My Baby's Got a Secret...

I'll admit it, I have a bit of a mean streak sometimes. My inner monologue skews toward the snarky and bitchy most of the time, but you'd scarcely know it, because most of the time I manage to keep those thoughts to myself.

A couple month ago, the girls at lunch were talking about how much they hate mayonnaise. I mentioned that mayo was a common ingredient in chocolate cake in the 1940s and 1950s, as a byproduct of wartime rationing. They were completely disgusted. McNulty, in particular, said that the very thought of it made her want to throw up in her mouth.

If you think about it, it kind of makes sense. What is mayonnaise after all, besides an emulsification of eggs, oil, and vinegar? Nobody would raise an eyebrow if you told them your cake contained eggs and oil, and vinegar does actually factor into chocolate cake recipes on occasion.

Right away, the seed was planted that I needed to make a mayonnaise cake and trick all my friends into eating it in order to prove them wrong. I knew Cake Day would provide the perfect opportunity, but because I'm only a little bit mean, I decided to wait for McNulty to take her maternity leave. It seemed overly cruel to trick a pregnant woman into eating something that she claimed to find nauseating. So I laid in wait, making a maple cake instead while I bided my time.

I have to say, I was a little concerned when it came time to make the actual cake. The batter smelled overwhelmingly of mayo, conjuring thoughts of chicken salad more than delicious, delicious cake. But I baked it off anyway, hoping for the best. 

Thankfully, the cake emerged from the oven transformed. Not only did it smell like chocolate cake instead of mayonnaise, when I went to taste the trimmings generated from assembling the layers, they were pleasantly chocolately and exceedingly moist, with a tender, if slightly uneven crumb. I even liked the frosting, which is pretty uncommon for me. It was on the stiff side, so it was difficult to spread on the cake, gathering lots of cake crumbs as I went along. Still, given how rare it is for me to actually like a frosting, I would consider trying this again if I ever had an occasion for a chocolate-on-chocolate layer cake.

When I went to serve it to my friends, I stayed quiet. I let the compliments roll in: the cake was moist; so chocolately; it was delicious; another success for Haley. When they were about halfway done eating, I dropped the bomb and told them that they could all tell McNulty that they had eaten mayonnaise cake and lived to tell the tale. 

Suddenly, about half the table lost their appetite. Only one lady finished her cake; the rest ate a couple more bites and picked at it throughout the remainder of the lunch hour with excuses about the cake being too rich to finish. One of my friends who had been singing the praises of the cake only seconds before looked ill, and didn't take another bite. Clearly, prejudice is hard to overcome.

I'm not sure I would make this cake again, not because of the mayonnaise factor, but because I believe there are probably better chocolate cake recipes. If I do have a group of mayo-hating friends that I need to trick in the future, I have now learned the secret of mayonnaise cake -- don't tell anyone what's in it until they are done eating. Otherwise, you're going to end up with a bunch of unjustifiably wasted cake, and nobody wants that. Maybe someday cakes will be judged solely on flavor and not the content of their ingredients, but until then, mayonnaise cake will have to hide its condiment origins...

Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake
adapted from Bon Appétit

2 oz. bittersweet chocolate (do not exceed 61% cacao), chopped 
2/3 c. unsweetened cocoa powder  
1 3/4 c. boiling water  
2 3/4 c. all purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 c. white sugar
1 c. (packed) dark brown sugar
1 1/3 c. mayonnaise (do not use reduced-fat or fat-free)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

10 oz. bittersweet chocolate (do not exceed 61% cacao), chopped
1 1/2 c. (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 c. powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour three 8-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 1/2-inch-high sides. Combine chopped chocolate and cocoa powder in medium metal bowl. Add 13/4 cups boiling water and whisk until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.

Sift flour, baking soda, and baking powder into another medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat both sugars and mayonnaise in large bowl until well blended, 2 to 3 minutes. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating until well blended after each addition. Beat in vanilla. Add flour mixture in 4 additions alternately with chocolate mixture in 3 additions, beating until blended after each addition and occasionally scraping down sides of bowl. Divide batter among prepared cake pans (about 2 1/3 cups for each).

Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, 30 to 32 minutes. Cool cakes in pans on racks 20 minutes.

Run small knife around sides of cakes to loosen. Carefully invert cakes onto racks and let cool completely.

Frosting and Assembly
Place chopped chocolate in medium metal bowl; set bowl over saucepan of simmering water and stir until chocolate is melted and smooth. Carefully remove bowl from over water; let melted chocolate cool until lukewarm, stirring occasionally.

Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until smooth and creamy. Sift powdered sugar over butter and beat until well blended, about 2 minutes. Beat in vanilla. Add melted chocolate and beat until well blended and smooth, occasionally scraping down sides of bowl.

Place 1 cake layer on platter. Spread 3/4 cup frosting over top of cake layer to edges. Top with second cake layer; spread 3/4 cup frosting over. Top with third cake layer. Spread remaining frosting decoratively over top and sides of cake.



