Teaching myself to cook, one recipe at a time.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Cajun Crawfish Boil

Hubby and I just returned from our Memorial Day get-away in the small town in Louisiana where he grew up. Not everyone in his family managed to come back to town for the weekend, but we did get to hang out with his parents, four of his five siblings, and his siblings’ husbands/ wives/ kids, so that was a blast.

Life in Louisiana pretty much revolves around food. Of course, it was required (by hubby) that we hit all the traditional home-town eats, which include a run-down old Mexican place with dubious-looking floors and spectacular nachos, a little restaurant where no one looks at a menu but simply orders “The Special,” and a pizza place that’s got a little something for everyone.

I was there to relax, so I didn’t go too crazy with the camera. But I suppose I should have taken a few pictures to show my northern family and friends what a real BBQ consists of. Apparently grilling is not the same thing as barbequing. My family’s idea of a BBQ is tossing some burgers on the grill (and I’m not knocking that!). Hubby’s family takes BBQ pretty seriously, though, spending hours upon hours smoking things to perfection. His brother had prepared 35 pounds of brisket and 12 pounds of pork in advance, spending all day in the backyard BBQ pit. Well, he had prepared some ribs, too, but the cooking time on those was miscalculated so they got charred (from what I heard). Nevertheless, yesterday we feasted on smoked brisket, pork, coleslaw, and rice dressing. A good Southern meal.

But the star of the weekend’s menu was the crawfish. In the past, hubby’s dad has picked up three sacks of crawfish for this big family gathering. This year, we expected a few more people, so he decided to get four instead. Somehow, he ended up with five sacks of live, wriggling crawfish. Here are three of them.

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The first thing to do is to purge them, or basically rinse them until all the dirt is all washed away and they drain clear water. They’re bottom feeders so this can be a process.

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Let them sit for a bit, then drain them and do it all again. Here they are soaking in clean (ish) water.

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Sometimes they escape when you try to drain them. Then you have the fun task of picking these buggers out of the grass (or you could be like me and take pictures while your husband does the dirty work).

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I do like the division of labor along gender lines, though. The boys take care of the hard stuff (boiling the crawfish), while us ladies get to take care of setting the table. This consists of laying down a plastic table cloth on a picnic table, covering it with newspapers to absorb liquid, and attacking the whole thing with masking tape to keep it from blowing everywhere. The black trays that you see in the picture here are for the shells and heads and claws and pretty much every part of the crawfish except for the meat of the tail.

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This is the cooking set-up. The crawfish are boiled in batches in that basket you see on the ground. The basket is dipped in that big pot next to it, which is heated by a burner with a  propane tank.

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They’re boiled with a mixture of Cajun spices (the brand mix is “crab boil”), cayenne pepper, salt, butter, and either lemon juice or vinegar. After a little while, they look like this.

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Give them a moment to drain and cool, then dump them on the picnic table. This is batch #1 out of… maybe 6? 8? 10? Who knows, you loose track after 2 or 3. But it was a lot.

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Batch #1 wasn’t spicy enough, so after the kids were given their chance to dig in (I think one kid may have taken 1 crawfish, the rest avoided the whole operation), hubby’s sister took that giant container of crab boil (it comes in both powder and liquid forms) and applied it generously over top of the pile. Mmmm that ratcheted up the flavor and spice a bit.

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To eat them, you grab the tail in one hand and the head in the other, and twist off the head. Toss that aside, then peel off the top ring of the shell on the tail. If you’re good at this, you should be able to pinch the tail meat with your fingers or mouth and pull the whole thing out. If you’re me, though, you’ll just tear it to shreds and spend the next few minutes trying to dismantle the rest of the shell because you suck at getting the meat out. It’s worth the effort, though.

Each batch got spicier and spicier. I’ve got to be honest, fellow Buffalonians, you’ve got nothing on these crazy Cajuns. These were so spicy that your fingers began to hurt after a while. I learned from last year to be VERY careful about wiping my running nose on a paper towel that I’d already wiped my hands on, so I used too many paper towels and still had to make an emergency trip or two to the bathroom to wash off my burning upper lip. Thank God I didn’t have any paper cuts.

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Oh, but it was so worth it. So delicious.

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That big pot on the table contains potatoes, mushrooms, and corn on the cob. The veggies were boiled in the same water as the crawfish and were pretty delicious, but I didn’t get pictures because I was avoiding touching anything with my burning fingers

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It’s kind of embarrassing that out of ~120 lbs of live crawfish, we only had ~20 lbs left (about 2-3 lbs of meat). Someone will get some pretty delicious leftovers to make etouffee with this week.

