Monthly Archives: November 2010

dinnertime stir-fry with sexy sauce

Say you’ve been running errands all day. You’ve been all over Hell’s half-acre; east of the Willamette, west of the Willamette, north and south of Burnside. I-5, 405, 82, 205, and 43 to boot. And then you get the call: “Can you handle dinner?”

It’s like a video game: you must create a healthy, flavorful dinner substantial enough to satisfy the needs of 2 big carnivorous men and their wife/mother. And it’s gotta have enough green veggies to satisfy your cruciferous cravings. AND you have to have it on the table in 1.5 hours and you have to get to the grocery store first. GO.

In order to defeat this dinnertime boss, I fall back on an old favorite: the stir fry. I used to eat a bare-bones version of this for lunch every day back in the Veggie Co-op in sophomore year; no thickening agent in the sauce, which was mostly soy and Bragg’s. And no chicken, of course; for protein, I had tofu if I was lucky enough to  find some. I didn’t give a second thought to technique, but these days with the help of Lynne Rosetto-Kasper’s insight and instruction, I think I have a fairly good idea of what I’m doing (or at least what I’m supposed to be doing). Click over to that link and listen to the audio clip about the art of the stir fry, linked under the “Episode Rundown” heading.

So. Let’s get started. You’ll need the following hardware: wok (or, in our case, big glorious All-Clad wedding present; though a wok would be a hell of a lot cheaper), big knife for veggies, knife for chicken, 2 cutting boards, small saucepan and whisk. That’s it. Oh, and a  tea kettle and a big bowl.  And you can also get out your mandoline slicer and your Microplane zester to deal with the ginger. (Getting married was the best thing that ever happened to our kitchen.)

So here we go!

First, prep some rice noodles. You must have a starch on which to plop your stir-fry. Put a package of rice noodles in a big bowl and cover with just-boiling water. Test periodically until al dente, which should take between 3-4 minutes. Strain and toss with a little peanut oil to keep the noodles from forming a congealed rice brick. Easy. Set aside.

Next, assemble the Sexy Sauce (so named because a friend told me once that if I wanted to get up close and personal with someone, all I had to do was serve them something covered in this stuff).

  • tamari (or soy sauce, if you’re not worried about the gluten–or the flavor, but that’s another entry entirely)
  • 1/2 cup brown rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons blackstrap molasses
  • 1/4 cup natural creamy peanut butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger root (keep it in the freezer–so much easier to grate frozen!)
  • 10 drops fish oil
  • dash(es) red pepper flakes
  • juice of 1 lime, if you’re feeling crazy
  • 2 teaspoons corn starch

Throw everything EXCEPT the corn starch in a small saucepan and set aside.

Now, grab your veggies and chicken. We go straight for the boneless skinless breasts, by which I am otherwise unimpressed. But trust me, this is where they belong. As for the veggies, go crazy. We like to use baby bok choy when we can find it. We always use broccoli because a) I love broccoli and b) it’s a flavor sponge. I’ve been known to use kale, green beans, zucchini, red cabbage, mushrooms, carrots, cauliflower–you name it, you can probably throw it in here with good effect. Anyhow, here are the basics:

  • boneless skinless chicken breasts (for the 4 of us, with plans for leftovers, I pick up 2-3 pounds)
  • 1 big onion, coarsely chopped
  • 2-4 cloves of garlic, minced (Jesse likes to whack the garlic with the onion to peel it. Occasionally this results in projectile garlic.)

  • 10-ish leaves of fresh basil, chiffonade
  • 2-4 heads of baby bok choy, chopped
  • 2 or 3 heads (do we call them heads?) of broccoli, cut into bite-sized trees
  • 2 handfuls bean sprouts
  • few handfuls baby spinach leaves
  • several tablespoons of peanut oil
  • chopped peanuts (optional garnish)

And now you’re ready to get going.

