LAMB BURGERS

If you’re scared of this recipe already, bear with me.  Let me work with you.  I know you’ve been hurt by lamb in the past, but this time things will be different, I promise.  It’s not your fault that the lamb in your life has been over-cooked and served with mint jelly.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

545726169_dsc_0318
See?  That looks tasty, no?  Can you give lamb another chance?

I’ve made this recipe a few times, with lamb skeptics in the crowd each go-around.  My latest convert is none other than Sonya, our esteemed photographer, who had her first lamb burger last weekend at the end of a marathon cooking-and-picture-taking day.  When I told her I was planning to post about the burgers today, she said “Man, I’ve been craving those all week!”  Guess I’m going to have to make some more soon.

The only complicated thing about this recipe is locating the necessary ingredients. Depending on where you live, this actually may not be so complicated!  Most “mainstream” grocery stores sell ground lamb, and if you don’t see it out front, ask nicely at the meat counter; chances are they can grind some up for you.

Another option to check out is your local halal meat market, should you have one.  Halal is the rough Islamic equivalent of “kosher”–like kosher meat, any meat labeled “halal” has come from an animal slaughtered in a specific  way designed to ease the animal’s suffering.  One unique feature of halal meat is that all of the blood is drained before it’s sold.  This makes it a great choice for anyone feeling a little uncertain about the flavor of lamb, since draining the blood makes the flavor of the meat much more mild.

Continuing down the ingredient list…  545716200_dsc_0266

feta–the pre-crumbled kind is easiest here, but use whatever you like.

pine nuts–I love these things.  I throw them in pasta or serve them with roasted broccoli & fat shavings of Parmesan.  And, they add the perfect toothsome texture to these burgers–really, don’t leave them out.  Store any extras you have in the fridge to keep them from going rancid.

the herbs–fresh really is best (and hey, mint is super-easy to grow!), but if you buy from the store, keep your leftover herbage (to coin an Alton Brown term) in the crisper, nestled into a large Ziploc bag with a paper towel.  I can seriously keep flat-leaf parsley going for a month this way.

allspice–you may not already have this around, but it adds amazing flavor to all kinds of things: jerk-style chicken, chili, baked goods, homemade sausage, barbecue sauce, etc.

Simply put, these burgers are GOOD.  I’ll bet you could make them for people without telling them they were lamb, and the people would eat them, and the people would like them, and then you could surprise the people, but I guess that’s a little bit sneaky/unethical, huh?

Have you ever “converted” someone to liking an ingredient they previously disliked?  Or been converted?  If so, I’d love to hear about it!  Comment away.

LAMB BURGERS  545725282_dsc_0314

1 1/2 pounds ground lamb (if you absolutely can’t stomach the thought, substitute ground turkey)

1/2 cup feta (or other goat cheese), crumbled

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

1/4 cup each fresh mint & flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1/2 red onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 T allspice

zest of one lemon (optional)

salt & pepper

accompaniments: hamburger buns, sliced cucumber, red onion, dill mayonnaise* OR pita bread, cucumber, onion, tzatziki sauce*

Saute garlic & onion in olive oil over medium-low heat until translucent.  Allow to cool a bit before combining with the other ingredients in a large bowl.  Mix thoroughly–hands are best for this!–and form into patties.  Traditional hamburger-style, I recommend you make your burgers wider than the buns you plan to use, as the patties will shrink when you cook them.  I got six out of my last batch.

Alternately, if you’re serving with pita, make a bunch of small, flat-meatball-ish sized patties (about 12-15) so they’ll stuff into the pocket more easily.

Heat up your grill pan or outdoor grill (I don’t recommend outside if you are making small patties–they don’t skewer well).  Grill over medium-high heat on both sides to achieve a nice, brown crust.  Either turn heat down or move burgers to indirect heat and continue cooking until desired doneness is reached (we like a little pink in the middle).  On my stove-top grill pan, one batch took approximately 8-10 minutes.

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Serve immediately with accompaniments.  Enjoy!

Dill Mayonnaise

1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 T fresh dill, chopped or 1 tsp. dried
1 clove garlic, minced fine

Combine all ingredients and mix until smooth.  Resist the urge to slather this all over everything.  (Or, if you’re me, fail to resist said urge).

Tzatziki Sauce

This is a traditional Greek condiment, so it works best with thick, Greek-style yogurt.  If you can’t find that, use plain, full-fat yogurt.

1 cup plain yogurt
1 small cucumber, peeled & grated
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. fresh dill or 1/2 tsp. dried
juice of half a lemon

Squeeze grated cucumber in a paper towel to remove excess moisture.  Combine the rest of the ingredients–if you make this ahead of time, the garlic flavor will become more intense.

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BANANA-COCONUT MUFFINS

Perhaps you can hear the sound of me yawning incessantly as I write this? Oh, long weekend recovery, I think I will make another cup of tea to speed you along. If only I had one of these in my desk drawer, too.

bright muffin

Behold, the muffin which garnered me a marriage proposal! Well, it was an unintended side effect—I baked them for my service consultant, Lance, as a thank-you, and he was so effusive in his praise that I know I’ll be getting extra-fine service car maintenance from Baker-Jakson Nissan for a nice long while.

