Ode to an Onion

>> Sunday, May 8, 2011

I am a sweet onion fanatic. Not so very long ago, I'd have to sometimes settle for a stouter storage onion.  Storage onions are fine for cooking, but they can be too pungent for truly enjoying raw.  These days, I can always find a sweet onion at the grocery store.  Even though sweet onions aren't the unusual treat that they used to be, I still get excited about onions this time of year.  Why?  This is Vidalia onion season!  Juicy and sweet with thick layers, these onions are a wonder. 

What makes Vidalia's special?  Vidalia onions are grown in a very specific 20 county region of Georgia.  The low sulfur soil and the unique climate result in the beloved sweet onion.  (Say it like vie-dayl-yuh with a nice long I sound at the beginning.  Georgians will leave the L sound out, but I'm from Mississippi, so in it goes.) The onions are especially sweet because of their low sulfur and high sugar content.  In fact, a Vidalia onion can have as much sugar as an apple.  The onions are harvested late-April through mid-June.  They can be stored for sale as late as December in special, high-nitrogen storage units, but I generally see them in our grocery store in May and June. 

How do you use Vidalia onions?  I use sweet onions in any recipe that calls for an onion, but Vidalia onions are really best appreciated raw or lightly cooked.  Slice one for a sandwich or add chopped, raw Vidalia onion to a salad to fully appreciate the sweet onion flavor.  The onions are great in Classic Greek Salad (see recipe at the end).  The thick onion layers really lend themselves to onion rings too.  I love to use this onion ring recipe from Cooking Light. 

I bought my first Vidalia onions of the season today.  Although grown in Georgia, you can find these delicious onions nationwide.  If you've not tried Vidalias, start looking for the word "Vidalia" on the little stickers on the sweet onions at your grocery store and snap them up while you can!

Classic Greek Salad
Adapted from Greek Meze Cooking

2 large, ripe tomatoes, cut into thin wedges (I tend to use lots of grape tomatoes cut in half lengthwise)
1/2 cucumber, halved and sliced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and sliced into rings (I like to use red bell pepper)
2 oz. kalamata olives
1 large onion, finely sliced
6 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp finely chopped fresh oregano
salt to taste

Toss together the tomato through feta cheese.  Combine lemon, oil, oregano, and salt in a small bowl, and whisk to make a vinaigrette.  Add to the salad and serve.

Serves 4-6


Lunch for a Princess

>> Monday, April 11, 2011

Do you ever get in a rut when you prepare food for your child?  Make the same things over and over again or go to the foods that are supposed to be "kid friendly"?  I'm certainly guilty of doing that.  I have my go-to lunches for my daughter - like spaghetti and PB&J.  Fortunately, she likes to remind me to think outside of the kid-friendly box sometimes.

I've inadvertently found that one of the best ways to get my children to try new foods is to simply to eat the food myself.  That's precisely how I discovered one of my daughter's very favorite lunches - a wrap with a generous smear of goat cheese, roasted red peppers, sliced sweet onion, and tomato.  I was enjoying a wrap of this very description one day when my princess said she wanted a bite...and then ate my whole wrap.  She generally does not care for raw onion (or roasted red peppers for that matter), but in this wrap, she loves the "crunchy bits."  Now I send this wrap for school lunch quite often.

If all else fails, I can depend on her drinking a smoothie for lunch.  And why not?  Packed with fruit and a little punch of protein, the smoothies we make for her are a smart and fun lunch, and again, a lunch that she stole from my husband who is also a smoothie fiend. 

Don't be afraid to challenge your child's taste buds.  They just might surprise you!  What's your favorite non-traditional lunch to serve your child?

A wrap is always better with a fancy toothpick holding it together on a fun plate.
 Princess Wrap

1 small flour tortilla
soft goat cheese
jarred roasted red pepper
sliced tomato
sliced sweet onion

Smear goat cheese down center of tortilla and top with remaining ingredients.  Roll and eat.

Watch the ingredients in the tortillas!  Many brands use hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils in their tortillas.

Princess Smoothie

1 banana
1 cup frozen strawberries (thaw a little before blending - 45 sec in microwave does a good job)
1 cup milk (dairy, soy, almond, or coconut)
1 spoonful of peanut butter
a squeeze of chocolate syrup

Place all in a blender and blend until smooth.  Makes 2-3 servings

Add a little tofu to make the smoothie extra creamy and add an extra big punch of protein.


