Sunday, July 18, 2010

Strawberry Mango Muffins and The Crazy Fridge Disaster

My morning yesterday began quite normally. I woke up, made some coffee while still half asleep. I wandered around unpacking a bit and checked my email before starting my day. It was supposed to be a somewhat lazy Saturday morning, after a grueling week of doing nothing but searching for jobs, applying for jobs, driving around looking for job signs. /sigh I needed to relax big time!

My grand plan was to do some therapeutic baking, something I hadn't done in what felt like ages. Between low carb dieting, moving, and a general paring down of ingredients over the past month, I hadn't really had time to bake much of anything. Besides, now that I have such an adorable and fairly roomy kitchen to work in, I wanted to play.

The first sign of trouble surfaced when I opened the fridge to grab some eggs and milk. Instead of a bracing, cool breeze, I was hit with a fairly tepid not quite cool feeling when I opened the fridge door. I assumed that I must have left the door ajar when I grabbed the creamer for my coffee earlier. Oh if only that were the case! But at the time, it was certainly far simpler to assume I had been my usual clumsy self and, not being used to my new side by side opening fridge, must have not shut the door tightly.

I wanted to make some muffins, but I still hadn't decided which type of muffins I felt like making. Looking around in the fridge, I noticed that I still had a small amount of fresh strawberries left over from my purchase at the farmer's market earlier in the week, and the few that remained were not looking very happy. I picked out the ones that were too far gone and salvaged about 6 decent sized berries. I also still had a ripe mango, another of my farmer's market purchases. I didn't have a recipe for strawberry mango muffins, but it sounded like an appealing combination, so I went with it and started creating.

I assembled some basic muffin ingredients on the counter... flour, milk, eggs, baking powder, salt. I have a favorite blueberry muffin recipe that calls for mashing up some of the blueberries into the batter, and thought that might serve as a good starting point for these muffins. My mango was very, very juicy and parts were just a bit mushy, so I mashed up about 1/2 cup, and diced the rest into bite sized chunks. I was hoping the mashed mango would provide a nice balance of moisture and fruity flavor to the batter, and possibly brighten the color as well. My tiny handful of strawberries only amounted to roughly a half cup, which was really less than I would have liked, but there wasn't much I could do about it at the time. I also chopped up some macadamia nuts I had lying around, thinking they would add a nice bit of crunch to the streusel topping I was planning to sprinkle over the batter.

I realized at this point that I had forgotten to grab some butter, so I went back to the fridge, laid my hands down on the sticks of butter and felt them sink a bit under the pressure of my fingers. While the butter was still cold to the touch, it was clearly a lot softer than it should have been coming straight from the fridge. Concern set in now as I began to feel the contents of my fridge. Everything was definitely still cool, but definitely not as cold as normal and the entire interior felt like a cooler at the end of a long picnic, after the ice has started to melt. Opening the freezer door, I breathed some sighs of relief.. everything inside still seemed frozen and cold, and the fan was running. I turned the temperature control a bit cooler on the fridge side and proceeded with my muffins, hoping that would solve the problem.

I mixed up a quick and easy streusel topping by rubbing a small amount of butter with flour, sugar, and the chopped nuts. In retrospect, I would not use salted macadamias again, as their salty bite was too strong for these muffins. I would either try to find unsalted, or use a different nut .. perhaps Brazil nuts or almonds.

Unfortunately, after my muffins had been baked, cooled, and sampled, my fridge was still not cooling properly, so it was time to give the landlord a call and see about having a repairman come out. I found the manual to see if I could troubleshoot in the meantime, but I had already checked everything suggested in the book. I poured myself a soda, reached into the freezer for some ice and my heart sank. The ice bin had water in it... meaning the freezer was beginning to thaw out as well.

I spent a few hours waiting for the landlord to call back, which felt like an eternity. All of my perishable foods went into cooler bags with the remaining ice. Finally, around dinner time, the serviceman called and gave me the bad news... he had been swamped all day with emergencies and was not going to be able to fix my fridge until Monday the earliest. All I could think of was all of my food melting and spoiling over the next couple of days, and how I wasn't going to be able to replace it since my finances are so very tight right now.

