Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Effusive Hawaiian Vacation Post (aka "Food of Oahu")


Three days ago my husband Anthony and I returned from what was hands-down the most incredible vacation of our ten years of marriage--and probably of our entire lives. I can only describe our six days on Oahu as The Apex of Vacation. We went as a celebration of our tenth anniversary--July 16th, if you want to send us a card next year ;)--and if everyone could look forward to a trip like this, maybe more marriages would make it to ten years, because it. was. fabulous. Like Tom Selleck's Magnum, P.I. mustache fabulous.



Some of the highlights: 

We had the good fortune to know an excellent travel agent who booked us at the Moana Surfrider, the oldest hotel on Waikiki Beach (built in 1901), which oozes turn-of-the-century charm:


We even had an ocean view!
And in six days, we got to see so much of the island of Oahu and did several once-in-a-lifetime activities, like a helicopter ride, 


swimming with dolphins, 

Not pictured: Anthony hurling vehemently off the side of the boat
an off-the-beaten path tour with a guy who seriously needs his own TV show, stat, 

"Watch me weave an entire raft out of these tree fibers, then floss my teeth with what remains!"
and hikes to Moana Falls


and Diamond Head.


All in all, it was a spectacular trip and I wish I could send all my friends (especially the ones with kids) on one just like it.

But this wouldn't be a food blog post without a few words about the food of Oahu! It seems that Hawaii is not a destination people seek out for its cuisine in particular, but we did enjoy some great food while we were there. (Though we may have been a little influenced by the scenery that accompanied it. And I'm not talking about all the beach bodies...but whoa, the beach bodies.)

I'm not sure that we ever exactly ate "traditional" Hawaiian food, but that seems difficult to define, anyway. Wikipedia says there are five distinct styles of food that make up Hawaiian cuisine, representing Polynesian, Asian, and European influences. That being said, we did have some meals that match what I would envision when I think of "Hawaiian food." At one beachfront lunch at Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore, Anthony had a firm white fish (I can't recall the name of the fish--I know, get with it, food blogger!) with vegetables and a purple sweet potato coulis. Who knew sweet potatoes came in purple? 


I, like the big fat American I am, ordered the barbecue pork sandwich and fries (but it had a bun made of taro, a native Hawaiian tuber! So it squeaked into the Hawaiian food category.)


Then there were the several farmers' markets we came across. The tropical fruit was stacked in vivid piles of greens, reds, yellows, and oranges, putting my husband the tropical fruit enthusiast into deliciousness delirium. I think he dropped 30 bucks on fruit in a matter of 15 minutes.

Anthony deeply entrenched in Banana Bliss
One farmers' market also featured gobs of pastries, coconut peanut butter (MUST try to make at home--it was to-die-for), and this guy juicing sugar cane.


Which we immediately spent another 5 bucks on. (Worth it. Like limeade with a unique twist.)

While we were in Hawaii, one of my goals was to try sushi. Here at home, I'm a very cautious sushi fan...cautious not necessarily for safety's sake, but rather because I'm just not sure I can convince myself I like it. (Also I refuse to eat imitation crab.) We have one locally owned sushi place in Tempe I absolutely love and compare all other sushi places to. So far nothing has come close. I figured Hawaii would be the place for really top-notch sushi, though, with their water-water-everywhere-and-lots-of-fish-to-eat setup. You're not gonna believe me when I say that I still prefer Sushi Kee in Tempe, Arizona to a highly reviewed sushi place in Honolulu's Chinatown. But there you have it.

Bento box: California roll, Ahi, rice, Miso soup, some other kind of tuna, and greens
At least I live close to Sushi Kee, not 2900 miles away. Much easier access. P.S. When you go to Sushi Kee, get the spider roll.

Next, it wouldn't be a tropical vacation without the requisite umbrella-topped fruity drinks. I don't think I've ever had a cocktail at lunch before, but when we ate at Shore Bird, a veritable institution on Waikiki, it seemed like the time to break my own taboo. (Plus, the mai tais were $3.50. Come on.) A mai tai is a rum-based cocktail flavored with fruit juice like orange or lime--a recipe I really must remember to look up, because it was delicious and super refreshing. 


