Sunday, September 29, 2013

Top 10 Soups & Stews for an Autumn Day

Ahhhh, soup.
The weather has turned, it is now officially Fall, as the best Summer on record has officially ended.  The fireplace is on, the rain is coming down, and I have heard the wind howling about the house this weekend.  It's time to make some soup and let those around you to get close and know how much they are loved.

Soup is good food, those Campbell's guys capitalized on that, for sure.
I like to make soup more than any one thing.  Last count,  I have about 44 soups on my blog, with about a half dozen more in "draft"/ creative status. Next up, Mullagatawny.
These recipes are the top soups I would like to eat, make and serve on a Fall day! 

Albondigas, Mexican Meatball Soup
This one is flavorful with yummy spicy flavors. I could eat this every weekend.

Bacon Corn Chowder
Easy to make, and easy to love too.

Bean with Bacon Soup
Just like that Campbell's soup classic.  Made with love for my hubby.

Chicken Pot Pie Soup
When you want the flavors but have no time for making this into a pie with crust and all that.

Chicken, Quinoa & Butternut Squash Stew
Sounds kind of basic, but this has some very exotic flavors.  Very healthy and gluten free too.

Italian Wedding Soup with Turkey Meatballs
Another meatball soup (weird, as I never even thought meatballs belonged in soup until recently), but completely different flavors from the Albondigas above.

Mushroom, Fennel and Potato Soup 
If you didn't have fennel, you could just use more potatoes!

Pork and Chorizo Soup
Hearty with two different kinds of meat, plus some garbanzo's for even more protein,

Portuguese Linguica Sausage, Bean and Kale Stew 
You could use kielbasa for this... easy with additions of beans and potatoes.  You could use spinach or chard instead of kale.

Mexican Cauliflower (Soup for the Soul)
This sums up everything I like about soup.  

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Rosemary Grapefruit "Drop" Martini

Kind of a lemon drop, but not.
Different in a fabulous way with hints of rosemary and grapefruit.
Who knew that such a simple addition like rosemary would make such a difference?

I made a simple syrup that was more tangy than most I make, perfect for this, or a traditional Lemon Drop.  It only take a minute to do this and it is highly recommended.  If you have sweet n' sour mixer, you could use that instead.

Remember, a "jigger" is just a shot glass, or other measuring tool so that you have the proper ratio for your drink.

Makes one martini

2 jiggers vodka
1 1/2 jiggers grapefruit juice (white or pink)
1 jigger special lemon syrup* (recipe below) or Sweet n' Sour Mixer
1 sprig rosemary

Special Lemon Simple Syrup (makes enough for 4-6 martinis)
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar

Cut the tops off the rosemary sprigs, reserving them for the garnish.  Muddle the other bits in the bottom of the cocktail shaker.  Muddle just means pound the heck out of them with a "muddler" tool (shown above) or a the handle of a wooden spoon.  

Add ice and all the other ingredients.  Shake, shake, shake.
Pour into a sugar rimmed glass and garnish with a bit more rosemary.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Raspberry Vinegar- Great gift item!

Hey, I feel kind of bad.  I've been meaning to blog this since forever...
Well, at least since last Summer.
It's not too late, is it?
I mean can you still find raspberries where you are?
If so, you have time to make raspberry vinegar for Holiday gift giving!
The hold up posting this recipe is SO pathetic.  I needed to get to the craft store to buy some "cute" tags to write my recipe on for the bottles of vinegar.  I know... dumb.  I've given most of it away, and I was only saving one bottle to photographed in it's "perfect" gift giving stage before posting. It's a beautiful pink color of vinegar that you'd love to see.
Well, screw that... I'm ready to share.  

Ahemmmm, I apologize for swearing, if you consider screw swearing.  I don't.

Makes a gallon

1 gallon white vinegar (less 2 1/2 cups)
3 6oz containers of fresh raspberries.