I’ve always had a tenuous relationship with bananas; so if I’m endorsing this recipe, you’d better believe these bad boys are exceptionally good. When I was a kid, I mirrored my mother’s “yuck” reaction to the fruit. My dad, on the other hand, loved them. Our “banana divide” even became the source of a family joke—as Hindus, trips to temple mean being presented with prashad when you depart.

Prashad is any food which is offered to and then blessed by God. (Hey, it’s no coincidence, says I, that food factors into so many of the world’s religious rituals!) Devotees tend to bring large bags of fruit to temple for convenience’s sake, though I once had the particular joy of receiving M&Ms after a temple puja. Of course, given its very nature, prashad is considered holy, and once it has been handed to you, you are obligated to eat it. I have so many memories of standing barefoot, hands extended, inside the temple sanctuary with my parents, watching the priest making his way down the line, handing out fruit one by one. Hoped though I might, my father would always end up with the “good fruit”–apples, pears, oranges, even the occasional mango. But Mom and I?

Bananas, of course. Every time, without fail.

I suppose all of those temple bananas eventually grew on me, because I’ll throw one in my workout bag from time to time or eat one for breakfast with peanut butter. And I could eat a whole batch of these muffins by myself.

muffin trio!

This recipe has become part of my “go-to” baking arsenal because it’s easy and no-fail. First, no special equipment required. Just a fork and a couple of bowls. Second, is it just me or are there always two over-ripe bananas leftover? You know, you buy a big green bunch but never somehow manage to eat them all fast enough? Peeling and freezing them for smoothies has been our default; now there is another option, and it makes the whole house smell heavenly.

If you’re a little coconut-shy, don’t worry. The flavor is not at all predominant here. Mostly I think the coconut allows for moistness and contributes to a toothsome mouth feel. I threw toasted pecans into the original recipe because I love nuts in baked goods, but you could easily leave them out. Once cooled, the muffins will keep four to five days on room temperature in a Ziploc bag or other airtight container, even longer in the fridge.

You know what Lance would say—the way to a man’s (or woman’s) heart is through his/her stomach. So bake away, my friends! Who knows what a little ole batch of muffins may bring in return?

BANANA COCONUT MUFFINS shiny banana-coconu
adapted from Gourmet’s “Everyday Meals: Edition 2”

1 ¼ cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. salt
2 very ripe bananas, peeled & mashed with the back of a fork
1 stick (½cup) unsalted butter, melted
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
½ tsp. vanilla
½ cup sweetened, flaked coconut*
½ cup pecans, toasted & chopped

topping: ¼ cup coconut

pan: muffin tin with paper liners

oven: 375°F

Whisk together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, & salt in a small bowl. In a larger bowl, combine bananas, butter, sugar, egg, & vanilla. Smush (yes, that’s a technical term) the mixture with a fork or spatula until well-combined. Stir in coconut & pecans.

Fold flour mixture into banana mixture until just combined. Fill muffin cups to about ¾ full (I find an ice-cream scoop is very handy for this step). Sprinkle the muffin tops with coconut and bake until golden, about 20-25 minutes. Cool on racks, but eat warm if possible!

* I had unsweetened coconut at home, so I used it & bumped up the sugar to 1 whole cup. I also included some extra sugar when I sprinkled coconut on top of the muffins.

banana-coconut muffins (pre-bake)

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STRAWBERRY-BASIL MARGARITAS

STRAWBERRY-BASIL MARGARITAS straw-basil rita

To continue our ode to the summer strawberry season, and in celebration of the upcoming long weekend, we present you with a cocktail. Naturally!

There’s a fun neighborhood bar here in Houston called The Volcano, and in addition to its rockin’ patio and we’re-not-sure-if-it’s-ironic-or-not-Polynesian décor, The Volcano features delicious cocktails like frozen screwdrivers, Mt. Lychees, and strawberry-basil margaritas.

Strawberry-basil margaritas?  Oh yes oh yes oh yes.

Perhaps you think the strawberry-basil combination sounds like a strange one for a cocktail.  Believe me, I was a skeptic at first myself.  Normally I am not a fan of super-fruity drinks, and I really didn’t know how I felt about a strong herb like basil in my cocktail.  But now, I am a convert.  The grassy, clean flavor of the basil cuts right through what could be an overly-sweet strawberry drink.  Throw in some fresh lime juice & Cointreau, then welcome to happy hour!

My interpretation of The Volcano’s drink involves a strawberry simple-syrup, which infuses strong strawberry flavor and a gorgeous pink color.  You can easily make the syrup ahead of time and store it in the fridge until you’re ready for cocktails; this is also pitcher-friendly, so it’s great for a crowd.

