Monday, April 30, 2012

Foodie Penpal: April Goodies

"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, 
it would be a merrier world." 
-- J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy

Photo courtesy of Joyeuse Photography

I'm on a 'learning curve' kick. I have been teaching myself about as many things as possible, and trying new activities and forms of expression. 

The latest part of this movement found me signing up for Foodie Penpals at the encouragement of Corey (check out her blog on our blogroll, and here). It's a fun monthly 'club' of sorts for folks who love food. We get paired up randomly with someone to whom we send a package of goodies, and another someone to receive goodies. Everyone wins!

My first Foodie Penpals package came from a cool person in San Francisco, Niki, whose blog is Salt & Pepper. You have to see it for yourself - she's been using an app called Cinemagram to animate pics! 

The theme of this gorgeous package was organic, natural & sustainable (she is, after all, in SFO!). I absolutely LOVE how the items were wrapped in metallic tissue paper. The box included:

  • Silly Cow Farms hot chocolate
  • TCHNO 67% cacao dark chocolate with citrus notes 
  • Black mission fig jam from 'the girl & the fig'
  • Dark chocolate almond butter cups from SunSpire (made with MaraNatha almond butter - I have a huge jar of it in the fridge, ha!)
  • Pomegranate vanilla tea from The Republic of Tea
  • Chamomile tea from Yogi
  • Organic spaghetti from bionaturæ
  • French onion and spinach dip mixes 
  • Cool paper drinking straws (compostable, methinks) 

I'm going to brainstorm some new recipes, and am thinking of a tea-poached salmon with a little fig-balsamic glaze, nested in citrus-scented herbed spaghetti. Greg will be the guinea pig ... er, 'king's taster' for me.

I sent a Tex-Mex themed package to Heather, who has a great blog called Kiss My Broccoli.

The Foodie Penpal concept started with 30 people a few months ago, and has grown exponentially. Here's how Foodie Penpals works:
  • Penpal pairings are the 5th of every month by Lindsay, a.k.a. The Lean Green Bean
  • Find the foodie items you'd like to share ($15 limit) - themed or local items are fun
  • Mail your box of goodies by the 15th
  • Foodie Penpals is open to blog readers as well as bloggers. If you’re a reader and you get paired with a blogger, you write a short guest post for your penpal to post on their blog. 

So, there you have it. It's an easy way to take a virtual culinary road trip around the country - without the high gas prices. 

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ricotta, for real!

I have ventured into new territory: cheese making. As in, making homemade ricotta. My friend Amy P., an amazing human being, shared this with me. She saw it on an awesome blog called smitten kitchen (see the blog roll). The original recipe is here.
The finished product!
Yummy Ricotta
3 1/4 cups whole milk
3/4  cup heavy cream 
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Pour the milk, cream and salt into a 3-quart nonreactive saucepan. Attach a candy or deep-fry thermometer. Heat the milk to 190°F, stirring it occasionally to keep it from scorching on the bottom. Remove from heat and add the lemon juice, then stir it once or twice, gently and slowly. Let the pot sit undisturbed for 5 minutes.

Line a colander with a few layers of cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl. Pour the curds and whey into the colander and let the curds strain for at least an hour. At an hour, you’ll have a tender, spreadable ricotta. At two hours, it will be spreadable but a bit firmer, almost like cream cheese. (It will firm as it cools, so do not judge its final texture by what you have in your cheesecloth.) Eat the ricotta right away or transfer it to an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use. Makes about 1 generous cup of ricotta.
Bowl and sieve with cheesecloth
Best served with pita wedges, fresh ground pepper, a drizzle of honey and a bit of basil chiffonade.  UNBELIEVABLE!

Maybe I am Italian, after all? 

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Polenta for the pooch (and you too!)

Written for dogs by a dog
I'm a sucker for doggie-centric things. And you know that I love to cook. So, I adore my 'Throw me a Bone' cookbook, written by a sweet Cocker Spaniel named Cooper Gillespie for his canine friends.  

'Polenta Squirrels' are a particular favorite from this cookbook. Cowboy Jack absolutely LOVES them. They're super easy to make. I cut the polenta into cubes, freeze them individually on a tray, and throw them into a Ziploc bag for freezer storage. I pop out one or two at a time, and Jack is happy to eat them frozen. 