It's National Empanada Day!

>> Friday, April 8, 2011

Who knew?  What perfect way to end my blogging vacation than to celebrate the humble empanada on its very own day by resharing my empanada recipe.  (As an aside, I always want to say em-pa-NYA-da, but I am trying retrain myself to say the word correctly: em-pa-NAH-da.)  A couple of years ago a group of Latina women sold "authentic Latin food" at our local farmer's market.  I fell head over heels in love with their corn and cheese empanadas.  This recipe is my attempt at recreating their empanada.  It falls short of the empanadas I enjoyed at the Farmer's Market, but it's still a darn good empanada, and it freezes well to boot.  I make extra and freeze them to pack in my son's lunch box or to use on those nights when I just don't feel like cooking.

Empanadas de Choclo y Queso (Corn and Cheese Empanadas)

packaged frozen empanada shells (find in the freezer section)
2 TBSP butter
1/2 onion, finely chopped
2 TBSP all-purpose flour
Lowfat evaporated milk (about 1/2 a can)
2 oz Monterey Jack cheese or cheese of choice
1 green onion, finely chopped
corn - 4-6 ears fresh or 1 can or 1 1/2 - 2 cups frozen (I used a bag of fresh corn that I froze last summer)
1 small can green chiles (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 F.

White Sauce - Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until tender. Whisk in the flour and cook for about a minute. Slowly whisk in the evaporated milk until your sauce is the desired consistency. Cook for a couple of minutes adding more evaporated milk if necessary. (My sauce at this point was very thick but pourable.)

Add in cheese, green onions, and corn as well as any other optional ingredients. Stir to combine well.

Place a tablespoon or two of corn and cheese filling in the center of an empanada shell. Wet the outer edge of the shell with a little water and press edges together to make a sealed pouch. Place empanada on an oiled baking sheet. Continue until all of your filling and/or empanada shells are used.

Bake at 400 F for 10-15 min or until empanada bottoms are browned. (You can also brush an egg wash over the top of the uncooked shells to brown the tops as well.)

Makes about 30 empanadas

Want more empanada ideas?  Foodgawker has beautiful pictures of empanadas with links to the recipes.  Get ready to drool!  And while I haven't tried this recipe, Home Baked Memories has a wonderful looking Green Chile Chicken and Queso Empanada recipe.  Enjoy!


Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler! King Cake for Mardi Gras

>> Sunday, March 6, 2011

Care to guess what I'll be doing today?  I've spoiled a few Wyoming folk, and they now plead for King Cake.  Mardi Gras is this Tuesday, so King Cake time is quickly ending.  King Cake is just as tasty if it isn't Mardi Gras season, of course, but it just doesn't seem quite right to have it past Mardi Gras.  So, Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler!  Let the good times - and the King Cake - roll!

Even though I grew up in coastal Mississippi where every town has their own Mardi Gras parade and schools get Fat Tuesday off, I don't have any memories of king cake until moving to Louisiana as an adult.  I'm sure that I had my share of king cake as a child, but in Lousiana, I had lots and lots of king cake.  It's a way of life down there during Mardi Gras season.  We've continued the tradition in our current home of Wyoming to help my son, a Louisiana native, celebrate his heritage (not to mention it's just fun and tasty).

If you're not familiar with Mardi Gras, it's the season just before lent culminating on Mardi Gras day - the day before lent starts.  It is the American South's version of Carnival.  Mardi Gras is known for lots of rich foods, parties, and parades, and is celebrated from the Florida panhandle through southern Louisiana (and other places too, I'm sure).

What is King Cake?   This traditional cake of Mardi Gras was brought over by the French settlers and has morphed into what we eat today.  The cake is a sweet brioche often with a slight cinnamon flavor.  Modern variations can be found stuffed with a cream cheese or fruit filling.

Everything about the king cake is symbolic.  The circular or oval shape is to honor the three kings.  The traditional Mardi Gras colors that decorate the cake are traditional too:  purple represents justice, green represents faith, and gold represents faith.  A small plastic baby (or bean) is often put inside of the cake to represent the baby Jesus.  In Louisiana, whoever found the baby had to bring the next king cake.  We're adding our own twist and saying that whoever finds the baby will have good luck the rest of the year.