Generally speaking, I've always been a little suspicious of low-fat desserts. In my experience, there is usually something off about them, whether it be the texture or the flavor itself. I kind of don't see the point; if dessert is supposed to be about indulging a craving, how does some vague approximation of the flavors in question satiate your desires? What is the point of being able to eat a huge serving of a low-fat dessert if it tastes like crap? Quality over quantity, I say.

Nonetheless, while I was flipping through the pages of an old issue of Food & Wine recently, I skimmed my way through an article on low-fat desserts and actually found my attention captured by a recipe for chocolate frozen yogurt. Though my attempts at making homemade frozen yogurt have been universally disastrous in the past, the flavor combination in this recipe were right in my wheelhouse: chocolate, banana, and caramel. Caramelized bananas are easily in my top five favorite desserts, so I figured that any dish that incorporated them had to be worth trying.

The recipe called for caramelizing the bananas in a bit of brown sugar before pureeing them and adding them to a simple, no-cook dairy base of Greek yogurt and milk. Though they smelled heavenly and I wanted to eat them straight out the pan, I saved all of them for the recipe and came to regret it. Though the banana flavor came through loud and clear in the finished product, the caramel was completely overwhelmed by the fruit and chocolate. Basically, it tasted like a straight-up chocolate banana frozen yogurt, but that was by no means a bad thing.

In fact, this was easily the best frozen yogurt to ever emerge from my kitchen. Despite being low-fat, the texture was much less icy and crystallized than my previous efforts. I enjoyed the chocolate chunks, which added a sense of indulgence in addition to providing a nice textural contrast. Though I initially found the characteristic tartness of the Greek yogurt to be off-putting, after repeated spoonfuls I came to appreciate the way it paired with the chocolate, and eventually, it came to be downright addictive.

I would definitely consider making this again, though in the future I would experiment with skipping the caramelization process. It's possible that the bananas need to be cooked, and it's also possible that they need that extra bit of sugar, but given that the caramel makes absolutely no difference in the taste of the finished product, I'd be interested in seeing if it can be left out. Still, I'm going to count this effort as a success, and take some pride in the fact that I was able to produce a low-fat dessert that was actually worth eating. I wouldn't count on this becoming a trend around here, but a change of pace is always a good thing...

Chocolate Frozen Yogurt with Caramelized Bananas
adapted from Food & Wine

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large, ripe bananas cut into 1-inch rounds
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 tablespoon creme de cacao
1/2 c. plus 3 tablespoons 2% milk
2 1/2 tablespoons Dutch-process cocoa powder
2/3 c. granulated sugar
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 c. Greek yogurt (2% or nonfat)
1 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

1. In a nonstick skillet, melt the butter. Add the bananas in a single layer and sprinkle with the brown sugar. Cook over moderate heat, turning once, until caramelized, about 8 minutes. Off the heat, add the creme de cacao and swirl the pan to dissolve the sugar. Scrape the bananas into a food processor and add 3 tablespoons of the milk. Puree until smooth. Transfer the puree to a small bowl and freeze until chilled, 15 minutes.
2.  In another bowl, whisk the cocoa with the granulated sugar, salt, vanilla and the remaining 1/2 cup of milk. Whisk in the yogurt until smooth, then the banana puree.
3. Transfer the mixture to an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions until nearly frozen. Mix in the chopped chocolate. Scrape the frozen yogurt into an airtight container, cover and freeze until firm, at least 2 hours.  


Something Fishy...

As I've written before, the popularity of salmon in our household means that I'm always on the lookout for new ways to prepare it. We probably don't have it as often as is recommended by health professionals, but salmon is still a frequent enough guest on our dinner table that it risks getting tired and boring. I tend to buy it whenever I can find it at a decent price, and after preparing it recently using my favorite, tried-and-true method, it was time to try something different when I found it on sale again.

This time around, I looked to a recipe that shared a lot in common with my beloved salmon recipe. Both dishes were cooked en papillote (or in a parchment paper pouch, over a pile of vegetables. While my recipe is simple, and focuses on the pure flavors of the fish and vegetables, this new version called for a sassy Asian sauce that would liven things up a bit. Since we love us some Asian food around here, I figured this spin on a classic would be a surefire hit.

Throwing together the sauce of soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, garlic, and green onion was simple enough that it barely added to the time needed to finish my usual recipe. I was originally going to serve the fish over a bed of baby bok choy, but it was nowhere to be found at the grocery store this week, so I opted for green beans instead. Everything cooked in a flash in the microwave dirtying very few dishes -- things I've always loved about preparing fish in this way.

However, despite bearing so many similarities to a meal that I adore, I wasn't crazy about this. I've had Asian-inspired salmon dishes in the past, but something about this sauce just wasn't working for me. There was a little too much ginger, and the soy sauce was oddly overpowering. The fish was no longer the star of the show, and all my attention was focused on the strong flavors of the sauce instead. Plus, the green beans ended up way overcooked, something that never happens with the melange of carrots, zucchini and shallots that I usually employ. 

