Thursday, September 27, 2007

Some New Discoveries

One of the perks of working at Energy is we have this Wellness and Health Seminar series, where guests come in and talk about different health topics over a very healthy lunch. (We also have an office manicurist and massage therapist - we're spoiled.)

Chef Jill Houk came in yesterday, and it turns out she's kinda famous! You can watch videos of her cooking online. She was a great speaker - she knew her stuff, and she was an advocate of moderation, which is nice. Some of the speakers advocate lifestyles that are just unrealistic (i.e., never eating sugar -EVER). I was just so charmed by her knowledge and positivity that I wanted to give her some more cyberspace. Watch Chef Jill cook up some great game day vittles!

Also, my pal Colleen sent me this link to a movie trailer. It's called "How to Cook Your Life," and it's all about the zen of cooking and eating. It looks karma-tastic!

And on my current food-related-book wish list:

Eat Pray Love. A nonfiction book about a woman's travels across several continents in search of, what else, herself.

The Improvisational Cook. That's how I cook! This book is gorgeous and truly creative. Mom, if you're reading this while simultaneously writing my Christmas list, take note!

And because I work in advertising, and just because it's too creepy to pass up, get a load of this baby:

Keep your eyes peeled for another post after this weekend. Later dudes.

Monday, September 24, 2007

From Justin to Belly


Thai Me Up


Enough to Thai'd You Over

OK, I'll stop.

The inspiration for this week's blog was meeting new people. A few friends from my work and few friends from my roommate's work got together for some wine and some autumnal riffs on Thai cuisine. These are my awesome friends Justin and Kelly:

This was a particularly challenging episode because of the number of guests - I had to find a way to feed a lot of (6) people on not a lot of moolah. It dawned on me that soup would be the perfect way to fill everyone up, and as the leaves are turning here in Chicago, soup just seemed perfect. I had been thinking about a Thai-inspired soup for some time, so I got some coconut milk and went with it.

I have to preface this with a confession:

For this dinner, I got really stressed out! I may be fearless, but I'm still human. I worked later than I intended, and in my haste once I began cooking, I kept forgetting to take pictures (duh!). There are still plenty of pics to guide you through, and the preparation for these dishes is simple anyway. Thanks for hanging in there with me.

Ingredients for Soup:

2 fresh large chicken breasts
4 48-ounce cartons chicken stock
3 cans light coconut milk
2 red bell peppers
1 head broccoli
1 T. butter
1 T. olive oil
1/2 c. chopped leeks, white and light green parts only
Juice of 3 limes
1 T. minced ginger (from a jar)
A few pinches turmeric
A few pinches hot curry powder
Some salt and pepper
A handful chopped fresh cilantro

Ingredients for Salad:

A mix of chopped romaine lettuce, baby spinach, and spring mix
Shredded carrots
Tomato wedges
Cucumber slices
1 1/2 lbs. Shrimp
A few pinches hot curry powder
2 T. olive oil
Roasted, unsalted peanuts

Ingredients for Salad Dressing:

Juice of 5 limes
3/4 c. olive oil
3 T. chopped fresh cilantro
2-3 T. honey
pinch hot curry powder

NOTE: I was cooking for 6 people, so I made a lot of food. We only ate about half the soup, but most of the salad got eaten. But I definitely made too much soup. Not a problem since soup universally freezes well, but something to keep in mind.


Halve and thinly slice leeks. In a large soup pot, melt 1 T. butter. Sautee the leeks until they soften a bit, about 2-3 minutes. Add a couple pinches turmeric and a couple pinches hot curry powder. Add the ginger and sautee for another minute.


Pour all chicken broth and coconut milk into the pot. Crank up the heat to begin to bring it to a boil while you chop the rest of the ingredients. Slice the red peppers and then cut the slices into 1-inch pieces and add to pot. Rinse broccoli, and chop the fluffy green tops off, discarding the tough stems. Chop it into pretty small pieces, tearing it into smaller pieces if neccessary while adding it to pot. Throw it in the soup.


