Tuesday, November 3, 2009

BALANCE and the Zig Zag Workout

This is a post that is not a recipe or about food, well maybe not about but because of it. Balance is a very important thing in life, and it has only taken me 46 years to realize it. If you love to cook as much as I do, you must balance that with activity.  Sounds obvious doesn't it?  All things great in theory, don't always equate the actions they intend, but this year I have made conscience efforts in this area, ACTIVITY.  I though I would share my journey, my thoughts and my ideas thus far.

So you can go out and spend thousands of dollars on the equipment, like my elyptical trainer and my treadmill. I think I spent less on my first car then I did on those two pieces of equipment! Don't get me wrong, the are terrific , but the realization hit when I went for a walk with my husband and after months of 5 or 6 days a week, 45 - 60 minute workouts, HIGH impact, and the first hill I took I thought I would DIE! And the moral of that story is there is no replacement for the ACTUAL thing, and bonus points, vitamin D, fresh air and commune with nature a bit. Think of this this way, our bodies are a well manufactured machine, and if you think about all the investments we have made into them, food, clothing, shelter alone, we could have bought enough machinery to fill 100 gyms, so why not work on that investment, our own machine using our own machine to improve it! 

I am very fortunate, I live on a 100 acre avocado and citrus ranch.  There are endless grove roads and combinations of trails to take, hills and flat areas. And yet it still becomes a bit monotonous so I started to experiment and I think I came up with something fun that anyone can do anywhere.  I call it the zig zag. The zig zag is really just that, instead of walking a straight line you zig zag your walk, for every step you would have taken forward, depending on the width of your path, you take extra steps by zig zagging.  There are some advantages to this, first of all you can have a shorter distance of a walk and still get the steps in, you work different muscles by the pivots you make, if you are going up or down hills you can cut down on the grade, which for me and not so terrific knees, is a bit of a relief.  I also do a zig zag that is like a side step, which causes you to push off and work your inner thighs too. Now the downside, people think you have been nipping at the eggnog, but I don't care, it makes it a little more interesting.  

In any case, finding balance in my life is a never ending quest, as I am sure there are many who join me in it. Juggling family, business, and whatever else gets thrown in our direction tends to make me feel like a baseball player waiting for the perfect pitch, wishing I had someone giving me signals to give the heads up, but then again, sometimes the fun is more in the quest then in the destination!

So get out there, find some balance in your life with the zig zag!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Good ole Cheesy Mac n Cheese

This one is for Kim, my other lobe! I do a mac and cheese for Thanksgiving every year and it truly satisfies all walks, meat eaters, ketchup lovers and vegetarians! I have been doing it for so long by taste, touch and site, I had never really written it down, but my family will be thankful today, since I decided it was time to write the recipe and the best way is to make it and measure as I go along, So here goes!

1 1/2 pound of macaroni noodles (6 cups dry)
1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick)
1/4 cup flour
4 cups liquid, I like 1 heavy cream and 3 of whole milk
1/4 tsp pepper ( I prefer white pepper only because it doesn't show in the sauce)
1/2 tsp dry mustard
1 tsp nutmeg preferably fresh grated
pinch cayenne
8 cups cheese of your choice
optional bread crumbs (or toasted bread cut up in small croutons)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan

Prepare the macaroni according to the package directions, but be sure to err on the side of al dente or just under fully done, it will be recooked when the mac and cheese is baked and you don't want it to be a mushy noodle.  Strain and set aside.  In a large pot, I like to use a small stock pot, melt the butter over med high heat, when it is just about melted , add the flour and turn down to medium and use a whisk to mix together, it should be a bit more liquid then a paste.  The key is to cook the floury taste out of the flour and get a little color, the technical term here is we are making a roux, a light one.  It should be the color of lightly toasted white bread.  At this point I add one cup of the liquid, whisking the whole time.  It will start to thicken and as soon as that one cup is incorporated, add the rest of the liquid and whisk, whisk, whisk.  You know the thing I think that is missing in cook books are instructions that we can relate to if we have never done anything like this in our life, or the "why" of what we are asked to do.  So I am trying to make sure I give those explanations.  Why you whisk is you don't want it to burn on the bottom of the pan, and milk products will scald and it is not an attractive flavor for mac and cheese, BUT you must bring the mixture to a boil or it won't thicken properly, so it is important to give this mixture your full attention. The technical term of this sauce is a bechamel and it is a mother sauce, used often as a base to create other sauces just like the one we are making.  Once it is bubbly and thickened, turn the heat to low, keep that whisk handy, and add in the spices, whisking after each addition.  Make sure it is fully mixed and turn off the heat.  Add your cheese and now you want to stir with a wooden spoon or a rubber spatula works well.   Stir to make sure everything is incorporated.  It will be thick and cheesy.
I like to add the noodles to my pot, but if your pot isn't large enough, put your noodles in your casserole dish and pour the cheese sauce over. Either way, mix the noodles with the sauce well and get into your casserole dish.