Luckily, the repairman was awesome and was able to take the time to talk me through a temporary fix over the phone. I have never in my life done any sort of handy repairs on household appliances, so I was pretty impressed that he was able to get me to do this on my own. After figuring out which breaker switch to turn off (a feat in itself... why do those breaker panels NEVER seem to have things labeled correctly?), I had to remove all of the food, pry loose all of the trays, scrape away some ice buildup covering six tiny metal screws in the back of the fridge interior. It isn't like I have a huge arsenal of household tools to work with here folks, I was working with my cheap pink girly tool kit I had thankfully picked up at the local discount store. I wasn't working with quality equipment and my experience level was zero.

My task was to pry free the screws, remove the long metal plate, and find out what the metal coils and wiring looked like behind the panel. The serviceman was expecting .. correctly as it turned out.. that they would be covered by a wall of ice at least 3" thick. The only way to get my fridge to work at all and have any hope of saving my food was going to depend on me being able to remove that ice, since it was preventing the fridge from operating correctly. My next step was to lay out some towels, grab a power strip and my hair dryer and start melting that ice in intervals. It seems that a hair dryer can be powerful enough to actually melt the metal components of the freezer motor, something to think about next time you are blasting your hair.

It took a while, but eventually I did manage to get all of the ice thawed and cleared from the motor without getting the water all over my hair dyer and electrocuting myself. The panel back in place, I cleaned up the water, turned the breaker back on and had a running fridge again, at least for a few days. The repairman explained that until he is able to fix the real problem, the one causing the ice to build up like that in the first place, it will just continue to create a new layer of ice. But yay.. at least my food was saved!

And now, finally, the muffin recipe....

Strawberry Mango Muffins
(12 servings)

dry mixture:
2 cups all purpose flour or plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp poppy seeds (just 'cause I thought they'd look pretty)

wet mixture:
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar or caster sugar
2 large eggs
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup mashed mango pulp
1 tsp vanilla or almond extract
1 cup diced mango
1/2-1 cup diced strawberries

Streusel topping:
4 Tbsp all purpose flour or plain flour
4 Tbsp granulated sugar
1/4-1/3 cup chopped unsalted nuts (macadamia, almonds, brazil, whatever you prefer)
2 tbsp unsalted butter

Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl, making a well in the center. In another bowl, using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together, then beat in one egg at a time, mixing well after each. Add the mango pulp and the extract and combine well. Stir in the diced mango and strawberries, being careful not to crush them.

Mix together the streusel ingredients in a smaller bowl, adding the nuts last. Personally, this is easiest using your fingers to rub the ingredients together into clumps, making sure to leave the mixture very crumbly.

Pour the wet mixture into the well you made in the dry ingredients and stir just enough to combine the ingredients together, leaving no pockets of dry flour. Overmixing will result in tough chewy muffins, so don't use your electric mixer here.

Spoon the batter into 12 greased muffin tins and sprinkle the crumbly streusel topping evenly over each. They should look like snowy rubble-topped mounds.

Bake in a preheated 375 F oven for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick tests clean when you stick it into the largest looking muffin. Allow to cool in the tins for at least 10 minutes before attempting to pry them free. Enjoy warm or cool.

Notes: The muffins turned out beautiful and their texture was light and fluffy, with just enough crumb to make them true muffins and not cupcakes. I was very happy with their light sweet but not too sweet flavor, and the streusel topping was soft and powdery. The only things I would change would be to add more strawberries (a full cup) and unsalted nuts, as I already mentioned above. Oh... and perhaps almond extract instead of vanilla, especially if I went with chopped almonds in the topping.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Balsamic Drizzled Strawberries

Fresh ripe plump red strawberries
always seem to scream summer to me. When I was a kid growing up in New York, there were many local farms within a days drive where we could go pick our own berries. Actually, in New York, there are tons of "pick your own" type places for just about everything that can be locally grown. To let a kid loose in a field full of fresh strawberries growing in low bushes in the sun was such a great adventure and a thrilling experience. There were bugs to chase, farm rows to run wildly through, laughing and giggling, and everywhere you could look, little green bushes spotted heavily with delicious red berries.

