Friday, July 27, 2012

Kitchen Basics #2 - Being Fancypants

One of the joys of cooking for two is the chance to be a little more luxurious from time to time.  There are many different levels of luxury, and it's not necessary to try to achieve fancypants status every single night.  Especially if you're a working cook (or in my case, one with very limited energy reserves) it may be hard to find the time, but on your weekend or of you like to have a 'date night' at home, or for special occasions, it's fairly easy to gussy up your meals when there's only two of you.

The easiest way to make a meal more special is by changing the environment it's served in.  Put down a tablecloth or placemats.  If you don't have a tablecloth, as we didn't for a long time, fake it.  Lay a square scarf, bandanna, or shawl down as if it were a cloth (or a rectangular scarf as a tablerunner).  Clean cotton sheets can work as tablecloths for some tables (we have a round cafe table, so it's more challenging).  Unfold a paper napkin completely and place it offset in the center of the table, so that two of the corners are pointing at your plates.  If you're the kind of person who has fabric scraps (I'm a quilter and I sew, so I do), dig through and see if there's a fat quarter worth of material that you wouldn't be heartbroken to get grease on.  Scrapbooker?  Put a square of paper that you don't have plans for in the center of the table, or if you've got two that coordinate, put one under each plate as mats.  If you've got a little extra cash, go buy a tablecloth or some mats.  If you're crafty, make your own.  Quilters and those who sew have a head start here, but all it really takes is straight cutting and sewing a reasonably straight hem.  If you can afford it, it can be fun to have a few tablecloths or placemats that are themed for various holidays.

Whether you go the route of tablecloths/placemats or not, there are additional table changes that can make a real difference.  Have a small centerpiece on your table from time to time.  Fresh flowers are probably the best option, because they'll brighten up that whole section of the house as long as you keep them alive.  Most people usually smile when they walk into a room that has flowers in it.  If you're allergic or have a black thumb even for purchased daisies, grab some silk flowers at the craft store and stick them in a short vase.  Short is the operative word here.  You want to brighten up the table, not make it impossible to carry on a conversation because you can't see each other through foliage.  If you're not particularly clumsy, a couple candles can also make a nice occasional centerpiece, especially sitting on a small mirror.  Have a sense of humor about it.  Fancypants does not mean stuffy.  Why not make a Lego centerpiece?  Or stick a tootsie roll pop bouquet into a favourite mug.  The point is to add colour and interest and change to the table in a way that slows things down and makes you smile.

As often as possible, use napkins.  I've made cloth napkins that match the decor of our eating nook, but we don't always use them, we sometimes just use paper napkins.  The point is to have it there beside the fork, ready to be used.  It completes the table setting.  Which is another note I think is important.  Place the entire table setting.  Even if you know that neither of you will be using a spoon, put the spoons in their proper place on the table anyway.  Sitting down to a set table with a napkin and beverage is a different experience from being handed a plate with a fork on it.  It's not necessary to include salad forks and soup spoons and such, unless you're going all-out and having a Serious FancyPants Dinner with multiple courses.  For a regular meal, the standard place setting should be as shown:

More standard ways to make a meal fancypants are by gussying up the actual food presentation.  Put colour on the plate.  Chicken breast over rice with a cream sauce is just white on white on white.  Use tomato couscous sometimes, or spinach pasta.  Choose a fresh vegetable or fruit side that's orange or yellow, something contrasting the rest of the meal.  If you've got the inclination, grab a couple cheap squeeze bottles (often available, again, at the dollar store) and swirl or dot some sauce on the plate.  It'll make you feel like a restaurant chef and whether it comes out well or not it should make you both smile.  Use garnishes, there's nothing wrong with them if they're edible.  If the budget is tight you can grow a couple small planters in your windowsill (parsley is a good all-purpose garnish for savory and mint for sweet--just don't plant mint directly in the ground unless you know what you're doing, as it has an extensive root system) and snip a couple leaves as needed.  Many flowers are fully edible, as long as you know how they were grown (think about pesticides and sprays used for freshness in cut flowers at stores), including pansies and nasturtiums.  Grate fresh cheese over the top of dishes at the table; pick up a small pepper grinder and add that last seasoning tableside.  If it's something you'd enjoy taking the time with, appetizers or amuse bouches set the tone for a luxurious meal from the start.  If you drink alcohol, wine or cocktails can be a nice addition.  Serve a plated dessert now and then.

From here we move into the parts of a fancypants meal that are some of the bonus aspects of being a small household.  Everything I've written above is easy and relatively cheap regardless of how many people are sitting around the table.  But there are some things that are easier and cheaper when there's just the two of you.

