Monday, February 8, 2016

Better Than McNuggets and Fries: Oven Roasted Parmesan Chicken Fingers and Sweet Potato Fries

 "You've got to help me, mom." 

This was my adult daughter's recent call for help.The woman with a freezer full of Hot Pockets and Tombstone Pizzas was seeking out recipes for healthy, easy-to-prepare dishes that her boys (ages one and six) and boyfriend would like.

Over the years, I watched my six-year-old grandson shift from a preference for fresh fruits and vegetables to a craving for the high fat, processed food that drive-through windows and freezers can instantly satisfy. This was a kid whose favorite foods were once chicken teriyaki, rice, broccoli and cantaloupe (the menu I made for his second birthday dinner). But by the time he was four, he rejected these same foods.

My mission was to help revive the broccoli-loving boy by offering food that he’d like every bit as much as Chicken McNuggets and French fries from McDonalds.

For a test run, I served these oven-baked parmesan chicken fingers with roasted sweet potato fries and steamed broccoli to the “picky eater” in my own household. The chicken was quick and easy to prepare, required few ingredients and, most important, was crunchy and delicious. At this stage, I think I'll suggest to my daughter these frozen sweet potato fries (such as this Alexia brand from Sprouts) as a quicker, easier option than peeling and cutting up whole sweet potatoes. (Baby steps, baby steps)

Since I live six hours away from my grandsons, I'll make a double batch of the chicken finger, vacuum seal and freeze them and bring them, the recipe and a sheet pan with me on my next trip to Southern California. 

And, with any luck, I'll get a big hug and a "Thank you for cooking for me, Achan" from the broccoli boy. 

Got any easy, healthy, kid-pleasing recipes? Please share. 


                               Oven Roasted Parmesan Chicken 

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 eggs, beaten with 2 T water
2/3 cup flour
2/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
2/3 cup breadcrumbs (I like Panko)
salt, pepper and seasonings of your choice (I used dried basil and paprika)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cut up chicken breast into thin strips or in chunks like Chicken McNuggets.

Set up your preparation station in three shallow bowls: one with flour, one with beaten eggs and one with parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs and seasonings. 

First dredge each strip in flour, then dip in egg mixture, and then coat with cheese/breadcrumb mixture. Place each piece on a baking sheet sprayed with non-stick spray. 

Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown. 

(A note about panko: Did you know that it literally means "little bread" in Japanese? "Pan" is the word for bread in both Japanese and Spanish. And the "ko" is a cute little diminutive.)

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Take it Off: Revealing the Charms of the Open-Faced Sandwich

A trio of Danish open face sandwiches
I first discovered the joys of the topless sandwich when I visited Copenhagen four years ago. After two frustrating days of searching for an affordable lunch spot ($35 for a salad?!), I stumbled upon a Danish deli where open face sandwiches  glistened like jewels under the glass display. Best of all, a trio of the works of art set me back less than $5.00. 

As it turns out, the Danish open face sandwich, or smorrebrod, is a thing. Smorrebrod, literally "butter bread," got its name because a smear of butter or duck fat keeps the bread from getting soggy. 

You can read more about the history and etiquette and check out four too-pretty-to-eat recipes, on this NPR article, The Art of the Danish Open Face Sandwich. 

Lucky for me, the popularity of the topless sandwich has spread to other European countries. In Prague, I feasted on two little works of art with a bottle of cheap wine for less than $8.00. 

In Prague: crab salad garnished with lemon, red pepper and parsley, and creme fraiche with caviar

When I returned home, I got to work taking the top off in the kitchen. My first attempt started with European Style Whole Grain Bread, a dense and delicious loaf from Trader Joe's, topped with leftovers from a salad.
TJ's European Style Whole Grain Bread topped with arugula, pears, candied 
pecans and blue cheese (left and right) or same bread topped with mayo, arugula 
and sliced boiled eggs

And last week my simple egg salad sandwich went topless. See how much prettier it is when the salad isn't stuffed between two slices of bread? 

Mixed greens, egg salad topped with minced red onion and chives

Why Go Topless?