1. Butterfly your chicken and slice it into thin strips. Season with coarse salt and freshly cracked black pepper.

2. Set your wok/skillet over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add the peanut oil and swirl to coat. After a few seconds, the oil should be shimmering. Add the chopped chicken and enjoy the sizzle. If you’re strapped for time (and that’s a big part of why you’re making this dish in the first place), you can chop your veggies while the chicken is cooking. No, I don’t always prep everything before I get going. Lynne Rosetto-Kasper says that you should, and I’ll forgive her for it. But if anyone tells you that you absolutely must prep each ingredient before you turn on a burner, they’re full of crap and don’t know how to live. The most exciting improvisation and invention-by-necessity happens when you realize halfway through that you don’t have an “essential” ingredient. Fly by the seat of your panties. Unless you’re preparing Thanksgiving dinner or trying to woo someone.

3. Once the chicken is cooked through, remove it to a plate and cautiously wipe out your pan with a paper towel. Add a little more peanut oil to the pan and throw in your veggies. Now, a note on veggie chopping: if you’re using something firm that takes a while to cook (say, carrot), slice it thin. Since you’re throwing in all the veggies at once, you need to cut them in such a way that they’ll cook at relatively the same speeds. With a little trial and error, you’ll figure it out.

4. As your right hand is dumping the veggies into the pan, your left hand can pop the saucepan of Sexy Sauce on a neighboring burner set to low-medium heat. Whisk the sauce a few times to get the peanut butter to make friends and emulsify.

5. Wait. Turn on the radio and after the first full song you hear is complete (change the station if you get Free Bird), add the cornstarch to the sauce. Whisk. You want the cornstarch in at the end because if you throw it in and heat it for too long, its binding abilities will fizzle. Trust me. I have science.

6. Throw your chicken back in the pan with your veggies to reheat and mix. Smother with the sauce. Remove from the heat and serve as soon as you can corral your people at the table. Pile the stir-fry on your rice noodles and sprinkle some chopped peanuts (raw or roasted & unsalted) over the dish for a garnish.

Fun to eat with chopsticks. Or a fork. I won’t judge. In fact, I usually start out with chopsticks and finish the last straggly strands of rice noodles and sauce with a spoon. Or if the bowl’s shallow enough, I’ve been known to just stick my face in there. Like the dogs.

Anyway.

For dessert?

Watch someone else do the dishes!

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WILT #21, in which we experience an “arctic front”

I’m going to try to maintain a smug attitude about this winter weather as long as I can before I become assimilated into the “OMG IT’S 30 DEGREES OMG IT’S SO COLD OMG” Portland crowd.

It’s currently 28° F outside. I was the first one out of the locker room at my yoga studio today; others were taking their time to layer up. I saw two women don long underwear before putting on their jeans. I left the studio wearing my fleece jacket and a decidedly pompous grin.

But I’m not smug about these winter roads. Winter weather creates road conditions out here that are completely different than those I used to sludge through in Minnesota. Ice lays down and clings to these roads with a desperate grip I’ve never seen in the northwoods. To boot, Portland and the area doesn’t salt. I discovered this two years ago when Jesse and I came out to visit and found ourselves in the worst snowstorm this area’s seen in 40 years. (My dad remembers that historic storm. Let’s see if I can get this story right: he and the high school debate team were busing back from a competition and got stuck in the snow-filled Columbia river gorge, where a cattle truck had overturned and cows were running amok along the blizzard-stricken highway.)

I used to keep two fifty-pound bags of rock salt in the trunk of my little Chevy Metro for ballast. Out here, people flock to the auto shop for snow tires and keep chains in the trunk. After that snowstorm in 2008, Subarus started popping up in many of the neighbors’ carports and garages, as we Outback drivers were the only people on our country road that were able to safely get out.

So now I must work to build a tolerance to the Chicken Little-esque weather reports on the news. Reports Fox 12 News:

Monday’s Arctic front brought 0.3 inches of snow and below-freezing temperatures to the region. Snow began falling in Portland after the evening commute and started sticking in some areas around 9 p.m. Monday.

Arctic front? It’s 28°. Practically T-shirt weather! But I think I’ll stick with my fleece jacket anyway. And maybe start knitting a new pair of gloves…

WILT #20, in which the animals of the house do silly things

In our household, we celebrate silliness and whimsy. Apparently, our appreciation for the ridiculous has rubbed off on our animals.