If you’re not crazy about tequila, go ahead and swap in vodka–viola, a strawberry-basil martini!

straw-basil rita up close

No matter what you decide to drink this Memorial Day weekend, I would like to propose a two-part toast:

One = We are headed to Dallas on Sunday for the wedding of my friend Shining.  He and I were classmates at Rice, now he’s about to be a doctor, and his future wife Tricia is an amazing pianist/engineer/foodie.  I’m so excited about their wedding not only because it’s going to be a mini-reunion with some of my favorite people, but also because the happy couple really are a happy couple.  They are so great together, bring out the best in each other, & their love is infectious.  Congratulations in advance, you two!  A toast in your honor–I’m certain there will be many more come Sunday.

shiningtricia
Two = I’ve been doing my best to remind my students and myself just *why* we are off school on Monday.  Grateful as we all are for the three-day weekend, I know it’s much more important to be grateful to the men and women whose service we memorialize and to those whose service continues still.  It’s a reminder which really resonates this year with our school community, as our beloved Middle School Dean Tony is training in D.C. for his upcoming deployment to Iraq.  We honor you, Tony, and look forward to having you back with us in the spring.  Cheers & Godspeed!

STRAWBERRY-BASIL MARGARITAS
makes 2 generous drinks
tequila macerating basil
2 oz. tequila (1 oz = a shot)

1/2 cup strawberry simple syrup*

juice of 2 limes

splash of Cointreau (substitute any other orange-flavored liquor)

2 T fresh basil, chopped roughly

extra strawberries & basil for garnish

To mix the drinks, place the basil in the bottom of a cocktail shaker (or large cup).  Pour in tequila.  Use the back of a spoon (or a fancy muddler, if you have one) to mash the basil leaves into the tequila, so as to release the flavor.  Fill the shaker with ice, then add strawberry syrup, lime juice, Cointreau.  Cover and shake, then strain out into glasses.  Garnish with sliced strawberries and a chiffonade of basil.

To make the strawberry simple syrup:

strawberry simple syrup one 1 cup sugar
1 cup water
4-5 strawberries, sliced

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan.  Bring to a boil, then let simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until the strawberries look exhausted.  Cool the syrup, then strain the liquid through a sieve, pressing the strawberries firmly to extract all liquid.  Store in a bottle or jar in the fridge–will keep for up to 2 months.

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LEAH’S STRAWBERRY SALAD

strawberry salad

I was so nervous to meet Leah. She was the “best friend who came before” of my closest graduate school friend, Arianne. You’ve been there, right? There’s a new awesome person in your life and now, someone from their “old life” is coming into town to visit? They’ve got more history with your new awesome person than you do—a decade’s worth or more of memories, incriminating stories, photographs of old haircuts, mix tapes, the works. Not to mention, I had heard a million stories about Leah—she was confident, fearless, a foodie, a talented seamstress, and a firefighter to boot. Like, the kind that flies around in helicopters fighting forest fires.

You could say I was a little intimidated.

Of course, I shouldn’t have been worried. Although Leah’s list of dazzling attributes only grew after meeting her in person, among those attributes is “totally approachable.” The three of us had a blast together laughing, cooking, dancing, talking–plenty of friendship & good feeling to go around. And I learned another important thing about Leah: if she were a character in a Homeric epic, “maker of beautiful salads” would be her epithet:

(I'm afraid it's not a fancy Sonya picture; I took this one myself!)

(I'm afraid it's not a fancy Sonya picture; I took this one myself!)

While I’m good at making things yummy, I’m not always good at making them look pretty. Leah is one of those people who seems to do both effortlessly, and I strive to be like her someday. That’s why this salad is dedicated to her, to Arianne, and to those lovely occasions where your new friends and old friends get along swell.

LEAH’S STRAWBERRY SALAD strawberry salad 2
adapted from Food to Live By: The Earthbound Farm Organic Cookbook
serves 4

This salad is elegant and lovely, even if you can’t make it into a work of art! A great choice for summer, as it pairs perfectly with grilled meat. In the winter, I swap cranberries & Bosc pairs for the strawberries and use a store-bought, fig-flavored balsamic for the dressing.

In the summer, the “trick” is that you infuse your own balsamic using a few strawberries to impart flavor. Do this step as far ahead of time as you can and throw the rest of the salad together just before serving.

Now, blue cheese may make some of you nervous; I know it’s not for everyone. If you absolutely can’t stomach it, substitute crumbled feta or small cubes of a really sharp cheddar. You really want a strong cheese to stand up to the sweetness of the berries & the tartness of the balsamic.

for the salad:

1 bunch spinach or lettuce, washed, dried, & torn into small pieces
1 pint strawberries (approx. 12-15), sliced
½ cup blue cheese, crumbled (less or more if you like)
½ cup candied pecans, chopped (substitute plain or toasted pecans)

Prepare the vinaigrette before assembling salad:

4 T balsamic vinegar (good quality)
2-3 strawberries
¼- ½ cup olive oil, depending on how oily you like your dressing
salt & pepper
macerating strawberries
Remove green tops from the strawberries and chop them roughly. Place into a small bowl along with the balsamic. Press down with a fork or the back of the spoon to help release the strawberry flavor. Let the mixture sit, on room temperature, for at least an hour.

