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Quinoa–have you tried it?

First, a little blog news: I’ve started, but not yet working much on, another blog, but this one on sewing. Yes, yet another sewing blog on the web. Let’s see how many stories about cutting my fingers with scissors, sticking needles and other sharp items in my fingers and hands and pins in my feet I dare to publish on the web for your amusement. Yes, I’ve bled on many, many textiles. But not the fabulous 1996 wedding dress, thank heavens (blood is a bear to get out of raw silk.)

I’ve bled in the kitchen, too, never in food and have never stuck a knife through my metacarpals. There *is* the matter of the air conditioner motor mount through the bottom of one of my feet, barely missing my metatarsals, but I was about 8 or 9, I think. I can still find the little scar on the bottom of my foot. (Never mind which one.)

I’ve had a LOT of tetanus shots in my life. But I’ve never broken a bone. Yet.

Back to the food discussion while I nibble on the leftover dried cherries from the delicious sausage and acorn squash thing last week. . .I need to get more, I want to make it again. Dried cherries. . .YUM. . . .

One of those things I absolutely love is quinoa. It’s a pebbly grain-like stuff that’s cooked like rice and has long been a staple of health food stores and the veggie crowd. But why would Amy like it?  It’s healthy! It’s gluten free! It’s complete protein! It’s a cure for cancer and high blood pressure!

I’m kidding about that last part. BUT–it really is healthy and a complete protein. I love this stuff, and I don’t even care if it’s healthy. I’d put it up there with chocolate for deliciousness.

Well, almost.

There are a number of jokes about being a native New Orlenian; one of them goes, “you know you’re from New Orleans when you start a pot of rice and you have no idea what’s for dinner.” I quit eating rice, especially white rice, many years ago. If you are looking for something to substitute for rice, keep reading.

I discovered quinoa when I made a fancy stuffed poblano pepper dinner for my “new husband” in 1996 or 1997 when it appeared in a Martha Stewart Living issue. (I had to hunt it down at one of the small, far-flung health food stores in New Orleans–they were few and far between.) It had quinoa and walnuts and goat cheese and I can’t remember what else. I’d never bought poblanos in my life, so it was a big deal for me to make it. It was SO fancy, and I when I served it to King of the Road and went to explain it, he said, “don’t tell me what’s in it. Just let me eat it.” I never made it again, and after four years, I stopped cooking for him (we split), but I did remember the quinoa.

A few years ago a couple of recipes showed up in Suzanne Somers cookbook Slim & Sexy Forever. And that’s how I started eating the stuff again (and no husband around to complain about it, either.)

I tell people about quinoa frequently, but a lot of folks have never heard of it or have no idea what it is, even if they are “into healthy things.” Shame–it’s really tasty when prepared properly, and it’s as easy as that boil-in-the-bag white rice stuff,  not to mention healthier.

So, what is it and why should you consider buying some to try? Well, it’s not actually a grain, it’s the SEED of the grain, but it’s sold that way, both in boxes and in some grocery stores in their bulk sections (like my local HEB.)  Let’s let Purdue explain it a bit better than I can:

Quinoa or quinua (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) is native to the Andes Mountains of Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. This crop (pronounced KEEN-WAH), has been called 41 vegetable caviar” or Inca rice, and has been eaten continuously for 5,000 years by people who live on the mountain plateaus and in the valleys of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile. Quinua means “mother grain” in the Inca language. This crop was a staple food of the Inca people and remains an important food crop for their descendants, the Quechua and Aymara peoples who live in rural regions.

This annual species is in the goosefoot family and is related to the weed, common lambsquarters (Chenopodium album L.), canahua (C. pallidicaule Aellen), and wormseed (C. ambrosiodes L. anthelminticum). Possible hybrids between quinoa and common lambsquarters have been observed in Colorado. Quinoa is also in the same botanical family as sugarbeet, table beet, and spinach, and it is susceptible to many of the same insect and disease problems as these crops. Quinoa is sometimes referred to as a “pseudocereal” because it is a broadleaf non-legume that is grown for grain unlike most cereal grains which are grassy plants. It is similar in this respect to the pseudocereals buckwheat and amaranth.

