with it being a recipe that I thought up dans ma tete - it can definitely use some polishing. The sauce came out too thin, the eggplant got a little dried out, and I think a little bit more layering action would keep the whole thing together as opposed to being several ingredients sitting on top of one another. Still, a very delicious and fairly easy recipe, and I am looking forward to some chicken and eggplant parm sandwiches later on in the week.

Chicken and Eggplant Parmesan
Yield: 4-6 servings
The Ingredients
3-4 chicken breasts (approx. 1 1/2 lb.)
3/4 - 1 C tomato sauce (I used this recipe, but left out the spicy components to try to simplify my grocery bill*)
1 medium or 1/2 large eggplant
1 C spinach
3/4 - 1 C mozzarella cheese
1/4 - 1/3 C parmesan cheese

The Method
1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees while you wash and prep your ingredients.
2. Pour 1/3 of the sauce into the bottom of a glass baking dish; mine was 8x8 because that's all I have here.
3. Place the chicken on top and pour the remaining sauce over that.
4. Cook the chicken in the oven for approximately 20 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, slice the eggplant into roughly 1/4" slices (or however thick you like).
6. Remove the chicken from the oven and spread the eggplant slices in a single layer over the chicken.
7. Return to the oven and bake until the eggplant and chicken are both almost completely cooked, approx. 10 min. I found that flipping my eggplant slices halfway through helped.
8. Finally, add a layer of spinach and a layer of cheese to the chicken and return to the oven until spinach is wilted and cheese is melted, roughly 5 minutes.

I just ate this as is to save room for dessert (you can see where my priorities lie), but I considered pairing it with a traditional spaghetti or side salad for a more filling meal.

Here are a few changes that I might make next time:
-Have thinner slices of chicken, and layer it in a lasagna type of way with the eggplant, spinach, and sauce to keep everything together.
-Thicken the sauce somehow, either by trying a different recipe or adding more tomato paste.

*Note: The sauce recipe makes a whole lot of sauce. I poured the extra into ice cube trays to freeze in 1 Tbsp. portions so that I can pull more out as needed. The extras only took up 1 1/2 trays for me once I was done with what I wanted to use in the recipe.

I think this has all of the same components of both a chicken and an eggplant parmesan, and while it may be a work in progress aesthetically, the flavor and textures are there. There's just enough cheese to make it gooey and savory without completely overwhelming the dish, and combining the eggplant with the chicken adds a nice flavor duo that you don't seem to see all that often. Nutritionally, eggplant isn't a good vegetarian option for the center of a meal, at least in terms of protein and those "good" carbohydrates. Plus, it's low in calories, so adding it to the chicken doesn't make this a heavy dish by any means.

Hopefully I can get a hold of those birthday dessert pictures so that I can share those recipes with you, as well. In the meantime, not only do I still have backlogged recipes from this summer, but now that I have my own place, I should be doing a whole lot more cooking than I used to. I'm pretty excited now, but I have a feeling that coming home from a day of classes and having to make dinner is going to get old pretty quickly...

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Beef Tenderloin with Chocolate: One Sure-Fire Way to Test Someone's Open-Mindedness to Food

Before you make the face that my family made when I mentioned "beef" and "chocolate" in the same sentence (that face would be utter disgust, for those of you still catching on to my family's eating preferences), hear me out. This beef tenderloin is elegant, sophisticated, savory, satisfying and full of complexity. It could not be easier to make or more tender, and the chocolate white wine sauce that it simmers in and then can be dipped in is more than intriguing: it met all of my expectations.

I, too, was nervous to combine savory with chocolate, even though I know haute-cuisine chefs have been singing this duo's praises for at least a little while now. I have been dying to try it, though, ever since I was given The Golden Book of Chocolate, which devotes a full chapter to the brilliance that is savory chocolate cuisine. However, there was no sneaking this one past la famille; they weren't having any of it. Imagine my excitement, then, to find out that one of my birthday gifts from L was a paid shopping spree to Whole Foods to pick out all of the ingredients I'd like for a homecooked meal of my choosing. He knows how frustrated I can get, caught in the rut of chicken-and-starch dinners, so he offered to help cook and eat anything my little heart desired.