Atticus, do you really think you can fit in that box? And get this:

He stuck his head in an empty Kleenex box that was patiently waiting to be recycled. Here he is trying to get the damn thing off.

And he DID get the thing off… and then he put his head right back in.

Not to be outdone, Zoe got her head stuck in a FAGE yogurt container that she was cleaning out for us. I’m actually surprised that this was the first time.

That we know of, at least.

As for Scout? She fell in love with the rainbow catnip stick and licked it for 5 whole minutes.

And these are only the silly antics that we catch. I can only imagine what they do to entertain themselves when we’re not looking!

chili corn pie!

Okay, friends. It’s getting cooler and it’s getting darker. We’ve got a solid block of NFL football from Thursday through Sunday. It’s time for some real one-dish comfort food. Have I got the thing for you!

Jesse, inspired by this recipe from the delightful Megan over at Cooking Whims, prepared the inaugural version of this casserole/bake/hot dish a few weeks ago when I was at work. I returned home late, at a blurry 2 AM, to find a little white ramekin full of chili corn pie waiting for me in the refrigerator door. It made everything better.

We’ve made it several times since, and each pie is different. What follows isn’t a recipe so much as a template for construction based on our tested variations of Megan’s recipe. (Which means that this post is also a window into my own overenthusiastic stream-of-consciousness cooking style. Oh dear.) First, the hardware. You’ll need:

-a 9×13 deep glass/stoneware casserole dish OR two 9×9 casserole dishes OR a shitload of little ramekins or oven-safe bowls

-beefy electric beaters OR a stand mixer OR a hefty whisk and a brawny arm

-a skillet or two or three, depending on what you want to do with your middle layer

And now for the software–the contents of the above mentioned dish or ramekins. You need several things to bring this pie together: a base layer (which I suppose could be optional), a middle layer (or two or three), a cheese layer (sort of optional), and a cornbread layer. So, my recommendations for the constituents of these layers follow:

Base Layer

You don’t exactly need a defined base, but it provides some pleasing symmetry to this cornbread-topped dish. My most recent iteration of chili corn pie involved a layer of sweet potatoes sliced to about 3/8″ on my mandoline slicer. Lay them in your greased dish raw; they’ll cook to a nice al dente when you bake the whole thing. Or you could do a layer of potato slices, hash browns, cooked quinoa or brown rice, gluten-free crackers, pie crust, beets, cooked spaghetti squash (I am SO DOING THAT next), or other winter squash. Oh my goodness. The possibilities are endless and you truly cannot go wrong. So. Spray your casserole dish(es) or ramekins with some damn Pam and get going.

Middle Layers

Somewhere in there, you’ll need something that can loosely be defined as a chili. Otherwise you’re not making chili corn pie. Use your favorite recipe–a vegetarian chili, an old-school ground beef and kidney bean chili, a ground turkey chili with white beans and bell peppers, a black bean and sweet potato chili with cilantro and white onion–you could even just saute some onion and garlic with salt, pepper, ancho chili powder, and Tabasco and then throw in a couple cans of kidney beans. Chili Is Easy and Quick. And again, you cannot go wrong. You cannot fail at chili corn pie. I’m going to make an assumption here that y’all have, at some point, eaten a chili or bean food that made you Feel Good. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) Make that food. You can use leftover chili. You can make it the day before. Throw your ingredients together in your slow cooker before you go to work. You can do whatever you want. It’s awesome. (That said, my favorite involves a sofrito of onion, garlic, serrano chilis, and tomato paste with black beans, sweet corn, and some diced bell peppers or zucchini. And cilantro. And salt and pepper. And ancho chili powder and Tabasco.)

My recent pie also included a layer of leftover Stupid Easy Shredded Chicken and some shredded cheddar-jack cheese, and it was glorious.

