Saturday, June 18, 2011

Curry Chickpea Stuffed Pitas with Tsatziki

For a soon-to-be graduate in the fall, summer is that awkward in-between phase where you are not graduated but you are also not attending class.  You might have a summer job or internship, but you still feel the pressure to put all this “free time” to use and find “the job” for after graduation.  Since I can’t yet apply to jobs, I’ve been thinking a lot about resumes, interviews, and jobs.    I never expected food to come into play.

I have been stuck on one of the seemingly favorite interview/application questions: “What is one of your weaknesses?”   Now, I love questions that focus on my insecurities as much as the next candidate, but I still find it difficult to list and describe weaknesses.   I have finally found my area of development: spicy foods. 
As a kid my favorite foods were mostly comfort foods like meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and spaghetti and meatballs.   Thus, you won’t find me napalming my food with Sriracha, or setting it ablaze with red pepper flakes today.   Eating at home required only a tolerance for black peppercorns.   However, age and exposure have enlightened my tastebuds to how limited I am by spicy foods.  I feel that I am missing out because I have refused foods that are “spicy”.   I cannot expect to taste the full flavor of life without a little sweat and tears.  To improve meant braving the heat and tackling the fire.  My goal this summer is to acquire a liking for spicy foods. 
So, just as I was congratulating myself on not only tolerating but actually enjoying the heat of curry powder, I discovered that it is only a pale, Western approximation of traditional Indian spice blends.  Boo.  Well, it’s a start, I guess.    
Curry powder suits my tolerance for heat because of the familiar spiciness from cumin, coriander, ginger, and cayenne.  I enjoy the concentrated combination of these individual spices in the curry powder.  Chickpeas serve as the perfect protein, beautifully blended along with garlic and onions.  Stuffed inside of a warm, whole wheat pita and topped with cool and creamy tsatziki, this dish sets you up for a wonderful juxtaposition of temperatures, textures, and tastes. 
Slowly, but surely I will build my spicy heat tolerance. 

Curry Chickpeas
2 T olive oil
½ onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, finely diced
2 tsp fresh ginger root, finely diced
1/8 tsp ground cloves
½ tsp cinnamon
2-3 tsp curry powder
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 (15 oz) can chickpeas / garbanzo beans
Salt and Pepper
1.       In medium sized saucepan, heat oil over medium heat and sauté onions until tender (about 5-7 min)
2.       Stir in garlic, ginger, and remaining spices.  Cook for about 1 minute over medium heat, stirring constantly. 
3.       Mix in chickpeas and liquid.  Cook until well blended and heated through (about 3-5 min).

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The BELT Sandwich: Bacon, Egg, Lettuce, Tomato

We all had the BLT growing up.  It reminds me of simpler times; of Mom-made lunches and Wonderbread.   It was not a gourmet sandwich, but it was critically acclaimed by kids and adults and would occasionally pop up on a restaurant menu.  Yet, as my stomach grew and appetite widened, I felt that the BLT might be missing something.   I was right.  
Not that we ever take breakfast lightly – it’s an opportunity to eat, why should we?  But recently we kicked the usual breakfast up a few notches with the advent of the BELT sandwich: crispy, oven-baked bacon, fried egg, fresh lettuce, and juicy tomato (plus a little cheddar cheese too).  We did not just tack on another letter to the BLT, we refurbished the whole thing.  Oven-baked bacon as opposed to fried – get your crispy on without suffering from too much grease.  We put shredded cheddar cheese on top because it’s awesome.  Added a fried egg to give you the protein you need to stave off hunger until lunch (added bonus: use the yolk for dipping).  We kept the veterans: lettuce and tomato, as they seem to have achieved sandwich tenure.  The mayo also stayed, but was enhanced with the garlicky heat of Sriracha, and the Wonderbread was ditched for a homemade, toasted Brioche-style roll.   Shall I say anything more? 
Nah, I think the sandwich speaks for itself. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

Watermelon Lemonade

Lemonade stands were my first hands-on introduction to food sales and marketing.  Parked at the end of my driveway or on the corner of a neighborhood street, I set up shop selling instant lemonade by the Dixie cup.  Crayon-colored signs were enough to entice cars and walkers to stop and buy my lemonade.  What a confidence booster – people wanted something that I could produce at 7!  But let’s be serious, it wasn’t because the lemonade was outstanding or that my marketing angle was unique.  I was subconsciously exploiting my youth and charm to sell a product.  Got to love that “aw, cute!” factor.  Unfortunately, I have outgrown such sales tactics (it’s a shame because I’m running out of ideas to pay off my school debt haha).  So now I make the lemonade just for me.  Except this time I use real lemons.     

