Fairly Uninspired

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This was my fridge this morning.

Actually, it still looks like that now.

Sigh. I need to shop.

Work has been crazy, which is why it seems I’ve abandoned my blog. I haven’t. I need to buy some groceries desperately and I haven’t even made a grocery list yet. Because I just haven’t felt like it. I haven’t planned meals for next month. Haven’t even thought about what I’d like to have for dinner. And I’m just not feeling inspired. This time of year is the busy time with my job. I’ve been working late almost every night and it will continue for about another 6 weeks. I don’t have much energy for anything except coming home, drinking two glasses of wine and going to bed at 9 pm. The Hubs has been great. He has helped me cook and even unloaded the dishwasher a number of times–which he hates to do. Thanks, babe.

But this weekend, I’m gonna have to go grocery shopping. I’m almost out of coffee, and that is an emergency.

Maybe I’ll just pick up some coffee, wine, yogurt and toilet paper. And order take out 4 nights a week. The other nights, we’ll eat out or eat at our parents’. Unless someone wants to come over and cook. Any takers?

On Evolving Valentine’s Day Traditions

I love Valentine’s Day. Who wouldn’t? Wine. Penne with silky vodka sauce. Maybe some good cheese to nibble on while one cooks. And the grand finale, lucious creme brulee.

What’s that? That’s not how everyone celebrates this cheesy over-commercialized holiday? Well, you’re missing out. Big time.

I have vodka creme sauce once a year. On Valentine’s Day. It’s kinda a tradition. A few years back, we decided to forego the headache of calling ahead to get dinner reservations on this very special day of the year and stay in. And it was awesome. We’ve never looked back.

This year, as Valentine’s Day approached, the Hubs suggested we change it up.

Whaaaa?

He suggested we make the stout braised short ribs recipe that we love. It is also a special occasion recipe, but the Hubs pretty much owns it now. The last few times we’ve made it, the only thing I’ve done is chop the vegetables.

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I’ve raved about how yummy this recipe for short ribs is on this blog before. Specifically, here and here. But I don’t think I’ve ever posted the recipe. I wish I could take credit for it myself, but I found it on Epicurious a few years back when I bought some short ribs from the Monroe Farm Market and was trying to figure out what to do with them. These are the best short ribs I’ve ever eaten. We’ve tried them at restaurants, and they just never seem to measure up to the rich, hearty version we make at home.

Stout Braised Short Ribs adapted from Epicurious (4 servings)

  • 1/4 c. dark brown sugar
  • 1 Tb paprika
  • 1 Tb curry powder
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp dry mustard
  • 4 lbs beef short ribs
  • 2 large leeks, chopped and rinsed
  • 3 Tb olive oil
  • 4 carrots, chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 Tb mined garlic
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 2 12-oz bottles stout beer (or porter)
  • 2 14-oz cans diced tomatoes

Move rack to lower third and preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix brown sugar, paprika, curry, cumin, pepper, salt and mustard in a small bowl. Pat ribs dry and place in a large dish. Rub ribs with brown sugar mixture until well coated. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. Heat the oil in a large dutch oven, and sear off ribs until browned on all sides–about 1 minute per side (you may have to work in batches). Remove ribs from dutch oven and set aside. Add the leeks, carrots and bay leaves to the dutch oven, and cook on low heat until vegetables begin to soften. Add the garlic, and cook, stirring occasionally about another minute. Add the broth, beer and tomatoes with their juice to the dutch oven and stir. Add the ribs and bring to a boil uncovered. Place the lid on the pot and transfer to oven. Braise about 2 hours, or until meat is tender. Discard bay leaves before serving.

I made the side dish–a package of Roland Foods porcini mushroom flavored Israeli couscous I got in my swag bag at  Mixed Con last fall.

We prepped everything the night before, and the best part about it was that Jeremy got home early that day, and dinner was pretty much done when I got home. And the house smelled amazing. Like meat and garlic.

