Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday I'm In Love... with Brie de Lyon

Brie is probably my favorite cheese (I know, there are so many, it's hard to pick just one!). For years, I was accustomed to the stuff from the supermarket, and I loved it because it was creamy and decadent. Oh, I had no idea what I was thinking.

When I was a teenager, on a visit to France, I had some amazing, runny brie that was miles above (streets ahead?) what I'd had at home, but I chalked it up to foods being better in their countries of origin (after a similar trip to Greece, I wouldn't eat feta at home for months).

So when my friend Ann picked up this brie, I figured it would be just like any of the other creamy but indistinguisable cheeses out there. But no, this stuff is completely different - even creamier, with just enough bite to make it interesting and just a little bit of nuttiness. We've taken to calling it "crack brie", because we all crave it like crazy and will go through a piece like piranhas going at a cow.

But where does this magical brie come from? Wasik's in Wellesley, a fantastic cheese shop with a staff that knows more about the selections in the store than anyone should ever know about cheese. This brie, called "Brie" de Lyon (in apostrophes because real brie comes from Brie, while this is from Lyon), is a little more than what you get in the supermarket but well worth the money. It goes especially well on slices of baguette with a little bit of fig jam (don't worry, you can get all of this at Wasik's), but it's just as tasty without any accompaniment.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Fruity Oaty Bars Make A Man Out Of A Mouse

Around the time that we were planning our Dollhouse party, our friend April, who lives in LA but visits Boston every year around her birthday, said that she wanted a Whedon-verse themed party for her birthday. We spent the intervening months brainstorming party ideas based not just on Dollhouse, but also Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, and my beloved Firefly.

I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to make Fruity Oaty Bars, which has a commercial (above) that unlocks seemingly-crazy River's potential in Serenity. I brainstormed ideas for ages - I didn't want to just dye something with colors to make it match the commercial. I ended up combining a few recipes to include both fruit and oats, as well as to keep the colorful look.

The resulting Fruity Oaty Bars are pretty tasty and would make a great breakfast snack. The texture is similar to a muffin, and it's not terribly sweet. The blueberry and strawberry sections had the strongest taste, while the mango and kiwi sections just tasted vaguely fruity. I would make this again (probably with just a single fruit) just to have on hand for breakfast.

Of course, I had to wrap them individually to make them look like something shiny you would buy in the Core planets. I wanted to wrap them in gold foil, which I thought I had on hand but didn't. I opted, instead, for a copy of the local Chinese newspaper, which I grabbed from a newspaper box on my corner, and added a picture of the Fruity Oaty Bar Girls that I grabbed off the internet.

Fruity Oaty Bars
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups old-fashioned oats
6 Tbsp butter, melted
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/3 cups fruit puree (your choice - I used 1/3 cup strawberry, 1/3 cup blueberry, 1/3 cup kiwi, and 1/3 cup mango)
food coloring (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°. Line a glass baking dish with parchment paper, letting the edges overhang so you can remove the baked bars easily. I used a 7x12 baking dish, which seems like an odd size, so use something that is relatively long and narrow.

Combine flour, baking soda, salt, and oats and mix well. In a separate bowl, combine melted butter, eggs, vanilla, and sugar and mix well. Place each fruit puree in a different mixing bowl and divide butter/eggs/sugar mixture evenly between them; mix well (and add food coloring if you want the colors to be bold after baking). Divide flour/oat mixture evenly amongst the bowls and mix until all the dry ingredients are moistened.

Arrange the colored batters in long, thin stripes down the baking dish. The batter will be thick, so it shouldn't be too difficult to get the colors to line up next to each other. Make for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick stuck into the center comes out clean. Remove from pan and cool completely before cutting.

To serve, cut into slices, making sure to include some of each fruit.

Of course, there was more to the Whedon-verse party than Fruity Oaty Bars. Everyone came in costume - we had Inara, Kaylee, Simon, River, Jayne, Drusilla, Faith trapped in Buffy's body, Faith, and the Man himself, Joss Whedon. We enjoyed Some Kind of Hot Cheese, burgers from Double Meat Palace, and Simon's birthday cake (in miniature, above). We also had tons of themed drinks: Kaylee's Gussied-Up Engine Wine Coolers (strawberry juice, vodka, and riesling), Lorne's Seabreezes (grapefruit juice, vodka, cranberry juice, wedge of lime), Mudder's Milk (depending on who was drinking, it was either beer or Baileys), Wonderflonium (bright greet kiwi strawberry fruit punch and gin, although any bright green juice would work), and my favorite, Badger's Finest (iced tea, applejack, and slices of green apple).