Most of us have sets of dishes.  Whether we bought them, inherited them, received them as gifts, we mostly eat from dishes that have a cohesive look.  But do we have to?  Mix up your dishes.  You don't have to eat off the same plates every night.  Now, I'm a little weird about this, in that I like for all the plates on the table at a time to coordinate.  But even with that being the case, the dishes we use on Monday don't have to be the dishes we use on Tuesday.  Here's where this is great for two-person households: all you have to buy is two plates and you've got a whole new look to your meal.  The dollar store often has dishes in different shapes and colours, so you could either pay $2 to change up one night's table, or conceivably get an entire week's worth of plates for less than $15.  If you really feel like splurging, go to an upscale department store with a china department (or go online).  Since people often have to purchase replacements for broken or chipped fine china, you can buy just two pieces of many designs, instead of a full set.  My grocery store actually sells some dishes, and they have some square bowls that I love, along with those giant leaning spoons that are really appetizer holders.  Thrift stores and garage sales are, of course, also options.  Only needing to get a couple pieces frees up your options and keeps you from needing a second kitchen for storage. 

Having only two people at the table makes it easier to give yourself permission to sometimes try more expensive ingredients in your meals.  When you're cooking a specialty luxury dish, you only have to buy enough to serve two.  Sushi fans will find it much easier to budget for two servings of otoro tuna than for four or six.  Filet Mignon is often sold already portioned for two.  Even such things as specialty nuts, olives, or cheeses are much easier to justify when you only have to buy a small amount.  As a bonus, when you buy just a very small amount of something expensive, if it turns out that you just don't like it, it's not as big of a deal to leave it unfinished and have a slice of pizza instead.  If you're serving 4-6 people, the ingredients for a fancy dish can run you upwards of $50.  When you've put that kind of money into dinner, you're likely to feel that you just have to finish it, no matter what.  If the ingredients for the same fancy dish cost you half as much, you can more easily allow yourself to consider it an unsuccessful experiment.

Many households have very busy schedules.  The more people living in the house, the busier they tend to be.  Lots of people have to contend with multiple work schedules, school schedules, after-school extracurriculars, clubs, errands, appointments, and visiting friends.  This makes arranging dinner more challenging.  When there are two people in the house, managing the time does get simplified quite a bit.  It's easier to plan a nice dinner together from time to time, because there are only two schedules that have to be worked around.  Only having to take into account the time constraints of two people allows dinner to be a more luxurious experience on occasion. 

There are some surprising benefits to taking the time to make a meal a nice occasion, instead of just grabbing some plates and chowing down in front of the tv.  You're much more likely to talk to each other if you're sitting at a table, especially if that table has been fully set and even decorated in some manner.  Talking, having real conversations, is regularly cited as being important for all types of relationships, be they parent-child, friendships, siblings, but especially intimate partners.  Taking the time to sit down to a meal together and talk about your day can have a real lasting effect on the long-term health of your partnership.  Also, give some thought to how quickly you eat when you're at a sit-down restaurant versus a casual meal at home.  You likely eat much faster at home, rushing through the meal to get the dishes out of the way and get on to the next thing you've got planned for the evening, even if that's just tv time.  Slowing down when we eat doesn't just improve our enjoyment of the experience (it tastes better if you let the food touch your tongue, instead of just inhaling it!), but it's good for our physical health.  People who eat slowly and fully chew their food have fewer digestive problems such as gas, reflux, constipation, etc.  It can also be a part of a weight-loss plan, in that you're more likely to eat only as much as you need and stop when you're full if you eat slowly.  The faster you eat, the more likely you are to eat until there's no food left.  Personally, I think life is less stressful overall if you take time as often as possible to just take a break from everything else and sit down and eat a meal with no hurry and no interruptions.  Let the phone ring if someone calls.  Put your napkins in your laps.  Tell a story and laugh at your eating companion's stories.  Do it on a regular basis and it becomes something to look forward to, a moment of calm no matter how hectic things otherwise get. 

One important note about being a little bit fancypants.  If one person is in charge of the meals they either need to tell the other person that they're planning something special for dinner, or they need to do it only to make themselves happy.  One should never spend money and time on elevating a meal experience solely for the praise or appreciation of someone else.  Many of the things I've mentioned are small changes that, taken alone, will make a meal a little bit more fun or a little bit fancier.  They may not be consciously noticed by the person who didn't put the time into them, and that's ok.  On the other side, if many of these things are combined, it could make for a very fancy meal, which might be uncomfortable for an unwarned person who's used to very casual eating.  Be fancypants to the level that is fun for you, and do it because it is fun.  Tell your dining companion that you thought you'd "do things up special tonight".  They may decide to make it even more special and contribute an idea of their own, or they may just grin and go along with it.  Regardless, the point is to have a nice meal together.

