Thursday, September 30, 2010

A new twist on a Vegetarian Pasta Bake

Fall temperatures make me crave all of the comfort food of my youth. Coming from an Italian family that usually means cheesy pasta dishes. While I don't think that I would be able to pass up a gooey slice of lasagna with those cheesy strands that just have to be stolen and stuffed into your mouth as you serve it up I have been trying to make a conscious effort to eat better. I know that denying myself my favorites isn't going to work out in the long run so instead I have tried to come up with some ways to lighten up dishes. I find that for many vegetarians (for the record I am not one but many of my friends are and I do try and accommodate them when possible) its easy to fall into the trap of pasta dishes. They are fast, easy and cheap... what more could you want? Well maybe some protein for starters!

Even though this dish looks like a standard version of "lazy man's lazagna" (ie pasta mixed with sauce and cheese and baked vs the painstakingly layers of a real lasagna) there are a few hidden tricks that makes it so much more. While this one was made with "normal" pasta (figured it was time to use it up!) definitely feel free to use whole wheat or rice pasta for an even healthier (or gluten-free) version. By adding both beans and vegetables to this dish you still get a lot of volume but with out all of the carbs or calories of a plate of pasta.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Rosh Hashanah Dinner 2010...old favorites and new takes

Last year, I held my first ever Rosh Hashanah party. Since I am not Jewish all these foods and customs were so forgeign to me that I pretty much just followed the recipes as written. The one place I felt comfortable doing my own twist was in the noodle kugel I figured as an Italian I knew all I needed to know about what is basically a pasta dish but those who know and love kugel were not happy! They wanted the old-fashioned kind.

This year was a complete flip....I did the traditional for the kugel but went my own way on the other foods and it seemed to turn out well. We were joined by even more of our veggie loving friends so the brisket was barely touched but the roasted vegetables were demolished! Looks like I should have cut up those last two sweet potatoes!

Another Challah! The Annual Baking

So every year around this time, I bake a round Challah for my boyfriends parents and for my own celebration.  We love celebrating all holidays so we have an annual Rosh Hashanah party and after three years of baking challah I finally feel like I have got it down. Every year I always end up with a very sticky dough that is closer to batter and I have to add more flour this year I measured it so I can change the recipe! I have decided that I need closer to 6.5- 7 total cups of flour using about 5.5-6 in the first mix and then adding about the final one during the final kneading.

I made two recipes of the dough which will yield you two large rounds and 1 loaf or you can also make 4 loafs if you desire. On Rosh Hashanah, you traditionally would make the circular loaf and I just happen to think that they are prettier so I made both that way! This recipe would not be appropriate for someone who keeps kosher as it uses both milk and butter which can not be consumed with meat - traditional recipes would use oil in its place.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Stuffed Grape Leaves

I don't even know when I discovered stuffed grape leaves but it has been a love affair ever since. From sampling greek salads up and down the Tri-State area diner belt to stalking a certain co-worker who knows about my addiction, I feel like I have tasted every type of grape leaf from the spicy to tasteless, meaty or vegetarian, grainy or soft.... I can't help but eat them all. I finally was gifted a whole bag of grape leaves from the coworker so I might attempt my own!

I decided to put my own spin on things and instead of traditional rice (or even brown rice) I decided to go with quinoa. I have used this grain many times before especially when cooking for vegetarians but it works great with meat as well and combines beautifully in this recipe that I adapted from a few ideas out there on the web. Initially when I started searching I was a bit overwhelmed but I found this post from White on Rice Couple that linked to a great Greek Food blog site with amazing step by step instructions. I was a little concerned about using the quinoa and if the different cooking time would affect the dish but I decided to go for it and it worked out fabulously!

