Thursday, April 24, 2014

Spinach Lasagna


Doncha just love the Internet? Where else can you find so many useful "true facts" about anything you desire, including your favorite foods? Like this gem about spinach:


Who knew? Little-known facts: spinach also gives you increased resistance to awkward conversations at parties, superior hopping ability at Q-Bert (arcade version only) and temporary bioluminescence. I swear it's true; I read it on the Internet.

The obsession over connecting individual foods with highly specific health benefits can get a little excessive--especially when the marketing touts a benefit that's totally obvious and/or off-topic. Milk with a gluten-free sticker affixed. "Apples: a naturally fat-free food!" "Cheerios: may help lower cholesterol." (Um, since cholesterol only occurs in animal products, doesn't any non-animal product food lower your cholesterol?) I might as well walk around wearing a sign that reads "Will not give you a skunk as a pet." I won't, but that's sort of irrelevant to who I am as a person. 

Incidentally, the typical association most of us have with spinach--that it's high in iron--actually stems (pun intended) from a recording error German chemist Erich von Wolf made when analyzing the vegetable's nutrition content. Von Wolf misplaced a decimal point, accidentally recording that spinach contained 35 milligrams of iron per serving, rather than 3.5. The error went unchecked and persisted to such a degree that amidst the creation of the super-strong cartoon character Popeye the Sailor Man, studio executives suggested he should have a propensity for spinach. The rest is history: the myth of the elevated iron content of spinach persists to this day.


In reality, of course certain foods benefit particular aspects of health, and it's not wrong to eat them with this in mind. Spinach, while not the world's iron panacea, does contain a respectable 21% of your recommended daily iron intake in a 100 gram serving. More impressively, it's an excellent source of Vitamin A, folate, Vitamin K, and manganese. Still, from my point of view, for most people seeking merely to eat a balanced diet, an overly fussy fixation on which foods supply which nutrients is unnecessary. Eat (healthily), drink (healthily), and be merry (healthily)... And if you happen to want to eat spinach (which you should because it's good for you in general), why not try this delicious spinach lasagna? I've made it numerous times for dinner guests and plates are consistently cleaned. Though, to my knowledge, no one has gone on to breathe underwater. 


Spinach Lasagna
(Slightly adapted from Allrecipes.com)

Ingredients:

1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 10-oz. packages frozen chopped spinach
1/2 onion, chopped
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. dried basil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
32 oz. spaghetti sauce
1 1/2 c. water
2 c. cottage cheese
8 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese
1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp. + 2 tsp. dried parsley
1 scant tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. black pepper
1 egg
8 oz. lasagna noodles, uncooked

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. In a large pot over medium heat, sauté spinach, onion, oregano, basil, and garlic in the olive oil until spinach is completely thawed. Pour in spaghetti sauce and water; simmer 20 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix cottage cheese, mozzarella, Parmesan, parsley, salt, pepper, and egg.

3. In a 9 x 13 glass dish, layer as follows from bottom to top:

Sauce (bottom)
Noodles
Sauce 
Noodles
Cheese Mixture
Sauce
Noodles
Cheese Mixture
Sauce
Noodles
Sauce (top)

(or some variation thereof that uses all your sauce and cheese mixture)

4. Cover with foil and bake in the preheated oven for 55 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake another 15 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.



Saturday, April 19, 2014

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups


Easter is almost here! Just one more day until we'll be celebrating the resurrection of Christ by hiding eggs and digging into colorful baskets of goodies (wait, what?). I've always felt that Easter should be my favorite holiday. After all, spiritually speaking, as a Christian, it's the centerpiece of my faith--Christ's death to redeem the world followed by His triumph over the grave. Just thinking about that gets me excited. But I am, of course, a product of my culture and my generation, and Christmas has always taken the gold as Holiday #1 in my heart. Still, the older I get, the more I appreciate Easter--both its spiritual significance and its laid-backness as compared to the frenzy of Christmas. 