What would you include for a Joss-themed party?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Manti, or Armenian Dumplings

Manti is one of those Armenian dishes that I had only a couple times in my childhood, and while I liked it, it was never something I was eager to have again. I think it may be because the traditional way to serve it, the little dumplings floating in a pool of chicken broth, is rather bland and mushy. In college, I experimented with a number of Armenian recipes, and through a whim, found out that I quite like manti, as long is it isn't served in its traditional way.

Manti is an Armenian dumpling, little balls of ground lamb wrapped in a dough to form a tiny little canoe. The meat peeks out on one side, giving you a hint of what's to come. They're great as a meal, a side dish, or just a snack. Just don't give it to me in chicken broth.

When I first started making these, I made my own dough, rolling it out very thin and painstakingly cutting it into little squares. The dough baked up a little thicker and drier than I liked. I used to freeze the baked mantis and toast them in the toaster oven for a little snack - they reminded me a lot of the frozen mini eggrolls my mother used to buy for me from the supermarket when I was a kid.

A few years later, though, my mother had the idea to use premade dough to make the process go quicker. We had already used refrigerated eggroll wrappers to make sou boreg, another Armenian dish with paper-thin noodles, so we thought it might be worth a try with the manti instead.

Lo and behold, the shortcut manti worked! It's quite different than the kind I used to make - I think I got used to the thick and dry dough - but these seem more like what manti should really be.

Manti is easy to make, but incredibly time consuming. Get a friend to help so it will go faster (you'll have someone to share the whole pan with when you're done, too!). I like to eat them straight out of the oven, but my mother still likes the chicken broth, so I've included that as well. You can freeze these after the initial baking if you'd like (make two trays and freeze one - then you won't have to do the work again later), although they reheat better with the chicken broth.

1/2 package egg roll wrappers
1 pound ground lamb
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
1 tsp allspice
1/2 - 1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
salt and pepper
small bowl of water
1 can (14.5 oz) chicken broth (optional)

Mix lamb, onion, parsley, and spices together. If you're unsure if it is spiced enough, you can fry up a little bit in a pan to get a taste. Cut each egg roll wrapper into 9 equal square pieces. Roll a pinch of the meat mixture into a ball and place in the center of a piece of dough (pictured above). With your finger, wet along two opposite sides of the dough and pinch together, forming a canoe shape with an open top. (Does this make sense to anyone but me? The wet edge with press against itself, not against the other wet edge.)

Place manti tightly together in a greased glass baking dish, open side up. When you have filled the dish, bake at 350° for 20-30 minutes or until lightly browned (we're not much for setting timers around here, just cooking "until it's done").

For chicken broth preparation, cook as instructed above, then pour chicken broth over manti, cover with tin foil, and bake for another 15-20 minutes.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Spring Lemon Ricotta Pasta

I have lived in Boston my entire life, and yet, I still can't get used to the weather. Ninety-plus degrees and sunny during the Aquapocalypse, now so rainy and cold that I all I want to do is set up camp on my couch, crawl under a blanket, and wait for the 5+ hours of Lost-related television on Sunday night. It's days like these that leave me wanting pasta.

But I'm tired of the heavy pasta dishes that get me through the winter. Lasagna and meat sauces aren't very spring-y. But herbs (albeit not from my own garden yet) and lemon combine with creamy ricotta cheese in a dish that lets me remember that better weather is yet to come.

I threw this dish together on a whim and couldn't be happier with how it turned out. The herbs and lemon are what give the exciting Spring-y flavor, while the creaminess from the cheese is what you want from a comforting pasta bake. I used gemelli for the pasta, but you can use any short shape that is twisty or has a hole, so it can grab the sauce. The recipe is a bit loose on exact amounts because it's so easy to make exactly how you want - want it less creamy? Use less ricotta. More herbs? Go for it. No meat? It's tasty without it (I made it both ways).

Lemon Ricotta Pasta Bake
1 pound gemelli pasta
16 ounces ricotta cheese
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1/4 cup finely chopped basil
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
2 ounces prosciutto, torn into small pieces
salt and pepper
Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350°. Cook pasta according to package.