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Back when I bought short ribs for the first time, they were 4 dollars per pound. I guess it was a cut of meat that no one really paid much attention to, and was sold sort of as an afterthought. I don’t know what happened, but in the recent years, short ribs started popping up on menus at restaurants and on cooking blogs. I guess short ribs got trendy or something. Maybe people are just getting wise to how delicious they are, especially on a cold winter night. Now, they’re selling for $7.99 and up per pound at the farmer’s market. Oh well.

We finished off the perfect Valentine’s dinner with creme brulee, which is what we always have. Who needs reservations at an expensive and fancy restaurant for Valentine’s Day when you have a dinner like this?

But I guess I’ll have to come up with another reason to have my annual dinner of penne with vodka creme sauce. Oh, darn.

A #PROJECTRECIPE recap

I cannot believe how fast 2013 is flying by. Wasn’t New Year’s like last week???

February is off to a roaring start, and I as get to the busy time of  year with my job, my schedule is definitely becoming more difficult to manage.

So far, this month, I’ve knocked out four PROJECT RECIPE recipes, actually in three meals.

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You may not know, but my husband can attest, that I am a nachos connoisseur. What’s not to like? Gooey cheese and guacamole, crispy chips, hot peppers… I found a recipe for nachos that sounded relatively healthy–Crab and Avocado Nachos. Bonus points!

These were so yummy. But I was disappointed when I went to make them because I realized I hadn’t bought the right ingredients. I bought two cans of black beans instead of one can of corn. The corn browned in the skillet with the spices would be so tasty. The recipe was good with black beans, but the corn would kick it up a notch.

How I changed the recipe: I, of course, didn’t have corn, but used black beans instead. Also, I didn’t have any bacon thawed, so I omitted it.

The PROJECT RECIPE verdict: It’s a keeper, especially since I want to try it with the corn. I might even brown the corn with the bacon to get more of the bacony taste in.

For my Meatless Monday meal last week (which almost never falls on a Monday), I made Channa Masala. The Hubs and I really like Indian food, and I’ve been trying to make it at home more. Of course, the restaurant version is always better than mine, but that’s to be expected. This channa masala was a healthy masala recipe, since masala can sometimes have a lot of calories and fat from the cream that is in the sauce.

Here’s the link to the recipe from Prevention Magazine.

How I changed the recipe: I totally added some half and half. However, it was just a little bit, which didn’t bring the calories up too high.

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PROJECT RECIPE verdict: I’d definitely make this again. It was a quick and easy (and pretty healthy) meatless meal.

The next PROJECT RECIPE meal I made was another quick and easy Indian meal: Spicy shrimp with chole saag. But I didn’t seem to get a picture.

At any rate, It was pretty tasty. Shrimp are super quick to make. I always buy U.S. wild caught shrimp. I cannot stress how important it is to look at the country of origin, which is required to be on the package, when you buy seafood. Many countries don’t have the same level of food inspections (and even the U.S.’s are sometimes woefully inadequate) as the U.S., and do not employ the most sustainable practices in producing seafood, whether it be farmed or wild-caught. And, if you buy shrimp with the shells on, which I always do, you can make your own shrimp stock with the shells. Sure, you have to peel and clean them yourself, but it doesn’t take too long. Shrimp stock is my secret ingredient in many recipes.

Here’s the link to the spicy shrimp recipe I used. It’s from the Dinner: A Love Story blog, which I found on Pinterest. I thought it was adorable, and this dish is very kid-friendly.

How I changed the recipe: I used coconut oil instead of butter. Coconut oil is recently the darling of nutritionists because of it’s heart healthy fat content. I like it because it’s non-GMO and it imparts a slightly sweet flavor when you use it for cooking. I thought it would be great with the spicy mixture on the shrimp.

With the recipe, I whipped up a quick side dish, chole saag. I found the recipe on the One Hungry Mama blog, and it’s another kid-friendly recipe. The texture is the best part of this dish. The spinach is pureed smooth and creamy and the chickpeas have only the slightest bite. Here’s the link to the recipe.

How I changed the recipe: I halved the recipe and added about 2 tablespoons of goat cheese at the end. I don’t know why I did, I just thought it should have a little more richness and tang. It was delicious. Anything is improved with goat cheese.

