31 December 2013

December Goals

As another month ends, it comes time to recap the meager goals that I set and give you a little glimpse into my month.  I just flipped through my cell phone photos for the month and there are hardly any.  A few of the m'hencha that I made, one of my to-do list for Christmas break, and a couple of Kyle on Christmas day, spoiling my parent's dog.
So here are the goals:
  • Roast a turkey!  We hosted a small party of people to help us share a turkey I got from work.  It was really great!  And despite a potential turkey disaster, dinner was delicious.
  • NOT have a crazy Christmas schedule.  I think it's safe to say this is one of the laziest Christmases I've ever had.
December has actually been a really rough month and I'm glad to see it go.  I spent the first week confined to the couch due to post-Mexico travel illness.  I'm just glad it didn't happen while we were on vacation.  Then I had a surprise business trip pop up and as I briefly mentioned here, it was awful.  And because I missed so much work after vacation, then illness, then business trip, the rest of my month was pretty insane work-wise.  Then finally, blessed Christmas vacation arrived, but by Christmas night I was wiped out with the beginnings of a killer cold.  I spent the vast majority of Thursday and Friday back on the couch.  Torture.  Zero progress on my Christmas Break To Do list.
So that's the bad.  Here's the balance:  we spent a GREAT night doing a brewery tour in honor of a friend's birthday.  We spent a wonderful Sunday afternoon socializing and eating great food with friends.  Even though I made a serious miscalculation when it came to cooking time for the turkey, it turns out there are ways to keep a turkey warm without drying it out for three hours before dinner (oven on low, turkey covered in lots of foil, a pan of water in the oven to keep moisture in).  I swear, I can cook anything, until you put me on a schedule then it's like I've never seen a kitchen before.
2013, however, has been monumental.  It's been such a good year that you can totally smack me for complaining about December.
I married this guy on a beach in North Carolina.  He believes in me, sometimes more than I believe in myself.  He teaches me to look at things from a different perspective, almost daily.  He shows me how to be more generous, and I teach him how to be a little more Dutch.  We are a great pair. 
We wanted an affordable destination wedding.  The whole wedding party stayed in a beach house, making wedding weekend one of the most fun vacations I've ever had.
A couple weeks later we had a reception in Michigan so those who couldn't make the wedding could still celebrate with us.  It was great.  Because we had nothing else going on that day, we were even able to make most of the food that was served!
Summer was amazing.  There were several camping trips and family gatherings.  I had four other cousins that also got married this year, so lots of family and weddings!
This fall, I got promoted to a managerial position.  I'm still learning the ropes - dealing with people problems is a very new experience.  It's a good challenge though.
And of course, shortly after that we spent a wonderful week in Mexico, soaking up the sun and the sand (and a whole bottle of sunscreen).  It was our honeymoon!
We bought one souvenir in Mexico:  a molcajete and tejolote.  The Mexican version of a mortar and pestle.  I am hoping it lasts for years!
I had some goals for 2013.  Here's what I wanted to do:
  • Live simply.  Enjoy time with friends, go camping, keep a few hobbies.  Hmmm.  It's hard to keep things simple when planning a wedding, but I don't think I stressed about it too much.  A couple mini breakdowns, but I had lots of support to work through it.  And the rest of the year has been pretty simple since then.  Still busy, but full of joy.
  • Gardening is a big part of my year.  Last year's garden was an experiment, this year's garden was a labor of love.  My goal was to garden deliberately, and not waste time on something that isn't working.  I'm not even going to pretend to have had a reasonable garden.  I gardened in a huge space and therefore, went way overboard.  I have enough tomatoes to last for a couple years.
  • Talk more.  Cultivate relationships.  I think I would have done better at this if I had this goal sitting in a visible place.  It's hard for me to talk to people.  I've been considering just how often I really talk to people that I consider to be close friends.  It feels like I should be talking to them more.  However, when I go out now, either to a grocery store or a restaurant, I try to be the kind of customer that makes employees remember why they enjoy customer service. 
So, that's it.  That wraps up the year.  If I picked a theme for 2013, it would be my new favorite saying:  cada dia es mejor.  Every day is better.  The best days are yet to come.  

27 December 2013

Moroccan Christmas: M'hencha and More

Grab a cup of coffee or tea because it's a long post today.  For what I believe is my favorite family tradition (yes, even more than fourth of July fireworks), we have an ethnic dinner every Christmas eve.  This year the choice was Moroccan.  I made an appetizer, a chili sauce, and this dessert:  M'hencha with orange and pine nuts.
Here are some of the other dishes that showed up - starting with a couscous salad my aunt made.
There were themes in our dinner - there were a few dishes with couscous, a few with cilantro, a few with almonds or other nuts.  This is my cousin's Seffa - beef couscous topped with nuts, cocoa powder and powdered sugar.
My mother made a lamb tangine with carrots and potatoes.
To go with Mom's tangine, I made a spicy harissa sauce - first I ground together some garlic cloves, whole coriander seeds, salt and cumin.
Then I added in some rehydrated ancho and pasilla chili peppers, and a little lemon juice.  It ended up being pretty spicy, and very strongly flavored.
I also made a quick appetizer, which is basically a roasted and cooked salsa called taktouka.  Kyle was kind enough to make a quick run to the store for flatbread, which he toasted under the broiler to make some flatbread chips to eat it with.
There were lots of other dishes but I don't have photos of them all, but rest assured we were well-fed that night and it was all very delicious.  Some of the other dishes include salmon cakes, carrot-ginger soup, spiced nuts and apricots, and cinnamon orange slices.  The recipe I would like to share with you is one of our desserts: m'hencha. This recipe has moved to my new site, please check it out here!