We always ate more than we ever managed to take home, as our juice-stained mouths and fingertips easily proved. It was a great way to spend a lazy summer day.

I haven't been to a pick your own farm in years, but the next best thing is to pick up a box at a local farmer's market. As I did when I was a kid, I ate nearly half of them just out of hand, but the rest I sliced, sprinkled with the tiniest bit of sugar, and then drizzled with a touch of strawberry basil balsamic vinegar. I know this may sound a bit weird, but the taste was really quite amazing. It was slightly tangy, but the sugar brought out the sweetness of the berries, and the hint of basil was a really nice touch. The vinegar tasted so good, I even tipped my glass to drink every last drop.

Balsamic Drizzled Strawberries
(serves 1-2)

1-2 handfuls fresh strawberries, hulled, sliced
1 tsp sugar, to taste
1 tsp strawberry basil balsamic vinegar (I used Archer Farms brand)

Slice berries, then sprinkle with sugar and drizzle with some of the vinegar. Allow to macerate a few minutes, if you can stand to wait that long. Spoon into serving dishes and enjoy.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Ultimate Bacon Sandwich, Fresh from the Farmer's Market

You may recall that I recently made a trip to my local farmer's market and picked up some gorgeous fresh fruits & vegetables, to include a huge vine ripened meaty beefsteak tomato. A real tomato, not one of those yellow-orange almost plastic tasting grocery store tomatoes. Truly fresh tomatoes that have actually grown in a field under the shining sun have a lovely aroma and a luscious, juicy taste and texture. The kind of tomato that when you slice into it, juices flow freely down the sides of your counter, your arms and makes your kitchen smell like a garden.

My grandfather used to grow beefsteak tomatoes in his back yard. I can fondly recall grabbing the bright red globes whole and chomping down into them like apples. They were so sweet and delicious, they tasted just perfect right off of the vine.

A childhood favorite of mine has always been a Bacon, Lettuce, & Tomato Sandwich aka the Classic BLT. I can remember my dad making them for me in the summer, and I am sure that my grandma fixed her fair share of bacon sandwiches for me as well.

A bacon sandwich hardly needs a recipe, but here is a mouthwatering pictorial of my step by step How To Make a Bacon Sandwich, mainly because the photos turned out so yummy looking that I had to share ;)

Step 1: Grab your handy dandy Hello Kitty toaster & insert bread. Seriously, I am such a girl.

Step 2: Slice one huge ripe farm fresh beefsteak tomato, season with salt & pepper. Summer in a slice.

Step 3: Slather toast with some mayonnaise or Miracle Whip (Yes, I am one of those people).

Step 4: Layer on some crispy lettuce....

Step 5: The beefsteak tomato slices.....

Step 6: Bacon.... Crisp delicious bacon

Step 7: Stack, slice, and devour. Yum. Are you hungry now?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My Farmer's Market Haul

One of the very cool things about my new home is its proximity to a local farmer's market. It is quite literally around the corner, just down the street from where I live, less than a few minutes drive. Almost close enough to walk to if it wasn't so incredibly hot and humid out.

A lot of the so-called farmer's markets in this region are often just small stalls that sell a lot of not necessarily local produce. I had nearly given up on them altogether. But this particular stand is the real deal, located at the edge of a genuine farm, jutting up against the very fields where much of the produce sold was grown. Not everything was local, but they certainly put on a good effort and most everything was abundant and fresh. I found the prices to be fairly reasonable, and certainly a bit more economical than some of the local chain grocery stores in this area.

I picked up a couple of deep emerald colored poblano peppers, some bright orange fleshed sweet potatoes, a huge beefsteak tomato, a fat juicy red bell pepper, an enormous mango, and a box of fresh strawberries.

While the guy at the counter was ringing up my fruits & veggies, I noticed they also happened to sell Ale 8 One ginger soda, a specialty soft drink made by a tiny company in Kentucky. I had recently heard Betty over at bettyskitchen sing its praises, so when I saw it sitting in their tiny soda fridge, I picked up a bottle to try. My bottle was a tiny bit flat actually, but the flavor was still refreshing. It doesn't have the same crispy bite that ginger ale does, but is slightly more fruity. I liked that it wasn't overly sweet and syrupy tasting.