The PROJECT RECIPE verdict: Both dishes are a keeper. I seriously had dinner on the table in under 30 minutes with this meal. It’s a super easy and fairly healthy meal. The Hubs even got seconds of the chole saag, which really surprised me.

One more project recipe this month, and I’ll have my quota. Of course, with my job, it’s looking like the next few weeks will hold lots of frozen meals. Good thing I’m stocked up with a couple pans of stuffed shells in the freezer.

Sampling Some West Virginia Spirits

As I was typing the title, I imagine many people, when they hear “West Virginia Spirits”, immediately think of moonshine. Given the popularity of shows like “Moonshiners” on the Discovery Channel, that’s probably not a stretch–even though the show takes place in western Virginia, not West Virginia.

But, I’m talking about some top notch spirits not of the clandestine nature: Smooth Ambler Spirits, made right outside of Lewisburg, West Virginia.

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At least, as far as I’m aware, West Virginia has never had a distillery before this one. And, as far as I’m concerned, it rivals the well-established and historic distilleries of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

I spotted a deal on Living Social from Smooth Ambler for a distillery tour, tasting and two free t-shirts for two people, so I grabbed it up. I’d had their gin and vodka before, because they sell those at retail stores in Charleston, However, in the past few years, I’ve become more interested in seeing how these things are made. I appreciate a cocktail as much as anybody, and I think it’s just interesting to see what goes into making them and gives me a deeper appreciation, especially when it’s essentially in my back yard.

Right now, Smooth Ambler offers gin, vodka and a yearling bourbon that is made exclusively at the distillery. Since bourbon ages for around 4 to 6 years in oak barrels, and the distillery has only been operating since 2009, it doesn’t have any Smooth Ambler-made bourbon yet. But it won’t be long. The distillery does sell a bourbon they call “Old Scout” but it was purchased from another distillery that actually produced the bourbon. The folks at Smooth Ambler don’t try to hide this fact. They told us that they had an opportunity to try this bourbon, and really liked it, so they arranged to buy it and bottle it for sale under their label. And, it is very good. It is also available at retail stores in Charleston, and the Hubs and I bought a bottle of the Old Scout to enjoy in our “Presbyterian” egg nog at Christmas time.

The thing that I like about visiting distilleries, wineries and small breweries is how low-tech they really are compared to everything else in this day and age. The process of producing spirits, wine and beer hasn’t changed much over the years. Recipes are tried and true and the process depends a lot on Mother Nature than many people realize. For example, bourbon barrels are not kept in climate controlled storage while they age. The reason is that the fluctuation in temperature is needed to properly age the bourbon. As the temperature fluctuates, bourbon leaches into the charred oak and contracts over and over again, giving bourbon it’s characteristic oak taste. That is essentially what makes bourbon, well, bourbon.

Smooth Ambler has a small but streamlined operation. Essentially the same equipment is used to start making all the spirits. At the beginning, the process is basically the same. A mix of a starchy substance (usually grains) and water, called a mash, is heated so that the starches turn to sugar that can be fermented. Yeast is then added that will turn the sugars in the liquid into alcohol. Then, you basically sit back and wait for this process to run it’s course. That’s Distilling 101 in a nutshell.

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I’m not a huge spirits drinker. I’d rather have a nice cold beer or a glass of wine over liquor on most days, but I’m fascinated with the process of making them. That’s not to say I don’t like liquor, but it’s kind of a special occasion thing for me. I’m not a huge vodka fan at all. I could take it or leave it, but my favorite spirit is gin. So, I was very surprised to learn that Smooth Ambler’s gin and vodka are basically the same recipe, but for gin, a bouquet of aromatics is infused into the product for the gin flavor. I guess as it turns out, I really do like vodka when you think about it that way!

The aromatics are added in one of the little port hole doors at top of the pot still on one of the distillations to make gin. Both the gin and vodka are distilled more than once to yield a purer product.