This year, as I did during the Christmas season, I've been considering ways to combat the excesses of this holiday. No, it's not as commercialized as Christmas, but it's always nice to simplify where you can. From the non-biodegradable Easter grass that gets everywhere to the pointless junk the grocery stores want you to put in your kids' Easter baskets, there are a lot of things our family could do without. So this year, here are a few changes I made to make our Easter just a little more moderate and eco-friendly:

  • used shredded colored printer paper instead of purchasing Easter grass. In fact, I did this last year and kept the shredded paper in the kids' baskets in the garage. Work involved: ZERO!
  • didn't buy anything non-consumable for my kids' Easter baskets (just candy and egg-shaped sidewalk chalk)
  • bought my daughter's Easter dress second-hand (for $6, thanks, Love Child!)
  • homemade one of the candies for the kids' baskets
The homemade candies were--you guessed it--these chocolate peanut butter cups. And my kids are lucky that I only made them yesterday, because I tell you, one more day and these things would not have made it to Easter. They are absolutely decadent. So even though Easter is tomorrow, it's not too late for the Easter bunny (aka Mom) to make a quick batch of these--for the kids or for herself! 

Happy Easter!



Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups
(Inspired by Allrecipes.com)

Ingredients:

1 11.5-oz. bag milk chocolate chips, divided
3/4 c. creamy peanut butter
1/3 c. powdered sugar
3 Tbsp. crushed graham crackers
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. vanilla

Directions:

1. Lightly grease a 12-cup mini muffin pan. (Or 2 pans--the recipe yielded 15 peanut butter cups for me.)

2. In a microwave-safe bowl, microwave about 2/3 of the chocolate chips in 30-second intervals until melted. Spoon melted chocolate into mini muffin cups, filling halfway. Use the spoon or a small spatula to draw the chocolate up the sides of the muffin cups. (It helps to let the chocolate cool slightly before doing this to keep it from sliding down.) Refrigerate until firm.

3. In a medium bowl, mix together peanut butter, powdered sugar, crushed graham crackers, salt, and vanilla. Divide into chocolate cups.

4. Melt remaining chocolate and cover peanut butter mixture, spreading to the edges.

5. Refrigerate until firm. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Makes about 15 peanut butter cups.

Ready to go in Easter baskets!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Crab Quiche


What's the first thing you learned how to cook? Mac and cheese? Scrambled eggs? BLTs? Weird as it may sound, one of the first things I ever learned to cook was quiche. Growing up, it was a dinner dish my mom frequently made--a deviation from her '80s Illinoisan repertoire of baked chicken, spaghetti, and meatloaf. To this day, I'm not sure how this traditional French fare infiltrated her Midwestern meal planning, but I am the beneficiary of its presence there. From early on in my marriage when I first started cooking, I had an index card with her recipe for a chicken-spinach-mushroom variety on it and used it often. In the last ten years, I've expanded from there. To date, I've tried... 

  • broccoli quiche 
  • quiche lorraine 
  • bacon-asparagus quiche
  • tomato-mozzarella-basil quiche
  • ham and parsley quiche
  • crab quiche
  • and probably other less successful versions I don't remember.

Basically, if you have a pie crust, eggs, and cheese, you can whip up a quiche. Add what you like, take out what you like--easy dinner, boom! Or easy lunch. Or easy breakfast. Or easy brunch. For this crab quiche, you quite likely have all the ingredients except the crab (unless you're one of those crab stockpilers you see on reality TV: "Coming this June to TLC...Crab Hoarders of Maricopa County.") If you're a crab hoarder, you're gonna LOVE this one. And even if you're not a crab hoarder, give it a try. With its mild crab taste, it's a great way to work some omega 3-rich seafood into your diet even if you're not crazy about seafood. 


Crab Quiche
(Slightly adapted from Allrecipes.com)

Ingredients:

1/2 c. mayonnaise
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
3 eggs
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
dash hot sauce
1/2 c. milk
6 oz. lump crab meat (drained, if from a can)
1 1/4 c. your choice of shredded cheese (I'd recommend a Swiss or a cheddar blend)
1/2 c. chopped green onions
1 9-inch unbaked pie crust

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. In a large bowl, beat together mayonnaise, flour, eggs, garlic powder, hot sauce, and milk until thoroughly combined. Stir in crab, cheese, and onion. Pour into pie shell.