  • You can show off your sandwich's hidden assets. Don't let a slice of bread hide those beautiful fillings.
  • You can cut the carbs. Half the bread means half the carb count.
  • You can get creative. Transform leftover salad makings into a sandwich that's a work of art. 
  • You can use random bits and pieces from the refrigerator. A slice of bacon or a lone carrot can be chopped and shredded to add color, texture and taste to a sandwich. 

For More Recipes 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Do You Eat What You Are?

I’ve been wondering lately: If it’s true that we are what we eat, is the reverse also true? Do we eat what we are?

When I was a child visiting my grandmother, a thrifty Scottish woman in rural West Virginia, we ate directly from the garden and the fields.  In the summer, we feasted on corn on the cob rolled in butter, hot mixed peppers simmered with fresh tomatoes, juicy blackberry and rhubarb pies, salad greens wilted with hot bacon dressing. In winter, we ate fruit and vegetables that had been “put up” in the cellar.

I was also the daughter of a Tokyo-born mother and a struggling, blue-collar father, a combination that gave our budget meals a slight Asian twist. Chili con carne was served over Uncle Ben’s rice.  A can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup became egg drop soup after my mom plopped a raw egg into the pot.

At the same time, I was a hometown girl of Clarksburg, West Virginia, a surprisingly diverse town with thriving Lebanese and Italian populations.  Our neighbors, the Thomas family, supplied us with wide, flat sheets of Syrian bread. Mom scrambled eggs with stinky wild ramps and then we rolled the concoction into the flatbread, burrito style.

When I went off to college in South Carolina, I was a scrawny teenager desperate to add curves to my boyish figure. Grits with gravy, hot rolls with butter (consumed by the half dozen) and deep-fried everything guaranteed that I immediately gained the “freshman fifteen.” When I wasn’t refilling my plate in the cafeteria, I could be found at Sir George’s, an all-you-can-eat buffet that we affectionately called “Sir Gorges.”

After college, I moved to California and became a busy fifth-grade teacher and a grad student struggling to make ends meet. I lived on Bisquick biscuits that I made two at a time and generic cans of soup. 

Not long after that, in the 80s, I morphed into a full-fledged yuppie, working in downtown LA as a marketing manager at what was known then as “the phone company.” For the first time in my life, I had disposable income and non-disposable time. I dined at restaurants specializing in “California cuisine” (think miniscule portions at maximum prices). When I wasn’t dining out, I was dropping in to Bristol Farms, a Whole Foods precursor, to purchase pricy, premade items.

When I quit my job in the early 90s to become a full-time mom, my cooking and eating habits once again changed. I learned the beauty of the stir fry and how to wok this way. While my toddler was occupied for minutes at a time, I chopped an onion here or diced a pepper there or thin sliced a chicken breast. When Dad got home for dinner, I threw everything into a sizzling wok.

But when the toddler grew into a picky preschooler and I became a harried housewife juggling writing, home duties and volunteer work, the stir fries disappeared.  I’ll never forget the moment when I looked down at the grocery cart loaded with convenient blue boxes and processed orange slices that passed for cheese.  I groaned to myself, “I’ve become white trash!”

Fast forward a few years, and I became a cancer patient at the City of Hope. I took to heart the words of a wise dietician: “Eat nutrient-dense foods.” From that moment on, I started examining the nutritional punch of everything that went into my mouth. Instead of faux wheat bread, I chose dense, multi-grain loaves. And brown rice took the place of the nutritionally vacuous white stuff I'd been consuming. I couldn’t get enough fresh fruits and vegetables.

Shortly after my stint as a patient, both in and out of the hospital, I joined a community called RIPE, an Altadena-based group that swaps and shares home-grown organic fruits and vegetables. The sharing soon went well beyond surplus citrus and zucchini. I saved my leftover citrus rinds as treats for a nearby family of goats. The goats’ owners shared with neighbors the nutrient-packed soiled hay, which we used as mulch for our vegetable gardens that produced food that we shared with one another. It was a perfect circle of sharing and caring.  Who I was and what I ate became closely intertwined.