For me, though, it’s back to the diet. *sigh*

Friday, May 27, 2011

Ready….set…. go!

School is done for the quarter, and hubby & I are going to Louisiana for Memorial Day weekend. I’ve been working a lot of extra hours this week to make up for the time off, so I haven’t had time to blog, but rest assured – good things are coming. I’m all set to share with you the results of a few different recipes (i.e. brown sugar & dijon glazed salmon, my award-winning chili, hubby’s incredible gumbo, my search for a good meatloaf recipe, updates on my philly shrimp, and honey-pecan green beans). And since life in Louisiana revolves around food, I’m sure I’ll be posting about that. After all, the biggest reason we’re going down there is for a family crawfish boil, and that is just begging to be blogged. So I will be back, faithful readers (and those who aren’t so faithful – I love you all). I promise!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Spiced Sweet Roasted Red Pepper Hummus

I’m kind of on a healthy-food kick. I was doing really well with the healthy eating for a while, dropped about 15 pounds and a pant size or two, but then I got married. Something about going to an all-inclusive resort had us stuffing our faces on our honeymoon. I’m not kidding. We went to a sushi restaurant, ate a normal amount of food, and then placed an order for another dinner, which we ate with relish (as in enjoyment, not the condiment). And when we got back home, diets were long-forgotten. Anyway, who wants to diet when you’ve just gotten married? We were on top of the world, both at our happiest and our skinniest, and felt we could eat anything we wanted.

Fast forward a few months… it’s time to get back on track. It’s not like we’re still eating double meals (honestly, that was just once!), but we had stopped packing up small portions of chicken breasts and lots of veggies for our lunches and pretty much gone back to eating the way we had before we lost the weight. I’d made half-hearted efforts here or there, but it didn’t really pay off the way I wanted to. Call it excuses, but I really, really, really chalk some a lot of it up to sitting at a desk all day doing mindless work that I hated. I was unmotivated, and I kid you not, if the thought “Hmm, it’s 11:00am and I haven’t felt hungry yet,” crossed my mind, I would inevitably start to feel hungry 10 minutes later. I knew it was psychological, but that didn’t help my tummy. Luckily I’ve quit that job and started another one that keeps me busy, both physically and mentally, so I don’t have time to sit at my desk ruminating on my empty tummy. And I’ve already lost a few pounds!

Anyway, my point is that I decided I was sick of it and ready to start being really good again. This recipe popped up somehow, and I needed to try it. Yes, needed.

It had this.

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Don’t ask why I was so keen on incorporating red peppers, because I’m not really sure. It just sounded delicious.

This recipe also happened to be healthier than my favorite hummus recipe, having less tahini and not a drop of olive oil.

Basically, just drop some roasted red peppers (they come in a jar) in a food processor with garbanzo beans (aka chick peas), lemon juice, tahini (which is a pureed sesame seed paste that honestly has a taste and consistency similar to peanut butter, in my opinion), garlic, cumin, cayenne pepper, and salt.

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I know from using other hummus recipes that it can get really dry, really fast. Rather than making up the liquid deficit with olive oil, I saved fluid from the jar of roasted red peppers and dropped it in there. If I hadn’t had that, I would have just used the fluid from the can of garbanzo beans.

Anyway, just turn on the food processor and let it do its thing.

Look what happens!

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I’m going to be honest here. This was SO GOOD. If you like hummus, take this recipe from my Tastebook (or from the link above, I didn’t change anything) and use it. The lemon juice and cayenne pepper give it a bit of a bite, and the flavor of the red pepper and garlic is just amazing.

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This is my new favorite hummus recipe. Honestly, the old one is history, this is the new winner.

Now I just have to learn how to roast my own red peppers, and I’ll be all set.

Recipe will be in my Tastebook soon.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lime-Cilantro Rice with Spicy Garlic-Lime Chicken

Yesterday morning, I promised myself that if I could write the first draft of my term paper by the end of the day, I could write a blog post. Eleven pages later, I got to write this! This has been a pretty busy week, with having started a new job and with trying to do regular coursework along with the term papers that I have due this week, so that’s why I haven’t been posting. But I still have had the opportunity to cook a few things and take pictures, so here I am! And after this week, things should settle back down a bit.

