Monday, March 30, 2015

Ham-Asparagus and Cheese Strata


Can you believe it's almost Easter? I feel like I'm still cleaning up from Christmas and like I still need to get my husband a Valentine's Day gift. Just the other day I emailed someone saying "Hope your new year is off to a good start!" I clearly need to get with the times. It's 97 degrees outside and going to be April in two days. (Speaking of which, anybody got any good April Fool's pranks?) Pretty soon it'll be 2025 and I'll be going, wait, I thought I was still in my twenties! Or at least my thirties!

As the seasons seem to roll by faster and faster and time slips through my fingers like so much crumbly pie dough, I am comforted by the rituals of holidays. And when I say "rituals," I mean food. As of this moment, my family has literally zero official plans for Easter, which is weird since we are very active Catholics and celebrate Easter as probably the most important holiday of the year. But even though we haven't pinned down our plans, there are certain things I know will happen. Like ham. Ham will happen. After Easter eggs, ham seems to be the quintessential Easter food for Americans. According to About.com, the reason for this is that meat used to be slaughtered in the fall, and before refrigeration, pork was cured--a process that takes several months. It was around Easter that the hams were finally finished being cured and ready for consumption. And here I thought it had something to do with usurped pagan rituals. The things you learn, right? 

Like most Americans, I have come to expect a ham to be the centerpiece of an Easter dinner, typically followed by weeks of leftovers in the form of ham soups, ham macaroni and cheese, and anything else ham can decently be included in. But before the Easter dinner, Easter brunch is another opportunity to enjoy this traditional Easter food. This ham-asparagus and cheese strata took center stage in our Easter brunch last year and I am still thinking about it. (Then again, I practically think it's still 2014, so maybe don't read too much into that...) Really, though, this dish was highly memorable. Its delightful rainbow of pastels was perfect for Easter, and I got a bigger kick than I probably should have out of the sunny-side up eggs nestled around its top. I loved the taste of the salty ham with the milder asparagus and piquant bite of Gruyere cheese. Plus, working vegetables directly into a breakfast casserole always gets my approval. 

So as I'm trying to decide what to make for Easter breakfast, or brunch, or whatever we end up doing this Sunday, this one is at the top of my short list. Ham will happen.


Ham-Asparagus and Cheese Strata
(Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens)

Ingredients:

8 oz. asparagus spears, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
5 cups bread cubes (preferably French bread)
2 c. shredded Gruyere or white cheddar cheese
1/4 c. chopped green onions
1 c. diced cooked ham
10 eggs
1 1/2 c. milk
olive oil, to taste
salt and cracked pepper, to taste

Directions:

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boiling. Add asparagus and cook for 5 minutes or until bright green. Remove and set aside.

2. In a greased 9 x 13 inch baking dish spread half the bread cubes. Top with the cheese, green onion, and half the ham and asparagus. Top with remaining bread.

3. In a bowl whisk together 4 of the eggs and the milk. Evenly pour over the layers in the dish. With the back of a flat spatula, press the bread down into the egg mixture. To with remaining ham and asparagus. If making ahead of time, stop here, cover, and refrigerate until ready to bake. 

4. Bake uncovered in a 325 degree oven for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and with the back of a wooden spoon, press 6 indentations into the top of the strata. Pour a whole egg into each indentation. Return to oven for 20-25 more minutes. Let stand 15 minutes.

5. Drizzle top of strata with olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Cut into squares and serve.

Serves 6-8.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Fig, Pear, and Goat Cheese Salad with Toasted Cinnamon-Pecan Vinaigrette


Have you ever had a really unforgettable meal at a restaurant, then gone back anticipating having it again, only to find it's been taken off the menu? Or worse yet, that the recipe's been changed and what you order is not nearly as delicious as what you remember? There's a popular restaurant in Phoenix called La Grande Orange I've been to only a couple of times and enjoyed. Once I got a salad there with a truly spectacular pecan vinaigrette. While nuts have been growing on me for the last few years (you know, figuratively, not literally), I have historically not been their biggest fan. This dressing, though, was a revelation. Sweet, rich, and complex--this dressing probably gets alllll the ladies. I've thought about it frequently since our last visit to La Grande Orange. Imagine my disappointment, then, looking up the LGO menu recently and not seeing it listed! 

