Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Recession Dinner Party

The idea: Have a dinner party without breaking the budget

The plan: Three couples, three dishes, $60 total

The goal: Make your dish for under $20. (We originally set the bar at $10, but that began to seem a bit impossible for a main course feeding 6 people.)

My assignment: Appetizers for 6.

Hello, we represent $20 worth of food. Twenty bucks doesn't go as far as it used to.

I decided to try out my new Baba Ganoush recipe on my unsuspecting dinner companions. As a back up plan, I also made your basic "Tomatoes with Mozzerella, Basil, and Balsamic Vinegar." You know, just in case my attempt at recreating Fatina's recipe was a horrible blunder in judgment.

I dutifully grilled my eggplant on the grill. (It later exploded from the heat. Note to self - prick eggplant with a fork before grilling, to let steam escape.)


I assembled the dip just like Fatina had showed me, and it was actually looking (and tasting) pretty darn good. I had a bit of extra time left before we had to leave for the party, so I thought I might tackle one more thing... Pita Bread!


For my birthday, my brother Matt got me a gift card to Barnes & Noble, which I used to buy myself a new book: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. It just so happens that I made a batch of dough while my family was in town, and it just so happens that the book contains a recipe for easy pita bread, so I thought I'd give it a whirl (and bought back-up Naan just in case).


My favorite thing about this book is that once you've made the dough, you just grab a hunk of it from your fridge, dust it with flour, and throw it in the oven. No extra rising time, no extra kneading, no additional bread responsibilities.


Which is just how I like it, because really, who has time to babysit bread dough all day?


For the pita bread, I cut off a grapefruit sized hunk of dough, stretched it into a ball, and rolled it out to a 1/8 inch uniform thickness. After about 5-10 minutes in a 500 degree oven, it puffed up and browned beautifully. No fuss pita bread! I love it!


I even had time to shower and change clothes before our dinner party that night (which I'm sure was greatly appreciated by our dinner companions).

The Menu:

Appetizers: Tomatoes With Mozzerella, Basil, and Balsamic; Baba Ganoush with Homemade Pita Bread

Main Dish: Chicken with Saffron Rice and Golden Raisins (Fantastically delicious, and I think this may have been the first time I've actually had saffron.)

Dessert: Warm Vanilla Bean Rice Pudding with Strawberries, Raisins, and Fresh Ground Nutmeg (We got to grate our own nutmeg over the dessert with a grater! Super cool.)


Total food tab? $60. Proof that we can still eat well, chat into the wee hours and thoroughly enjoy ourselves even during a recession? Priceless.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Stepping Outside of My Comfort Zone (Or, Heather Tastes Babaganoush For The First Time And Likes It!)

As I'm sure you know by now, Steven and I have a favorite restaurant we visit (nearly) every weekend. On Sundays, there's only one waitress, and her name is Fatina. She's the owner's sister and she and her family are from Syria. I like to tell her stories about my burgeoning cooking efforts, and she laughs when I bring in recipe books by Rachael Ray.

"You don't want that food!" She grins and motions to the cookbook. "Come to my house, I will teach you to cook my food! From Syria!"

Surprising even myself, I took her up on her offer and we scheduled a time to meet at her house so that she could teach me to make Tabbouleh, Baba Ganoush, cheese pies and baklava. (I always thought baklava was Greek, but who am I to judge these things? Besides, all of those countries are Mediterranean, so they can share desserts amongst themselves, I suppose.)

Fatina says, "No more Rachael Ray! I will teach you properly!"

Now, for those of you that know me, you know that I typically cook in the realm of Kraft Blue Box Mac and Cheese and those circular breaded chicken patties. I had no idea what I was getting into by trying to learn to cook foreign dishes, and frankly, I was kind of nervous about it. What if I said the wrong thing, what if I made a cultural misstep, did I need to take off my shoes or wear a scarf or anything? I googled Syria in the days prior, and then finally came to the conclusion that since Fatina waited tables in polo shirts and jeans, sans headscarf, I was probably fine to just show up and be myself.

And when I arrived, I realized all my nervousness had been for naught -- Fatina had Caribou coffee ready for me. A woman after my own heart.