The Cornbread

Back in my pre-GF days, I had been known to contribute to the death of a good pan of Jiffy cornbread. True story. But going gluten-free has opened my eyes to a plethora of amazing cornbread recipes and philosophies. Some think that their cornbread should be sweet as dessert, smooth like custard, and topped with maple syrup. Some want it dense and dry and smoky like bacon. Rachel’s cornbread will change your life, though it may be too moist to set properly in this context. This sweet potato cornbread is a good middle ground between the sweet and custard-y and the dense and savory. But let’s be real. You’re already making chili and you’re slicing sweet potatoes and maybe you’re even making some shredded chicken and a green salad for a side. I’m asking you to bake like crazy, too? You can keep it simple and still get delightful results with a mix. Don’t be ashamed. I’m not Martha and you aren’t either. Bob’s Red Mill has a stand-up gluten-free cornbread mix available, and all you have to do is add milk, eggs, and oil and mix your face off. You can add some sliced jalapeños or sharp cheddar cheese to the batter for an extra kick.

Putting It All Together

Go forth and assemble your layers. The hardest part is getting the cornbread to spread evenly on top of the middle layer–spoon the batter on and spread using a spatula you’ve dipped in water.  Bake in a preheated 375° oven for 25 minutes or until the cornbread is browning on top and bubbling on the sides. If using ramekins or individual bowls, keep your eye on that oven as your dishes may be ready before the 25-minute mark.

I would bet the contents of my piggy bank that you won’t be able to wait for your pie to cool enough before digging in, and you’ll burn your tongue. And you know what’ll make it all better?

More chili corn pie.

WILT #19, in which I break out the full-spectrum light box

I’m looking up into the gaping maws of winter. (How’s that for threatening imagery?) That means something very different out here in Portland than it does back in the northern Midwest–I’m excited that I never again have to worry about losing a digit if I leave my mittens off for more than 3 minutes while waiting for the bus. Tromping through snow in giant boots may be a thing of the past (or a notable rarity), unless I head up to the mountain for a day of skiing. I’m ready to break in my new cozy rain gear and galoshes, though, and to get used to hydroplaning on the highway rather than fishtailing on black ice.

Those winter differences aside, both Portland and Minneapolis sit at a latitude of about 45° N.  We’re halfway to the North Effing Pole. That means that when we fall back, we see the sun oozing down to the horizon rather early. It’s 4:29 PM as I write this post and I’m watching the sky turn the dusky gray color indicative of the sun’s final descent (or, if you want to get technical, indicative of the trusty rotation of the earth).  The mornings are brighter, for now. I don’t really see them, though, with my semi-nocturnal work schedule.

I learned years ago that when daylight savings time ends, I’m inclined to hibernate. And eat truckloads of simple carbohydrates. And sleep 12 hours out of every 24. And have trouble initiating simple shit (for instance, summoning the motivation to click the “new post” link here on the blog required a brief though significant internal battle). I want to cuddle under 12 down comforters with nice cozy mood-lighting and a good book. But then I don’t really want to have to go to the trouble of turning said book’s pages. It’s probably a heavy cookbook. About cooking winter squashes and roasting whole birds and baking pumpkins.

So what have I done with this knowledge? I know it’s coming. So does Jesse. I break out the spicy and aromatic foods to get my vata energy kicked up to balance my overbearing winter kapha, and I drag myself out from under the covers and go to a yoga class, and I make sure I stay warm enough because if I’m cold I’ll get sleepy. But not too warm, because that can make me sleepy too. Thank goodness I’m a knitter who enjoys wearing layers.

Anyway, modern psychology calls this SAD, or seasonal affective disorder. Medicalize it all you want; it doesn’t change the fact that I’m just terribly connected to the rousing properties of sunlight. My little pineal gland–the tiny little button of brain right between my eyes–really depends on sunlight in order to determine if I should be awake or not.

So we’ve learned to trick it. Powerful, expensive lightbulbs in a special housing sit next to my computer monitor and blare full-spectrum light at me for half an hour every morning as I sip my coffee and eat my breakfast. It’s been tested and tested by many sorts of scientists, but I did my own study back when I was growing up in Wisconsin. My mom and I used a full-spectrum light box (sample size = 2) and noticed more pep in our step after spending time with that beast every morning.

So here we are.

Me and my Lampy.

Yeah. It’s 5:04 now and fully dark (and raining to boot). Which means it’s time to start a fire in the fireplace and get some rosemary sweet potatoes roasting in the oven. Time to make the most and the best of this latitude and all its seasonal idiosyncrasies. Let’s go!