Still, I'm glad I gave it a try. Even if this particular variation didn't work, it got me thinking about other flavor combinations I could use to put a different spin on one of the classic dishes in my cooking repertoire. Miso might be a good direction to pursue, or perhaps something involving mustard. Ah, the possibilities...


A Single Grain of Rice...

I have never been one of those cooks who can just toss ingredients together and come up with something delicious, let alone edible. Instead, I have a recipe for everything, even the things I make all the time, and have made for my entire cooking life. I even have recipes for my mom's chili and spaghetti sauces, despite the fact that she herself doesn't have a recipe for them and makes them from memory. I'm just too afraid that I'll forget a vital ingredient if I can't check things off a written list and everything will be ruined. 

The list of dishes that I'm willing to tackle without a recipe is startlingly short: panini sandwiches, quesadillas, and garlic fried rice. The last of these holds a special significance in my heart, because it is a "recipe" that came from my friend Katherine, who threw it together one night when we were living together in college. We rented a house with two other girlfriends on Pershing, near campus, and while the other three girls lived in bedrooms on the second floor, I inhabited the attic, which had the unusual feature of not having a door. The stairs just emerged directly into the room, and while my housemates were more or less respectful of announcing their presence before barging in on me, that didn't stop smells from wafting into my room from the kitchen on the first floor.

On the days when Jena made epic, multi-pot batches of potato curry, this was most definitely a bad thing, since the smell of curry would permeate my room for days. One night, however, I was lured downstairs by the most delicious, savory smell imaginable. Katherine was cooking, and when I inquired as to what was producing that heavenly scent, she replied that it was fried rice.

Now, up until this point, I hated fried rice. I didn't like the texture, I didn't like the melange of different flavors all jumbled up together, and I especially didn't like all the bits of egg that were usually swirled through it. (I very seldom ate eggs through my college years; I had to be in a special mood, otherwise they completely grossed me out.) Nevertheless, this particular batch smelled so good, that when Katherine offered me some, I took her up on it. 

Before I started eating, she warned me that it was garlic fried rice, and that was clearly the secret to it's alluring odor. When I took my first bite, it did, in fact, taste strongly of garlic, but not at all in an unpleasant way. In fact, I quickly went back for a larger helping after that tentative sample taste. I demanded to learn how she made it right away.

Ever since, I've been whipping up a batch of garlic fried rice whenever I had leftover rice on hand. I've come to prefer it with brown rice rather than white rice at this point, but other than that, the technique remains largely the same. Technique-wise, the only secret is mixing the rice with the raw egg before tossing it in the skillet. That way, the rice acts as a binder without creating overly assertive bits of egg in the finished product. There's never been a real recipe, other than that it always has very finely chopped carrots, about 5-7 cloves of garlic depending on the amount of rice, and soy sauce to taste. Sometimes I chop up leftover chicken and add it, or prepare a breast chicken specifically to add. I've also tossed in other leftover meat, as long as it's vaguely Asian in flavor profile. If I have them, I'll garnish with green onion.

The first time I ever made this dish for Justin, he immediately started brainstorming all the ingredients that would make this dish better: sriracha, snow peas, regular peas, tofu, bean sprouts... the list went on and on. But I was adamant; Katherine's garlic fried rice would remain as-is. The beauty of it lies in its simplicity, and the powerful memories it conjures up of sitting on the couch with my best friend, sharing food together. For me, this dish is a comfort food staple, and I'll always want to have it the way it's always been, crafted from a fond memory.


Happy Birthday to Dad...

It's pretty rare around here that I repeat recipes. My to-do list is currently 140 recipes long for savory dishes, and 61 recipes long for desserts, which doesn't give me a lot of time to back and repeat past favorites. However, there is a certain someone in my life who is unapologetic about being set in his ways, and it isn't Justin. It's my dad, and given that he's pestered me pretty much since the onset of stone fruit season about when he was going to get another peach pie, I decided to pull a repeat performance of last year's success in honor of his birthday last week.

Last year, I did a lattice crust for the pie, but I was more pressed for time this year, so I did a basic double crust, and it was still perfect.
 Actually, my repeat pie performance was just a small fraction of a larger cookout that Justin and I hosted to mark Dad's 58th year on Earth. As it turns out, Dad was sent a very large, and very expensive box of steaks from Allen Brothers, a company that provides choice meats to some of the fanciest steakhouses in Chicago. Without a working grill at their house, the frozen meat had been taking up a huge chunk of space in Mom's freezer for the past seven and a half months. Eager to reclaim her valuable real estate, Mom had been suggesting that she bring the steaks over for a cookout ever since we got our grill. Since the meat was technically a gift to Dad in the first place, we decided that his birthday would be the perfect occasion.