Well, I couldn't let it go at that. I had to at least Google and tinker around to try to recreate a version of it (if not call LGO's chef and tearfully beg for the recipe). The dressing on this salad is the result. Since I don't actually remember LGO's salad itself, just the vinaigrette, I chose ingredients I tend to like with sweet dressings: dried figs, pear slices, goat cheese, and arugula for a little spicy kick. I must say the whole picture of flavors came together dee-liciously. I might have even liked my homemade pecan vinaigrette with its touch of cinnamon even better than the restaurant version, if you can believe it. So here it is, the salad with the  most delicious vinaigrette ever--and possibly the longest name ever. If this were in a cookbook, I'm pretty sure my editor would make me cut some words out of its 11-word title. 



Fig, Pear, and Goat Cheese Salad with Toasted Cinnamon-Pecan Vinaigrette
(Dressing adapted from Food.com)

Ingredients:

Salad:

8 c. arugula
4 oz. crumbled goat cheese
1 ripe pear, thinly sliced
4 oz. dried figs, sliced in half

Dressing:

1 c. chopped pecans
1 Tbsp. olive oil
Cinnamon, to taste
2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp. honey
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 c. balsamic vinegar

Directions:

1. Assemble salad ingredients on a platter or in a large bowl.

2. Toast the pecans. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread chopped pecans on a baking sheet. Drizzle with the 1 Tbsp. olive oil and sprinkle cinnamon over top. Bake 3-5 minutes, checking at 3 minutes for doneness. The nuts should look dark brown but not burnt.

3. To make vinaigrette, whisk together Dijon and honey. Slowly whisk in olive oil, then balsamic vinegar. Stir in cooled toasted pecans. If you like a more emulsified texture, give the whole thing a few pulses with an immersion blender.

4. Toss salad with pecan vinaigrette, or serve on the side.

Serves 4.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Iced Chai Tea Latte



Surely I'm not the only one who wishes Starbucks delivered. When the kids are in no state to get hauled into the car or I'm in no state to go out in public, I find myself wishing for a coffee and tea delivery service--or at least a personal secretary a la Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada to go get some for me. (Then she could do my laundry, too, and clean my kitchen while she's at it! Heck, let's let her babysit my kids and give me a pedicure, too!) You know Starbucks would make a killing, though, if they offered delivery. It could be a whole separate arm of the business. I'm kind of surprised they haven't done so already. 

But... they haven't.

This being the case, when the afternoon drag strikes, sometimes I really need something to get me through. Thankfully, there are ways around the lack of Starbucks delivery when you really, really want an iced chai tea latte. Enter this recipe. It takes about an hour to chill to the point of being pleasant as an iced drink, but to if you, like me, can foresee that in the next hour you're A.) Probably going to want an iced caffeinated beverage and B.) Probably have no chance of getting out of your house to get one, you're in good shape. Other positives include spending approximately 35 cents instead of almost $3, as well as taking in only about 40 calories instead of 180 for a Starbucks tall. This version won't taste quite as spicy and sweet as the Starbucks version, I'll admit, but that's because it contains only 7 grams of sugar, whereas the Starbucks tall contains 31 grams (the equivalent of 7.5 teaspoons). So for a simple substitute to spare you the trip through the drive-thru with crazy hair, no makeup, and/or a carful of screaming kids, it sure does the trick.

Iced Chai Tea Latte
(Inspired by The Life You Live)

Ingredients:

2 chai tea bags
3/4 c. water
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 c. ice
1/4 c. milk
Whipped cream

Directions:

1. Steep 2 chai tea bags in 3/4 cup boiling water for 7-8 minutes. Stir in sugar until dissolved.

2. Refrigerate for at least one hour. 

3. In a fresh glass, pour tea over ice. Stir in milk and top with whipped cream.

Serves 1.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Vegan Peanut Butter Energy Bars


This year, my noble, brave husband and 7-year-old son both decided to give up sweets for Lent. I'm not sure which of us is having the harder time with it, them or me. As a dessert-making addict, it's been awfully difficult for me to have two members of my family not eating the sweet treats I make. For me, dessert making is like the sixth Love Language. Not to mention the fact that with two fifths of our family not eating it, there's way too much to go around when I do make some. So since the Lenten season began I've been trying to only make desserts that can be frozen, so that I don't eat entire layer cakes or pans of seven-layer bars all by myself. (A very real possibility.)