First we learned Baba Ganoush, which is basically a vegetable dip with roasted eggplant, diced cucumber and bell pepper, with lemon juice, garlic and parsley. I will give you the recipe as best I could scribble it down as I watched:


Baba Ganoush, by Fatina
2 eggplants, roasted on the grill for 15-20 minutes, until skin is charred on all sides
1 small cucumber, diced
1 green or orange bell pepper, diced
8 halves walnut, chopped coarsely
2 tbsp. fresh parsely, chopped
Juice of 1/2 lemon (or to taste)
1 garlic clove
Salt to taste
1 tbsp. of Pomegranate Molasses (Fatina says you can buy this at an international market.)
Olive oil, to serve


Directions: Grill eggplants for 15-20 minutes until skin is charred on all sides. Remove from grill and let cool. Peel off skin and scoop out insides. Blend or food process eggplant until smooth. Mash garlic clove with salt in mortar and pestle (or if you don't have a mortar and pestle, like me, you can create a redneck version by mashing your garlic in a ramekin with the end of your rolling pin. Classy, I know.) Add lemon juice to garlic/salt mixture. Stir mixture into eggplant. Add chopped veggies, parsely, walnuts and molasses (if using). Add more salt and lemon juice as desired, to taste. It should taste very fresh, bright and crunchy. Drizzle with olive oil and serve cold, with pita bread for dipping.

We also learned to make Tabbouleh, which until that very day I had thought was a rice dish of some sort.

It is not. It is, in fact, 98% parsley and 2% bulgur wheat. Who knew? (Oh, right -- probably most of the Middle East...)


1 c. Bulgur Wheat #1 (the smallest size kernel)
2 bunches Italian parsely, coarsely chopped
1 small cucumber, diced
1 small tomato, diced
Juice of 2 lemons
Chopped scallions
2 tbsp. fresh mint, chopped
Dried mint, salt & pepper to taste

Soak bulgur wheat in water (enough to barely cover wheat kernels) for 20 minutes. Drain and spice bulgur wheat with salt, pepper, and dried mint. Maybe a little paprika, too. Stir in diced cucumber, tomato and scallions. Toss with chopped parsley, lemon juice, and fresh mint. Serve cool. Tabbouleh is similar to a salad dish -- very summery and green. And it is a LOT of parsley. (Bulgur wheat pictured below - How did I not snap a shot of the entire dish?)


When we got to the "main dish" portion of the lesson (I didn't realize I was getting an entire four-course meal in this first visit, but believe me, I loved it!), she referred to the dish as "Green Beans and Rice." (She is soaking jasmine rice in the green bowl below.)


Steven can attest that we are very familiar with this dish (or an Americanized version of it) -- Steven's mom used to make a "Green Beans Over Rice" dish for Steven as a kid, and to this day he will tell you it is one of his favorite meals -- green beans, ground beef, soy sauce, white rice. Every kid's dream meal.


So of course, I was all excited to see another version that I could potentially make for Steven. When Fatina pulled a big bag of frozen green peas out of the freezer, we had a bit of a lost-in-translation moment. Green beans? I asked. She nodded and then looked at the bag she'd just emptied into the pan. "Beans? Peas? Green peas? Whatever." She laughed.


(It would probably be delicious either way.)


Fatina also had an assortment of Middle Eastern spices in the world's cutest spice jars. (I asked if they came from Syria in the jars. She laughed and said she got them at Bed Bath and Beyond for fifty cents each.)


She scooped a brown spice into the pot and I asked her what it was. "Syrian spice. Combination of ten spices. I'll give you some." I forgot to take it with me when I left, so she brought me a sampling of the spice (and some dried mint) at the restaurant the next day. I think its similar to Garam Masala.


This is the part where I tell you that I have just now realized, to my horror, that I accidentally deleted some of my pictures from that day. Ergo, I don't have a picture of the final product for this dish, nor do I have any pictures of the Baklava. I am super annoyed with myself for this, but alas, nothing can be done. I'll give you the recipes anyway, and you can make them yourself and see what they look like. Stinking cameras and computers. They conspire against me.