I had Justin read up on proper grilling technique for steaks, with a tutorial from one of my favorite food writers, J. Kenji López Alt. Basically, his tips boiled down to a few key points: salt the meat generously, and well in advance of when you plan to toss it on the grill; use a two zone fire, cook the meat slowly over the cooler side until it is close to the desired temperature, then sear it over the hot side at the very end; flip it as much as you want; and don't be afraid to use a meat thermometer. 

With those lessons in mind, Justin did an absolutely superb job grilling the steaks. They were on par with any steak I've had at a steakhouse, and since the meat was a gift, the whole experience was free. After we ate, I looked up Allen Brothers online to see how much our meal would have cost us, and it was over $250!! Honestly, I'm glad that I didn't find that out until Justin was already done cooking, because I think that would have been an awful lot of pressure for a novice grill master.

I'd like to think that the pie was the highlight of the meal, but I think that honor goes to Justin's steaks. More importantly, Dad seemed to enjoy himself, and that's all that really matters. Happy Birthday, Dad!


The Amazing Spiderman...

So... we kind of eat a lot of cereal in this house. We both eat it five days a week for breakfast, and our bowls are on the large side. Justin, as in most things food-related, demands variety in his breakfast choices. As long as it packs a huge percentage of fiber (think Grape Nuts or Raisin Bran) and doesn't have high-fructose corn syrup listed as an ingredient, he's good to go. I can pretty much pick up whatever is on sale that fits those qualifications, and he's a happy camper. 

On the other hand, I am picky. I tend to be a cereal monogamist, if you will. I fall into long-term relationships with certain cereals that I eat every day, for years on end, before I move on to another. When I was in college, Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds was my constant morning mealtime companion. For the first few years after graduation, I became passionately devoted to Crispix. And then sometime in the past couple years, while I've been dating Justin, I've been particularly enamored of Frosted Mini-Wheats Little Bites. I grew up eating Frosted Mini-Wheats, but I always felt that the wheat-to-frosting ratio was out of balance. With the Little Bites, the proportion of frosting to fibrous shredded wheat is higher, and creates an irresistible flavor combination.

My myopic obsession with Little Bites means that I'm constantly hoarding them whenever they go on sale. Though they retail for a lot more, I try to never spend more than $2.50 a box for them at most, preferably less whenever possible. As a result, if you open my cereal cabinet, it's usually stuffed with nothing but boxes of Little Bites from wall to wall.

This little anecdote is relevant today, because Kellogg's recently ran a promotion where they printed promo codes on the inside of boxes of Little Bites. If you saved up the codes and entered them on their website, you could redeem a certain number of codes for free tickets to see The Amazing Spiderman. I kind of don't want to admit how many promo codes I had to collect, but eventually I was able to save up enough for both Justin and I to see the movie. I was just short of the higher number necessary to get 3-D tickets, but I'm not considering that a huge loss -- 3-D movies give me a headache anyway. It wouldn't have been worthwhile to buy all that cereal just to get the free tickets, but because I was buying and eating it anyway, it was nice to be rewarded with free stuff.

So it was with free passes in hand that we arrived at the theater this morning to see the latest Spiderman offering. I wasn't really sure that another movie in the franchise was necessary, after the first three starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. I liked those movies quite a bit (though the third one was considerably less good, I'm not convinced that it required rebooting the entire series.) Still, I was a fan of the originals, and I was curious what Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone would bring to the table. Justin, of course, is always up for a superhero movie, and has a huge crush on Emma Stone, so he'd been looking forward to seeing The Amazing Spiderman all summer.

As a summer action film, The Amazing Spiderman certainly delivered. It had fantastic special effects (and yes, they probably would have been even more impressive in 3-D), and the plot was compelling. More importantly, I enjoyed Andrew Garfield's performance. Not only is he easy on the eyes, I enjoyed the snarkier, more sarcastic side that he brought out of the character. Garfield's version of Peter Parker was just a hint darker than Maguire's, and I didn't mind that at all. I think Stone's talents are better utilized in roles that showcase her comedic talents, such as her turn in Easy A, but I found her far less annoying than Kirsten Dunst, and that's always a good thing.

I still didn't leave the movie theater convinced that The Amazing Spiderman needed to be made, but it was definitely entertaining. I look forward to seeing the inevitable sequel, but the original Spiderman movies, directed by Sam Raimi, will always hold a place in my heart...


Cleanin' Out My Cupboards...

I never thought I would see this day. Frankly, it has always boggled my mind a little bit when I read a review of a recipe, especially a recipe that originally aired on television, and the author says something like, "Saw this and ran into the kitchen to make it. Delish!" Honestly, who has so much food in their house that they can watch a random cooking demo on television, then run to the kitchen, pull out all the necessary ingredients, and replicate it at home? Especially when that recipe calls for strange, and uncommon components? Apparently, I do.