In a new jug of white vinegar, pour off about 2 1/2 cups, retaining that for another use (like killing weeds, cleaning toilets/disposals/coffee makers or whatever) and carefully pop in the berries one by one.  Only stop when you see an especially great looking berry, and then EAT it!  Hahahaha.

Put it in a cool dark place for 2 weeks.  Strain the mix through a fine mesh sieve into a large clean pan or bowl (preferably with a pour spout).  Don't press down on the mixture, you want to have the vinegar remain as clear as possible and pressing on the berries will push through the solids and make it murky.  Discard the solids. You may want to strain it twice (after allowing it to "settle" one more time), the second time with cheesecloth if you want super crystal clear pink vinegar.

Pour back into the gallon jug, or pour into small individual glass containers to give as gifts.  I've found very nice glass bottles with stoppers at Cost Plus World Market, or at a Container/Storables store.  

Tie it with a little ribbon and a cute little card, include a recipe for a raspberry vinaigrette salad dressing like this one- 

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup raspberry vinegar
1/4 -1/2 cup white sugar (I don't like it too sweet.... I use 1/4 cup)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Dash of garlic salt

Elephant Handler for the Day in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Business trips provide a unique opportunity to work really hard a long way from the creature comforts of home.  But sometimes... just sometimes you may find yourself somewhere exotic over a weekend. Can you say "free time"?  A couple of us were traveling together, and ready for some adventure.

We chose Patara Elephant Farm as it was the most highly regarded on Trip Advisor.  It also happened to be the most expensive, however once you hear about what they are doing, and the experience provided, you can understand why.  They are about protecting and preserving elephants by educating people like us. There are no circus tricks at this place, this is about the real care of elephants.Some of them are rescue elephants, some are born in the herd.They are the real deal.  Patara, owned by a Thai mountain tribe, has about 50 elephants, including 10 babies.

They picked us up at our hotel and we drove 45 minutes out to the mountains surrounding the city of Chiang Mai.  We were told to wear shorts, swimsuits and bring bug spray and water shoes.  Half way up the mountain, we stopped at a flat area with lots of grazing elephants and their babies hanging around.  Yep, just chilling there waiting for people like us, I guess.  I never saw any fences, gates or anything keeping the elephants there.  We approached a small group of a Mom, and two different age baby elephants with our driver, and a handler handed each of us a bunch of small Thai bananas.  Right away the elephants make a beeline straight for you!  Oh my gosh.... that is a weird feeling. I kind of wanted to run.

Later, we continued up the mountain to a very rural area to be briefed about the day and to meet up with the rest of our group.  In total, our group consisted of 9 people.  Nice size group for a personal adventure, for sure. We are assigned an elephant and a trainer to work with for the day.  They said they matched elephant personalities to each of us. I'm flattered, my elephant was kind, gentle and awesome.  Okay, she was large and ate a lot but that's no crime in my book!

We are there to work. To learn to take care of an elephant and make sure they are healthy.  Riding them to the waterfall is part of the bathing routine, and a happy side affect for us. I paid a lot of money to scrub a dirty elephant and inspect it's dung to ensure it was healthy and feeling fine.  But I'm getting ahead of myself, below are pictures of what we did and how we managed to have the best day ever.
Here's the moment where I get to meet my elephant, a 14 yr old female with one child.  Her name is Mamoon.  She was delightfully speckled with peachy polka dots.  She is gentle and calm as we get to know each other.  She's happy to take the bananas and sugar cane from me.  At first, I start by giving them to her trunk... a bit nervous about reaching towards her mouth.  She is huge, and gentle.  Her trunk is amazing... she can find things that she dropped without looking, just by reaching around with that finger-y thing at the end of her trunk.  The nostrils in her trunk are as big as half dollar coins. Later, I find that she likes me to fill them up with a hose... crazy stuff.

The whole time, Laman, the trainer, is by my side helping me and talking to MaMoon, probably assuring her that I am not as nervous as I am acting.

