Friday, August 31, 2012

Foodie Pen Pals: Revealed!

The last time I had a pen pal was in 6th grade. Her name was Sophie and she was frumpy-looking and British. But she wrote great letters.

I have some new pen pals this month. Neither is British or named Sophie, I don't know what either one looks like, and we send each other boxes of food instead of long letters.

We all signed up for Foodie Pen Pals, a program designed by fellow food blogger Lindsay at the Lean Green Bean. Participants get matched with two people each month: a pen pal to send a box to, and another to receive one from. We email back and forth, asking about each other's likes and dislikes, interests, and food preferences. We shop and bake, packing boxes for strangers that are filled with things we love, things we hope they might love, and things that say something about each of us in some small way.

My sender pen pal, Donna M, shipped me a box all the way from South Carolina. I told her I liked to eat healthily, but that I'd be the first to admit I loved sweets, especially chocolate. I also like to try foods from other cultures, something Donna was happy to help with. She sent me:

-TWO kinds of Godiva!
-chocolatey caramel-y granola bars
-chocolate-covered dried plums
-creme brulee mix
-steel-cut oats
-soba and udon noodles
-Asian snack mix

Donna included plenty of chocolate in my box. Obviously, it didn't take her long to figure me out! I'm pretty sure getting a box with chocolate in the mail is one of life's best moments. The package of steel-cut oats even has a recipe for chocolate chip cookies on it, which I will be making shortly.

Donna told me that her grandmother was Japanese, and she used to eat the rice cracker snack mix with her when her grandmother was alive. It was clear to me that the snack mix was important to Donna, and reminded her of someone special. I think this is also why she chose the two kinds of noodles, both of which I love too, and I was touched that she would include such personal information in her letter to me, tucked inside the box. 

My recipient pen pal, Jenna M, said she likes to eat healthily most of the time too, loves to try new energy bars, loves nuts of all kinds, and prefers sweet to salt. I was tempted to fill her box with about 39 kinds of chocolate, but kept reminding myself that a) it's about 1 zillion degrees out and chocolate will melt in the mail, and b) chocolate is what I love, not necessarily what she loves. So for Jenna I packed:
-coconut water
-a chocolate-covered greens energy bar
-a spice grinder from Trader Joe's that has coffee beans, sugar, and chocolate in it
-homemade granola
-homemade toasted almonds with rosemary and salt
-a little bag of Himalayan pink rock salt

The Himalayan rock salt was slightly outside of her parameters, but because it can be used in savory dishes as well as sweets such as caramel, I thought she might like to try it. Plus, it's just pretty. I sneaked little bits of chocolate in her products to try, but chocolate wasn't the dominant flavor in the box. Judging from Jenna's enthusiastic thank-you email, I think she liked her box! Visit her Facebook page to see her photos and comments about the experience.

I can't think of a better way to connect with strangers than through food, and while this program has the potential to get a bit pricey (most of us used flat rate Priority Mail boxes, which are around $12 to ship, plus there is the cost of the food items themselves), I will definitely participate again. There is something comforting about receiving food, and better still, someone else does the shopping.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Cupcake Craze, Part 1

Frosting isn't easy, you know.

Sometimes it's too thin and runs down the sides of the cupcake, leaving bald spots on the top.

Sometimes it's too sweet because the powdered sugar you used to thicken it is enough to choke a horse.

Sometimes it's grainy, or clumpy, or both, or is made with things like Crisco and really isn't food.

But this frosting is perfect. It's smooth, provided you coax it to the correct temperature, and perfectly sweet and chocolatey and has just five ingredients:

1. cream
2. powdered sugar
3. chocolate
4. butter
5. vanilla extract

For once, my cupcakes look like the ones in the picture in the cookbook. That never happens.

Of course, frosting is nothing without a good cupcake to rest upon. These vanilla cupcakes are also perfect, and versatile: they could support lemony frosting, or cream cheese, or vanilla, or mocha, or whatever else your little heart desires.

I've been resistant to all things cupcake because, well, everyone's doing it.  I hate doing what everyone else is doing. Plus, cupcakes really do need frosting. Otherwise they are just muffins that seem to be missing something. And I believe I have made my position on frosting quite clear. But I have to admit that the last two cupcake batches I've made have been awesome enough to make me a believer.

A believer in cupcakes.

If the frosting is too cold, it doesn't spread or shine as nicely.

