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Jacked-Up Banana Bread

May 16, 2012

You know what they say…. if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Jacked-up, indeed.

I have a fantastic banana bread recipe that is my go-to recipe, so I don’t know why I was inclined to try a new recipe.  Anyways, maybe it was because it was before 9 am on a Saturday morning, maybe I was being lazy, or maybe I just didn’t read the recipe correctly, but I forgot to add sugar to this banana bread.  So I don’t know if the reasons why I don’t love this banana bread are because I forgot the sugar, if this recipe just isn’t as good as my go-to recipe.  Interestingly, my main complaint about this banana bread isn’t it’s lack of sweetness– I actually don’t miss the sugar (Nate did, though)– but rather that the outside isn’t crunchy, the loaf is a bit dense, the bottom is particularly dense, and it’s all a bit mushy.

Really I should try making it one more time, just to be fair.  But, hey, if you want a recipe for banana bread that requires no sugar (and you’re not as picky about the details), here you go!

It came out of the oven looking nice and puffy and perfect, and then as it cooled it just kind of fell in on itself.  And, I know it sounds silly, but I was really bummed out by the lack of crispy crust.  It really is the little things that matter most!

With that, I think I can safely count this as a “fail.”

Jacked-Up Banana Bread
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

This banana bread is quick and easy to make, and you only need one mixing bowl.  I added some crystallized ginger nibs for some extra texture and flavor.

3 to 4 ripe bananas, smashed
1/3 cup melted salted butter
3/4 to 1 cup light brown sugar [or none, if you feel like it (or forget…)]
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon bourbon (optional)
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
Pinch of ground cloves
1 1/2 cup of flour

Preheat the oven to 350°F. With a wooden spoon, mix butter into the mashed bananas in a large mixing bowl. Mix in the sugar, egg, vanilla and bourbon, then the spices. Sprinkle the baking soda and salt over the mixture and mix in. Add the flour last, mix. Pour mixture into a buttered 4×8 inch loaf pan. Bake for 50 minutes to one hour, or until a tester comes out clean. Cool on a rack. Remove from pan and slice to serve.

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Fried Flounder Po’ Boys

May 14, 2012
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Flounder is my new favorite week-night fish.  It’s so versatile and you can do just about anything with it.  It’s nice, light, and flakey, and usually it’s on sale at Safeway.  No more tilapia for me!

The other day I went grocery shopping and bought a pound of flounder, only to discover it’s sell-by date was that very day. (Which I guess explains why it was on sale!)  I didn’t want to just pan fry all of it, since I wanted to be able to do different things with the left-overs.  I’d made a loaf of bread earlier in the day, so I decided I would bread and fry some of it for sandwiches, and pan fry the rest (purpose as of yet undetermined, especially since it strangely dissolved in the pan…).

I found Martha Stewart’s  recipe for Po’ Boys with flounder and spicy tartar sauce, and, as you would expect from the culinary queen herself, this is one right-darn-tasty sandwich.  I seriously ate the whole thing in like 3 minutes.  It was a bit messy and the fish kept popping out, but that’s nothing you can’t just solve with your hands and a napkin.  Yet another tasty way to use my new favorite fish!

Fried Flounder Po’ Boys
Adapted from Martha Stewart

The original recipe calls for coating each piece in just cornmeal.  From my experience, without a binder (like egg), cornmeal just comes off in the pan, burns, and makes the kitchen smell bad, leaving you with semi-cormeal-coated fried objects.  So I adapted the recipe, first dredging the fish in flour and then eggs, followed by a cornmeal and panko (Japanese bread crumbs) mixture.  It worked wonderfully!  It might be easiest to work in batches, doing 3-4 pieces of fish at a time.
1 pound skinless flounder fillets
1/2 cup flour
1 egg, beaten
1/3 cup panko
1/3 cup cornmeal
Coarse salt and ground pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 (8-ounce) baguette (or sliced hearty bread)
Spicy Tartar Sauce (recipe below)Lettuce and sliced tomato, as sandwich toppings
Cut flounder fillets into 1 1/2-inch strips; pat dry. Place flour in a shallow dish.  Mix beaten egg with 1 tbsp water in a bowl.  Place cornmeal, panko, salt and pepper in a shallow dish.  Toss fish in flour to evenly coat each piece.  Place fish in egg mixture and shake to get rid of excess.  Toss fish in panko/cornmeal mixture to evenly coat each piece.  Set aside.
Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over high heat. Brown fish (work in batches if needed) on both sides, 7 to 10 minutes (turn fish carefully). Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate; season with more salt, as desired.
Split baguette; hollow out slightly. Spread both halves with tartar sauce, and layer with lettuce, sliced tomato, and fish. Cut into 4 pieces.
Spicy Tartar Sauce
From Martha Stewart

This sauce is hardly any work and is a great addition to the sandwich!  I used sriracha and found that I didn’t need any additional hot sauce.