Green Peas and Rice, with Ground Beef:
2 c. Golden Star Jasmine Rice
2 c. water
1/3 c. + 1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1/4 tsp. Garam Masala
1 lb. ground beef
1 package frozen peas
1/2 tsp. Maggi (vegetable) seasoning
2 tsp. salt
Handful of pine nuts
Olive Oil

Cover rice completely with water and soak for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, brown ground beef in oil and season with salt, pepper, and Garam Masala. Add frozen peas and turn heat to low.

In separate saute pan, put 1/3 c. oil in pan and add 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil. (Per Fatina, you MUST bring the water to a full boil before adding the rice, or you will end up with a doughy, gunky mess.) Drain the rice that was soaking (it should look white and opaque). Pour drained rice into boiling water and DON'T STIR IT. Cover it and leave it boiling until the water is all absorbed by the rice. Turn the heat to low once the water is all absorbed (about 10 min). Sprinkle veggie seasoning in a straight line across the pan, so that some rice becomes yellow while the rest stays white. You can add in a little more boiling water (boil it in a separate pan or teapot before adding to rice) to keep the rice from sticking to the pan.

Serve rice with ground beef and peas on top. Toast some pine nuts in olive oil for a few minutes to add as a garnish on top. Delicious, easy, and quite filling.


The next dish was actually two separate recipes -- the dough and the filling. I am a huge fan of bread/pastry dough recipes, so this one was especially interesting to me.

Cheese Pies:
To make filling:
1 package Queso Fresco
1 tbsp. chopped parsley (At this point, just buy a parsley farm...)
Salt and pepper


Crumble cheese in bowl and add chopped parsely. Season with salt and pepper.


To make dough:
3 c. flour
1 egg
1/3 c. vegetable oil
1/2 c. milk or plain yogurt (I bet greek yogurt would be nice here)
Pinch of salt
1 tbsp. honey
1 tbsp. yeast
1/2 tbsp. sugar
Warm water (1/2 c.?)
1 egg yolk (for brushing tops of pastries for baking)

Add yeast and sugar to water until yeast bubbles. Mix together flour, egg, vegetable oil, milk/yogurt, salt and honey in separate bowl. When yeast is bubbling, add to dough mixture. Mix in stand mixer until dough ceases sticking to edge of bowl. Leave covered in warm place for 1 hour to rise.


To make cheese pies:
Preheat oven to 400. Roll out dough and cut into triangles.


Place small scoop of cheese mixture into each triangle and roll up into croissant shape.


Don't overfill or cheese will leak out.


Line up in greased baking pan.


Brush tops of cheese pies with egg yolk. This will help them to be golden brown coming out of the oven.


And this is the point at which Heather deleted the rest of the pictures. Oh, the self-loathing.

Anyway. The cheese pies were fantastically delicious. For dessert, we made baklava with phyllo dough, filled with sweet cream and drizzled with sugar syrup.

To make cream filling:
2 c. heavy cream
2 tbsp. corn starch
2 tbsp. sugar
1/4 c. milk

Mix together corn starch and milk until blended. Add heavy cream and sugar, and cook on stovetop on med-high heat. Stir quickly and constantly as filling thickens. Once thickened, remove from heat. Let cool and refrigerate for one day. It should be a butter consistency.

To make baklava:
Preheat oven to 350.

Buy some frozen Phyllo (Filo) Dough. (It is nearly impossible to make from scratch.) Put the dough in the fridge to thaw the day before you make these.

Unfold one sheet of phyllo. Melt 1/2 stick of butter, and brush phyllo with butter using a pastry brush. Fold phyllo into thirds, length-wise. Put a dollop of cream filling on the bottom of the phyllo and roll it up into a triangle shape (this is going to feel like you are making a paper football). Brush triangle with butter and place on baking sheet.

Bake triangles for 12 minutes at 350 or until golden brown.

To make sugar syrup for drizzle:
2 c. sugar
1 c. water
A little lemon juice or lemon powder (SPOILER ALERT: Fatina uses Lemonade Kool-Aid as "lemon powder" to give a little more lemon taste without more lemon juice. Oh, America, you culinary mastermind, you.)