Now here is where you can get creative.  You can sprinkle the Parmesan on top that simple or you can do the cheese and breadcrumbs, or breadcrumbs and the cheese, either way dot with a bit of butter or drizzle with a vegetable oil before baking.  The other way to go is to cut the crusts off of half a loaf of white bread.  Toast and then cut into small crouton shape.  Spread Parmesan cheese, spread croutons and then dot with some butter or drizzle oil before baking. You can also add a couple tblsps of truffle oil to the mac and stir well before toppings.
As far as the baking process goes, it is 375 degrees for about 40 minutes, covered with foil for 20 minutes and uncover for that last 20.   Cook until bubbly and lightly browned.
Lets chat about cheese.  There are many choices you can make. and 8 cups can give you so many choices of combinations.  My combination of choice goes like this.  I like a Gruy√®re for its nutty flavor, fontina for its creaminess, monterey jack for the melty, sharpness, a sharp cheddar for its nutty, sharp flavor, romano for the sweetness and the Parmesan for the salty nutty flavor.  I use the first 5 for the cheese sauce and the last for the top.  However, I have done many different cheeses.  When I am doing this for a kid party, I use cheddar, mozzarella and Velveeta cheese.  Sometimes I do a lower calorie version so I use the shredded lowfat cheeses.
A couple of notes. You notice I added no salt in this recipe.  I am a firm believer in tasting, the problem is you can taste this thing all along, but the Parmesan is pretty salty so I am concerned about telling anyone to salt, but here is the thing, I salt the bechamel before adding the cheese.  I add about a tsp of kosher salt.  If you taste the sauce before the salt and then after, you will see how the salt accentuates all the spices you added, however, it is really easy to over salt so IF you decide to try to add salt at this point, maybe go 1/2 tsp or even a 1/4 and as you go along and make this recipe again you will know it was too much or not enough.
My final note is the additions you could make if you really wanted to.  To the point that the sauce is the cheese sauce, you could add green chiles, bell pepper and/or some of your favorite salsa for a spicy southwestern kick, also sub in some pepper jack cheese for some or all of the cheese..  You could saute ham or pancetta and add that to the cheese sauce for really unique flavor.   You can really cut back on calories and substitute some of the liquids for chicken stock.  Add some fresh herbs to the bread crumbs for a really fresh take.  The bottom line is don't be afraid of trying new things. It is only food, doesn't work out, do it a different way next time.  No one is perfect and no one does it perfect every time, so trust you instincts, and make sure you are tasting as you go.  Remember, strong flavors, like salt, pepper, mustard, they can all get a little stronger with heat, so be sparing, you can always add after cooking.
Give it a try and let me know how it is goes!  Good eating!

Sunny in California

Funny, games are being rained out, snow in the Rockies, but here in Southern California, we are touching the 90 degree mark. I still have tomatoes and peppers in my garden so it was a good day for a cool, refreshing Gazpacho! This is my garden and you can see the beds are sparse but there is still some things going on in there.
So I thought I would share this recipe because it is so easy and delicious and you can take it and add, subtract whatever you want to give your own twists.
2 cucumbers, peeled and cut into a dice
1 cup of diced carrot
1/2 of a large red onion, diced
2 bell peppers,. diced you decide on the colors you like
3 stalks of celery, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, minced
1/4 cup smoked sweet paprika
1 tsp fresh ground pepper
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
2 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
1 - 2 tbsp horseradish
5 - 10 dashes of your favorite hot sauce.
1/4 fresh chopped parsley and basil, combined
1 bottle of your favorite tomato juice or vegetable juice, about 8 cups
good drizzle of you favorite Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Cut up all the vegetables so they are the same size, I like a 1/4 to 1/2 inch dice and mince the garlic and jalapeno really small, you want the flavor not to take a bite of them, you could even grate them if you like. Put them all in a container that you can cover, add the remaining ingredients except for the tomato juice, herbs and oil. Let the vegetables sit for about 15 minutes to let all those flavors sit together.  Add the tomato juice and herbs, stir well, cover and refrigerate. It is best to let it sit overnight so the flavor can fully develop. Give a  nice big drizzle of your olive oil and stir. Taste and then decide if you want more pepper or if you want to add salt. Serve as is, with crusty bread or really great with bbq'd shrimp!

Some of the variations include adding fennel, chopped fresh tomatoes, avocado or jicama.  Some of the traditional approaches include adding a couple of slices to the juice before adding to the vegetables and place it in the blender to add some thickness or adding some of the chopped vegetables to the juice in a blender for the same purpose. Another interesting addition is popcorn!  Try this one anytime, it is FABULOUS