By this point, she has munched her way through the basket of bananas and sugar cane stalks, and now I've brought her a bundle of leafy stalks. She was able to carefully tear off the leaves from the stalk.  Apparently the stalks aren't as yummy.  The trainer says she does eat them, but only after she finishes the leaves.  I'm just starting to feel comfortable here.I tap her cheek under her eye (while making eye contact) and saying "liddy, liddy MaMoon".  That means "good girl"... I have no idea how to say "good boy", so don't ask.

A baby elephant wanders by.  Wait... what?  Whose baby is this?  I'm looking around to make sure I'm not pissing off some 5 ton Mama.  Nope, it's fine. 
The trainers put a mini banana on top of her head to encourage her to stay still and do something cute.  

As she reaches up with her trunk, she totally slimes my nose with dirt and gets some mud in my mouth.  I tell myself not to think about what is exactly IN that dirt and smile anyway.  I won't lie, it was easy to feel so joyful doing this. OMG... I am playing with a baby elephant!
Can you see the dirt?
I think you can.

Now I know why they put the banana on her head, when her trunk flips up, she looks totally cute and smiley too.

This "baby" is about 1 year old and weighs more than a double wide industrial fridge.  Watch your toes...

Just in case you are wondering, this fashionable shirt was provided for the day, and is a traditional tribal weave and denotes they are elephant handlers.  I had to give it back, darn it.  It was awesome hot pink and fit me just fine.

Later on, they gave us "elephant" pants to protect our legs from the coarse hair and skin while we rode.
Okay, enough fun and games... onto the five checks of a healthy elephant.  Let's see if I can remember them all....

1) Skin is dirty on all sides, that means the elephant felt good enough to lay down to sleep.  That's a good sign.  Apparently elephants sleep in about 1 hour increments getting up and moving their large selves about for 15 minutes before settling into another position.  "Check" my elephant is thoroughly covered in dirt, she obviously slept well.

2) Is the tail wagging and the ears flapping every minute or so?  Good!  That means she's healthy and she's feeling fine.  If her ears stand straight out... watch out, she's pissed (or not feeling well).  I think my ears might stand straight out occasionally.

3) Is she sweating?  Hard to say... until someone tells me the one place that elephants sweat.  Yep, only one.  It's on their feet, around their cuticles on their big ole' feet.  See how my elephants feet are muddy in the photo above? Yep, she's sweating.  I know, I got to poke around with my finger to make sure.  Weird to reach down to an elephant's foot and get so personal. I hate it when people poke my cuticles.

4) Is she pooping?  She should have 5-7 "nuggets" and they should be firm, but... ummm, juicy.  How do you know if they are juicy, well you pick one up and squeeze it.  Luckily I was able to bring this one to my trainer to squeeze, but I did carry a fresh one about 15 feet and give it a good whiff.  Grassy is good, real stinky is bad. I don't know about you, but any poop stinks to me.  

5)  Hmmmmm... in my excitment, I have no idea was the fifth one was.  I guess it's while they were telling me, I was waiting for the poop one that I just knew was coming. Was I worried about picking up elephant poop?  Yes, yes I was.

After the health check up, you need to brush off all that pesky dirt with your handy dandy leaf brush.  You have to smack her quite firmly to dislodge the mud/dirt that has settled in her wrinkles over night.  "Hey Girl... I know how you feel" about those pesky wrinkles.  

Patara Elephant Farm provided some videos in addition to pictures of the day, I got one of me cleaning this elephant, I'm frowning and concentrating on task as if its Spring Cleaning day at my house.  HA!  Like that ever happens!  After the brush off, its off to the baths.

If you want to lead your elephant, grab their ear and say "how".... I think.  Seems kind of rude to grab the edge of someone's ear and pull them around, but MaMoon goes willingly.  She knows the drills, I'm going to spray her with the hose and do a little simple scrubbing. She likes that.

Now that all the personal hygiene is done, it's time to ride the elephants to the waterfall for a "real" bath and some soaking time.  Soaking time?  Too bad I didn't get the subtlety of that statement until later.

