Saturday, October 18, 2008

Tortilla Soup

Soups are one of my very favorite foods. There is nothing more comforting than a hot bowl of soup, accompanied by bread or crackers. And there is something so wholesome about them that you can almost feel the vitamins and nourishment being absorbed as you eat.

There are light soups and hearty soups, hot soups and cold soups, mild flavored soups and spicy soups. One of the most amazing thing about soups is what different results you can get starting with the same basic ingredients.

The soup I am sharing today is one of my favorites. It is basically a chicken and vegetable soup, brightened up with lime and black and red pepper flavors, and served over tortilla strips or corn chips. The recipe includes directions for making vegetable stock, but if you are pressed for time you can use prepared stock with great results.

So without further ado, here is my Tortilla Soup recipe and directions. I hope you enjoy this soup as much as I do!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Overripe Bananas? Make Banana Bread!

I bought bananas last week and we seem to be out of the habit of eating them up very fast. For some reason in this dry climate, bananas ripen very quickly. By Friday, the smell of overripe bananas could not be ignored, so I knew there was just one thing to do: make banana bread! Since I've been on an economy kick lately, let me emphasize this: never throw out those overripe bananas, if they are anything short of spoiled. The riper they are, the more sugars have developed and they are perfect for banana bread!

This bread mixes up quickly and takes about one hour to bake and 1/2 hour to cool to where you can slice and enjoy it. Yummm, you will never be tempted to throw out those old bananas again!

Here is the recipe:

Lime Banana Bread

A wonderful banana bread recipe, adapted from one in the 1946 edition of Joy of Cooking. The lime juice and zest gives it a nice citrus zing! Please read the whole recipe and notes before starting.

2 c flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

1/4 c butter
3/4 c sugar (all white, all brown or half each)
1 egg

2/3 to 1 c mashed bananas
juice of 1 lime
finely grated zest of 1 lime

3 Tbsp milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
Grease one 8x4 inch baking pan

Sift flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt together and set aside

Stir sugar into butter and mix until smooth
Break egg into butter and sugar mixture and stir until very smooth

Peel ripe to very ripe bananas, break into large chunks, and mash with a fork or potato masher. Mash them until there are only very small chunks left in the mash. Grate the outside of the lime with a fine grater before cutting it in half and juicing it. Add lime juice and zest and stir until well mixed.

Stir the banana and lime mixture into the butter, sugar and egg mixture and stir until well mixed.

Now add the flour mixture alternately with the milk, the flour in 3 parts and the milk in 2 parts in between adding the flour parts. Stir only enough to mix it in; a few dry flour spots is okay, just don't leave big flour chunks. Use a large wooden spoon and make sure to bring up the banana mixture from the bottom while mixing.

Now spoon the batter into the baking pan, place it on a cookie sheet in the pre-heated oven, and cook for about 1 hour. I usually set the timer for 50 minutes, and check it then -- better to take it out right when it's done. Check by inserting a small bamboo skewer or a knife blade into the center of the bread; if it comes out clean (it can have a crumb or two, just no wet dough) the bread is done. If it's not done at 50 minutes, give it another 10 minutes; after that, test every 5 minutes if you need to leave it in.

Remove from oven and leave it in the pan on a breadboard for about 10 minutes. Then remove it from the pan and let it cool on the board or on a wire rack until cool. Or you can start slicing when it's still a little warm. Serve with milk, tea, or coffee.


- The loaf pictured looks a little low because I put it in a larger loaf pan, not having the 8x4 loaf pan that is called for. I could have put the double recipe into this larger pan but wanted to save a loaf for later. So while the shape came out a little different, the taste was still wonderful!

- Butter should be room temperature, somewhat soft but not melted

- if using brown sugar, remember to lightly pack it in the measuring cup

- The lime juice adds flavor to the banana bread, and mixing it with the banana mash keeps it from oxidizing and turning brown.

- I usually decide how much banana bread I'm going to make depending on how much mashed banana I get from whatever overripe bananas are lying around and need to be used. This recipe has a lot of leeway: you can use from 2/3 to 1 cup of mashed banana. So if you don't quite have a cup, go ahead and make this recipe anyway. No need to adjust anything else. Or if you have 2 cups, like I did this time, just double the recipe and make 2 loaves.

- Remember, you can stir all you want before you add the flour, and the more you stir the more the sugar dissolves and the smoother the mixture gets, giving a finer texture to the finished product. In this recipe most of the heavy stirring should be done before the banana mixture is added.

