Thursday, November 26, 2009

Update...

Hi Readers,
My laptop died last weekend :(.   So I no longer have a personal computer; I intend to replace it over the next 1-2 weeks but until then, no new posts.  This makes me sad, because I was very excited about sharing "Ropa Vieja in the Slow Cooker" and a super-simple salmon dish with you.  No matter, I will blog about them once I have replaced my laptop.

In the meanwhile, I hope that everyone is having a wonderful Thanksgiving!.  I just came from a Thanksgiving feast and I am ready to roll myself home!

See you again in a week or two...

Kim

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Chicken Quesadillas




On the whole, these quesadillas are not bad.  They are not my favorite, though.  There's not quite enough chicken and a little too much onion.   These quesadillas are finished in the oven and perhaps I let them go for too long in the oven, because I normally love a lot of onion.  However, the sugars in the onion caramelized during the oven cooking and so these quesadillas had a sweet-savory flavor.  As I've mentioned previously, I don't really like that taste mixture.

My Changes

1) I could not find 10" whole wheat tortillas, so I went with the 8" versions.  The original recipe calls for regular flour tortillas.  Whole wheat tortillas give a bit more fiber and they taste great, so I always buy them instead.

2) Perhaps the filling is supposed to be on the skimpy side as the original recipe calls for 10 tortillas.  There was no way I was going to be able to spread this filling out that far.  I barely made it to 7 tortillas. 

3) The original calls for a Cheddar-Monterey Jack cheese blend.  I already had shredded chedder in the freezer, so I used that instead.

4) The original recipe instructs you to cut the chicken into strips, cook it, then keep it in the pan as you cook the onions.  I was worried that the there wasn't going to be enough chicken breast (and I was right, see my note above); I was also worried that the chicken breast would turn out a bit dry.  So I poached the chicken over medium heat and then removed it from the pan and chopped it.  I then cooked the onions separately and added the chicken back into the pan once the onions were done.

 

4) The onion were supposed to be cooked until translucent; however, I wanted my onions a bit crunchy for some added texture.  So I cooked them until they were just wilted.


Of course, they ended up soft anyway, because the quesadillas spent ten minutes in the oven, to finish cooking.  Oh well!

The Recipe (from Allrecipes.com, with modifications)

Ingredients

  • 1 skinless, boneless chicken breast
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, sliced into strips
  • 2 tablespoons salsa
  • 7 (8 inch) whole- wheat flour tortillas
  • 2 cups shredded Cheddar Cheese

Directions



  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Spray a cookie sheet with non-stick cooking spray.
  2. Pour about an inch of water into a large skillet.  Place the chicken breast in the water.  Heat the skillet and its contents over medium heat.  Cover and cook until the chicken is just done (about 5-10 minutes) Remove them from the pan and chop them.  
  3. Add the onions to the pan and fry (stirring constantly) until they are just wilted.  Add the salsa  and chopped chicken; mix well.  Turn off the heat. 
  4. Fill half of 1 tortilla with the chicken mixture and cheese, then fold the tortilla over the full half. Repeat with remaining tortillas and filling. Arrange the quesadillas on a cookie sheet.
  5. Bake the quesadillas in the preheated 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) oven until the cheese has melted (about 5-10 minutes). Cut the quesadillas into fours.  They are best when served immediately.  

 
Cost:

Mission 8" Tortillas: $3.29 for 10.

I already had the remaining ingredients in my kitchen.

Conclusion:

The color on these quesadillas are not so appealing.  I think that the next time I made them, I pan-fry them in a dry pan (i.e. a non-stick pan without oil).  That will give them a nice brown color.  It will also keep the onions from caramelizing and keep them crunchy.  I'm sure that these will be great with red bell pepper and garlic added in!

I noticed that my version has more a bit more sodium than I like (I try to keep it under 600mg per serving).  I think it's because I didn't stretch out the filling to 10 tortillas...

Nutrition Per Serving:

  Calories
326.3

  Total Fat
16.0 g

 
  Saturated Fat
8.1 g

 
  Polyunsaturated Fat
0.5 g

 
  Monounsaturated Fat
3.6 g

  Cholesterol
59.2 mg

  Sodium
675.4 mg

  Potassium
157.3 mg

  Total Carbohydrate
26.1 g

 
  Dietary Fiber
4.4 g

 
  Sugars
1.0 g

  Protein
21.4 g

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Slow Cooker: Macaroni and Cheese



I love macaroni and cheese.  I grew up on the blue box version, Kraft's Macaroni and Cheese.  I have had gourmet macaroni and cheese, with Gruyere, Parmesan, and at least two other cheeses in a cream sauce over macaroni.  In my recipe box, there are about 6 recipes for macaroni and cheese.  Imagine my delight when I discovered a healthy recipe for macaroni and cheese in my slow cooker cookbook, "Fix-It and Forget-It Lightly: Healthy, Low-Fat Recipes For Your Slow Cooker" by Phyllis Pellman Good.