Have you got that? Sounds delicious, doesn’t it? Now what?

It’s like this: quinoa is lower on the glycemic index than white rice, and takes a lot less time to cook than the more flavorful brown rice. Watch out, though–if you turn your back on it, the stuff *will* burn on the bottom of the pot, and you’ll have to a) soak it and b) use a liberal amount of Brillo to get the pot clean again. (Never mind how I know that. Brillo is my friend.)

If you have someone in your household who is on any number of diets we have in the US, quinoa may be a part of it (check the diet’s guidelines and, if necessary, your physician to be sure.) Since it’s gluten free, folks with sensitivities may be able to have it. It’s plant-based, so vegetarians and vegans love it. Ancient Harvest has a page with more nutritional information on quinoa.

No, I am not a vegan, vegetarian, or lacto-ovo anything. If you ask me what I like about the holidays, expect me to say TURKEY. Don’t even think of suggesting that other fake-me-out stuff.

Warning: quinoa is, as you might imagine, more expensive than rice, since it’s more of a specialty item. At my local HEB, and on occasions when I go to Central Market, a bulk pound of it is about $3.99; that’s also for organic. (I’ve never bought it boxed.)  I don’t eat it every day, but when I buy it, I’m in the bulk section buying huge bags of it. Since it’s dried, it keeps for quite a while. I have a big glass jar that I use *just* for storing my quinoa supply. I also try to keep it full, so I can have it whenever I want some.

Yes, I want it all the time–but I don’t eat it all the time, honest. Even though I could.

There is also a red quinoa, and I bought a small amount of it at Central Market just to try it. Red quinoa is something like $7 or $8 a pound, and not knowing how I’d like it, I just bought about a half cup or so of it. British cookbook author Nigella Lawson posted on Facebook a picture of something she had in LA with fresh spinach, red quinoa and an egg on top, and boasted how she thought the red tasted better. OK, Nigella says it’s good, I gotta try it, so I did. But I can’t say I share the same sentiment. Maybe I didn’t cook it long enough, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll try it again one day after doing a little more research.

Now I’m going to tell you what to do with it. The basic cooking directions are here, but what I’ve been doing is one part quinoa, two parts water, and a chicken bullion cube for ever cup of water used. Oh, YEAH! Boil the water, rinse the quinoa in a fine-mesh sieve, toss the cube(s) in the boiling water, then add the quinoa. Cover, turn down the heat to medium, and cook until the water is absorbed.

Do NOT walk away from it, or you will have a mess–and no tasty quinoa to eat.

Giada de Laurentiis’ new book, Weeknights with Giada, has a couple of recipes for quinoa, including one for, no kidding, canned salmon. I can make that one anytime, because. . .I keep buying cans of salmon for emergencies. No garlic, believe it or not, and it’s a bit unusual and quite good.

I also made this Quinoa Pie with Butternut Squash last year for Thanksgiving. And for the office luncheon. And for myself. It’s REALLY good, but does fall apart a little when you cut it into slices.

The original Suzanne Somers’ recipe that got me started eating it is called Sauteed Herb Quinoa, and it goes like this:

1 cup dry quinoa

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 shallots, finely diced

1 clove garlic, minced

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh flat-leave parsley

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the quinoa according to package directions (or see directions above.)

While the quinoa is cooking, place a saute pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil and shallots; saute for 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute longer. Add the cooked quinoa and the parsley and stir to combine. Season with sea salt and pepper and serve immediately.

If you’re feeling adventurous this weekend, get a small bag of quinoa, or a small box, and give it a try (just don’t BURN it.) You’ll be in for a nice surprise, because it really is tasty and good for you, as well as pretty easy to make.

Happy Dining!

The Hot Mess

So, today was Thanksgiving, and I did indeed bake some Babycakes goodies and made The Soup Of Enlightenment. (YUM!!) I also made some Tuscan Mashed Chickpeas on page 42 of Barefoot Contessa Foolproof. It’s similar to hummus, but no tahini (sesame paste.)  It’s literally two cans of chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) some chicken broth, added to some cooked tomatoes, minced garlic, parsley, salt and pepper.