Quinoa Stuffed Grape Leaves
2 lbs lean ground beef  (make your own or pre-ground) - or beef and lamb mix
2 c dry quinoa (rinsed)
1/2 onion - finely diced
1/2 pepper - finely dined
4 tbsp finely diced fresh mint
2 tbsp finely diced fresh dill
2 cloves garlic- finely minced
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp all spice
1/2 tsp tumeric
salt & pepper
1 tbsp olive oil

50-75 grape leaves - stems cut out and blanched

2 c chicken stock
1 lemon - sliced
handfull of dill
handfull of mint

1) Begin by heating the oil in a lage wok pan, add the garlic to flavor the oil and then remove so it doesn't burn
2) Add the quinoa and let toast (similar to cooking risotto) - stir so all pieces are evenly toasted
3) Remove the quinoa and add the garlic, peppers and onions to pan
4) Once softened, add the meat and dry spices - mix it to crumble it as it browns
5) Once meat is cooked, drain excess fat and place in a large bowl
6) Stir in quinoa and fresh herbs and allow to cool until you can handle
7) To assemble grape leave - place vein side up on a dish, add 1 tsp of filling at about 1/2 " from base of leave- fold over to cover filling and then fold sides in (like a burrito) then fold over 2-3 more times to make a roll - smooth with wet finger so it is secure
8) Line the bottom of a baking dish (I used a corning ware casserole dish) with any ripped or broken leaves then arrange rolled grape leaves - do not pack them too tight but they should be just barely touching - you can have more than one layer (I had 3 layers in total)
9) Add chicken stock & lemon juice till it is just almost covering grape leaves, cover will slices of lemon and herbs - cover with foil and bake at 350F for 1 hr (or until heated throughout)
10) Serve hot or cold with a plain yogurt, lemon and greek seasoning dipping sauce

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Project Food Blog: Challenge #1 Welcome to my Blog!

Welcome to Carla's Tasty Treats... Here, sit down at the table. Are you hungry? Maybe just a little slice? Ok, I'll get you a plate while you listen.

Like so many of my fellow food bloggers I grew up with an appreciation for food, then again with an Italian family I think it would be impossible not to! From a home cooked dinner every night to a feast with my aunts, uncles, and cousins on Sundays, every gathering, happy or sad was punctuated by the savory aroma of a pork roast in the oven or fresh tomato sauce simmering all afternoon. One of my earliest memories is of being home sick from school with the smell of pastina soup with egg in it cooking on the stove at Nana's house. Holidays were filled with the smells of delicately anise flavored pizzelles (until I was old enough to taste Sambuca, ewww!) But as I got older, like so many others teenagers I wanted my own life -  I couldn't wait to escape from a home-cooked Sunday dinner and head to a cheap fast food restaurants with my friends.

Those teenage years didn't last forever though and soon I was out of college and living on my own. While my friends and roommates were living on Ramen Noodles and boxed Mac'n'Cheese (generally eaten while sitting around the television) I realized it just didn't feel right. So I began to cook meals for our "family" just like my mother had done for me a child. Though she always worked, dinner was at 5:15 sharp and the TV would be turned off for an hour of catching up on each others day. I started simply with recipes passed down to me and then moved on to recreating favorite meals using fresh ingredients while being comforted by the idea of having a family meal with my friends. Even if I was making macaroni and cheese using a stick of butter and a pound of cheese it had to be good for you if it was homemade, right? My tastes may have changed since those original dinners but my love for good ingredients has only grown.

But this blog isn't about repeating the past, it is about taking the lessons that our parents and grandparents taught us and reinventing them for our generation. One of the greatest misconceptions of the modern advertising age is that healthy cooking is hard, difficult, and too time consuming. It just isn't true - some of the simplest dishes are the best! All of my meals come from the heart and yes at times that does take extra prep but when you love doing something it really isn't work. So many friends tell me that cooking is too expensive and takes too much time and they don't even know where to start! Of course, creating a six course dinner of the finest French food isn't going to be as easy as ordering an $10 pizza, but with some thought and planning, cooking a great meal from scratch won’t take much more time or money than heating up a lasagna from the freezer case or stirring together a packaged sauce on instant rice.

Finally, this blog is about being a good cook. My mission is to not only serve my family and friends tasty meals but ensure that I provide them with a healthy well balanced plate as well. I do my best to source high quality ingredients by shopping at the local farmers markets, just like my ancestors would have and whenever possible (and with in reason) I try to make my food from scratch. So it may have taken me a little while, but it seems that things are finally going back to were they should be – myself, my friends, and my family eating real food made by real people.

