Thursday, April 28, 2011

And the Winner is...

First of all, Happy Easter to everyone! I hope you all had a great weekend celebrating Christ's work on the cross! How did you spend your Easter? Any cool stories or traditions? Tell me! I'd love to hear 'em!
Secondly...this post has been overdue for a while, but I think it'll be worth the wait! So without further ado, he's the brief story of my winning recipe:

About a month ago my dad sent me an email about a culinary contest that he saw a flyer for at his work. The competition was for a "colorful, kid-friendly entree" that met certain nutritional requirements. It didn't seem too hard to me, especially seeing that I am already a big fan of colorful and healthy foods. However, I soon found out it wasn't as simple as it sounded.

For one thing, I had less than a week to type-up and submit my recipe, which would be examined for nutritional information and to see if I would be selected to go in and make the recipe for a panel of judges and compete for the prize. I don't know you, but I like a little more time for planning and practicing, but since I didn't have that I just had to make do. Over the next few days I tried to come up with a "kid-friendly entree" that would be intriguing and just loaded with veggie and/or fruity goodness. I've done the black bean brownies and tofu chocolate mousse so I figured I could pull another one of those out of my sleeve.

After a few days to scan magazines and cookbooks and with the clock ticking down I finally decided to make my newly created Spaghetti Squash Pancakes with Roasted Vegetables. It was fairly quick and simply and full of different vegetables and kids love pancakes, right? What's not to love? So with my new plan in mind, I went out and got all my ingredients and allotted Sunday afternoon as my time to practice, experiment, and work out any kinks as well as develop any cool new additions to my recipe.

Sunday afternoon came and went with lots of sweat, frustration, and dirty dishes. Squash and sauce was everywhere and my balsamic reduction experiment was not only ruined, but it burned a hole through its plastic container and left black goo all over the microwave. Awesome. Completely exasperated and a mess, I recruited my sister to help me clean up the kitchen before we went to youth group. I got back home around 8 and immediately started a new plan in my last desperate hope. I decided to just go simple and safe and try spaghetti squash noodles with tomato sauce and meatballs. The tomato sauce recipe I adapted from Cooking Illustrated's recipe, the chicken meatballs recipe I adapted from an online recipe I found, and the spaghetti squash noodles are just my version of the typical preparation.

So, making meatballs, tomato sauce, and spaghetti squash in record time I came up with my final attempt at a recipe to submit. To my great relief and surprise the tasting samples got great reviews from my family who so graciously tried them out at 11 o'clock at night. With my energy reserves reaching an end I carefully typed up my recipes to be ready to submit in the morning. My dad helped me proofread it all and tidy up any loose ends and then he said it needed a kid-friendly name so we decided to call it "Skylar's Squashetti and Meatballs". Slightly cheesy perhaps, but at this point I was just ready to have fun with this thing and I was glad to have my recipe finally chosen! Fast forwarding now, my recipe DID get accepted for the competition and I had one week before the day I would prepare it before the judges! In that short of time I unfortunately had NO time for practicing and therefore pretty much just had to wing it on competition day.

At the competition I shared a large kitchen with the 3 other competitors. We each were given a big table to work at with all of our provided ingredients and helpers stood by to get us anything we needed or couldn't find. It was pretty cool! I had 2 hours to prepare and plate 8 servings of my dish. Sounds like a lot of time, right? Yeah, well it makes a big difference when you are in a foreign kitchen without all your favorite tools and equipment that acts and operates much different from the stuff back home! Trust me, it messes you up! Still, I had any help I needed (besides actually preparing the food) and I wasn't rushing around like crazy person, I worked quickly and carefully and for only making the dish for the second time ever, I dare to say it turned out pretty darn well. Not the most attractive dish in my opinion, but what it lacks in looks it makes up in flavor! Still, I had some pretty stiff competition from the three other ladies working in the kitchen with me. Cornmeal-crusted chicken nuggets with colorful pico de gallo next to me and homemade pasta with veggies and roasted garlic from another competitor and mini pizzas and fruit kabobs at the other end of the kitchen.