The photo at the top of this entry is an example of a very simple fancypants side dish.  I made Parmesan couscous and spooned it into an old heart-shaped mold (which I think was originally for jello), pressing it into all crevices.  Then I turned it out onto the plate and lay a few celery leaves alongside (because I had celery in the fridge.  If I'd had an herb within reach that related to the dish, I'd have used that so the garnish could be eaten), topping the heart with a small amount of grated Parmesan cheese.  The white beneath the blue plate is an old Corningware plate turned facedown.  The whole look took about a minute and a half to achieve, but made my sweetheart smile when he sat down.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Spinach Cucumber Salad with Yogurt Dressing

I don't really like to buy salad dressing unless I'm using it to cook with.  I'd much rather make my own, as it's fresher and can be made in small amounts as needed.
  • 1/2 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/4 tsp honey
  • 1 Tbsp plain yogurt
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 Tbsp fresh mint, chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 C baby spinach leaves
  • 1/2 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and halved lengthwise (see notes, below)
  • few slices red onion
1. Whisk the lemon juice and honey in a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the yogurt and olive oil together. Add the yogurt mixture to the lemon juice mixture in a thin stream, whisking constantly. Stir in mint, then add the salt and pepper to taste. Cover and chill the dressing for up to 24 hours.
2.  Combine the spinach, cucumbers and onion in a large bowl. Season with a little salt and pepper if desired. Add just enough dressing to moisten the salad. Toss to coat, and serve with extra dressing on the side.

Robyn's notes: My sweetheart prefers that I not peel or seed cucumber, as lots of nutrition is lost in disposing of the peel, so I just wash it well and slice it into half-coins.  This is a side salad, not an entree salad, and was made to use leftover cucumber, red onion, and yogurt from recent meals.  I can't eat spinach, cucumber, or red onion, so I can only go by his opinion, which was that this was "fine".  Dressing smelled nice, I can say that!  

*** 3 Stars: Good. At least one of us liked this enough for me to make it again, but not often

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cookbook Review: Diabetes and Heart-Healthy Meals for Two

Author: American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association
Published: 2008 by The American Heart Association Consumer Publications
Available for Purchase: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell's

Neither of us is diabetic, nor do we have heart problems, but I think the best way to keep those statements true is be careful before issues start.

There are more than 170 recipes in the book, in the following categories: Appetizers, Snacks, Beverages; Soups; Salads; Seafood; Poultry; Meats; Vegetarian Entrees; Vegetables and Side Dishes; Breads and Breakfast Dishes; Desserts.  There is a very short (6 pages) introduction on making healthy food choices, and a double index that isn't fantastic because it lists the recipes first by name, then by "subject", and many of the subjects are the same as the chapter headings.  It's just as easy for me to go to the first page of the poultry chapter and look at the recipe list that's printed at the start of the chapter with page numbers, as it is for me to go to the index, find the poultry section of the index, and look at that list of recipes.  If the index were sorted more specifically, for example chicken vs turkey, that would be more useful.  There are a few pictures in the center of the book, all in full colour, showing a total of 15 recipes.

Lots of recipes that look tasty, good nutritional information, and real "for two" recipes, none of that "freeze leftovers" nonsense that some small-yield cookbooks try. A couple recipes do call for "half a can" of diced tomatoes or whatever, which is frustrating, but most either use all of an ingredient or explain how you can purchase just half to begin with. There are a surprising number of processed ingredients in some of the recipes, and in order to make the nutritional analysis accurate you have to be careful to note that most of the ingredients required are "fat-free" or "low fat" or "low sodium" versions.

I've cooked from the book on several occasions, and have had good luck with everything I've tried, but for one soup that was far too heavily spiced. The dishes are good, filling, and the recipes are complete and easy to follow. Nothing so far has felt as if we're eating "light", there's no flavour lacking.  Admittedly, I sometimes use a recipe but don't get the "fat-free" sour cream that it calls for, but mostly I follow their guidelines. 