The Ingredients:

1) 2 1/2 cups of fat-free or 2% milk



2) 1 egg, beaten




3) 1 tsp salt
4) dash of pepper
5) 3 cups of low-fat cheddar cheese,shredded




6) 8oz of macaroni, cooked al dente

Directions:

1) Combine all ingredients except macaroni in slow cooker.
2) Cook on high for 1 hour.
3) Add macaroni.  Cook on low 4 more hours.


The Cost:


Kroger Brand Elbow Noodles, 1 lb: $0.88.

I already had the milk, egg, salt, pepper, and cheese in my kitchen. 


Changes That I Made:

1) Obviously, I used vanilla soy milk instead of cow's milk.  I am lactose intolerant and therefore cannot drink cow's milk (or eat ice cream, it's tragic).  Fortunately, I have no problems with cheese.  I used to drink Lactose Free skim milk and thumb my nose at soy milk because it tastes funny.  My change of heart occurred when I went on a weekly food budget and noticed that soy milk is about $0.50 cents cheaper than the lactose free version.  Those pennies add up!  It took me two weeks to make the transition (mostly by mixing the two together) and now I love vanilla soymilk. As you can see, I buy the store brand.

2) This is not actually a change but more of a cook's note: the shredded cheddar looks a little weird because I forget to set it out to thaw before I prepped the ingredients.  "No matter," I thought, "it's going in to the slow cooker anyway.  It will melt." My assumption was correct, thankfully!

3) I would have used whole wheat macaroni pasta, but alas, the store did not have any that day.  It would have boosted the fiber content of the dish.  

4) I thought four more hours of cook time was extreme; after all, everything was already cooked by the time the macaroni was added.  In addition, I have had the previous experience of cooking pastas or rice too long in a slow cooker---it turns into mush.  Inedible, not to say disgusting.  I decided just another hour of cooking on high would do the trick and it was perfect.  The finished product is pictured above--don't you agree it looks great?  That extra hour really has nothing to do with cooking the already-cooked ingredients.  It lets the sauce thicken very nicely, almost showcasing the noodles, and inviting you to dig into it with a big spoon.  I couldn't resist the temptation--I had three spoonfuls right then.  Quality assurance, you understand.

Another Cook's Note

I've made macaroni and cheese on the stove-top and I noticed that there's no flour.  Instead, there's an egg.  I thought about it a bit and realized that the egg is used in place of flour as the binding and thickening agent.  When made on the stove-top, milk and butter are heated together.  When the butter is melted, you stir in the flour, and continue stirring constantly.  The gluten in the flour expands, absorbing the liquid, and  thickens the liquid, forming the base of the sauce, called a roux.  You can actually see the transformation occur; I always think it's neat.  Chemistry in action.  Being that this sauce is transformed in the slow-cooker (i.e. no stirring), mixing the egg into the liquid and the sloooow cooking process allows the egg proteins to solidify into a delicate web, catching the milk into thousands (perhaps millions?) of little pockets, thereby making the sauce.  I don't know if this hypothesis is correct but based on my memory of college chemistry, it sounds about right.

In Conclusion

This is good macaroni and cheese, on par with any basic home-made mac n' cheese and a step above the blue box.  I brought it to work for lunch and my co-workers would come into my office exclaiming, "What smells so good?!" The taste--well, I couldn't tell it was a healthy version.  For those who need a few more (healthy) calories, I ate this with raw cut up veggies on the side to help fill me up.

Enjoy!

Nutrition Per Serving (6 servings, about 1/2 cup each)
Calories: 170 (40 calories from fat)
Fat: 4.5 g
Sodium: 400mg
Carbohydrates: 15g
Protein: 17g

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie




I am taking a brief diversion away from the "cheap, healthy" goals of this blog because I need to share these fantastic cookies with you. I first heard about them on the radio show, "The Splendid Table," on National Public Radio (NPR). These were purported to be even better than the ubiquitous and iconic Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies; this cookie made the Toll House Inn famous. You know, the cookie recipe that's on the back of every package of Nestle chocolate chips. Would chocolate chips even exist if it weren't for the chocolate chip cookie?

This better-than-Tollhouse recipe was developed by David Leite, who also writes a food blog, Leite's Culinaria: Hot Food, Dry Wit. It is actually a combination of recipes from several professional, high-class bakers, none of whom are household names. I'll list them here for the sake of completeness: Hervé Poussot, Maury Rubin, Jacques Torres, Heather Sue Mercer, Shirley Corriher, and Dorie Greenspan. The cookie recipe used by Mr. Leite is inspired primarily by Mr. Torres, with bits and pieces added from the other bakers.