Cut the chicken breasts into small (bite-sized) pieces. Heat 1 T. olive oil in a skillet, and add chicken. Add salt and pepper. Sautee until chicken turns white, but do not overcook. When done, add it to the soup. Halve 3 limes, and squeeze the juice into the soup. At this point, taste the soup. If it needs more seasoning (i.e., more curry powder, salt, or pepper), add more until you think it tastes good. It's hard to overseason this much soup, so don't be scared. Curry powder is a mild seasoning, it won't ruin it.


Chop the romaine lettuce, and otherwise prepare the rest of the salad (which in my case means opening various bags). I just piled all the lettuce on a large serving platter (that my roommate got at Jewel for $1 - best dollar we ever spent), sort of tossing it around as I went. Sprinkle some carrots on top. Slice the cucumbers and tomatoes and put those on top too.


For the dressing, pour the olive oil into a medium mixing bowl. Halve the limes and squeeze the juice into the bowl. Chop the cilantro and add it in, then put in the honey, and add a pinch of curry powder. Whisk it all together.


In a skillet, heat about 1 T. olive oil in a skillet. Place the raw shrimp in the pan, and sprinkle them with salt, pepper, and a few pinches curry powder. Cook for about 2-3 minutes on one side, then flip them and cook them about 2 minutes on the other side (you don't really need to season this side, since they'll just soak up what fell off in the olive oil). I had to do two batches of shrimp since I had so many, so cook more if you need to. Place the shrimp on top of the salad. Drizzle the salad dressing over the top of everything.


Since I had a small crowd, I just set the salad out and let everyone serve themselves, while I put the soup in bowls. It seemed to work.

My judges for this dinner were my lovely guests Justin, Kelly, Sarah, Taylor, and Ross. Here's what they all had to say:

TAYLOR: I really liked the soup. It reminded me of Panang Chicken Curry, which I like. But it also wasn't too heavy, like Panang tends to be.

SARAH: Yeah, it was light. It seemed really healthy. I love Thai food, so I really liked it.

JUSTIN: I really liked the soup, but the chicken in the soup seemed like it could've used a little more seasoning. The shrimp in the salad were seasoned perfectly, though. But I think the salad could've used more dressing. Overall, I really liked it.

KELLY: Me too, BUT...I think it was too hot out for soup! This would be great if it were a little more like Fall outside.

ROSS [the next morning]: I think that soup gave me a stomachache.

Thanks so much to my guests for coming by on a Monday night! I had a great time, and I hope you really did enjoy yourselves. Great feedback!

TOTAL TIME TO MAKE: About an hour.

Level of difficulty: 1 out of 5. If you can open cans and chop vegetables, you can make this. But give yourself more time than I did. Stress adds nothing to the dish.


I'd give it a 6 out of 10. I really liked the salad, but I agree with Justin that for the amount of salad, the dressing may have been sparse. Or rather, it just sunk to the bottom - next time I might toss the salad leaves in the dressing first. The soup didn't turn out exactly as I had envisioned. In order to achieve the consistency I was looking for, I would've had to drastically reduce the amount of chicken stock and increase the amount of coconut milk, although my guests seemed to appreciate that it wasn't too creamy or heavy. I think the best part was the shrimp - they were fresh, well-seasoned, and for once I didn't overcook them. Although next time I might remove the tails - I really like how shrimp look with the tails on, but in salad, it would just be easier to spear a bite without having to deal with getting the tail out of the way first. Overall, the dinner was certainly far from a disaster, but stressful enough to keep my culinary ego in check!


We drank some Yellow Tail Shiraz, and Justin even brought some Carmenere, found only in Chile! A special wine for sure. Although after 3 glasses, who can tell, right? Thanks for the wine, guys!

Kelly also brought over some awesome brownies - she replaced the oil with applesauce to make them lower fat, and they were great. We ate the entire pan.