At first, I was convinced that I would choose some vegetarian dish, because removing meat from the dinner plate in the Floptimism household is near blasphemous, and must only be done in lasagna/mac & cheese type situations. However, then I got to thinking about Whole Foods, and their wonderful selection of Grass-Fed Beef. I rarely eat red meat anymore, since grass-fed is so hard to come by (and pretty darn expensive when you do happen to find it).

After that, this Beef Tenderloin with Chocolate was all that I wanted. So, ingredient list in hand, we trucked out to our Whole Foods and filled our basket with some good, organic dark chocolate, $27 worth of beef tenderloin (for 2 people! 2! My dad says this is totally reasonable for organic tenderloin, but alas, I remain shocked), and, well, a fruit bar that caught L's eye. We were able to scrounge up the other ingredients between our two kitchens (and my parent's love of white wine), and then picked up some polenta as an experimental side.

The meal went off without a hitch, except for that I cooked the beef for too long because I couldn't help but be paranoid. This did not ruin the dish at all, and I know plenty of people who probably would have preferred the meat the way I cooked it (as in, not pink). I'd really encourage you to try this - it's a romantic meal, a simple meal, and a tasty one. Plus, it's probably something a little new and different, and you know how I feel about shaking things up with food.

Beef Tenderloin with Chocolate, courtesy of The Golden Book of Chocolate
Yield: 4-6 servings (I cut the recipe in half and found it very filling for 2 people)
The Ingredients
2lb. (1kg) beef tenderloin, in a single cut (we could only find them in 2 cuts, which most likely contributed to my slightly overcooking the meat in the end)
salt & freshly ground black pepper (omitted the salt, naturally)
3 Tbsp. butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped (I used a hefty scoop of pre-minced)
1 C (250mL) water
1/2 C (125mL) dry white wine
1oz. (30g) bittersweet (plain) chocolate, finely grated
2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley

The Method
1. After washing the meat, season it with salt (if using) and pepper.
2. Melt the butter in a saute or frying pan, large enough to hold the beef and all of the liquids that will eventually be added (I wound up switching to a simple, medium-sized sauce pot). Brown the beef in the pan until the piece is sealed completely, 8-10 min.
3. Add the onion and garlic, reducing the heat to medium. Saute until the onion is softened, roughly 5 min.
4. Pour in the water and wine, then cover and simmer over low heat for around 15 min.
5. Add the chocolate and continue simmering until the meat is tender, 15-30min. (I went with a scant 15 min. and my two pieces were absolutely done.)
6. Slice the beef thinly and sprinkle with the parsley, serving alongside the sauce for drizzling or dipping.

The polenta was relatively bland, which offered a nice, clean side dish that wouldn't conflict with the flavorful sauce; however, actually salting the water in which I boiled it, as the directions instructed me to, probably wouldn't have hurt. A side salad or even mashed potatoes would be other acceptable accompaniments to the meal.

Really, though, however you choose to serve this, you should do so. It's not inexpensive because of the wine, chocolate, and cut of meat, but it really is something special.

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Please, Sir, I'd Like (Peanut Butter & M&M) S'More(s)...Again!

I confess, I went on vacation. Again. However, even though it meant that I was torn away from this blog for longer than I would've liked, it's responsible for one of the most delicious sweet concoctions I've come up with to date. Do you remember my post about Israeli S'mores, and how excited I was to find a (admittedly unconventional and less crunchy) variation to the traditional s'more without the hydrogenated oils from the graham cracker? Well, I introduce to you now: peanut butter wafer and m&m s'mores. I know, I know. You can notify whoever it is who selects the nobel prize winners. Don't worry, I'll wait.