The Ingredients and a Discussion About Them

1) cake flour
2) bread flour
3) baking soda
4) baking powder
5) coarse salt
6) unsalted butter
7) light brown sugar
8) granulated sugar
9) eggs
10) natural vanilla extract
11) bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content
12) Sea salt

There are a few things about this ingredient list that surprised me. The first of which was that it called for two kinds of flour, rather than the regular all-purpose flour that other chocolate chip cookies use. It's an interesting combination of cake flour, which has a very low protein content (possibly the lowest protein content) in comparison to other flours, and bread flour, which has a fairly high protein content. Why does protein content matter, you ask? The protein in flours is also known as gluten. Gluten is a popular term right now because many people are following gluten-free diets for many different reasons, one of which is gluten-intolerance. This is a condition in which a person cannot digest the protein (the gluten) in wheat products (or barley, or rye). They are generally fine with things made with or from rice (like rice flour). Now, to be honest, I don't know the real reason why Mr. Leite chose to combine these two flours. There's nearly a 2:1 ratio of cake flour to the bread flour. My guess is that the cake flour provides a very fine crumb, i.e. "cake-like," while the bread flour provides a boost of just enough gluten to hold the cookie together. I was wondering about this, because I had to purchase both the cake flour and the bread flour. I will confess that I already have both unbleached all-purpose flour and whole-wheat flour in my kitchen. Was it worth it to purchase even more flour? Would using all-purpose flour instead of the bread flour somehow damage the cookies? I decided that since I was trying to make a more perfect chocolate chip cookie, it was worthwhile not to substitute any ingredients.

The second ingredient that I want to discuss is the use of coarse salt. This is quite different than regular table salt, other than the obvious fact that it's texture is much more coarse than table salt. First, lets talk about chemistry, then the differences between the two salts will make more sense. As we all learned in high school chemistry, salt is made up of sodium and chloride. Some salts have more sodium in them than others. Table salt is one of those. Coarse salt has much less sodium in it compared to table salt. Do Not use table salt instead of coarse salt in this recipe; the cookies will probably turn out far too salty.

"But wait", you ask, "there's also Sea Salt in this recipe. What about that??" The Sea salt is lightly sprinkled onto the cookies, right before baking. I forgot to buy Sea salt and so I just used some more coarse salt. Does the salt garnish affect the taste? It DOES. These are exceptionally rich cookies--and the touch of salt breaks it up in just the right way.

Last but not least, let me share with you the joy of 64% dark chocolate disks. I was not previously a fan of dark chocolate; what was the point? It wasn't sweet and it didn't taste altogether that chocolatey. Give me a Hershey's Kiss any day. And....these dark chocolate disks are really expensive: they are $8.99/ lb. (And that was actually the cheapest brand at Whole Foods. The most expensive was $12.99/lb). I needed 1 1/4 pounds. These could also be called The Most Expensive Chocolate Chip Cookies. These disks are about the size of a quarter. Out of curiosity, I popped one into my mouth after I bought the requisite amount. I expected the usual bittersweet coffee taste that I associate with dark chocolate. What I actually tasted was sweet, rich, pure, and wonderful chocolate. It was better than a Hershey's Kiss. I popped another three disks like I was eating popcorn. I had to make myself close the package and put it away--telling myself I had only purchased enough to make the cookies. They were calling to me--I had to hide them under the seat of the car, so I that I couldn't see them any more.

Changes That I Made:

I didn't make any changes. If I'm going to make The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie, I should follow all of the rules. Actually, I did make one change, to the title. I added "perfect"; it was much more fitting.

Cost Breakdown:

Of the ingredients in the recipe, I had to purchase the two additional flours, butter, eggs, and the chocolate.

Swans Down Cake Flour: $2.99
Kroger brand unsalted butter: $2.29
Bread Flour : $2.49 (on sale, $0.20 savings)
Kroger brand eggs, 1/2 dozen, large: $0.79
Noel Royale 64% Chocolate Buttons: $20.05

Total expenditures for this recipe: $28.61.  That's more than my weekly grocery budget! ($25/week).

If I make these cookies again, this will actually be cheaper to make, because I now have most of the ingredients.  I would only have to purchase the chocolate; perhaps the butter and the eggs as well, if I don't have any available in the fridge.  It's still more expensive than your average chocolate cookie recipe, though!

Cost per cookie this time around: $1.59.  Compared to a "gourmet cookie" at a bakery, this is positively frugal!

Conclusion:

This is a very, very good cookie. I brought some to work yesterday and everyone agreed. The taste is complex, with layers of caramel and butter added to the chocolate. The dark chocolate disks melt beautifully, creating strata of chocolate within the cookie. These are big cookies--about 5 inches across. The edges are almost burnt and have a great crackling crunch when you bite into it. The center is soft, gooey and just this side of done. I discovered a great way to eat the cookie: break it in half and have a bit of the edge, then the center, and repeat. This is not Milk's Favorite Cookie. This is a cookie to savor with a glass of Port.

Enjoy!

The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie
From The Splendid Table

Makes 1-1/2 dozen 5-inch cookies
Time: 45 minutes, plus at least 24 hours for chilling

* 2 cups minus 2 tablespoons (8-1/2 ounces) cake flour
* 1-2/3 cups (8-1/2 ounces) bread flour
* 1-1/4 teaspoons baking soda
* 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
* 1-1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
* 2-1/2 sticks (1-1/4 cups) unsalted butter
* 1-1/4 cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar
* 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
* 2 large eggs
* 2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
* 1-1/4 pounds bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content (see note)
* Sea salt

1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

2. Using a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds.

3. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.

4. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.

5. Scoop 6 3-1/2-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day. Eat warm, with a big napkin.

Note: Dark chocolate disks are available at Whole Foods.