Vanilla Cupcakes with Truffle Cream Frosting
adapted from Chocolate Obsession by Michael Recchiuti

makes 12 cupcakes

For the cupcakes:
1 1/2 C AP flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt (kosher is best)
1 C (8 oz) creme fraiche, at room temperature (I substituted full-fat plain yogurt; DO NOT use low-fat or nonfat!)
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract (I also added seeds from 1/2 vanilla bean)
6 TBSP unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 C granulated sugar

For the frosting:
8 oz chocolate (65% dark)
2/3 C heavy whipping cream
2/3 C plus 2 TBSP confectioner's sugar
4 TBSP unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 TBSP vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line 12 standard muffin cups with paper liners, or coat with cooking spray. Set aside.
2. Sift flour, baking powder and soda, and salt together into a medium bowl. Set aside.
3. Combine creme fraiche or yogurt, eggs, and vanilla extract and seeds (if using) in a medium bowl and whisk by hand until well-mixed.
4. Beat butter on medium speed until butter is creamy. Add granulated sugar and beat until fluffy and pale.
5. On low speed, add the dry ingredients in 3 additions, alternating with the wet ingredients in 2 additions.
6. Divide batter among muffin cups, filling each about two-thirds full. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the cupcakes are puffed, slightly browned, slightly cracked on top, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. Remove from muffin pan.
7. Place chocolate in a medium bowl. Put cream and confectioner's sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook for one minute at a simmer and remove from heat.
8. Pour hot cream mixture over chocolate and whisk by hand until chocolate melts. Whisk in butter, and then vanilla extract.
9. Cover bowl with plastic wrap so that the wrap touches the surface of the frosting, and refrigerate until mixture reaches 70 degrees. This will probably take 30-40 minutes, but start checking after 20.
10. When frosting is at 70 degrees, beat on high speed until it is lighter in color and less dense.
11. Frost cupcakes as desired.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Meatless Mondays: Sushi Night

You can put pretty much anything in a sushi roll.

Like tempura asparagus.

And orange segments.

And Mexican-style salsa.

No, seriously. The Texan and I have eaten all of these things and more in various rolls we've tried, and loved them all.  So we figured fishless sushi would feel like a kind of roll we just hadn't tried yet.

We found a recipe for quinoa maki (the type of roll that is made with rice and filling and wrapped in seaweed, or nori) with avocado and Cajun portobello fillets in The Conscious Cook by Tal Ronnen*. The author argues that quinoa is more nutritious than white rice and has an interesting texture to boot, so is perfect for sushi. I was a little skeptical, so I made some sushi rice just in case, but the Texan and I both really liked the quinoa rolls.

Also just in case, I seared some extra-firm tofu in a bottled teriyaki marinade, because I was a little worried the portobellos would be gross. Which they weren't. At all. I marinated them in a mixture of white wine, Cajun seasoning, white wine vinegar, and some spices, and later seared them so they would dry out a bit and get crispy-ish. Perhaps they were selected for a veggie roll recipe because they tend to have that slightly slimy-chewy-raw texture the way raw fish does, but these were no fish substitute-- these were just good in their own right.

A friend sent me a sushi mat and some chopsticks from Japan when she lived there, so our rolling efforts were, you know, authentic and whatnot. 

The Texan's roll of choice: tri-color quinoa, portobello, tofu, avocado, and carrot.

Our rolls were a little messy. We admit it.
Sushi Night #2: Veggie rolls with avocado and spicy mayo

I made some miso soup with little cubes of tofu and sliced scallions, the way they do in some Japanese restaurants.  I used yellow miso, never having used any miso before, and figured I'd try the middle-of-the-road strength for my first time. (Miso comes in three colors: white, the least fermented and mildest, yellow, and red, the most fermented and most intense.) I would be game to try red miso next time, for a little extra flavor.

The recipe calls for a little mayonnaise to be mixed with a tiny bit of sambal oelek (Thai chili-garlic sauce) and then rolled up with the rest of the fillings. I completely forgot to make it, but we have had sushi at restaurants that have drizzled something similar over certain rolls, and we like it a lot. The next time we make sushi we will have to try it. Yes, there will be a next time. Even the Texan said so.

Fishless sushi is ridiculously inexpensive to make. Packs of nori can be gotten for under $2, and contain 10-12 sheets per pack. Each sheet yields 5 or 6 pieces, so one pack makes at least 50 pieces of sushi. Sushi rice is a little more expensive than regular white rice, but not astronomical, and regular rice with some binder ingredients could be used in a pinch. I used only one portobello last night, along with a carrot, an avocado, a few pea sprouts, and half a pack of tofu. That's it. You can use whatever combination of vegetables (or fruit, if you are feeling especially avant garde) you like, but you probably won't spend more than a few dollars on all the fillings. Go Team Vegetables!

* The title makes the book sound like the hokiest bunch of hippie crap on the planet, but it isn't. And it contains recipes for dairy substitutes that don't involve soy milk, so I am all over it. Dairy and I just don't get along.