Okay, so you're back now? Good. This isn't so much a recipe as it is a shopping list along with a few assembly tips, but that doesn't make it any less...well, heavenly, if you ask me. This dessert is rich beyond belief, but so satisfying with its crunchy outside, melty and gooey inside, and subtle hint of chocolate in this Reese's Peanut Butter Cup - Meets - Peanut Butter Fluff creation. Enough talk - I really am too excited to blather on like I usually do.

Peanut Butter & M&M S'Mores
Yield: 1 sandwich
The Ingredients
4 Peanut Butter Wafers (I used Voortman, which has no hydrogenated oils or shortening)
1 unbelievably large (or, realistically, 2-3 normal sized) marshmallows*
M&Ms, to taste

The Method
1. Toast the marshmallow to your liking. We used a fire pit, but I'd imagine that in a pinch even a microwave could work (though a quick pass through the broiler might be your best bet for browning).
2. Slit the marshmallow enough to remove some of the gooey part, and use that to "cement" two of the wafers together. This will be the bottom of your sandwich.**
3. Place the roasted marshmallow on top, scoring the top to reveal some more of the gooey part.
4. Sprinkle with m&ms, and press down so that they stick into the marshmallow.
5. Top with the remaining 2 wafers, optionally cementing those together as well.

*Note: We found these palm-sized marshmallows in the store, and just couldn't resist. I should really take a picture of those to show you guys. If you can't find those or don't want to make a special trip to the store, a couple of regular marshmallows will, of course, work.

**Note: This is the civilized approach to this treat. Seeing as how I was on vacation with my family, it was dark out, and it looked too good to spend all that time prepping it, I just chowed down and made a mess of myself and the sandwich as the wafers separated. Seriously, I had marshmallow everywhere - my hands, face, hair, clothes.

This dessert is not for the faint of heart (or for those easily embarrassed or in otherwise formal situations), but it is well worth the mess you will make of yourself. If you really want to get creative, you could try making your own wafers, but I think it's perfectly acceptable to buy them, as I did. Sometimes you just need a simple assemble-and-eat dessert, one that doesn't require hours and hours in the kitchen.

I wish I had pictures for you, but I think you will forgive me for not posting any - you know, the whole aforementioned pitch-black-with-me-covered-in-marshmallow thing. Your imaginations are probably better with this one. Or, you could run out to the store right now and make your own, and see for yourself how enticing this dessert looks, smells, and - most importantly - tastes. You will not be disappointed. That is, until you've eaten all of the ones you made and find yourself covered in marshmallow, wanting to run to the store for more ingredients.

Even then, I think you'll feel pretty darn satisfied.

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Easier Than Pie Apples & Honey Salad

The combination of apples and honey takes me back to every year at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. It's this classic, traditional food pairing that's supposed to symbolize wishes for a sweet new year, and it's definitely a duo worth keeping. Because of that, I immediately think of honey any time I'm adding apples to a recipe and need a little extra something to get the dish to reach a new level.

I'm still playing catch up from all of the meals I made while on vacation all of those long weeks ago, and this recipe for an Apple and Honey Salad is next up on my checklist. I made this as an impromptu lunch on a steaming hot day, and was really pleased with the result. It really couldn't be much simpler; the most complicated part is slicing the apple, and god knows I don't have any artsy, skillful tips to make the slices come out as perfectly as those bagged, sliced & ready to eat apples from the grocery store. I took a butter knife (sadly, the sharpest utensil on hand in the borrowed vacation house) and hacked away as gracefully as one possibly can with a butter knife - that is to say, not very gracefully at all. I would not serve this at a five-course dinner party without honing my technique, but the slices made it into my mouth without difficulty, which is really all that matters when it comes to a spontaneous vacation lunch recipe.