Believe it or not, I don’t drink lemonade just for the sugar rush.  Vending machine lemonade lacks that bright yellow luster.  I want that burst of sour-citrus sunshine that convinces you that the lemon was freshly squeezed.   Most of the time, I want to taste the full lemon spectrum.  Today I had a different mission.  
Committed to getting my full money’s worth out of the 10 lb watermelon I had just bought, an idea came to mind: watermelon lemonade.  Sweet, juicy watermelon added to tart lemonade, perfect!  When buying a 10 lb watermelon, there are doubts as to whether you can ever eat it all.  But I was determined.  I ate it plain, mixed it with salad, froze it, and still there was a fair amount of it left in the fridge.  Watermelon lemonade was the key to using up the rest.  

If a drink was ever described as succulent, they were talking about this lemonade.  It was like nectar derived from the soul of both lemon and watermelon.  Spiked with liquor, this could become an exceptional barbeque bar drink.  Either way, this is lemonade that sells without the stand or the cute kid sitting behind it. 
Watermelon Lemonade
4 cups watermelon, seedless and cubed
1 cup lemon juice, fresh
½ cup simple syrup (i.e. sugar water)
2-4 cups water (depending on how strong you want it)

1.       Make simple syrup by adding ½ cup sugar to ½ cup water and bringing to a boil.  Let cool.
2.       Place about 4 cups of cubed watermelon into a blender or food processor.  Blend until smooth.
3.       Strain watermelon through small wire-mesh strainer – you only want the juice, not the fleshy part of the fruit.
4.       Juice watermelons (No need for a juicer, I just used a fork).  Strain the juice to catch seeds or any lemon parts.
5.       Mix all ingredients in pitcher.  Serve cold. 
Makes about 4 glasses of lemonade.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Polynesian Chicken Salad

There are few things that say “quintessential American tea-time hor d’oeurve” like chicken salad.  Mayonnaise, grapes, walnuts, celery…you know the drill.  These dainty sandwiches and porcelain tea cups were what made 10-year-old life seem antique and classy.  But a decade later, I want something more original and exotic than that ol’ go-to recipe. 
 I settled on a Polynesian theme for my experimental chicken salad.  Polynesian flavors incorporate the sweetness of natural fruits like pineapple, mango, bananas, and coconut, into other ingredients like rice, beans, chicken, and sweet potatoes.  Sweet and sour sauces, made from soy sauce, sugar, and white vinegar, can also used.  This gives me a good amount of inspiration. 
The final product was tasty, and although it combined unexpected flavors, the chicken salad was overall quite good.  A few dollops of mayonnaise made up the base (as in most traditional chicken salads), but I sweetened it with pineapple juice and counter-balanced it with some lemon juice and soy sauce.  Orange peppers and pineapple tidbits varied the texture, while Sriracha spiced up the original mildness.
 My main gripes with the recipe I created were that the sauce was too thin and still tasted too much like mayonnaise.  Once the salad was added to cold rice, the problems were not as blatant.  However, I am still wondering how I could keep a similar flavor profile and make the entire sauce thicker.  I tried a little corn starch, but that made the sauce awkwardly starchy and more pasty than creamy.  Overall, perhaps there is a reason that you stick to the “good ol’ recipes”, but where can we grow from there?
Anyways, this recipe isn’t quite ready to impress guests, but it is sure to satisfy you when you cannot tolerate the traditional chicken salad anymore. 

Polynesian Chicken Salad
1 ½ cups cooked chicken (I used chicken thighs)
About 3 T mayonnaise
2 T apricot preserves
1 T lemon juice
1 T pineapple juice
2-3 t Sriracha (Asian hot sauce)
2 t soy sauce
1 tsp ginger, freshly grated
½ cup cilantro
Salt and pepper
½ cup pineapple tidbits
1/3 cup orange or yellow pepper, diced

1.       In a small bowl, combine mayo, apricot preserves, lemon juice, pineapple juice, Sriracha, soy sauce, ginger, and cilantro.  Whisk until smooth – taste test for appropriate flavoring.
2.       In a Tupperware container with a lid, add chicken, pineapple, orange pepper, and mayo sauce.
3.       Chill for 4-6 hours.  Serve over rice, garnish with cilantro.