King cakes are a Mardi Gras season tradition, but they've become so popular that bakeries make them and people buy them year round now.  Seems like most bakeries in southern Louisiana will ship their king cake nationwide, but we choose to go the cheaper (and just as tasty) homemade route. 

The recipe for this sweet treat looks daunting, I know, but it really isn't that bad.  You need some time, but each step is actually pretty easy.  It's even easier if you have a mixer with a dough hook to do the kneading for you.  (I use the mixer to do most of the mixing, taking a little time to mix in the butter with my own hands.  If you're using a mixer, 6 minutes of kneading with a dough hook seems to do the trick.)  Enjoy!

I didn't use the traditional colors on my king cake - just what I had on hand!  And if you look close, you can see the little plastic baby (totally optional) sitting on top waiting to be hidden inside.

Mardi Gras King Cake with Cream Cheese Filling

1/2 cup warm water
2 packages active dry yeast
1/2 cup plus 2 tsp sugar
4 cups of flour, plus extra if needed
1 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup warm milk
5 large egg yolks
1 stick butter, cut into slices and softened
1 tsp ground cinnamon

Cream Cheese Filling (mix all ingredients together):
2 8-oz packages of cream cheese (low fat is fine)
2 cup confectioner's sugar
3 TBSP flour
2 tsp vanilla extract
a few drops of milk

Icing (Mix together using more or less milk to reach the desired consistency.):
3/4 cup confectioners sugar
3 TBSP milk

Pour the warm water into a bowl and sprinkle the yeast and 2 tsp of sugar into it.  Stir and let the yeast/sugar mix set in a warm place for 10 min.

In a bowl, combine the flour, remaining sugar, nutmeg, and salt and mix well.  Pour yeast mixture and warm milk into flour mixture.  Add egg yolks and mix well using hands, spoon, or mixer.  When mixture is mostly smooth, add in butter a tablespoon at a time.  (I use my dough hook to get this going, and then use my hands to finish mixing the butter in.)   Mix until dough forms a smooth ball.

Place ball of dough on a floured surface and knead, adding more flour as necessary.  When dough is no longer very sticky, knead 10 more minutes until shiny and elastic.  (Or use a mixer with a dough hook for about 6 minutes.)

Coat a large bowl with a little butter or oil.  Place dough ball in the bowl and cover with a towel.  Let rise in a warm place for a 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in size.

After rising, place the dough on a lightly floured surface and punch it down.  Sprinkle the sinnamon on, then pat and shape the dough into a long snake or cylinder.  Use a rolling pin to flatten the cylinder into a long rectangle.  Spoon the cream cheese filling along the center of the rectangle lengthwise.  Pull the lengthwise edges of the rectangle together and fold under to surround the filling with dough.

Carefully move the long, cream cheese filled rectangle onto a baking sheet so that the seam is on the bottom.  Shape into a circle and pinch the ends together.  (A pizza pan works great for this!)

Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place again for 45 minutes.

After the second rising, bake in an oven preheated to 375 F for 25-35 min or until golden brown.  Cool on a wire rack and hide the plastic baby (or bean) inside the cake.

Spoon icing over the cake (it will be thin), and sprinkle green, purple, and gold colored sugar over the icing.


Meatless Monday - Greek Stuffed Peppers (Yemista Orphana)

>> Monday, February 14, 2011

My husband and I love Greek food.  We've been enthralled with Greek flavors for years now, but enthrallment turned to obsession after eating at a fabulous little Greek restaurant in Salt Lake City.  The only thing that keeps me from cooking Greek food more is time.  When I do make a Greek meal, we savor every morsel.

Last night I made an early Valentine meal for my husband - yemista, aka Greek Stuffed Peppers.  My husband and I both really enjoyed these stuffed peppers.  The kids thought this dish was only so-so.  They both ate the stuffing without complaint, but neither were thrilled with the dish.  I'm ok with that.  Their little taste buds were challenged with something new, and they didn't balk at it - a success in itself.  We will have this meal again (and again), and hopefully the kids will warm up to it.

This dish takes a little time, but it is really very easy to prepare.  I stuffed bell peppers exclusively, but you could also stuff tomatoes, zucchini, or eggplant.  If you stuff a vegetable with an edible inside (like a tomato), save the scooped out pulp and add it to your stuffing.