13 December 2013

The Perfect Latke

I was looking for an easy breakfast to make en masse and then reheat throughout the week.  I found a simple recipe that ended up being surprisingly good.  Or perhaps not so surprisingly, because when has smittenkitchen steered anyone wrong?
Potatoes are really easy to shred.  I say that because I bought a molcajete in Mexico and for the past week I've been grinding away, turning dry beans and rice into powder, trying to season it.  Beans are not easy to powder.  Potatoes, on the other hand, are really easy to shred. 
After the shredding, they need to be wrapped in a paper towel and squeezed dry.
Dough photos are never pretty.  This is the best I can do - the mixture pre-egg, pre-potato/onion.  The shiny glint of freshly ground sea salt and the smattering of ground pepper.
Mix it, scoop it, fry it, flip it.  These were just so...easy.  Maybe it was the cast iron, keeping the pan temperature even.  Maybe it's just that this is a fool-proof recipe.  Who knows.
After an easy round (confidence boost) I even felt comfortable making five at once!
And they just crisped up so well!  I haven't tried another latke recipe, but I don't think I need to look any further.
Regarding the reheating:  obviously they're best on the day they're made.  But the reheating wasn't so bad either.  Deb says you can re-crisp them in a 400 degree oven.
Potato Latke (as seen on smittenkitchen)
Makes roughly 12 to 14 latkes
  • 2 lbs potatoes
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1/2 c flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  •  Oil (I used bacon grease, but it's not kosher)
1.  Shred the potatoes (they are easy to shred by hand, food processors also work).  Wrap the potato in a paper towel and squeeze the moisture out. 
2.  Mix the flour, eggs, salt and pepper together.  Add the potato and onion to the mixture, stirring until well-coated.
3.  Heat oil over med-high heat.  When hot, drop roughly a third of a cup of the potato mixture into the pan and flatten with a spatula.  Fry until golden (1 to 2 minutes) then flip (letting cook 1 more minute).
4.  Repeat until potato mixture is gone, adding more oil to the pan as necessary.   
These latkes are great - but they need a little something extra.  Some salsa or hot sauce is perfect.  That's just my preference though, and I really enjoy spicy foods.  Speaking of spicy foods, I forgot to post a photo last week.  We spent a week in Mexico, enjoying temps in the upper 80s and sun every day, and we returned to a frozen over lake and single digit temps.  Yeah.

06 December 2013

Mexico: A Summary

I'm back!  Mexico was so great - it was a week of delicious food, dramatic sunsets, and all the toes-in-the-sand drinks we could drink.  Not to mention sunshine.
Before I get too carried away, here's a quick recap of my goals for November:
  • Bottle cider and wine.  Cider yes, wine no. 
  • Taste my first homemade beer!  So great!  Not exactly what I was expecting, but very good.
  • Work my way up to using the 25-lb weights for my SuperSet Saturdays.  Hum.  I can do it for the first set or two, then things get a little dicey.
  • Thanksgiving tacos - spend a week in Mexico.  See photos...
  • Pretend like I might have time to deep clean the apartment.  lol
And some December goals:
  • Roast a turkey!  I got one from work so I'm hoping to share a turkey with some of my favorite people.
  • NOT have a crazy Christmas schedule.  The last couple years have involved a four hour drive, usually ON Christmas day, just to make sure we make it to two Christmas parties.
Yeah.  Two goals.  I'm feeling pretty worn out right now so I'm not as dedicated.  So here's some more photos instead!
We rented a car and drove several hundred miles to the coast.  And by "we," I mean Kyle.  He was a total champ about foreign driving, even when we were facing rush hour in Mexico's second biggest city.
Of course, rush hour is nothing compared to cattle!  At first we both thought this scene was funny, but then we realized we had no idea what to do.  I mean, it's a bull.  It's got sharp pointy things, and we had a rental car.  Luckily the guy behind us wasn't messing around and showed us the trick to making the cows moooove (come on, that's funny, right?).
And mountains!  Almost all of our driving was beautifully scenic.
We spent most of our days by the water with a drink in our hand, and hotels/restaurants were really good about using filtered water / ice.
Several tacos were involved with this vacation.
As well as a couple massive carnitas burritos.
Here's Kyle, for scale.
The sunsets were epic every night.  There is no better sunset than a sunset on the water.
And last but not least, street tacos for 10 pesos apiece (86 cents).
TEN PESOS!  We bought four to eat right away, and then ordered four more para llevar.
And thus ends Mexico: A Summary

29 November 2013

Beer Braised Carnita Tostadas

Happy Thanksgiving!  I hope you survived.  I don't support American consumerism, so instead of going out shopping today, I'm...supporting the Mexican margarita economy.  You can bet I've had some carnitas this week.  If you're missing out on leftover turkey because someone else was in charge of roasting this year, let me share with you a perfect lazy day meal.  Set it and forget it, then when you come back to it, something magical has transpired.  Kyle calls carnitas "the bacon of Mexico."