I also walked for 90 minutes tonight. And did some pushups. Envy me. Especially in a little black dress. (One of these days.)

Tuscan Mashed Chickpeas was one of the samples from the book they served to us in line at Sur la Table when I went to see Ina Garten on November 12th. I didn’t remember it being watery. . .not sure what I did, but I think I might have accidentally a) over-processed the chickpeas and b) didn’t cook the tomatoes long enough. Oh, well–turn the heat up and let it boil out? Yes, in a cast iron frying pan. It worked. Now I have some delicious stuff in my fridge to nibble on with celery. (The book recommends “shards of grilled country bread;” that’s not something I normally have around.)

I’ve heard a new slang term that I think truly describes many a kitchen disaster: The Hot Mess. I was watching the first episode of the new Hot In Cleveland season online (on TVLand.com, OK?) and heard Valerie Bertinelli’s character Melanie use that term to describe her new job situation. What it came from was describing someone, usually female, who is, well, a mess–bad dresser, drinks too much, whatever. Lindsay Lohan fits this description perfectly; so does Britney Spears. A “hot mess.” Bigger mess than the usual.

We’ve all been there, right?

While making my delish Tuscan Smashed Chickpeas, I started thinking about many a “hot mess” I’ve had in the kitchen, and while they were not fun when they were going on, they’re pretty amusing now. . .and better with no witnesses. Like the Thanksgiving a couple of years ago when I was slicing onions to brine a turkey the day before. My aunt called, and I wanted to talk to her, so I did. While using one of those mandolins to slice onions. I forgot to pick up the holder thingy, and when I got to the bottom of the onion, my thumb hit the blade. Sharp blade. Sharp hit. Lotsa blood. None got anywhere else but the two dishtowels I grabbed to stop the bleeding. Didn’t go to hospital, and it healed up all by itself. Eventually.

I did that once before, slitting open the middle finger of my right hand–not my driving finger, thankfully. I was trying to separate frozen sliced cheese so I could make my new husband a sandwich. No, I didn’t bleed on that, either. But I did go through some bandages that week.

A couple of years ago I bought a head of cauliflower because it was on sale, and finally decided to just roast it in the toaster oven on the convection setting. Well. . .it roasted all right. It was burned to a crisp. DARNIT. A whole head of cauliflower into the trash. I set it aside to cool, and I just idly picked up a piece and ate it.

DELICIOUS.

I’m serious–if you don’t like cauliflower, BURN IT! It gets rid of the chalky taste and it’s SOOOO GOOD. That was an accident that turned out good. They don’t all turn out that way.

“Hot mess” would also be a good way to describe the last attempt I made at making gravy from the turkey. I don’t LIKE gravy, therefore, I don’t MAKE gravy. Every year someone *else* has made gravy. I stay away from it, because it truly was a mess the last time I tried it. And they never let me forget it, either.

About ten years ago, I had just moved in with my very good friend in La Marque, TX (formerly known as “ex-boyfriend,” but that’s another story.)  He’s a widower, and we were going to his mother-in-law’s place for Thanksgiving. Me, nervous. A week or two before, I made some sweet potato frites from that month’s issue of Martha Stewart Living for dinner, and they were SO GOOD! We couldn’t stop stuffing our faces! I decided I’d bring them to Thanksgiving dinner.

Of course, expanding a recipe like that doesn’t *always* work. And it doesn’t help that his comment was, “Oh, yeah, that top oven needs to be recalibrated.”

My delicious sweet potatoes were a hot mess. Ditto that goat-cheese and fig salad I brought, with the balsamic dressing. The hostess, a very nice lady, brought me some Wish-Bone; she didn’t realize that I’d already dressed it. And I never did THAT again. . .but at least I tried.

Whenever I cooked him breakfast, it became a game to see if I could get his eggs “over easy” just the way he liked them. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. There was one day that I made a breakfast that, he claimed, stunk up the whole house with the onions, and he had to leave the doors open to get the cooking odors to go away while I was working. That’s when the stray cat got in the house, and my brave feline Kismet ran that cat up the street. Oh, and I never made that one again.