In order to get on your elephant and take a ride, you need to know a little bit about her background and personal preferences.  Sounds like about every woman I know. Hahaha.

Some elephants kneel down making a staircase of their bended leg, others hoist you up with their trunk, and others, well, they will lower their head and let you hurl your big self at their head. This is the most inelegant picture of me to ever hit the internet.  I laughed out loud when I saw this one.  The video is even funnier... but you are not gonna see that one.

One by one, each of the nine in our group got on their elephants.  
Cheers, jeers and scared little harumphs... elephants or humans, I have no idea. I'm pretty happy to be on top.
One by one, we plodded off to the trails above the clearing.  The trails were steep and narrow.  Each of us is sitting as far forward on the elephants head as possible...  it's the most comfortable spot of all... sort of.  Your knees are clenching the backside of the elephants ears as you pat her head and tell her she's an awesome gal (liddy, liddy).  Your heels are ready to smack her neck to get her to go faster.  Faster?  I don't think so.  Geez, I am over 12 ft off the ground and feeling kind of uncomfortable, I'm not getting anyone running here.  MaMoon plods up the hill, sure footed in narrow trails and thick sticky mud.  Sometimes I can't believe we're going to fit between the bamboo and the trees lining the path.  Luckily MaMoon stops and eats a couple of branches hanging in front of us.  She's calm and consistent.  Lots of other elephants are jockeying for position and trying to move up the line of elephants, but no one, just no one is getting in front of me and MaMoon.  I think we were soul mates.

I have no idea how long our trek was... I have the feeling it was about 1 1/2 hours, but really, I can't say for sure.  UP hill, DOWN hill, not even a trail that you'd want to take with a horse, or donkey, or motorbike!
My legs and butt were sore and shaky when we got there, but I couldn't stop pinching myself for the shear joy of traveling through the woods by elephant!!!

We had our lunch in a tree house (!!!) by the waterfall while their "real" handlers took care of the elephants.  Whew, we can hardly sit cross legged while we eat we are all so sore.  We ate with our hands (after washing... silly, we've been touching elephant dung- - -omg). 

Lunch was far more fantastic than you would imagine that elephant handlers would eat, must have been all the hard work we had been doing.

Coconut cakes, coconut rice prepared 2-3 ways, fried chicken, pork satay, mangosteen, ramboutan, langon fruit and bananas.  Wow.

We ended our day in the wide river, with a waterfall, as we finished scrubbing our elephants.  This was the most nerve wracking part of the whole day. You try standing in a pool wedged between two (even three!) massive elephants moving about in the water!  You had to move your elephant from the shallow pool (side washing station- yes, I have washed an elephant's ass) to the deep pool (top washing station). MaMoon wanted to mess about in the deep pool giving me fits as I tried to stay on her back as my handler shouted at me to "stay on".  Thanks, that's real helpful.
I thought I was going to get squashed about ten times.  Don't worry, I did a thorough job, my elephant was CLEAN and happy when I was done washing. Okay, so I was a disgusting mess when I finished.  That's OK, it was quite a day.

Here we are after our elephants were all clean, they line them up and we rinse them once last time.  Nicely, the elephants rinse us after that. We should have seen that coming. 

 Group shot, pose while the elephants spray you with water. Why not? 

I was sore for three days after this... what a great feeling... who else can say they got sore from riding elephants all day?  I'd like to tell you to prepare for this by working out more, but I have no idea what exercise prepares you for this! 

This adventure alone is enough to travel to Chiang Mai Thailand for.  It's a trip I totally recommend, don't wait for a business trip, just GO... NOW.  I am SO going back here to do this again.