Assemble the salad. When ready to serve, carefully discard strawberries from balsamic mixture (if you’re willing to invest in a bit more effort, you can blend the berries and balsamic together). Drizzle olive oil in slowly while whisking (or blending) constantly. Add salt & pepper to taste; whisk to combine. Dress the salad and enjoy!

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A BLUE JEAN PSA

Is your fridge a scary place? Does everything you store end up coming out smelling like tuna-fish sandwiches? It may be time to get help.

Fridges aren’t actually supposed to smell like anything. They’re not! And if yours does, fear not. Baking soda is here:
baking soda change!
For less than a dollar, you can buy two of these guys. Throw one in the icebox (I just love that word, icebox!) and the other in the freezer. Change every two-three months to keep things smelling nice and neutral.*

Just a friendly reminder from your neighborhood Blue Jean Gourmet! We now return you to your regularly scheduled Sunday.

baking soda change! 2

*If that doesn’t do the trick, you may need to take a long, hard look at your food storage methods. Alas, Ziploc bags and plastic wrap, while convenient, do not provide a sufficent enough barrier for strong odors like garlic & onion. Invest in a few pieces of storage ware, or just wash and re-use jars, bottles, and plastic butter tubs, etc. Still got a funky-smelling-fridge? You may need to activate Operation: Wipedown, in which you 1) Remove everything from fridge (being sure to switch to warmest setting first). 2) Open & inspect all fridge contents. 3) Clean shelves, drawers, nooks, & crannies. 4) Return salvageable foodstuffs, dispose of the rest. 5) Bask in the sense of accomplishment & now-unoffensive-refrigerator smell!

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FRESH FRUIT PIZZA

strawberries on cutting board

I hope it’s not just me. I hope that all of you, no matter where you might be, are seeing strawberries this gorgeous in your grocery store or farmer’s’ market. They are so lovely and flavorful, I can’t resist buying them! But that’s okay, because at least down here, they’ve been remarkably affordable, even the organic variety (strawberries are one of those recommended “best to buy organic” items). So, given the availability and seasonality of this particular item, we’ll be featuring a little four-part ode to strawberries here at Blue Jean Gourmet. Starting with dessert, of course!

One caveat, though: making this fruit pizza may leave you feeling a bit like a charlatan. Why? Because, not to toot my own horn too much, but this looks hella impressive, right?

easy to make AND impressive

Right. So imagine, if you will, taking this impressive fruit pizza to a summer potluck or dinner at your mother-in-law’s house and the “ooohs” and “ahhhs” and “wows” you will invariably receive. Are you imagining? Are you? Because here’s the secret about this dessert: it is dead simple to make.

I know the concept of fruit pizza has been floating around for some time, and you may have had the misfortune of encountering a sketchy version made with big tubes of refrigerated dough & canned fruit or drowned in chocolate & marshmallow fluff. But don’t be alarmed! This one is elegant and not too sweet, perfect for summer months. You can even make the crust & filling ahead of time, adding the fruit and (optional) glaze just before serving.

Fresh fruit is obviously the star of the show, so make sure that you buy good-quality stuff. I recommend erring on the side of firm when making your selections, so that the fruit will hold its own. Buy whatever is seasonal and looks scrumptious—I’ve made this with nectarines, peaches, kiwi, apple, mango, & all kinds of berries.

almost any kind of fruit will work

blackberries are very photogenic, don't you think?

This is also the perfect dessert to make with and serve to kids. Little hands can help press the dough, spread the filling, and arrange the fruit. Having a slumber party? Get the kids going in the kitchen; divide up the dough and let each child make his or her own mini-pizza. Hey, it’s healthier than most midnight snacks!

Last but not least, I recommend this dessert as a great choice for diabetics or anyone cooking for a diabetic. You can easily substitute Splenda for the sugar in the crust & filling, and use sugar-free fruit preserves for the glaze. I did this for my friend Aisha’s dad at his birthday party, and he loved it.

Coming next in our Strawberry Parade–a fresh, easy strawberry salad, strawberry-basil margaritas, & homemade granola with fresh strawberries.

Tell us, how do you like your strawberries this time of year?

FRUIT PIZZA

oven: Preheat to 375°.

pan: Round or rectangular baking sheet

crust: 1 ½ cups flour
2 T. sugar
2 T. milk
½ cup oil (canola is fine, I’ve also used safflower)
zest of 1 lemon & 1 orange, finely chopped (use the fruits’ juice for the glaze)
½ tsp. salt

Mix all ingredients by hand and press out onto a baking sheet, about 1/4 inch thick—you can do a traditional circle shape, a free-form oval, or a rectangle. Part of the appeal is the rustic look, so don’t worry about it being perfect. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the crust is golden brown around the edges. Cool completely before topping.

Filling: 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
¼ cup confectioner’s sugar
1 cup heavy whipping cream

You can easily do this by hand, but use a stand mixer if you have it. Whip cream cheese until fluffy (if employing elbow grease, use a spoon for this part). Add sugar and mix until well blended. Finally, pour in the cream and whip until thick (at this point, switch to a whisk). It may take a minute or two for the mixture to set up, but it will thicken very quickly, all at once! Spread mixture evenly over cooled crust.