Ordinarily, I rarely have food in the house that isn't spoken for in some way. I try not to buy anything that I don't have a specific plan for, because more often than not, it will go bad before it gets eaten. Our household only has two people, and we can only eat so much. Yet, somehow, the stars aligned this week, when I happened to catch a show on the Cooking Channel about Vietnamese food. This particular episode featured dishes from the mountain-dwelling Hmong people of Northern Vietnam, and the host prepared a dish of pork skewers that looked particularly interesting. Justin happened to be in the room watching as well (which is unusual unto itself, since he barely tolerates pretty much all forms of television), and he suggested that we give the dish a try. 

When I headed to the show's website, I realized that somehow, miraculously, we had all the ingredients in the house except for the meat. The original recipe called for pork neck, a fatty cut of meat popular in Vietnam, and I knew there was basically no hope of finding something similar in a regular grocery store around here, so I decided to substitute pork steak. We had the meat sitting in the marinade the very same day.

Now, I do probably have an above average number of southeast Asian ingredients in my pantry, since we seem to have become enamored with those flavors lately. The complete dark-horse for me was that I happened to have an unopened tube of lemongrass paste languishing in my fridge, purchased on a whim when Dominick's was giving out free tubes of different herb pastes to promote the brand that manufactures them. I had narrowed down the decision to basil and lemongrass, and went with the lemongrass because basil is readily available in its regular, leafy form. Plus, we had been making a lot of Asian dishes lately, so I figured I'd be able to find a use for it. Eventually, my instincts proved correct.

Even though we've been eating a lot of Vietnamese-inspired dishes lately, I was not prepared for these pork skewers. The recipe called for a whopping three tablespoons of fish sauce, which may not seem like a lot, until you factor in the fact that fish sauce is the smelliest, most pungent ingredient in my kitchen, and probably anybody's kitchen. Fish sauce is the liquid runoff that is the byproduct of rotting, fermenting anchovy carcasses. It is a very common ingredient in southeast Asian dishes, where a very small amount adds a hit of umami and complexity without overwhelming the dish. Given how bad it smells, I've always been amazed that it manages to fade into the background, but in the case of this marinade, there was simply too much of it.

Justin didn't seem to mind the skewers, but to me, all that fish sauce made them unpleasantly funky. It was really all I could do to finish the portion on my plate. Clearly, I'm not ready for the big leagues when it comes to Vietnamese food.

Still, I'm proud to say that I was able to cook an unusual recipe on a whim, entirely out of ingredients I had in my pantry and refrigerator (sans meat). I never thought I would be one of those kind of people, but now I feel like I've joined some sort of well-stocked pantry secret society. Now I'm left to wonder what else I could make out of the food already in my house -- only time will tell...


Burger Bash - Day Three

Sadly, my week of burgers ended not with a roar, but with a whimper. Clearly, I used up all my new recipe luck for this endeavor with the Asian pork burgers, because today's attempt at turkey burgers was almost the most disappointing of the bunch, even if they were technically tastier than the lamb burgers. As it turns out, I am the kind of person that can't resist messing with a good thing when it comes to the kitchen. I already have a turkey burger recipe that I've been making for years that I absolutely love to pieces (and Justin does too; it is one of his favorite meals now.)  It combines many of the classic flavors (cranberry, apple, celery, onion) that one associates with turkey during Thanksgiving, and it never fails to please. 

Nonetheless, when I spotted a different turkey burger recipe on a blog a few weeks ago, I was intrigued. It had a Martha Stewart pedigree, and it combined a lot of flavors that I love: green onion, mustard, and Gruyere cheese. Maybe I would be able to add a second turkey burger recipe to my repertoire for a little variety, I thought. After all, isn't variety the spice of life?

Wrong. This recipe proved to me that occasionally, it is better to stick to what you know. The addition of Gruyere to the patty imparted an odd, and to me, unnecessary additional savory element that also bordered on the over-salted. The mustard and onions were nice, but with the cheese, and my two favorite burger toppings already folded into the burger, I was at a loss for what to put on my burger, since it was crying out for a little extra moisture and textural interest. I ended up with cranberry mustard, my go-to sauce for turkey burgers, but it was a bit of mustard overkill.

Mostly my biggest problem with these burgers was the addition of breadcrumbs to the meat mixture. I know some people add breadcrumbs as a binder for homemade burgers, but to me, they always impart an unpleasantly smooth texture, like meatloaf or meatballs. I don't mind that homogeneous texture in those dishes, but to me, a burger should have a coarse toothsomeness that reminds you that you are eating meat. I should have just left them out when I saw them on the ingredient list, but I wanted to heed Martha's wisdom and follow the recipe as written. Predictably, I ended up with burger patties that had an unnatural texture, unbecoming of a burger, in my opinion.

Next time I'm craving a turkey burger, I'll return to my tried-and-true recipe. Not that that will be any time soon -- now that we've worked our way through the pile of hamburger buns on our kitchen counter, I think I've had more than enough grilled meat patties for a while...