1/2 cup reduced-fat mayonnaise
2 tablespoons chili sauce
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons grainy mustard
2 tablespoons chopped gherkins or pickles
Hot sauce, such as Tabasco
In a small bowl, combine mayonnaise, chili sauce, parsley, mustard, and chopped gherkins (or pickles). Season with hot sauce, as desired.

Garden update: April

May 1, 2012

April was an interesting month for the garden.  We put dirt in the new beds, planted a bunch of seeds, planted some little tomato and pepper plants, and transplanted some strawberries.  As far as the seeds go, things are great, but I think I planted the tomatoes and peppers to early, even though I made myself wait.  Oops.

I spent a Saturday morning weeding the strawberry bed and transplanting some of the newly-formed plants to our second (new) strawberry bed.  Maybe I just don’t have a gentle-enough touch to transplant things, but most of those strawberry plants died.  Oops again.  Luckily there were plenty more where those came from, so the second time around I dug deeper and wider to ensure I had as much of the root structure as possible.  As you can see, some of the transplants still look brown and sad, but they’re not wilted and 100% dead (like the first transplants), so I’m hoping they’ll soldier on.

We have snap peas and green beans going strong in the trellis bed, and I’m still waiting for the watermelon and pickling cucumbers to sprout.  We have two zucchini bushes starting to form, some regular cucumber bushes and some little okra seedlings.  So far the beets don’t look promising…. I poured in like half a seed packet and only three little plants seem to be doing well.  The carrots are starting to take off, and now I’m busy thinning them.  The radishes are really starting to grow, and hopefully we’ll have arugula and other greens in a few weeks! Here are the snap peas growing strong:

We got about half a pound of asparagus from the garden this year.  It would have been double that, but it was perfect for picking while we were in Guatemala, which we discovered when we came back.  Oops, for the third time.  At least this will give the roots a chance to keep growing.  A number of people have asked why we’re growing trees in our garden beds and they have all been confused when we tell them it’s asparagus.

At least I was able to get a couple of yummy meals with our garden asparagus!

As for a financial break-down, we’ve spent $198 on our garden beds and supplies (dirt is expensive!) this year, and we’ve only harvested 1/2 a pound of asparagus, which wouldn’t cost much at the farmers market.  We are solidly in the red.  Hopefully things will turn around when the weather is more consistently warm.  Strawberries, I’m counting on you!

Saving the best for last, the big news around here is that we finally got a new fence.  Our old chain link fence was looking kind of ghetto and we decided to just bite the bullet.  The company that we went with, Loudoun Deck and Fence, did an amazing job (they worked for ten hours straight, pulling out the old chain link and putting up the new fence, all in one day) and we would definitely recommend them!  Also, if you’ve ever wondered about joining Angie’s List, do it.  The discounts you get make up for the cost of joining (around $40) and you know you’re picking a good contractor!

Almond Butter Cookies

April 27, 2012
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I was at Trader Joe’s the other day, and I bought some almond butter on a whim.  That’s how Trader Joe’s works, isn’t it?  You go with a list, and then you see other things that look interesting (like mango butter, dark chocolate-covered almonds with sea salt, peach salsa, or roasted red pepper tomato soup, for example) and somehow they make their way into your cart too.  And then you wind up spending way more money than you originally intended.  It’s brilliant marketing, really.

I don’t eat much peanut butter, so there’s no reason why I’d eat much almond butter.  Yet, there’s a whole jar sitting in the cupboard.

Time to make some cookies!

I googled “almond butter cookies” just to see what would pop up, and this recipe from NPR was the second item listed.  Yes, NPR.  Not even The Splendid Table, just go ole NPR.  Who knew NPR can be a source for recipes?!  So, of course (public radio addict that I am…), I had to give the recipe a shot. I was also curious because the recipe contains no flour or butter.

Well, my friend, these cookies were just about the easiest, quickest cookies that I’ve ever made and they tasted amazing!  Since there’s no flour involved, you don’t need to worry about getting another bowl dirty by mixing together the flour, baking soda and salt separately.  Or, in my case, deciding you don’t feel like getting another bowl dirty so you just dump the dry ingredients in and you worry about clumps of  baking soda or salt in the final product.  You also don’t have to stress out about forgetting to soften the butter, and then you do so in the microwave, but then the butter partially melts (or explodes)… or is that just me?  Anyways, this recipe avoids all that.  I think I’ve just found my new go-to cookie recipe!

