Streamlining the Cooking Process

I do about 80-85% of the things on this list, and they are all tips that I’ve shared with friends who have reasonable gripes about cooking.

To be honest, I had seen a variety of these things when I first started cooking and dismissed them as not really necessary.  But, although I forgot about all of them as time went on, I somehow ended up developing these habits on my own (for example, I had no idea what a mise en place was but I do it for everything).  You’ll see these tips come up again as I share recipes, but I wanted to post this list so it’s all in one place!

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Couples’ Night In: Brunch Edition

When I did the super-restricted diet last year, it was pretty impossible to go out to eat.  I thought I would lament the loss of that ritual, but it turned out that eating out quickly became very unappealing to me.  The expense, the not-knowing-what’s-in-my-food, the fact that I was now good enough at cooking to be able to make better versions of whatever-I-was-overpaying-for at home all added up to me being not that interested in going out for dinner.

This, however, put a major crimp in my social life.  It turns out that finding things to do with friends that doesn’t involve drinking or happy hours or going out to eat requires some creativity.  For awhile, we tried to do “activities,” like paddling on the lake or hiking on the weekends. But activities require time and a lot of planning and coordinating and effort.

And, so, Couples’ Nights were born.  About once a month, Mr. Little Fish and I get together with our friends K & M to make a homemade meal together.  We alternate houses so that no one is stuck hosting every single time, and we split the cost of groceries.  We usually pick a “theme” to the night and then pick out a couple recipes in advance.

Our first meal was bbq pork ribs with grilled brussel sprouts and mashed cauliflower.  For dessert, we had a flourless chocolate cake.  Our second couples’ night was pizza night, where we made whole wheat pizza crusts and cut a whole bunch of toppings for each person to decide what they wanted on their pizza.  Dessert was a blackberry pear grain-free crumble.

Our third Couples’ Night turned into Couples’ Sunday Brunch.  We decided to be ambitious and made a brunch inspired by the Steeping Room’s Gravlax and Latkes.  So we made giant potato latkes topped with creme fraiche, smoked salmon, and a warm berry compote with a grapefruit mint salad on the side. Oh and mimosas, of course.

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It turned out to be spectacular.  Mr. Little FIsh’s ever-eloquent review was, “Yummy yummy in my tummy,” which, from him, is truly the highest of praises.

The meal came out to less than $5 per person, whereas the same meal would have run us $11 pp not including tax, tip, or drinks at Steeping Room.  It took enough time that we ended up having smoothies to tide ourselves over, but that’s because we took teaching breaks where I would explain how and why things work the way they do in the kitchen to K & M, who are relatively new to cooking but are avid students.  I think we all left the meal feeling pretty inspired that day.  =)

Home-made Gravlax and Latkes with Warm Berry Compote
Adapted from the Smitten Kitchen cookbook.  
Serves 8

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Ingredients:

For the Latkes:                                                                       
2 lbs Russet potatoes, washed and peeled
2 medium white onions
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1.5 tsps kosher salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
2 large eggs
Coconut oil, for frying
Creme fraiche or sour cream
12-16 oz smoked salmon

For the berry compote:
1 bag frozen mixed berries
1/3 cup white sugar
2 tsps fresh lemon juice
1 pinch salt
2 tbsps unsalted butter, room temperature

Directions:

1.  Preheat oven to 250 degrees, line a baking sheet with foil, and put it in the oven until needed.  This is where you will store latkes as they are cooked so that they don’t get cold.
2.  Using the shredding blade on your food processor, shred the potatoes and onion.
3.  Transfer the mixture onto a cheese cloth, and wring/squeeze out as much water as possible.  You do this to aid the browning process, so you get crispy potatoes instead of wilted, steamed ones.
4.  In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, and eggs.  If this looks a little thick, don’t worry–it will thin out in with the moisture from the potatoes.  Stir in the wrung-out potato mixture until everything is evenly coated.
5.  Form the potato mixture into 8 balls, and set aside.
6.  In a small cast-iron skillet, heat 2 tbsps of coconut oil over medium heat until it shimmers.  Drop one of the potato balls into the skillet, and flatten it into a 5-inch diameter pancake with the back of a spoon.
7.  Cook the latke over medium heat about 3-5 minutes on each side, until edges are golden brown. (While my pan was still heating, the first couple latkes took a little longer, but by the end, the time was down to 3 minutes each side.)
8.  Transfer each latke to the baking sheet in the oven and repeat process with each of the remaining potato balls, adding more oil in between each ball so as not to burn.
9.  Around the 4 or 5 latke, start to make your berry compote.  In a large saucepan, bring 1/4 cup water and 1/3 cup sugar to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently to dissolve the sugar.
10.  Cook for 2 minutes, then add the frozen berries, lemon juice, and salt.
11.  When the mixture returns to a boil, add the butter and swirl it around so it melts.  Lower the temperature to low.
12.  Get out the number of plates you will be serving, and put one latke on each one.  Top the latke with a dollop of creme fraiche, and lay out about 2 oz of smoked salmon on top of the creme.  Then, either spoon the berry mixture over the salmon, or bring the berries to the table for each person to serve themselves.  Serve with Mint Grapefruit Salad* on the side or eat by themselves!

*I made these modifications to reduce the sugar content on the salad: 1/3–>1/4 cup fresh mint; 1 tbsp sugar–>2 tsp sugar; and 3 tbsps honey–>2 tbsp honey.

Green Smoothie and Ham

His and her smoothies (mine is the one with the greens).

I thought I would begin my recipe-sharing the way I begin every single day: with breakfast.

Specifically, by discussing my approach to breakfast.  I used to be very much Pro-Milk-and-Cereal.  I ate cereal for breakfast every day growing up and throughout college.  In my last year of college, however, I read Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and the one thing that truly stuck with me was his advice to shop around the perimeter of the supermarket.  After all, that’s where all the fresh/frozen/refrigerated foods are.  In other words, real foods.  The types of food that don’t need to advertise how they are good for you because they just are.  This is in stark contrast to my beloved cereal boxes, which are chock full of claims of wholesomeness like, “Now with fiber!”  You know what else has fiber?  Fruits.  Vegetables.  Food.

So, when I started law school, I began to rethink my breakfast plans.  Unfortunately, I had a…thing about eggs for a very long time.  I could eat them for a day or two, but after that, I would just get so tired of them.  Because I was also in the middle of my sugar addiction at the time, that meant that I always tended towards sweet breakfasts.  I could eat me some waffles (never been a big fan of pancakes, except my mom’s banana chocolate chip ones) and french toast like nobody’s business.  Of course, those things were typically reserved for weekend brunches, but my weekdays had to stay in the “sweet” category for me to feel satiated.  So, I spent about 3 months having a giant fruit smoothie for breakfast every day.  Sometimes I would make oatmeal, but mostly it was smoothies, with some “grown up” cereal in between (bye bye Reese’s Puffs).

My weight loss journey that started at the end of law school, however, seriously reset my sweet cravings and gave me a newfound appreciation for eggs.  And so I learned balance.  My current approach to breakfast, therefore, is now to rotate breakfasts on a weekly basis.  For example, one week I will decide that I am going to do eggs, so I will cook two sunny side up eggs every morning and eat them either on top of veggies or with turkey bacon.  The next week, I’ll have smoked salmon on cottage cheese with cherry tomatoes and red onion.  The week after that I’ll decide I’m craving something sweeter so it will be smoothie week (with greens in them).  And then finally, because one of the things I can’t give up for Paleo is oatmeal but unfortunately grains do contribute to weight gain a little bit for me, I’ll do a week of grains every once in a while.  The key for me for breakfasts is finding which combinations of foods keep me full until lunch.

And so, this week was smoothie week.  I have a couple general rules when it comes to my smoothie-making:

1.  Blend liquids with greens first.  There’s nothing worse than biting into a piece of celery that didn’t blend well enough.  So before adding in all the other fruits, I make sure the greens are very well-blended.

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2.  Make sure one of your fruits is frozen, so you don’t have to add ice in addition.  I get brain-freeze easily, so I don’t like my smoothies too cold.  If you do, you can always add the ice.

3.  Put some sort of protein source in there to keep you full longer.  This can include liquid egg whites, full-fat Greek yogurt, or cottage cheese.  Cottage cheese really thickens it up, so it can come down to a textural preference for you.

