Top Chef, Eat Your Heart Out

You guys know I love to cook, right? Everything about cooking, I love. Chopping, dicing, mincing, searing, simmering, blending, whisking… I love it all! Of course, the main reason I love cooking so much is because I love eating, naturally, but I think there’s something in the act of cooking itself that calls to me as well. The catharsis of working in the kitchen, the instincts that creative cooking calls upon, it lights me up!

So it is especially great to be dating a guy that has a passion for cooking as well, albeit with a slightly different twist. Sean is an engineer by nature, and while my cooking philosophy is all about a dash of this, a smidge of that, let’s add this and see how it all turns out, Sean is fascinated by the nuts and bolts and science of it all. So as molecular gastronomy and modernist cuisine has made its way further into the mainstream, he’s been especially enraptured. And his interest in that side of cooking means that I get to benefit from all his investments.

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Including sous vide cooking! While I was staying at my parents’ place last week during Jen and Mia’s visit, Sean and I cooked up a feast of epic proportions for the whole fam with his shiny sous vide machine.

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For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of sous vide, it involves cooking food sealed in airtight bags in a water bath heated to a very precise temperature. This method allows food to cook for long periods of time (depending on the type of meat, you can cook some things like short ribs and other tough cuts of steak for several days!) without losing flavor, overcooking, or breaking down, resulting in melt-in-your-mouth textures and full-flavors.

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Sous vide tends to get a lot of screen time on Top Chef because it’s kind of a set-and-forget it method of cooking until it’s time to finish whatever you’re cooking, which frees up a lot of time to work on other stuff in between. Alongside the sous vide chicken thighs (and a roasted cauliflower steak for my vegetarian sister), I also whipped up some potatoes au gratin, green beans with caramelized onions, and a cauliflower puree. Mmm!

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Now, speaking of finishing whatever is being cooked via sous vide, the one thing about this method of cooking is that it doesn’t leave food looking particularly aesthetically pleasing when it’s all said and done. After all, when everything is cooked perfectly evenly, with heat permeating from all sides all at once, no browning, searing, or crisping will occur. Which just means it needs to occur after the food is finished cooking in the sous vide!

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By searing food in a pan, on a grill, or with a cooking torch at the end of its cooking process, you end up with a delicious, crispy skin and some color that makes it look just as delicious as it tastes! We cooked the thighs for about 90 minutes in the sous vide, then finished it in a hot cast iron pan for just a minute or two on each side. The result?

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A fabulous meal that I was even more proud of than usual! The consistency of the chicken was absolutely perfect, with the flavor completely permeating every bite. We seasoned the chicken with salt and pepper, put a little bit of butter, some thyme, and garlic into each of the sous vide packs before cooking, and it all was perfectly balanced at the end.

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On the same night we did the chicken, actually, we also experimented with eggs cooked via sous vide. I didn’t know this before, but you can actually pop eggs — in their shell and all! — into the sous vide at certain temperatures for the perfect cooked eggs! 145-degrees leads to amazing, soft poached eggs, a little bit higher and you get soft-boiled, all the way up to hard-boiled!

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We cooked the eggs for just shy of an hour, and they were pretty much the perfect Eggs Benedict consistency. This is particularly great, because there’s no limit on the number of eggs you can cook at once! So we were able to make a dozen poached eggs for a big brunch we held at the house later in the week, and it was awesome.

I can’t wait to experiment more with this fascinating form of cooking! In fact, as you read this, Sean has some pomegranate short ribs going in the sous vide. We’re letting these ones cook for a reeeeeeeeeeally long time, so here’s hoping it works out just as well as this one did!

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Creamy Gazpacho

Summers in our nation’s capital come in pretty much one flavor: humid. And though, granted, this summer has been slightly less sticky than most, I’m still just one big ball o’ sweat most of the time when I’m outside. So when it comes to foods that I’m craving in August, I’m almost always going to prefer something chilled over something hot. Duh.

Of course, one can’t live off of popsicles forever (I’ve tried, believe me), so upon occasion you might find me in the kitchen trying to whip up a nice no-heat meal. Don’t worry, I’m not going raw. I’m just hot — all the time. Which brings us to the following recipe — one that’ll make you forget you ever even liked hot soup to begin with.

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Whether eaten (er, drank?) straight from the blender or allowed to chill for a few in the fridge, I just know that this creamy (yet dairy-free!), zesty gazpacho will hit the spot. It’s light, it’s bright, and depending on how spicy you want to make it, you can take your tastebuds for a real ride, hehe. Reserve a bit of the tomato, cucumbers, and onions to chop and serve in the bowl for a bit of texture, or blend it all to your heart’s desire. There’s really no wrong way to make this, since all it takes is a handful of fresh, natural ingredients and a blender!