And now I’ve entered yet another chapter, a stress-free life in Scottsdale, AZ, filled with hiking, writing, volunteering and cooking. I haven’t yet figured out how to grow vegetables in our hot, arid climate, and produce sharing would be difficult (if not impossible) among the endless chain of gated communities.

But I’m slowly making friends who love to share their knowledge, experience and kitchen bounty. One friend spent an afternoon with me making orange marmalade from the citrus that I'd carted in from the Altadena backyard. Another new friend brought over a jar of homemade limoncello that’s far superior to the batch that I made last year.

And I’m taking pleasure in feeding the new “picky eater” in my life, a boyfriend who doesn’t like pasta from any country, shellfish from any sea, fish (other than salmon) and a long list of vegetables.

Hope you’ll join me in this new phase of my life as I explore who I am and what's on my plate.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Grapefruit Guilt

Guilt seems to be an overriding theme in my life. Blogging guilt crept in after not posting for more than seven months. Gardening guilt overtook me when I missed all of the windows for planting spring and summer vegetables. And grapefruit guilt attacked when I contemplated the wasted citrus in my back yard.

Last year, I didn't have to deal with grapefruit guilt. I simply posted a message on our local RIPE produce exchange group and citrus pickers would magically arrive to harvest the fruit. But after an area fruit fly quarantine put the kibosh on fruit sharing, untouched yellow orbs fell to the ground or languished on the branches.

To the rescue came two small appliances - my De Longhi citrus juicer (lightweight, easy to store and use and just $15) and my Cuisinart ice cream maker (purchased online for less than $50).

Straight grapefruit juice has too much pucker-power, but grapefruit ade, with the addition of water and simple syrup, is as refreshing as the stuff kids hawk at summer-time stands.

Grapefruit Ade

2 cups grapefruit juice (about five grapefruits)
1/4 cup simple syrup (1/4 sugar and 1/4 cup water, heated until clear)
1 cup water

Let the simple syrup cool, stir the three ingredients together and start looking for a front-porch swing.

I found this recipe for Grapefruit Mint Sorbet on the blog for Produce in the Park, a volunteer-sponsored food and produce-sharing group in Monrovia. I love it when I have all the simple ingredients - grapefruits, mint, sugar and vodka - on hand for a delicious and refreshing dessert.

Grapefruit Mint Sorbet

2 cups grapefruit juice (and some pulp if you’d like)
2 cups water
1.5-2 cups of sugar (according to taste and sweetness of your fruit, but start on the low end)
2-4 sprigs of mint
1-2 shots of vodka or tequila

In a small pot, combine the juice, water, 1.5 cups of sugar and mint. Bring to a boil and then simmer on low for 10 minutes. Let steep for an additional 10-20 minutes, remove the mint, pour in the alcohol, then chill (the juice, that is).

At this point, you can either place the juice in an ice cream maker for about 25 minutes, or put it in the freezer. If you opt for the freezer, just make sure to scrape/mix it every 30 minutes while it’s freezing to incorporate some air.

The fresh-from-the-maker sorbet gets weeply quickly, but an hour in the freezer produces a firmer version (see above photo).

These grapefruit recipes have cleansed my guilt as effectively as a sorbet cleanses the palate between courses. Now if only I could find a recipe to dissolve the other guilt in my life.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Cheese Flops

When I first bit into a gougères, a savory French cheese puff, at Tartine in SF, I wondered, "Where have you been all my life?" The treats are crisp on the outside, puffy on the inside and infused with fresh thyme and gruyere.

I was delighted to learn later that Fraiche in Culver City baked their own gougères and even served their hamburgers on the puffy buns.

But, alas, I discovered during my September visit that Fraiche no longer bakes or serves the bread.

"Where can I buy fresh gougères?" I asked the Food Librarian, who had just posted about the perfect puffs she made at home.

"In your own kitchen," she wrote back.

I was about to pop open a bottle of champagne I'd been saving and decided that gougères would be the perfect accompaniment.

I turned to the master source, the Tartine cookbook that I had purchased during a recent visit to the venerable bakery. I'd no longer have to journey to SF to sink my choppers into a gougères.

