Wednesday, April 30, 2008

the sun will come out

It's the season for baseball games, soccer practices, and end of school activities....

It's the season for anticipation of change, newness, awakenings, and getting your wheels in motion after laying frozen and dormant...not to mention getting off the treadmill and onto an outdoor trail for pete's sake!

It's definitely not the time for long, complicated meal preparation!

One can only make so many frazzled dinner trips to the snack bar over the course of multiple outdoor sports games each week. Popcorn, hot dogs, and red licorice ropes don't do much to help you keep in shape, or keep you feeling very spry for that matter. Wouldn't it be nice to have something that's homemade, prepared without a whole lot of fuss, and can be eaten quickly or transported fairly handily to your sideline spectator's chair? We did this by making pulled barbeque chicken sandwiches. Pack along a bag of fresh cut watermelon cubes, dripping with ripe juice, and you can happily cheer your little sports stars to victory without any more trips to that unfulfilling snack bar. Really, those little snack shacks were only exciting when you were like 7, don't you think?

I'm looking forward to picnics, generous servings of a crunchy, healthy tossed coleslaw, fresh fruit of all kinds, cool popsicles that sharpen and freshen the tongue and help you savor the lingering rays of the sun. Yes, I know that Spring is a fickle season and can grace one day with heavenly warmth only to lash out with wind, falling temperatures, and wisps of snow the next. But it's those blessedly warm days that have been popping in here and there that have got me thinking...and I'll just let you know that I have my sights firmly and optimistically set on the return of warmth.

In this, I am undeterred. Even though we sat blue-lipped on the bleachers at my son's baseball game tonight, inwardly pleading that the minutes would tick-tick quickly by so we could escape to the warmth of the car, I watched another baseball game earlier this week without even a coat! So you see, I have reason to feel encouraged.

What we have in mind this week boasts the all-American flavors of sweet, smoky barbeque sauce, and in our minds it bids a happy welcome to the milder outdoor seasons that will bring a thaw to this stubborn Old Man Winter. So, keep this one handy. It'll be a great standby all through the coming season.

Pulled BBQ Chicken Sandwiches
Makes 6 to 8 large sandwiches

Personal tastes as they pertain to specific barbecue sauces are many and varied. Search out your favorite. We happen to love Famous Dave's and Baby Ray's. The addition of liquid smoke to this recipe adds depth in flavor with just a measuring spoon and a little tip of the wrist. While standard hamburger buns are certainly acceptable (checking to make sure they're good for you, of course), try to find good quality bread as we tend to go by the rule that your sandwich gets exponentially better as you improve the quality of bread that is used to make them.

This recipe makes eating on the go or entertaining a snap. You can feel free to add extra condiments as you desire. Some possibilities are spicy mustard, horseradish, pickles, tomatoes, jalapenos, diced onions, etc. These are not required, however, since these sandwiches are delectable just as they are, especially if your transporting the meal.

This recipe pairs beautifully with picnic-type salads. And we love recipes like this with no added fat that don't sacrifice an ounce of flavor - or eating enjoyment for that matter!

4 large chicken boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 1/2 c BBQ sauce or to cover

1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke

Salt and pepper, optional

1/2 c nonfat mayonnaise

1 T BBQ sauce

6 to 8 large good-quality hamburger buns, or rolls of similar size

In a medium mixing bowl combine the barbeque sauce and liquid smoke. In a large crockpot add chicken breasts and pour barbeque sauce mixture over. Cover crockpot and set on high for 3 hours or low for 6 hours. (Because crockpots vary in cooking temperature, it is a good idea to check the chicken early to assess doneness as they may be cooked and ready earlier than these times given.) Remove chicken from crock pot onto a cutting board (leaving barbeque sauce and cooking juices in pot) and shred each piece using two forks in a pulling motion. Return shredded chicken to the crockpot and stir to mix in with cooked barbeque sauce. If it isn't moist enough you can add a little more barbeque sauce and salt and pepper if needed.

In a small mixing bowl combine the mayonnaise and barbeque sauce thoroughly and set aside.

You may choose to toast the buns by setting them under the broiler briefly (on a layer of foil or on a cookie sheet) until lightly browned. Otherwise, just split the buns in half, slather on some dressing and put a generous scoop of chicken in the center of the bottom half, before topping with other half of bun. Repeat with the rest of the bread. Serve while warm.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

down the rabbit hole

"Oh dear, oh dear. I shall be late!" So said the rabbit in the slightly psychedelic tale of Alice and Wonderland. Some things are best not attempted on days when we take a tumble down the rabbit hole, so to speak.

I am a confessed hurrier - not even sure if that is a word. I'll also speak for Alice (not the Wonderland Alice) in telling you that she is one of these as well. Most of the time this is quite handy. You can get lots of things done, and you become very adept at discovering shortcuts. I get a little tinge of satisfaction in speeding right along whether it be getting all the groceries in from the car in one load or disregarding guidelines in a recipe so it will be done sooner. You also get used to juggling various things at once, and most of the time things work out just fine, great even.

But there's a lesson I've learned in my life as a hurrier, sometimes you have to just slow down and take the time to let the bread dough rise. Now, you can take this literally or as a grand life metaphor. But for our purposes today, feel free to just take it literally. Plan ahead for a little time, heck, even knead the dough by hand (it's actually a pretty good arm workout!). Embrace the opportunity to not optimize your minutes and you might enjoy the process as much as the actual result.