Finally, a tiny Hawaiian language lesson: have you ever snickered reading the words "Pu Pu Platter" on a Chinese menu? (I have not. You're all so immature.) Well, "pu pu" is Hawaiian for appetizer, usually a mix of meat and seafood finger foods. Now you don't have to worry about what will show up in your takeout...and how many napkins you might need. As a matter of fact, Anthony and I enjoyed quite a bit of pu pu (pu pus?) during our stay, because our hotel package included access to the Moana Surfrider's "Beach Club," a fancy secret room that provided breakfast and a heavy-apps dinner. It was an awesome way to minimize expenses on eating out and the food was quite good.

I'm not going to make any jokes about what on this plate is the pu pu.
So, my friends, Hawaii is an extraordinary place and I am so thrilled and thankful to have traveled there. And happy to be home again where I can do my own cooking in my own kitchen with my own family to feed. (Just wish someone else would keep doing my dishes.) ;)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Chicken Pot Pie

Okay, for once I'm gonna shut up about other random stuff and just talk about food. FOOOOOOD. Like 

THIS.


CHICKEN.


POT.


PIE. 


It's true that you'll find thousands of chicken pot pie recipes out there on the internet and in every self-respecting cookbook, but this, my friends, is a pot pie to be reckoned with. This past Christmas, when our family was holed up in a cabin in chilly Show Low, AZ (yes, it does get chilly and even snow in parts of Arizona) I decided we were allowed to indulge in comfort food galore. Over the three days of our stay, we had creamy ham and potato chowder with homemade biscuits, herbed turkey meatballs with cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes, and this chicken pot pie. (I guess you're a pretty dyed-in-the-wool foodie when you remember every meal you ate on a trip seven months later.) It was an interesting challenge to make do with whatever was on hand in an unfamiliar kitchen, as well as shop at unfamiliar stores. (An aside: if you ever want to feel truly sad for humanity, go to Wal-Mart at 5pm Christmas Eve.) In the spirit of making do, I cobbled together parts of several existing recipes for chicken pot pie I found online and ended up with this version. Despite having to use a temperamental gas stove, an old-fashioned temperature-dial oven, and haphazard kitchen tools, it came out like the pot pie of my dreams. Flaky crust, rich herbed gravy, sautéed vegetables with just a hint of caramelization, and of course chicken combined for comfort food heaven.

I do realize that it is July now--not exactly pot pie season--but comfort food (and the need for it) takes no summer breaks. Sometimes you just crave something savory, warm, and gooey. For those days, this is the ticket.

Chicken Pot Pie
(A Love Letter to Food original recipe)

Ingredients:

2 9-inch unbaked pie crusts
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large Russet or sweet potato, peeled and diced 1/4 inch thick
1 c. carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 small/medium onion, diced
1/3 c. butter
1/3 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
3/4 tsp. dried ground thyme
1/4 tsp. dried rosemary
1 1/2 c. chicken broth (homemade if possible!)
1 1/2 c. shredded cooked chicken
salt and pepper

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add potato and sauté about 5 minutes. Add carrots, celery, and onion and cook another 10-15 minutes or until potatoes are soft and carrots and onions just begin to brown. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

3. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Add flour and whisk to combine. Add salt, pepper, thyme, and rosemary and cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Slowly add chicken broth. Increase heat to medium and continue to whisk/stir constantly until sauce becomes thick. (The whisk should leave a very defined trail in the sauce when it's thick enough.) Remove from heat. Add chicken and vegetables to sauce and stir to combine. 

4. Place 1 pie crust in pie dish. Pour hot chicken-vegetable mixture in, smoothing the top. Cover with second pie crust and seal the edges. Cut slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape.

5. Bake in preheated oven 30 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Makes one 9-inch pie. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Orange Poppy Seed Shortbread