The vast majority of the entrees are in the 200-300 calorie range (some fall below that, a few go as high as 450 calories), and the sodium levels are generally amazingly low.  There are a lot of options, and recently this has been a cookbook that I find myself checking fairly often.  It's nice to have a good meal that is also relatively good for us. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Small-Batch Oatmeal Scotchies

After successfully writing and testing my recipe for Small-Batch Chocolate Chip Cookies, I decided to turn the same technique to other cookies.  I love Oatmeal Scotchies, but the recipe makes so many!  Fortunately, the egg and butter ratio could be modified in a fairly straightforward manner, so I'm pleased to have successfully written the below recipe. In the Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe, I used vanilla sugar to counteract any tang from the acid that's in mayonnaise.  I use regular sugar in this recipe, partly because I doubt the vanilla sugar is strictly necessary in either recipe, but mostly because a common ingredient in some butterscotch-oatmeal cookies is a bit of citrus (usually orange zest), so the tiny bit of lemon juice usually found in mayonnaise won't be an issue flavour-wise. 
  • 2 Tbsp butter, softened
  • 3 Tbsp sugar
  • 3 Tbsp packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp mayonnaise
  • 1/3 C flour
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 C quick or old-fashioned oats
  • 1/3 C butterscotch flavored morsels
1.  Preheat oven to 375°F.  In a medium bowl, cream together butter, sugar, and brown sugar until combined.  Stir in vanilla and mayonnaise until blended.
2.  Sift together flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon, add to butter mixture and stir until combined.  Stir in oats and morsels.
3.  Drop dough onto baking sheet in rounded spoonfuls.  Bake for 8-10 minutes or until cookies are beginning to brown at the edges.  Allow to cool for 2 minutes on the baking sheet.  Remove to wire rack to cool completely.

Yield: 8 medium-sized cookies

Robyn's notes: I made this twice, and the first time refrigerated the dough for an hour because I was in the middle of doing other things and wasn't ready to bake it yet.  That's not at all necessary, but it certainly doesn't hurt anything, just makes it a bit more difficult to form the dough into balls.  It will seem like there is far too much oat compared to dough when you start to mix in the oats, but stick with it and be sure to scrape your spoon, a lot of dough tries to hide in it.  Same with the butterscotch chips, there seems to be too many, but they can all be combined, even if it means pressing the stragglers into the dough balls before placing them on a cookie sheet.  The first four cookies I baked for 8 minutes, the second four for 10.  Not much difference between the two, and neither batch flattened much while baking, though they certainly baked through and I think they're delicious.  Just be aware that the cookies may not look cooked through if they've not flattened, but they actually are.  If you want flat cookies, make them small, the littlest cookies I made did flatten out during baking, but they were about 1 1/2 inches in diameter.  Oatmeal Scotchies are some of my favourite cookies, so I'm very happy that these came out.  I have also made this recipe at high altitude, successfully, with no changes.  Several friends had them and all loved them.  

**** 4 Stars: Very Good. Enjoyed by us both, I will make this frequently  

Monday, July 23, 2012

Luleh Kebabs with Yogurt-Cucumber Sauce

As far as I can determine, Luleh Kebabs are an Armenian dish (though some others claim them, mostly people of various Persian descents).  Traditionally, they would be made with ground lamb, but as I didn't get this recipe from a traditional source, ground beef has been substituted.  This is an American Heart Association/American Diabetes Association approved dish.

Yogurt-Cucumber Sauce

  • 1/4 C fat-free plain yogurt
  • 2 Tbsp finely chopped, peeled, and seeded cucumber
  • 1/8 tsp dried dillweed, crumbled
  • dash of pepper
  •  8 oz extra-lean ground beef
  • 2 Tbsp finely chopped onion
  • 2 Tbsp snipped fresh parsley
  • 1/4 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/4 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/8 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/8 tsp salt
1.  In a small bowl, stir together the sauce ingredients.  Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
2.  Preheat the broiler.  In a medium bowl, using hands or a large spoon, combine the kebab ingredients.  Using hands, shape the mixture into two 6x1 1/2-inch logs.  Insert skewers into the center of the logs.  (Or shape the mixture into two oblong patties about 3/4 inch thick.)  Place on broiler sheet.
3.  Broil 4 to 5 inches from the heat for 4 to 5 minutes on each side, or until no longer pink in the center (internal temp should be 160°F).  Serve with the sauce.

Robyn's notes: these were fine, not exciting for me because there are so many parts of this that I'm not able to eat (cucumber, onion, only supposed to have ground beef once each month).  I tasted the sauce and it was interesting, very strong taste of the cucumber, which made it light and fresh.  The kebab was juicy all through, and I admit I ended up eating mine with some ketchup since I couldn't have the sauce.  Needs a side dish of some sort, since each person only gets one kebab it feels like you're not getting much to eat, even though it's a full serving.  For snipping the parsley, the easiest way is to use kitchen shears, hold the leaves in a tight bunch between your fingers, and carefully snip, avoiding injuring yourself.

*** 3 Stars: Good. At least one of us liked this enough for me to make it again, but not often