Topping: Any sliced, fresh fruit

Have fun with this part! The whole idea of this dessert is that the fruit speaks for itself, so let it show off a little. You can go for concentric circles, like I have here, but you can also just chop up the fruit and sprinkle on top; it’s going to taste just as delicious. If you have a tiny sous chef helping you, arranging the fruit to form a face or a flower or a star can be a lot of fun. Heck, that could be fun even if there aren’t any kids in the picture!

Glaze (optional): ½ cup apricot preserves or orange marmalade
juice from the lemon & orange you zested

Heat all ingredients a small saucepan, stirring well. Simmer for 2-3 minutes until the mixture has thinned. Spoon over fruit.

the glaze adds a nice sweetness & gooey-ness

the glaze adds a nice sweetness & gooey-ness

you'll wow 'em with the finished product!

you'll wow 'em with the finished product!

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OVEN-ROASTED BALSAMIC CHICKEN

Maybe you’ve already heard this, but, um, the economy is broken. balsamic chicken finished

Don’t worry, I’m not going to launch into a politics and blame and shame and fiscal responsibility and healthcare reform and offshore tax shelters. I’ll leave that stuff to NPR and my mother. Suffice it to say that all of the aforementioned events have caused us here at Blue Jean Gourmet to be a little more thoughtful about what we spend and where we spend it. And as much as I admit to being a sucker for my expensive food habits (see: imported cheese, peach lambic, olives!), tinkering with the Blue Jean Kitchen budget has actually been a great boost to my culinary creativity. What is it they say? Necessity is the mother of invention?

And so, necessarily, I learned some new skills. For instance: you’ve totally got to start buying whole chickens and cutting them up yourselves. Seriously people, as my sixth graders would say. You’re going to get SO much more bang for your buck–I bought a lovely little organic, free-range whole chicken for less than ten bucks and it fed the two of us twice! Don’t be intimidated, okay? There’s this handy little guide up at MarthaStewart.com, and it will take you through step-by step. I promise, after the first time, you’ll feel like a pro. A cleverly frugal, old-school pro.

If you can afford it, buy a few chickens at once and cut them all up together, freezing what you won’t use right away. Not only is cooking whole chicken economical, it’s also gastronomical–meat always tastes better when cooked on the bone.

This chicken recipe is super-easy to make and very satisfying. It’s one of our “nice-but-not-fussy” dinner staples, especially when we’re craving something substantive but not heavy. Pairs very nicely with roasted potatoes*, which you can cook at the same time and in the same place as the chicken itself! Or, dress it up for company via wild rice and a green vegetable–say, asparagus sure is lookin’ purty these days!–and it, too, takes well to an oven-roasting. As my good friend Coco would say, aaaaand done!

balsamic chicken finished 2

OVEN-ROASTED BALSAMIC CHICKEN balsamic chicken marinade
serves 4

for the marinade:

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
2 T. honey
2 T. Dijon or whole-grain mustard (the yellow stuff is not going to taste good here)
2-3 cloves garlic, minced (feel free to scale back if you’re not a garlic fiend like I am)
juice of one lemon
salt & pepper

to be marinated: 1 whole chicken, cut-up (you can substitute just chicken breasts or legs)

Whisk marinade ingredients together in a large Ziploc bag (saves you bowl cleanup!) Toss in the chicken pieces, seal the bag, and use your hands to distribute the marinade. Store the chicken bag in the refrigerator, being sure to lay it flat so the chicken pieces are evenly coated by the marinade. Marinate at least one hour or up to all day.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 400. Turn out the contents of the bag into a heavy-bottomed, shallow baking dish. Bake 45-55 minutes (if you are cooking boneless pieces, your cooking time will be reduced by about 10-15 minutes). Cover the pan carefully with foil if the chicken starts to brown too much. Now, some people will tell you to use a fancy meat thermometer and others will tell you to develop your cooking instincts (which you will!), but the simplest way to figure out if your chicken is done is to take the biggest piece out and cut it in the middle. You’ll know if it’s ready to come out or needs to stay back in, and this prevents you from blasting the heck out of chicken and drying it out, which is not tasty.

deglazing pan for chicken optional: You can make an easy pan sauce for your chicken using some chicken stock. Once you’ve removed the chicken from the pan, place it over your largest stove burner and turn the heat to low. Pour about a cup of stock into the baking pan–this is called deglazing, and it allows you to get up all of the yummy browned bits on the bottom of your baking pan. Use a spatula or wooden spoon to help you loosen the fond (nope, I’m not making that word up). Allow the sauce to thicken a bit over the stove’s heat before pouring over your plated chicken.