- The biggest trick when baking is to know when to stop stirring once you start adding flour. Don't overdo it! Luckily, in the case of banana bread, there's plenty of leeway. If you're a beginner, relax: it may turn out to be not as tender as it could be, but this is a very forgiving recipe and it will still be great.

- Substitute lemon or orange for the lime, for a different citrus accent. If using oranges, you can also substitute orange juice for the milk to give a stronger orange flavor.


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Chicken, Sweet Peppers and Onions - Dinner for Four

We all want to eat well, and in this day and age most of us don't have hours to devote to cooking each day. This meal will feed four, is healthy, colorful, and delicious. Most of the work consists of chopping the vegetables and chicken. I estimate about 1 hour from start to finish, before you can all sit down and eat. So without further ado, let's get started!

Chicken, Sweet Peppers and Onions

NOTE: Please read the whole recipe including that for the sides of rice and collard greens, before starting.

Trim and chop into bite sized pieces (1"x1" to 1"x2" or so):

2 medium yellow onions
3 sweet bell peppers (1 red, 1 yellow, 1 orange looks great)
(note: don't use green peppers for this dish, totally different flavor)
1-1/2 lb. chicken breast

Set each group of chopped items aside.

Note 1: Save the vegetable trimmings and put them in a jar in the freezer, for later use in making vegetable stock.
Note 2: I keep frozen chicken tenders as backup for when I don't have fresh chicken on hand. I can bring out the ones I will need the night before to defrost overnight in the fridge.

See the White Rice, Collard Greens and Sauce for Greens items below, get all of those items ready since we want to start cooking everything at the same time. Now it is time to start cooking:

Start the rice and collard greens cooking, as described below.

Place 2 tbsp olive oil into a large frying pan. Add:

2 tsp each: fresh coarsely ground black pepper, oregano, thyme and sage
1/8 tsp red pepper flakes (or a pinch)

Put on high heat until the oil is hot (you can test by dropping a single drop of water and see if it sizzles; please be very careful when doing this! hot oil is very hot and can jump out of the pan! so just a very small drop of water please!). When it is hot, drop the chicken pieces into the pan and sauté, leaving the pan on high heat. Use a spatula to turn them while cooking and keep them separated. When the chicken pieces are white and coated with the oil and seasonings, remove them from the pan and set aside in a bowl.

Now add another 1-2 tbsp olive oil to the pan, leaving it at high heat, add the onions and peppers and sauté until the onions begin to become clear. Add the chicken back into the pan, add 3/4 cup white wine, turn down to medium heat, and let it simmer for another 10-15 minutes to let the alcohol cook out. Test the flavor and add salt to taste.

Note: I tend to salt lightly, letting people salt their food to taste at the table. The last time I made this dish we used low-sodium soy sauce at the table instead of salt and it went very well with the dish.

Serve by placing rice on the plate, then the chicken with pepper over the rice, and the dressed collard greens on the side.


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White Rice

1-1/2 cups dry uncooked white rice
2-3/4 cups water
1/4 tsp. salt

Rinse the rice by placing it in a strainer and running water over it until the water runs mostly clear. This removes the powdery coating that is on most rice, and keeps it more fluffy and less sticky. Set aside until ready to start cooking -- about the same time you start to sauté the chicken and peppers.

When ready to start the rice: Place the water and salt in a pan, bring the water to a boil over high heat, then put the rice in the boiling water. Leave it on high until it comes back to the boil, then reduce heat to low, and cover loosely. From this point it will take 20 minutes for the rice to cook and absorb the water. DO NOT stir the rice while it cooks; DO check the rice and make sure the heat is LOW -- burning the bottom of the rice is disastrous, as the burnt flavor will make its way through the entire pot. Finally, rice expands a lot while cooking, so make sure the pot has room.

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Collard Greens

Collard greens are my second favorite green, after beet greens. One of the nice things about collard greens is they are very thick and strong, so they can take a good long cooking -- no need to hover over them and make sure you haven't overcooked them. The trick is not to undercook them!