My last day of work last week happened to coincide with Cinco de Mayo. My coworkers and I took the opportunity to celebrate with a Mexican-themed potluck lunch. Someone brought empanadas, someone else brought taco soup, someone else brought some Mexican chicken and potatoes, and I brought tortilla chips with my homemade guacamole and salsa. When I was preparing the guacamole, for some reason I thought that it was appropriate to buy 3 limes, even though the recipe only called for one. So of course, I was left with 2. What to do with 2 leftover limes?

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I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten at Chipotle, but they have the most delicious cilantro-lime rice you’ve ever tasted. There’s a recipe on allrecipes that claims to be a pretty close approximation, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

First step: bring some water to a boil.

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Add butter and rice.

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Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Piece of cake. Normally I really prefer using a rice cooker (sooo much less human error!), but this was pretty cut and dried.

In the meantime, I thought I’d prepare my chicken. I made this recipe a few months ago, and liked it enough to have it printed out. It’s basically a spicy seasonings rub for chicken, which is then sauteed in butter, oil, garlic and lime juice. Reviewers had complained that the seasonings rub didn’t go far enough, so I had doubled it. But I remember thinking that the flavor was just too much. If you want Parmesan cheese on your pasta, you don’t dump the whole bottle. This seemed similar, it was just covered in too much flavor. Also, hubby complained that the chicken was dry. That was my fault – I obeyed the cooking times too literally, when really I should have used my judgment. Knowing that both of these problems were fixable, I thought I’d give it another go.

Here’s my mixture of salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder (too much because I accidentally doubled that one, whoops), thyme, and parsley.

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And here’s my solution to not having enough, particularly given that I was using chicken tenders instead of full breasts:

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Just dropped them in a gallon-size zip lock bag and shook it around for a while.

Then I heated up some butter and oil in a pan…

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And put in my chicken tenders…

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I cooked them for a few minutes on both sides. After they were golden brown, I added more garlic powder (and lots of it!), along with lime juice and a half cup of chicken broth. The chicken broth isn’t in the original recipe, but reviewers suggested it. I meant to add it last time, but forgot, but I figured that adding it now would help with both the flavor and the dry texture.

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Finally, it was looking pretty delicious but the texture seemed off. It was just too liquidy (I guess that’s what happens when you add so much liquid!). I fixed this with a little corn starch dissolved in a cup of water.

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Much better!

Okay, back to the rice.

The recipe said to mix in lime zest, lime juice, and fresh cilantro when the rice was done cooking. Lots of beautiful green.

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Here’s the only problem: I did something really stupid. When I was prepping the water and rice 20 minutes ago, I had about a half cup of regular white rice left, and an unopened bag of brown rice. I didn’t know that cooking times are totally different for white rice and brown rice. Honest. Yes, I am that na├»ve in the kitchen sometimes. So yeah, the rice that I put in the pan was half white and half brown. This completely screwed up the cooking time. After the allotted 20 minutes, it was practically still crunchy. I had been so proud of myself for not picking up that lid and peeking at the rice while it was cooking (so tempting!), but now here I was doing it every 5 minutes after the initial 20 because I didn’t know how longer it would take for the brown rice kernels to finish cooking. Not good rice making technique to let all that steam out.

By the time the brown rice was done, the white rice in the mixture was completely overcooked and completely gooey.

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I guess you can’t tell too much in this picture, but just take my word for it.

Oh well, not much to do about it at this point, huh? So I went ahead and mixed in my cilantro, lime juice, and lime zest. Aside from the gooey texture, it looked pretty good.

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And my chicken turned out perfect, too.

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Upshot: I learned my lesson about brown rice. Next time I try this rice recipe, I will go back to using my rice cooker, and I will definitely use ONLY white or only brown rice. But, the taste was actually really, really good, so I will definitely make it again. I might rinse off and then saute the rice kernels, too, because I’ve read that that makes it less sticky.

As for the chicken, hubby and I both loved it. My modifications made it much better than last time I made it.

So that was my lime dinner. I will post the rice recipe to my tastebook, the chicken recipe has already been printed so leave me a comment if you’d like an invite.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Banana Bread

One thing to know about me is that although I have outgrown childhood hatred of some foods (onions, peppers, tomatoes), I just can’t get past others.

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I still think bananas are disgusting. I know, I know, they’re healthy and everything I dislike about them is all in my head. Every once in a while I try them again, and it just doesn’t work. I even tried freeze-dried banana chips, and those were just as bad. I gave them away when I couldn’t finish them at work.