Where in the world have you been? 
Here's a couple other travel posts I've written over the past couple years.
Thai Cooking School Adventure
Meat Anyone?  A trip to Hamburg
Japan- Best Boxed Lunch EVER
Japan Adventure- Part 1
Japan Adventure- The Food- Part 2
Iceland- The Weekend Adventure
In n' Out Burger "Animal Style"
Singapore Flying Crab 
Singapore Fruit
Turkish Spice Market Delight

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Thai Cooking School and Market Adventure

"Don't eat any lunch..."
Advice that was wasted on me.  I didn't really mean to break the rules, its just that we were running late in our sightseeing endeavors, and didn't stop to think when we enjoyed a nice lunch after shopping and walking fabulous Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Clearly, the cooking school knew what to expect when their website warned that... dang it, I wished I'd paid better attention. The "tuk-tuk" bus came to pick the three of us up from our hotel at 3:45 for an afternoon/evening of market grocery shopping, cooking lessons and dinner.  If you don't know what a "tuk-tuk" bus is, here's an example... an open air van/truck.  Nice for sight seeing as you zip through the streets, but a bit dampish in the monsoon season. Ask me how I know.

Our cooking instructor dispensed the shopping baskets as we alighted from our chariot, ahem... I mean pick up truck.  She walked us through a a small alleyway local market filled with a dizzying array of fresh veggies, explaining the ones we were going to use that evening, and some suggestions for substitutions we might consider when we were at home.  We also walked a couple spice/condiment stalls as she explained the key seasonings in Thai food. This cat was actually alive contrary to what it looks like, and NOT for sale in spite of what people say about cats n' dogs in Asia.  Just a simple shopkeeper's cat chilling on top of the boxed goods.  I love orange tabbies... certainly NOT Got It, Cook It.  HAhahaha.

We were a small group of 7 total; 3 co-workers, a delightful couple from Hong Kong with impeccable English, and a Thai gal and her San Diego Boyfriend. It was a fun compatible group of cooks, foodies, and just people wanting to have a new experience. 

The fun part was that with such a small group, we really did get the hands on experience that I was hoping for.  While in the market, we saw huge 20-30 person groups seemingly on the same type of adventure, but ours was small and intimate. Each "cook" got to choose six different things to cook from an individual menu.... ha, it was so fun!

I chose the Pad Thai, Fried Cashew Chicken, Hot n' Sour Shrimp Soup, Green Papaya Salad, Green Curry and Black Sticky Rice. There are some pictures of each finished dish at the end...

I'd like to tell you about each one, but that would take too long. 
So.... I am going to tell you about the pad thai today, but promise to blog about some others soon.  With pad thai, my reasoning is that it's SO easy, and plus, I used to do it incorrectly, so if I can help you to make it more simple at home, my job here is done.

Each of us had our own work station and a pre-set up platter of ingredients to prep.  It was fun, because in each course, 2-3 of us each were working on the same dish.  By the end of the night, we were eating from each other's plates as we shared, and compared, our creations.  It's funny how 3 people making the same dish can get such different results!  It's all about the ratios, how you follow instructions and what your tastes are like.

Below on my plate is chopped shallots and Thai garlic (I chopped those), a basket with noodles and a raw egg, firm tofu (chopped again by me) preserved radish (salty, yummy mild flavor) and mung beans and Thai chives. We also mixed a sauce of tamarind sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce and some palm sugar.

There was a row of cook tops and overhead fans for each of us, plus we had a clean wok with every dish we created, and a helper giving instructions and offering advice over our shoulders.

First fry up the garlic and shallots in some soybean oil, add in the preserved radish and tofu

Add the chicken slivers and cook until white, add the egg and scramble up together.  Push it to the top side of your wok.  Add the uncooked noodles to the wok and add a cup of water.  Stir them in a little circle to cook, being careful to keep the chicken/egg mixture on the side.  Add a little more water if it looks dry.   Mix together and add your sauce mixture (which we had mixed earlier) and then your chives and bean sprouts.  Serve at once.  We topped with a squeeze of lime, but no peanuts. A one pot dinner is served.

Fried Cashew Chicken.  Easy and even those not enamoured by Thai food loved. 

Hot n' Sour Shrimp Soup (Tom Yum Goong).