Both my husband and son really have displayed amazing resolve in this Lenten fast, but last week my husband made a request. Could I make something "sweet-but-not-sweet"? I had to pick his brain a bit to figure out what this meant. What tastes sweet but doesn't qualify as a sweet? He wasn't really sure. He just knew he wanted something to curb the craving for sweetness without "cheating." It set me on a mission to make the perfect non-treat treat. It actually kind of felt like one of those cooking show challenges. ("You have 30 seconds to make a dessert out of one tablespoon of barbecue sauce, three handfuls of popcorn, and a Fruit by the Foot--GO!") In the end, I think I succeeded. I'd like to imagine the celebrity chef judge (can it be Curtis Stone? Let's just say it's Curtis Stone) proclaiming my creation the winner of the sweet-but-not-sweet challenge: these vegan peanut butter energy bars.

I tend to assume that when I see the word "vegan" in front of a recipe (especially a baked goods recipe) that it's not worth my time. What good is baking without butter, eggs, or milk? I'm happy to say these bars prove me wrong. They are genuinely moist, tasty, and addictingly snackable. With mashed banana, whole wheat flour, oats, and just 1/3 cup of brown sugar, I think you could even get away with calling them healthy. I may have made them for my husband, but I ate at least as many as he did. 

If you, too, are looking for a little something to stave off your sweet tooth without breaking the sweetness bank, look no further than these bars!



Vegan Peanut Butter Energy Bars
(Adapted from Sally's Baking Addiction)

Ingredients:

1/3 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. creamy peanut butter
1/2 c. mashed ripe banana (about 1 small banana)
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 c. whole wheat flour
1 c. old-fashioned rolled oats
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
Scant 1/3 c. almond milk (or 2% milk)

Optional mix-ins: 1/2 c. raisins or chocolate chips (vegan if you want to keep it vegan)

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8 x 8 inch baking dish or line with parchment paper.

2. In a large bowl, mix brown sugar and peanut butter with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add mashed banana and vanilla extract, mixing well until smooth.

3. With the mixer on medium speed, add whole wheat flour, oats, baking soda, and salt. Mix until almost combined, with a few floury streaks. Slowly add almond milk until the dough comes together completely. Fold in mix-ins, if using. Spread into prepared pan.

4. Bake 20-23 minutes. Let cool completely before slicing into bars. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Makes about 12 bars.



Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Chickpea Salad Wraps


Ah, the humble chickpea! The little legume that could. If you're not familiar with chickpeas, you may have heard them called by their alternate name, garbanzo beans. You know, like Ronald Reagan's lesser-known cinematic hit:




Or if that doesn't ring a bell, they're also called Bengal grams, Egyptian peas, cecis, ceces, or chanas. Having so many different names could have to do with the fact that they've been around for over 7,500 hundred years, making them one of the oldest cultivated legumes on earth. Take that, Ancient Grains Cheerios!


Fortunately for all of us, chickpeas were not lost to antiquity and have continued to be cultivated to this day. Now you can find them in the grocery store in cans and dried in bags, or in this delicious lunch entree. (Or quick dinner entree, depending on your day.) On my perpetual quest to find more hearty vegetarian meals, I count these chickpea salad wraps as a watershed discovery. They're filling, flavorful, and pack a nutritional punch that is not to be trifled with. A half cup of chickpeas alone contains over 20% of your daily value of protein and an impressive 8 grams of fiber. 

In this recipe, you can pretty much mess around with the ingredients in any amount you like. I am infamously gluttonous in my fondness for mayo, so I prefer to add that with a bit of a heavy hand, but you could always cut back. Same goes for any of the other ingredients--except the chickpeas themselves, and the lavash, assuming you intend to eat it as a wrap and not straight out of the bowl. Though I won't say you won't be tempted...



Chickpea Salad Wraps
(Inspired by Allrecipes.com)

Ingredients:

2 15-oz. cans chickpeas/garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 c. onion, diced fine
1/3 c. celery, diced fine
1/2 c. mayonnaise
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 1/2 tsp. dried dill weed
salt and pepper, to taste

4 whole wheat pitas or lavash bread

Directions:

1. In a large bowl, mash chickpeas until they reach a consistency you like. (I prefer them to still be a bit chunky, not too smooth.)

2. Add all remaining ingredients except pitas and mix, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.

3. Serve in pitas or lavash wraps.

Serves 4.