Boil sugar and water for five minutes or until sugar thickens. Refrigerate once cooled. Syrup should be immensely sticky but pourable.

Remove baklava triangles from oven and drizzle with sugar syrup, then sprinkle with crushed pistachios. Eat 'em up but watch out, that sugar syrup can yank your fillings right out.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Raspberry Coffee Cake

I've been a cake-baking fiend lately. Something about warm weather and the availability of fresh berries at cheap prices has brought out the baker in me.

A week or two ago, Sassy Radish posted a recipe for an easy weeknight cake. I read through the recipe and realized I only needed raspberries and buttermilk to make it.


Off to the store I went.


And she wasn't kidding about this cake being lightning fast to make. From starting the mixing to pulling the cake out of the oven, it was less than an hour total. (Plus, I got to use my stand mixer in the middle of the week! Bonus!)


You can use any berry in place of the raspberries (I made a blueberry version for my family last week, which they happily scarfed right up). I bet blackberries or mulberries would be amazing, too.


The best part about this cake is the dusting of sugar over the top right before baking. It gives the top of the cake a caramelized crunch. And I love how the batter just swallows up the raspberries as it rises.


I've had this cake on the brain since last night at our first-annual Recession Dinner Party, which I will tell you more about later. I was thinking that this cake would be a great (cheap) dessert to bring to the next one (although it would be hard to top the Vanilla Bean Rice Pudding we had last night, courtesy of Jaimy and Bret). (In fact, all of the food last night was glorious -- hard to believe everyone did it all on a budget of $20 per couple. Outstandingly awesome. And hosted by our lovely friends Tracy and Dan, who'd better get a blog started asap before they leave for Rwanda, or I am going to protest and picket in front of their apartment building with signs. Or something.)

Now that I've spent the last half-hour looking at these pictures, I think I need to make one more of these right now, just to use up the last of my buttermilk in the fridge. Can't let things go to waste, right?

(Edited to add: Here's the blueberry one from last week!)


(Edited further to add:)

For those of you wanting the recipe, here it is! (From Sassy Radish)

Raspberry Buttermilk Cake (Adapted from Gourmet, June 2009)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 container fresh raspberries


Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle. Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Beat butter and 2/3 cup sugar with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes, then beat in vanilla. Add egg and beat well.

At low speed, mix in flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour, and mixing until just combined.

Spoon batter into cake pan, smoothing top. Scatter raspberries evenly over top and sprinkle with remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar.

Bake until cake is golden and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Family Comes To Visit!

Hello World! I've been absent from Le Blog because I've been interacting with REAL HUMAN BEINGS! Crazy, I know, right?

We had family in town this week (my Dad, Mom, and brothers Matt (23) and Chris (18) -- my other brother Jon (25) and his wife Mandy and my one-year-old niece Riley were vacationing at Jekyll Island, GA). They flew in on Monday and flew out on Thursday, and we had a whirlwind of a time in between.

So what all did we do while they were here? I'll give you an overview:

We visited the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum. (After stopping by Sbux first, of course.) (Also, doesn't this look like a rock band photo?)


We visited Steven's favorite plane at the museum, the SR-71, which flew from California to DC in an hour and 4 minutes. Sweet.


Dad checked out the cologne-seeking semi-automatics... (I'm married now, Dad - those days are over...)


The gentlemen patiently waited for us when we had to take a potty break.


We saw the Space Shuttle. (It is huge.)


And we rode a Flight Simulator. (See that white contraption behind Chris? Yeah. We were inside that thing. And it went upside down. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally.)


We rode in groups of two -- Dad and Chris, Steven and Matt, Mom and me. Mom was the gunner, I was the pilot (and therefore the reason we were upside-down multiple times). It was utterly hilarious (and pretty affordable!).


We also went up into the Observation Tower. Steven and Chris took it quite seriously.


Their self-described mission? "Find the Van in the Parking Lot."


(We borrowed a friend's minivan with license plates that read "L8NLost." Steven, our main driver, was mortified to say the least. Also, I think we were denied entry to at least two parking garages in DC because of the license plates. Or at least that's what I'm choosing to believe.)