Burger Bash - Day Two

Yesterday, I kicked off my mini-burger bash with a recipe so good, it is destined to become an instant classic in my household. After such a resounding success, it was almost inevitable that today's attempt would at least be somewhat of a disappointment. For a protein, I chose lamb, because I've seen lamb burgers on television for ages now, and I was always curious about them. Since the grocery store put pretty much all ground meats on sale after the major grilling holiday of the Fourth had passed, I was able to score some reasonably-priced ground lamb, since it's primarily its usual expense that has kept me from trying lamb burgers up until now.

I selected a recipe that called for traditional Greek spices, such as oregano, marjoram, cinnamon, and garlic, but despite all the seasonings that went into it, the meat itself emerged strangely bland. Sure, it was juicy, and the lamb-y flavor came through, but the meat was so completely innocuous that the patty mostly served as a vehicle for consuming tzatziki sauce. Perhaps a larger number of condiments might have fixed the situation; after all, I didn't elect for any besides the sauce and some slices of raw onion. Slices of tomato and some crumbled feta may have livened things up some. Still, I wouldn't want to waste my money on another batch of lamb burgers to find out. Clearly, this is a meal that is better left to professional chefs.

On the other hand, at least my tzatziki sauce was a hit. I've been making the same recipe since I was in college, when I saw it on an episode of Good Eats where Alton Brown made gyros from scratch. I wasn't about to attempt that feat then or now, but I did have a pretty tasty Greek chicken recipe that was practically begging for a condiment at the time, and I gave Alton's recipe a try.

These were the days before Greek yogurt became a ubiquitous grocery store staple, and I remember straining regular plain yogurt through a cheese cloth to make this recipe happen. It was worth the effort then, and I still make it today (albeit with a lot less time and energy expenditure), whenever I make a dish with Mediterranean overtones. It's even good by itself on pitas as a snack, for those days when I want to relive my 2007 trip to Greece, where I had tzatziki as an appetizer at practically every meal. Seriously, give it a try!

Tzatziki Sauce
adapted from Alton Brown

8 oz. Greek yogurt (I recommend Fage for this particular application)
1/2 medium cucumber, peeled and finely grated
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
pinch of salt

Holding over the sink, squeeze the grated cucumber to remove as much excess liquid as possible. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the Greem yogurt, cucumber, salt, garlic, olive oil, and vinegar. Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to a week.


Burger Bash - Day One

Though potlucks are a great way to minimize the stress and preparation of hosting a big get-together, they do have one downside -- no matter how much you plan and coordinate with your guests, you're going to have too much of certain things, and not enough of others. For instance, the guest who had volunteered to bring beer to the party ended up blowing off my gathering all together, and we ended up with only a few bottles from a friend who is into home brewing and wanted to share his work.

On the surplus side of things, as I mentioned yesterday, not only did we end up with two entire watermelons, but we also had an insane surplus of hamburger buns. I'm not sure if all my friends are secretly on the Atkin's diet or what, but the vast majority of the meat consumed at the party was eaten without the accompaniment of bread. As a result, I've decided to have a mini-burger festival this week, not only to use up the mountain of buns currently cluttering my counter, but also to work my way through some of the burger recipes that have been languishing in my recipe queue.

First on the docket was a recipe for Asian-inspired pork burgers that I'd spotted months ago when we tried a new, albeit unsuccessful fried rice recipe that called for ground pork. The fried rice only called for a couple ounces of the meat, so we froze the rest, and I ultimately ended up using it to make meatball banh mi, but I kept that burger recipe in the back of my mind. Since we ended up loving the banh mi so much, I decided to use the burger recipe as a springboard for creating a banh mi-inspired burger recipe that would capture the flavors of our beloved sandwich in a format that would be easier to replicate.

To accomplish this, I stole many of the flavorings from our meatball recipe, with the addition of extra green onions, as called for in the burger recipe. I lifted the sriracha mayo directly from the banh mi recipe as well, but left out the pickled daikon and carrot salad in favor of a slaw dressed with a simple soy and sesame oil vinaigrette straight out of the original burger recipe. Thankfully, my experimental mash-up worked out marvelously. The burgers it produced were so good, Justin was asking me when we could have them again before we were even done eating. 

With a response like that, I know we'll be making these again before grilling season is over. The only thing I'd do differently, at Justin's request, is double the recipe so we'll have leftovers. With a dinner this tasty, you definitely want enough to eat it twice...