* ROASTED NEW POTATOES

2-3 lb. small, starchy potatoes (red, Yukon gold, new)
olive oil
salt & pepper
optional: 2 T chopped fresh parsley or rosemary, OR 1 T dried parsley, rosemary, or herbs de Provence

Scrub potatoes well but don’t remove peel–dice into cubes of similar size (about 1/2 inch). Toss generously with olive oil, then sprinkle with salt & pepper (herbs, if using). Spread out on a sheet pan and bake, 20-25 minutes or until fork-tender.

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CHAI & FRENCH TOAST

Thank you, thank you everybody! You have made Blue Jean Gourmet feel so welcome here in the wide, woolly blogging world. We appreciate your readership, your enthusiasm, and your recommendations. Please, keep it coming!

In an attempt to make it easier for you to keep up with Blue Jean Gourmet, we’ve added a few new features:

1) At the bottom of every post, a “Share/Save” button which enables you to pass posts along using virtually any internet service imaginable.

2) An email subscription service! Click on the sidebar link to subscribe to Blue Jean Gourmet updates–you’ll receive an email informing you of new posts. We won’t sell your email address or spam you, Scout’s honor.

For those of you who would just rather bookmark BJG & check in with us periodically, we promise to keep to a regular Tuesday/Friday posting schedule, with the occasional tidbit thrown in on odd days. Okay, that’s all for logistics. Onto the food!

I love breakfast. I LURVE it. Yummy yummy sweet and savory, syrupy, fruity, salty, crunchy, goodness all around. So please note that you will likely see a disproportionately high number of breakfast & brunch recipes around here– hope that won’t be a problem. Ha!

Also, my photographer, Sonya, happens to be obsessed with French toast. She is quite the connoisseur, so I took it as high praise when she called this the best French toast she’d ever had. Score!

french toast deliciousness

There’s nothing particularly magical or secret about this recipe–I think the keys are, as always, quality ingredients and good technique. First, I always use challah for my French toast. Challah, if you didn’t already know, is a Jewish egg bread, similar to brioche. Traditionally braided, this bread is eggy and airy and perfectly suited to French toast-ing.

Since I started working at a Jewish school, challah has become part of my weekly life. We celebrate Kabbalat Shabbat, the beginning of the Sabbath, here at school on Fridays. The blessing over the challah and wine (or grape juice for school purposes), is the parent tradition of the Christian sacrament of Communion.

Challah can easily be found in the bakery of your local grocery store, but if you know of a specialty baker in your area, give them a try.
challah!
In addition to the traditional sliced & browned-in-butter (hungry yet?) recipe, I’m also including a more decadent baked version. It’s actually almost a bread pudding, so be aware that it’s not for the faint of heart!, but what I love best about it is that you can make the whole thing the night before & then pop it in the oven in the morning. Great for kids to help make, too, because they can whisk together the liquid ingredients and then smush bread cubes down into the gooey custard.

Serve either kind of French toast with fresh strawberries, which are SO GOOD right now. Other possible toppings include: blueberries, bananas, chopped, toasted pecans or almonds, maple syrup, powdered sugar. Serve with a side of bacon* and Mom will swoon. Who wouldn’t?

Last but not least, a Mom-worthy beverage. Now not to get all snobby and fist-shaking, but this is not the drink of my people. It may be tasty, yes, but far from authentic. The real deal is strong, spicy, milky, and a little sweet. While it may require a trip to buy some items you don’t use regularly, I promise your purchases won’t go to waste as you’ll want to make this again & again. It’s a great way to “dress up” any breakfast or brunch and also works well as a dessert accompaniment.

No matter what you cook or eat or are served this Mother’s Day, I hope it is full of love & joy. Thank goodness for mothers, especially mine.

CHALLAH FRENCH TOAST
serves 4

This one’s light & airy, the recipe below much denser & more intense.

1 loaf challah, sliced approx. 1-inch thick
3 eggs
¾ cup half-and-half or milk (I recommend the former)
¼ cup sugar or honey
1 tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg (freshly grated, if possible)
butter for the pan

foamy butter Cut about 1 T of butter into a non-stick skillet over medium heat. While waiting for the butter to get foamy, whisk together the liquid ingredients in a shallow pan (one less bowl to clean!)

Dunk two slices at a time into their French toast “bath,” turning once. Allow them to sit only a minute on each side, before draining the excess liquid and moving them to the buttery pan. Cook approximately 2-3 minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Serve warm with accompaniments. french toast taking a soak

BAKED FRENCH TOAST
serves 4-6

I first encountered a recipe like this in a cooking class with Rebecca Rather, a Texas pastry chef. Since then, I’ve seen lots of recipes like it, but this is my version.

1 loaf challah, cut into appox. 1-inch cubes
6 eggs
1 ½ cups half-and-half, heavy whipping cream, or milk (or some combination thereof)
½ cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla

optional: I like to add in 1 tsp. of almond extract or 1 tsp. of Amaretto. You could also throw in 1 tsp. of orange liquor (Grand Marnier, Triple Sec, Cointreau) if you have some around. Remember, decadent is the theme here!