Apples & Honey Salad
Serves: 1
The Ingredients
1 apple, on the small-to-medium side
1 - 1 1/2 C spinach
Honey, to taste

The Method
1. Wash and dry the spinach, placing onto a plate.
2. Slice the apple as best you can, keeping in mind that you're going to want to eat this without a knife (unless you are, in fact, less lazy than I), and fan over the spinach.
3. Drizzle with honey (really, a very little amount goes a long way; I used a very hefty drizzle and wound up regretting it, as it overpowered the other two ingredients)

You see, I told you this was easy, quick, and very refreshing for a hot day. The fiber in the apple keeps you full, the honey lends a light sweetness, and the spinach base gives all sorts of power nutrients without a ton of heavy calories. You've probably seen many nut-and-apple salads out there, so I'm sure that you could add many things to make this a little bit fancier - cranberries/craisins for an autumn salad, a little bit of a peanut butter dressing to add some saltiness and protein, who knows. However, I love how simple this three-ingredient salad is, without any changes. You really can't go wrong.

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When Life Keeps Me Running, My Strawberry-Mango Power Smoothie Never Fails

Surprise! It looks like I haven't run away from this blog permanently, after all. This summer has really been kicking my butt - it seems like if I'm not packing my bags to go somewhere, I'm either working or playing laundry catch-up. Sometimes, though, I find a spare second to eat - imagine that! - and it's times like these that call for a smoothie like this one. This is a sizeable powerhouse beverage, on the powerhouse beverage scale. There's no whey protein or anything like that, but it does incorporate (undetectable) amounts of Healthy Stuff like spinach and flax seeds.

Occasionally, I worry about some of my nutrient levels, particularly iron ever since I gave up non-grassfed beef and therefore consume less red meat in general. By sneaking trace amounts of non-heme iron (the bountiful but pitifully absorbed kind of iron) into unexpected places and meals, like this breakfast smoothie, I feel a little better nutritionally about my decision to cut back on the sad-but-affordable cows.

I highly recommend trying to start your day off (or end it) with a nice smoothie. By using a base recipe like the one below and getting a little creative, you can create a naturally sweet, nutrient-dense, filling and satisfying meal that is both portable and delicious. It's also a great way to sneak things like spinach and flax seeds into unsuspecting childrens' bellies, or so I hear. The one I made didn't even turn green from The Green Stuff, so you really can trick them if necessary. But really, once they taste it, I don't think you'll have much of a problem getting them to come back for more.

Strawberry-Mango Power Smoothie

Yield: 1 serving
The Ingredients
1 mango, cubed
1/3 C strawberries (an approximation - I used 4), hulled & halved (if small) or quartered (if large) + 1 for garnish
1/4 C spinach, loosely packed
6oz. fat free vanilla greek yogurt
2 tsp. flax seeds
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
1/8 tsp. dried lemon peel or fresh zest

The Method
1. Layer the strawberries, yogurt, spinach, and mango in a blender. Sprinkle the flax seeds on top.
2. Starting on high and alternating to medium pulses if necessary as it gets more liquidy, blend the ingredients. Pause every so often to scrape down the edges to ensure that all of the components get thoroughly chopped up and mixed together.
3. When everything looks well blended, add the nutmeg and lemon peel/zest, and pulse on low until they are fully incorporated.
4. Pour into a glass and place in the freezer to chill for several minutes. While I waited for this to happen, I cleaned up and prepared my strawberry garnish.
5. For the strawberry garnish, vertically slice the strawberry into thin strips without fully detaching them from the hull. Spread apart with your fingers, and slip the strawberry onto the edge of the glass.

The Verdict? Very filling, very satisfying, and no - you don't taste the spinach or the flax seeds. Using greek yogurt keeps the smoothie thick and creamy, plus it gives you a nice dose of protein. I would have loved to have added maybe half of a frozen banana, to both cool it and add an extra dimension to it. After all, what smoothie doesn't have banana in it? However, ours were beyond ripe several days ago, and I didn't think quickly enough to chop them up and freeze them before they met their trash can fate. I also think a little extra strawberry would have been nice here.

As a whole, this is a fast and satiating recipe that really helps me get through those busy days without feeling weighed down by fast food or starved because all I had time to grab was a bag of grapes or an apple. There's fiber in this, vitamins galore, vegetarian sources of protein, and most importantly, a whole ton of flavor. Check it out sometime. In the meantime, I'll try not to run away so much. I still have a ton of recipes to share!

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