My grand total was a fairly reasonable $7.63. Not too bad for the quality and amount of items I purchased.

Monday, July 12, 2010

My Own Personal Piece of the Key Lime Pie...

After what seemed like endless days of torrential downpours, it finally stopped raining long enough for me to take a proper look in my new garden and of course snap some photos.

I love the garden.. it is so private and shady and honestly feels a bit like my own secret garden, tucked away from the rest of the world, complete with a fountain, butterflies, a wall of whistling bamboo, and a slew of more plants and flowers I can't even begin to name, having little to no experience with tropical flora.

One thing I did recognize immediately is this adorable little Key Lime tree full of tiny bright green limes. They aren't quite ripe yet, as Key limes will get a more yellow hue when ripe. I am so excited about this tree! It has been so long since I have had a fruit tree, and this will be my first citrus tree ever.

There are a lot of beautiful tropical plants and flowers in my garden, most of which I am unfamiliar with. Hopefully some of you kind readers will be able to help me identify some of them and even offer some tips on how to care for them.

There are two different sets of these rather large leafy ground plants, their leaves bursting with pink and red tongues.

The center of the garden is covered in these mostly green plants, interspersed with tall shooting purple flowers that remind me of firecrackers. Butterflies love this section of the garden. They were unfortunately a bit camera shy.

There is also a small pond with a fountain. I love the Asian feel. The owner may bring over some Koi fish for the pond. My daughter is going to love that!

Next to the fountain is a tiny patch of pink speckled leaves.

This innocent looking red flowering plant covers a large portion of the back edge of the garden. It seems to have taken over and may be a weed or possibly native ground cover, I am not really sure. Even if it is a weed, it is really very pretty, so I don't think I will try to pull it up.

This wall of tall thin bamboo towers above the entire length of the back wall of the garden, providing much needed shade and excellent privacy.

One tree has a peculiar trunk... it seems to grow lengthwise along the ground. It has smooth shiny leaves and is just beginning to show some yellow buds.

The leaves seem similar to those on the lime tree, only there is no evidence of fruit and the trunk is very different. Any idea what this could be?

I seem to recognize these plants ... I think they might be called elephant ears? Not really sure.

This is yet another huge tropical plant with wide toothy leaves and a shiny surface.

Here is another tree, again with very shiny, almost waxy leaves with crisp edges. This also looks similar to the lime tree, but with slightly different leaves.

And finally, this small patch of ruffled leaves reminds me a lot of spinach, although I can't imagine it could possibly be edible.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Credit Crunch: Asian Lemon Stir Fry with Prawns

It feels SO GOOD to be cooking in my own kitchen again. No more cleaning up after someone else before I can begin, no more worries that someone devoured my ingredients before I could use them, no more having to maneuver around someone else's countertop clutter. Amazing, simply an amazing feeling! I felt so free and it was very inspiring, cooking-wise.

After a few hours of searching through my kitchen boxes, I had finally located my plates and some cooking utensils, so it was, at long last, time to get back to my normal routine of cooking at home. After a couple of weeks of far too many take out meals and tv dinners, I was really craving a home cooked meal. My budget is rather restricted at the moment, until my divorce woes are fully behind me and until I land a full time day job. Therefore, anything and everything I already have in my fridge, freezer, and pantry (mainly stuff I dragged with me when I moved out) has to be eaten up before I can even consider buying new ingredients.

Since I had been eating so much take out food, and my favorite thing to grab and go is typically something Asian, I had about a cup or so of leftover steamed rice and perhaps 3/4 cup of really lovely Chinese lemon sauce hanging out in the fridge, begging to be used. The sauce was what I had saved from a nice lemon chicken meal from my formerly local Chinese restaurant, where they actually make their own stir fry sauces and dips. It is a thick, translucent neon yellow colored sauce, very lemony, and quite sweet, but not so sweet that you feel as if you are eating a dessert. It has a nice sour tang from the fresh lemons.

Oddly, the remnants of the last meal I ate in my old home were converted into one of the first meals I created in the new one. There must be some weird karma at work here.