This recipe can easily be doubled and you can take half for the Humans, add your favorite spices (such as Campfire Dust from Van Roehling), cut it into big squares which you can sear on both sides and top with a homemade tomato-basil sauce. 

There were four cubes on the plate. Jack stole one as I was taking the photo!

Polenta Squirrels
4 1/2 cups of water
1 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese

Bring water to boil. Turn it to low. Gradually whisk in cornmeal, constantly stirring so it is not lumpy. Allow it to gently finish cooking, still stirring, about 10 minutes. 

Stir in parsley and cheese. Pour into 8"x8" glass dish which has been sprayed with cooking spray. Refrigerate until firm. Cut into small squares or use a cookie cutter to make them fancier.
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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Leftover chicken goes Bollywood

Most non-vegetarians like a savory roasted chicken, right? And probably at least half of them like this chicken as leftovers, correct? Well, when it comes to mixing leftover chicken with curry, we venture into a smaller proportion of the culinary population. I totally understand - it's not for everyone. I began the great love affair with curry when living in the UK, and I see no signs of that waning. 

Nutty Fruity Curried Chicken Salad

Since our doggie has kidney disease, I've been feeding him a special diet which includes roasted chicken and homemade low-sodium chicken stock (as for the latter, Greg rolls his eyes and mutters something about the spoiled rotten dog). So, on any given day, chances are there will be a roasted chicken in the fridge. Here's a great little curried chicken salad that adds a bit of Bollywood magic to leftovers.

I didn't really measure when making this, so the amounts are rough approximations.

Nutty Fruity Curried Chicken Salad 
  • About 8 oz. of roasted chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • About 15 red seedless grapes, quartered (or halved if small)
  • One Granny Smith apple, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
  • Two stalks of celery, peeled with a veggie peeler (to remove the stringy bits), sliced in half lengthwise and then chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
  • About 1/3 cup of sliced or blanched almonds, lightly toasted in the oven or in a dry fry pan over low heat (you'll know they are toasted when they become fragrant)
  • About 1/4 to 1/3 cup of light mayo, plain Greek yogurt, or sour cream
  • About 1 Tbsp. of your favorite curry powder 
  • About 1/2 tsp. of turmeric
  • About 1/8 tsp. of cayenne pepper
  • A few grinds of the pepper mill
  • A few pinches of kosher salt
  • About 1 Tbsp. of parsley, chopped
  • About 3 chives, snipped with kitchen scissors (optional)

Mix the first five ingredients in a bowl. Put in a few tablespoons of your 'binder' (mayo/yogurt/sour cream) and gently mix. Add more if needed (remember that the salt brings out moisture in the ingredients, so you don't want to overdo it). Add the spices and herbs, stick in the fridge for an hour and let the flavors sit. Remove from fridge and adjust any of the ingredients to taste. 

Enjoy in pitas, on top of a bed of lettuce, on top of Wasa crispbread - use your imagination!

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Asia moves into Houston

It's easy to love Houston this time of year, with infinite options for outdoor and indoor activities, and balmy days give way to welcoming warm evenings. Now we have a new reason to love this city - a $48.4 million reason. The Asia Society Texas Center is open in our Museum District, marking Houston's ability to boast a creation of famed Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi.

Thanks to a number of opening events, including the First Look Festival, thousands of people were able to admire this building's astounding architecture, amazing materials and an exhibit of ancient artifacts, courtesy of the Rockefellers. Look how this building is intentionally low-slung, with an infinity pool and rolling 'fog' on the overhang. Then see one of the glass corners in the building (that's Greg the next corner over).

The festival catered to pretty much everyone, with kids dancing ...

... and an operatic storytelling, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera...

... cool food trucks, like this little retro number ...

...oh, and a Zen garden. Here is my attempt at a Warhol-ish look.

If you live in or visit Houston, put this place on the Must-Do list. You'll be very glad you did!

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Saturday, April 7, 2012

iPhone App Fatigue!

Pick an app, any app!
Like most iPhone neophytes a mere 90 days into the Apple iOS Vulcan mind meld, I am beginning to experience the weariness of iAF; iPhone App Fatigue. As of yet, this condition has not been covered in the WedMD iPhone app, but it must surely be coming soon? And what category would such an ailment be found? My guess is that it will be somewhere between an obsessive disorder and an addiction, probably both. 