It's a lot easier to be "fearless" when your group is small - cooking for one or two people is no sweat. Six is another story. That's when planning comes in handy. You can still go recipe-free, but it definitely helps to at least have an idea what you're going to feed your friendly little army. I actually can't believe I pulled it off! Whew, another meal conquered.

I'll be back next week with another fearless kitchen expedition. Thanks for reading, everyone!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Can Cooking Save the World?


I've been working a project at work for Darfur/Darfur, a travelling photo installation that brings attention to the genocide in Darfur. 400,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million are displaced (that's equal to the population of Chicago).

Check out the website here. Below is a stunning photo from the exhibit.

Or, for a more general overview of the crisis and to learn how to get involved, check this out.

But, to the point: for just a little dough, you can buy a Darfuri family a solar cooker, which will allow them to cook in their hut rather than leave the refugee camps (located mostly in neighboring country Chad). Women risk rape and murder and men risk castration and murder if they so much as leave the camps for food and water. To buy a family 2 solar cookers for a donation of $30, or to learn more about the project, click here.

Isn't it great to know you can actually make a real difference?

And check out this great organization. Chefs uniting for the greater good!

One other thing, on a lighter note: I changed my blog preferences so that anyone can comment - you no longer have to sign up with blogger. Woot! Leave a sister some comments!

Monday, September 17, 2007

No Meal Is An Island

Aloha, mon! Or...something. Anyway, this meal was inspired by island life. Maybe it's because I just got back from the beach (check me out below, I'm the one on the surfboard), maybe it's my last-ditch effort to stop the inevitable creep of winter's chill, but for whatever reason, the spirit of the islands possessed me for this dinner. So turn on some Bob Marley, wear your flip-flops around the kitchen, and dig in.

Ross, one of my two esteemed judges this evening (and also my boyfriend), requested a dish with chicken, so I went from there. I knew I had some nice Japanese-style bread crumbs at home, and a bag of cashews in my purse (an airport impulse buy). I found some great pineapple, and the rest is culinary history.

WHY IT'S FEARLESS: Well, I basically know nothing about "island food," and every time I make a so-called cream sauce (like the one I tried to make here, with pineapple), it comes out differently. I had also only used cumin one other time.

THE KNOWLEDGE BASE: I knew how to make chicken crispy by breading it, and I knew I loved bok choy, so I just went with it!

Here's what I used:


3 chicken breasts
3 bell peppers (I got the orange/yellow/red 3-pack)
1 package baby bok choy
1 container diced fresh pineapple
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 cup wine
2 bags boil-in-bag brown rice
fresh cilantro
fresh mint
Japanese style bread crumbs (I used Ian's brand, Italian-seasoned)
2-3 eggs
a couple tablespoons milk
a little olive oil
salt and pepper
a few dashes of crushed red pepper flakes
a few dashes ground cumin
a little chopped onion (I had some in the fridge, so I threw it in)
crushed cashews (totally optional, but then again so is everything)


Preheat the oven to 375. Boil some water in a large pot for the rice.


Crack the eggs on a plate and add a splash of milk; beat it together.
On a separate plate, pour some bread crumbs out.
Make a little assembly line, taking the chicken breasts (they have to be fresh, not frozen), and dredge (that means roll) the chicken in the egg mixture, coating it, then dredge it in the bread crumbs. Repeat that one more time. Set the chicken aside in a shallow baking dish. Repeat for the rest of the chicken. Place in the oven.


Put the rice in the water to boil.


Wash the bok choy, and trim off the tough ends. Chop it into 1-inch pieces. In a skillet over medium-high, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil and add the bok choy. Add a little salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and a couple pinches cumin. Sautee for about 7-8 minutes, until it's no longer tough.


Rinse the peppers. Cut the tops off and remove the seeds and white-ish ribs from inside. Keep the pepper tops for later. If needed, cut a sliver off the bottom of the peppers so they sit evenly. Place in a small baking dish.


Remove rice from boiling water, drain, and discard water. Pour the rice into the pot, and add some salt, pepper, and another pinch of cumin. Add a pat of butter and let it begin to melt. Pour the cooked bok choy on top and stir to combine.