Take 1 bunch collard greens, remove stems and chop into bite sized pieces -- 1"x1" to 2"x2" in size, more or less. Remove the stems, and also the thicker part of the center of the leaves. After they are chopped, place them in a colander and rinse thoroughly, ensuring there is no dirt or grit in the greens. Set up a pot with a steamer, put 1-2 cups of water under the steamer (not enough to come up through the holes of the steamer), then place the collard greens in the pot and set aside. You will start cooking this at the same time you start the rice. Once they start to steam, turn down the heat and let them steam for 20 minutes until tender.

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Dressing for Greens

This is my standard dressing for cooked greens. It always gets rave reviews.

1 tsp. dark balsamic vinegar
1 tsp white balsamic vinegar
2 tsp. to 1 tbsp. honey
2 tbsp butter
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Place above ingredients in a small metal pot (I use a metal 1/2 cup measuring cup for this) and place over heat, holding the pot in your hand and moving it to swirl the sauce while the butter melts. Remove from heat when the butter has fully melted.

Note: you can use all dark, or all white balsamic vinegar. In a pinch you can substitute apple cider vinegar or wine vinegar -- it won't be quite as wonderful but will still be a tasty dressing for the greens.

When the collard greens are done, reheat the sauce slightly, then put the greens in a bowl and toss with the sauce until the greens are fully coated.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Fall Is Here!

It's hard to believe that fall is here and we're already into October! The nights are starting to cool, and it seems like Halloween is right around the corner! And we all know what that means -- we'll be swinging into the holidays before we know it!

One of the staples of this season is the pumpkin. When I get pumpkins to make jack-o-lanterns for Halloween, it always reminds me of the many uses of the pumpkin: pumpkin pie, pumpkin soup, pumpkin stew, and pumpkin bread. So in honor of the month, today's recipe is Pumpkin Gingerbread, made with lots of spices and fresh grated ginger. It's a very easy recipe, and it uses vegetable oil instead of butter, which makes it easy and probably healthier too.

Happy Autumn!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Speaking of Economizing...

Well as I mentioned in my last post, these days we're all thinking more about economizing. If you like to cook, you can save a lot of money by going out less often, and especially avoiding those fast foods that are no longer that cheap anyway. Not to mention the health benefits of eating fresher foods!

One great way to economize is to use every bit of the food you bring into the house. When I make soups or stir frieVegetables for Stockd dishes, I chop up lots of vegetables such as onions, peppers, celery and mushrooms. There are parts of these vegetables that can't be used in the dish -- the onion skins and ends, the part of the peppers with the white membrane, the bottom of the celery and the mushroom stems. I save these in a large plastic jar and then put it in the freezer. I have two or three jars of vegetable pieces in my freezer at any given time. Then when they are all full, I take them out, empty them into a pot with a few quarts of water, and let it all simmer for a few hours -- add a little salt, strain through a colander or mesh strainer, and voila! A fine soup stock to use in all kinds of recipes. Sometimes that is the start of a homemade soup right then and there, sometimes I freeze the stock and use it later for soup or as the basis of a sauce or gravy.

Another thing to use for stock is picked over chicken bones. Sometimes I roast a whole chicken, and when we're done with it and have made sandwiches with all the extra meat the next day, I'll throw the carcass in a pot of water and boil that up for a few hours, either by itself or with the vegetables I've saved up for stock. Of course any meat bones or leftovers can be used for the same purpose. If your leftovers include nice pieces, cut those off and save them to use in the dish itself. This goes for chicken too -- peel off that white breast meat and those chunks of thigh meat, cut them into bite sized pieces and set aside for use in a soup or stir fry.

Tips for stocks:

1 - Some vegetables are strong and will overpower the other flavors. I would never use chard, or collard or dandelion greens in a soup stock. Some people think mushroom stems make it bitter, but I have not found that. On the other hand, I find that green peppers can take over from other flavors, so I never use too many in a stock -- only enough for an accent. It's all a matter of taste!

2 - Go ahead and use the onion skins -- they add color to the stock! I will throw the whole end of an onion in, but always make sure it's all rinsed and you aren't adding dirt and grit to the pot. Also don't add green sprouts of onions, any stems from peppers or other plants, nor the green parts of potatoes.

3 - Taste the stock before using. Salt it lightly if you like, but do not oversalt. You can add more salt when you use the stock, and people can always add salt at the table. Remember: you can always add more salt, but you can't take it out once it's been added.

4 - After you've strained your stock and have the cooked vegetable ends, etc., you can still use these for your compost if you wish. If you've made a chicken or meat stock, though, just discard it -- you don't want to attract foraging animals to your compost.