PAN: 13×9 or 9×9

Grease the baking dish, then arrange the challah cubes on the bottom. Whisk together liquid ingredients, then pour over bread. Use your fingers (very fun for kids!) or the back of a spoon to ensure that all of the cubes are soaked thoroughly. At this point, cover the whole thing and stick in the refrigerator for at least an hour or up to overnight.

When you’re ready to bake, heat the oven to 425. Bake for approximately 35-45 minutes, or until golden brown. If you’re interested, you can create a crème Brule effect with your baked French toast—when it’s done baking, sprinkle a few tablespoons of sugar on top (you can include cinnamon if you like) and turn your oven to “BROIL.” Watch closely for the sugar to bubble and caramelize, but make sure you rescue your toast before burning takes place!

Cut into squares and serve with accompaniments.

TRADITIONAL INDIAN CHAI cup o tea
serves 4-6

You’d be surprised, you can probably find all of the stuff you need for this recipe at your local grocery store—all these spices can be found with the baking things, and if they have an “International Foods” aisle, you can get authentic loose-leaf tea there. Should you be up for a trip to the Indian grocer, I recommend it—spices will be much cheaper.

4 cups water
4 T black loose-leaf tea (Brooke Bond or Red Label are Indian brands; Lipton will work, too!)
2-3 generous slices fresh ginger
1 cinnamon stick
1 T whole or 1 tsp. ground cloves
1 T ground cardamom
1 tsp. anise seeds (not star anise)

1 ½ cups milk (the tea will obviously taste richer if you use whole or 2 percent)
½ – ¾ cup sugar, depending on your preference (or you can leave the tea unsweetened & let guests sweeten their own cups)

Bring the water to a boil, adding the tea & spices. Allow to boil vigorously for about 4 minutes before turning the heat down and adding milk and sugar. Stir gently and allow the milk mixture to heat up before straining into a teapot or individual cups.

*TIDBIT: I started cooking my bacon in the oven, under the broiler, and it has changed my life for the better. Lay the bacon strips (mmm, bacon) out on a broiler pan—no need to pre-grease! Slide the whole thing into the oven and turn your broiler on “low.” Depending on oven strength, it will take about 8-10 minutes, but watch closely so you don’t burn your bacon. What I love about this option is that it’s no-fuss and all the grease drips down into the bottom pan so you can dispose of it or save it in a jar in the refrigerator like I do (because pork fat just makes things better).

baaaaacon

before

after

after

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ARE YOU READY FOR MOTHER’S DAY?

It’s getting down to the wire, huh, folks?

Should you be in need of some inspiration, here are a few non-floral suggestions culled from the world-wide-web. Rush shipping is available from the bigger retailers, and there’s always the “better-late-than-never” approach (if your mom is flexible like that).

If you need to present something in person on Sunday, I recommend heading to your local art museum and checking out the gift store. I’ve found that they are often really great resources for lovely, unusual gifts.

AND, if all else fails…cook something delicious for the woman who birthed you! Check back tomorrow for an easy-to-assemble Mother’s Day breakfast/brunch menu.

GIFT IDEAS:

tender hooks

For new moms, I strongly recommend Beth Ann Fennelly’s poetry collection, Tender Hooks. Written after the birth of her daughter, Fennelly’s poems are honest and touching but not overly sentimental. I bought this for my dear friend Katherine following the birth of her twins, and knew it was a good choice when she ordered six copies to send to all of her new-mom friends.

For mothers-in-law, check out The Body Shop’s Wise Woman skincare line. It’s been written up in a bunch of glamorous magazines, but more importantly, the 40-something and 50-something woman I’ve gifted these products to, swear by them (especially the Intensive Firming Mask!)

body butterFor pregnant ladies, I’ll endorse The Body Shop again, this time for their body butter. All kinds of good smells (or go with scent-free Vitamin E for women with sensitive skin), plus intense moisturization that helps prevent belly stretch marks. Throw in some bubble bath or shower gel for a nice package, or even a gift card so she can indulge. lemon platter

For kitchen goddesses, browse the Mother’s Day section of Sur la Table. I’m a big fan of this knife (comes with a free bamboo cutting board!), these beautiful, Italian baking dishes, this lovely lemon platter, & the fire-engine-red Cuisinart ice cream maker (which is on sale!)

bird spoons

For the quirky mom who has it all, check out The Spoon Sisters. They carry a random assortment of items, but there are gems to be found, the kind of items that make you think–hey, I know someone who needs that! Like the sky umbrella, the heart paper clips, the designer duct tape (I’m so not making this up), or these totally gorgeous bird-topped measuring spoons.

Last but not least, consider making a donation to a worthy organization in honor of your mom, aunt, grandmother, wife, step-mom, etc. Charitable contributions are often the first thing to be cut during “tough economic times” such as these, and of course we all know that they are needed now more than ever.

heifer There are many worthy causes out there, but may I humbly suggest Heifer International? Your donation will provide a worthy family with an animal (hive of bees, gaggle of geese, pair of goats) that can be used for food and profit. When the animals produce offspring, the recipient family “passes the gift” to another family in the community. Make a donation and design your own e-card to inform your mom that you’ve given in her honor to such a cool cause.