Another time I decided to try a Suzanne Somers recipe for Beef Curry. I admit that I’m not completely familiar with Indian, Thai and Vietnamese cooking, but this looked pretty simple. I found curry paste in my local HEB, and went to town on this 20 minute beef curry.

Let’s just say that HE went to KFC for dinner that night. Oh, that’s a recipe I’ll never try again. Nobody could tell me what curry was hot and what wasn’t, and of course, the one I got was BURNING HOT. I try to be frugal, but this went out. Neither of us could stomach it, so KFC it was that night.

And, believe it or not, we’re friends today. Amazing.

Then there was the day I roasted my own garlic in the oven. I bought one of those little clay bakers, and did not, at the time, own a countertop (aka “toaster”) oven like I do now. Well, after an hour in the oven, the garlic wasn’t the soft, smushy thing the box said it would be. So I put it in the microwave to bake a little longer.

We’ve all done this, right?

A few minutes later, the light is off, or so I thought. The microwave oven was filled with smoke. I opened the door and smoke came billowing out, and the garlic was ON FIRE. Yes, it ignited, and all I could do was grab it with metal tongs and dunk it in some water in the sink. And that was the last time I attempted to roast garlic.

Around 1990 or so, I decided to make something fancy for a family holiday dinner (Easter, I think.)  I still have my first-edition copy of the 1984 Avon International cookbook, still in the jacket, with native-country recipes from representatives from all over the world. I have long had a fascination with Australia, although I’ve never been Down Under. (I do have friends in Melbourne who have long invited me for a visit; one day, I really am going to go.)

So I decided I would make a fancy Pavlova for dinner, a recipe from the Aussie Avon Lady. If you’ve never had one, it’s basically a large baked meringue with fruit and whipped cream on top. Whipped egg whites that are baked and left in the oven for some time after you turn it off. Turns out crispy. You have to assemble it right before serving so that the bottom doesn’t go soggy. It *should* look something like this:

Aussie Pavlova

Unfortunately, mine didn’t. That bottom layer, the meringue, went flat. As in pancake flat. So I chopped up some fruit and took it as is. Over the river and through the woods to the folks’ place. Tasted pretty good. Fortunately, nobody but me knew what it was, and that it was not supposed to be flat. I have since made pavlovas successfully, albeit not for family members.

Do you eat microwave popcorn? No, I don’t–not anymore, for a couple of reasons, namely the toxins that make the stuff taste good. But I admit, I did buy it at one time, oil, toxins and all. I was not at home, and not alone, with a friend of mine and we were going to have some. It didn’t all pop; a significant amount ended up un-popped. So we put it back in the microwave and tried again.

Flame. In the microwave. Any questions?

She swore she would never tell anyone what happened, and she didn’t; she passed away about a year later, but not from the popcorn. There are some things we do NOT try, and they don’t tell you about stuff like that on TV. Especially not cooking shows. Then again, I’m sure there’s a blooper reel from every cooking show on The Food Network. But one it ever got out, I bet Giada de Laurentiis would sue!

Just kidding, Giada. I know you don’t make mistakes on camera.

Speaking of Giada, just earlier this year, when her new book came out, Weeknights with Giada, I bought it ahead of time to get the much-desired ticket to get into the signing. I tried one of her recipes, and, well. . .I screwed it up. Used a garlic-flavored oil when I shouldn’t have, and did something else or forgot something else. . .it was edible, but didn’t taste the way she intended. So when I got to talk to her, I said, “Hi, Giada. I screwed up one of your recipes last night.” Giada said, “Uh, oh, what’d  you do?” I told her. My bad, I know. But it wasn’t as big of a hot mess as some have been. And I made that recipe again, the RIGHT way.

What *was* a hot mess was another Giada recipe, Lamb Ragu from Giada’s Kitchen. The first two times I made it, I didn’t quite get that at some point you turn the heat down. The second time I did that, I took a pink highlighter and went over the line that says to TURN DOWN THE HEAT. Never made THAT mistake again. (Delicious recipe, BTW.)