The dishes would be examined and tasted by 6 judges including an executive chef, a health professional, a weather man from a local news station, and a young girl (because the competition was for a KID-friendly entree afterall). The judges were all pretty friendly and they asked good questions so I really wasn't very nervous as I would have expected, but that's good! :) Anywho, after cleaning up and hanging out for a while, the judges finally made their choice! The winner? (drum roll please.......) ME!! You can imagine the shock I must have been feeling for my almost-complete-failure "squashetti" to actually WIN the competition!

My winning plate at the competition :)
Soooo on top of getting this awesome gift basket full of goodies pictured below, I got my picture and recipe in the base newspaper and the base medical center restaurant will feature my recipe on its menu for a month! If that weren't enough, I also was asked to do a short segment on the local morning news where I would prepare an abbreviated version of my recipe! How cool is THAT?! I was pretty psyched! What a way to end my crazy first cooking competition!

My lovely gift basket filled with a cutting board, 2 sandoku knives, 3 cookbooks, a spatula, a recipe booklet from the competition, and a bunch of healthy eating pamphlets, pencils, pens, etc. Fun stuff!

I won't bore you with ALL the details of the news segment, but basically I had three minutes to demonstrate a few of the important elements of making my dish and then I quickly plated a portion for final presentation. As if making a whole entree in three minutes wasn't hard enough, I also had to answer questions and not look like a total weirdo in front of a live camera. Working quickly, speaking eloquently, and not looking like a weirdo are definitely not my fortes at all, but it went pretty smoothly and I didn't cut any fingers off in front of the whole world so I say it was a success! Not Food Network quality, but not too shabby either. You can see the video clip here. (no laughing though, I'm horrible in front of cameras!)

Alright! Now that you know the gist of that whole long story I bet you are just DYING to actually create this winning dish and see for yourself just how yummy it is, right? Right! So, me being as nice as I am, I'm sharing it with you as always so please do try it out, it's pretty simple and not too time-consuming and you just feel super good about eating it! Thanks for reading!

Skylar's Award-Winning "Squashetti and Meatballs"

Chicken Meatballs
§  1 1/3 lbs chicken, ground 
§  1 cup breadcrumbs (I use 2 slices of whole-wheat bread, toasted and ground)
§  2 minced garlic cloves
§  1 tsp garlic powder 
§  2 tsp dried basil
§  1 egg well beaten
§  1 teaspoon salt
§  1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1.        Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
2.      In a large bowl combine ground chicken, bread crumbs, garlic, garlic powder, basil, , egg, salt, and pepper.
3.      Combine gently. (You can use a fork or spoon if you want, but I think clean hands are the most fun and the most efficient!) 
4.   Gently form the mixture into 1-2 in balls with your hands (or an ice cream scoop) and then place on the prepared sheet.      
6.      Bake for 20-25 minutes, until cooked through and lightly browned. (You can take one out at 15 or 20 min and cut it open to see how much longer you need.)
7.      Remove from the oven and freeze for later or add them to whatever sauce they will be served in and allow them to simmer in the sauce for at least 10 minutes to absorb some of the flavors.

Bread crumbs are easy to buy in a box at the
store, but with just a little extra effort you
can have waaay better bread crumbs with
nothing more than a few slices of good bread
(I like whole wheat!) and a food processor,
blender, or coffee grinder even!

If you have a meat grinder, definitely feel free
to put it to good work here. I, sadly, do not
have one so I put my trusted food processor
to the job and with a few pulses it did just fine.
You can also buy pre-ground chicken meat to
make this even faster and easier, but I think
grinding up the whole meat ensures fresher
meat. That's just me though.
Never made your own meatballs before? I
hadn't either before this competition so if I
can make winning meatballs on the first try
with no professional meatball-making training,
Yep, dig into that sucker with you hands! It's
definitely the way to go!
I like mine a bit smaller than a golfball, but if
you chose to make yours bigger or smaller
just make sure you adjust the cook time as well.

Baked meatballs = easier than pan-fried and
without any added fat.

Ready to be baked!

These guys freeze really well and can then be
ready to go all the time when you are just
DYING to make Squashetti with Chicken
Meatballs and Tomato Sauce!