Yes, we're bringing bread to the table today. This recipe has its origins in Switzerland, passed down through a friend's family. She speaks of how her grandmother looked forward to this bread because of the luxury of white flour. We tweaked the recipe in order to lower the fat content yet retain the moist weight of good homemade bread. Now, we know that whole grains are very important for better health. We also know that it's nice to have other options now and then. This one's a keeper.

Swiss White Bread

When we first had this bread it was baked in a French bread pan which helps the bread keep its form. If you don't have one of these pans, you can simply bake it on a good quality cookie sheet. The bread will expand outward to a greater degree when baked on a cookie sheet - both are just fine.

This bread is delectable in almost any form. It makes heavenly sandwiches, where the bread is actually a noticeable part of the sandwich. Make toast with this bread and you'll have a crusty exterior with a pleasing bite and a chewy, soft interior. We made French toast with it this morning and it keeps it's heft through the soaking and the grilling. Use leftovers that have been in the pantry for a couple days to make a healthier bread pudding using egg substitute and nonfat milk. You can even use the dough to make cinnamon rolls, going sparingly with any added fat (use butter substitute to reduce high cholesterol worries) before rolling up.

2 packages (4 ½ teaspoons) yeast
2 ½ cups lukewarm water
¾ cup nonfat dry milk
1/3 cup sugar
7-8 cups white flour
½ cup egg substitute
1 ½ tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons canola oil
½ c mashed potatoes (reconstituted potatoes work fine and are much less fuss)
1 egg white
1 tablespoon skim milk
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, optional

In a large mixer, mix the yeast, water, dry milk, and sugar. Mix in 1 ½ cups flour and let stand until spongy, about 7 to 8 minutes. Mix in the egg substitute, salt, oil, and mashed potatoes well incorporated. Gradually add the remaining flour (spooned into measuring cup and leveled with a knife), enough to make a soft, dough that will be just a tad sticky. Knead for 10 to 15 minutes until smooth and elastic. Let rise until doubled in size. Punch down and divide into 2 equal portions. Divide each portion into equal thirds, shaping each into a long rope. Place the ropes parallel to each other and pinch all three together at one end. Using the pinched end as a base, begin to braid the ropes together and finish by pinching the opposite ends of the three ropes together at the end of the braid. In a small mixing bowl whisk the egg white and milk together; brush on the loaves using a pastry brush. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, if using. Place on a sprayed baking sheet and let rise until double in bulk. Bake at 350F for about 30 minutes or until golden brown. Makes two very large loaves, approximately 40 servings.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Ode to Vinaigrettes

Hello, is anybody there? We hope so, and we've been gone so long we're ringing the old metal dinner bell extra loud to bring you on back. So gather 'round the table once again, because we're hungry.

We have an absolutely delicious bread recipe that we're itching to float on through the wires to your awaiting table, but you'll have to wait since we made a different batch of something especially fine that is bumping the bread to a future post - possibly next week so don't despair.

There's a genius lurking in the vast, flavorful, and rich French cuisine that has become a fast friend. We like it so much we're trying to keep from drizzling it on pretty much anything that passes from the skillet to our awaiting mouths. But let me tell you, lately this almost requires tying the hands behind the back: O, Vinaigrette, we love thee so.

If you're anything like us vinaigrettes are an oft-chosen dressing for green salad, absolutely delicious to be sure. But the French have given Vinaigrette her due and allowed her to splash over the bean, the loaf, and many a varied veggie. This really is a cause to celebrate, we promise. You'll be amazed at the spark of tart magic that is created when it's doused on asparagus or the humble chickpea. Friends, this is when the show begins I tell you.

So, we happily let Vinaigrette wrap her slick and amazing little arms around an army of lentils and, voila, this was something blessed. Our two-year-0ld daughter/granddaughter ate half of Alice's serving for lunch today. What can we say? She is part French.

French Lentils with Vinaigrette
Serves 6.

A quick note on lentils that will make you even more eager to serve them up: they are absolutely loaded with protein. Classified as a veggie, they are second only to the soybean in this protein category. Keep the added fats low and toss them with some veggies for fare that is beguilingly healthy and a versatile, unique, and surprisingly pretty side dish. Then pop them in the microwave the next day to take off the chill and they make a simply munchable main player for lunch.

1 cup lentils, sorted and rinsed
3 cups water
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp salt, divided
2 medium carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp finely chopped fresh thyme or 1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 shallot clove, finely chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley
Sea salt, for serving

In a medium saucepan, bring the lentils, water, and bay leaf to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until almost tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in ¼ teaspoon salt and then simmer, covered, for another 4 to 5 minutes, until tender but not falling apart.

While the lentils simmer, warm a large skillet over medium heat. Spray with cooking spray and add the onion, carrots, celery, garlic, thyme, and 1/8 teaspoon salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are just softened, about 7 to 9 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette. In a small bowl, whisk together olive oil, 4 tablespoons vinegar, mustard, and remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt. Briskly whisk in the olive oil.

When the lentils are ready, drain them and pick out the bay leaf. Pour them into the skillet with the vegetables and toss with the vinaigrette and parsley. Cook over low heat, stirring gently, until heated through. Stir in a splash of red wine vinegar, if desired, and serve warm, with sea salt for sprinkling.