The tour also included seeing the rack house–which is my favorite part. The smell absolutely will make you swoon! It’s an oaky, charred, bourbony mustiness that is the most delicious smell ever. It smells better than bourbon actually tastes is my opinion. The smell is caused by the constant expanding and contracting of the bourbon in the oak barrels that I mentioned.

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Smooth Ambler offers a Yearling Bourbon that has only been aged a year (duh) instead of the full 4 plus years. We sampled some of this, and it was good, but I like the fully aged stuff the best. It’s that oaky flavor.

Also, we sampled both the rye whiskey and the barrel-aged gin. The rye is like the Old Scout, and actually not distilled by Smooth Ambler–yet. I’ve tried rye before, and I didn’t care much for it, but this was surprisingly tasty.

The barrel-aged gin blew me away! I mentioned that gin is my favorite, but this takes the cake. After they make the gin, the age it in a spent oak bourbon barrel for 3 months to impart some of the oaky charred goodness. The final product has just a hint of that bourbony taste and is a slightly darker color. We bought a bottle of the barrel-aged gin to bring home with us, and we used it to make gin and tonics. It was delicious. Unfortunately, you can’t find it at retail stores here in Charleston yet, but I’m hoping eventually it’ll show up.

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Me with my Yearling Bourbon sample. Cheers!

While you may not get the same deal we did through Living Social, I’d encourage anyone who is in the area to check out Smooth Ambler. The folks who led the tour and were working in the shop were exceptionally nice! Then again, I think that would pretty much be the perfect job, so who wouldn’t be happy doing that? Lewisburg is a great little town (America’s Coolest Small Town 2011, as a matter of fact) with lots of funky shops selling crafts, knick-knacks and goodies. There are a number of locally-owned eateries to have lunch or a quick snack in, and the surrounding natural beauty is absolutely stunning. It was a great day road-trip. Especially since I picked up some flour from Reed’s Mill Flours while I was down there. That’s where I’ve been buying my flour at for the past couple years. It’s so neat, it deserves a blog post all by itself.

At the very least, if you’re not able to visit Lewisburg and Smooth Ambler, if you see it in your local liquor retailer, pick a bottle up. You won’t regret it!

Growing alfalfa sprouts in your kitchen

Do you know how easy it is to grow alfalfa sprouts?

I didn’t until recently. I used to buy them on rare occasions for special recipes. Because it seemed like they were a luxury ingredient. One that didn’t take away much when it was skipped.

And then I started seeing stories of recalls and e coli and the like showing up in grocery store sprouts. And, I decided that they weren’t a luxury item, they were a dangerous item to buy at the grocery store.

And then I read something about growing them at home. It seemed like a throwback to the crunchy granola hippie days of the early 1970s. I realized that it was now economical and safe to have alfalfa sprouts again. It feeds my need to garden in the dead of winter, too.

I bought my alfalfa seeds from Amazon. They are Sprout House organic alfalfa seeds. If $14 for a pound of seeds seems high (I think I got mine slightly cheaper than that), rest assured a pound will last you a LONG time.

I found a similar article on ehow Home to guide me. But, here’s my step-by-step.

You will need:

  • A quart-size mason jar and lid ring (ring only)
  • small piece of screen or cheese cloth that will fit over the lid
  • alfalfa seeds

Measure 2 Tb of seeds into the jar. Fill jar halfway with cold water and soak seeds over night.

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The next day, screw the ring on over the screen to hold it in place. Drain the seeds, rinse with cold water and drain again. Lay the jar on its side and gently roll it to spread the seeds around the sides so they aren’t laying in one wet clump. Place on a window sill or somewhere the seeds will have light exposed to them.

IMG_2889IMG_2890Rinse and drain the seeds and spread them around the jar everyday for a couple days. You will see the sprouts begin to form from the seeds after about three days. Once the sprouts appear, it won’t take long for them to grow. They seem to grow like crazy! The jar will completely fill up with sprouts, and you will see tiny leaves begin to form. This means the sprouts are ready. The whole process takes around five to seven days.