Green Papaya Salad (my new favorite, plus I found an awesome new gadget to make easy shreds for the salad!)... sorry for the awful picture. 

Green Curry, we made our own curry paste, so much fun, and flavor! Not much to look at, but it sure was great.  FYI- green curries are spicier than red curries.

Black Sticky Rice.  
OK... by now you can see the food coma is starting to set in and I am unable to take a good picture anymore.  THIS was the hit of the class, and truly, one of the best things I ever ate.  That stuff on top is caramelized coconut, then hot sweetened coconut milk over mild sticky black rice. It was the only dish I finished to the last drop, and clearly, I should have stopped.
Interestingly, we made this coconut milk by soaking shredded coconut in a cloth bag and then massaging and twisting it to make the milk.  Opening a can might be easier, but this was a blast to play with our food (with clean hands).

The whole class and dinner experience took a bit over 4 hours and went so fast.  By the time it was over, the fun had set and the September rains had begun again.  It was to be a wet and exciting ride back to our hotel in that tuk tuk bus. Here's a little shot of the courtyard outside the Basil's Cooking School.  I believe this was someone's home, complete with a outdoor kitchen in the backyard courtyard. 

It was a grand first day in Thailand.

Where in the world have you been? Here's a couple other travel posts I've written over the past couple years.

Meat Anyone?  A trip to Hamburg
Japan- Best Boxed Lunch EVER
Japan Adventure- Part 1
Japan Adventure- The Food- Part 2
Iceland- The Weekend Adventure
In n' Out Burger "Animal Style"
Singapore Flying Crab 
Singapore Fruit
Turkish Spice Market Delight

Monday, September 16, 2013

Pumpkin Pie Breakfast Smoothie

It's that pumpkin time of year!
I had this for breakfast the other day, and then ordered my annual pumpkin spice latte.
Guess what?  I think this one was better.

A 1/2 cup of pumpkin has 40 calories... wow, seems kind of like a calorie bargain to me for all that plus the vitamins too. This smoothie stayed with me all morning.

I made Coconut Pumpkin Soup the other day, and had a half can of pumpkin to use up.
Why are the big cans SO much cheaper than the small cans?  I always seen to have leftover pumpkin at this time of year.  Here's a great way to use it up.

Makes one thick smoothie!

1 cup of yogurt, nonfat Greek, or vanilla yoghurt would be great too (reduce the sugar)
1/2 cup pure pumpkin puree
1/2 cup milk (almond milk is nice too!)
1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1/2 tsp vanilla
1-2 Tbsp of brown sugar, or some artificial sweetener 

Throw it all in a blender and zoom it up!  Add more milk if it seems too thick for your liking.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Creamy Artichoke Soup- Fast & Easy

Some things are such a "duh".
Why didn't I think of that before?
I love, love, love artichokes and they make a creamy, somewhat low calorie soup that's ready in a jiffy.
Oh yeah!
This soup is easy and hopefully you have lots of this stuff already on hand.
Really, if you have a Trader Joe's by you, stock up on these canned artichokes because you can do SO MUCH with them.   
Like what you say?
Artichoke and Roasted Cumin Dip or Artichoke Olive Cheese Bread or lots of other stuff that I see that I need to blog about! I was actually surprised I didn't have more on my blog with these artichokes, as I use them so often.

If you happen to have frozen artichoke hearts in your freezer, you could use those instead.  I would use about 12 artichoke hearts, thawed. I'm not sure how that would affect the taste, you might have to add more lemon or salt. I also think this soup would be good without the yogurt, if you wanted to try that! 

Makes about 6 cups

2 can artichoke hearts, drained
1 cup onions
2-3 Tbsp butter
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp fresh lemon zest
4 cups vegetable, or chicken, broth
1 cup nonfat yogurt, or cream, or sour cream 
Salt & Pepper to taste

This is what it looked like slightly before I used my immersion blender, but a regular blender works too.  Add the yogurt (sour cream or cream) and gently reheat.  Serve at once.