Banh Mi Burgers

Sriracha Mayo
2/3 c. mayonnaise
2 green onions, finely chopped
1 tablespoon sriracha
Asian Slaw
3 c. coleslaw mix
3 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce
scant teaspoon sesame oil
scant teaspoon sugar
2 pounds ground pork
5 green onions, finely chopped
1/4 c. fresh basil, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon sriracha
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon salt
ground pepper to taste

Light the grill.
1. In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients for the burgers. Mix gently until incorporated but not overmixed. Form into 6 large patties or 8 small ones. 
2. Grill the patties approximately 8 minutes, turning once, or until cooked through.
3. Meanwhile, stir together the ingredients for the sriracha mayo in a small bowl.
4. In another small bowl, stir together the rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, and sugar for the Asian slaw. Toss dressing with cole slaw mix.
5. Assemble burgers on toasted buns with Asian slaw and sriracha mayo.


Watermelon Man...

No matter how long you've been in a relationship with someone, there is always something new to learn about them. Even though I feel like I've gotten Justin mostly figured out in the past twenty-one months, there are still plenty of discoveries to be made. For instance, this week I figured out that the best way to get Justin to plow through uninteresting leftovers is to turn them into salsa.

A miscommunication at Wednesday's potluck party left us with two entire watermelons that had already been cut up. Our guests only ate one of them, leaving us with an entire enormous bowl of melon to ourselves, and as it turns out, I can barely tolerate watermelon. It's just too sweet for me. After a couple days of trying to force feed Justin as much of the fruit as possible before it went bad, and making little progress I had a bit of an epiphany -- Justin loves snacking. He especially loves snacks that can be eaten on chips, like salsa, hummus, guacamole, and cheese spread. Perhaps the secret to making the watermelon disappear could be found in transforming the watermelon into something he'd be more interested in eating.

I was partially inspired in this idea by a work party I attended a couple weeks ago, also a potluck that had been catered by the staff. Shelby, a friend of mine, had brought an unusual cantaloupe salsa, and I had tried it (despite my disliking cantaloupe even more than watermelon), because I felt compelled to sample all of the dishes that my friends had made. It just so happened that the combination of a fruit that I loathed, cilantro (which I also hate), onion, jalapeño, and lime juice transcended its dubious origins and was really rather tasty. If cantaloupe could be good in salsa, then why not watermelon?

I did a quick web search on watermelon salsa, and found a suitable-looking recipe that happened to include mostly ingredients that I already had on hand. While I worked on dinner, I had Justin cut up the ingredients for the salsa as a pre-dinner snack/side dish.

My hunch panned out -- my salsa gambit worked like a charm. Not only did Justin like it, he practically inhaled the entire batch before dinner. After our actual meal, he proceeded to turn the entire remainder of the watermelon into more salsa. Now I've got my eye on turning the leftover corn on the cob from the party into a grilled corn salsa, since that doesn't seem to interest him in its current form either. I have discovered the secret to disposing of unwanted leftovers!

Watermelon Salsa
adapted from Taste of Home

2 c. watermelon, diced
1/2 c. cucumber, diced
1/4 c. red bell pepper, diced
1/4 c. onion, minced
1/2 large jalapeño, minced
1/4 c. cilantro, minced
2 tablespoons honey
juice of 1/2 lime 
1 teaspoon salt

In a large bowl, combine the first six ingredients. In a small bowl, whisk together the honey, lime juice, and salt and pour over salsa. Stir to combine. Serve with tortilla chips.


Happy Fourth of July...

Ever since Justin and I have been settled into our new place, we've been meaning to have a housewarming party. We've been wanting to show off our humble abode and welcome our friends into our new space. I tried throwing a combination housewarming/birthday party back in April, but it turned out that I had bad timing. Only a couple of people could come, so I decided not to bother. 

Since then, I've settled for entertaining a couple of small groups of friends and family, mostly in dinner party format, but I never lost sight of my goal of hosting a big shindig to inaugurate our new home. When I mentioned to my friend Jess that we'd gotten a new grill, she suggested that we ought to have a cookout, and I took her idea and ran with it. The Fourth of July seemed like as good a date as any, especially because it fell during the middle of the week (so there'd be no weddings or other longstanding obligations for people), and everyone would have the day off regardless of their work schedule.

As per usual, I received RSVPs up until the last possible second, but we ended up with a crowd of about fourteen people. To save myself the stress of feeding that many people, I turned the party into a potluck, with a focus on grilling.

Justin served as the grill-master for the event, and he was a true hero, slaving over the grill on a miserably hot day to turn out turkey burgers, tofu hot dogs, sausages, portabello mushrooms, corn on the cob, and chicken breasts. We certainly gave our little Weber a run for its money!

Inside we had a good range of dips and side dishes, from my quickly-becoming-a-party-classic guacamole, to hummus, taco dip, chips, caprese salad, watermelon, and Justin's famous potato salad. Dessert was also well-represented, including my peach ice cream pie, ice cream sandwiches, and that perennial cookout staple -- s'mores. Not only was everyone well fed, we ended up with an insane surplus of leftover food, especially hamburger and hot dog buns. I guess more people are still doing the low-carb thing than I originally anticipated. We're practically going to need another cookout to use up all the bread.