Tomato Sauce
§  Olive oil (about 1-2 tbsps)
§  1 large onion, minced (about 1 cup)
§  4 med-large cloves garlic, minced
§  2 large cans (about 28 oz) stewed tomatoes (do not drain)
§  1-2 Tbsp chopped kalamata olives, roughly chopped
§  1 Tbsp capers (chop these if you don't like the little chunks)
§  6 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
§   1 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
§  ½-1 tsp sugar (optional)
§  Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1.       Add a few Tbsps of oil to a large saucepan (to coat the bottom) and bring to med-high heat. Add the onion and the garlic and sauté for a few minutes until soft and lightly browned.
2.      Add the tomatoes, olives, capers, and the herbs and stir to combine. Bring to a boil and then turn down the heat to low and let the sauce simmer for at least 30 min, until cooked down and thick, continue cooking if want it reduced further or thin with more tomato juice or stock if desired.
3.      Taste the sauce and add the sugar if needed then season with salt and pepper. Puree the sauce if desired or leave it chunky.
4.      Keep warm until ready to serve. Serve with any of your favorite pasta dishes. Makes about 3-3 1/2 cups. Serves 6-8. 

Enough oil to keep the onions from sticking.
Sauteing onions.
Unless you can get REALLY good, in season
fresh tomatoes that you want to use in this,
canned is the way to go! It's also much more
However, whether they're in season or not, you
HAVE to use fresh herbs in this sauce! That's 
what sets it apart from the "meh" sauces and
puts it up there with the "Wo-hoah!" sauces! 
If you have the time to spare, let this sauce
simmer for at least 30 minutes to a couple
of hours to just cook down and really mature
the flavors, otherwise just cook it until it
is reduced to your liking.
Don't feel like making your own sauce ALL the
time, but you just can't get enough of this stuff?
Make a whole big batch at once and then freeze it
in batches. It works!

§  2 med-large spaghetti squashes
§  1-2 Tbsp olive oil
§  Salt, to taste
§  Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
§  1-2 Tbsp chopped, fresh oregano
§  4 cups chopped spinach
§  Spaghetti sauce
§  2 cups Shredded mozzarella cheese

1.        Preheat the oven to 350 F, cut the squashes in half, scoop out the seeds and pulp and discard or save for later use.
2.      Place the squashes flesh-side down on 1 or 2 rimmed baking sheets and pour in enough water to come about ½ inch up the sides. Place the trays in the middle of the preheated oven and bake for about 35-40 min, until the skin can be pierced pretty easily with a fork.
3.      Remove the squashes from the oven and cool until easy to handle. Use a fork to gently comb the flesh of the squash from side-to-side so that the strands look like long spaghetti noodles.
4.      A little bit before serving, heat the oil in a large skillet med-high. When heated, add the squash noodles and season with the salt, pepper, and oregano and toss with tongs. Add the spinach and toss to combine. Remove from heat and plate. Serve with sauce and shredded mozzarella cheese.

An ordinary-looking squash, secretly filled with
noodle-like goodness!
Cut off both ends first to make it easier on
yourself when you go down the middle.
When you get all the gunk out of the cavity,
you can save all the seeds to use later! Use
them like pepitas or other squash seeds.
Adding the little bit of water to the pan actually
steams the squash in the oven and keeps them
from sticking to the pan so don't worry about
oiling it or anything.
I don't recommend freezing these noodles
because when they defrost, all the moisture
gets pulled out and it's not too good. However,
if for some reason you just HAVE to freeze some,
wring out the defrosted squash in a clean kitchen
towel and use as normal.

Spinach in pasta = amazing. DO IT.