Recently, I read Gretchen Rubin's somewhat controversial bestseller The Happiness Project. If you haven't heard of it, the premise is that the author set out to spend a year of her life becoming happier. The book chronicles her research and experiences in twelve months devoted to different aspects of happiness and well-being. A perfectly commendable pursuit, right? The controversy sets in when you realize that Rubin is an upper-crust Manhattanite with housekeepers and nannies, millions in the bank, and not a single tragic event in her life's history. Then there's the problematic issue that the book focuses entirely on her personal well-being, not the well-being of her family or the world at large. (Nary a service project appears in the twelve months.) And, oh yeah, her version of becoming happier is to keep extensive checklists of tasks to complete every day. Not exactly Zen. Strangely, though I was seriously put off by these facts, I ended up reading the entire thing. And strangely again, I got a lot out of it. While I disagreed in major ways with Rubin's project itself, the research she shared yielded a lot of interesting points about happiness that were real keepers for me. For example, the concept that we are largely in control of our own happiness and can choose it. Or that little things, like putting on the right upbeat music or indulging in a minor splurge (like a pint of fresh raspberries, let's say), can lift your spirits in a big way. I've been trying to keep these truths in mind when I find myself in an irritable, negative state of mind, and have had some genuine success. All in all, I'd say The Happiness Project is worth reading if you can get past its flaws, because ultimately it can serve as a good reminder of how to take responsibility for your own mood. 

So why do I bring all that up? And how does it have to do with the orange cookie-type dessert pictured above? Well, I do like to share thoughts on interesting books, but the whole reason I was thinking about The Happiness Project is that I can't stop thinking about how I laughed out loud at the part where Rubin congratulates herself that she "didn't grouse when [her husband] made three rich desserts in three nights." Ha! Not complaining about rich desserts! Ha! Husbands voluntarily making desserts! You sure have it rough, Gretchen!

Sometimes--I won't say often--I too crave a dessert that's actually light--not too rich, not chocolate. (Though a rich dessert baked by my husband would seem to me a very welcome surprise, not a nuisance to be suffered. What's that saying--don't kick the man out of bed for eating crackers? Or don't kick him out of the kitchen for making cake, perhaps?) Still, yes, some meals simply call for something delicate to finish. This little shortbread is just right for when the mood strikes for something lighter. (And you can always top it with vanilla ice cream if light isn't what you're after.) Served with tea or coffee, it would also make a divine afternoon snack. And did I mention it's super easy? You don't even need a bowl; the whole thing is made in the food processor. Maybe I should send the recipe to Gretchen Rubin to give to her husband--or just because with its lovely lightness and hint of orange, making and eating it made me happy. :)


Orange Poppyseed Shortbread
(From Real Simple)

Ingredients:

1/2 c. cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 c. all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled
1/2 c. powdered sugar
generous 1/8 tsp. salt
2 tsp. grated orange zest
2 tsp. poppy seeds

Directions:

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9" round cake pan or fluted removable-bottom tart pan.

2. In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, process the butter, flour, sugar, and salt until moist clumps form. Add the orange zest and poppy seeds and pulse briefly just to combine. 

3. Press the mixture evenly into the prepared pan. Bake until lightly golden, about 25 minutes.

4. Using a serrated knife, cut the warm shortbread into wedges.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Zucchini Bread


In one of my favorite books about food, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver writes about her experience with "Zucchini Wars." You may be picturing galloping hoards hurling green, oblong grenades at each other, but in fact, Zucchini Wars are the annual challenge in the South (where Kingsolver lives on her farm) to rid oneself of excess zucchinis in July. Zucchini seems to be one of those plants that has taken to the old adage "bloom where you are planted" like gangbusters, thriving in any condition to yield a bumper crop year after year. Kingsolver contemplates the concept of an automobile engine that runs on zucchini, and--my favorite line in the chapter--recalls Garrison Keillor's quote that "July is the only time of year when country people lock our cars in the church parking lot, so people won't put squash on the front seat. I used to think that was a joke." 

Presumably, this pursuit of using up all your over-abundant zucchini explains the origins of zucchini bread. I can think of no other reason why someone would look at this:



and think of this:


For a long time, I was skeptical of zucchini bread (and reasonably so, I'd say). I wouldn't jump at the chance to eat asparagus bread or bok choy bread--at least not as a sweet breakfast--so what makes zucchini bread any different?

Frankly, I don't really know. Except that people don't seem to have major harvests of asparagus or bok choy to get off their hands, so those haven't taken off in the form of quick breads (yet). But if you add sugar and other yummy ingredients to just about anything, it seems to work as a breakfast treat. 

Here in Arizona, we definitely don't have Zucchini Wars, but I occasionally end up with a zucchini or two I somehow didn't use as planned. Enter this recipe. It does the trick of using up my zucchini without me resorting to a clandestine Zucchini Drop in someone's car while they innocently worship at church. (Though I do live just a quarter mile from my church...wonder what else I could conveniently offload...) Once I finally tried zucchini bread, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it--the zucchini adds a colorful little crunch you don't usually find in a quick bread. And since the other ingredients are standard muffin-y things like brown sugar, flour, and cinnamon, you still feel like you're eating something light and sweet, not a dinner-time side dish. 