I dug around in my fridge for any vegetables that might work out nicely in a stir fry dish. I had a sweet crunchy yellow bell pepper, some celery, spring onions, a handful of button mushrooms, a clove of garlic, some pre-cooked frozen jumbo shrimp, some pickled sushi ginger, and some wok oil in my cupboard.

Just pretend the bottle of Japanese Mirin you see in the photo is actually wok oil - I had grabbed the wrong bottle for the photo and didn't notice until I started cooking. Yes, sometimes I really am that scatterbrained. I also added in a splash of Sriracha hot sauce to tame the sweetness of the lemon sauce a bit, which was an afterthought while cooking, so that also missed the photo shoot.

As I usually do when I am creating something off the top of my head, I set out my ingredients in a line on my counter and just started cooking, first heating a bit of oil in my wok, then stir frying the aromatic ingredients first (garlic, ginger, spring onions), adding strips of bell peppers, slices of celery, and then the mushrooms, cooking each until they had just begun to soften up. I rinsed the frozen prawns under some cool water, a trick to rid them of that I've-been-hanging-out-in- the-freezer taste, then popped them into the wok and gave everything a good toss. Within a couple of minutes, the shrimp was fully thawed, so I added the lemon sauce (lemon slices and all) and let the ingredients simmer and meld just long enough for the rice to reheat in the microwave.

The results? Honestly, it tasted really good.. much better than I had expected when I first stared at that little tub of shimmering yellow sauce in my fridge. The bits of pickled ginger and lemon slices gave the entire dish a really nice bright, fresh and unexpected flavor.

Asian Lemon Stir Fry with Prawns or Shrimp
serves 1-2

2 tsp wok oil or any oil suitable for stir frying
1 clove garlic, minced
2-3 tsp pickled ginger, chopped
2 spring onions, cut into 1 1/2" pieces, chopping a tiny bit of the green tops to use as a garnish
1 stalk celery, sliced thinly
1/2 yellow bell pepper, cut into strips
5-6 fresh button mushrooms, sliced
1 handful frozen prawns or shrimp, rinsed under cool water and slightly thawed (cut into smaller pieces if desired)
1/2-3/4 cup Chinese lemon sauce (with some thinly sliced lemon)*
1 dash Sriracha hot sauce, optional
1 1/2 cups cooked steamed rice

Heat oil in wok. Saute garlic, ginger, and spring onions just a couple of minutes until they release their aroma. Add bell peppers and stir fry 1 minute, then add the celery and continue stir frying another minute or so, add the mushrooms, stir fry until all of the veggies are still a little crisp, but beginning to soften. Toss in the shrimp and cook until the shrimp has just heated through. Immediately add the lemon sauce (and some hot sauce) if desired and stir, dropping the heat some to allow the sauce to bubble and simmer gently. Serve over steamed rice, garnished with some of the reserved spring onion tops.

*NOTE: I would imagine leftover sweet & sour sauce or sweet chili sauce would work out just as well in this.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Home of My Own

As I have been hinting at over the past year, big changes are in store for my life. While I wish these were all positive changes, they really aren't very pleasant at all. I am still looking for a good solid job that matches my education, skills, and most importantly... needs. Bills have to get paid after all! After numerous moves, and struggling to get out of a marriage that was failing fast and hard, I am finally at the top of the gigantic cliff I have been trying to climb. For some time now, I have been staring at what seemed to be a huge mountain of obstacles blocking my way, but at least one step has finally been accomplished... I have moved out. For the first time in a long time, I have my own place to live, my own keys, and hopefully, a piece of my life back.

I am still digging out from under a pile of boxes, bags, and clutter, without much time to really get to unpack and carefully set things up the way I would like to. My priority at the moment is to find a decent job that doesn't require me to say something like "May I take your order please?" or "Paper or plastic?" Freelance writing isn't going to pay all of my bills at the moment, so it is time for some heavy pavement pounding.

So for now, it is back to unpacking, job hunting, and legal headaches. I have a really cute retro-80s/early 90s kitchen that I am pretty excited to start cooking in, so never fear.. recipes and food photos are on the horizon. Just bear with me a little bit longer while I find some air to breathe, rest my feet, and find my plates that are buried in one of these boxes somewhere...