Oh, and when I cook with tomato sauce, especially a lot of it, my kitchen looks like a crime scene. I am proud of this. Yes, I clean it up, too.

Numerous mistakes have been made by NOT reading the recipe, but for the most part, I over came them. Thank heavens.

I have a brother who will tell you to never eat my cooking, because “Amy can’t cook.” I can, but. . .well, I tried to cook for him a couple of times, Let’s put it this way–he sent me an apron for my birthday that says, “Last time I cooked, almost no one got sick!” He even writes songs about my cooking. Or rather, he re-writes songs about my cooking. Maybe I’ll post the lyrics to one he re-wrote for me, called Amy’s Back in Austin. Maybe I should send it to the group who wrote the original, a band called Little Texas. It’s actually a pretty good tune, even though I’m not a country fan, but I don’t think they ever thought someone would parody it like that.

Why would a brother say such things about his sister’s cooking? After all the fabulous desserts transported over 350 miles to New Orleans for holidays? Well, it goes like this. . .

When I got married in 1996, my friend JS gave me a copy of Martha Stewart’s Quick Cook Menus. I still have it, and even used a recipe from it just recently. Well, I still lived in New Orleans, and my brother, his wife and daughter lived here in Houston. (We’ve swapped since then.) They visited for a week, and I made sure I not only invited them for dinner, but made something fantastic from that book. The Chicken Cacciatore with angel-hair pasta. The salad with the creamy balsamic dressing. The garden soup from that month’s issue of Martha Stewart Living. The raspberry cobbler with the biscuit topping. It was FAAAABULOUS, I tell you.

In my world, it was. The Queen would have been very pleased. But this wasn’t the Queen I invited to dinner.

The next day, I got a call from my brother: “What was in that soup?” Seems that my niece, who was then about 15 or so, was, well, hurling all night. Didn’t affect anyone else, just her. Ahhhh. . .then my sister-in-law tells me that she’s allergic to raspberries. . .but she forgot that she was allergic until after she’d eaten some.

Needless to say, I’ve never cooked for them again, and he continues to write songs about my cooking when the muse visits him.

Others have told me of their kitchen disasters. My good friends in Australia have also had their share of them. The wife, a teacher who graduated from LSU in Baton Rouge, told me that she’d once made a birthday cake for her husband when the beaters broke in the cake. She thought she got all the parts out, but just to be safe, they were very careful when they ate it!

My mother told me one of my favorites–she always baked birthday cakes for kids’ birthdays; ours as well as relatives, since she was the best at it, particularly the decorating part. (Mom also convinced me that I would not be able to bake my own wedding cake. I could have, but. . .it was easier to let someone else bake it.)  For my 17th birthday, I requested, and got, a chocolate rum cake–but no, it wasn’t boozy or anything.

Mom had a stand mixer from Sears, (circa 1975, I think) and didn’t use it every day, so it was in a cabinet most of the time until it was needed. Well, it was nearly May 9th, her own mother’s birthday, and Mom made a cake for her, too. She put all the ingredients into the mixing bowl, turned it on, and out the other end was a big roach! It had been living in the motor case for an indeterminate amount of time, and turning it on rattled its cage. Nothing got INTO the batter, it ran in the other direction. Thank heavens, or one of us would have been sent to the store to get more cake mix.

I suppose the last hot mess was the last toaster oven I had. I killed it. Six years after I received it for a Christmas gift from the aforementioned very good friend, it stopped working, and I bought another one. I really don’t want to be without one, and of course I bought the newest Cuisinart model with the convection setting, timer and exact-heat sensor on it. (On sale at Bed, Bath & Beyond, with a coupon, of course.) I use it more than the one in the stove–you can roast a whole chicken in it! Yes, I do it, too.

That’s enough for tonight. I’d love to hear about your kitchen disasters, the ones you can laugh at now. (Someone losing a finger or toe is NOT funny, really.)  Post them below in the comments. . .if you dare.

Happy Dining!