3. Bake 35-40 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Maple Orange Creamsicle Granita



As I've mentioned before, when it's citrus season in Arizona, there's no escaping the hordes of oranges, lemons, and grapefruit that go rolling through the streets like the eleventh plague of Egypt (but, you know, the good kind of plague). This past week, I once again found myself in possession of a superabundance of oranges. 

I'll tell you why. 

As a nutrition student, I've made it my project to volunteer for a local nonprofit called Save the Family by participating in their sack lunch program. Once a month, I make 15-20 sack lunches for the attendees of their many programs (GED classes, career training, etc.). It's a great way to volunteer from home on my own time. Plus, it has to do with food! (And if you live in the Phoenix area, I encourage you to get involved!) For the month of March, my Meetup group with the longest name in Meetup.com history--the East Valley Catholic Stay-at-Home Moms--was looking for something to do for our semiannual service project. We ended up settling on providing 50 sack lunches for Save the Family, with each mom supplying one item to go in the lunches. As it turned out, one of the ladies got a friend with an orange tree to donate oranges....lots and lots of oranges. Even after packing the 50 sack lunches AND having my husband take a bag of oranges to give away at work, I still had a dozen oranges squeaking around in the fruit crisper in my fridge. What to do, what to do? 

Here's what to do! Make orange granita with an unusual twist. This is one of the few recipes I've found that actually uses up more than a single orange at a time. It knocked out six of those bad boys. Yessssssss! From the first time I made granita, I've been a fan--it's such a fun, versatile (not to mention low calorie) dessert. This version combines tangy orange juice with a maple-cinnamon cream for a sophisticated version of the Creamsicle. (There is such a thing, right?) All in all a unique, refreshing warm weather treat for those of us who are experiencing Citrus March Madness (and 97 degree days in April).


Maple Orange Creamsicle Granita
(Adapted from Martha Stewart)

Ingredients:

2 c. fresh-squeezed orange juice (from about 5 large oranges)
5 Tbsp. maple syrup, divided
1/2 c. Greek yogurt
Dash cinnamon
1 large orange, peel and pith removed and flesh divided into segments

Directions:

1. Stir 2 Tbsp. of maple syrup into orange juice. Transfer to a shallow 1.5 quart dish. Freeze 2 hours, stirring and scraping with a fork every 30 minutes.

2. When ready to serve, combine yogurt, remaining 3 Tbsp. maple syrup, and cinnamon and divide between four bowls or small Mason jars. Using a fork, scrape granita into flaky crystals and place on top of yogurt mixture. Top with orange segments.

Serves 4.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Coffee Tour of Seattle


When you think of the city of Seattle, what comes to mind? The Space Needle? Frasier? Getting soaking wet 300 days a year? Grungy flannel-clad bands of the early '90s? Or maybe you, like I, think of coffee. My bet is that most Starbucks customers (which is to say, like, 98% of the First World) has at least a back-of-the-mind knowledge that Starbucks began in Seattle--as well as the other successful coffee chain Seattle's Best. (I know, that one came as a surprise, right?)

This past week I had the fantastic opportunity to join my husband on a business trip to Seattle. He had a tech conference to attend during the first two days of the week, so I was left to my own devices in an unfamiliar place, which I actually really enjoy. As an enthusiastic coffee drinker in a city with approximately 8 million coffee shops per square mile, a run-in with coffee was pretty much inevitable. But I definitely did not foresee the extremely exhaustive experience I ended up having! 

My original plan was to register for one of the many food tours of the city. Years ago my husband and I went on a food tour of New York City, which made a huge impression on me (and my thighs--dear Lord, that was a LOT of food). But when I began checking in to food tour prices, I discovered they were higher than I was prepared to pay. Another tour with a slightly more budget-friendly price was Seattle By Foot's "Coffee Crawl." I made the snap decision to register online late Sunday night for the next morning's tour. 