Almond Butter Cookies
Taken from NPR

If you don’t have almond butter or almonds, you can use peanut butter/peanuts.  The cookie dough is pretty greasy, so it’s best to scoop the dough onto the cookie sheet right before it goes in the oven.  Also the recipe says to grease a baking sheet with butter, but I just used a silpat, or you could use parchment paper and I think that would be fine.

1 cup almond butter
1/2 cup light or dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease a baking sheet with butter and set aside.

In a large bowl, stir almond butter and sugars together until well combined.

Add egg, baking soda, maple syrup, vanilla and salt and mix well. Stir in the almonds and chocolate chips.

Using a teaspoon, scoop out small, walnut-sized amounts of dough and roll them in your hands to form a ball. Place on cookie sheet about 1 inch apart. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until lightly browned. Cool for 5 minutes.

Carnitas

April 25, 2012

Nate and I love Tex-Mex.  When we were in Peace Corps we spent hours making our own tortillas and re-fried beans,  and going from one store to the market to another store to find cheddar(ish) cheese, sour cream, and tomatoes.  Now that we live in the US we continue to make Tex-Mex pretty regularly, and I still make my own flour tortillas (they just taste so much better!).  That said, I don’t know why it’s taken us this long to make something from the blog Homesick Texan!

We decided to try making carnitas with a green sauce, and it was one of those meals where you are stuffed to the gills but you just don’t want to stop eating. Later we used some of the carnitas on nachos, and those were amazing too.  The green sauce was light and flavorful, and we tried a new way to remove the seed from an avocado:

Just use a corkscrew!  We got the idea from Cook’s Illustrated, and it worked like a charm.  I’d previously always just whacked the seed with a knife and used the knife to pull it out, but then how do you (safely) get the seed off the knife?  I won’t even go into how many times I’ve almost sliced my hand.

The pork cooked for two hours in a mixture of orange juice and water, and then we turned up the heat to boil off the liquid, keeping the melted pork fat (or lard) to get the pork crispy.

I think I stirred it too frequently when the liquid was boiling off (above photo) since you’ll see most of the pork just fell apart and there weren’t as many chunks as I think there were supposed to be.  It seemed like it took a while to make the carnitas, but I definitely could have just left it alone more and it would have been a lot less work.  I picked out the big chunks of pork fat since they were kind of gross before we sat down to eat, although you need to make sure you have plenty of fat on the meat because otherwise your carnitas will be dry.  Ours turned out great, and I think next time I’ll stir less so we’ll have even more crispy chunks!

Carnitas
From Homesick Texan

The link above will take you to the recipe, which we followed almost exactly.  I found that the meat didn’t get crisp until I cranked the heat up, and it took longer than 45 minutes for the liquid to evaporate. Also, apparently pork butt and pork shoulder are pretty much the same thing.  I have a feeling that if you follow her directions with more exactitude than us, you won’t run into the same issues we did.

Salsa Verde
From Homesick Texan

The blender is your best friend for making salsa!

Oatmeal Cream Pies

April 23, 2012
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I learned something while making these cookies.  I learned that never again will I make/assemble sandwich cookies while I am hungry and by myself (I had originally typed “alone” but that sounds existential, rather than simply being at home with no one but the dog).

I made the cookies and the frosting a few days ago, but didn’t assemble them immediately.  I hadn’t eaten dinner, and I guess I just didn’t realize how hungry I was until my hands were full of the frosting filling and cookies.   As a self-proclaimed frosting addict, I should never been near large amounts of fluffy, yummy frosting.  Combine that with oatmeal cookies that make the perfect frosting vessel? Especially when I’m all by myself and there’s no one to shame me for my ridiculous frosting eating ways? Not good for business.

Perhaps it just wasn’t smart of me to make these cookies when I did in the first place.  Nate was traveling, so it was just me and the dog at home.  I figured I could make the cookies and immediately bring them to work and pawn them off on other people. Unfortunately the cookies stuck around longer than I’d intended.  Dinners were skipped.

At this point it goes without saying that these cookies are right-darn-tasty.  I used a little cookie dough scoop to make all the cookies (roughly) the same size, and then used the scoop again for the frosting.  If you use the frosting recipe below, you will have more than enough frosting.  I had to scoop the leftovers into the sink and down the garbage disposal so that I wouldn’t be tempted.  At least I know myself well enough to know that I can’t be trusted with leftover frosting.