Oh, grow a pear!

Many years ago, I was up to my ears in it–work, college, and an impending wedding. I had a lot going on. The groom was away a lot, and it was my birthday in the middle of the week. I didn’t get around to a birthday cake, but I did have something special: a big, ripe, green avocado, sprinkled with sea salt. That’s all it needed.

I waited a couple of days to eat it, to make sure it was ready. It was. At my little dining table, all by myself, with my felines wondering what I was doing and what that smell was.

It was SOOOOOO good. Soft. Creamy. Tasty. Full of fresh, green flavor. With salt.

I only looked up the calorie count a couple of days later. I would have consumed less calories with a slice of cake, but that’s OK. Worked for me!

I had a similar, albeit lower-calorie, experience this week.

Pears are a nice, lesser-loved second cousin to apples. Some folks like them, some don’t. Pears are available in pear brandy and pear balsamic vinegar.  But apples and oranges are more popular. But if you ask most folks what their favorite fruit is, you likely won’t hear “pear” out of too many of them.

Pears deserve respect.

On Sunday, while stocking up on some economy-size supplies at Central Market, I prowled through the produce section last, because I knew what I wanted and I got it first. Now, sometimes they have non-standard things, like truffle mushrooms (at about $250 a pound, no kidding), Italian cipollini onions and Meyer lemons. Central Market is a Texas haven for unusual and hard-to-find ingredients. But of course they have those right next to the regular onions, sweet potatoes, lemons, limes and grapefruit.

This is nirvana for a foodie like me.

Pears are in season, and while you can get them all year long (fresh or in cans), when pear- based desserts show up, it’s usually fall and the holidays. I like pears, but I don’t buy them often, I guess because I don’t want them to go to waste. They’re a bit like strawberries, you can’t keep them fresh or in the fridge too long.

But this particular beautiful Sunday, after an encouraging religious activity, I found this baby in Central Market:

First view of big pear

Look how beautiful. . .a burnished red and twice the size you normally see.

Is that not the most beautiful pear ever? Check out its closeup:

A closer shot of the big pear

Perfection on a stem.

I couldn’t get a good shot of the ruler, but off the stem, it’s about 6″ long. I took my tape measure and also got the girth, which was 11.5″. That’s right, it was just under one foot around the middle and just under 6″ in length.

That’s a big, honkin’ Texas-sized pear. Nearly twice the size of your standard grocery store pears. (Grown in the USA, of course.)

Never having seen one that big before, I got one. JUST one. They were $1.99 a pound, and, well, it was just over $2. A little splurge.

I put it out to ripen a little, and, well, yesterday I couldn’t wait. I got a big knife and diced it all up in large chunks after cutting out the central seed and stem. I ate this beautiful creation as is, raw, with nothing on it–no sugar, sweetener, or spices. I consumed it as Mother Nature intended.

I should have waited a couple more days.

Not quite softened, and not as sweet as it could have been, but it was still pretty darn tasty.

Now, if pears are your thing, and you want a nice little dessert for pears, here’s one called Chocolate Pear Pudding that’s easy to make and uses canned pears and other pantry ingredients. I’ve made it a few times and folks love it; it always disappears.

Yes, at Bootcamp I had amazing, beautiful, and delicious postage-stamp sized desserts–tiramisu, passionfruit creme brulee, apple walnut tarts and chocolate ganache tarts, all the size of a tablespoon. And then the artfully decorated cupcakes at the end of the conference. I’ve had cheesecakes of many kinds, a myriad of birthday and wedding cakes, bad fruitcake, good fruitcake (my mother used to make enviously delectable ones, so I never understood the bad fruitcake jokes) and the occasional Hubig’s pies (though not in many years.) Nevermind the cookies, the biscottis I’ve baked, or bought and dunked in coffee at Starbucks, tea cakes, and of course, muffins that someone brought to the office with blueberries from the farm (yes, you, Aunt Ruth.)

But sometimes, all it takes is something simple like a small container of sweet berries, a fresh pineapple, a crisp, striped apple, or a big, ripe pear to really hit the spot.

Happy Dining!

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