The tour was scheduled to begin at something called The Hammering Man, not far from Pike Place Market. I had a few moments of genuine concern when I scoured all four corners of the intersection and didn't see a coffee shop called The Hammering Man. And then I looked up: 


Oh. Right. That Hammering Man.

Behind The Hammering Man's colossal foot stood a trim 50-ish guy with a pageboy cap and a sleek messenger bag. If anybody was giving a Seattle coffee tour, it had to be this guy. He introduced himself as Ed and said I was the only person to register for that morning's tour--woohoo, a private tour for the price of a group tour! Yes, please! 

Our first stop was the highly urban, metal-and-chrome Caffe Lladro. "Lladro" means thief in Spanish, and as Ed explained, there's a reason behind this name. The shop's founder was working for another coffee shop when he decided to strike out on his own in 1994. He opened Caffe Lladro directly across the street from his former employer, taking several recipes and company secrets with him. Twenty years later Caffe Lladro has 14 locations, while the other coffee shop has given way to a Starbucks. Ouch.

Tall man in trenchcoat = The Thief
As for the actual coffee, my visit to Caffe Lladro included a sample of a Kenyan single-bean light roast brewed in a Chemex coffee maker, which looks like a laboratory beaker with a trendy belt.


Not being a fan of light roast coffee, this one was not my favorite, but I did appreciate that it was organic, fair trade, and shade grown. In terms of coffee ethics, it doesn't get much more virtuous than that.

Our next stop was Caffe D'Arte, a family-owned coffee shop on 2nd Avenue and Pine. This shop has the distinction of being one of the only roasters to roast its beans over an alderwood fire. When Ed handed me a sample and asked me to smell it, I immediately caught a whiff of campfire smoke. Definitely a unique tasting experience! The barista then came over and poured this gorgeous work of latte art before my very eyes. 


I was almost sorry to drink it. But not that sorry.

Up next on the tour was Ghost Alley Espresso. Founded by the daughter of longtime Pike Place Market vendors, this place has history coming out its ears. It sits nestled under the Market on the way to the Post Alley, home of the infamous Gum Wall, where thousands of people have stuck their used gum to create a disgustingly colorful attraction. 

Ewwwwww
The entire interior of Ghost Alley Espresso only has about 100 square feet of space, with a single table for seating and creepy decor befitting its name. The founder apparently has a special place in her heart for the supernatural happenings around the market. Her book on the ghosts of the market is for sale on the shop's narrow shelves. On our stop here, I sampled the Salted Nut Latte, which was a perfect balance of nutty and sweet. Highly recommended!


After Ghost Alley, Ed and I hunkered down for the longish walk in the blustering wind to Intrigue Chocolate Company. Here we met Aaron, the ebullient truffle chef behind this tiny chocolate-dedicated kitchen that doesn't even have a storefront. I'll tell you what: it drives me nuts when people throw around the term "artisan" like it's a credential you can download off the internet, but Aaron is what I would call a true artisan--a worker skilled in a trade done by hand. He gave me samples of several of his uniquely flavored truffles: pineapple habanero, stout beer, ginger and rose, mint, and prune. This is as close to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory as it gets in the real world. So interesting to taste the richness of chocolate mingled with unexpected flavors like pineapple and ginger. Along with the truffles, I sampled a cold-brewed iced coffee concentrate Ed said has three times the caffeine of hot brewed coffee. Yeah, I was definitely getting wired by this point.

Chef Aaron
The last stop on the tour was the elegant, Italianate Caffe Umbria in Pioneer Square. Aesthetically, this shop was by far my favorite, with its mosaic tile vases, marble countertops, and wrought iron light fixtures. (I like to pretend I'm in Europe whenever possible.) The drink sample here was as tasteful as the shop itself: a classic espresso shot topped with sweet whipped cream. 


And with that, the tour had come to a close. Looking back on my four days in Seattle, I have to say this tour was probably the best thing I did. It's not every day you get to traipse around a new city with a personal coffee chauffeur, and I thoroughly enjoyed the drinks, the company, and the information. With a galloping heart and twitching eyelid, I said goodbye to my excellent guide Ed and headed out to explore more of the city.  And believe it or not, I did not have any more coffee for the entire rest of the day.