Back at the house, we opened birthday presents for Mom and Matt.


Dad got Mom a new camera for her birthday. She loved it. (I think she is reading Matt's birthday card to her -- he writes the best birthday card messages. Its his literature background - makes for excellent card-message-writing abilities.)


We hit up Best Buy that afternoon, and played our traditional round of Guitar Hero in the store (Steven, Matt and I did this for the first time when Matt came to town in March).


I think they were playing Bon Jovi's Livin On A Prayer.


And for dinner that night we had ravioli and salad in our first-ever meal at the dining room table. I was unreasonably happy to have my family sitting around my dining room table, eating food that I made myself. I felt quite grown up.


We also had our first-annual Huff Family Book Club discussion over spice cake and coffee after dinner. We'd just finished reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, so we all talked about what we thought. I sat there, watching everyone interact and laugh and ask for a second piece of cake, and just beamed. It was a lovely memory-making type of moment.


The next day, we traversed to DC and visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was very sad and thought-provoking, and it felt kind of weird to take pictures in there, so I didn't take any.

But I did get a shot of everyone outside as we paused for a Gatorade break...

And where were we rushing off to? Why, to the Cannon House Office Building, of course.


And what for, you might ask? Why, to meet with Ron Paul, of course.


You know, we just thought we'd drop in and check on the progress of his bill to Audit the Fed.


Seriously though, we arranged a meeting with his scheduling people because my brother Chris is a huge fan. I was shocked that it worked out as well as it did, but there's something to be said for being persistent. (And we were.)


After the meeting with Congressman Paul, we walked down to the Bullfeathers restaurant for a quick bite to eat, since we'd sort of skipped lunch that day. We all split appetizers and talked about how cool the meeting had just been. Elated that we'd managed to make it work out so well, I whipped out my phone and did a quick search on the Metro website to figure out how to get back to our car. I entered the cross streets into the trip planner and it said to take the blue line to Eastern Market. I confidently informed the family of our planned route, and we headed off to the Metro.

And that, my friends, is when the universe sought balance.

We checked the map after we'd bought our Metro cards. (Mistake #1) And it looked like the Potomac Station stop would get us closer to our destination (but still really far south...). I thought I remembered walking by a Metro station on our way toward the Holocaust Museum, but for some reason the map wasn't making sense to me. I was starting to get upset at the Metro website for deceiving me in such a way, but I just hoped for the best and we set off to the Potomac Station stop.

Which (Surprise!) just so happened to be in Southeast DC. Which just so happens to be the murder capital of the ENTIRE UNITED STATES. Oh dear God. We rode the escalator up to daylight, and I surveyed the unfamiliar streets and started to totally freak out. I had somehow managed to lead my entire family into the lion's den and had absolutely no idea how to get us out of there. I frantically called for a taxi, but then realized we'd either need two taxis or a minivan taxi... and it was steadily approaching rush hour. I was nearly hyperventilating.

And that's when the combined genius of Steven Steele and my Dad took over. They calmly walked over to the Metro map, plotted out how to get back to our van in the parking garage (the third parking garage, due to the aforementioned license plates that shall not be named), and I just nodded and followed them, very very grateful that they'd taken the reins.

When we got out at the next Metro stop, it almost became a comedy of errors. We couldn't figure out how to get out of the station. The exit arrows on the columns pointed at each other, creating a physical impossibility of an exit. I just leaned my forehead against the sign and started laughing. We finally managed to trek back to the car, and after a valiant drive through rush hour by Steven (during which most of us grabbed some shut-eye), we finally made it home.

That evening, we had the classic M&M birthday cake (for Mom and Matt), along with ice cream and coffee.


We sang happy birthday to the birthday duo, and dug in. It was delicious, and I promptly ate way too much and gave myself a stomachache. Mom and Matt had also ventured out to the store and bought us some Starbucks ice cream, which was heavenly (and we've taken a spoon directly to the carton tonight, just to finish it up).


Happy Birthday to Mom and Matt, and thank you for visiting, Family! We had a total blast and can't wait to do it again!