Oatmeal Cream Pies
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman

I added some more spices into the cookies to make them a little more interesting.  Also I only had regular oats, so you don’t have to use quick oats.  As for the frosting, the main thing is to beat the living daylights out of it.  I mean, like, turn the mixer on almost-high and just let it go for like 5 minutes.  One of the main benefits of the frosting recipe is that you can make it easily even if you don’t live in the U.S.– all you need is flour, milk, butter and granulated sugar.  No American powdered sugar (which isn’t the same as powdered sugar in some other countries) necessary!

Oatmeal cookies:

2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup shortening (Crisco)
2 whole eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons boiling water
1 teaspoon baking soda
2-1/2 cups flour
2 cups quick oats

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream brown sugar, butter, and shortening. Add eggs and mix. Add salt, cinnamon, and baking powder and mix. Mix baking soda and boiling water, then add to the bowl and mix. Add flour and oatmeal and mix well.

Scoop dough onto parchment-lined cookie sheets so that you have rounded heaping teaspoons. Bake for 10 minutes, being careful not to burn. Remove from oven, transfer to a cooling rack, and let the cookies cool completely.

Filling:

5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

In a small saucepan, whisk flour into milk and heat, stirring constantly, until it’s very thick. Remove from heat and let it cool to room temperature. Stir in vanilla.

Cream the butter, salt and sugar together until light and fluffy. You don’t want any sugar graininess left. Then add the completely cooled milk/flour/vanilla mixture and beat the living daylights out of it. If it looks separated, you haven’t beaten it enough! Beat it until it all combines and resembles whipped cream.

Scoop a small amount onto cookies, pressing a second cookie on top.

Guatemala: the Food

April 20, 2012

I’m just going to start this off by saying that the food we had in Antigua was so good.  Just thinking about it makes me hungry and I finished dinner only ten minutes ago!  With that, let’s get started.

A typical breakfast is eggs, fried plantains, beans, sour cream, fresh cheese, and bread or tortillas.

I could eat this for breakfast every morning for a month and not get tired of it.  When I was in Ghana I ate fried plantains, beans, and rice every afternoon for lunch for several weeks and I never ordered anything else.  I don’t know why, but I just love myself some fried plantains and beans!  Tack on eggs, sour cream, and soft fresh cheese, and I couldn’t be happier.

For lunch most restaurants have a fixed menu where you pay a certain amount of money, and then you get soup, an entree, a drink, and maybe dessert.  We walked by a little hole-in-the-wall with three tables and you could see the women in the back with big steaming vats of food. We sat down and got soup, grilled chicken, salad, and all-we-could-eat corn tortillas.  It was homey tasty food that cost less than $8 for two people.

If we didn’t feel like going to a restaurant for lunch, there were plenty of street vendors by one of the cathedrals with lots of different food options.  We just picked the vendor with the longest line of Guatemalans, and then ordered what everyone else was ordering. We wound up with a pupusa (which isn’t actually Guatemalan food- it’s El Salvadorean) and a huge plate of grilled meat, veggies, and tortillas.  I only managed to get a picture of the pupusa since Nate demolished the meat before I remembered to take out the camera.

A pupusa is basically a thick cornmeal pancake stuffed with cheese, which can be topped with pickled cabbage and a tomato sauce.  Among the street vendors was also a woman selling enormous mangoes on a stick.  She peeled the mangoes and then cut them so you could pull off the juicy chunks.

I don’t know if you can see how big those mangoes are, but they were massive.  They were also perfectly ripe and very sweet.  I’ll spare you the photo Nate took of me trying to eat one… it was impossible to eat it and not get mango everywhere.  Street food is always the best!

One of our favorite restaurants was this place where you look at all the various stews in pots, decide which one looks tastiest, and then that’s your main dish. Here were our options:

After that you pick two sides from all the different options on display.  The food was amazing, and so filling.  Nate couldn’t even eat my leftovers, and that’s saying something!

We were exploring near our hotel and found a little candy shop that specializes in making traditional sweets.  They explained the ingredients in each type of candy, and then I bought a wide variety to snack on as we strolled along.

My favorite is the one in the top-most right corner, the medium-sized brown ovals (made out of shredded coconut and sweetened condensed milk).  Nate’s favorite was the one in front of that one, the little brown logs with a dark brown dot in the middle, which were made out of coffee and sweetened condensed milk.  The little brown dot is actually a coffee bean.

As you can see, we loved the food in Antigua.  It was a bit spicier and more flavorful than other places I’ve been to in Central/South America.  Hopefully we’ll get to go back and see more of the country and, as usual, to eat even more!