Enjoy and happy Valentine's day!

Yemista with a light Greek side salad

Greek Stuffed Peppers (Yemista Orphana)
adapted from Greek Meze Cooking - Tapas of the Aegean

8 bell peppers
2 TBSP olive oil
6 green onions, finely chopped
1 1/3 cup long grain white rice
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 cup seedless raisins
1/2 cup pine nuts
3/4 cup diced tomato (canned or fresh)
about 2 1/2 cups water
salt and pepper to taste
4 TBSP chopped parsley
3 TBSP chopped fresh mint

To prepare the bell peppers, slice off the tops and scoop out and discard the seeds and ribs.  Save the top; it will be a lid for the peppers after stuffing.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

In a large skillet, heat 1 TBSP of the olive oil and add the onions.  Cook for about a minute, then stir in the rice, garlic, cinnamon, raisins, pine nuts, and the tomatoes.  (If you're using vegetables other than bell peppers, stir in the reserved scooped out insides now.)  Add enough water to cover the rice and simmer, covered, for 10-15 minutes or until the rice is tender and the majority of the liquid has been absorbed.  You can add more water while the rice is cooking if necessary.

Add salt and pepper to taste, and stir in the parsley and mint.  Remove the filling from the heat.  Stuff the bell peppers with the rice filling and place the tops on each pepper.  Arrange the vegetables in a large roasting pan and pour in enough water to just cover the base of the pan.

Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the peppers and back for 50-60 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.  Serve warm or cold.

Serves 8

If you ever have the opportunity to eat at Aristo's in Salt Lake City, jump on it!  Don't be afraid to take the kids.  They are family friendly with a nice kid's menu with kid-friendly Greek fare.  My daughter loves their kephtedes (aka Greek meatballs) and my son loves their pasta with feta cheese.  Your kids will expand their taste horizons without even knowing it!


Go Red for Women!

>> Friday, February 11, 2011

Many thanks to Sahar at Fatfighter TV for inviting me to be a part of Blog Your Heart Out.  This is a cause that is close to Sahar's heart.  Please take the time to read Sahar's post for today - I miss you, mommy.

Did you know that heart disease is the number one killer of women in the US?  It's a statistic that I've heard before, but it always catches me a bit by surprise.  Heart disease is stereotypically associated with men, but it's as big a problem - maybe bigger because the awareness still isn't there - for women.  The American Heart Association started the program Go Red for Women in 2004 to raise awareness that heart disease is a killer for women too.

How can you be an advocate for change?  Whether you're a man or a woman, the initial steps are the same, and if you're at this blog, it's likely that you're already starting to think about the food you eat - a big first step!  The American Heart Association has lots of great looking heart-healthy recipes on their website.  As a side note, the first recipe book that I remember actually spending money on was the American Heart Association Cookbook way back in the early '90s, long before I was really thinking about what foods I put into my body.  Healthy food is still tasty food, folks! 

Exercise regularly - even if all you can fit in is a walk around the block or set of jumping jacks in your cubicle - do what you can!  Regular checkups and blood screenings can help alert you to problems early.  Many communities - mine included - offer a complete blood screening at a manageable, reduced price at certain times of the year.  Take advantage of this service if it's available!  Find out what your cholesterol is and take steps to get it to an acceptable level. If you have high blood pressure or almost high blood pressure, talk to your doctor about how to manage it.  Take control of your health before it takes control of you!

Go Red for Women!  Become a member of the AHA's Go Read for Women campaign and take advantage of all they have to offer.  Membership is free, and members receive a newsletter, a red dress pin, a 12-week BetterU nutrition and fitness program makeover, an online heart checkup, and the chance to share your own story with others.


Equal Exchange Chocolate Giveaway!

>> Friday, February 4, 2011

I love Equal Exchange chocolates, so I was thrilled when they asked if I would like to review their new chocolate bars and hold a chocolate giveaway.  Click over to A Life Less Sweet Reviews to read about these two new chocolate offerings from Equal Exchange (I like one so much I refused to share) and to enter to win a box of assorted Equal Exchange chocolate bars.  Entries will be accepted until 11:59 pm Saturday, February 5, so don't delay! 


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