Anybody else have last-minute gift ideas to share?  Or plan-ahead ideas for next year?

BLUE JEAN GOURMET IS BORN: GUACAMOLE & MARGARITAS

Salud! L’Chaim! Cheers!

cheers-bright-light1

Welcome, welcome, welcome—whether you are an avid foodie, beginning cook, food-blog enthusiast, or just here for the pretty pictures, I hope you’ll find Blue Jean Gourmet to be a fun, un-intimidating resource for really good food and straightforward kitchen advice.  Please make yourself at home.

We’re launching today on Cinco de Mayo–I can’t think of a better occasion!  What other holiday gives me an excuse (not like I need one) to whip up a batch of guacamole and a blender-full of margaritas?  I’m so excited to share these two recipes with you as they are the perfect encapsulation of what the Blue Jean Gourmet philosophy is all about: really good food does not have to be really fussy.  Both of these recipes are a cinch to make with quality ingredients and a little practice.  Sure, pre-prepared guacamole and bottled margarita mix are readily available, but neither can hold a candle to their homemade counterparts.   You’ll wow everyone (including yourself) and never go back to the packaged stuff.

I also love these recipes because they literally tell the story of how I ended up here in the first place.  You see, long ago my newlywed parents worked at a Pancho’s Mexican Restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee.  My father was the manager, my mom a bartender–I really love the fact that my Indian immigrant mother used to tend bar in a Mexican restaurant in the deep South–only in America, right?

Mom’s good looks earned her many tips and opportunities to hone her margarita-making skills, and my father continued to work for Pancho’s for many years, cementing my family’s love affair with all things Tex-Mex.  When I make my own version of these recipes now, I feel I have earned my place in my family’s rich, weird culinary history.

Since Blue Jean Gourmet is just now making its way into the web-world, please check back periodically for added features and new posts.  You can also follow BJG on Twitter, become a BJG fan on Facebook, or use good-old-fashioned email to contact the Blue Jean Gourmet herself (that’s me!): bluejeangourmet (at) gmail (dot) com.  I’d love to have your thoughts and feedback: is there a food item you would like to see featured?  Cooking technique you want to master?  Let me know and I will do my best to help you out.

In the meantime, invite some friends over and give these recipes a whirl.  You can make Cinco de Mayo last all week!

MEMPHIS MARGARITAS

a well-stocked liquor cabinet

Makes 4 generous servings, doubles well!

8 oz (1 cup) fresh-squeezed lime juice (trust me, it’s worth the trouble)
juice of 1 orange
1/2 cup tequila (the better the quality, the better the margarita)
1/4 cup Cointreau or other orange liquor (Triple Sec, Grand Marnier)
2 T Minute Maid frozen limeade (more if you prefer a sweeter drink)*

Frozen margaritas–Fill a blender with 3 cups of ice.  Pour in liquid ingredients; blend, serve.
Margaritas on the rocks–Stir liquid ingredients together in a pitcher; serve over ice.
To salt glasses–Rub the rim of an empty glass with a lime wedge.  Pour 2 T kosher salt (looks pretty, but regular will do just fine) onto a small plate.  Turn glass upside down and, using a rocking motion, dip the rim in salt, rotating to coat the entire rim.

margarita-solo-avec-lime3

IT’S HANDY: Leftover margarita mix keeps perfectly well in a tightly-sealed jar in the fridge.  Cocktails at a moment’s notice!

* This is my mom’s genius secret ingredient–it’s cheap, keeps forever in the fridge, & saves you from having to make simple syrup.

GUACAMOLE

guacamole-serving-bowl

3 ripe avocados*
juice of 1 lime
2 small cloves or 1 large clove garlic (less if you aren’t a fanatic like me)
1/4 cup red onion, finely chopped
1 tsp jalapeño, finely chopped (optional)
salt
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

First, sprinkle the garlic with a generous pinch of salt.  Using a knife with a wide blade, chop the garlic with the salt at an angle, making a kind of paste–mince the garlic, then smush it with the back of the knife, go back to mincing, etc.

Transfer the garlic/salt paste to a bowl with the onion, jalapeño (if using), and lime juice.  Muddle these ingredients together with a fork.  Next, halve the avocados, removing the seeds and scooping out the flesh with a spoon.  Add the avocados to the lime juice mixture and smash the halves with the back of a fork until the desired texture is reached (I like mine a little chunky).

Unless you are one of those people who think cilantro tastes like soap (and if you are, I feel sad for you), garnish with the chopped cilantro, stirring a bit of it into the mix.   Serve with blue or white corn tortilla chips.

* Okay, avocados.  Sometimes people are intimidated by them, but there’s no need!  I can offer two tricks:
1) Only buy the little, dark, bumpy Haas avocados, if you can get them.  You want fruit that gives a bit when you give it a squeeze–no mushy spots!

2) Ripen them at home on the counter using a paper bag & an apple or a banana.  Apparently, apples and bananas naturally give off gasses which conveniently help avocados to ripen.  I promise, this trick works.  Enjoy!

chips-margaritas2

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