For the most part, the ladies gathered inside around the food, while the menfolk stood out on the patio drinking their beers and sweating profusely, thereby creating a vicious cycle. I think our central air-conditioning was a major selling point for the party, given the near-record high temperatures we've been experiencing lately. Even though our dining room table expands to seat ten people, we still had to seat people on the sofa to eat, but I was still happy to have such good attendance for my gathering.

Overall, I feel like the party went very well. Even though most of my friends don't know each other, and come from different phases in my life, I seem to be drawn to people with similar interests, and everyone was able to find common ground for conversation. Getting ready for the party and coordinating all the food was stressful, but ultimately very rewarding. After today's fete and the baby shower I hosted earlier this month, I think I may be ready for a brief break from entertaining, but I'm looking forward to doing this again.
I like to call this my "fireworks" dress.
There are few things better than being surrounded by close friends, and being reminded of the kindness and generosity of the people I'm lucky enough to call friends. After we'd gotten the house cleaned up, Justin and I discovered that we can see the Evanston fireworks display from the air-conditioned comfort of our living room. As we stood there and watched the sky light up, I couldn't help but feel very blessed in my life right now. Happy Fourth of July everyone!


We're Having A Heat Wave...

It is miserably hot this week. So hot, in fact, that even I don't feel like turning the oven on to bake, even though I have central air conditioning. It's projected to be near, or over 100 degrees every day this week. So when it came time to make a dessert for the Fourth of July party I'm hosting tomorrow, I was looking for something cool and refreshing that would require a minimal amount of baking.

My first impulse was to make homemade ice cream, but that didn't seem quite special enough for a party. I knew I wanted to take things to the next level. Homemade ice cream sandwiches seemed like a good idea at first, but I didn't want to go through the effort of baking all the cookies for them. Plus, we have virtually no freezer space, and there certainly wasn't room for anything that bulky. As I scrolled through my dessert-themed Pinterest board in search of inspiration, I finally ran across something that I thought would work -- an ice cream pie.

The recipe I'd saved called for an amaretti cookie crust and a filling made from roasting fresh peaches and mixing them into store-bought vanilla ice cream, neither of which sounded particularly appealing to me. I decided to swap out the amaretti for gingersnaps, since warm spices go well with peach pie, and to make my own ice cream from scratch. After all, peach is the flavor most people think of when they think of homemade ice cream in the first place.

It would have been more attractive if I hadn't pressed the plastic wrap directly into the soft ice cream, but doing so prevents the creation of unpleasant ice crystals.

Predictably, I turned to David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop for a peach ice cream recipe. Since I've been favoring non-custard based ice creams of late, I appreciated that his peach recipe called for a unique combination of cream and sour cream. From my favorite peach popsicle recipe, I knew that peaches pair well with slightly tart dairy, so I was on board with the unconventional addition. 

The ice cream turned out smooth and creamy, as per usual, but I was disappointed that the peach flavor wasn't more dominant, especially considering the lack of custard base to detract from the fruit. For once, one of Lebovitz's recipes was not the ne plus ultra. I'm going to have to keep an eye out for a better peach ice cream in the future, though maybe finding one would be as simple as cracking one of the numerous non-Lebovitz ice cream tomes languishing on my cookbook-only bookshelf.

Nonetheless, the pie was easy enough to put together, and I think it will make a perfect summer dessert tomorrow. Aside from a quick trip to the oven for the crust, this was almost a no-bake dessert. If you were inclined to use a store-bought graham cracker crust, you'd save yourself from the heat all together. Clearly, the genre of ice cream pies merits further investigation...

Peach Ice Cream Pie

adapted from Bon Appétit
1 1/3 c. finely ground gingersnap cookies
1/4 c. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon sugar
2 pinches of salt

Peach Ice Cream
adapted from David Lebovitz
1 1/3 pounds ripe peaches or nectarines (about 4 large)
1/2 c. water
3/4 c. sugar
1/2 c. sour cream
1 c. heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice

For Crust:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat 9-inch glass pie dish with nonstick spray. Mix finely ground cookie crumbs, 1 tablespoon sugar, and pinch of salt in medium bowl. Add lukewarm melted butter; mix to blend. Press crumbs onto bottom and up sides of dish. Bake until golden around edges, about 10 minutes. Cool completely in dish on rack.

For Ice Cream:
1. Peel the peaches, slice them in half, and remove the pits. Cut the peaches into chunks and cook them with water in a medium, non-reactive saucepan over medium heat, covered, stirring once or twice, until soft and cooked through, about 10 minutes.
2. Remove from heat, stir in the sugar, then cool to room temperature.
3. Puree the cooked peaches and any liquid in a blender or food processor with the heavy cream, sour cream, vanilla, and lemon juice until almost smooth, but still a bit chunky. 
4. Chill mixture thoroughly, then churn it in an ice cream mixture according to manufacturer's instructions.
5. Pour freshly churned ice cream into the pie crust, press plastic wrap directly onto the surface, and freeze until firm.