But this beautiful cookbook was not a fit for baking-challenged moi. The ingredients and directions were listed on two different pages and I had to keep flipping back and forth. The directions were written in long, narrative paragraphs, not bullet points. And the directions left some confusion. (It said to stir in the flour. Should I turn off the flame first or keep it on high?) They didn't say, so I guessed wrong and turned off the flame.

Perhaps that's why my puffs were a flop, as flat as giant buttons. But that didn't stop friends and family from asking, "Are there more?" I baked up tray after tray of the flops, and they greedily ate them.

Just imagine how gaga they'll go over a gougères done right. (Next time I'll follow Tartine-loving Jen's instructions on Oishii Eats.)

(PS It may be a while before I can bake up another batch of gougères. I broke a hip, had pin surgery and will be hobbling about on a walker for a few weeks.)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Foolproof Fried Rice

When you forage through your 'fridge in hopes of finding enough ingredients to assemble a meal, what do you find?

In our household, eggs are a given. And I can always count on those "baby" carrots that we buy but seldom eat. Some kind of leftover meat - ham, Canadian bacon or leftover chicken - is usually lurking. I can unearth wilted green onions and half of a forgotten red pepper. And I'm never without peas in the freezer and garlic in the pantry.

I have the fixings for one of my favorite go-to meals - fried rice. It's easy, delicious, nutritious and a great way to use up the bits and pieces in your fridge.

The trick is to have cold, leftover rice on hand. You can bring home the uneaten rice from an Asian restaurant. Or you can make extra rice and chill. Both are good options, but aren't always available when the urge for fried rice strikes.

So I'll share with you a little secret to ensure that you always have all the fixings for fried rice on hand: brown rice from the freezer section at Trader Joe's.

No need to defrost. Just dump a bag of the frozen grains into your sizzling wok or fry pan. And, believe it or not, the results are superior to the leftover Japanese short-grained brown rice that I sometimes use. The TJ's frozen rice produces beautiful, separate grains, and that's the secret to a great, mush-free meal.

The young adults in my household thumb their noses at plain brown rice, but when it's fried with meat, veggies and egg, they gobble it down. Even my one-year-old grandson can't get enough. And, best of all, we never get bored because the variations are endless.

  • Go to Wandering Chopsticks for several fried rice recipes, including this one with Chinese sausage, frozen vegetables and egg. I credit her for teaching me to make fried rice.
  • Some fried rice recipes call for cooking the egg separately and adding it in later. Another technique (my favorite) is to saute the meat and veggies, push them to the side and cook the egg in the well in the center.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

More Than One Way to Brew a Cup of Coffee: Roaster Family Coffee

I had hoped to meet my morning caffeine quota with jasmine tea from Lunasia (my current favorite non-cart dim sum restaurant). But when I learned the wait for tea and dim sum was 45 minutes, I dragged my un-caffeinated self across the street for a quick cup of java at Roaster Family Coffee.

I expected the barista to serve a cup from a pot or urn. Instead, she measured and ground fresh beans. Just for me. What came next was even more surprising. I was familiar with percolating, pressing and dripping methods for brewing coffee. Roaster Family Coffee uses a siphon brewing method. Invented in 1840, the brewing contraption looks like something from an antebellum mad scientist's lab.

Clockwise from top left: 1) Grind beans. 2) Place beans in vessel over pot of water. 3) Water vapor forces hot (but not boiling) water from the pot into the vessel. 4) See how the vessel is filling up? Alchemy or physics?

1) A quick stir 2) Physics in action again: When heat is turned off, coffee returns to pot. 3) Fresh siphon-brewed coffee 4) Elegant service in a china cup for just $1.80.

The brewing method might be so two centuries ago, but the heating method - a halogen burning system - is 21st century.

The decor is a lot like the brewing system - a mix of the old and new.

How was the coffee? Strong and rich without a trace of acidity or bitterness. Come for the show, but stay for the coffee.

Roaster Family Coffee
521 W Main St.
, CA 91801
626. 282.8879

713 W Duarte Rd.
Suite F

Arcadia, CA 91007

For more information about syphon-brewed coffee, visit the Coffee Geek or the New York Times.

Coffee on FoodistaCoffee