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Creamy Gazpacho
Makes 2 servings

Ingredients:

1 cup crushed tomato juice (about 3 medium to large ripe tomatoes)
1/4 large onion, or 1/2 small onion
1 small cucumber, cut into rough pieces
1 poblano pepper (or green bell pepper)
1 – 2 jalapeño peppers (optional)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 lime (juice only)
1/2 cup unsweetened Almond Breeze almond milk (vanilla or original — your choice!)
Salt & pepper to taste
Dash of green chile Tabasco sauce (optional)

Instructions:

1. Crush tomatoes until you yield ~1 cup of juice. Seeds and some pulp are okay.

2. Combine tomato juice, onion, cucumber, pepper, vinegar, olive oil, and jalapeño (if using) in blender. Reserve a tablespoon or so of the onion and cucumber if you want to dice and add to soup for texture. Blend on medium – high speed for 30 to 45 seconds, or until ingredients are all finely combined.

3. Add lime juice and almond milk, salt and pepper, and a few dashes of Tabasco (if using) to the soup and stir.

4. Pour over chopped tomato, onion, and cucumber, or serve ungarnished! Eat immediately, or keep it in the fridge to chill further before consuming.

5. Enjoy!

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almondbreezelogoThe above post was sponsored by Blue Diamond Almond Breeze, but all content is 100% my own.

Iron Chef Gretchen

Hey, hey, hey! I hope everyone had a great weekend! I most certainly did, thanks to a myriad of reasons, really, but a big part of that was attending Taste of Georgetown on Saturday!

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I love “Taste of” events because they really appeal to that part of me that is never satisfied only being able to order one thing off a menu. I’m too indecisive! I’d always rather get a bunch of things to share (or at least steal food from my friends’ plates, hehe) because I am greedy like to sample lots of different things.

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In addition to getting to nom on great foods from some of Georgetown’s hottest restaurants, I also participated in a chef showdown challenge at the festival with the Yelp DC Community Manager, Kimberly, and her fiance, Rob!

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It was crazy fun, albeit it SUPER hot (just check out how red my face is in the pics above, hahaha), and I got Sean to come along and play photographer. Each team was paired with a local chef — ours was Chef Bryan from Paolo’s restaurant — and came up with a master chef meal that included our secret ingredient…

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Rhubarb!

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I’d never even eaten rhubarb in anything but a pie before, so it definitely proved challenging to incorporate into a savory meal. Under Chef Bryan’s tutelage, however, we came up with a surf-and-turf plate that my mama would’ve been proud of.

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Drumroll please….

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Ta-da! Not too bad for a butane burner meal, eh?

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We made a red snapper with a raw rhubarb and asparagus slaw on top, and a filet atop a corn and asparagus succotash with red wine rhubarb compote on top. The filet was AWESOME, and the fish turned out great, although I was a little iffy about the use of raw rhubarb in the slaw. It’s just got a very naturally sour/tart flavor, and is really fibrous, so I don’t know if I’m such a fan of it raw. Cooked, though, it’s delicious, and I have so many ideas for incorporating it into savory meals now!

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Unfortunately, I guess the judges agreed with my assessment because we came in second (though the judges said it was super close!) but I still think Team Yelp were all winners that day. It definitely makes me want to start showing off my knife skills (I really am quite proud of my quick-chop prowess!) on a more regular basis. I think between this and watching marathons of Food Network Star, I’ve been bitten by the bug…

If you had a cooking show, what kind of show would it be? Or, as they say on Food Network Star, what would you “Culinary POV” be? I like to think I’d be able to have some sort of Whasian-related hook, but the truth is I actually know how to cook very little Chinese food! Hahaha. Guess I’d actually stick with my healthified comfort food thing.

Eating Out, In

You guys know that one of my biggest struggles in terms of my weight loss is how much I love to eat out. I do love to cook, but I also love restaurants. Trying new ones, revisiting my favorites, being social with my friends and family… I just really like to go out to eat. Of course, as I’ve mentioned (and as we all know anyway), going out to eat with such frequency is not good for my wallet OR my waistline.

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There are just too many variables when someone else is preparing your food for you. Even nowadays, when more and more restaurants are offering nutritional information up front, you can never be 100% sure of what you’re getting. Plus, even if you KNOW what the calories are, it doesn’t mean you’re getting the most bang for your figurative buck (we KNOW you’re not getting the biggest bang for your literal buck, since eating out is expensive, hahahaha).

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So part of my Act II weight loss game plan is to cook at home as much as possible. Of course, given all the restaurant-eating that went on this past weekend, I’m kind of already failing, but it’s the thought that counts, right?

Sometimes curbing the urge to splurge (can I get that on a t-shirt) is as simple as upping the ante in your own kitchen. Last night I fixed myself a gourmet meal that I feel any fine dining establishment would have been proud of! And for half the cost AND half the calories. Win-win-win.