I've learned how to tell just how good a recipe is by my reaction to it.  Oh, this is good, I don't mind eating this for days - pretty great, but room for improvement (Curried Lentil Soup).  These are so delicious, we need to have people over so everyone can taste how great they are - if I want to show it off then it must be pretty awesome (Blackcap Cheesecake Pie).  Oh my gosh this is so good I'm so glad we waited until AFTER people left to make these - so amazing that I'm hoarding food.  This is top-shelf-delight (Buffalo Chicken Dip).  I hoarded these carnitas.  I raved about them, and then refused to share.  Don't call me selfish until you've tried them.
I'm still not a huge fan of pork.  I've started cooking an occasional tenderloin.  I had serious reservations when I saw the pork shoulder in the grocery store, but I powered through it.  The shoulder is cut into two inch chunks, fried, and then braised in a crockpot full of beer and spices.

Ten hours later, what had once been pork is now transformed into the tenderest, juiciest, tastiest meat to ever grace a tostada.
There were barely any chunks left to shred.  The only thing better than the flavor of these carnitas is realizing that there's enough meat there to last for a week of meals.
And since I'm in Mexico this week, here's my little south-of-the-border tribute:  tostadas.  It's a little bit like an open-faced quesadilla.  You can either fry up a tortilla, or bake it up per instructions in this post.
My favorite tostada is topped with carnitas, black beans, peppers, cilantro and cheese.  Feel free to mix it up and use whatever you want. 

Carnitas (barely adapted from here)
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 2 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • pork shoulder, around 4 lbs
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 4 oz mushrooms, chopped (about 2 cups) - optional
  • 12 oz beer
1.  Mix up the spices (salt through pepper).  Set aside.
2.  Cut the pork into roughly 2-in. by 2-in. cubes.  Heat up a frying pan with a little oil in it.  When hot, add the pork cubes.  Turn the pork until it is seared on all sides.
3.  While the pork is cooking, put the onions and mushrooms in a  crockpot.  Move the pork to the crockpot, then evenly sprinkle the spice mixture over the pork.  Pour the beer over everything.
4.  Cook on low for 10 to 12 hours.  When you're ready, separate the pork from the juices, then shred the carnitas with two forks.  Carnitas can be stored in the juices, or separate.  Some juice will be necessary for reheating.
Serve carnitas any way that sounds good - over rice, in tacos, in tostadas, over nachos, etc.  It's okay if you're already planning on making carnitas instead of a turkey next year.  I'm sure your family will thank you.

22 November 2013

Chocolate Cake Mix Biscotti with Pistachios

Cake mix:  it's not just for cakes.  Do something unexpected!  Let's make cake for breakfast, but rename it so that we can eat it guilt-free.  Bake it twice to crisp it up.  Throw some pistachios in there.  Host a fancy brunch.  French press some coffee.  Make this biscotti.
Mix up the dough.  It should be fairly firm, as shown in the photo below.
Form it into two loaves on a baking sheet.  I used a stone so that I wouldn't have to worry about sticking.
First bake.  Slice up the loaves diagonally.  The bigger the angle, the bigger each slice of biscotti will be.
Carefully turn each slice onto its side.
Second bake.  It starts to feel like biscotti.  You might want to turn them over and do a third bake for just a few minutes more so that each cut side gets crispy.
A crunchy biscotti means one thing:  coffee is required.  Dip it in coffee, let it soften, and enjoy a delicious breakfast cookie.  Especially if it's a lazy Saturday morning.

Chocolate Cake Mix Biscotti (based on this)
  • 1 (18 oz) package chocolate cake mix
  • 1 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 c. melted butter
  • 1/2 c. unsweetened applesauce
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp hazelnut extract
  • 3/4 c. pistachios
1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Grease a 9x13 pan (unless you are using a baking stone).
2.  Combine all ingredients except pistachios.  Mix well (a mixer would be appropriate here).  Add in pistachios and mix until evenly distributed.
3.  Form the dough into two loaves on the baking sheet, roughly 12x2 in. each.
4.  Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, then remove from oven and let cool for 10 to 15 minutes.
5.  Slice loaves diagonally, about 1-in thick.  Turn cut-side down onto baking sheet.
6.  Bake for 10 to 15 minutes.  If needed, turn them over onto the other cut side and bake for 5 more minutes.  They should be crisp all over.
The original recipe calls for almonds and almond extract.  I'm sure that would be good...but this was better.  It's a little like Nutella in a cookie, with the addition of pistachios.