Now that's some amazing squash right there!
Could this GET any better?
Astonishingly, yes :) A little fresh mozzarella
and this dish is MADE! You're looking at a

PS: If you would LIKE any more information about the contest, TV segment, etc. I'd be happy to answer any questions.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Daring Cooks Challenge #3: Edible Containers

I've got some mixed feeling about this post for my third Daring Cooks challenge. When the challenge was first released and I found out that we would be making edible containers for April I was SOOOO excited!! I had a million ideas going and all these images came to my mind for some awesome projects...but...then the play came and lots of homework and rehearsals and all that jazz and the time just FLEW AWAY. GONE. Before I knew it, it was the 10th of April and I had gotten nothing done, but thought of more ideas. I comforted myself by reminding myself that I had a week to finish at least ONE project. Then I remembered that posting day is the 14th, NOT the 17th (the day of the next challenge reveal). Dang it. Time to kick it into gear! Knowing I had a very busy next few days ahead, I decided to pick a project to make that wouldn't be too complicated or time consuming so that I could just GET IT DONE and then maybe I could attempt my other inspirations another day. Depressing...I know :(, but that's the life of a future chef enough of this depressing talk, let me tell you how the project that I DID get to try played out...

So I finally decided to make a pate dough for my edible containers. I got the recipe from my Garde Manger book, new for this quarter (which I LOOOOVE). I wanted something thick enough to hold liquid, sturdy enough for soup, but not as heavy as bread or as crunch as a cracker. The pate dough fell right into that place! I had never made it before, but it came together so perfectly and was wonderful to work with. The best part, it held it's shape great and tasted pretty darn good if I do say so myself. I made half a batch of basic, plain dough and half a batch of the tomato coriander dough to make things more interesting. I really liked the flavor of the tomato coriander dough, but I think next time I'll pick a soup with a different color to accent the lovely orange color. I encourage you to try both as well!

Because the recipe is in professional baking format, most all of the measurements are in weight, which is more accurate than volumetrics. Next time I make it, I'll try to get the estimated volume amounts, but for now this is the best I can do. For all of you who HAVE scale (they are wonderful) have fun with this...those of you who don't (YET!)...maybe you'll feel inspired. Also, the book obviously didn't give directions for how to make the dough into edible plates, bowls, spoons, etc. so I just kindof went with my intuition, thus the instructions you see following the variation guidelines are basically what I did. Please feel free to mess around with this and be open to experimentation!

Basic Pate Dough

§  1 lb bread flour
§  2 tsp baking powder
§  ½ tsp salt
§  1 tsp sugar
§  4 oz butter, lard, or shortening
§  1 egg
§  2 tsp cider vinegar
§  8 fl oz whole milk

1.       Combine the dry ingredients and mix well.
2.      With 2 knives or in the bowl of a food processor or electric mixer (I used a mixer), cut the butter into the dry ingredients. Work the dough until it resembles large crumbs.
3.      Mix the wet ingredients into the dough until fully incorporated. Knead the dough until smooth and soft, but not sticky.
4.      Shape the dough into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least and hour or overnight (I left it about 24 hours).

Pate Dough Tomato Coriander Variation:
Add 2 tsp ground coriander and 2 tsp ground cumin to the dry ingredients and add 2-3 Tbsp (1 ½ oz) tomato paste and 3-4 tbsps minced fresh cilantro to the wet ingredients and make the dough as above.

5.       Roll the dough about ¼ inch thick
6.      Cut the dough a little bit larger than your bowl, plate, utensil, etc. Place the dough on top of the lightly greased item and press foil into and over the dough to fit its shape. Weigh down with a second item if possible.
7.      Bake the items at 350 F for softer bread items or 375-400 F for crisper, crunchier items. Bake plates and bowls for about 20 min, utensils for 10-15 min.
8.      Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 5 min before removing the foil and unmolding the item.
9.      If an item is too soft for your liking, place it on a baking sheet and bake in the oven again for 5-10 more min.
Left: Tomato Coriander Pate Dough
Right: Plain Pate Dough

I did a few tester bowls in muffin tins, but you
could also use these to make small bowls for

By pressing foil into the bowls or plates and
weighing it down you will help prevent the
items from puffing up and becoming

Here are my finished testers, lookin' good.

Being "daring" and attempting to make pate
spoons as well!!  
I traced the shape of the
spoons with a paring knife then pressed the
dough on top of one lightly buttered spoon
and then weighed it down with a second spoon
buttered on the bottom.

This seemed to work pretty well once I got
the hang of it!