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I picked up the most gorgeous tomato at the farmer’s market on Saturday (probably one of my last farmer’s market tomatoes of the season! Cry!) and a GIANT thing of basil to accompany it. Then I zipped over to the regular supermarket to pick up a ball of fresh mozzarella and decided to make myself a super schmancy caprese salad.

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I mean, seriously. Do you SEE how huge these basil leaves are!?

I chiffonaded (can “chiffonade” be used as a verb? Ahaha) the basil to make it look nice. For those of you who don’t have a tried-and-true method of doing so (chiffonade = slicing herbs into long, thin strips), this is just how I get ‘r done:

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After you’ve stacked the leaves on top of one another like in the first pic, roll them up lengthwise into a little bundle. Don’t wrap it TOO tightly or you’ll bruise the herbs, but hold it tight enough so that they won’t slip out from under you.

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Then using a SHARP knife, just slice through the bundle using quick, thin slices. You don’t want to “saw” through or press down with the knife, because again, you can bruise the herbs and that’s what makes them look wilted and unappealing.

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Ta-da! Easy peasy.

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While I was doing that, I was also letting some balsamic vinegar reduce on the stove (with the flippin’ sweet guitar spatula that I got my brother Ben for Christmas).

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And heating up some corn. As always, I like to make a lot more food than just for me because I like to be able to have the leftovers for lunch. Leftovers > sandwiches! I had already broiled up some rosemary-marinated pork chops the night before, so I just reheated one of those and added it to the plate. I drizzled some balsamic reduction on top of the caprese with just a splish of extra virgin olive oil and some salt & peppah, and there you have it!

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Ooh, pretty.

And that’s how you get one beautiful plate of deliciousness. And the total nutritional damage of my dinner was (drumroll, please!) approximately 550 – 600 calories. Not bad considering how decadent it tasted! And a whole lot less than it would have been at a restaurant. Granted, fresh mozzarella is not necessarily the best weight loss food, but hey, when the craving strikes… better to nom on a few slices of delicious cheese now than an entire box of Cheez-Its later, amirite?

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Oh, and just of note: I stored the extra tomato, mozzarella, and basil together in little individual piles so they’re easy to grab and eat. Cute, non?

Back in the Groove

So, as mentioned in yesterday’s chicken-tastic post, I have been eating out A LOT lately.


(via Hyperbole and a Half)

This always seems to happen to me. For all my talk about how much I love cooking, I’m a bit wishy-washy about it, frankly. I go through phases of being incredibly motivated in the kitchen, wanting to experiment to high heaven and craft new, delicious, and healthy recipes. Then, for no apparent reason, I just lose it. The thought of slaving away in the kitchen exhausts me, and all I want to do is curl up with a Burrito Bowl or a styrofoam container full of takeout sushi each night. It’s been especially bad lately. Restaurants and fast-casuals have taken over my life, and it’s not doing my credit card statement much good either.

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Of course, there are many, many reasons why eating out every day is not a good thing. I mean, I definitely don’t prescribe to the idea that you can never eat out if you want to lose weight. Um, obviously. I love trying new restaurants, going out to eat with friends, and I firmly believe that you can make healthy choices when eating out. That said, it does make things much more difficult. When your dinner buddy suggests splitting an appetizer of mozzarella sticks, it’s pretty hard to say no. And when your entire group orders burgers, it’s a challenge to choke out your order for a lightly dressed chopped salad.

This is Good Stuff.

I am all for going out to eat, but (to run the food analogy to the ground) I know that it should only be a side dish to my overall food lifestyle, not the main course. So, I am going to make a concentrated effort to get myself back in the cooking groove, and stop eating out so often. I also really want to move further into clean eating, not just low-calorie eating. I generally try do that anyway, but it’s still really hard not to be stuck in the dieter’s mentality of “anything with fat grams is bad for you!”. To this day, I still tend to steer towards all the non-fat, low-fat, pre-packaged kitchen-helper options when I’m grocery shopping. Even though the meal that I made Friday was fairly decadent and used things like (gasp!) butter, eating a comfortable amount (i.e. not stuffing myself silly) of real food with real ingredients left me feeling pretty good.

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I’m still calorie counting (weeeeeell, most of the time), but I definitely want to reignite my desire to learn how to be healthy and balanced without caloric content being the sole determining factor of my meals. It is a learning process, so I know I need to be careful about not going overboard, but still! After all, if calories were the be-all and end-all, I would just be volume eating spaghetti squash for the rest of my life — and where’s the fun in that?

I’m actually pretty excited about having my post-roast homemade chicken stock on hand now to do some experimenting with in terms of homemade soups and sauces (as well as any other suggestions you might have for using broth!), and I am excited to restock my pantry with fun salad toppers. I would love to hear what your “go-to” at-home meals are! You know, the kind of meal that you always have the ingredients for in your fridge and pantry. If I’m going to break my bad eating-out habit, after all, I’m going to need all the help I can get!

What’s your favorite/easiest/best go-to meal when cooking at home?