While pasta is cooking, combine ricotta, lemon zest, basil, parsley, prosciutto, and salt and pepper (to taste) in a large bowl. Mix well until incorporated. When pasta is done cooking, drain and immediately add to ricotta mixture and toss to coat. Pour mixture into a baking dish, top with a good layer of grated parmesan cheese, and pour lemon juice over the top. Bake 15-20 minutes. If the top doesn't brown while cooking, turn the broiler on for a few minutes at the end until it turns a golden brown.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Healthy Habits Kitchen for Easy, Nutritious Meals at Home

I'm lucky (or unlucky?) enough to have plenty of time to cook. When I want to make a complex meal, I can take my time shopping and prepping, chopping and assembling. But I realize that I'm in the minority in this, and that a lot of people struggle just to put something hot on the table every night. And far too often, the things that are easy and quick to make are far from healthy.

Enter Healthy Habits Kitchen in Wellesley. Started in 2007 by Sue Schochet, Healthy Habits Kitchen aims to provide nutritious meals that (mostly) take under 30 minutes to cook. Every meal is packaged to go, with ingredients already portioned so you can just throw them together without too much work. The above meal, Triple M Chicken, took half an hour and almost no thought to make, and I loved every bite.

All of the meals are created by Sue and her team, then sent to a nutritionist for evaluation. Each serving contains under 400 calories, less than 30% fat, and a maximum of 800mg of sodium. The menu changes monthly, so there's always plenty of variety at Healthy Habits Kitchen.

There are a few options for getting meals from Healthy Habits Kitchen. You can schedule an assembly time, where you can assemble a whole meal, using the portion-sized containers in the kitchen. Alternatively, you can just pick up frozen meals for an extra $1 per meal (this is the option that most customers use). Healthy Habits Kitchen is also a part of the Natick farmers market on Saturdays, where you can pick up frozen meals (you can guarantee they'll have what you want by placing an order ahead of time). The kitchen can even be used for small parties, where a group of friends can spend time assembling their meals with each other over BYOB wine and provided snacks.

You know, even if you have enough time to do all your meal planning and prep on your own, it's nice to have someone do the work from time to time and to try new recipes without too much hassle. It's also great to know that you have a whole meal in the freezer that can be put together in no time.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Cheesy Pan Rolls with Ile de France Chaumes

I think I'm like a lot people - I love cheese, but there are probably millions of varieties out there besides the ones I'm familiar with. I could probably count the types of cheese I buy on both hands. So when Ile de France offered to send me Chaumes, something I'd never heard of, I jumped at the chance.

Chaumes is a bit unique, but it's not wholly unlike other cheeses that I was familiar with. It's soft and creamy, much like brie (a tad harder, though), and has a bit of bite like a sharp cheddar. It has a great nutty flavor and a smell that is harsher than its taste. The orange rind is edible, but I wasn't wild about it.

The package arrived when I was babysitting my nephew and nieces, and they were eager to know what was inside. Luckily, they were more interested in the bubble wrap than the cheese itself, and I quickly stashed my goods in the fridge while they weren't looking.

Flash-forward to last night, when I offered to make dinner for my friends who were busy playing Dungeons and Dragons (I've played with them, but I'd rather be cooking than rolling the dice). I knew the group liked bread and cheese, and I was already making a cheesy pasta dish for dinner, so I decided to experiment with the Chaumes I had been sent and make rolls. The resulting bread had everyone clamoring for the extras, and there was discussion of when I could make them again. Fact is, they were so simple, it's only a matter of getting my hands on some more Chaumes!

Cheesy Pan Rolls with Chaumes
1 lb pizza dough (I used the bagged stuff from the supermarket)
8 oz Chaumes cheese
1/3 cup finely chopped parsley
olive oil
Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400°. Brush olive oil onto the bottom and sides of a square baking dish.

Divide dough into 16 equal pieces, and cut cheese into 16 equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough into a ball and flatten slightly in your hand. Sprinkle a few pieces of parsley on the dough, top with a piece of cheese, and wrap the dough around the cheese, pinching the edges to seal. Place the roll seam-side down in the pan. Repeat with remaining ingredients. Brush finished rolls with olive oil and sprinkle remaining parsley over the top. Grate parmesan over the top (as much as you'd like). Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the top is golden brown.