You want to be very careful when
shaping the spoons not to create
any bumps or cracks in the dough
because it all shows when baked.

To make bowls I used the same idea: roll out
the dough and press it into a buttered glass bowl
then line with foil and weigh down with a
smaller glass bowl.

For some of the bowls I rolled black sesame
seeds into one side for a different look, but
I ended up not liking it as well...oh well.

Here are my finished projects!!! 1 knife, a few
forks, some spoons, a bunch of bowls of various
sizes, and a couple of plates! I'd call that a
success!...though I will ditch the forks and
knives next time, they took the most work
and they were basically pointless except for
fun presentation.

An ordinary, INedible tablesetting....

A shweeet, completely EDIBLE tablesetting
that is way more fun!! :D

To test out my lovely pate flatware I decided to make a chilled Red Lentil Apricot Soup. This soup is ideal for breadlike bowls and such because it has less moisture that will soak into the bread and it is chilled so that it won't soften the bread as least that was my theory...and I'd like to say it was quite a bit success! The bowls held up beautifully and so did the spoons if you were very, very careful with them :p

This soup is originally supposed to be served hot in the winter, but I think it is even better eaten cold and thick with some chips or crackers and the fruitiness form the apricot and tomatoes keeps it light enough for a filling summertime dinner. I hope you will give it a try!
The original recipe also came from one of my textbooks so the amounts were given by weight rather than by volume. However, the ingredients were simple enough to measure out so I will give you both the weight measurements as well as my estimated volumetrics. In the future I hope to present all of my recipes in this format, but for now I can't make any promises what my time will allow.
Red Lentil Apricot Soup

§  1 bay leaf
§  3 black peppercorns
§  2 whole cloves
§  ¼ tsp dried thyme leaves
§  1-2 Tbsp olive or vegetable oil
§  3 oz (2/3 c) chopped white or yellow onion
§  ¼ oz (2 med cloves) garlic, minced
§  1 ½ qts (6 c) vegetable stock
§  1o ox (1 ½ c) red lentils (green will work, but I prefer the texture and color of red), washed and rinsed
§  A few dashes of cayenne
§  6 oz (1 cup, packed) chopped dried apricots
§  6 oz (1 cup) stewed tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped, or fresh tomatoes concasséd (peeled, seeded) and chopped
§  Lemon juice
§  Salt

1.       Create a sachet with the herbs: place the herbs in a small coffee filter and bring the edges together and tie with food-safe string, keeping the string long enough to tie to the pot handle. Set aside.
2.      In a dutch oven, bring the oil to med heat and then add the onion and garlic and sweat until tender (do not brown).
3.      Add the stock and bring to a boil, then add the sachet of herbs, lentils, and the cayenne then turn the heat to low and simmer for 5 min.
4.      Add the apricots and simmer until they are tender (the lentils should have absorbed most of the liquid by now)
5.      Mix in the tomatoes, let sit for a min or two and then taste and add some lemon juice and/or salt if needed. Serve hot immediately, or refrigerate until chilled.

The unfortunate thing about this soup from an
artistic standpoint is that the colors are all so
similar. If you want more interesting pictures,
I suggest getting some non-orange/red-ish
colored garnishes. If you couldn't care less
about pictures, it's delicious on its own, but a
sauce or something on top would still be yummy.

"Sweating" the onions and garlic basically just
means cooking them quickly so that they soften
up and release their juices without browning

Don't be afraid of making a sachet if you haven't
before, they are a lot easier than they sound,
it's just a coffee filter with some herbs and
spices in it and then tied in a little baggy.

The sachet basically lets you infuse the flavors
into the soup without having all the little bits
and pieces of herbs and such in there. However,
if you don't want to go through the trouble,
you could just add the dried herbs in, in their
ground-up form.

Cooking the lentils with the stock and sachet.

Finished, chilled soup with edible tablesetting!

Both the plain and the tomato coriander items
went very well with this soup and they
 complemented each other's homey, earthy feel.

I think these would make an awesome craft
for kids, but also a fun project for adults to take
on as well, just give yourself plenty of time when
you first do it and be patient with it. 

Another successful Daring Cooks' Challenge complete!!