Soon we will see iAA meetings being held in every corner of the Apple universe. Perhaps I should develop an iPhone app called Attend an iAA Meeting? I could ask Siri to introduce me to my virtual fellow app addicts, "Hi, my name is Greg and I am an appaholic!" Imagine this announcement being followed by a flurry of iMessages saying, "Hi, Greg!" Or maybe the sudden onslaught of simultaneous Facetime, or better yet, Skype app sessions? Or impromptu videos transmitted to me on the Socialcam app and shout-outs over the HeyTell app? Then all the aforementioned getting posted to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with instant verification through a quick tap on their respective iPhone app icons. 

App Store Icon
All of this is making me hungry and forcing me to use my Yelp app, my Urban Spoon app or my After Dark app to find something close or I could simply order a pizza from the Domino's app. Better yet, I will look at my Foursquare app to find a "friend" in the area whom I can surprise with my presence, completely unannounced; maybe even steal their Mayorship to boot. WAIT, I have the new Buffalo Wild Wings app, which is useful in helping me find the closest BW3 restaurant to my current location, which I can verify with my Google Maps app! But being the electronically enabled diner that I am, I should really use the Open Table app to reserve a nice restaurant with the perfect ambiance befitting a sophisticated eater such as myself. Then again, why just look for food when the Happy Hours app can add refreshing beverages to the experience; and at a discount?

The app store is not my friend. It is the modern day "electronic form" serpent in today's Garden of Eden. "Come take a bite of this Apple and unlock the power of all knowledge," it will tease. It leads me to the the very doorstep of dependence that requires me to abandon all critical thinking skills. And it is exercise free! It is dumbing me down to a level where I actually believe that if there is not an app for it, then it is neither valuable nor legitimate. My world is systematically being reduced to a 2"X5" touch screen footprint and yet I go willingly.

My only salvation lies in the fact that all these apps are making me tired. iAF has set in even with all the promise of an easy app enabled life. Perhaps I can order some sleep aid from my Walgreens app and get a good night's rest? I can ease myself to sleep with a nice smooth jazz playlist on iTunes and then wake tomorrow refreshed knowing that I can check the weather in my 100 favorite places, read news from thousands of sources, update my status on Facebook, tweet my breakfast selection for the day and play a nice invigorating game of Angry Birds; all with a few effortless taps on a glass screen!

How did we survive before?

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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Stretching your yoga capabilities

Age is truly mental. Look at what contestants and play-at-home folks of all ages are accomplishing, thanks to 'The Biggest Loser.' If nothing else, this long-running show proves that the battle for well-being is not waged with a scale or food, but in the space between your ears.

I've recently hit some new benchmarks with my yoga practice. While I'm only 'intermediate' and might never get to 'advanced,' it's ok because I know that I'm more flexible now than I ever have been. 

Here are a few secrets to achieving new heights in yoga:
  1. Breathe. Yoga experts say this is critically important. Breathing right not only improves your form, but it allows you to sink progressively deeper into each pose. 
  2. Go to smaller, less attended classes and ask the instructor to correct your form.
  3. If you take yoga at a full-service gym, arrive 30 minutes early, hop on a cardio machine for 20 minutes, then do 5 minutes of rolling before going into class. Your muscles and tendons will be ready for serious stretching.
  4. Avoid discouragement with reinforcement. Start with poses you can do really well so that you have a positive mindset, and gradually work into the new pose or perfecting an existing one. Reinforce your new poses by reviewing them online, then try them in front of a mirror. 
Thanks to the above, I now can achieve heels-down on my first downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) in practice. It used to take at least four to get there.
From Yoga Journal
I can do a proper revolved triangle (Parivrtta Trikonasana).  It's still not my favorite pose, but I've been working hard on twisting technique while keeping a deceivingly calm facial expression.
From Yoga Journal
I've been able to do a Bird of Paradise (Svarga Dvidasana), which was exciting and uplifting until I got a major charlie horse!
From Athleta
And I completed a very awkward looking extended side crow without tipping over onto my nose in the first two seconds! (no, this is not me in the photo)

The secrets are balance, strong core and finesse
I couldn't have done any of the above even a year ago. Be encouraged, dear reader: if this old bird can do a great pigeon pose, you can too.  
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