24 February 2007

Bento-riffic

Because he loves and listens to me, The Husband has given me a fabulous silver blue Ms. Bento. It's like a short, fat Thermos with two little bowls nesting inside. Comes in a nice traveling tote with coordinating chopsticks and chopsticks holder. It is both adorable and practical. I feel so goshdarn smug when I eat lunch from it. Look at me and my super cool lunch, I want to say.

This week I've been filling the bottom bowl with surprisingly scrumptious "Tarragon Bean Salad" (Better Homes and Garden Vegetarian Cooking, Meredith Books: 2002), while the top bowl has held a mix of fruit and cheese cubes. The tote is just big enough to accommodate the bento, a Snapple White bottle, and a half-size yogurt carton. I tuck a Kashi bar or banana in the front pocket and I am good to go. It sounds like a lot of food, but that's lunch (or supper) plus break(s) and a snack for the drive home.

(Yes, I need a snack for the drive home. Really. I drive much better when I'm not fixated on what deliciousness might be waiting in our fridge).

The problem with owning a super cool and super handy Ms. Bento is that now I want all the super cool and super nifty lunch jar accessories. Like the little fish shaped sauce bottles (I could fill them with vinaigrette and squirt them all over chopped salads) or the boiled egg mold. Yes, I could mold a boiled egg into the shape of a star or a ... cube. Yum.

The only thing that restrains me from going crazy with bentoliciousness, is the fear of censure from my co-workers. It's one thing to have a practical looking Ms Bento. It's another thing altogether to start bringing in little saucy fishes or cube eggs or star-shaped cheese and vegetables. They already find me amusing for reading teh graphic novels and teh manga, for having met my (foreign) husband on the (suspicious) Internet, and for driving the car with the fsck! bumper sticker. I am only just this side of being weird. Saucy fish could push me right across.

Speaking of Thermos ... when I was but a wee kidlet my mother would take me to the shop at the Thermos plant and we would very carefully select my lunchbox for the new school year. Perhaps this was because my mother talked it up for days in advance, but it was all very exciting and most definitely my favorite back-to-school activity. There were lunchboxes of every kind and the Thermoses were sold separately so it was possible to get combinations like a Strawberry Shortcake lunchbox and a Batman Thermos.

Now, of course, the old Thermos factory has been turned into condos and I am surely too old to be getting so excited over a lunch jar ...



19 February 2007

Year of Cake: Too Much Cake

Last month, I made Dad's cake of the month from a recipe in The Hartford Courant. Not the best idea I've ever had -- the cake was dry and the frosting would not set without the addition of nearly toxic amounts of confectionery sugar. In the end, it was a not particularly special white layer cake with oversweet frosting and jam filling -- on par with something you might buy from the bakery at a not particularly good grocery store. Dad was happy enough (he believes there is no such thing as bad cake), but I was disheartened. Each cake I bake is a gift and I expect the gifts I give to be pretty near perfect.

I mean, if you're going to eat cake -- a food product with no real redeeming nutritional qualities -- than it had better be a Good cake.

For February, I made Dad a lemon bundt using a recipe from the Duncan Hines Lemon Supreme cake mix box. I dusted the bundt with confectionery sugar rather than use the suggested glaze and we served the cake up alongside a bowl of strawberries. Everyone seemed to enjoy the bundt and had second helpings (My mother liked it so much she told my father he wasn't getting anymore -- she would eat all the cake while he was at work). It did have a nice crust -- golden brown and a little crunchy like a tea bread -- and good form, but was really nothing wonderful. Stridently yellow on the inside and only mildly lemony with a moist sponginess that didn't quite work with the crunchy exterior. It needed a drier, fluffier crumb ...

Oh, I have no idea what it really needed. To not have come from a box? To have been made from ingredients I could pronounce? To have tasted like a lemon and not the idea of one? To have danced its way around the table while singing Frère Jacques?

And March. March is coming. March with its two cakes. Gah.

18 February 2007

Cookbook Talk: Better Homes and Gardens Vegetarian Cooking

Better Homes and Gardens Vegetarian Cooking (Meredith Books: 2002)

With a good selection of fast no fuss recipes, Better Homes and Gardens Vegetarian Cooking makes it easy to go veg. All the recipes utilize ingredients found in my local suburban grocery -- no faffing about after nutritional yeast flakes. The recipes are a combination of re-tooled (de-meated) old standards and many “adventurous” originals (enough to make this cookbook more interesting to me). Most of the dishes seem beginner friendly and the color photos are quite enticing (if I ever make “Squash Soup with Wheat Berries” it will be because of its accompanying photo).

In addition to marking all low-fat and no-fat dishes with a heart symbol, nutrition information is provided for every recipe and lots of tips regarding cooking techniques, ingredients, and accompaniments are scattered through this book. The index is very concise and the vegetable grilling table in the back is a nice extra.

I have made three fast low-fat recipes from this cookbook: "Confetti Barley Salad" (pg 32), "Tarragon Bean Salad" (pg 39), and "Orzo with Root Vegetables" (pg 71). Portion sizes for all three recipes were very generous and, while all tasted quite good from the start, did quite well in the fridge. It took me about a week to each each dish and the flavors and textures of each were consistent regardless of the time elapsed. The vegetables didn't get too squishy in the sauces and the sauces didn't become overpowering.

"Confetti Barley Salad" was the very first recipe I tried and it is a good beginner recipe. I couldn't find frozen succotash so used substituted 1 cop thawed frozen corn and 1 cup thawed frozen lima beans as recommended by the note. This was quite a pretty salad and, like the others, kept very well in the fridge. It was a little more vinegary than I like, but (now that I think of it) I used white vinegar instead of white wine vinegar and that may make a difference.

I cheated when I made "Orzo with Root Vegetables" by omitting the thin strips of turnip and doubling the amount of carrot. Otherwise, I did follow the recipe as written and was pretty pleased with the results. There are no dairy products in this recipe, but the dish tasted very creamy -- more like a risotto than a pilaf. I don't know if it was the way the starch from beans combined with the starch from the orzo or what, but it was a nice surprise.

My favorite recipe was "Tarragon Bean Salad" -- I am not a great lover of legumes, but this was a dish I quite happily ate all week. The different textures of the beans combined with the crunch of vegetables gave the dish a nice mouth feel. The vinaigrette was very good, too, with just the right mix of sweet and sharp. I am partial to red onion so might use more (and less finely chopped) next time. That's the only change I would make -- this dish is pretty perfect and, as the book notes, "a whole lot more fun to eat than a bowl of oat bran!"

03 February 2007

Delicious Clam Chowdah ... Gone Light

I made a batch of clam chowder earlier this week using the recipe for "Light New England Clam Chowder" from The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook (a Christmas present from The Husband). Amusingly, the exact same recipe is in The Best Light Recipe cookbook. Indeed, the light recipe section from the Family Cookbook is pretty much just excerpts from the other. Is this surprising to anyone other than me? Was I the only one expecting new recipes?

Anyway, made the chowdah exactly as directed -- bought Snow's minced clams and juice (with coupon I had saved just for this occasion), used precisely 1 ounce of bacon, and everything. When I ladled the finished soup into my bowl, I was a little worried by the thinness of the broth and the first mouthful seemed kind-of eh. But.

But, by the time I got to the bottom of the bowl, I was ready to eat the whole damn pot right there and then. It was that delicious.

Cook's Illustrated Light New England Clam Chowder

My only regret is that I did not make a double batch as it's nearly gone now and I do not know when I will have time to make more.