But enough soap-boxing, let's get to the fun stuff! Here are some links to some of my favorites dishes from my blog....


Friday, September 17, 2010

Black Bean and Corn Salsa....with Lobster!

Summer time salads are a no-brainer. With all the fresh produce out on the stands, I almost contemplate going raw every year. But I would miss all of my favorite seafood too much! This dish is a summer time staple with a touch of class that brings it up to a whole new level. And its a food recycling project which I love! Say goodbye to days of left overs....recycle them into something brand new. After a girls- night Lobster Boil, I was left with way to many corns to even think about eating but I didn't want them to go to waste... New Jersey Corn is too good to trash! I decided to free up some room in my fridge by taking the corn off the cob and the rest just fell together.

I was so happy to have just received a can of Black Beans from Goya in the mail as I was all out. Thank you to Foodbuzz's Tastemaker program for making this dinner come true! While lobster was the perfect complement to this dish, if you don't have a few extra laying around feel free to use boiled shrimp as it would have a similar taste and texture. While I wouldn't consider this dish very ethnic, I did spice it up a bit with some chipotle pepper powder.

Lobster, Corn & Black Bean Salsa
1 lobster tail - diced
1 can GOYA black beans - drained and rinsed
5 ears of corn - cut of the cob
10 cherry tomatoes - cut in half
2 tbsp good olive oil
juice of 1 lime
4 tbsp fresh parsley diced
2 tbsp fresh basil diced
1 tsp chipotle powder
salt & pepper

1) Season lobster tail with chipotle, salt & pepper
2) Combine all ingredients and toss to mix

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Girl's Night Lobster Boil!

Sometimes it amazes me the things that some of my friends have never eaten. Lobster Rolls are so quintessentially New England in the Summer that I forget that people from the other side of the country are as unfamiliar with our past times as I am of palm trees and surfing. A California native friend recently disclosed she had never eaten a lobster roll! Of course, I promised to make her one immediately but at the last minute went for old fashioned lobster boil instead.

She brought the corn and a crusty french loaf courtesy of the farmer's market at the Grove Street PATH station... so conveniently located for a stop on the way home. I added the lobsters and some roasted potatoes. Lobster Boils are so fast that all I needed to do was have the veggies chopped and ready to go into the pot when she arrived. As we sipped on a nice cold glass of white wine....the lobster's took a soak in the very hot tub!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A new way to eat....fill your plate!

There is just about every kind of diet out there, low- fat, low-carb, low- sugar, only eating certain vegetables, not eating certain vegetables, the list goes on and on. But are any of these "diets" really good for us and can we really sustain them long enough to make a real effect on our weight? I know that in my life I have given up everything from chocolate to potatoes and still I don't see the numbers I am hoping for on the scale. With harvest season in full swing here (New Jersey), I don't want to have to give up any of my favorites so instead I have made a pact with myself to have more plates that look like this one.... full of fresh healthy vegetables (and fruits since technically tomato is from that family)

This doesn't mean that I am going to be giving up on any of my favorites this time around...just focusing on how my plate looks. Is it colorful? yes that means that I have plenty of different nutrients (greens and reds are especially good for you!) Is it balanced? yes I have just about every food group here from grains (corn) to protein (shark) and most of all Is it delicious? Hell Yeah!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

8/21/10 - Boneless Crockpot Ribs

There are some nights that coming home and opening the fridge to create a masterpiece... and there are nights that you just want to come home to something warm to put in your belly and veg on the couch. With the end of summer rolling in this dinner is a perfect break from cooking, no matter if its too hot to turn on the stove or so cold that you just can't warm up. My favorite part of this dinner was that my boyfriend made most of it!

The recipe for the boneless ribs was simple as can be (ribs + BBQ sauce + 8 hrs in the slow cooker) however, it was the rice and beans that made this a meal. By using the juice given off from the rib, the rice is bursting with savory flavors. To keep things at least mildly healthy, I stuck with brown basmati rice instead of a more traditional white rice. Like all grains using brown, whole grains is much healthier than the white version which has been polished to have the color (as well as important nutrients) removed. While I don't think that this meal is ever going to win any awards simple, home cooking can be better than any 5 star restaurant some nights.