4.  Put a healthy fat to also keep you full longer.  Good sources: coconut butter or oil, avocado, and nut butters.

This week was a special smoothie week because it also happened to be the week that I made a smoothie, with greens no less, that not only was my own concoction but that I also really really liked.  I know, a smoothie hardly qualifies as a “recipe,” but although most of my smoothies tend to be good in that they taste like fruits, they aren’t ever anything I would, say, offer a guest.  This is one of the first smoothies I’ve made that was so delicious, I was compelled to immediately write down how I made it.  And if you are skeptical about putting greens in your smoothie (which, to be fair, so was I until I tried it), it is a perfect introduction.  And so, without further ado:

Tropical Green Smoothie
Serves 1

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Ingredients:

1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk (store-bought or homemade)
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup Greek yogurt
1/2 cup frozen mango pieces
1/2 banana
1 stalk celery
3/4 cup spinach
2 tbsp melted coconut butter (optional) (RECOMMENDED: how to make your own)

Directions:

Blend almond milk, orange juice, yogurt, coconut butter, celery, and spinach until smooth.  Add mango pieces and banana and blend until smooth.

NOTE:  On days where I have a smoothie for breakfast, I don’t eat fruit for any snacks during the day to manage the sugars.  Balance, friends, balance.

Welcome to Fish Food

Although this blog will be sometimes about fish and always about food, it is most definitely not about food for fish.  The name of the blog comes from my partner’s mom’s affectionate name for her son: Rybka, which is a Russian term of endearment that literally means “little fish.”

What does that have to do with this blog?  Well, Mr. Little Fish, with whom I live, is the primary audience/taste-tester/unfortunate soul who has endured all my cooking growing stages.  When we started dating, I was probably in the awkward teenage years of cooking: things were clumsy and didn’t always work the way they were supposed to, I was insecure and uncertain about myself in the kitchen, and I wanted desperately for all the food I was making to just look better.  I did eventually start to get more comfortable in the kitchen, but things didn’t really progress until I decided to lose weight.

Last year (2013), I lost 30 pounds (for a total of 50 pounds since I started law school!), bringing me from overweight to squarely into what is considered “normal” for my height.  Part of my weight loss was attributed to a diet I did that severely restricted the foods I could eat, and it turns out that that was exactly what I needed to nurture my cooking creativity.  In hindsight, and as someone who deals extremely well under pressure, I am not surprised this happened.  But during this time, my cooking soared, both in frequency and in quality.  I didn’t go out to eat for 3 months, and even then, I can count the number of times I’ve been out to eat in the last half year on one hand (OK maybe two.  Travel will do that.).

Which brings me to today.  Now that I am officially in Big Girl World, i.e. an adult with a full-time job, I revel in meal-planning and making sure I bring something home-made to work every day.  I stick to a mostly Paleo diet (great intro: http://www.theclothesmakethegirl.com/paleo-101/), in that I follow the general principles, but I would not call myself a true Paleo. I love peanut butter far too much for that.  And bread.  I am, however, a firm believer in balanced eating, which for me translates to eating mostly Paleo during the week, with meals that are veggie heavy with lean proteins, and relaxing a bit more on the weekends.  I don’t go crazy, but I allow myself to eat what I want without worrying about being “bad.”  Everything in moderation.  Weight-wise, this typically means that I am at my lowest around Wednesdays and Thursdays, and I creep up a pound or two by Sundays.  I tend to stay within a 5 pound range, but if I push the outer edge of that (see: Christmas season), I don’t sweat it.  I’ll get back on track soon enough.

All of which is to say that over the last half year, I have gained a lot of food knowledge.  I am by no means a nutrition expert nor have I ever formally studied anything, but I am an excellent researcher and reader.  For people who know me, this means that I often inundate them with information I’ve found or are telling them about things I made or are suggesting recipes they should try or kitchen tools they should invest in.  Perfect blog material, in other words.

So, here I am.  For now, I am mostly going to be using this website to keep track of recipes I’ve tried and liked, with the modifications that I now freely make.  If you benefit from my need for organization and my experimenting, then all the better.  Welcome to Fish Food!