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Carefully remove the sprouts from the jar and lay out on a paper towel to dry a bit for 10 or 15 minutes. I wrap my sprouts in a clean paper towel and store in a gallon-size ziplock bag in the refrigerator for a week or so.

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My brown bag lunch salad with alfalfa sprouts and feta

They are great on sandwiches and in salads. I could probably cut the amount I grow in half, honestly. A quart of alfalfa sprouts is a lot of sprouts. But much cheaper than buying them at the grocery store. And no extra pathogens either.

The Best “Beef” and Broccoli Ever

Except it wasn’t really beef. Hence the quotation marks.
It was venison. And it was the best part of the venison–the backstrap. “Sweet meat,” as the Hubs labeled on the freezer package. Indeed, it was.

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I think that is what made it so delicious. The backstrap is the inner smaller tenderloin. And it was so tender it was ridiculous. We both agreed it was probably the best use of deer meat ever.

We are still on our New Year’s health kick, and eating venison is a great way to get the benefits of eating red meat (particularly iron) without the downside (saturated fat). Venison is super lean. And is even higher in iron and other beneficial vitamins than conventional beef is. For the same reason that grass-fed beef is better. The diet of the animal grass rather than corn. (Deer eat corn, but it’s such a small portion of their diet, it really doesn’t have any effect on the nutritional make-up of the meat.)

This recipe is permutation of a recipe I’ve made before that was a permutation of another recipe. Oddly, almost exactly a year ago, I made Asian Fusion Venison and Broccoli Pasta. I called it fusion because it was kinda Asian, but I used homemade fettuccini rather than soba or rice noodles. It was a twist on a pasta salad recipe that called for venison and broccoli from my Simply in Season cookbook. This time, I left out the cabbage because I didn’t have any, and used half a red onion. And served it over brown rice. And it was amazing.

Once again, here’s the recipe how I made it:

“Beef” and Broccoli (serves 2)

3/4 pound of venison tenderloin, cut into 1/2 inch slices*

2 cups broccoli florets

1/2 red onion

2 Tb coconut oil

1 Tb fresh ginger root, minced

1 Tb miso paste

2 Tb soy sauce

1/4 cup cold water

1 Tb corn starch

1 1/2 tsp sugar (I used Florida Crystals Pure Cane Demerra Sugar)

1 glove of garlic, minced

Dash red pepper flakes

Dash of pepper

Mix soy sauce, cold water, miso, garlic, ginger, corn starch, and red pepper flakes in a small bowl and set aside. Heat the coconut oil in a wok (or a large skillet) until hot (You can test the wok to see if it is hot enough by dropping a drop of water on a dry part of the wok to see if it sizzles and evaporates). Add broccoli and stir well. Cook for 2 minutes, or until broccoli begins to turn bright green and begins to get tender. Add onion and stir well again. Cook for another minute or so, until onion begins to soften. Add venison and stir well. Cook for five minutes or so, until venison is browned on all sides. Stir frequently to prevent sticking and to get even browning on the meat. Cook a few more minutes (depending on how done you want your venison–just done in the middle is fine with me.) Add red pepper flakes, pepper and soy sauce mixture and stir well to coat everything. Turn off heat. Sauce will thicken quickly. Keep stirring and remove from heat when it reaches the desired consistency. Be careful, it will burn easily. Serve over rice.

*You can easily use beef in this recipe. Substitute stew meat or even flank steak cut in thin strips. Adjust cooking time to ensure doneness.

I think the thing that makes this recipe was the fresh ginger. It gave it that little extra bite. And this dish is so healthy. Broccoli is a great source of fiber and vitamins, venison is super-high in iron. Coconut oil used to get a bad rap because it is high in saturated fat–but as it turns out, it isn’t high in the kind that hurts your heart and health. It actually has quite a few health benefits. And it’s a GMO-free oil that can stand high heat. (This whole meal isn’t GMO free, I realize, but oil is a great place to start eliminating GMO foods). It’s great for stir-fries. It does have a slight coconutty flavor, but that works well with many Asian and Eastern cuisines.

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Too bad there are only two backstraps per deer. I could easily eat this once a week.