Chop the reserved pepper tops into small pieces. Chop a little (1/4 cup) of onion. In the same pan the bok choy was cooked in (not yet wiped out), add about a teaspoon of olive oil, and cook the peppers and onions about 5-6 minutes, until tender. Chop a little extra pineapple (about 1/2 cup) into very small pieces, and add to the rice mixture. Stir the peppers and onions into the rice and bok choy mixture.


Chop the pineapple chunks into smaller pieces. Chop the mint and cilantro. In a medium saucepan, combine chicken broth, wine, pineapple chunks, salt and pepper, another pinch cumin, mint, and cliantro. Boil until reduced by half.


Fill the empty peppers with the rice mixture, smushing down the rice and mounding it over the top of the peppers. Place them in the oven beside the chicken, to cook until the chicken is done.

STEP 10:

When the pineapple-wine mixture has reduced, add about 1/2 a small container heavy cream, reducing the heat and stirring constantly. Bring it back up to a boil and let it cook for about 5 more minutes.

STEP 11:

Remove chicken and peppers from oven, and let the chicken rest for 5-10 minutes (so the juices redistribute back into the meat - this really makes a difference). While the chicken is resting, turn the heat off of the pineapple sauce and let it cool for just a few minutes too. Crush the cashews (I used the bottom of a durable plastic cup and just left the nuts in their original bag). Place the chicken and stuffed peppers on a plate, and drizzle with the pineapple sauce. Top with remaining chopped mint and cilantro, and finish with a little of the chopped cashews.

Here's what my dear judges (Jess, my roommate, and Ross, my boyfriend [and roommate]) had to say, over that $2.99 Charles Shaw Chardonnay I mentioned in my recent wine posting (the one that won awards):

JESS: I love it. I love the mint. But I would add more pineapple to the rice-stuffing mixture. And the chicken-to-breading ratio is off - too much chicken.

Note: I somehow bought the world's largest chicken breasts - accidentally. I mean the chicken, when it was living, must've been about the size of a brontosaurus. I barely ate half of mine.

ROSS: Tastes good. But I want more cream sauce. Is there any more sauce?

Note: Ross loves sauce.

MY VOTE ON MY DISH: I thought it was pretty good. I'd say 7 out of 10 stars. Truthfully, I would've liked it with more salt (I love salt), but it's probably better that I didn't add more - gotta keep that sodium in check. It was light, healthy, and packed a lot of veggies, protein, and vitamins. I mentioned earlier that my cream sauces come out differently every time I cook them. This one was pretty liquidy - it had the consistency of Tom Ka Soup (that Thai coconut milk soup). When I poured it on the plate, it got almost immediately absorbed by the chicken breading and the rice, so next time, I'd make more of it and I'd make it thicker (which usually just entails starting with more liquid and cooking it longer). Also, next time I'd buy canned pineapple instead of (or in addition to) fresh, because I missed out on all the great pineapple juice that you get in the can, which would've added a great element of sweetness to the cream sauce (and also help with the reduction of all the ingredients).

TOTAL TIME TO MAKE: About an hour.

DIFFICULTY LEVEL: I'd say 2 out of 5 stars. Just the usual chopping, etc.

Notes: That chicken was a beast! Try not to buy chicken breasts as big as your head - they take forever to bake, and they're just generally pretty sketchy if you ask me. Mine were supposedly "all natural," but those breasts seemed about as all-natural as Pamela Anderson's. I was iffy on the mint - I'm not crazy about fresh mint, but I do think it was a nice bright flavor compliment to the other ingredients. As for the award-winning wine, it was pretty good. I'm actually not the biggest fan of Chardonnay (I really prefer red wine in general), but I enjoyed it. I mean, award-wine for three bucks??!!! You can't do better than that.

Overall, it was a great meal with my favorite people. The wine was nice, the company was entertaining, and the chicken - while gargantuan - was delish.

Thanks for reading! More soon.
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