But I don’t mind banana bread. I really don’t. It’s not that I can’t taste the banana flavor, but the flavor is so subtle and soft, and juxtaposed with sugar and bread and cinnamon (or whatever people put in their banana breads) that I can totally handle the banana in it. The key is moderation.

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Last week I found myself with two bananas leftover from when we had company. There was no way I was about to eat them, and when I asked hubby if he was going to, he looked at me like I’d asked him to wear a pink shirt with a popped collar next time we went out. So I thought I’d try my hand at making banana bread. Somehow I’ve never made one, though I’ve made white bread, wheat bread, pumpkin bread, zucchini bread, and strawberry bread.

I found this recipe on allrecipes.com and decided to play around with it according to the reviewers’ suggestions.

First, the recipe says to mix melted butter and sugar, but reviewers unanimously said to cream together room-temperature butter and sugar, like you would with cookies. So I did. Then add vanilla extract and eggs. Also, according to a modification made by the submitter herself in a comment, I also added a touch of lemon juice along with the eggs and vanilla.

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The original recipe said to sift together all-purpose flour, baking soda, and salt in a separate bowl. I used both all-purpose and whole wheat flour, upping the total amount by 1/4 cup because the reviewers said to. I also included some baking powder, along with ground cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.

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While stirring the butter and sugar mixture, gradually add in the flour mixture until it’s smooth and creamy.

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Sweet action shot, huh?

The thing about this recipe that makes it so good, according to what I read, is the addition of a half cup of sour cream.

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And of course, you can’t forget about the bananas. I peeled them and mashed them, even though the recipe said to slice them, because the idea of biting into gooey banana chunks grosses me out. Sorry, banana lovers.

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Put the sour cream and bananas in the dough, stir it around a bit, and then add in a half cup of chopped walnuts for good measure.

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This only makes one loaf, which was fine by me because I was still waiting to find out if this was a Good Recipe or Bad Recipe (can you sense my skepticism?).

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An hour later, the aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg were wafting through the house. Getting out of the shower, I couldn’t help but follow my nose to the kitchen to stare at the bread and lean over it, inhaling. After it cooled in the pan for 10 minutes, I transferred to a wire rack until it was completely cool.

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Oh my, it just smelled so good. I wish I could bottle up that scent and somehow share it with you.

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The verdict: GOOD RECIPE. Had a subtle banana flavor, but it wasn’t overpowering. The spices I added helped the flavor, and it was rich and moist. I brought it to work to share with my coworkers, and people did go back for seconds.

I think they’re going to miss me when I leave this job (today’s my last day!), if only because it means I won’t bring them my kitchen experiments anymore. My new job starts on Monday, and I have a feeling that I won’t be able to update this blog on the job like I can at the one I’m leaving. So if my posts slow down, I’m sorry! But I will definitely keep them coming because I just love doing this.

I will be putting this in my TasteBook ASAP. I know I’m a little behind in putting recipes in there, but I will catch up soon!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Southwestern Chili Cheese Fondue

I guess I had a bit of a theme birthday this year, since my parents got me a fondue pot (they must have read this post) and my brother got me a fondue recipe book.

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When my brother and sister-in-law visited us, we were flipping through the book and decided to attempt one called “Southwestern Chili Cheese Fondue.” It looked pretty delicious so after a trip to the grocery store, I set to work making it.

First step: grate 8 ounces each of Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses, and then toss the cheese with a tablespoon of cornstarch.

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This recipe had a lot of ingredients and had a lot of steps in terms of putting them all together, so rather than run around my kitchen frantically, I decided to prep everything in advance.

First, onion and red bell pepper, finely diced.

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Then, 2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped.

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And finally, jalapeno pepper (seeded) and garlic, both minced.

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Okay, finally ready to get started. First, heat some oil in a pan and saute the onion and bell pepper. Then add in the tomatoes, jalapenos, and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the moisture is cooked off.

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Then pour in a lot of half-and-half, and bring to a boil.

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Break up a package of cream cheese into chunks and add that…

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Stir it until it’s all melted and creamy, and then gradually add the Monterey/ cheddar mixture from step one. Stir in lime juice, cayenne pepper, and cumin, then put it in the fondue pot and top with chopped cilantro. Voila!

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We served with sausages, tortilla chips, soft flour tortillas, and fresh red bell pepper sticks.

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Time consuming, my friends, but well worth it.

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If you’d like the recipe, check out “Great Party Fondues” by Peggy Fallon. I don’t think I’m allowed to reproduce it for you. But I might be persuaded in an email Winking smile