And now I'm off to develop my soon-to-be famous Asparagus Bread recipe...

Zucchini Bread
(Adapted from Allrecipes.com)

Ingredients:
1 1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
3 tsp. cinnamon
3 eggs
1/2 c. applesauce
1/2 c. vegetable oil
3/4 c. brown sugar
3/4 c. white sugar
3 tsp. vanilla
2 c. grated zucchini

Directions:

1. Grease two 9 x 5 inch loaf pans. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

2. In a small bowl, mix dry ingredients: whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and cinnamon.

3. In a large bowl, mix eggs, applesauce, oil, brown sugar, white sugar, and vanilla. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and stir until just mixed. Stir in zucchini until completely incorporated. Pour into prepared loaf pans.

4. Bake 40-50 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Makes 2 loaves.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Barbecue Pork Pizza



Everybody has that weird thing that they enjoy, even though most other people hate it or are indifferent to it. Maybe you get a high out of cleaning toilets, or a satisfaction from balancing your budget, or maybe you're like my aesthetician friend who gets a perverse pleasure out of popping people's zits. My own personal strange divertissement comes from......(drum roll).......(don't worry, it's nothing super gross).....(like wiping dog butts).....(or chewing someone else's gum)....... 

meal planning!

Whew! See? Nothing too funky. Meal planning is an art I strive to perfect every week. I get a thrill from the challenge: Can I make use of the foods already occupying space in my pantry and fridge and not spend too much on special new ingredients? Can I achieve a balance of cooking trusted standards but also incorporating the new recipes I'm dying to try? Can I somehow make it all work together like a giant puzzle? Well, I try. To some people, that probably sounds miserable, but to me it's the pleasure of bringing order out of chaos--delicious order, if at all possible. So you probably won't be surprised when I tell you that the gold standard, the hit-the-jackpot of meal planning for me is that diamond-in-the-rough, one-two punch of..... 

the Double Duty Dinner!!

The Double Duty Dinner is the kind that you prepare one night and are then able to use in a different way another night. This is not the same thing as leftovers. It's a creative reinvention of one or more components of one dinner to create a second dinner. The best is when the second dinner bears little resemblance to the first. Then you really and truly don't feel you're having leftovers.

This fantastic Barbeque Pork Pizza is probably my favorite example of such a high-scoring Double Duty Dinner. Well, it's the second half of it. The first half is another dinner: pork tenderloin slathered in barbeque sauce, slow-cooked in the Crock Pot. Barbeque pulled pork can of course be used in several ways for the first dinner: served on buns as a sandwich, served with corn on the cob and potato salad in summer, roasted sweet potatoes and onions in winter, or any combination of sides you can dream up. The key is to make extra and save it for later in the week, when you'll make this pizza and kill another day's meal plan bird with one stone. Because you do not want to miss out on this pizza. Tender barbeque pork, gooey mozzarella, crispy red onions, and some cilantro for a bite that rounds out the whole mix. If my digestive tract would let me, I could eat this entire pizza.

And seriously, I looooove meal planning. So if you're ever interested, comment or shoot me an email and I'd be happy to send you some sample week meal plans. It would make my day!


Barbeque Pork Pizza

Ingredients:

1 lb. store-bought refrigerated or homemade whole wheat pizza dough (such as Trader Joe's)
3/4 c. barbeque sauce
1/2 lb. barbeque pulled pork (leftover from your first Double Duty Dinner)
8 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 of a small red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 c. loosely packed cilantro leaves

Directions:

1. Remove pizza dough from refrigerator and follow package directions for rising. (Trader Joe's dough rises for 20 minutes.) If using homemade pizza dough, follow recipe directions for rising.

2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

3. Grease a 15 x 10 inch jelly roll pan. Spread pizza dough across pan, overlapping the edges slightly. (It will contract as it bakes.) Bake in preheated oven about 10 minutes.

4. Heat oven to 450 degrees.

5. Spread barbeque sauce over dough, followed by pulled pork. Top with mozzarella, red onion, and cilantro.

6. Bake an additional 10 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly and red onion begins to wrinkle and brown.

Serves 4.